Sumo Wrestling and Samskara

Valentine’s Day got me thinking about ongoing relationships and the challenges of communication between two people. This applies to all relationships; our significant other, parents, children or co-workers.

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Have you noticed how we tend to get into habits of responding to issues that get under our skin in the same way, over and over again? We feel it coming. We recognize all the signs. As the issue approaches, we feel contracted, we dig in our heels like sumo wrestlers, taking the protective/reactive stance that is so familiar to us. From there- nothing new happens. The exchange is pretty predictable. We think we are handling things- but in truth we are just reacting impulsively from a stable of emotional behaviors and patterns- which in yoga, we call Samskara. These patterns are deep-seated, starting very early in life. Over time, we may no longer recognize that our emotional responses to life have become habitual.

When we contract around any issue it makes it hard to stay present. We are so busy maintaining our contraction- our tightness, our stance, our particular version of the story, that we can barely hear anything but the polished monolog we are chomping at the bit to unleash. We are so preoccupied with repeating our behaviors based on past experience, that we can’t at all see that there is another way to deal with the “issue” at hand. We can’t see clearly what is actually unfolding. This describes avidya or wrong-perception, one of the kleshas or obstacles to enlightenment in yoga philosophy.

When we are able to stay present in the moment, we can add space to a contracted situation. The Zen master Suzuki Roshi coined the phrase “Beginner’s Mind”. Staying present allows us to meet a situation whose outcome has become predictable with a fresh perspective, beginning again. Creating space in this way gives us an opportunity to breathe and see and listen, instead of reacting. We can put our emotions on pause and at the same time, pause our responses. Perhaps we don’t need to respond at all. We can surrender to the idea that we don’t have to control outcome by using the same unskillful means. In this way we can create a new, positive samskara- allowing the negative samskara to recede. We can actually let go of our role as sumo wrestler.

In our physical practice on the mat, we have many opportunities to identify our “inner sumo”. When we know a pose is coming and we feel the literal contraction in our body and our mind- instead of digging in for what we perceive to be the same experience of that “dreaded” pose, we might just focus on slowing down internally; relaxing physically and seeing more clearly what is actually going on with our body and with our mind. Often the biggest obstacle to experiencing an asana more fully is our mind. When we slow down internally, we are able to notice our habits and learn from them, instead of blowing past our discomfort. We can connect to clear-seeing and make more discerning choices and healthier habits as we practice. We begin to listen to our body with more honesty and sincerity, compassionately quieting the sumo within.

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Drifting and Steering: Yoga’s Voyage

SteeringIn Mark Nepo’s book “The Exquisite Risk” he says “the human journey is one of steering our way back to center over and over.”

Nepo likens our journey through life and transformation to being in a canoe. “…If left alone the boat will drift. In stream or river, the current will carry us, but we need from time to time to paddle or row, to steer our way back to where the current is clear and strong… At the center of the stream of life is the unstoppable current of Spirit.”

We are constantly “drifting and steering”. We all know how it feels to struggle against the current- to work hard at things that just aren’t working for us. As well we all know how it feels to drift and how it feels to be carried along; the momentum of grace seems to bouy us up and place us in the best possible stream.

When we have steered our way through enough chaturangas, we develop a lot of strength. When we’ve steered ourselves through Warrior III and Eagle pose enough times, we gain a sense of balance that is much more reliable than when we started learning. It doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why yoga is called a practice. We keep at it, paddling and adjusting our course over time. The body will drift and so will the mind- when we stop steering.

An ongoing yoga practice cultivates a body that finds more ease than discomfort, more strength than weakness and a mind that can access more calm than stress. We experience something we might call our native state of health. Yoga steers us back again and again to that state.

On the mat we steer and stay on course by linking the breath with every movement. The breath is the bridge to mind and body; with a focused mind we cultivate tapas- will, determination and heat. We steer with non-judgment as we recognize that some days we drift more than paddle.

Even as we progress in our practice, the idea that we “arrive” is not really the point- and not really possible if we are truly practicing yoga. The need to keep steering remains, but the feeling that we are being carried happens more often. When we experience being carried it’s nice, but can’t always be expected. Staying present to what the stream and the boat have to offer us in the moment is the real fruit of the voyage.

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Yoga’s niyama- Isvara pranidhana and the Night Sky

I was mesmerized by a recent documentary called The City Dark. In this POV film, the many reasons the night sky needs our preservation was revealed in the most provocative ways. Our access to the dark night sky teaming with stars is endangered by light pollution from upward casting light sources, especially in big cities around our planet. Like any other piece of our environment, the skies need protection. Without access to a clear view of the cosmos, astronomers can not do their important work. But what does losing the night sky mean for all of the rest of us?Night

Filmmaker Ian Cheney suggests that when we lose the night sky, we risk becoming a more downward-looking, self-centered species; we lose track that we are part of a huge universe.

When we stop looking up, we begin to see the spaces around us as “all there is”. When this happens we place too much importance on our limited perception of our “place” in the world. However when we are able to see the night sky without the cloud of man-made light to obscure it, we open ourselves to experience the overwhelming feeling that we are connecting to something far beyond ourselves, something greater than ourselves.

Yoga’s niyama Isvara pranidhana tells us to embrace and even surrender to this idea of living with awareness of the Divine as “complete devotion to god” or “bringing a quality of devotion to every action in our life” as a means of transforming our “self”.

In the film, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It’s kind of a re-setting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”

I found these two beautiful passages- written decades apart from each other- that perfectly and profoundly illustrate the exchange that occurs within us at the moment we connect with isvara pranidhana while gazing upward:

“He was there alone with himself, collected, tranquil, adoring, comparing the serenity of his heart with the serenity of the skies, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the constellations, and the invisible splendor of God, opening his soul to the thoughts which fall from the Unknown…. he could not himself perhaps have told what was passing in his own mind; he felt something depart from him, and something descend upon him, mysterious interchanges of the depths of the soul with the depths of the universe.” ― Victor HugoLes Misérables

You, too, are looking up, searching constellations, dreaming. You feel again how flexible and expansive your mind can be when it’s working right. And you slip your leash to explore the vast vault of sky and great interior spaces.” ― Carl SafinaThe View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World

When we have a steady, ongoing practice we often experience that “slipping of the leash” and over time cultivate the urge to “slip our leash” more and more and explore our own interior spaces. While holding in our places of greatest resistance, we allow ourselves to feel in ways that are different from our day-to-day grind. We slow down, we look “upward” and inward. We compare our own serenity with the serenity of moving, breathing and forming the complex and beautiful gestures of asana. We become more completely in our body yet we begin to feel that we are no longer just our body; that there is something greater than ourselves dwelling inward and emanating outward from us. It’s that same exchange that we experience when we look up at the night sky. Our experience on the mat becomes sacred. Our mind is working right.

As we begin our practice today- maybe we could set that intention. Choose to treat our experience as though we were witnessing something greater than ourselves. Look for that quality. Bring that quality to everything you do on the mat- breathing, sensing; placing our feet and our hands mindfully- like prayer. Find every opportunity to “slip your leash” as you journey inward.

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Yoga, Tigers and Strawberries: Can you smile anyway?

At a recent book group gathering, a question bubbled up in the course of our musings. It went like this: “Why is pain or sadness more “sticky” than joy or happiness?” Why do we so easily and sometimes so viscerally remember painful events and often the joy of an event is much harder to recall or relive?

This got me thinking about a very old story that Pema Chodron retells in her book “Awakening Loving Kindness”. A woman is being chased by tigers. She comes to a cliff and in an effort to attempt to out-wait the tigers, she climbs down a vine and hangs off the cliff. She looks below her- more tigers. Then she looks at the vine she is clinging to and sees a tiny mouse nibbling away at the vine. Uh oh. At that same moment she sees a mound of fresh, ripe strawberries; ready to eat. Tigers above, tigers below. Yet she simply reaches out, takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth and “enjoys it thoroughly”.

In the midst of all our concerns, can we also find joy? The Dalai Llama, in the book “Art of Happiness” tells us that joy is always all around us. It is our work to cultivate the mind to move toward happiness and to remove the obstacles to happiness. Pleasure is fleeting, ephemeral… but happiness and true contentment is something we can learn to sustain. Instead of grasping for pleasure, we make more consistent choices that lead us toward samtosha, contentment.

In our physical practice we constantly sharpen our focus in order to align our body correctly. The mind easily identifies the poses that bring immediate pleasure. Yogi Eric Schiffman refers to the “full body yawn” of yoga- that’s pleasure. But as we practice we ultimately bump into the pose that is not so pleasant.

Sometimes we are asked to make a pretzel of our body and it feels like putting on a pair of panty hose that are 3 sizes too small! And have you ever noticed how we can get very serious as we set ourselves on the course of a round of Sun Breaths?  We can look so grim! One of my teachers, Richard Vallella, often instructs us to “turn the corners of your mouth upward”. Of course, he is asking us to smile!Smile

I love that. Why not include a smile as an alignment cue for an asana to remind ourselves to lighten up? Why not cultivate a little happiness while we practice and not take ourselves so seriously. We can choose to turn our experience toward something lighter by adjusting how we “push” by easing off a bit or using a prop and allowing for a little more fun. But is it possible to “find a strawberry” while we delve into Pigeon pose- that deep and challenging hip opener? If happiness is all around us, where is it then?

One of the best ways to move toward contentment in challenging poses is to use the breath. When we cultivate the ujjayi breath it can be used as a tool to encourage release in our tight spots, a calming place to anchor our focus when the body meets it’s greatest resistance. By cultivating the breath we can open ourselves to becoming more curious, receptive and friendly in our practice.

Off the mat we learn to practice contentment even in the midst of what seems unpleasant by looking for strawberries where ever we might find them. It’s so useful to just breathe and remember that a smile can cultivate just enough lightness to change our experience. And perhaps that same smile might change someone else’s experience at the same time.

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Yoga’s niyama, Svadyaya- Self Study

The niyamas of Yoga are the observances we strive to uphold in order to live our best, “right” life. While recently reflecting on the essential niyama of yoga, svadyaya (ongoing investigation of the self), I remembered a story of my childhood that has always stuck with me.

I had just turned 10 years old, running amuck through the house, fighting, chasing and being chased by my sister and driving my mom crazy. Things got really loud and out of control. I could hear my mom coming around the corner to put an end to it. I knew I was “in for it”! So I did what any self-respecting 10 year old in the 60’s would do- I hid behind the nearest door! I was standing very still, holding my breath, my heart beating. I knew hiding was a little dicey, not at all logical; and then I heard my sister yell out- “SHE’S BEHIND THE DOOR MOM!!!!” I’ll never forget my mom’s response that day. I could hear her just on the other side of the door that I foolishly thought was somehow going to “protect” me. When I heard her voice, it was very quiet.

“Well, Beth’s 10 years old now and she knows better. She’s just going to have to grow up.”  I was stunned, because I was expecting punishment and I got this calm directive.  In a flash, my mom showed me the self of my bad-behavior and at the same time, showed me my potential, the Self within me beyond those small ideas of self-identity.  That day, my mom was my “guru”. She offered me a mirror that reflected my self back to me and in doing so, illuminated a path leading to greater awareness.

“… the ancients used the word darshana—which means something like a mirror image—to describe the teaching contained in sacred texts, and to describe what happens when we sit with a spiritual master. In both cases, we can see our neuroses, our small-mindedness, and our pettiness mirrored completely. At the same time, we can also see beyond our current state to something like our divine potential. And that too is who we are.”                       Gary Kraftsow

When we practice, it is important to look carefully, both at who we are and what is actually happening in our practice, on our mats. It takes self-reflection to most efficiently utilize each moment in our practice. We need to utilize our study tools.

Yoga niyama-Svadyaya

 Breathe- it helps to “transform” our minds and our actions into calm presence. The breath gives us a tool for bringing us to a more discerning way of looking at what is. When we practice with intelligence, we keep our body safe and stabilized.

Feel- feel your body. Study feeling as you move through each asana. Feel deeply when your body opens. Feel deeply when the body is steady and firm. Feel the feet, feel the spine- get in touch with every square inch! Your body is a mirror too and has so much to teach you.

Listen deeply to alignment- Through alignment we stay present. We learn little about our bodies or our self when we are not present. When our minds are not present, we can still function, but we can’t engage the body fully. We just make shapes and go through the motions. Gold mines inhabit the present- the body is firing so much information to us if we are willing to be aware and attentive. Follow with an open, curious mind. Modify by feeling your own limitations and respecting your edge.

The ongoing practice of yoga mirrors the self to us- and we then study what we see and feel in that mirroring. Use your practice today and everyday as feedback for svadyaya.

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Wrong Perception or Avidya; Yoga, I Love Lucy & Billy Collins

I love poet Billy Collins’ style of writing. He takes an ordinary occurrence and makes a crazy thing of it, spinning tales that take us down the rabbit hole in a heart-beat. He uses humor to take us to profound places. His poem “Creatures” reminds me of the klesha avidya. In yoga, The Kleshas are the Hindrances; the five factors that lead us into suffering. Vidya comes from the root vid-to see. Avidya then means “non-seeing” and refers to wrong perception- not seeing clearly “what is.”

Creatures 

BY BILLY COLLINS

Hamlet noticed them in the shapes of clouds,

but I saw them in the furniture of childhood,

creatures trapped under surfaces of wood,

one submerged in a polished sideboard,

one frowning from a chair-back,

another howling from my mother’s silent bureau,

locked in the grain of maple, frozen in oak.

I would see these presences, too,

in a swirling pattern of wallpaper

or in the various greens of a porcelain lamp,

each looking so melancholy, so damned,

some peering out at me as if they knew

all the secrets of a secretive boy.

Many times I would be daydreaming

on the carpet and one would appear next to me,

the oversize nose, the hollow look.

So you will understand my reaction

this morning at the beach

when you opened your hand to show me

a stone you had picked up from the shoreline.

“Do you see the face?” you asked

as the cold surf circled our bare ankles.

“There’s the eye and the line of the mouth,

like it’s grimacing, like it’s in pain.”

“Well, maybe that’s because it has a fissure

running down the length of its forehead

not to mention a kind of twisted beak,” I said,

taking the thing from you and flinging it out

over the sparkle of blue waves

so it could live out its freakish existence

on the dark bottom of the sea

and stop bothering innocent beachgoers like us,

stop ruining everyone’s summer.

Avidya

When Billy looked at that stone, he saw the grimace. He not only saw the grimace but he also concluded that the grimace was something that would ruin everything!

Do I see a stone for a stone- or do I have a whole story about that stone that may or may not be true? If I step forward from a place of wrong perception- every additional step I take, and every consequence of those steps, builds a story and a set of actions based on a “false” foundation. It’s like the  “I Love Lucy” episodes where Lucy thinks Ricky has done “X” when he’s actually done “Y” and the entire sitcom is based on the ridiculous outcome of Lucy’s wrong perception.

We get a kick out of it when it’s Lucy’s karma (action) unfolding, but when we do this ourselves- it’s a different story. The pain of recognizing what we didn’t see clearly can sometimes keep us from allowing ourselves to admit that “what is” is different from our perceptions. It means we have to admit our lack of clarity and change our mind. Often our ego gets threatened and gets in the way.

Yet if we can quiet the ego enough- we can allow the haze of avidya to lift. With clear-seeing, the steps we take from that point lead us onto a “straighter” path. The more we choose the straighter path, the more natural it feels to be walking this way. It may not always be easy, but over time, little by little, it becomes more authentic for us to desire truth and walk that path.

On the mat, follow the thread of your actions and your thoughts around those actions. If I’m pushing too hard, am I aware that this is so or am I plowing through because I don’t want to see the pushing as an obstacle. What am I not seeing about the effectiveness of “ease” layered into effort? If I’m not pushing enough, am I  recognizing my lack of effort or focus as an obstacle to my transformation- either physical or emotional? On or off the mat, awareness is the key; the first step to waking up and seeing clearly.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

For Thanksgiving Day I want to share with you the closing intention that I offer at the end of each of my my yoga classes:

“Today may we practice gratitude, for this body and this life; clarity that we may walk through this day with our eyes and hearts open; compassion for self and others; and humility, that we might walk through this life with grace and shine!”

Namaste & Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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