Finding Joy in Movement


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Contentment

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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Beyond the poses

Prasarita_Padottanasana_Wide_Legged_Forward_Bend_1The following may seem strange coming from a yoga teacher, but sometimes I think that the postures of yoga can be an impediment to progress. I have spent a lot of time studying and practicing the poses as they have been defined and developed over the years, but one thing I have come to realize is that a pose is simply a snapshot of a movement or or a direction you might be heading in,  which exists in a continuum, not in some perfect and static form. It can be really easy to get caught up in doing a pose “right” and losing sight of what the pose is supposed to accomplish in the first place. The poses might be a really useful shorthand for your practice, but ultimately, their usefulness is dictated not by conforming our bodies and practice to an expectation of the pose, but using them in a way that furthers an understanding of ourselves and that helps us to move forward.

There are really only a couple of things that the body is capable of doing: we bend forward, we bend backward, we twist, we can bend sideways, and the legs and arms can rotate out or in. Every posture is simply one or more of these movements in various combinations oriented in various ways in space. And they tend to get defined at nice, neat angles that may or may not be where you receive benefit from the pose. Deepening your practice does not mean to me that you can do more poses or that your postures look really great, but that you are more and more aware of the specifics of your body and the ways that it might benefit from movements that may or may not be part of a traditional posture.

I once assisted an over-60 yoga class for a month or so and was blown away by how open they were to trying different things. There was an 87 year old woman in one class who was new to yoga and whom I will never forget. She had had hip and knee replacement surgeries and had trouble both walking and standing upright without some difficulty. But she was incredibly curious about how her body might work within the context of yoga and how she could adjust to find something useful. Partly because her body simply wasn’t going to be able to get into some of the traditional poses, she had no real expectations or preconceptions, just an open-minded attitude and managed to find useful movements that she could sit with and breath with. More quickly than the vast majority of younger students I teach, she managed to find the essence of the yoga practice without really any postures to speak of. It was wonderful and inspiring.

So how do we know when the postures are serving us and when we are serving the postures? This is difficult and requires some real honesty on the part of the practitioner. For myself, the times that I have gotten into trouble were all times when I was trying to accomplish a posture instead of using that posture to connect to something useful for me in that moment. We need to be aware of why we are making the decisions we are making when we practice a posture, and to examine our assumptions about both our bodies and the poses as we take practice. I have no one-size-fits-all solution to how to do this, just an encouragement to continually examine and question. One of my teachers at one point (wisely) said that wisdom is not something gained by memorizing the sutras or perfecting the poses, etc. but by a lifetime of experience paying attention while you do so.


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Being Present

I just got back from a week long yoga retreat at Breitenbush in Oregon. It was truly an amazing week. More than I could have asked for really, and part of it was that it was dedicated time where all of us could simply be present to the moment. No cell service or internet, so the distractions were minimal and since we were away from home, the daily tasks that can pull our mind away from what we are currently doing were just not there. I’ve been thinking a lot about how rejuvenating it is simply to be open to the now. It’s something that most of us don’t experience nearly as much as we should, yet it’s essential to our ultimate well-being. I seem to be able to do this well when I travel (which is part of why I love traveling so much), but I’ve often struggled trying to figure out how to bring in that same openness into my everyday life. Every morning this past week, we all got up at around 5:45, had a quick dip in the hot springs and then went in for a 30 minute meditation, followed by asana practice. We were done by the time I normally get up in the morning while in the city. This morning, I got up early and meditated in my living room for half an hour and have been feeling like some of the same energy I felt while on retreat is possible to get at home as well. It just takes figuring out how to be present each day. My teacher Melina was relaying something that Dr. Robert Svaboda said, which is that we don’t like time, we simply lack focus. So easy to forget, yet so true.


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Flexibility

There was a study out recently in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (a randomized controlled trial of hamstring stretching. Jo M Fasen, et al.) comparing different kinds of flexibility training. This is something that seems to get very little attention given how important of a part of many forms of conditioning this is. Passive stretching was found to be the most effective method, with better result than various active forms of stretching, including PNF, which has king of been the ‘it’ form of stretching lately. This is basically just yin yoga for those familiar with that practice. Long, passive poses tend to get more at the fascia and connective tissue, which can account for a lot of the resistance to a stretch when compared with just the muscle. While most yoga practices have a lot more than just flexibility as a goal, if you have a specific area that is tight (or are just not a yoga practitioner and interested in flexibility), you might try holding a stretch for 3-5 minutes each day for a while to really open it up. The best stretch to use for these longer held poses might be different from the one you would use for a more active stretch, but it’s best to find a pose that you can just release into, letting gravity take over. This can also be incredibly relaxing and restorative as well.


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Wisdom of the aged

I subbed a class today for people over 50 years old and I have to say, I love teaching that population of people. I don’t know if it’s just that they have had to accept certain limitations or if it’s just the wisdom of age (maybe those are the same thing?), but they seem to have much less attachment to being able to do poses “correctly” and simply enjoy doing what they can and are very open to modifications. They also seem to be more interested and open to learning about the whole practice than a lot of other classes I’ve taught. A bunch of people in the class today came up to ask me questions and discuss things we were doing in class, which was great. It’s interesting that a population that is relatively new to yoga seems to intuitively get yoga so quickly despite their physical limitations, and I’m wondering if there isn’t a connection. A sense of letting go of how the physical practice is supposed to be done seems to lead to a better grasp of yoga as a practice for your overall holistic health. Perhaps we can all learn from their example. They are most of our elders after all.


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Caffeine and Yoga

I’ve been a coffee and tea drinking almost my entire life. When I was a kid, my favorite ice cream flavor was always coffee and I really looked forward to being old enough to drink a big cup of it when I was old enough that my parents would let me. I can’t actually remember a time since I was a child that I have been caffeine free. But I’ve decided to eliminate it from my diet finally. Caffeine can cause anxiety, mood swings, and insomnia, irritability, and lots of other stuff, yet most of us consume it regularly. It can also make you stiff, which is exactly the opposite of what most of us yoga practitioners are trying to be. I actually had a really hard time finding concrete studies here, but as I understand it from talking to people who know about this, caffeine can cause muscle twitching (hyperflexia), which prevents our muscles from relaxing fully, a necessity to get a good, healthy stretch. Additionally, if taken in large enough doses, it acts as a diuretic, draining you body of precious water and leaving your muscles less able to stretch. That combined with the addictive nature of the drug, are finally getting me to give it up. Instead, I’ll be relying on a short morning yoga practice (which I’ve not always done) and breathing. There are lots of good resources if you are interested in trying to kick caffeine as well. I’ve included a couple of them below:

findbliss.com
yoga journal
yoga-australia.com


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Desire

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.