LIVING IN BALANCE
by Lynn Theodose
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.
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” And while that might be a bit dramatic, they certainly can complicate things. Consider this: traditionally, yoga seekers spent the majority of their lives in solitude, deep in the mountains or jungles, in search of tranquility and divine connection. They believed the unraveling their personal thoughts and emotions could take thousands of lifetimes. So what chance do we have of ever finding peace when we’re surrounded by all these damn people?
We live in a world full of humans in progress, all with their own beliefs, preferences and distortions. We certainly can’t change them all…or any of them, so we need to find a way to coexist without losing our peace of mind. And the pandemic is only making it harder. Some of us are out of work or suddenly working from home, stuck inside with our partners, kids or roommates. And with many face-to-face interactions on hold, we’re likely spending more time connecting on social media, inundated with endless thoughts and opinions.
Thankfully, yoga practice offers us moments of solitude. Even in a crowded classroom our mats become little isolation pods where we contend solely with our own bodies, thoughts and breath. But as soon as we rise from shavasana we’re confronted with other people and all of their unpredictable humanness. Have you ever walked out of a yoga class feeling calm and loving, only to be cut off in traffic ten minutes later? “ Hey!! Namaste, Jerk!!” How quickly the index finger drops away from the peace sign!
What we need is a manual for maintaining our equilibrium in the midst of all of this humanity. Luckily the Patanjali Yoga Sutras offer us one:
This four-part prescription can help us navigate how we relate…to the people we hold most dear, the ones we know peripherally, and those we’re tempted to strangle. It’s actually quite simple, but it does require our vigilance. The key is to remember that we are all so much more alike than we are different…to recognize ourselves in everyone we encounter.
Be friendly towards the happy.When we’re feeling good it’s easy and natural to celebrate another’s happiness. But when we are low, someone else’s joy can feel like a personal assault. It’s hard to get excited about your friend’s engagement when you’re reeling from a breakup. And when you’re feeling defeated or overwhelmed, a Pollyanna’s chipper, “Cheer up, Buttercup! Life is beautiful!!” can grate like nails on a chalkboard. Roll your eyes all you like, but happiness can rub off on us and remind us that joy is our birthright.
Be compassionate towards the suffering.Conversely, unhappy people can activate our defense mechanisms. We might try to avoid them so we don’t catch their sadness. Or we rationalize that they brought in on themselves or are playing the victim, “At least you have a roof over your head and food on the table!” In this way we can pretend that suffering is avoidable, and that if we’re smart and stay positive, we can dodge it. Nope – sorrow is a natural and appropriate response to loss or hardship. We have all suffered before, and certainly will again. When we remember this, we can move from judgment to compassion, and become a source of comfort and understanding.
Delight in the virtuous.The virtuous can definitely trigger us. The Supermom who has spent quarantine Marie Kondo-ing her closets, baking bread, rocking home school, and starting an online business can leave you feeling like a loser. And that goody-two-shoes friend who won’t gossip “thinks she’s so much better than everyone else!” When we’re feeling bad about ourselves it’s tempting to try to level the playing field by tearing other people down. But comparison and jealousy never lead to contentment. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and when you see someone doing good work, use it as an inspiration and a reminder of your limitless potential.
Ignore the non-virtuous.And then there are the troublemakers, the button pushers…the nasty and the negative. You can find them in the “Comments” section. These people feed on conflict, and if you want to starve them out… Don’t Take the Bait!! You’re not going to change anyone’s mind about masks. When your spouse snaps at you after a frustrating day, try to let it slide. A fire will burn out quickly if you don’t add fuel. Avoid negativity if you can, and if you can’t, take care not to reward it with your attention. Perfectly wonderful people can be perfectly beastly at times. We never know what someone else is going through, so this is an excellent time to practice forgiveness…from a distance.
Apply this formula to the same aspects within yourself.When you feel happy, celebrate it! Grab on and let yourself feel great. When you are sad, practice kindness and self-compassion…even though other people may have it worse. Congratulate yourself when you are living up to your highest ideals. And when you falter…think a nasty thought or say an unkind word, apologize, move on, and remember your innate goodness…commit an act of kindness, make a gratitude list, breathe into your heart center, or step onto your mat.
With this simple teaching as a blueprint, we can remain unfazed in any interaction. Of course, it’s going to take practice, but the rewards are serenity in your heart and peace in your relationships. What could be better than that?
Global Pandemic!! Economic Devastation!! Explosive Racial Tensions!!
There are so many reasons to be terrified right now. Take your pick…or you can be like me and just go ahead and worry about all of it, plus the dark political climate, global warming, wildfires, hurricanes, hurtling asteroids, and the insidious evil of TikTok. Yes, my friends, it’s 2020, and as my teacher likes to say “Fear is in the house!”
Unlike vampires or the police, Fear doesn’t need to be invited in…it comes oozing in through keyholes, slithering through cracks. Sometimes it kicks down the door. Once it’s inside the question becomes, “What do you do with an uninvited guest who threatens to tear your house apart?” Easy, you ask it to leave. But Fear doesn’t follow the rules of polite society…it just flops down on the couch, kicks its feet up on the freshly polished coffee table, and starts screaming, “Oh my God, Oh my God!!! It’s time to PANIC!!!” You beg it to quiet down, but it won’t be silenced. “I know you don’t like me, but you needme!!!” Fear implores. And maybe it has a point.
The Sanskrit word for fear is Abhinvesha.Literally translated to “moving towards, and liking life,” Abhinivesha includes our resistance to change, general insecurities, and ultimately, our fear of death. The trio of current crises speaks directly to primal, biblical themes of annihilation: Plague! Famine! Bloodshed! Such fertile ground for Fear to take root! It’s uncomfortable and often paralyzing, but like all unpleasant emotions, Fear arrives to get our attention, spur us to appropriate action, and provide us with an opportunity to reconnect with our center.
When discussing Abhiniveshain the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali tells us: Even the wise sage clings to the familiarity of life. (PYS 2:9)This is important because it reminds us that fear is a perfectly natural response to threat. It’s not something to be ignored or rejected, but rather invited in, accepted, and ultimately transmuted. We are encouraged to put down our distractions of choice (the glass of wine, remote control, Cheetos, and to-do lists, etc…), sit across the table from our unexpected guest and listen to what it has to say.
Abhinvesha wants to spur us towards actions that can help keep us safe: wear a mask and social distance, adjust our spending and explore new income streams, uncover our blind spots on racism and work to increase social equality. Excellent advice we’re wise to heed. But why does Fear stick around after the message has been delivered, often leading us to freeze or lash out? Because, on a deeper level, Fear also shatters our single-paned illusion that we are completely in control of life’s circumstances. We are reminded once again that life is impermanent and unpredictable, and that the only thing we truly have control over is how we respond to everything else. And that’s where the Yoga comes in.
Our work on the yoga mat prepares us for dealing with discomforts we encounter in life. As we dive into a forward bend, perhaps a little deeper than before, our hamstrings contract, “Whoa!!! We haven’t been here before! Scary!” In that moment we feel the urge to come out of the pose. But as we acknowledge our hamstrings’ limits, and stay and breathe, respecting the edge of the stretch, they slowly begin to let go. This is how we expand the envelope of comfort in our forward fold. We open up, little by little, day by day…through practice and consistency.
And so it is with Fear. Fear IS contraction. You can feel it in your body as everything clenches up ready to fight for your life or run like hell. And what do those of us on the Yoga path do with contraction? We stay and we breathe. Left unattended, fear will lock us in the cellar and/or set our house on fire. Either way, it will not be ignored. Perhaps it’s time we pour a cup of tea and give our guest the attention it deserves.
The next time Fear comes barreling into your house, find a quiet spot and take a seat. Close your eyes and scan your body. Fear should be easy to find in there (check your jaw and your solar plexus). Once you’ve located it, breathe deeply into the places Fear has set up shop. Feel the contraction, hear the alarm bells, and get curious. “What do you want me to know? Are your concerns legitimate, or are you just trying to freak me out? What rational steps can I take with the information you’ve given me?” Keep breathing, asking and listening. As this becomes a practice, little by little, day by day, Fear will start to let go. As we sit with and breathe into Fear, its screams begin to fade into whispers, until we can once again hear the placid voice of strength, divinity, and wisdom within. At this point we might like to thank our gatecrasher for reminding us of where our true courage, power and serenity lie.