I 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.
So, 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!)
Truly, 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).
If 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!