LIVING IN BALANCE
by Lynn Theodose
It’s going to be a very different Thanksgiving for many of us this year. I’m going to miss seeing my dad before heading down to Roanoke for a raucous afternoon with my husband’s extended family, cheering on the family football game, and meeting the new baby. I will miss my traditional post-Thanksgiving weekend in Blacksburg with friends and a Hokie game. My mom will spend the day alone with her dog. The temptation is strong to bemoan everything we have lost this year…to lament the traditions that mark the season, to miss reconnecting with the people we don’t see often enough. It is natural and normal to feel disappointed and a little cheated.
I challenge us all to dig a little deeper this year…to recognize that all is not lost, and to shift our attention to the things we are grateful for. Let us be thankful for the simple things, big and small. Let us change our perspective and recognize our countless blessings. I give thanks for the food that will grace my table, my husband and stepchildren and dog, my continued health, the doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to help others, the brilliant scientists who have created vaccines, the angels at the food banks, my warm home, Zoom and Facetime. And Yoga…I am so grateful for Yoga.
Yoga is the gift that keeps on giving. It is available to us anywhere and anytime. As long as there is a breath in your body, you can rest your attention upon it and reconnect with deeper truths…that we are all connected beyond the plane of time and space. That love transcends geography. That it is a sacred duty and honor to sacrifice our personal desires for the greater good. Yoga gives us so much, and asks only that we keep showing up and doing our best. Let us be thankful for its many gifts:
Physical Health: Yoga keeps us strong and flexible. It is a full-body practice that strengthens and purifies. A consistent yoga practice can keep us vital and healthy deep into old age. A pliable body helps us avoid injury, and the practices can help us heal many of the things that ail us. It improves balance and organ function, lubricates the joints, increases respiratory and circulatory performance, and prevents diseases caused by stagnation.
Mental Health: Yoga quiets our minds. It helps us establish intimacy with our self-limiting thought patterns. It gives us the opportunity to question the thoughts we feed ourselves on a daily basis. It shows us where we are blind or stuck, and encourages us to take control of our own mind stuff. It hands us the key to the cage of unnecessary suffering.
Emotional Health: We do not have to be slaves to our emotions! Emotions rise and fall like waves. As we turn inward and begin to track the lifespan of our emotions, we discover that we can let them come and go without getting hijacked. We become observers instead of victims of our varying emotional states. As we take a small step back and watch the waves roll in and out (Isn’t it fascinating?!), we gain equanimity and perspective, and finally freedom from the rollercoaster.
Personal Responsibility: Victimhood can be very seductive. “Poor me…this painful thing happened to me and now I am entitled to wallow in misery.” And we certainly can choose to wallow…but what a wasted opportunity! Yoga teaches us to play the cards we have been dealt. To start from where we are…injured, ill, heart-broken, disenfranchised, traumatized, or whatever challenges we might be facing. “It’s not FAIR!!!!”, but so what. Regardless of our circumstances, yoga invites us to pick up the reins of responsibility for our health and our lives. YOU are in control of your own healing. YOU have the ability to take your power back. Get radically honest with yourself to identify what you need to thrive…and then get busy making it happen!! Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, kids with cancer in their blood and joy in their hearts…and so many countless others who have gotten a “raw deal”, can inspire us to move out of victimhood and into greatness!!
Community:It’s been said that 99% of spiritual advancement is who we hang out with. The yoga path is a lifelong journey, and I am forever grateful for the fellow pilgrims I have met along the way! Those of us seeker deeper meaning in life, and the most authentic and loving center of ourselves, need each other now more than ever. It seems the world is getting more divided and shallow all the time. Distractions are everywhere as we are encouraged to worship at the altars of busy, successful, attractive, outraged, and relevant. Let us come together on the mat…in the studio, on the internet, in the park or our living rooms, in our hearts and minds. Let us remind each other of our inner beauty and inherent worth. Let us love and support each other on the quest for peace and self- acceptance. Let us stoke one another’s flames so we can shine our collective brilliance out into the darkened corners of the world. It is our life’s work and a priceless gift.
Wherever you go, there you are. No matter how old, wise, mature, disciplined, or spiritually advanced you are today, the toddler you once were still lives inside you. This little person wants what she wants when she wants it. And this little person has no interest in things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable. Your inner toddler has no problem wreaking havoc to get her way. She will happily create chaos in your house, the grocery store, the park…etc, until concerned bystanders start wondering if they should call child protective services.
Our inner toddlers are the embodiment of Raga and Dvesha (attachment and aversion). These natural human tendencies are two of the five mental disturbances, called Klesha, that are most often responsible for taking us out of the present moment and into unnecessary suffering, for ourselves and everyone around us.
Let’s look at Raga (attachment to pleasure) (PYS 2.7). Of course we enjoy pleasant experiences. It feels good to feel good! And the yoga teachings encourage us to enjoy ourselves along the way to self-realization. It’s not the pleasant experience itself that gets us into trouble, but rather the immediate desire to repeat it. I know that I am powerless against peanut M & M’s, and will never be able to eat one potato chip. But I also know that if I blindly follow these delicious cravings wherever they lead, I will end up obese, diabetic, and toothless. That does not match my long-term goals. How often do extra-marital affairs lead to peace and harmony? Most of us are old enough to recognize that the indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure can result in future suffering – guilt, regret, indigestion, hangover, STDs, addiction…etc. But how easy it is to forget in a moment of burning desire!
And then there’s Dvesha (aversion to pain) (PYS 2.8). Unfortunately, uncomfortable situations and feelings are part of the human experience. For those of us on the yogic path, they are vital to our growth and awareness. On the mat, it’s often the poses we avoid that we need the most. Again, the problem is not this tendency to avoid discomfort, but the fact that it’s immediately followed by the desire to never repeat it again. When we avoid discomfort at all costs, we end up suffering more. Have you ever stayed in an unfulfilling job to avoid the fear of the unknown on the other side? Or continued to beat the dead horse of a bad relationship rather than have a tough conversation or face the pain of loneliness? And then did you spend weeks, months or years marinating in your misery? Listen, I HATE going to the dentist. But honestly, it’s 2 hours out of the year for routine maintenance. But sometimes I start thinking and worrying about it days before my appointment. So instead of being uncomfortable for a few brief moments in the chair, I waste hours in the discomfort of dread…much unnecessary suffering! Meanwhile I miss the moment I’m in.
It is a vital part of the spiritual maturation process to acknowledge Raga and Dvesha when they arise, examine them, and decide the best way to respond. We are not looking to ignore or eradicate our natural impulses. Often they serve us…the urge to recreate the high we get from a good workout, learning not to touch a hot stove…the key is to learn to recognize them (they can be sneaky), and pause to question before reacting to every urge. Enter Viveka Khyati – the sword of discriminative awareness that pierces through illusion and goes straight to the truth. In that poignant pause between the desire to advance or retreat, and the knee-jerk reactions that follow, draw your sword and ask the question, “Will this truly serve my growth and lead to lasting contentment, or rather lead me further from self-awareness and peace of mind?” We can spend our lives running towards what feels good and away from what feels bad, but we’re only going to end up exhausted and ultimately unsatisfied.
Here’s how I view the yoga process: Imagine a bright, clear light buried beneath a pile of rubble. This light is the pure beacon of divinity that resides in each of us. It is kindness, clarity, compassion, wisdom, and bliss. It is where the myth of separation falls away, and we feel our connection to the love that forms the matrix of the universe. It is always shining brightly beneath the confusion, neuroses, thought patterns, and emotional habits that keep us shrouded in darkness. It wants to be free! We use the yoga practices to identify and examine the debris of our misconceptions. It is only through investigation that we can locate, refine, and remove that which buries our light. With each piece of rubble we remove, the light within escapes through the cracks created and shines out into the world.
Sometimes we remove pebbles – Maybe you catch yourself judging your process on the mat and choose to question the unkind thought. Sometimes we remove boulders – Perhaps during meditation you uncover that the root of a long held belief that you are unlovable originates from a family dynamic that requires dismantling. The yoga path is an endless process of discovering and discarding thoughts, beliefs, and tendencies that keep us separated from our inherent goodness and worth. It is long, hard work. Expect blood, sweat and tears, but the pay off is phenomenal. As we cart away the junk that fails to resonate with our highest good, we begin to vibrate with clarity and calm. And the light we unearth illuminates everyone around us.
Recognize that the love labor of liberating your brilliance is a priceless gift to humanity. The personal flame we ignite sparks the light of awareness in others. As the spotlight of our knowing shines on those around us, it helps them locate the flicker within themselves…one candle lighting another. We are all energetically linked. Just think of how grounded and loved we feel around people who have found love and grounding within themselves…how drawn we are to true teachers and gurus who radiate peace and acceptance. My friend, Mike, once told me a beautiful story of flying home from Thailand. The moment he walked into the crowded and chaotic Bangkok airport he felt enveloped in love and peace. The feeling stayed with him as he stood in a long, loud line to check his bags. As he was making his way to his gate, he came to a railing where he could look down over the swarming crowd. Among the masses he spotted a small sea of orange. It turns out that the Dalai Lama, along with his attendants, was travelling that day also. The light emanating from His Holiness and his entourage was so warm and bright it flooded the entire bustling airport, drenching my friend in happiness and calm.
We expose our inner light, little by little, by adhering to our practice and questioning everything. The asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation help us focus inward enough to become familiar with our distortions. The poses show us where resistance and trauma is imbedded in our bodies, and meditation exercises reveal habitual thought patterns that need closer examination. Breath restraint can expose everything. The beautiful thing about practice is that it only requires us to ask the questions, not formulate the answers. We use these ancient yoga disciplines to turn down our intellect enough to hear the whispers of our deepest wisdom. This is where the answers are born. We set aside the need to figure it all out, and trust the practice to ignite the inner knowing that surpasses understanding. We do our work and keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak. We discipline ourselves to keep returning to the anchor of our practice, surrender to the process, and keep the faith that our inner light is always shining, guiding us home, even when we cannot see it through the fog of our confusion. Sometimes we get glimpses of our inner brilliance, and other times it is shrouded in darkness, but remember it is always there, just waiting to be excavated. Remain committed, curious, and tirelessly optimistic!!
I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot of things in school I’ve never used. (I’m looking at you, Trigonometry.) Now, hopefully we can all agree on the value of a well-rounded education, but I imagine most of us have managed to navigate adulthood without needing to diagram sentences or describe the different rock formations. I’ve never been asked to list the presidents at a job interview, or explain the circulatory system before checking out at the grocery store. Good thing, too, as much has drained out of my brain colander over the years…
It turns out we actually learned many of our most useful and important lessons in Kindergarten: Be Nice, Tell the Truth, Don’t Steal, Control Yourself, and Share. Yoga philosophy refers to these five tenants as the Yamas, or moral codes. They comprise the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and offer us guidance on how to interact with others. A yoga seeker’s ultimate goal is peace of mind. How can we begin to find the space and silence to quiet our distracting thoughts if we are caught up in unnecessary drama with the people around us? Integrity in our relationships liberates us from needless conflicts and strife, and frees us up for deeper endeavors. As an added bonus, when we live by the code of the yamas, we reduce the toxins of guilt, shame and self-judgment. Let’s review the class rules…
Ahimsa – BE NICE – Ahimsa means non-violence, and is also referred to as loving kindness. It is a commitment to do no harm to yourself or others. It encourages us to always look for the best in everyone. Ahimsa speaks of tolerance and understanding. It asks us to see ourselves in everyone we meet, and extend the same level of acceptance and kindness we hope to receive from others. It is the Golden Rule. Meanness begets meanness, and kindness is contagious. Life is so much more peaceful without enemies.
Satya– DON’T LIE – Truthfulness is essential for inner harmony. We must be honest with others, and honest with ourselves. We lie for so many reasons: to stay out of trouble, to make ourselves look better, to get something we want, to spare someone’s feelings, to avoid conflict… Lies compound and confuse. We have to remember what we said, and deal with shame and the fear of being exposed. When we lie to ourselves we miss an opportunity to refine our thoughts and behaviors. We become prisoners of our own false narratives. Tell the truth even if it’s hard or scary. A commitment to honesty creates a clear, drama-free life.
Asteya– DON’T STEAL – We don’t take what isn’t ours – whether possessions, positions, or credit. When we take something we have not earned, we rob ourselves of the gratification that comes from working towards, and achieving our goals. If you cheat on a test to get an A, you will always know deep down that you did not earn it. When you feel envious of what someone else has, a great job or beautiful backbend, let it inspire you to redouble your efforts. There is never true pleasure to be found in ill-gotten gains. Commit to the truth and do your work, and all good things will come in time.
Brahmacharya– CONTROL YOURSELF – What kind of energy are you putting out into the world? Traditionally, brahmacharya refers to the preservation of the life force through celibacy, but in a broader sense it is about restraint and taking responsibility for where we expend our energy. Are you a hedonist exhausting yourself chasing pleasure? Do you allow your emotions to rage unchecked, infecting everyone around you? It is madness to follow every impulse and emotion wherever it leads. Brahmacharya encourages moderation in all things in order to reduce the fall-out from excess and preserve our vitality for higher pursuits. Instead of flinging our energy around indiscriminately, this yama asks us to strengthen our self-control and pull inward.
Aparigraha– SHARE –Literally meaning, “not filling your dwelling”, aparigraha is all about letting go. Change is inevitable…things, people, emotions, and experiences come and go. Only the inner peace we cultivate is ours to keep forever. Fear and anxiety result when we attempt to grasp and hoard…It’s mine. I love it, and I don’t want anyone to take it away! We are only free of our possessions and attachments when we are willing to let them go, creating space for something new. Let what comes arrive with gratitude, and what leaves depart with grace. In this way we maintain a flowing stream of blessings.
Talk doesn’t cook rice. – Chinese proverb
My teacher’s teacher, Pattabhi Jois, famously said, “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.” We can get together and discuss yoga philosophy over cups of tea. We can study the teachings and research the lives of the masters. We can read step-by-step instructions for the asanas (poses), and memorize anatomy manuals to try to understand the mechanics of the body. We can read volumes on the chakras (energy centers) and pour over pranayama (breathing practices) tutorials. We can sit at the feet of our favorite teachers and learn from the wisdom they’ve acquired. We can read yoga articles and try to compose illuminating blog posts. We can become fluent in Sanskrit. We can spend decades conversing, expounding, and dissecting the yoga experience. In fact it’s encouraged – and we will gain a great deal of knowledge and intellectual insight. But, if we really want to experience yoga, we absolutely must do the legwork and commit to our practice…again and again and again.
Yoga is a journey to our deepest knowing. It is the return to our divine nature, and the remembrance of our connection to all of creation. It is ineffective to try to use the mind to understand an experience that transcends intellect. It’s the wrong tool. It’s like using a fork to eat broth. You might get a taste, but most of it will drip through the tines. The mind, by its very nature, needs to quantify everything by cataloguing and tucking things into neat little boxes – This is good, that is bad. That was then, this is now. I am this, not that. The mind’s job is to understand, to try to make sense of what it encounters. This act of sorting and interpreting removes us from the moment itself. The goal of yoga is to simply experience every moment exactly as it is, without trying to figure out what it all means. So we use the yoga practices to access universal intelligence through our bodies and breath, while quieting the mind’s incessant need to explain.
Language is limited, and completely inadequate for describing a sensation or experience. How do you describe the taste of a mango, the feeling of salt water drying on sun-kissed skin, or the holistic release and relief when your psoas finally lets go in a lunge? How do you convey the full-body hum of a deep backbend, or the delicate moment when a balancing pose settles at center? How do you describe the vibration of prana (energy) flowing through the subtle channels of your body? How do you explain the blissful peace in shavasana (corpse pose) or deep meditation when you absolutely know, if only for a second, that you are not alone, and are always being held by a loving universe? You can’t. You have to feel it and live in it. You have to turn off your brain and get inside your body. When you are anxious, how much more effective is it to take ten slow, mindful breaths than to command yourself to relax while trying to talk yourself down? Our thoughts and interpretations can be interesting, but they tend to get between us and the visceral experience of yoga.
My teacher, Bhavani, refers to the Yoga Sutra as a roadmap. All of the things we read, study, and learn about yoga are travel guides. They can give us an idea of what yoga is, what it feels like, and how to get there. But they can’t create the experience for us. Imagine you’re preparing to visit Blacksburg for the first time. You could spend months studying maps, talking to residents, and reading about the town’s community, culture and history. You’d certainly learn a great deal, and might imagine you know what the town’s all about. But all that research could never capture the feeling of a perfect, crisp autumn day in Blacksburg…the peace found at the top of the municipal golf course looking out over the vibrant colors of Ellett Valley, the friendly warmth of the people strolling through the quaintness of downtown, the haunting quiet and intense emotion of the April 16th memorial, the community spirit of a tailgate at Lane Stadium, the ecstatic vibration of thousands of exuberant Hokies jumping to Enter Sandman.
Close your eyes and picture the Yoga Path. What do you see? I have a lovely painting over my bed that evokes the path…it is a wide, gentle, well-marked trail through a calm and peaceful wood. The trees explode with the pale green of early spring. Sunlight filters down like fairy lights through the soft canopy. When I look at it I exhale and imagine a soothing forest bath, bare feet on the earth, cool breeze kissing my tranquil smile. It is a sweet, romantic fantasy, the April photo on a yoga calendar, and absolutely NOTHING like my actual experience.
For dedicated seekers, those attempting to unravel unconscious patterns and uncomfortable truths in a bid to transcend self-limiting habits and beliefs, the yoga journey is quite different – less Disney princess dancing through the forest, and more Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Yes, there are calm times, laughter and victories. There is also great peril. There are companions along the way, but some things you must do alone. There is magic afoot and orcs on your trail. There is no way through without descending into the Mines of Moria. There are guides and helpers, fear and exhaustion, and moments you rue the day you left the Shire. There are great battles, heart-wrenching losses and Gollum, always Gollum. The temptation to give in and give up is strong. It takes heroic effort to drive out the darkness, but we know in our hearts that the light is worth it.
Not the best advertisement, I know. I doubt anyone’s using this metaphor to fill yoga classes or sell Lulu Lemons. And maybe it’s not this way for everyone. But I believe that yoga is a path to healing deeply buried wounds, and that healing can be a long, hard, messy process. Anything we dig up must be re-experienced before it can be released, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable. The road is long and unpredictable, and we’re going to need supplies. Luckily, the Yoga Sutra provides us with a list of things to pack: Reverential faith, strength and courage, remembrance, a calm and integrated mind, and our deepest internal wisdom. (PYS 1.20)
Shradda – Keep the faith! Have trust in the process and confidence in your abilities. Only a very few people are born enlightened. Most liberated souls have arrived there under their own steam. It is possible! Commit to your practice and know that progress is always happening, even when it feels like you’re stalled or backsliding. Freedom is your birthright, and no effort is ever wasted. Never doubt your potential to heal yourself. Relax and keep going!!
Virya – Be brave! Be accountable. Be consistent. The journey to self-actualization requires sincere effort and fortitude. Be willing to look at the hard stuff. Be open to sacrificing comfort for progress. Be fearless in your self-assessment and unflinching in your desire to take control of your self-defeating thoughts, and ultimately your life. If you fall off the path, dust yourself off and climb back on. You are stronger than you think you are. Your potential for peace, clarity, and bliss is your personal responsibility, and it’s within reach. Stand tall, stand strong, and grab it!
Smrti – Don’t forget! It’s said that yoga is the remembrance of that which we’ve always known, but simply forgotten. Remember your divinity. Remember why you stepped on the path in the first place. Remember your victories and how far you’ve come. Remember lessons learned from past mistakes so you’re not doomed to repeat them. Remember that the view from the top is worth the climb. Remember that you are loved and capable and worthy of a life free from unnecessary suffering. Remember that the light you unearth within yourself will help brighten the whole world.
Samadhi – Meet the moment! Samadhi, the word assigned to profound meditation, means consistent integration. It is the ability to inhabit each moment with calmness and clarity, free from preconceived ideas or hidden prejudices. It is openness to every experience, without judgment or labels. Through practice we can quiet our opinions about our experiences long enough to actually live them. When we release resistance and welcome exactly what is, we become fully present and permeable to what the moment has to offer.
Prajna – The inner guru awakens! As we continue to exercise faith, courage, remembrance and integration, our deepest knowing begins to arise. There is much information to be gained from the world, but we each carry an ancient intelligence inside of us…that “little voice” that can always be trusted, even when it defies the noise outside. It is the true wisdom that emanates from the earth and our ancestors. It is the drumbeat of the cosmos in the rhythm of our hearts. The further we travel on this magnificent path of yoga, the more quiet the distractions of the mind become, and the more loudly this voice begins to sing. Let its song guide you home.
Coronavirus has turned me into an all or nothing kind of gal. Saturday I worked for seven furious hours, cleaning the house from top to bottom. Sunday I spent mostly horizontal, completely worn out. My emotional highs and lows are exaggerated. My will to exercise comes in fits and starts. I’ll make half a dozen check-in phone calls, until I’m emotionally depleted, and then go radio silent for days. Big bursts of productivity followed by paralysis. The pendulum is swinging wide, but I know that peace is found at center. So I come back to the yoga.
Ultimately, yoga is the journey towards, and experience of, a calm and undisturbed mind. According to the Yoga Sutra we achieve this state through a two-pronged approach of Abhyasa (Practice/Effort) and Vairagya (Dispassion/Release).The life of our practice is a never-ending quest for the balance of these two opposites. There’s good news and bad news: The good news is that most of the time we are trying too hard. We are excellent doers who have learned to equate our worth with productivity. The bad news is that for many of us stepping back and letting go is far more difficult than forging ahead and trying harder, even in the face of imminent exhaustion or peril. But all that efforting will only get us so far, and sometimes in the wrong direction.
Let’s step onto the yoga mat to explore this dichotomy more closely. We’ll use Virabhadrasana II (Warrior B) as an example. This pose requires quite a bit of Abhyasa. There’s the muscular effort…legs strong, quads engaged, arms reach wide in opposite directions. And then the mind goes to work on alignment details…front knee lines up with middle toe and stacks over heel, outer edge of back foot grounds, hips rotate externally, tailbone drops as pubic bone lifts, breath fills the full circumference of the rib cage (don’t forget the back!), neck elongates, drishti (gaze) extends beyond front fingertips. Now the outward expression of the posture is set, but how about the internal experience? Are you calm and relaxed, or are you judging yourself, over-thinking, struggling, straining, and muscling through? Usually we try really hard – we force and strain and huff and puff…and quickly wear out! But now add Vairagya…relax your glutes, drop your shoulders, soften your ribcage and the back of your neck. Surrender. Trust the strength of your legs and the alignment of your bones to keep you steady. Feel your breath animate every nook and cranny of your body. Notice the shift from a battle of brute force to an experience of ease and connection. Instead of holding the pose, the pose holds you. Now you’re doing yoga.
It’s easy to forget that yoga is a team effort – You and universal energy working together. You come to your mat again and again. You do your part to build a pose to the best of your ability, and then you hand off the baton. Then, not only will your mind quiet and your breath slow down, but the asana actually deepens as muscle and connective tissue let go. Try a quick experiment…lift your arms out to the sides, shoulder height…reach as wide and as hard as you can. Now drop your shoulders and relax.Chances are your arms extended even further once you stopped trying so hard.
I always feel sad when I see students leave class before Shavasana (Corpse pose). It’s as if they’d spent hours baking a moist, delicious cake from scratch, only to toss it in the trash instead of enjoying the fruits of their labors. We spend all that time doing all that work! And it’s great, but it’s at the end, when we lie back and let it all go, that the benefits of our practice burrow into our cells and souls and nourish the deepest parts of our being. Our job is to plant the seeds, give them water and sunlight, and then walk away and trust that they will flourish.
I don’t know about you, but I feel icky. I find myself at the mercy of so many unknowns and worries and things beyond my control. I feel thrown off center and strangled by uncertainty. I’m mad that so many of the things that bring me joy have been taken away…simple things like feeling safe, my part-time job and teaching gig, the friends I interacted with there, music festivals, road trips to friends and family, a nice dinner out with my husband, a hug from my dad. As the election draws near, with so much at stake, and so much division and ugliness on display, I feel rattled and disheartened. I’m having a very hard time finding any joy, peace or optimism at the moment.
As often happens, I’ve gotten confused. While I’ve been busy bemoaning my loss of happiness, I have forgotten about the deeper, lasting experience of contentment. Known as Santosha, contentment is one of the five Niyama, or personal practices, laid out in the Yoga Sutra. But what is contentment exactly? Why is it so hard to hold onto? And, most importantly, how can we cultivate it in our lives? Expanded definitions of Santosha include: the ability to flow in life without struggle, being comfortable with what you have and what you do not, loving what is, the practice of gratitude and joyfulness, the ability to remain in the present moment, when the flame of the mind does not flicker in the wind of desire.
It can also be helpful to explore what Santosha is not. It is not enduring or muddling through. It is not resignation or apathy. It is not something that happens to us, but rather a choice, something we cultivate. It is not an emotion, but a state of consciousness. It is not to be confused with happiness. Generally, we feel happy when we get what we want. Happiness depends on external conditions matching our personal wishes. Santosha is a general feeling of peace and wellbeing unaffected by the fluctuations of the world.
Happiness is almost always fleeting, as it results from obtaining something we desire. We get it…the job, the partner, the house, and we are so happy! And then the shine wears off…the work gets boring or we get laid off, the partner turns out to be a complex, imperfect human being, the kitchen needs a remodel. Desire is endless, and running after it will leave us tired and disappointed. Contentment, on the other hand, is an internal state of being that we can cultivate, practice and strengthen. It is a sense of peace and equanimity that beats beneath the surface of every situation we encounter. As always, the yoga mat is the perfect place to practice this valuable life skill. Of course we feel happy when we finally master a pose we’ve been working towards. The true challenge is to find satisfaction and tranquility in the struggle along the way…the missteps, plateaus and foibles.
It’s okay to want what we want when we want it. And of course we should continue to strive. But if we’re looking for lasting peace, we have to practice being okay with whatever is happening in our lives right this minute. It requires effort, faith and surrender. We need to stay in the moment and look for the sweetness and the lessons in the now. When I ground into the present and embrace what is, instead of comparing it to what has been or could be, I can start to examine the beauty and the gifts of this uncharted moment. The peace in the pause. The opportunity to rest. The loving warmth and comfort of my home. The extra time and closeness with my spouse. The exciting adventure of an afternoon dog walk. The incredible miracle of my health. We will always find things to be grateful for when we take the time to look for them. Beauty is hiding in the darkness, waiting to be revealed in the spotlight of our loving attention. This second in time, this breath, is unique and precious in its own right.
It’s been an emotional, wrung-out-dishrag kind of week. As I began to craft this week’s post, my attempts at cohesive sentences, helpful insights and applicable advice felt clunky and forced. So I am falling back on the foundation of asana. Today I offer a love letter to the nurturing embrace that lives inside the poetry of the poses…
Balasana (child’s pose) I am a seedling, soft and new. Limitless potential, innocent, uninitiated, tucked into the warm, moist earth. I sprout from the darkness and reach towards the sun, expectant, curious, fearless, and eager to open.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) I lift my tail and stretch the length of my tired, powerful body, head towards the ground in a prayer and a play bow. I plant all four paws and extend my spine, breathing into the spaces between my bones…almost ready to run.
Uttanasana (standing forward bend) My legs firm beneath me, solid as the columns on a temple, I pour my torso forward. The strength of my foundation holds me as I surrender my head and my heart to my feet, splayed bravely upon the earth, connecting me to its center.
Tadasana (mountain pose) I stand tall, immovable, timeless, and towering. Born of fire or collision, continually softened by the changing winds of time. I root down as I continue to rise, without apology. I can see for miles from here.
I join my hands at the center of my heart and chant the eternal cosmic vibration of “OM.” It feels good to be home.
Surya Namaskara A (sun salutations a) I greet the day with a moving prayer…reach for the sun, bow in gratitude, back, down, offer up my heart, press back into powerful legs, loosen my neck and grow longer, unfurling. My bones aligned, my muscles relax, as effort surrenders to breath. Step forward, bow once more, rise to embrace the sun. Repeat.
Virabhadrasana II (warrior b) I step into the en guard position. I step into my power. Arms extend as shakti shoots from my fingertips. Head held high, my shoulders drop as I relax into my majesty. I am a warrior goddess, soft and strong, born from Lord Shiva’s dreadlock.
Utthita Trikonasana (extended triangle pose) My bones and tissues embody the mystery of sacred geometry as I shift and reach, expanding in all directions. A living trinity of mind, body, spirit. Legs strong, waist long, ribs soft, suspended in space, I mirror the constellations…and shine.
Vrikshasana (tree pose) From deep roots nourished by the earth, I grow up through my center. Strong and supple, swaying in the breeze, bending so as not to break. I expand and reach, sprouting a riot of leaves that blossom, shimmer, catch fire, and finally let go.
Bhujangasana (cobra pose) I am made of muscle…fluid and serpentine, beautiful and potentially dangerous. Legs become tail and ground down. My head and heart rise, hypnotic, as I soften and broaden the back of my neck, fanning out the crowning glory of my hood to announce my peaceful presence.
Ustrasana (camel pose) Knees press firmly into the desert sand as I lift the hump of my heart…up, up, up towards the blinding sun, hands to my heels for support. I am relaxed and unhurried. I can travel for days, bearing heavy loads. I carry my nourishment inside me.
Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) Legs extended out in front, I reach my heart for my toes. I slowly elongate the back of my body, the west side, where unconscious things hide in the shadows. I am gentle and patient. I have lifetimes to come out of the darkness. My breath deepens and slows.
Shirsasana (headstand) Fingers interlaced, I cradle my head in my hands. My legs reach for the sky as I plug my crown into the earth’s magnetic field. I gather at center and place my feet upon the heavens, my legs awake and alive. I gain a new perspective. I become a conduit of grace, a lightening rod for spirit.
Savasana (corpse pose) My work is done, and I let it go. I release my body and my breath. I become still and drop into the mystery of what lies beyond the unknown. Trusting, I allow myself to be lovingly held by the benevolent force that animates all of creation. I rest at last.
I finally got to catch up with my favorite friend in California last night. Like all of us, she’s going through it right now. She had to shutter her business for months and is slowly reopening. She’s struggling to unravel the intricacies of her PPP loan, adjust to new protocols and replace staff members who have decided not to return. She is stuck inside due to the dangerous air quality from surrounding wildfires, and valiantly co-parenting and helping home school 2 tween boys, all while crawling out of the pit of a devastating heartbreak. She is a mighty warrior. She climbed the mountain, rolled the giant boulder aside, crossed the raging river, and slayed the dragon…and somehow still manages to laugh. And then Friday night she heard the news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, and our brave heroine dissolved into a puddle of tears. She just couldn’t handle this ONE MORE THING.
We all have a breaking point, and these days if feels perilously close. Fear and uncertainty are the order of the day. No matter how well we have adjusted to the pandemic, grown accustomed to political mayhem, or found a way to compartmentalize the civil unrest and climate crisis, this is a very intense and frightening time. I think it is safe to assume that our nervous systems are all pretty well fried. Right now it is more important than ever to shore up our reserves and double down on self-care. Somewhere beneath the chaos, we each have a wellspring of peace, strength and resilience at our disposal. It is vital that we strengthen our connection to this sacred place within as we navigate our strange new world. We desperately need to ground into our breath, our bodies, and the present moment in order to nurture ourselves through the current confusion and uncertainty. If you’re already dangling on the edge of overwhelm, recommitting to yoga, meditation and mindfulness can feel like a herculean task. The good news is that it doesn’t require hours of deep meditation or vigorous asana practice to access our inner resolve and tranquility. Instead we can become serenity detectives, and search out opportunities to create pockets of peace throughout the day. Here are a few suggestions:
-Take One Yoga Class. If you’ve abandoned your practice because you’re not comfortable going to the studio, make a plan to get back on the mat. Try a zoom class if you haven’t yet. No, it’s not the same, but the yoga doesn’t know the difference. Chances are if you commit to even one class, it will feel so good that you’ll crave more!
-Go for a Mindful Walk. I walk my dog multiple times a day. Sometimes I’m so caught up in my thoughts and worries that I couldn’t even tell you where we went. Other times I play a game. I keep a running tally of squirrels, chip monks & bunnies, or look for things that start with a certain letter like “R”. It’s incredible what you notice when you’re actually looking. (Recycling bins, Rock wall, Roses!)
-Lie in Viparita Karani (legs up the wall). This is my favorite yoga pose, and it gives you a lot of bang for your buck. It energizes you when you’re tired and calms you when you’re stressed. It feeds your brain, soothes your nervous system, and can even help you sleep. Sometimes I read in bed in this pose.
-Read Something Inspirational. As aspiring yogis we’re encouraged to study the lives of the masters for inspiration. The great seekers who have come before us have lit lamps along the path for us to follow. Yogananda, Jesus, Buddha, Krishnamacharya, the Dalai Lama, and countless others can remind us of our divinity, and what is possible when we apply ourselves to pursuing a deeper life.
-Find Tadasana (mountain pose). When you’re standing in a socially distanced line at Kroger or wherever, plant your feet firmly into the floor, weight balanced evenly between the left and right foot. Spread your toes, press through your heels and reach the crown of your head for the horrible fluorescent lights above.
-Red Means Breathe. If you’re driving and find yourself sitting at a stoplight, instead of checking your phone or cursing the traffic, use the time to pull a long, slow, intentional breath deep into the bowl of your pelvis. Hold for 2 seconds and slowly exhale. Repeat until the light turns green.
-Be Grateful! Make a short list of things you’re thankful for at the end of each day. You don’t even have to write them down. Maybe make it your new tooth brushing ritual. Shifting our attention to our blessings is an immediate mood boost and a great way to regain perspective.
-Chant Yourself to Sleep. My insomnia is thriving during Covid! Now, instead of lying awake worrying about the state of the world, I silently chant “Om” until I eventually drift off. I usually get multiple opportunities to meditate every night! You can also just count breaths or focus on the rise and fall of your belly.