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.

 

 

Grace in Aging

texture-2106681_1920.jpg

True confession: when I practiced yoga as a younger woman, I always had a subtle agenda that my years of yoga would inoculate me and protect me from the effects of aging. 

Humans have always had the desire to conquer old age and death. And unfortunately, many of the messages in the yoga sub-culture tell us that youthful beauty and capability are most desired and valuable. There is an underlying assumption in these messages that being vulnerable means failure, and that the body breaking down is a defeat of some sort.

The physical manifestations of time and change I have experienced in my own life have been surprising and humbling. I’m reluctantly realizing that my loved ones and I will not escape the vulnerability of the human experience, no matter how many downward facing dogs we have clocked, no matter how pure our diet, no matter how dedicated our meditation practice.

Nature teaches us the beauty of the seasons. In her wordless intelligence, she knows when to burst forth youthfully, when to succumb to change and when to go underground and rest. My deepest wish is to align myself with her wisdom, which for me is what yoga is all about. For humans, this is astoundingly difficult, as we have become accustomed to being able to control so much of our environment. Aligning with nature, especially in the process of aging, means somehow learning to make peace with chaos, unpredictability, loss and pain. This is very advanced yoga.

I remember a spiritual teacher I admire saying to a woman who was bemoaning the loss of her youth, beauty and energy: “That time is over. This must be seen.” Although this could seem like a harsh perspective, it is one that we must all, as we age or deal with sickness and the limitations of the body, eventually accept. And in that surrender is freedom.

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.

Feed Your Head

“I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days.” - Hafiz 

It’s not a surprise to anyone that we’re drowning in information. And as Stephen Pinker says “The news is not a good place to get information.” For one thing, the news is primarily fear-based content. That’s what sells. And we are currently experiencing a moment where we are being force fed fearful information like veal being fattened for slaughter.  

Minds are delicate structures. Our psyches are poorly designed to be able to resist the quantity of imagery coming our way. We check the news because we seek reassurance about what’s happening in the world. But checking the news makes us more fearful.  

buddha-art.jpg

The yoga tradition gives us theories of mind and consciousness. One idea is that whatever comes through your awareness leaves an imprint. There’s even a Sanskrit word for this, “samskara,” which roughly means “conditioning” in English, and refers to the processes by which the human mind is imprinted by information and experience. Assuming this, feeding your mind fearful food creates deeper and stronger impressions of fright and anxiety. 

One can potentially progress out of this samskaric state by feeding the mind creative and even transgressive content, i.e. reading the writings of the great saints and thinkers, feasting the eyes on art, engaging in more than surface level conversation.  

If samskaras are impressions created deep inside our subtle body as a result of what comes through our consciousness, this is hopeful. Because the swirling and creative energy forms that make us human are also malleable and changeable. We are still in a process of evolution. Ask yourself what you are “eating” mentally.  Are you ever giving your mind an opportunity to rest? Resist the temptation to overfeed the mind with negative content, resist the urge to rush and ignore the body. Being intentional about your information diet creates the conditions for evolution of heart and mind.