Category Archives: Meditation

9 solutions for difficult times

Girl reading, watercolor, Amanda Green
Girl Reading, Watercolor on paper, Amanda Green

Yoga practice isn’t about rising above or rejecting our humanness. Instead, yoga can help us learn to accept, heal and develop our human nature. An amazing guidebook for this process is the Yoga Sūtras, authored by the ancient sage, Patañjali. 

The first chapter of the yoga sūtras dives right into one of the universal and unavoidable experiences of being a person on this planet… each of us will have some really hard stuff happen in our lives. At times, we may be able to move through these difficulties. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the feelings, grieve, get angry, suffer or realize something about ourselves in the process.  What it does mean is that we aren’t stuck.

There are other times when the hard stuff will stop us in our tracks leaving us heavy in the chest, stuck with a negative outlook, a shaky body, breathing that is short and shallow and with a mind that is unable to focus. When we see these symptoms (Yoga sūtra I.31), we need help. Patanjali provides us with nine ways that we can seek support and balance during these times.

  1. Connect to a belief or faith in a higher power.  Can we sense and be comforted by the possibility or even the knowing that something bigger than ourself is at work in our lives? In difficult times, we may not know how things will work out but if we trust that it will, this faith can help sustain us. Yoga sūtra I.23
  2. Go deep in one principle. Let your attention and your energy focus on one perspective or method for sorting through the stuff that’s coming up in your hard time. Yoga sutra I.32
  3. These attitudes will be very helpful in moving through the hard stuff: friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion for those who suffer, support for those doing good work in the world, and for those who are doing bad and upsetting stuff, maintain emotional distance. If that kind of emotional equanimity isn’t possible, then you may need to establish physical distance.  The point with this last one is for you to do your best to stay emotionally and mentally balanced. Yoga sūtra 1.33
  4. Practice breathing with a focus on exhale and pause after exhale Yoga sūtra I.34
  5. Notice how the senses are operating. Are they leading you or are you leading them? Yoga sūtra I.35
  6. There is a place inside of you that is full of light.  This place can’t be darkened by sadness or grief. If you know the feeling of this place and can connect to it during difficult times, it can be a relief and comfort. Yoga sūtra 1.36
  7. Someone who has come through hard stuff of her own can be a great support. Yoga sūtra 1.37
  8. Dreams can offer insight into a difficult situation. Yoga sūtra I.38
  9. Meditate on something that you like and that is appropriate for your difficult situation. Meditation is best guided by a teacher who you trust, and who knows you well. Yoga sūtra 1.39

The yoga sūtras acknowledge that there will be times when life knocks you down. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. When these situations arise, it’s tempting to spend energy imagining the ways they could have been avoided, to feel like it isn’t fair, or to dwell on how much we don’t like what we are going through. If we stay in that mindset for too long, that is a signal that we need some help. In realizing this and seeking a new way of working through a situation we learn about ourselves– about fraility and strength.  Of what we can endure and of the forces that are in waiting to help us to keep going. This list from the yoga sūtras may seem simple at first glance, but when we need help like we may not have needed before, the profound nature of these solutions shines.

Cosplay as meditation

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Halloween is a favorite holiday for our clan. The girls love face paint, costumes, and walking the streets of the neighborhood after dark. It’s also the only time of year our house has gobs and gobs of candy stashed in the cabinets. This year, we had double the excitement because on the Saturday before Halloween, the girls dressed up as characters from the British television show, Doctor Who, and Dave took them to a Comicon convention where they could mingle with other science-fiction and super-hero fans. He even dropped some cash for a photo op with the Dr. Who celebrity, David Tennant and Billie Piper.

In preparation for comicon, Dave and I did some internet research. We found that there are a whole bunch of us who spend a few hours and way too much money to put together a cute or even clever costume. But there are also people who have taken this to a whole other dimension. There are a number of professional convention-goers and cosplayers who construct amazingly accurate character costumes. There’s a performance art and role play feel to what they do. They might be hired to make an appearance at the various conventions or to pose for fan photos. Some particularly skilled costume makers construct complicated components for other people’s costumes and make money doing it. We watched a video about a couple that met through their cosplay endeavors and have since married. The young woman talked about why she loves this so much. She spends hours collecting and assembling the different elements of a costume she’s making and she likes thinking about the armor, the weapons and even the personality of person she’ll get to be. She says that when she’s dressed up as powerful, super-hero women, she feels more powerful. People look at her differently. It sounds like some of those super-hero qualities rub off on her.

There are meditation practices that employ religious iconography as the object of focus. If an aspirant spends time, again and again, reflecting on the image, the tools, and the qualities of a figure, then the special figure or diety can have a very powerful influence in a person’s life. Repeatedly thinking about Durga’s lion might inspire courage. Time spent reflecting on Saint Francis holding a small animal or the mudras or hand gestures of the Buddha would offer a different experience. The feelings evoked in this kind of reflection or meditation stay with a person.

Meditation isn’t about “having no thoughts.” A meditative state can come as a result of our efforts to keep the mind directed and engaged with an chosen object of focus. It’s a link, as Chase Bossart says. The stories, images, special gifts, and symbols that go along with the icons can serve as anchors to help us stay connected and engaged and can support the meditative experience. That might be done in contemplation with the eyes closed while sitting on a cushion or in prayer. Or maybe it comes from joyfully recreating every detail of a cosplay costume, thinking about a character’s origin story and adventures, and then spending time embodying the power and the qualities of that character.

St. Francis, Aidan Hart Iconography

St. Francis, Aidan Hart Iconography

Durga and her lion

Durga and her lion

Buddha

Buddha

wonder woman cosplay

wonder woman cosplay

How to do yoga āsana

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The yoga sūtras doesn’t give us a lot about how to do āsana. There aren’t any descriptions of postures and no instagram worthy pictures. But there are two sūtras specifically about the qualities that should be in every āsana and these include the following ideas: sthiram sukham or steadiness and ease (2.46) and prayatna śaitilya (2.47).

A common working definition of prayatna śaitilya is “appropriate effort to loosen.” Sure. Yogis should be flexible, but not too flexible. We should work toward those qualities, but still with sthira sukham. Makes sense.

But this week, I learned of another way of thinking about this sūtra. Prayatna is defined as the intention that comes before a movement or the energy that precedes an action. It’s fascinating to wonder and attempt to feel what is behind a conscious thought that leads to movement. Śaitilya is ‘loosening’, but what is it that needs loosening? If we think about prayatna as the quality of connecting to something more subtle and something behind even the intention of our movement, then perhaps the loosening that happens is on the level of our identity. Can I let go of the idea that I am in charge of everything my body does.  Is it possible that I am not the illy force that allows my body and breath to move.

This sutra feels like a beautiful invitation to slow down, be quiet and listen to the subtle force within.

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Deep gratitude to my YATNA teachers who make it possible for me to have these kinds of ongoing conversations in the company of amazing colleagues.

Thank you Amy Wheeler, Dolphi Wertenbaker, and Chase Bossart.

Thin Places

FullSizeRenderWe’ve all had the experience of hearing a song we haven’t heard in a long time and then it reminds us of who we were and the people we hung out with at a time when we listened to it a lot. And I had this experience yesterday.

When I was in high school, I had a friend who was killed in an accident. I still think of her often, but the thoughts don’t stick around for long and they don’t trigger a lot of emotion like they once did. But one day this week, Dave played a song on the guitar and it happened to be a song that Lori danced to in a talent show when we were in school together. As he played, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of Lori. This fullness of memory, images, feelings, colors, emotions, things I hadn’t experienced in years came to me in an instant – I closed my eyes hoping I could better watch what was happening —how she danced, the line of her perfectly even front teeth, the way she held her head a little sideways so her side-bangs wouldn’t hang in her eye, the weight of the bones of her shoulders. I could feel how she smiled and how funny she was. She was so bright and so nice to me. With tears streaming down my face, I could feel the wonderful 15-year-old love I had for my friend and I realized how much I love her still. This was such a gift.

Later in the day, with Lori still on my mind, I reflected on this experience and about thin places, an expression I came across in a reading about Celtic spirituality. These are places where the veil between the physical and spiritual realms is barely there; where sky meets water or where people worship, where we may sense the ephemeral and more easily move in and out of time. I love this and it resonates with me after having this experience, though I have to admit that I was sitting on my brown couch amongst a motley crew of hand me down furniture in my living room when I had my experience. This is a setting that wouldn’t strike anyone as particularly ‘thin’.

Yoga is mysterious. It starts out feeling like it’s about stretching, or breathing or taming the mind or maybe even finding peace, but then it so much more. It’s such a deeply personal practice. There’s a way that yoga practice helps me to feel more open to these moments. The separation between myself as a spiritual being doesn’t feel so separate from the rest of me because of yoga. Yoga has a way of letting my system be a thin place. Quiet attention to breath and movement and the intention of coordinating all of that in one direction might have started as a way to feel better, but along the way, this same simple work is so much more.  The other day, I stopped what I was doing and watched as time folded in on itself and something amazing came. I was so close to my teenage experience and to my friend and to love.