Yoga


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.

 

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.

Most of the time we go through our days following a schedule or routine that is more or less familiar.  Even when it’s a day without a schedule or one that contains some new adventure,  there are enough elements within it to provide us with the continuity of what’s familiar.  I wonder if we realize just how much we rely on our day to day lives to always have this kind of consistency.  We certainly experience a level of comfort in expecting that the sun will rise every morning, the earth will stay solid under our feet and other aspects of our lives will remain stable.

Consider the times you encounter a new experience – an event that’s happened to you, a situation where you are asked to do something you’ve never done before or maybe you’re involved in learning new skills.  In each case, you find yourself evaluating and categorizing what’s before you.  We all do this – checking out our experience to identify elements that are known or maybe similar to what we already know.  Of course, this process keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by having to take in so much that’s new that we cannot move forward.  We even follow this pattern every time when we meet a stranger, comparing his appearance, voice or mannerisms to others we already know.

As we go from one day to the next, the elements in our lives that are familiar become expectations for our future.  Say I meet someone who bears a strong resemblance to my sister.  It would not be unusual for me to allow my feelings about and attitude towards my sister to influence my interactions with this new person.  At some point, however, as the new relationship develops, the bearing of my familiar sense will give way to create space for the “newly” familiar.  This is the way we operate, though often it’s not as smooth a process as it might seem.

There can be clinging and aversion that get in the way of actually seeing or appreciating the new experience as it is, or, in the case above, the person as she is.   We  become attached to the way things are, to what we know, to who we are or to what we have.  The attitudes and feelings we bring can mask what we otherwise might see or hear or feel.  It requires conscious awareness to determine how open and unencumbered we can be in greeting what is new.   Even with the intention to remain open,  “new” doesn’t stay that way for long.

The drive to be comfortable, surrounded by the familiar, is very strong.  It is part of what helps us survive and negotiate our environment.  Often we sort of slide right  into reframing a new experience into one that is familiar.  But when a life changing event occurs, it’s not so easy.  Transforming upheaval into familiar or comfortable takes some effort though it can happen nonetheless.   Consider Stockholm syndrome, or attitudes/behaviors of victims of abuse or violence or natural disasters.  Not to reduce the effects of such events to a simplistic level, but certainly some element of the drive to incorporate familiarity is present.   In particular, when a situation is not an isolated occurrence but continues over  a period of time, a person habituates himself to what is happening around him.  This process itself does not  indicate an attitude of acceptance or approval; instead it carries with it the intention of supporting the individual in moving ahead with his life.  As with so many other aspects of our lives, this changing face of familiar is a process that serves us better when we can bring awareness to it.  The practice of mindfulness, which can be supported through meditation and yoga,  has been found to assist in providing clearer intention for times when we are in this process.   Being mindful in the moment can help us understand when expectations based on our familiar lives are getting in the way of clear seeing.  It can also create the potential for an opening toward newness or change or whatever is different from what we’ve known before, leading us hopefully to a more authentic, less automatic, way of living.

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.

How richly important it is to appreciate the ways in which we bring our stories forward into the present of our daily lives.  We carry the history of who we are in days, months and years past in the cellular memory throughout our body-mind.  These form the narrative of who we believe ourselves to be today.  Undoubtedly this ongoing story line shapes the way we negotiate life, helping us to categorize experiences and recognize similarities in new situations as we move into future moments.  It forms the basis of learning and supports the foundation of our growth into adulthood and in life.

Yet, while it is essential to our survival as a species, we are prone to add elements to the story, extra details, emotional overtones, alternate endings (or beginnings), hidden meanings or agendas.  It sometimes seems as if we judge the original screenplay too simple, begging us to embellish the bare bones to make it more of whatever we want it to be.  Another way in which we create a more fuller narrative about who we are is by surrounding ourselves with objects.  Each object carried forward becomes a repository for additional aspects of the story of who we are, who we have been, who we will be going forward or who we want to be in the eyes of others.

Object acquisition may seem like a foreign concept since the way we grasp onto things is so much a part of our routine pattern of behavior that it seems beyond normal.  It fulfills a need; it’s part of the everyday.  Maybe, if we are so inclined, we can, through the practice of mindfulness meditation or yoga, come to see how we become attached to the objects we have.  And we might even create an intention to let go of objects not needed any longer or develop a different perspective on the items we keep.  This shift requires that we interrupt the connective threads that bind us to these things, changing the way we see or understand the meaning or purpose of an object.  In this manner, we might feel that we have taken a few more steps along the path of wisdom.

Or, so it seems, until some great event befalls us where many of the possessions we have are destroyed.  Hurricane Sandy has resulted in just such a huge emptying out, all at once, in a manner that felt more like a physical wrenching and breaking apart.  And, as much as we hold the sense of what has happened as a mere letting go of objects and not a greater loss, attention must be paid to the personal stories that are woven amongst the wreckage.  In the pile of refuse  are things that had some meaning for us, and herein lie the narrative of our lives.  There may be treasures, utilitarian items, even some that were long ago forgotten in a box, others in the process of being let go, given away or thrown out.  Memories of some sort are associated with all of them.  In the moments of clearing out these remnants of destruction, we are asked to let go of these parts of our history.

It’s important to realize that we have choices about how we let these objects go.  Some carry memories that need to be loved as we release them.  Some that deserve acknowledgment of the purpose they served.  Some are simply reminders, placeholders of an earlier time – or perhaps not so simple in that they stir emotions as they lie there, tangled in the past and present.  I wonder if the biggest choice that faces us is in the understanding that these objects and the history that they represent are not who we really are.  It can be okay to let them go, coming back to what’s happening now and the fullness of who we are in this moment.

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