At this, physically the darkest time of year, it’s easy to get swamped by that darkness. And the reality is, life has its blackness. People can be fantastic--and horrible--to each other. We experience greatness, and bleakness. At the holidays we’re told to feel nothing but togetherness and wonder and beauty. I never want to tell someone else how to feel, because sometimes our experience includes pain. But, in addition to that pain, I invite you to seek out “AND. “ As in, “This was really tough, AND…X beauty exists in the world.” I invite you to also cultivate Pockets of Joy.
Just as it can become habitual to expect or focus on the hard things (and honestly, that’s probably a function of our evolution—to prepare and look out for dangers!), we can also create habits of cultivating, seeking and reveling in joy. Big joys, like the miracle that is every baby. Little joys, like how frost is lit by morning light. Like your morning mug of hot wonder (that for me is tea!). Like friends who make you laugh and let you cry. Like watching your young adult child’s patience and generosity with an aged relative. Like appreciating everything your body CAN do and not just focusing on what it can’t.
This seeing is a habit that can be developed just like any other habit. Author Melody Beattie in her book Journey to the Heart puts it this way:
Too often, “…we’re drawn to things that drain us, exhausting our body, depleting our soul.” She reminds us that “the world is a spa, a nature retreat, a wealth of healing resources.” But we skate right past so much of the good. Instead, she urges us to see it, and to FEEL it. “Pet a puppy, stroke a piece of velvet, listen to a symphony. If you can’t slow down enough to absorb the energy the first time, do it a second time and a third. Absorb the healing energy until you can hear your voice, hear your heart tell you what would feel good, what would bring peace, what would bring stillness and joy.”
Just like our yoga practice, the more we seek out Pockets of Joy, the more natural it becomes. Cultivating joy is a habit worth practicing. It brings balance and perspective for when the more challenging elements of life arise. It’s more than happiness, which is circumstantial. When we’re infused with joy, we see the world differently, as bigger and more than any one moment. Drink in the light and there’s less chance the darkness will take over.
I recently listened to a Jason Crandell podcast on injury prevention. My net takeaway to share with you is this: The best way to prevent injury in yoga is to make sure you’re hearing your signals. Crandell says, “Yoga IS for everybody. But not all POSES are for every body, OR for every body at every time.” You know that’s consistent with my approach to teaching and practicing, but I loved what he has to say about how this way IS the practice.
Crandell recalls the prime purpose of yoga, which is to bring about composure and equanimity that can inform our whole lives. He asks us to seek that same approach in our physical practice. We certainly need challenges in order to grow. But, pushing too hard, too often or with force that’s too concentrated causes injury. In further researching this topic I came across the following quote from BKS Iyengar, one of our most renowned yoga teachers:
The challenge of yoga is to go beyond our limits - within reason. We continually expand the frame of the mind by using the canvas of the body. It is as if you were to stretch a canvas more and create a larger surface for a painting. But we must respect the present form of our body. If you pull too much at once, we will rip the canvas. If the practice of today damages the practice of tomorrow, it is not correct practice. --B.K.S. Iyengar
So how do we find that composure in our practice? Crandell urges us practice in a way that allows us to seek evenness, an equal sensory experience with balanced sensation. If you’re in a pose and it creates a lot of intensity, that force needs to be distributed equally in order to avoid injury. He says to consider our pacing, alignment, intensity, and the duration and repetition of practice to remain safe. It’s easy to get swept along in the joy of practicing (ie. overdoing your favorite pose) or going along with the rest of the class even when your body would do better to pause, or even to modify or choose a different pose (legs up the wall anyone?)
Pacing is an easy place to start. If you’re going so fast that you can’t listen to the signals of your body, you know you’re creating the possibility of injury. Alignment can help us make sure we’re distributing our force evenly. One example we frequently explore in class is the effect of our head being forward of the rest of the body and how that creates excessive pull on many other parts of the body.
We can think, too, about the intensity of force on our body. Crandell uses the example of cat/cow where the force on our body is relatively low. There, it’s safer to explore the end ranges of our ability to move. It’s low stress, so we aren’t exerting high force when we’re at the end-range of each movement. But, in bigger, more forceful poses we want to use even greater care to distribute stressors across the system. Think about a forward fold. If there’s a concentration of sensation in one place we aren’t sharing the load and are at greater risk. Instead, we can move in and out of the pose slowly. Then we’ll listen for feedback from the body on whether there’s focused pulling such as on the hamstring attachment at the sitting bones, or in the low back. Is the pose even, and is the opposing muscle group/ie. quadriceps activated to support the lengthening of the hamstring? In other words, is everything working together or are we overworking any place?
Overwork can occur even when we’re stacked up just right—like when we hold something too long or do it too often. It would be nice to say, “If you just do the pose this one perfect way, you will always be safe from injury.” The reality is that our whole practice requires us to stay present. Long, flexible muscles result from balanced practice that is also STABLE. That means resting when we’re tired. It means noticing if our effort is even or if we’re feeling much more sensation in one spot than anyplace else. It means skillful use of props and modifications and variety of experience so that we’re challenging ourselves in new ways.
We need to stretch ourselves to stay resilient. And the best way forward is not to hurt ourselves in the process! Being present to our practice gives us the tools to enjoy and skillfully navigate the journey whether on or off the mat.
"I have lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened. " Mark Twain
Like Mark Twain, most of us create disturbance for ourselves by anticipating trouble. Whether it comes or not, we’ve experienced the turbulence of that trouble. It may as well have happened, and in some cases, it means it happens repeatedly as we lose ourselves in the repeated experiencing of feelings we generate! To your body, adrenaline is adrenaline, whether it arises from a real or imagined threat.
Let me give an example. You may think, “I’m going to lose my job.” Some fear can be a catalyst. The possibility of losing your job might cause you to start looking elsewhere or reconsider whether this job was the right fit for you now. Or it may stimulate you to proactively figure out why your job might be in danger and if there’s anything you can do to avoid it. But that’s NOT where most of us stop. We ruminate, churning over and over all the feelings and fears and hurts. In doing so, our thoughts and emotions stop being productive and actually create trauma for us.
“Yoga, in its purest form, requires that you dedicate (that) time to being introspective and meditative. When you become an observer of your mind and body without making judgments or giving energy to thoughts that come, your body restores itself to its natural, calm state. Asana practice reduces stress hormones, thus relaxing your mind even though your body is physically working hard.” Yoga by Candace 10/4/12
The calm and balance we achieve through our yoga practice help us DISCERN what’s real and imagined (or anticipated,) and gives us the DISCIPLINE to feel and then release the grip of our emotions so that we can respond skillfully. It helps to bring us deeper inward, to our wellspring of faith—in ourselves and in our spiritual center. Powerful! (And not always attainable. Be gentle with yourself when the old habits pull you back! Just come back, again and again, to your inner wisdom.)
The next time the churn begins for you, give it some space. Our emotions and thoughts can be instructive! But draw on your practice to help you keep that churn from swamping you. This is how we can actively shape our lives, even though we can’t control everything that comes our way. Perhaps imagine Mark Twain, eyes twinkling, rocking on his chair, challenging you with his humor to write a different response.
Do you know the I Love Lucy scene where Lucy and Ethel are supposed to be taking chocolates
off a conveyor belt and boxing them, but somehow the conveyor belt is jammed on high and chocolates fly past them? In trying to manage the flow they stuff chocolates in their pockets, mouths, on the floor. It’s a great comedic scene. As I sat down to meditate recently, it occurred to me that my mind was a lot like that conveyor belt, and like Lucy, I wasn’t always able to manage what was coming my way in the most appropriate way. Aha! THIS is why we meditate. Meditation helps us to slow down the conveyor belt so we can make sense of what’s coming through and deal with it most appropriately. Some chocolates we just watch pass us. Some we take in. But we’re able to find order, manage and use them, and avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, originator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a meditation technique medically studied and used in medical centers around the world, reminds us that there’s nothing wrong with thinking. In his book Meditation for Beginners, he says, “Our capacity for thought is one of humanity’s most amazing qualities.” Our thoughts have been the source of great advances, and the great works of human culture. “But,” he says, “when
thinking is not held and examined in the larger field of awareness, it can run amok.” Run amok. Is that familiar to anyone?! Whose thoughts, worries and ruminations haven’t swamped us at some time? But when we sit down to meditate, we develop the field of awareness Kabat-Zinn mentions. We slow down, we’re able to hear without judgement and stay open to possibility. We become compassionate listeners to our own being and that allows us to cultivate perspective and discernment. That’s how we know what to keep, reject and learn from.
Our physical yoga practice was always meant to help us to meditate. When we move mindfully, we not only move our energy, and create strength, balance and all the other physical benefits we need, we hone our concentration. We grow our ability to shine the light of awareness into all parts of our lives.
There’s no one magic pose that brings us peace and ease. But the practice of abyhasa, showing up consistently and with enthusiastic focus to whatever yoga practice works for you, can help still the mind, bring some order to the chaos and yes, bring greater peace and ease. Vigorous or gentle, your physical practice and a little meditation are magical.
So how about it? Will you make a little time for stillness (and maybe a bit of chocolate) today?
I’m pretty good at contentment, or “blooming where I’m planted.” Abraham Lincoln once said, “Folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” That resonates for me. I always find little joys, the silver lining, the good in people around me. But when is contentment stagnation? I pondered that recently when life brought me a conundrum, to stay or go? I’d worked with and enjoyed a yoga community for more than 13 years. But with the changes due to COVID, the studio space was halved so that when we finally get to return to in person classes, I was not going to be able to teach at accessible times.
I was the teacher of “beginners,” a misnomer because while many of the students who came to my classes were true beginners, the rest were simply people who were better served by a slower pace, modifications, more time to go inward or a safe place to work with injury and physical limitations. I’m a team player, and I loved the team. But at that juncture I knew that I wanted to devote the “prime time” to those "beginner" students. They deserved to be the heart of a studio. And my passion for this group also deserved more focus. So, while I respected my old yoga home, I saw that our needs were different right now. It was time to escape the pull to stay with what was known and loved. It was time to make service to new and lifetime yogis the fundamental scope of my work. And hence, Fundamental Yoga and Wellness was born. And, I am finding contentment in being unsettled and exploring the unknown.
I've taught and lived yoga for more than 20 years. I know it can be intimidating. But it can also be fun--and rewarding--regardless of your starting point or challenges. On this blog I share some of the yoga wisdom that sustains me.