Yoga therapy


Consider the quality of being present in your body right now.  What is the quality or character of that sensation?  Is it in fact a sensation – or something else?  Maybe you’re curled up in a chair, computer in your lap, maybe sitting on a train reading the screen on your cell phone, or sneaking a moment for yourself while at work – notice whatever posture you find your body in right now.  Take a moment, this moment, and focus your whole attention on what is happening in your body.  Don’t wait for the instructor in yoga class to coach you there or the teacher at the meditation center to offer guidance, you can take this trip yourself any time you want.

Sometime the simplest action can generate the deepest awareness.  It doesn’t always require special equipment and herculean effort.  You are, after all, in your body.   Should it be a big leap then to inhabit it fully, to be totally there?  If you are caught up in thoughts, don’t be thinking that you are in your mind and not in your body, because, as my former teacher used to say, “Your mind is part of your body, isn’t it?”  Perhaps you can be in your mind and body at the same time, fully present to both.

Usually the act of bringing focus to the body means noticing the purely physical sensations that are happening.  Pain, constriction, fatigue, hunger or sometimes what seems to be neutral or without clearly articulated qualities.  I often wonder that what draws our attention are the primarily negative or neutral characteristics, not the energized or “feeling good” ones.  Don’t these last speak loud enough to be heard?  What might be the quietest sense you can tune into?

Now make the shift to notice what kind of feeling state is inhabiting your body in this moment.  We don’t often acknowledge that feeling states are in our bodies, but they are also physical sensations and certainly manifest in the body.  We don’t simply walk around with concepts of anger, sadness or joy in our minds.  We experience them in a physical way.  The heart can seem to be the locus of feeling for us, but is it a source or a container for what’s circulating through our bodies?  Perhaps it simply feels like the center of who we are.

Imagine your heart is this center and holds you in the space between being grounded in the earth and reaching for the sky.  Stand with your feet hip distance apart, your spine long and arms stretched down, held away from your sides with palms facing forward.  Inhale and slowly bring your arms overhead so that your palms touch.  Exhale and bring your hands down to the level of your heart, palms still together.  Stay for a moment and receive another breath.  Then give your breath away and stretch your arms down and away from your sides again.  Breathe in and continue to bring them overhead so that palms touch each other.  Repeat this sequence a few times and see where your attention goes.  Does it seem that it fills your entire body?

Notice that with these movements you have created the peace sign with your body.  Rest in that awareness.

 

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Welcome change!  Where would I be without you?  Well, think about it – I wouldn’t be alive, that’s for sure.  Yet looking in the mirror, I find myself wondering who this is looking back at me.   There is some part of me that must have expected that I would continue to look the same.  It would be the familiar face of me, the one I’ve become used to over my adult life, always.   Interesting that now I think back to adolescence, which was certainly a time for changes in my body and appearance.  But not the same as now.  I believe the difference then was the sense of excitement that accompanied what was happening.  Even if I wasn’t pleased with a particular change, the overall sense of it was looking forward to what was to come.  There were plans and goals and new experiences to be met.  Changes then may not always have been greeted with open arms, but the energy in them was about moving forward.  Why is it that, in the later years of life, what lies ahead can often feel more like sliding down a slippery slope than rising to meet challenges?

There seems to be more attachment at this point to what was.  And perhaps years of perfecting the voice of judgment within.  This voice is the one that is not liking what’s happening, wanting the body to stay the same, considering desperate measures or placing blame for what’s changed.  All as if these shifts in one’s body could be avoided.  

Where are our role models for growing old, for aching joints and sagging skin?  Even if a role model exists for us it isn’t his/her body that is the focus of inspiration.  It is more likely what he or she is accomplishing in spite of the physical body.  Maybe the bigger question is how to show up fully human with all that’s shifting and changing and be ok with that.  We are a culture that relies on reflection – not the inward kind but the mirrored image of who we think we should be.  It’s generally a full screen representation of who we want to be or the image we desire to project to others that drives the ability to accept changes in our bodies.

So how do we turn the mirror back on itself?  Would it even work?  Imagine a world without mirrors – where the only option to “see” oneself is in someone else’s eyes.  We might then have to accept a new level of vulnerability – the reality of being seen by another.  Mask – less.  It may seem more difficult than what we do now, but somehow I think not.    This could be a practice that leads us to the wonder of feeling connected to other human beings in a way that doesn’t easily happen now.  It might help us realize that we are all the same, we all change and that change has the capacity to reveal to us who we truly are.  How bad can that be?

Everyday some part of me calls my attention and has the potential to carry me down some road away from my centered self.  I wouldn’t mind but for the fact that I feel better whole, not parceled out or divided up.  It seems that I can lean into the day with my head, my hands or perhaps with a body part that is sore or hurting.  At other times it can be the part of me that contains the story of feeling tired or overwhelmed or riding a wave of solid and secure.  There are definitely days where I am all about where I’m going or what I have to do next.  And, of course, there are other days where the weight of yesterday or even a lingering dream from the night before is what takes up space in the bigger part of me.

Rilke, in the Duino Elegies, writes that “We live our lives, for ever taking leave.”   He may have been talking about situations or places, but do we not take leave of ourselves many times in the course of our daily living?  It’s not simply that we are distracted; we are actually living outside of the corporeal self that supports us through this lifetime.  Our awareness is elsewhere often far from the here and now, with the sense of looking past or through this physical body.  Mostly we believe that this is how we are supposed to function.

How might is be to lean into the day from an anchored point – a breath and body awareness?  We are often reminded to go back to the breath and that can certainly serve as an anchor for awareness.  However, breath is in the body; the whole process of breathing occurs in the body.  It’s not something that happens outside of our physical selves but requires movement and involves the whole body.  While we may think of breathing as pertaining only to the pathway in and out with a brief pause in between, it is our entire embodied self that is being breathed.

A friend and colleague of mine has been known to suggest that students practice “receiving” a breath instead of “taking” one.  This is an offering that can change the posture of breathing so that it becomes more of a whole body experience.  In the moment of whole body breathing is an opportunity to pause and shift attention away from whatever part is dominating and drop into a more centered stance.  Even if the shift doesn’t last very long, the fact that you’ve experienced it can be enough to bring a different energy to that part of you demanding attention.  And, in this way, you have already taken another step in the direction of living your life from the point of wholeness.

Walking on the beach, living near a major airport, there are often planes that appear in the sky out over the ocean on their landing approach.  What’s interesting about this occurrence is that, as one gazes at the place where they seem to be coming from, there is nothing to see.  Sometimes I find myself focused on the empty spot in anticipation of the emergence of a plane, certain that one will appear, yet wondering how it makes that shift from being “unseen” to “seen.”   It seems there might be a slit in the sky – an opening that I cannot see through which the plane emerges.  With awareness of that thought comes a smile – I am reminded once again of how our minds attempt to alter reality to suit what we think it should be.  I expect to be able to see it, so why can’t I?

This situation may seem obvious in the sense of simply not respecting or appreciating the limits of our senses, however, how many times is this exactly what we do?  How would it be to take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture here, acknowledging how easy it is to slide into the practice of making up a story when we can’t see clearly – bringing our own interpretation to what may seem to be happening (or not happening).  And often, even when we are aware that we are providing our own home screen entertainment,  some or all of that story becomes real for us.  All the more so if it’s a particularly good story!

So, why do we do this?  Why do we fill in the space?  What gets in the way of allowing an opening for the unseen to become seen?  Not such a simple answer –  is it impatience, perhaps, being uncomfortable or unaccepting of not knowing?  Maybe it’s a matter of the “shoulds” – feeling that we should already know.  Or is it simply a moment of groundlessness?  How might we see them more as “leap of faith” moments – certain that the knowing will unfold?

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness there are also many opportunities for filling in the blanks.  We practice or sit expecting (or hoping for) the insight  that will help us translate our experience into the bliss of enlightenment or at least move us further along in that direction.  Perhaps it’s during our yoga practice or while taking a walk, maybe even when we awaken in the middle of the night, that we long for an answer that eludes us.

So how does a new understanding come about?  How do we really move from the unseen to the seen with regard to even the most burning questions in our lives?  I wonder if it’s not much simpler than we might consider.  It begins with a pause – taking a moment to let go of the grasping towards what we want to know.  Then a shift to trust that the answer or insight will emerge – in other words, that it’s in there somewhere.  Then there’s the issue of readiness – being open to whatever the insight might be and a willingness to go with it.  This last is important, because often the insight might come but we find ourselves digging in our heels saying, “Oh no, this isn’t the answer I was hoping for.”  I suspect that may be the point where we need to go back to the beginning and pause again…

What do you see when you close your eyes?  Or is the point not to see but to allow yourself to open up to other, perhaps less dominant, senses?  Consider the common situations in which you focus with eyes closed – when preparing for sleep, when desirous of intensifying a sensation being experienced, or perhaps to avoid imprinting an image that is disturbing or frightening.  Most examples probably fit into these categories, though there may be times when you close your eyes in order to embrace a moment of stillness and quiet.  These last are the moments that invite a closer look.

When you close eyes initially, there can be a sense of  noticing the quality of the darkness.  It can show up differently – sometimes close and heavy, at other times cool and spacious, and, of course, with a range of sensations in between.  Sometimes it seems as if the dark is right in front of your face, and, at other times, it can feel as though it envelops your entire body.  This is the period of settling in, and it carries you past the first few moments.  So, if your intention is for more than a 20 second break, what is it that happens next?

Ah…  This is the place that has the potential for the real beginning of a new and potentially life changing experience.   Suppose you are closing your eyes to begin  meditation or checking in with your inner self during your yoga practice or while being supported through a yoga therapy session.  In any of these scenarios, sliding into the darkness allows you to shift focus to what’s happening from the inside out.  It’s a different perspective.  It’s one that frees you in a way from the connection to the senses; it changes the perspective from which you are taking in the world around you.  That shift allows a mindful space to simply be with yourself.

There is something about being in the dark that provides a new, in the moment,  experience.  It’s different every time, and you can never be sure who or what you will encounter.  Of course, after a moment or two, your mind will jump in to fill what it perceives as a void.  Thoughts of future and past, judgments, expectations and concerns are just some of the characters that will take up space in the dark.  What might it look like to greet them, welcome them in, invite them to sit with you a while?  Consider it like “working the room” in a social setting where you acknowledge each guest, listen a bit and move on, never getting too involved with each individual but keeping close awareness of the bigger picture.   Perhaps not a comfortable analogy but a serviceable one.  The point is not to become too attached to any one thought or emotion but not to fight against them or try to shut them out as you move from one to the next.

How would it be to enter the dark with the kind of anticipation of seeing a great movie you’ve heard about – to bring that kind of energy in but without the sense of attachment to what the movie turns out to be?  Might that draw you to want to sit in meditation or close eyes during yoga practice or a yoga therapy session and see what happens?  Think of the richness that is you and all that is waiting to be discovered.  Most of all, allow yourself to entertain the possibility of getting to know the person you are from the inside out.

You might think it easy to determine whether you are moving forward, stepping backward or captured in the stillness that lies between.  It may be, however, that your ability to do this depends directly on how you are connected to your surroundings.   The quality of the threads that attach you to the people, objects and events in your life make it more or less possible to know what kind of movement is happening for you in the moment.   A strong attachment to something or someone outside of you, by its nature, pulls you off center, and the strength of that connection affects the energy and effort required to remain centered.   Weaker sensations may not sway you one way or the other.  They may not even figure in your movement consciousness; perhaps their influence is so subtle that it bypasses awareness altogether.  In either case, we may not be as independent as we think we are.

What really determines our spatial orientation?  Isn’t movement, after all, always in relation to a central point?   You can be moving toward or away from this point or even staying in place, where movement is happening without having committed to a particular direction.  What’s most important here is that movement is relational.  And, in many respects, we truly are relational beings.

Once you acknowledge whether you are moving forward, stepping back and remaining still, do you find yourself accepting of where you are on that continuum?  Would you rather be at a different point?  This stage is often where the “shoulds” show up, sometimes masked as nagging perceptions of others who seem to be further along than you.   Have you ever picked up the energy from the people around you – finding yourself swept up in the momentum of wants or needs that are driving others?  How difficult or easy is it to step aside, let them run past and follow your own path?

It can, especially during times of great upheaval in our lives, require extraordinary  energy to hold your own ground, to tap into our own inner wisdom.  It can sometimes be impossible to hear the voice inside or even be aware that it is there behind the louder, more insistent voices outside our own.  Especially difficult is when we find ourselves in a situation that is new, for which we lack the framework of experience.  At times like these, we often feel the need to look elsewhere to find the expertise  or experience to help us find our way.  Not a bad choice, however, how might it possible to remain grounded within ourselves in the midst of looking outside ourselves?

How would it be to take a deeper breath, focus on what’s happening now in the present moment as if it’s the most important time for you?  There you are within the stillness of a mindful presence – perhaps only for the very briefest of times – but might it not be enough to notice what direction you are headed?  Maybe the surge is interrupted long enough to allow the element of choice to surface and help determine whatever movement follows.  And perhaps, in that brief experience, is the opportunity to realize the possibility of carrying the stillness with you as you move, knowing that forward and back are all part of the changing journey that we take.

For sure, all of us have experienced a crisis of some magnitude in our lives.  For each of us, the quality and dimension of that magnitude may feel very different even though the crisis appears outwardly to be defined by the same parameters.  We know that stress is correlated with the way we react to the crisis, not necessarily with some inherent qualities that exist in the crisis itself.  Witness all the self help advice about how to deal with stress.   It’s the “deal with” aspect that intrigues me.

Suppose it’s not actually about meeting out punishment or reacting in some other way with the expectation of changing the shape or qualities of the stressful experience.  Perhaps a more appropriate response would have to do with how we are being with what is happening.  The energy we bring to this event or issue might be less about fighting against it or struggling to make it different and more about simply being with what it is.  I’m reminded of how it is to take in a beautiful sunset or to witness a person in an act of compassion.  Such moments require enlisting the observer in us.

In order to be the observer, there has to be space between you and the object/event observed.  So, go back to what it is like to experience a crisis or to be in a very stressful situation.  Often the observer in us is lost at that point.  We give ourselves over to the fight or flight mode of being or else we freeze in a moment of overwhelm or shock.  Difficult then to imagine that we might be able to step back and take on the view of the observer.

At those times, we assume that in a calmer, quieter space, we will be able to sort out the meaning and understand what happened. However, when it’s over, it’s over – there may not be energy for looking back but rather an intention to forge ahead, put it all behind. Suppose the crisis lasts a long time.  How can you absorb this as a way of being that continues, becoming more like a fast flowing river that carries you with it?

Short of grabbing an overhanging branch or a rescue line, is it possible that there can be a way to pause and create some inner space when this is happening?  How would it be to appreciate that there is some part of you inside that is that calm, quiet space?  What can be most important is recognizing the moment when connecting to that part of you is the next step you need to take.  Not waiting until the shock or overwhelm is so great that you stop functioning.  It may feel like a kind of surrender, though it the kind that does not spell defeat.  It’s more like feeling your feet finally come into contact with the ground.

Perhaps, even from this inner space, the outcome will look the same.  Maybe there can be a softening around it, seeing it a bit differently than before.  Not that this happens in a moment; this is a process that may extend over a period of time.  You may not dive into this space, but approach the edge and step in and out.  Once you know how to get there, however, the experience is in your body and held in its memory.  And, so, for the next time – hoping there won’t be one and knowing there will – this next step of connecting to your calm, quiet inner space may be a smaller step.

 

 

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