For your yoga pleasure

AnneCushmanBookCoverI am currently reading and practicing with Anne Cushman’s new book Moving into Meditation: A 12-Week Mindfulness Program for Yoga Practitioners. If you know anything about my blog, you can tell from the title of her book that it’s right up my alley. Like waaaay up my alley. And it is such a clear, engaging, brilliant, humorous, and inspiring book, that I have looked forward to each day’s practice with it for about 9 weeks now (since it came out in July – yes, I am such a nerd, I had pre-ordered it). I can’t recommend it to you enough if you are interested in the fruitful integration of postural yoga with a formal meditation practice.

When you combine these practices together in a genuine way, as Anne Cushman has for many years, it is a truly potent path with all the advantages of meditation’s stillness and yoga’s momentum. You find you can slow down without getting stuck. You can move forward without running away. Light bulbs click on in every level of your being – body, heart, and mind.

To give you an idea of what the book is like, I’ll describe a practice session I had last week inspired by one of the exercises from chapter eight. This chapter is entitled “I love it! I hate it! I’m bored to death!” and it’s about vedana, or the feeling tones of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Both the Buddhist and yogic meditation traditions teach that we have these three categories of reaction automatically with every experience. (I wrote a little about vedana in an earlier post here about how we decide when it’s time to come out of a pose.) Basically, this is the mind’s quick-sort mechanism trying to protect us from what’s bad and steer us toward what’s good. But at the same time, this creates a relentless push-pull that can result in quite a bit of internal struggle and really drive our behavior in a lot of ways we’re not aware of until we start observing it. And, often our knee-jerk reactions are a bit off. The yoga mat is a great place to look at how vedana works. 

a-few-of-my-favorite-things3So, in the exercise “A Few of Your Favorite Things,” the instructions are to do an asana practice made up entirely of poses you find pleasant. Sounds great, right?

Well. Guess what. It was impossible!

I was, of course, looking forward to a blissful yoga session made up of all my favorite poses, and I generally think of yoga as a pleasant thing, so what could be better? Ok, so I had some suspicion that the purpose of this practice would be for the student to notice that an all-pleasant practice isn’t attainable. Yet, there was a part of me (and probably a part of you too, except for all my fully enlightened readers) that wanted to believe that I could get it just right and have the yoga session of the century. 

In actuality, there were definite moments of unpleasant feeling tone during the practice, and even within an overall pleasant-feeling pose. Sometimes getting into the pose wasn’t that pleasant, but it was great once I was there. Or the first few breaths in Down Dog were pure delight (ahhh…calves), but staying in it too long made it unpleasant because my elbows begin to ache (they have a tendency to want to hyperextend). On the right side, the reclining twist created a very pleasant stretch in the chest, but the left side was actually painful! Then there was that moment when I encountered a surprising pinching sensation in my sacrum as I settled into a pose that’s always been enjoyable before.

If you do this practice and have the same experience I had, it doesn’t mean that we chose the wrong poses or that we’re doing it all wrong. It means we’re actually seeing things the way they really are. (I challenge you – try it!)

mosaicheartTruly, there is no such thing as a purely pleasant moment (or a purely unpleasant moment) – it is more like each moment is a mosaic of some pleasant experiences, some unpleasant experiences, and some neutral. This is because we react to everything and there’s a lot going on in each and every little moment. One feeling tone may be much more obvious than the others at the time, but if you look closely you will see that there are aspects, maybe subtle, of the others. For example, imagine you’re talking a walk on a hot summer’s day. Here’s your internal monologue: “Ooh, that breeze is nice (pleasant), but the sun is too darn hot today (unpleasant). And the sun is right in my eyes (unpleasant), but the lighting looks really cool on that tree over there (pleasant).” Meanwhile, you were unaware of the feeling of your arms swinging (neutral), your breath (neutral), and your feet hitting the pavement (neutral). 

chocolateIf you are reading this and thinking, “Wait a minute…I have definitely had some great moments of pure joy. And, there was nothing unpleasant about that chocolate bar I had last night!” I don’t doubt your moments of pure joy and chocolate bars. But, if you think back to those experiences, was there any hint of “I wish this would never end,” or “How soon can I do this again,” or “Why does chocolate have to have so many calories?”

Uh huh. The pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral tones are all right there next to each other.

I have noticed this before, but it is so clear in an asana practice where you set out with the intention to make everything pleasant. So, is this a bummer that there’s no purely pleasant yoga practice? (Seriously – I challenge you to prove me wrong!)

Not in my mind – I feel like it gives us permission to use less energy trying to make everything all perfect all the time. We are such frenemies with our experience (frenemy etymology = friend/enemy). We’re always pushing and pulling at things to try to get them a certain way. That’s not bad or wrong, but at some point it does become tiresome. Let’s relax.

I hope you’ll try this practice, and I highly recommend Anne Cushman’s entire book. I am looking forward to learning a lot more from her this fall at the Mindfulness Yoga & Meditation Training program I’m taking at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I’ll be sure to keep you updated with tales from my practice there. Namaste!

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Celebrating Earth Element

5element2According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are not four, but five, seasons in the year. Connected with the Five Elements, these five seasons are Fall (Metal Element), Winter (Water Element), Spring (Wood Element), Summer (Fire Element), and Late Summer/Early Fall (Earth Element).

I like to refer to this Late Summer/Early Fall season as Harvest Season, since it is all about the abundance of the Earth. Some people call it “Indian Summer.” This is the peak of the growing season for most places (in our hemisphere), and a great time to reconnect with the energies of Earth Element – contentment, abundance, steadiness.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the inspirations that the Yin Yoga practice draws upon, so it’s nice to celebrate the seasons and elements through a yoga practice. In this case, that might be a Yin sequence focused on the Stomach/Spleen Meridians, since they are most connected to the Harvest Season and Earth Element.

Another great way to partake of Earth Element energy is to practice Walking Meditation. Give this a try sometime soon, ideally letting your bare feet touch the Earth directly, as you walk in a shady, grassy spot.

feetingrassWalking meditation is a little different than just taking a walk, mainly because we are not trying to get anywhere! We are just calming the mind by tuning into the body’s slow, rhythmic movements in simple walking. Pace up and down a short pathway (maybe 20-30 feet long), turning around and coming back each time you get to the end of your path. Move slowly. Feel each part of the motion, sensitively present to the feet lifting off the ground and touching it once again. Enjoy the sun, the breeze, the sounds of nature. But, just let those sensory experiences come to you naturally, while allowing your attention to rest in the feeling of slowly stepping along your path.

Over time, as you continue to practice, you might start to notice you are “harvesting” some positive qualities like contentment. The practice of walking without trying to get anywhere is a wonderful incubator for contentment. Eventually, it dawns on us that contentment arises out of the small, ordinary things – what you might call the neutral experiences – not from the high points, thrilling as they may be. We work so hard for those high points, and we tend to assume that contentment is the reward for some form of success: I’ll be content once I get this, accomplish that, or arrive there.

But, fortunately, contentment is not the medal given to finishers at the end of the race. It’s the wind blowing through our hair as we walk, jog, or run along that road. It’s the support of the Earth beneath our feet.

Yin Yoga Teacher Training in Orange County, Nov 14-16

Join me in Orange County this November for Yin Yoga Teacher Training! The training is open to current yoga teachers who want to learn to teach the Yin Yoga style, as well as practitioners seeking to deepen their studies.

Hosted by The Yoga Mat, Anaheim. More info & registration on my website: Creative Spirits Yoga.

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Boredom and a Scientific Game of “Would You Rather”

Have you ever played the game “Would You Rather?” It’s something kids used to do (maybe they still do, if they’re not on SnapChat) to amuse themselves when a moment of boredom came along. The game consists of asking each other questions like, “Would you rather be rich and ugly, or poor and gorgeous?” or “Would you rather go completely bald, or have back hair to rival a grizzly bear?”

shock_hairRecently some researchers at the University of Virginia decided to play a scientific game of “Would You Rather.” Of course, they didn’t call it that, but they created a study to find out if college students would rather be left alone in a quiet room for 5-15 minutes, or give themselves an electric shock.

The results do not bode well for the future of humanity.

Most of the participants in the study preferred the electric shock! (You can listen to an interview about this study here, with a few more details about how it was conducted – no electricity puns intended). The study’s author is a professor of psychology, and he attributed these results to the rise of social media and smart phones, essentially saying that people are losing the capacity or willingness to sit quietly with their own thoughts without being entertained.

So…what’s wrong with a little boredom?

The day after hearing about this study on the radio, I had to spend 3 hours at the DMV getting a new driver’s license. When I arrived first thing in the morning, the line was already snaking around the outside of the building. The wait was an hour and a half in the hot sun just to go inside the building and take a number. Then you got to go to the actual waiting room and sit until your number got called. I was G088.

braidedplantatDMVThe DMV is a pretty good place to do some people watching, if you don’t have your head buried in an iPhone the whole time, so I determined that I was going to practice just standing in line and being a little bored. I’m always feeling like I’m too busy, so here was someone giving me permission to take a break. I can’t say I never checked my phone, but I kept it stowed away for the vast majority of the time I was there. I was just about the only person around not texting, Facebooking, or emailing. Someone from earlier apparently got so uncomfortable with the boredom that they decided to braid some plant leaves together (must not have had Angry Birds).

But, I enjoyed the breeze, the sky, the real birds, and the feeling of my feet on the ground standing in Mountain Pose…in line at the DMV.

I feel fortunate to have a meditation practice to rely on for all the discomforts of daily life. Boredom is one of those things that you will inevitably encounter, sooner rather than later, if you take up meditation. It’s not a problem. In fact, it’s a good thing! It means that you’re not filling up the space in your mind with all kinds of stuff, for once. Sure, some of that stuff is helpful and necessary, but a lot of our mental activity is just fluff. When we pause for a little while from our usual mode of working or being entertained, that becomes pretty evident. And when we can stop being entertained by our worries and restless thoughts for a moment, that letting go gives peace the chance to show up for a visit.

I heard a talk once with meditation teacher Pascal Auclair, in which he said, “Peace is an acquired taste.”

That one stopped me in my tracks. Don’t we all want peace?

cookiemonsterdharmaBut, he’s right – peace is not the same as excitement and entertainment. Much of the time, we’re not willing to settle down enough to experience this thing we want! As Pascal explained in the talk, peace has a kind of neutral tone to it. It’s not an exuberant high, and it’s not a sorrowful low. It’s a lot closer to the ability to just be with whatever the moment is offering up.

Here’s a practice for you: next time you get the opportunity to be with boredom, let yourself experience it fully!

  • Notice that feeling of “pull” as you are drawn to a hundred new ideas for what to do with the moment (“Should I do this or that? I wonder what’s on Facebook? Do we have any of those cookies left?).
  • When you notice the boredom, are there any other feelings in the background (like pressure to be more productive, anxiety about wasting time, worrying that you’ve forgotten something)?
  • Now pause and hear any and all of the sounds around you. Notice the shapes and colors of what you are seeing. Feel where your body is touching a chair, or your feet are contacting the ground. Sense the breath rhythmically moving in and out of you.

Are you still bored?

Happy Interdependence Day!

mesh-internetYes, I spelled that correctly.

While we’re celebrating our nation’s history, freedom, and independence this weekend, why not pause to contemplate interdependence as well.

Interdependence acknowledges the connections between us all – that our actions and attitudes affect each other, for better or for worse. We are all in this together.

This past weekend, while teaching a Yin Yoga Teacher Training in Las Vegas, I was reminded of this connectivity as we discussed the anatomy of fascia. Fascia is, in fact, connective tissue! It plays a crucial and largely unsung role in the body, being a stabilizing net for our muscles and joints, helping maintain our structure and hold us in our shape, and even transporting water, hormones, and nutrients through the body, like your own personal internet. Fascia is one reason why a tight calf muscle can contribute to low back pain or achy shoulders, for example. None of our parts work in isolation. Nature is built on interdependence.fireworkswater

In the words of Chief Seattle:

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

So, Happy Interdependence Day! (And Happy regular 4th of July, too.)

Simple Does Not Mean Simplistic

In fact, it often takes a great deal of experience to pare things down to their essence. To clear the unnecessary clutter, to silence the extra noise.

simplicity_leonardodavinciMeditation is ultra-simple, but it’s not easy, is it? The same goes for many of the “basic” yoga poses, if we are paying attention.

When something is simplistic, it is trite, shallow, and inauthentic. True simplicity is quite the opposite – it is deep, satisfying, and often profound.

Bells and whistles are nice, but every once in a while, it’s good to let go of complication and embrace simplicity. It feels refreshing.