Trust the Wisdom of Your Animal Body

Human-Universe-800x375-768x360.jpeg

Just as we cannot see the force of magnetism, we do not always understand on a cognitive level the pull to our practice. The physical practice of yoga awakens our innate intelligence and helps us to remember a deep truth that lives in each cell of our bodies. We start getting rearranged and re-patterned, and to our postmodern consciousness, this seems mysterious. But like butter to a warm pancake, we are drawn to it and soon our roots start to grow in the fertile garden of our practice. We meet new people, seekers, like us who know there is more available in this human experience and are hungering to access it. Trust the pull to your mat, to the community, to the quiet, to your inner landscape. 

A long-time Tibetan Tantric teacher, Reggie Ray, describes the wisdom of the body this way: “It’s not mental. You can’t put it into words. You can’t put labels on it. You can’t conceptualize it. You can’t think logically about it. It’s almost as if the body itself speaks in a language that does not translate into our thinking mind … According to the Tibetan tantric tradition, the body speaks through what I would call ‘somatic intuition’ - a felt sense.”

It’s like when our heart is telling us the opposite of what our mind is thinking. Or when you have a gut feeling about something. Your body tells you quite clearly after a good yoga class that this is nourishing, healing and calming. But what exactly is happening on the mat? Why do you feel so good? Why should you trust your somatic intuition? On the physiological level our body, mind and nervous systems are beginning to communicate, connect and flow together at the same tempo. We are literally rewiring how our brain and nervous systems are functioning with every practice. You become more grounded, your sleep improves, patience is a possibility and some aches and pains just vanish.  Also, old wounds or tensions, difficult lessons learned that are still living in your tissues may surface, meaning it might be time to work with them and learn what they have to teach you so that you can release them and be free.

Your logical brain might be saying, “I don’t have time to go to class,” while simultaneously you can feel the deep yearning from your body for the sacred space of your asana practice and all that it provides: slowing down, going within, connecting to your breath, being in kind community, opening and strengthening your body, mind and spirit. Trust that wisdom impulse. It is informed by the same intelligence that made the mountains, the oceans, the turtles and the trees, and it lives in every cell of your body. 

Be well, 

Ellen

On the Mat and Beyond

IMG_20170626_180553_processed.jpg

What are your favorite excuses for not doing yoga?

Sickness, mental laziness, doubt, lack of enthusiasm, sloth, craving for sense pleasure, false perception, despair caused by failure to concentrate, and unsteadiness in concentration: these distractions are the obstacles to knowledge,” state the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

We all know the fabulous feeling of emerging from a yoga class being changed, energized and replenished. “Why don’t I do that at home? Why don’t I do that more often?” we often ask ourselves after we practice. An eternal question that even the ancient yoginis appear to have grappled with, as evidenced by the quote above.

So, what is the “juice” calling us to practice more regularly? Of course, there is the physical sensation – the fine feeling of integration and release that hums in our bodies after a good practice. But something deeper happens in a yoga class. Something beyond the physical. Something that compels us to take our minds into the mysteries of the body and the breath. We know that yoga isn’t always easy, that we sweat and meet our limitations again and again. That we encounter discomfort and impatience, along with moments of release and transcendence. And we want more.

I believe that what keeps us coming back to our practice, the fire behind the experience we want to have, is the sacred quality we sometimes taste when our spirit is clearly aligned with our bodies, breath and minds. It’s the feeling of our consciousness dancing, a teacher of mine once said. Of course, we want more of that!

There are many practical hints I could give you to get you on your mat. Create a space for practice. Start with only 5 minutes a day. Leave the practice wanting more so you can’t wait to practice again. Choose a pose and structure a practice around it. Lie in quiet stillness afterwards and let the practice integrate into your mind, body and spirit, becoming a part of you.

But the greatest encouragement I can give you is this: your own unfolding and evolving that happens during the precious time you spend in your yoga practice will benefit yourself and others in your life beyond what you can imagine. Step onto your mat, hold in your heart and mind your highest and clearest intention and let your true self dance.

Reprinted from the SYA Winter/Spring Newsletter 1998/1999.

 

 

Gold in the Shadows

shadow_large.jpg

“In the beginning, we are mostly asleep. Society conditions our consciousness. And so we remain unconscious to our true self for at least the first half of life."  - Scott Jeffrey

The shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves. Everyone and everything has a shadow: the kindest person you know has a shadow, all spiritual groups have a shadow, teachers have shadows. Unawareness of our own shadows or that of organizations and other people causes us to project an unreasonable expectation of perfection for ourselves and for the groups with which we are connected. The result can be a misplaced reliance on the perceived perfection of teachers and groups as a way to avoid difficult interactions and thoughts. Sometimes called spiritual bypassing, this tendency reduces our capacity to hold the truth of opposites and simplifies the complexities of all the realities that are always present in one person or a group of people.

How to work with our own shadows? Author Robert Bly has an image of a black bag we drag behind us which contains all our shadow material, the things we don’t want to look at or acknowledge about ourselves. He says “We spend our lives until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.”

Notice what you don’t like about other people or groups. Are those qualities alive in you? Jung said “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” In psychology we would say that you are taking back the projection onto others and owning it as your own.

Many of us identify ourselves as being a “good person." We are praised as children for being a “good boy” or “good girl.” This intensifies the split between our conscious identity and our shadow. If you see yourself as a disciplined person, you’re repressing your lazy part. The lazy part is hiding in the shadow. So identify with this lazy part. See it. Accept it. Make friends with it. It’s okay to be lazy too.

Befriending one’s own shadow material creates compassion and understanding toward the challenges of others, who are also struggling to love and accept the parts of themselves that aren’t pretty or nice. Yoga class is a great place to practice this, surrounded as you are by the bodies, energies, and influences of others. If we’re all flawed, if we all carry repressed material, if we are all struggling to hold compassion for our own broken selves, this understanding creates a deep compassion for all the ways in which people are a little bit crazy. Welcome to being human!

Recommended Reading
“Owning Your Own Shadow” by Robert A. Johnson
“A Little Book on the Human Shadow” by Robert Bly
“Meeting the Shadow” by various authors, Edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Adams

The Courage to be a Nobody

bow-extralarge.jpg

“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego, my own and everybody’s else’s. I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody. I’m sick of myself and everybody else that wants to make some kind of splash.” - Franny in Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, 1961

How do we square our higher impulses of being humble, caring, and generous with our unbearable need to be seen, gain approval and be the best? 

Humility can be defined as "a psycho-social orientation characterized by 1) a sense of emotional autonomy, and 2) freedom from the control of the competitive reflex,” which is the impulse to oppose or outdo others.

So humility is ‘control’ (I might prefer the word ‘awareness’) of something innately part of our human program - the desire to win. As I witness the rabid scramble up the hierarchy of social media and the lust for perfection of posts, which can go as far as plastic surgery to increase the image of flawlessness, I feel a great compassion for we humans who are so strongly managed by the fear radar in our brain.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “That tension between confidence and humility is what you get if you are going to relate to reality honestly. You don’t get that security of one hundred percent confidence, which turns into pride, and you don’t get the converse feeling that you are just nothing. You’re big and small at the same time.”

Instead of indulging the “competitive reflex,” we can evolve ourselves and the species by turning more in the direction of emotional objectivity, the wisdom to make the smallest amount of space between action and reaction. In that small space is the potential for human growth and the trust in humility as a great freedom. 

Image credit: Richard Seagraves

Love and Oneness

dew-drops-spiderweb.jpeg

I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind,” in which he follows the history of altered consciousness through psychedelic substances and meditation and discusses recent research in giving psilocybin to those who are dying, depressed, or anxious. Almost without exception, those who return from these experiences say two things: that the most important thing is love, and that everything is one. 

John Lennon was naively courageous enough to sing “All You Need is Love.” It is an idea that we pay lip service to. The sentiment is simple and profound, and it isn’t about romantic love. Love is a willing immersion in experience, in the radical nature of life itself. Isn’t it amazing that we’re alive at all?  Rather than being guided by the need to be special, better, or higher than anyone else, wouldn’t we make better use of this lifetime if we were guided by love? If we could embrace the spectacularly ordinary in ourselves and in the world?

To put the idea of “oneness” more concisely, imagine that you are a drop of water in an infinite ocean, and at the same time, the entire ocean is in you, in that drop of water. You are part of a vastness and that vastness is part of you. 

Love and oneness. There is an image from Mahayana Buddhism called Indra’s Net. “Here is the metaphor: In the realm of the god Indra is a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each "eye" of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel affects them all.  Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.”(1)

To experience the love and oneness practice the transgressive art of sitting with a soft body and a curious mind, sensing for the presence of stillness. Listen for what is underneath the noise, like a spider sitting on the edge of her web, sensing for the most delicate sensations. There is a whole world there, beneath the clang and jangle.

(1) From www.thoughtCo.com

Life (and Yoga) Includes Discomfort

girl-3403261_1920.jpg

I bet you’ve noticed that life isn’t always comfortable. We spend a fair amount of time and life energy trying to avoid discomfort with substances, rituals, distraction, and moodiness. Yoga includes discomfort—the discomfort of holding a pose, of visiting parts of the body we haven’t touched in a long time, of feeling awkward.

Life itself is uncomfortable. The Buddha’s first precept is often translated as “life is suffering,” but there is an alternate interpretation that says “life is irritation,” which rings truer to me.  I don’t feel as though I SUFFER on a daily basis, but I sure do feel like I’m irritated on a daily basis!

How much of your life is spent trying to avoid any unease at all? Might it be more sustainable to create a self that can tolerate more of the typical unease of daily life—traffic (big one!), the failings of other people, your own negative self-talk, the limitations of your power or influence?

When we were born, we didn’t get a certificate that said there would be no pain in this life. Instead, we were given a body and a nervous system designed to be resilient in the face of challenge. Perhaps if we can practice healthy experiments in increasing the edge of our tolerance, like jumping into cold water, walking barefoot once in a while, holding a yoga pose a little longer, or meditating, which brings us to a quiet space of observing our quicksilver mind and our fussy body, we can find comfort in our ability to accept discomfort. (Up to a point, of course. Always take care of yourself when things are painful in a way that feels destructive.)

Think of yoga as a tool for creating an environment in which we can practice becoming more adaptable and flexible (in all ways) within the grand scheme of life.

Don't Seize the Day

Time.jpg

When I was a kid, some teacher or adult taught me this rhyme: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better, and your better best.”

So the indoctrination into striving and accomplishment, and not accepting anything less than the very best effort and the very best outcome, starts early. Jumping up out of bed, getting right to work, being productive, are all considered markers of a balanced approach to life. Of course the opposite, staying in bed until noon and sleepwalking through the day, isn't optimal either. Somewhere in the middle is a life that honors the rhythms of nature. 

We are creatures of the earth. We are made of clay and water. As I write this, it is winter, a few weeks before the Solstice. It is dark by 5:00pm and the sun traverses the sky in a low arc all day long, a weak winter light. The rhythm of the natural forces around us are all reminding us to hibernate, to withdraw, to rest, to dream, to wait. Can you hear them? Can you follow their example?

This doesn’t mean don’t go to work, don’t follow your calling. It means to do so with one ear tuned to the quiet voice of discernment, which will tell you when to say yes, when to say no. No can be a lovely word when it defends what you hold as sacred.

Let the day come to you, walk a half breath behind, look around at the different shapes of leaves, the moving art that is the clouds. It is possible to “hurry slowly,” when you are required to accelerate to the speed of industry and power. Your contribution to the easing of some of the anxiety of this world could be the quiet calm of your presence as you allow the day to embrace you in its own infinite variety and changeability. Open palms, open heart, nothing seized, nothing grabbed.

-Denise