Finding Joy in Movement

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8093518045_3803cfbbb4_bOne of the niyamas, or observances, in the yoga sutras is Santosha, or contentment. This has always been an tricky concept for me. It has often felt dangerously close to passivity. I have seen the idea be used as a way to keep people in their place, to keep them from realizing their full potential. And I personally don’t want to simply accept the injustices of the world, I would rather strive to create a better paradigm. It’s also really easy from my comfortable and blessed life in Seattle to embrace contentment. But what are those living in abject poverty around the world supposed to do with this concept? What practical use does it have?

So, how does one resolve this concept into something we can put to use in our daily lives? My view on contentment changed when a teacher of mine helped me to understand contentment not as being static and unchanging, but as an acceptance of your current reality, which is also never static. When viewed this way, and when tempered with non-greed, contentment can actually become a powerful agent of change. It can be used as a way of empowerment, of recognizing that you have what you need right now. It may take a while and a hell of a lot of effort, but you can only begin with where you are. You don’t need to rail against reality in frustration, you can step back and examine the tools at your disposal and get to work.

Santosha to me also contains a fair bit of gratitude. Gratitude can be used in several ways. You can tell yourself that gratitude means never having anything more than you currently have, or you can be grateful for having the tools that you do have. Ironically (and this is where the practical application of the idea comes about), when you try and force things to change without acceptance and even gratitude for the current reality, we run into obstacle after obstacle as reality and what we want reality to be butt heads. But when you start by cultivating contentment for the universe being the way it is, we can enact change.

There is a taoist story about a master butcher that I think illustrates this point. In the story the master butcher is able to slice up meat without dulling his blade and without any apparent effort, (effortless effort, or wu wei) where others are working up a sweat and going through many different blades. He does this he says, by working with and acknowledging the spaces that are there, by working with what exists, not against it. By accepting reality instead of fighting, opposing, or arguing with it he masters it.

Instead of just being a value we should aspire to, contentment can also be seen as a practical tool we can use to bring about change and avoid unnecessary suffering along the way.

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Integrating The Travel Experience

Integrating_post_imageI’ve been remiss in posting on this blog for a while…..OK, I totally dropped it a few years ago – but I’m going to give it another shot. This stems partly from some conversations I was having with one of my students on my retreat in Italy a few weeks ago. This student is a writer and was noting the similarities between writing and yoga. Both require you to be as present as possible, dropping your expectations in order to truly see the world around you and within you. An internal honesty that is easy to miss sometimes in the day to day grind of work, responsibilities, etc.

As I was reflecting on this, I realized that it is partly what I love about travel as well. We are out of our routine and have explicitly signed up for the experience of being present to our moment and noticing with new eyes. And it’s easy to see with new eyes when you are seeing things for the first time.

The trouble for me is that when I get back, it’s so easy to fall back into old patterns and habits. I always struggle with how to integrate the experience of travel and all the good stuff that comes along with it into my life back home. I often get back home and spend my time either holding on to the experience of travel or already looking forward to the next trip, while not being present to all the good stuff right in front of me at home.

So I’m again going to try to integrate moments of conscious attention into my daily routine. I started drawing a bit (even before the trip), and I’m going to try and get back to writing more also. Just like the physical practice of yoga, I believe we can start small with practices that cultivate presence, and that those small moments then over time become habit.

I’ll try and keep a somewhat regular posting schedule here (somewhat) and would love to hear from any of you as I do.

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The last couple of weeks, I’ve been starting my classes with a brief discussion of the Yamas. The Yamas are the 1st of the 8 limbs of yoga as outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. They are a set of moral or ethical guidelines that practitioners of yoga aspire to. These guidelines or restraints are more outwardly focused, external guidelines, while the Niyamas, the 2nd or the 8 limbs, are more internal practices. I like to think of the yamas as having both an intrinsic value (ethics and morals to adhere to because they are good in and of themselves) and a very practical value. As your yoga practice deepens, without the framework of the yamas, your practice will inevitably hit some stumbling blocks. They support and nourish the other 7 limbs.

Ahimsa means non-violence or non-harm. Not only does this mean not harming people or ourselves physically, but developing compassionate thoughts, feelings, and words. Things like our own internal self-talk can be either harmful (why am I unable to get into this pose. I’m so unflexible), or compassionate. Ahimsa asks us to treat all beings (including ourselves) with care and love.

Satya means truth, or non lying. This Yama, like the others, has both an obvious and a subtle meaning. It can be taken to mean don’t tell blatant lies, and it also means not fooling yourself when it comes to your thoughts, feelings, and abilities. In other words, being honest with yourself, even when you don’t like what you see. When you expand your vision far enough, this truth ends up being nourishing, helping you to grow and develop.

Asteya translates as non-stealing. This means both not taking physical things that are not yours and also adjusting your mindset so that you move from an outlook of lack and scarcity to one that recognizes the abundance available when let go of that mindset. When you fill your reservoir internally, you are not left empty when those outside objects, attention, energy, etc. goes away.

Brahmacharya means moderation of our life energy. This is often highlighted as sexual energy as that is the most easy to get lost in, but can really be the energy behind any desire or activity. It’s not a puritanical moral restraint, rather the idea that the energy behind our desires can either control us, or we can learn to work with it consciously so that it supports us on our path.

Aparigraha means non-greed or non-hording. This yama encourages us to not covet that which isn’t ours (both physical and mental) and instead, by not succumbing to greed, find the space to let ourselves grow. Instead of trying to get ahead by trying to accumulate that which others have, this yama asks that we instead try to find our own true selves, free from comparison and jealousy.

Together, the Yamas are the foundation that will support the rest of the 8 limbs. When committed to, they bring depth to your yoga practice and help to expand your practice to encompass the whole of your life.

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I’m essentially a lazy person. I can be perfectly content to sit around and do pretty much nothing. Given that there are things that I want to accomplish and that I want a full, active life, this presents a slight problem. It means that I have to be smart about how I start my day. If I begin my day by lazing around for too long, I’ll generally stay at rest, not get the movement my body and mind need and I end up feeling slightly unhealthy and unhappy with my day. On the other hand, if I start my day by doing something active and/ or creative, I can keep that energy going throughout the day. This leads to feeling generally more healthy and fulfilled.

I read a book by a guy named the Barefoot Doctor a long time ago (The Barefoot Doctor’s Guide to the Tao), where he talks about one of the most important things in living the Tao is to have a ritual that you do no matter what in the morning. It could be a yoga practice, a run, or simply making tea and being present while doing it. A way to connect and center yourself and get ready for the day ahead. I have found this to be very useful advice. What you do in the morning sets the stage for your day. However inertia takes hold is likely to carry you through your day, and if it starts out with being too much at rest, both mentally and physically, it can be quite hard to turn that around.

The only thing I’ll add here is that I’ve also found from experience, that having a morning ritual that is too hard or complicated can lead to not doing it at all, or only doing it sometimes, which defeats the whole purpose. The trick is in finding something that you can commit to and stick with that will give you a chance to move into your day, be present, and get energy moving.

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I’ve been thinking about desire a lot lately. How it relates to being able to be present, how it manifests itself, and what we can learn from it. Most of the time, especially if we haven’t spent time working with our desires, they can take over, pulling us out of the moment and towards some unrealized future in which we have achieved whatever it is that we want. We see something, we want it, and that’s all there is to it. We don’t usually grow from that experience, it just repeats itself the next time we see something we want. Part of what I’ve been trying to figure out is the following: When can desire be a good thing? And when it’s harming us, bringing us closer to attachment and suffering, how do we recognize the difference and how can we work with it?

Jack Kornfield, in his wonderful book A Path with Heart, makes a distinction in types of desire, naming the negative parts grasping and wanting. “Grasping and Wanting are two names for the most painful aspects of desire.” He says. “There are beneficial desires such as the desire for the well being of others, the desire for awakening, the creative desires that express the positive aspects of passion and beauty. There are painful aspects of desire – the desires of addiction, greed, blind ambition, or unending inner hunger.” Given how similar the two can feel on the surface, how do we notice when the desire is beneficial or painful?

Like all of our emotions and thought, it takes bringing real conscious attention in order for us to be able to see our own patterns and how those emotions play out. Kornfield suggests paying attention to desire when it arises and noting certain aspects of it. “How long does this kind of desire last? Does it intensify first or just fade away? How does it feel in the body? When it is present, are you happy or agitated, open or closed?”

For me, when I unconsciously follow a desire, it can be surprising how the thing I thought I wanted, suddenly doesn’t seem so appealing once I see the whole picture. How it fits in with the rest of my life, the work that might be needed to maintain it, etc. And of the flip side, once you bring consciousness to a desire and are able to see the whole picture, it can also be easier to identify the desires which are healthy.

Bringing attention to desire can also help us to identify places in our life where we need attention and nourishing. When we trace painful desires back to their root, they can point the way to things in our life that we might be neglecting. Which can help us to grow and learn about ourselves and bring about positive change.

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This year, I’ve decided to not make any resolutions. This may actually be the first year I’ve chosen not to make any. I did a little poking around at my resolutions of years past and have realized (not for the first time) that I don’t follow up on most of them. I’ve also had a lot of conversations with friends where we all laugh about how few of the resolutions we make in January become reality.

For some people, resolutions can be a valuable tool to help motivate, but it can also be a source of guilt and the yardsticks we set out don’t actually measure our success in growing and dealing with changing circumstances. Intent can be a great thing and I think it’s important to check in with intent on an ongoing basis, but I think keeping an open mind to what the right path for you is at that moment is very important.

Intent can become dogma when we think that somehow setting it down in stone is the only way to move forward. It can be a brute force approach to change. Life changes and those things which were the right things for you in January may not be right for you in June. So this year, I resolve (heh) to keep my eyes and heart open to my changing circumstances and make decisions based on a hopefully growing awareness of myself and the world around me.

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One of the things that I love about both yoga and acrobatics is that they call on ever new forms of strength and flexibility. In order to progress, you need to work in new ways that involve very specific muscles and muscle combinations that you probably have not used much before (at least not in that specific way). You build on what you have done previously, but there is always new work to be done. (This applies to the mental aspects of exercise as well, but I’m sticking with the physical for now)

The latest challenge for me is press handstands. I’ve done so many handstands over the last year or so and have developed a fair amount of strength and stability there, but am no closer to a press handstand than I was a year ago. I love that. There is always something new. I get excited to explore a new thing and it helps to keep my exercise from getting stale. For me, I’ve found that this is really key to keeping me committed to a workout program. My motivation usually stems from that moment when something first clicks, when something physically challenging all at once becomes accessible. Other people have different ways of being motivated and I think it’s important to know what those are. Without knowing where that motivation comes from in you, exercise is just something that we feel a sense of obligation to do. Where is the fun in that?

Update – So, miraculously, all of a sudden, today I can do a press handstand! This morning I’m writing about it being my latest challenge and today, it just clicked into place. I can only think that somehow, placing conscious attention on it was all that was needed. I wonder what else I should be bringing conscious attention to 🙂