LIVING IN BALANCE
by Lynn Theodose
“King Solomon once searched for a cure against depression. He assembled his wise men together. They meditated for a long time and gave him the following advice: Make yourself a ring and have thereon engraved the words ‘This too shall pass.’ The King carried out the advice. He had the ring made and wore it constantly. Every time he felt sad and depressed he looked at the ring, whereon his mood would change and he would feel cheerful.” – Israel Folklore Archive # 126
This too shall pass. These wise words have often been a towrope when I’ve found myself off the road in an emotional ditch. When I fall into a deep pit of despair, or get caught in a self-perpetuating spiral of worry and fear, this simple truth can remind me that if I just hang on, eventually things will shift. How encouraging!
But, these days I feel happy, grateful, peaceful and calm. I am strong and healthy. My marriage is supportive and sweet. The kids are thriving, and my parents are alive and in excellent health for their age. I am financially secure, and my home is comfortable haven. My mood is bright and I am able to see and appreciate my many blessings. Everything is really great right now…and there it is, softly whispering in my ear “Don’t feel too happy…this too shall pass” In what could be a time of pure grace, gratitude, and expansion, I catch myself glancing up to peer at the underside of the other shoe, dangling by a lace – ready to drop.
I know, of course, that challenges will arrive again before too long. My parents won’t live forever, and chances are good I will outlive my dog. Things can change in an instant, and my mood has been known to shift without a recognizable cause. And so, I’ve developed the habit of tempering my joy and bracing for impact…as if I can shore myself up against future hardship, and rehearse for grief. Even though I know it doesn’t work.
And of course, I don’t always realize that I’m doing it. I just experience an underpinning of grief even in the midst of great happiness. Our patterns and habits can be incredibly subtle. (PYS 2.10) The very same thought that can ease my pain in one moment, can rob me of pleasure in the next. I can convince myself that I’m just being realistic, pragmatic, and mature. Yes, inevitably this too shall pass. It’s one of the great “TRUTHS”, and aren’t I so advanced to remember it? Sure, but instead of leaning into whatever the “IT” is that’s guaranteed to pass, my mind races into the future, where things are so much better – or worse.
The way I utilize this “truth” in good times and bad reminds me of something my teacher often says, “Same-Same, only Different!” Whether I am gritting my teeth and waiting for the darkness to pass, or attempting to grasp onto a moment of joy before it slips away, it’s all just contraction. Either way I am abandoning the reality of the present moment and attempting to jump into the future where everything is so wonderful or terrible. In both extremes I am missing the opportunity to unfurl into the NOW, and blocking the natural cycle of emotions. The nature of emotions is to move through us. Like the Hindu trinity of Brahma – the Creator, Vishnu – the Sustainer, and Shiva – the Destroyer, they arise, linger a while, and dissolve. When we are open, receptive, and surrendered to their waves, emotions organically pass through us, leaving behind lessons and insights. They can be signposts to where we are out of alignment or tangled up in distortion. We cannot think our way out of feelings, not if we truly want to be free. It’s the very mind that Yoga practices work to tame that keeps us enslaved. When we attempt to resist or manipulate our emotions, through rejection or grasping, they can become trapped and toxic. That’s how the natural sorrow of loss morphs into sustained depression, or passing fears become perpetual anxiety.
Yoga encourages us to trust in the difficult and relax into discomfort. It’s certainly more comfortable to feel happy than sad or frightened. And it’s natural and understandable to try to avoid or eliminate “bad” feelings. But we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. I’ve always assumed that if I can practice relaxing into joy, it will better train me to surrender to sorrow. But maybe I’ve got it backwards. Maybe when this good moment passes and I find myself laid low once again, I can practice giving into the dark, painful feelings, free from the shadow of that damn shoe. After all there is inherent relief in knowing that you can’t fall off the floor. When sadness or worry returns, I will try to be present for it. I will try to be brave and curious, and maybe even thankful. And perhaps, by allowing my sorrow or fear or anger to just move on through like a trio of mighty gods who refuse to be ignored, I might find myself, sooner than expected, empty and open and barefoot in the peace that follows. I’ll keep you posted.
“Others may be saying Oh No, but you will be opening out like a rose, losing itself petal by petal.” – Rumi
Many years ago I got certified to teach English as a second language. Our ESL teacher shared a story I will never forget:
One year, the owners of a large indoor shopping mall in Japan, enamored by all things American, decided to erect an enormous US-style Christmas display in the mall’s center. Local Japanese artists and contractors bid on the multi-million dollar project. The chosen winner worked in secret around the clock to design and build his homage to all things Christmas. Finally, the day of the Big Reveal arrived to great fanfare. Thousands of excited shoppers flooded in to discover a fat and jolly Santa Claus…nailed to the cross.
The point of this story is that, while we can learn another country’s language, culture doesn’t always translate. Even when all the information is available, it’s easy to get confused. It’s no wonder that here in the West we often miss the point of Yoga entirely. Yoga originated in India, a slow-moving, deeply spiritual environment. Even with access to the original texts and teachings, it makes sense that our fast-moving, productivity-loving culture might get caught up in the aspects of the practice that jive with our societal values. Yoga is ultimately about letting go. The “goal” is to slowly and methodically peel away our past experiences, biases, and thoughts of the future so we can fully experience each moment as it unfolds. It’s about how to BE in the present –open and clear, free of judgment, comparisons, resistance, and fear. And it promises that this is where true peace and freedom lie. But here in the States, we are overly focused on appearances, and more importantly, we are DOERS. We love making lists and crossing things off. We thrive on setting goals and reaching them…the next degree, promotion, expected step on life’s path (graduate-find a job-get married-buy a house-have children-retire). The Next Pose. We feel the need to measure and track our productivity, and thus our basic worth, by acquiring things and accomplishments. How in the world do you gauge Release? And what are we letting go of anyway?
Physical –Yoga helps us let go of the tension we hold in our bodies. We stockpile tension through unconscious repetitive patterns. Oftentimes contraction is a protective barrier built around past bodily injury or emotional trauma. Unexplored grief lives in the lungs and upper thoracic spine. Latent fear tends to inhabit the psoas. Tight hips might simply come from too much sitting. When we use asana as a forensic tool, rather than a tally of our progress, we can not only identify and release lifelong tension patterns, but we can flesh out and finally heal the underlying causes that keep us locked up inside of our bodies.
Psychological – Our thinking minds are undeniably brilliant. They can analyze enormous amounts of information, devise thousands of possible scenarios, and instantly sort mountains of data into tidy compartments. They are loud and bossy. And studies show that a huge percentage of the thousands of thoughts our minds create everyday are repetitive. Yoga practices teach us to observe, examine, question, and ultimately quiet the incessant mental chatter. Asana, mantra, meditation, pranayama etc… help us let go of our tendency to evaluate and categorize our experiences as they occur. When we can get out of our heads, and into our hearts and bodies, every moment becomes holy.
Emotional – Do you ever feel like an unwilling slave to your emotions? What if most of our emotional responses are habitual? I once had a therapist suggest that only 40% of emotional responses are based on a current situation. The other 60% are conditioned responses to past events that, over time, have become sneaky, ingrained patterns. I think she was being conservative. Consider your “triggers”, those innocuous comments or situations that illicit an out-sized emotional reaction. I recently had a neighbor read me the riot act when my dog vomited up some grass in the weeds by her driveway. I cried a little after, and felt rattled and scolded the rest of the day. Safe to say we both WAY overreacted to a rather minor incident. I think our wounded inner little girls were acting out. Yoga has helped me examine the situation with perspective and compassion. I practice sending forgiveness and light into her home every time I walk by…even though I’m still sometimes tempted to flip it off!
Spiritual – The Yogis believe that all of our suffering originates from a mistaken belief that we are separate from God (Spirit, Love, Creation, The Universe… or whatever term resonates with you.) Yoga works from the outside in to dismantle all that keeps us trapped in this basic misconception. As we slowly strip away the limiting patterns in our physical, mental, and emotional bodies, we become still enough to feel our connection to everyone and everything. We get quiet enough to hear the soft whispers of our souls. And we grow clear enough to see the divinity within ourselves, and everyone else.
Ultimately, when we become truly proficient at letting go, we even lose interest in the goal of “enlightenment”, and instead, find ourselves reveling in the peace and freedom available every step along the way. (PYS 1.15) Then (or Now, if you prefer), we can finally cross “Find Serenity” off of our to-do lists.
Pre-Covid I was teaching yoga twice a week to a dedicated group of regulars. When the health club that hosted my classes closed due to the pandemic I took my first real break from teaching since I started in 2009. The gym re-opened with new safety protocols last June, but I chose not to return in order to safeguard vulnerable members of my family. And although I considered it, I never felt called to transition to online classes. So, my class at In Balance last month was my first time teaching in 16 months. I was both excited and nervous as I prepared to return to the front of the class. It felt great to be back. But it also felt surprisingly DIFFERENT.
Like most of us, I want to be liked, respected, and possibly even admired on occasion. I learned about Yoga and how to teach it from the best (Thank you, Bhavani!), and have always felt confident regarding what I have to share in the classroom. And after more than a decade, I feel like I’m pretty good at it. When I recently returned to teaching I knew my knowledge base was intact, but I was surprised and intrigued by how very vulnerable I felt. Exposed. You see, somewhere along the way, during all of those months tucked in with my loving husband and dog, safe from prying eyes, I had removed my mask…that mask we all wear to project the image we have of ourselves…the mask we don to hide our insecurities, to impress others, to gain acceptance. We wear them so long and so constantly that we begin to fool ourselves. As I returned to the familiar role of “Yoga Teacher” I realized that I had forgotten to put my mask back on! In fact it seems that I might have misplaced it. And in that moment of unexpected vulnerability I understood that my job is less about imparting knowledge or wisdom, and more about holding sacred space for exploration and introspection. My willingness to feel vulnerable, and do it anyway, can create a pocket of permission for my students to do the same. Yes, as the Teacher I am there to lead and guide and correct, but more importantly, I am there to SUPPORT. And within that realization I noticed that I cared so much less about what anyone thought of ME, and simply felt thankful that we were all sharing this experience together. My return to the practiced role of “Yoga Teacher” pointed out the hidden personal shifts that I had failed to fully notice.
You can google “Benefits of a Regular Yoga Practice” and watch a long list appear…strength and flexibility, mental clarity, stress reduction …etc. But, perhaps one of yoga’s greatest untouted gifts is that it serves as a TOUCHSTONE on the journey to self-actualization. Whether or not we see it, we are always changing, growing and healing. When we come to the mat often, and interact with the same postures again and again, we get a snapshot of where we are in the moment. We can gauge the condition of our bodies, the quality of our breath, and the state of our monkey minds. Then we can take this new information and compare it to how we felt in the exact same pose yesterday, or last year. Much like birthdays or anniversaries, these moments of repetitive stillness provide an opportunity to reflect upon where we are, how far we’ve come, and what direction we are heading. Our yoga practice offers us a regular peek beneath our masks, and a moment to reconnect with our authentic selves, the unchanging source of contentment and wisdom that gets buried beneath all the noise. The practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation also provide a still point from which to observe how and when our egos pipe up to negate, excuse, and explain away the perceived flaws of our basic humanity. We may notice that when we slay one ego dragon, it often clears the way for another to slink out from deeper within the cave of our unconscious…in endless layers of distortion.
Yoga philosophy points to the Ego (Asmita) as one of our greatest challenges and teachers on the path. We constantly confuse the vehicles of consciousness – our minds, bodies, emotions, and senses – with consciousness itself. (PYS 2.6) We forget that our true selves are divine and sublime, encased inside the profane cage of the body/mind/personality complex. Not only does a regular yoga practice give us glimpses of the flawless life-spark beneath, but it helps us chart the progress of our journey towards embodying it, make any necessary refinements, and boldly peel our masks away, one liberating breath at a time.
Summer Time, and the livin’ is…Busy?? Ok, so here we are, coming out the other side of a pandemic that forced many of us to slow way down, or even come to a complete stop. That was weird, right? Remember the uncomfortable and alien sensation of being asked to Sit and Stay, especially at the beginning? Many of us stopped working for a time, limited our social interactions, cancelled travel plans, and made any number of alterations to our hectic schedules. And now that the world is opening back up, it feels like we’ve got to make up for lost time. Get Busy, Folks…There are places to go and people to see and fun to be had!!! There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the things.So in a misguided attempt to do it all, we turn to the doomed art of multi-tasking, too distracted to notice the hole in the life raft.
I know some of you are saying, “Wait! I’m an excellent multi-tasker!” Most of us have been functioning this way for years. We can ride a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling chainsaws, chatting into a headset, planning the dinner menu, and making huge life decisions, without messing up our hair. We are masters of efficiency, super heroes of productivity, and damn proud of it. The problem is, as we furiously check things off our to-do lists (two or three at a time, Thank You!) we are also starving our relationships, churning out sub-par work, eroding our health….and missing out on life’s sweetest blessings. How’s that for multi-tasking?
According to the ancient wisdom of the Yogis, we can cure the distress, depression, anxiety, and confusion born of our overburdened lives by focusing on one thing at a time. (PYS 1.32) When we slow down and lend our complete attention to whatever task, situation, or person is in front of us, every aspect of out lives improves and flourishes.
Trying to do too much at once damages our HEALTH by overtaxing our nervous systems. We take on way too much, thinking it’s still not enough, and end up overwhelmed and exhausted. Our self-care often drops to the bottom of our to-do lists. We skip exercise because we are too tired or don’t have time. Or when we do find time we over-do it, trying to get more bang for our buck. We reach for toxic convenience foods instead of preparing healthy nourishing meals. We fail to make time to rest and recover from all of the business. Constant distraction leads to carelessness and avoidable accidents. Our furiously busy brains never quiet down enough to hear the whispers of brewing dis-ease in our bodies, so eventually our bodies start to yell. Something as simple as taking a long walk in the sunshine, noticing the feel of the breeze and the beauty around you, can deeply nourish, calm, and invigorate your body and mind. (Leave you phone at home, please!)
While it may seem counter-intuitive, multi-tasking causes our WORK to suffer. We try to frantically knock out tasks, convinced we are getting somewhere. But when we are running on fumes, we make unnecessary mistakes. We will never do our best work when we have half a mind trained on everything else that needs to be done. The Yoga Masters did one thing at a time and were notoriously prolific. The calm energy they created through loving attention to their yoga practices gave them unlimited clarity and vitality. Sri Krishnamacharya, for example, studied Sanskrit, mastered and taught all aspects of Yoga, practiced Ayurvedic Medicine, wrote several books, and earned advanced degrees in Philosophy, Logic, Music, & Divinity. Inspiration germinates in stillness and silence. Try slowing down and fully engaging with one individual task, before thinking about what’s next. Not only will your work improve, but you might even start to love it again.
Multi-tasking is particularly detrimental to our RELATIONSHIPS. When we are in a constant state of overwhelm, eventually we either lash out or shut down. We only half listen to our partners, children, and friends…with one eye our phones or computers, and end up missing important cues and subtleties. Our distraction leaves our loved ones feeling rejected and unimportant. We sacrifice precious time with the people we love in the quest for greater “success”. If you want your relationships to thrive, give them your complete attention. We can all feel when someone is fully present with us. Attention is love’s currency. Spend it freely, and watch your investment pay off in deeper intimacy, understanding, and trust.
We will never be able to do everything, but we can make ourselves sick trying. The nectar of life is found in its individual moments. What if, for one week (or day, or hour) you experimented with pouring your full and loving attention into whatever is before you. What if you just tried on the belief that your worth is based not on how much you can get done, but rather who you are in each individual moment. You might be amazed to see how fully your life blooms. Beautiful gifts are everywhere. We find them when we stop the frantic search and offer ourselves completely to the moment we’re in and the people we’re with. Step off the hamster wheel, take a deep breath, and love whatever and whoever is in front of you with your whole, undistracted being. Your joy is waiting for you there.
Yoga is everywhere theses days, and it’s Big Business. Yoga studios, online classes, apparel, yoga accessories, books, magazines, podcasts, trainings, retreats, workshops …etc are ubiquitous. It is wonderful that millions of people are discovering this ancient healing art, and I have no doubt that it has helped improve the health and lives of countless practitioners. But here’s the downside…as yoga has moved out of the caves and into the mainstream, it has, sadly, become watered down to make it more palpable for the masses. In today’s western culture it seems that Yoga=Asana. The physical yogic postures are an important aspect of the yoga journey. They can lead to increased health and vitality, awaken subtle body energies, and help us become aware of our thought and tension patterns. But they are only one small piece of a bigger holistic puzzle. So here is a quick refresher on Raja (Royal) Yoga, also known as Pantanjali Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga– The Eight Limbed Path.
Yama (Moral Codes) – The first limb is all about right relationships. How do we interact with the world? It includes five simple codes of conduct. Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Moderation of Energy), and Aparighraha (Non-hoarding). When we live by these principles, we reduce the potential for drama in our lives. By eliminating unnecessary conflict and creating an environment of harmony, right action and intention smooth the way for a deeper exploration of our true nature and connection with spirit.
Niyama (Personal Practices) – If we want to advance on the path, we must diligently apply ourselves. The five-part prescription for success demands that we practice Saucha (Purity of Mind and Body), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Passion & Discipline), Svadyaya (Self-Study) Ishvara Pranidhanani (Surrender). These principles help us proceed along the path without getting off track or distracted.
Asana (Physical Postures) – The physical practice of yoga is designed to optimize our health, and open and align our bodies so we can sit comfortably in meditation. By reducing the tension that limits our breath, Asana also helps us access Prana (Life-force) for greater vitality. Pain, illness, and exhaustion are incredibly distracting. The ultimate goal of yoga is to quiet the mind enough to connect with our deepest knowing. A healthy body becomes an asset instead of a hindrance to stillness.
Pranayama (Breath Restraint) – The act of marrying movement with breath in asana leads us to the next limb. Much more than “breathing exercises”, Pranayama refers to the manipulation of Prana. We learn to access universal energy to help quiet our minds and regulate our moods. There are practices to calm and invigorate, awaken the subtle body, and harmonize our inner landscape. According to Patanjali, Pranayama prepares the mind for the meditative limbs (PYS 2.53),and lifts the veils between the seen and unseen (PYS 2.52), bringing us ever closer to universal wisdom and guidance.
Pratyahara (Purification of the Senses) – The previous four limbs comprise the list of things we DO. Pratyahara is the bridge between the external and internal limbs. When we dive deeply into Pranayama, our senses become less distracting, allowing us to turn inward. We may no longer hear the dog barking next door, or feel the niggling discomforts in our bodies. As the outward disturbances begin to dissolve we move into the meditative aspects of the practice. Our efforts of acting right, adhering to the personal practices, physical postures, and breath work crest the hill, and we begin to glide on their momentum.
Dharana (Meditation) – The meditative process begins with Ekagraha (One Pointed Focus). We home in one specific thing – our breath, a mantra, a candle flame – and practice returning our attention to our chosen anchor again and again. Like training a puppy, we catch our minds wandering off, and gently but firmly, direct them back to our focal point. Through consistent vigilance and effort, we slowly train the mind to remain where we’ve placed it.
Dhyana (Immersion) – When we focus on one thing consistently, without interruption, eventually the boundaries between “us” and it begin to blur. If we come into stillness and attach our attention to our breath long enough, and without interruption, we will start to embody it. All awareness of the body ceases and we are no longer separate from the act of breathing. We are simply breath, a living host to the cosmic dance of inhale and exhale.
Samadhi (Communion) – Once we experience communing with one thing, we are moments away from communing with everything. This eighth and final limb is yoga’s ultimate gift. We lose all self-consciousness, and fall, like drops of rain, back into the ocean from which we came. We remember, if only for a moment, that we are not alone, or separate from Life, Love, God. Instead, we are all invaluable threads in the intricate tapestry of life…held and guided by benevolent universal love.
For most of us, Asana is the doorway…our first taste of yoga’s potential. My hope is that this door opens wide to reveal the full picture of what is possible when dive into the “other 7 limbs” of Yoga. The deeper we look, the more we will discover. If we are willing to travel a bit further down the path, it might just lead us home.
A popular proverb says, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I respectfully disagree. I understand the sentiment behind it …the idea that what you actually do is ultimately more impactful than what you meant to do. But, I feel certain that if there is a final judgment awaiting us at the end of our lives, the jury will weigh the contents of our hearts along with the results of our actions before rendering their final verdict. Intention is the essential seed for implementing positive change in our lives…and that change is pretty much doomed without it. Sadly we don’t generally stumble into greater health, happier relationships, clarity, and peace of mind without deciding and determining to create them. Intention is the vital first step in creation. The problem is, without consistent action to back them up, these ideals rarely breach the realm of thought to produce measurable results in the material world. You can fully intend to become a concert pianist, but you must actually sit down and practice, again and again, to learn how to play.
The Sanskrit word Bhavanam translates to “dwelling in the mind”, and refers to the magic of intention fused with action.The powerful union of the two is how we create miracles in our lives. First we decide that we are going to pursue a chosen goal…a healthy body, a calm, clear mind, a deeper relationship with spirit…and then the practices of yoga give us an opportunity to put these powerful intentions into concrete, step-by-step action. It is through bhavanam that our goals are manifested. The inspired visions conceived in our minds travel out of the confines of our thoughts and solidify into real world experiences. We can intend all day, but without putting our money where our mouths are, we just end up treading water, bemoaning our unchanging fate. We can run around frantically doing all the things we think we should do, but without a clear intention behind them, we might be surprised to find ourselves exhausted, even as we experience little real change. The measurable actions we take and the sacrifices we make at the altar of our dreams are what breathe them into life. The sacred marriage of a clear and pure intention enacted with methodical precision and consistency makes the previously impossible possible.
This is why yoga is so valuable. It is both practical and sublime. If you practice asana with the unwavering goal of greater physical health, you will pay close attention to the needs and limitations of your body in every moment. If you come to the meditation cushion with a crystallized intention to corral and learn from your unconscious thoughts, you will be better able to notice when you’ve gone off track. If you embrace the yogic practices as a ticket to an intimate relationship with your personal vision of divinity, every effort becomes a prayer. You absolutely must keep practicing, but sincerity is everything. One fully present sun salutation performed in the spirit of devotion will yield far greater rewards that a hundred done mindlessly without the full participation of your body, mind, and heart. All the striving the world will not lead the un-aimed arrow to the target.
There is a Zen teaching story that tells of a seeker who travels far and wide in search of a teacher. When he finds the teacher, at long last, sitting quietly by a river, the seeker pleads his case as to why the teacher should instruct him. The student talks a good game, but the teacher can hear beneath his words. ‘Here is your first lesson,” the teacher says, as he grabs the student by the neck and plunges his head into the river. The student struggles and flails. After what seems an eternity, the teacher pulls the student, gasping and sputtering, from the water. Finally, before walking away, the teacher declares, “When you want a relationship with God as much as you wanted that next breath, come back and see me.”
Yoga always comes back to balance. To progress on the path you need a heart and mind pure and clear in their desire, and then you must do the work to make your desires come true. Intention is the handlebars, and action is the pedals. When they work together, you are certain to reach your destination. Patanjali tells us, “For one who is deeply invested, success is close at hand.” (PYS 1.21) Practice, practice, with your eyes on the prize. Make your yoga practice an offering to your best self, as yet unrealized. Manifest the health, peace, love, and joy you desire in your life through your sincere efforts. Take heart, Dear Yoga Seeker. The recipe is tried and true. Get clear about why you are on this beautiful, challenging path, and do your work. The yoga will take care of the rest.
“If we are facing in the right direction, all we need to do it keep on walking”
– Gautama Buddha-
“Follow the truth, and then the truth will follow you.” –Swami Satchidananda
Dishonesty is having a moment right now. Misinformation, disinformation, and Fake News are running rampant and unchallenged, poisoning everything they touch and plunging us into ever-deepening darkness. The warping of the truth for personal gain or ego aggrandizement has become so commonplace, that when people dare to simply be honest, we are quick to call them courageous heroes, or grind them into dust… Public officials who refuse to let lies go unchecked, celebrities who brazenly post photos free from filters and make-up, the exhausted mom who has the nerve to publically admit, “This is really, really hard.” We’ve been sold so many lies created to help a chosen few collect power, money, and admiration. The bright, shiny lies come so hard and fast that we could never manage to unravel them all. We just know they make us feel yucky. To combat them, we need to turn inward and deepen our personal relationship with honesty, commit to creating in our own lives, and get to know it so well that we can quickly recognize imposters.
Truthfulness, known as Sayta in Sanskrit, is the second of the Yamas, (moral codes) laid out in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. It is second in importance only to Ahimsa, our commitment to non-violence. Yoga is the process of truth telling. It demands that we be completely honest (and loving) with ourselves at all times if we truly hope to find peace and contentment. We do this by turning down the volume on our thoughts, and diving deeper into the wisdom of our bodies and breath. We practice tuning in to the way we feel when we are honest, and the discomfort we experience when we are not. We learn to listen to the clues that tell us when we are less than fully honest – tightness in the belly, guilt, shame, fear of discovery…
Our minds are masters of Spin. They can quickly concoct a lie, rationalize it a half-dozen ways, and buoy it with additional dishonesty – before we even realize what’s happened. The cheater tells himself that he deserves some happiness or excitement, but it’s a kindness to keep it from his partner. That way nobody will get hurt, the family can remain intact, and it might even make the relationship stronger…”Oh, and by the way, I’m working late again tonight, Honey.” No chance of unnecessary pain and suffering here!
But our bodies and breath don’t lie. The work we do on the mat within the laboratories of our bodies yields instant feedback that leaves no room for manipulation of the truth. You can tell yourself you are a hotshot yogi ready to plunge into the perfect, deep, photo-worthy forward bend, but if the truth is that your hamstrings are not ready, pain and injury will surely follow. When we fail to make our best honest effort, our bodies are slow to change. When we push beyond what is appropriate in the moment, our breath becomes shallow and labored. The only way we can truly transform is by getting real about our strengths and challenges, without judgment. And as we experience the value of complete honesty in our practice, it begins to spill into our relationships.
The path to real intimacy with our family, friends, and partners requires that we voice our truths. Sometimes we tell small lies to spare someone’s feelings, make ourselves look better, or avoid conflict. Sometimes we fail to be honest with ourselves, and end up resentful when an unspoken boundary is crossed or we feel like we are not being seen or understood. All of this can be avoided if we speak clearly and openly about our wants, needs, and expectations…and listen and acknowledge the same in others. Of course, like everything on the yogic path, Satya is a practice. And anything we practice with regularity and sincerity is destined to improve.
We feel the contraction in our bodies when we are dishonest. Deep down, we always recognize the honest thing to say or do. If we want to grow, we must have the courage to choose what is right over what is easy. A quick gut check can help keep us on track. There is a palpable lightness and freedom to the truth. Being truthful with ourselves creates peace within our hearts. Honesty in our relationships yields deeper connections and real trust. I know that I most value the friends who will tell me what they truly feel instead of what they think I want to hear. Honesty is a gift. As we stand unarmed in transparency, we grant permission to others to do the same. And according to Patanjali, Satya perfected transforms our words into benedictions made manifest. (PYS 2.36) As we share our truth bravely and lovingly, we gain trust in ourselves, and the trust of everyone we interact with. We slip into the refreshing stream of universal love and openness. We lose our fear of being exposed, and gain a deeper sense of self-respect and personal empowerment. We become warriors of integrity, unashamed and undaunted, as the words we think and speak from our deepest source of loving truth materialize into countless unimagined blessings.
The honor of your presence is requested on the illuminating path of Yoga…
When: Now. Yoga, union with your highest consciousness, is available in every moment. Any time you sit and examine your thoughts, take an aware and curious breath, observe sensations in your body, question your thought patterns, or open yourself to experience any moment in its pure expression, you are entering the sacred realm of yoga. Come early, come late, come and go as your life situation allows. You will never be turned away at the door. You will never be asked to leave. Come for an hour and stay for a lifetime!
Where: Anywhere. Yoga can be found anywhere you look for it. You can come into silence in a crowded bus station. You can turn inward during a packed sporting event. You can find it in a studio, your living room, in a quiet corner…standing on your head, or sitting on a cushion. It is in the forest, by the sea, and on a mountaintop. The potential for peace and connection is always within you, wherever you are.
Why: Because, quite simply, Yoga makes everything better. Your body will become healthier, stronger, and more flexible. Your mind will begin to quiet. All those limiting thoughts that play on a continuous loop, often without notice, will start to wilt under the spotlight of your scrutiny. And in the silent spaces they leave behind, new and inspired ideas will arise. Your emotions will level out as the habitual thoughts that drive them slowly fade. In stillness, you will recognize that feelings ebb and flow, that all are worthy of notice, but none need to highjack your experience. In silence, you will gain a deeper understanding of your spiritual essence. You will become increasingly aware of your connection to all of creation. You will experience greater compassion for the suffering in the world. You will become a master of accessing your deepest internal wisdom. Your relationships will transform. As you learn to recognize your triggers, and notice when you are outsourcing your peace of mind, you will change the way you interact with the people in your life. When somebody disappoints or upsets you, you will turn the finger you are pointing back to yourself. “What’s WRONG with him?!” will give way to, “Why is this upsetting me? Do I have unrealistic expectations? Have I let a boundary be breached? Have I failed to communicate my truth clearly?“ You will carry the personal responsibility you develop on the mat into your interactions with others. You will recognize the madness of trying to change other people, and embrace the opportunity to allow them to introduce you to unexamined aspects of yourself. You will naturally gravitate towards supportive relationships that nurture you, as toxic people fade from your life.
BYOB: Bring your own Beliefs. Yoga is a spiritual path to self, not a religion. It is compatible with all belief systems. Come inspired, or skeptical. Dedicate yourself to the practice and watch it wind its way into every crevice of your life experience. Regularly coming into still and curious presence can completely overhaul your life! Bring your own Body. Yoga will meet you wherever you are…healthy, hale, injured, frail…there is a practice for YOU! Bring your own Breath. It is the magic key that unlocks limitless possibilities. You can use it to increase your vitality, reduce your anxiety, and place yourself squarely in the center of the moment you are in. You will be shocked to discover how much you’ve been missing! Bring your own Burdens. Apply yourself reverently to your practice. Allow for the possibility of healing. Stop the endless analysis, and surrender to the practice. Be patient and optimistic as unexamined trauma unravels, unexplored agendas are released, and unexpected grace fills your heart. The door of the cage must be uncovered before it can be opened. Yoga will help you see that you are trapped in a prison born of ignorance. As you gain wisdom and insight into your hidden drivers, you will take back the reins of your life and your healing.
The Yogis believe that if you have found your way to yoga in this lifetime, you have been here many lifetimes before. You are a card-carrying member of the community of seekers. You deserve to be here. You are so very welcome. Perhaps yoga is not for everyone, although I believe it is. But for anyone interested in a life of self-reflection, and ultimate freedom from habitual unconscious limitations, this party is not to be missed. We’ve set a place for you at the table. No need to RSVP.
We’re not there quite yet, but it’s beginning to look like this strange life in the time of Covid might actually end someday. All things must pass, and this is no exception. Vaccines are ramping up, the weather has finally turned, and we are slowly moving towards some semblance of the “normal” life we so sorely miss. But we can’t jump right back in until we’re certain it won’t lead to further unnecessary sickness and death. With the end in sight, some of us are feeling more antsy and trapped than ever. My friend likens it to needing to use the bathroom on a road trip. The closer we get to the rest area, the more desperately we need to pee. We’re stuck in a strange limbo between still living in the discomfort of limitation, and being far enough past it to recognize the gifts it’s yielded. It’s hard to see around corners when we’re marinating in the emotional experience of upheaval. I know that with the clarity of hindsight, we will be able to recognize the valuable lessons gained from this experience… acceptance, compassion, patience, fortitude, the beauty of simplicity, renewed respect for our ability to adapt and thrive…but first we just have to hang on a little bit longer. Ugh!
The insights we gain on the yoga mat train us for difficult times like these. I studied with my incredible teacher, Bhavani, on the north shore of Kauai for many years… two hour asana classes, five to six mornings a week. Bhavani is a LION, who offers yoga as a tool for psychological and emotional transformation. She famously begins almost every class with five minutes in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). It’s hard and illuminating, and not terribly fun. I’ve watched many a visiting student roll up her mat and leave class a few minutes into that journey. There’s a reason why fast moving flow classes with a pumping soundtrack are so popular. We are not very good at being quiet and still. We are doers and movers and multi-taskers, who want to get our cardio in while we’re getting our yoga on. There is plenty of value in this type of practice, but if you want to get down and dirty with your resistance patterns and self-limiting habitual thoughts, HOLD YOUR POSES!!! The way to expand your comfort zone is to practice being uncomfortable.
Five minutes in Down Dog will teach you some things. You will quickly discern your energy level. One morning I would breeze through it, feeling strong and powerful, and the next day I would crumble 90 seconds in. It can highlight how you handle discouragement, “What’s wrong with me today? Why am I so weak? Am I even capable of improving?” Or maybe you just get mad at the mean teacher who is keeping you in the stupid pose forever. It will teach you about self-care. Can you allow yourself to come down and take rest in child’s pose when that’s what you need? Or will you muscle through to the detriment of your breath and alignment in order to prove something to yourself, your teacher, or your fellow students? Eventually, it will show you the power of surrender. Maybe your arms are shaking and your legs are burning. But what if instead of fighting with the pose, you just dropped into the experience of your breath? As it deepens and lengthens you might discover a new ease and vitality, because ultimately the asanas are there to serve as hosts to the universal energy of prana.Once we start to tap into that limitless energy, we realize that we’ve been trying to do all the work ourselves, when universal assistance has been patiently waiting for an invitation to help.
Long holds remind us that time is elastic and suffering is optional. Five minutes can last forever, or pass in the blink of an eye. You can spend it in a battle of wills between you and the pose. We’ve all done it. Or you can use that time to refine your alignment, focus on your breath, and observe the whirling dervish of your monkey mind. You can certainly give yourself permission to take rest and regroup when you’ve slipped back into combat mode…your breath will let you know. You can strengthen your “Hanging On” muscles by picking a challenging pose, setting a timer, and living with that pose for the allotted time, regardless of your experience there. And then do it again tomorrow.
It kind of makes me sad when I see yoga marketed as FITNESS. “Come on in and get your Yoga Buns, or A Beautiful Yoga Body!” “Yoga will make you lean, sexy, and desirable!” While all that might be true, it really misses the point. One of yoga’s greatest gifts is the opportunity to redefine our relationship with our bodies. For most of us, that relationship is complicated. Far too often, the way we feel about our bodies is based on how they look, or how we imagine they look, especially compared to whatever the accepted societal standard of beauty happens to be at the moment. We decide our bodies are too old, fat, thin, weak, short, tall, etc. Or maybe we’re just good and pissed at our bodies…they are injured or ill, they can’t produce children or do the things they used to do, or they don’t match the gender we identify with. We feel so betrayed! We identify them by their list of flaws. And even when we have to admit there are some things we like about our bodies (I have great forearms!), we are much more likely to fixate on the things we believe are wrong with them (I wish my legs weren’t so short!).
All of this is bad enough, but now factor in the modern western idea that the state of your body defines your general worth as a human being. Our culture has become so focused on our physicality that we tend to pass judgment on each other with a glance. We assume the fat person is lazy, the muscular gym rat is vain, the person with an illness is pitiful, the tall man is powerful, the old woman sitting by herself is lonely and sad… Even when we know better. Our self-image becomes inextricably linked to our body image, and we decide that if our bodies are obviously “flawed”, then we must be, too. And we might not even realize we’re doing it. We just know we feel bad about ourselves.
But there is a different way. Through yoga practices, we learn to examine our bodies from the inside, instead of the outside. We become more interested in how they feel than how they look. We get excited about discovering what they can do. We begin to separate body image from self-image. As we work to gain mastery of our bodies and a deeper understanding of our inner essence, we start to remember that our bodies are simply vehicles for navigating life on the material plane. They don’t define who we are. They contain who we are. And instead of judging them or obsessing over them, what if we just had fun experimenting and playing with them? Our bodies can do remarkable things!!!
Yoga teaches us that our bodies can change. They can grow stronger and leaner, or softer and more open. They can release long-held tension, and move with greater fluidity and ease. They can heal and function more efficiently. Through compassionate and consistent effort, they can accomplish things we never thought possible.
Yoga helps us discover a new appreciation for the unexplored nooks and crannies of our bodies. When we learn to feel our way under our shoulder blades, we can recognize when tension is setting up shop there. When we explore the movement of our diaphragms, we can learn to draw in more healing breathe to revitalize our bodies. When we come to know the souls of our feet, we develop a deeper appreciation for our connection to the earth. When we identify and relax tension in our muscles, our manic minds begin to still.
Yoga shows us that how we move our bodies can affect our emotions. Backbends invigorate us. Forward folds soothe and calm us. Standing poses make us feel powerful. Restorative poses remind us that we are held and supported. Balancing poses help us find center. Inversions can flip our perspective.
Yoga reintroduces us to our souls. It reminds us that our bodies are impermanent…they will change, breakdown, wear out, and eventually decay. But our inner essence is timeless and unchanging. When we can identify and love the Selves who are piloting our bodies, we begin to spot and love the inner Selves in everyone else. Namaste! Yoga encourages us to take loving care of our vehicles while we have them. It makes the ride smoother and more enjoyable.