We All Have Something to Say

IMG_1815Last month I walked past the sandwich board outside of University Avenue’s Lululemon emporium twice every Tuesday and Thursday for two weeks and each time I wanted to kick it. In my wildest moments I envisioned myself carrying a can of spray paint so no one else would walk past, read its message, and have that little moment of feeling less than. What words did I find so offensive?

My mascara runs faster than you do.

I’m guessing the marketing genius who came up with that tag line believed she was being light-hearted, and that it was meant to inspire those women for whom running is a passion. But for the rest of us – the walkers and Sunday bikers, or the woman balancing work, kids and all of life’s unexpected surprises – it was offensive.

Am I over-reacting? Maybe.

Except that it happens all the time. Social media is crowded with words that, on the surface, appear to inspire. But pick at the corner and peel back the shiny veneer and underneath you’ll find a subtext – intended or not – that is mean spirited and ugly.

If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough.

What?

I have dreams that are small enough to hold in my hand. I have bigger dreams, too, and I have dreams that are the size of all the beating hearts in the world and are unlikely to ever come true – but they still make me smile. Dreams that scare? Those are called nightmares.

We need to consider the words we choose, the words we share.

We’re all writers now and it’s a dangerous thing because it’s so easy to stick to the slick surface of a pretty sentence. But words and sentences and the messages we’re trying to send have layered context and connotations.

There’s an essay making the rounds on social media from a young yoga teacher. You can read that essay here. She screams her way through five hundred or so words, lambasting the yoga industrial complex and layering her argument with more than a few expletives. She ends her rant with this:

…It is ALL f***ing yoga! There is no concrete, set in stone, no if ands or buts way to teach or practice yoga…

As I watched the likes and hearts, the shares and affirmative comments pile up I had to wonder what I was missing.

Because I believe she’s wrong.

And she’s wrong in the same way that Lululemon’s sandwich board sign was wrong and that passive aggressive adages reminding me that my dreams should be scary disguised as deep and meaningful philosophy are wrong.

The nuances of teaching are, of course, up to the individual teacher’s personality and whims but the core of yoga and the asana we practice is part of a system that has evolved over thousands of years. If we play music at savasana does it interfere with our practice of concentration and truthfulness? Yes, it does. It transforms savasana – the most difficult of poses – into sleepy relaxation. What is our intention as teachers? As yogis? If our practice has evolved to a state where anything goes – as this yoga teacher’s essay implies – then I want out.

Yoga, at its core, is about self-regulation. It’s about observing, understanding, reacting – all with clarity and honesty. It’s about being aligned with the Yamas and Niyamas.

I know that a dear friend of mine would suggest I’m taking myself too seriously. Taking yoga too seriously. Of course I am.

Yoga is not a witty aphorism. It’s my life.


Saucha

IMG_3064Our bodies are temples. Our positive actions are conduits for positive re-action. Our thought forms are pulses of energy with the potential to open hearts. But if we hope to raise our bodies, actions and thoughts to their highest vibration, a place where the catalyst for healing exists we must practice saucha.

Saucha, our first niyama, is purity and cleanliness.

Much like the Western mind considers asana as the first step on their yoga journey we are drawn toward considering physical cleanliness as we begin our practice of saucha. Yet physical cleanliness is not limited to what we see on the surface. When reflecting on saucha and how it pertains to the physical we must also look at how we keep pure that which is within us. What we choose to put in our body is as critical as what we choose to put on our body. How do we source our food, clothes and cosmetics?

Likewise, how do we manage our environment? Do we choose to create a space that aligns with the principle of saucha? My first request to a class that they stack their props mindfully was met with laughter. The second time, when I explained saucha, they still laughed but began to understand. The third time they smiled. And then I watched as blankets were folded, blocks were stored on shelves and bolsters were lined against the wall. It didn’t matter that in ten minutes another class would undo the effort we made to create a clean space. The energetic flow we manifested through our effort supported our practice.

Is it possible to practice saucha in order to create a clean and nurturing emotional environment? One in which mental impurities are washed away? I believe we can. It takes diligence and for that reason I am relieved that we call our yoga a “practice.” My diligence and discipline fail me more times than I want to admit.

Remembering saucha as we observe the world as well as our actions as we move within this world reminds us that it is possible to reframe our thoughts, our words and our behavior even while maintaining the integrity of the ideas we wish to communicate.


Aparigraha

I wrote the following essay in June 2014 for an assignment during my Yoga Therapy Training at Niroga Institute in Oakland. More recently I had the chance to discuss the meaning of Aparigraha with the incredible group of women that comprise Samyama’s Book Club. We’re reading Deborah Adelle’s book The Yamas and Niyamas. We cling to more than those things that fit in our hands. We cling to ideas. To emotions. To states of being. Aparigraha reminds us to step back. To soften our physical and spiritual on things that are simple paper tigers.

 

IMG_0179For the past seven days I have been living the lesson of aparigraha, the fifth of five suggested restraints known as the Yama that Patanjali invites us to practice. An individual who practices aparigraha neither hoards nor clings to possessions, individuals, ideas or ways of being.

Attachment in the form of too many possessions clutters our physical space. We can practice aparigraha in our home environment not by choosing the life of an ascetic (which to me is clinging to a way of being) but by mindful consumption: having what we need but no more, not always buying new, reusing and recycling. I live in a small studio apartment and yet I find my emotional attachment to objects that serve no purpose prevents me from letting go.

Attachment to individuals clutters our thought processes. It can rob us of our autonomy and blur the line between truth and fiction. My friend left for a ten-day visit to see his parents in Israel last week. It was our first time apart for an extended period and his absence, rather than creating space, actually filled my head and heart with stories of my own making. Until I made a conscious effort to step back from the habit of ‘spinning stories’ did I become grounded and focused.

Attachment to ideas clutters our objectivity. The yoga studio where I attended my very first yoga class in 1984 and where I have been teaching for eight years is closing next week. I am attempting to transfer my classes and students to a studio I’ve been teaching at for sixteen months but recently my attachment to what I believe should happen built a wall that prevented me from seeing how it could happen.

Attachment to our way of being clutters our experience of the world. We cling to the words and phrases we use to describe ourselves. Of all the ways attachment might manifest, perhaps our attachment to how we see ourselves is the most important to consider as it relates to yoga therapy.

A client in chronic pain may be afraid to release their attachment to the pain they experience because it is their pain that defines them. Who are they if they are not the individual who always hurts?

As yoga therapists it is important to understand the client’s attachment to the story about their injury and pain. At the same time we must not develop an attachment to the desired outcome. As yoga therapists we might release attachment to the notion of a cure and perhaps shift our focus toward helping the client detach from the story.


Safety in Moderation? Brahmacarya.

IMG_0200The yamas and niyamas are introduced in the second book of Patanjali’s sutras.  This book, Sādhanapādah, offers instruction as to how we might cultivate the quality of attentiveness in our practice.  Brahmacarya, our fourth of the five yamas, is the virtue of self-restraint.   But its more complicated than that.  This self-restraint asks for celibacy in the single person, fidelity for the married.

But it really couldnt be all about sex, could it?

Judith Hanson Lasater wrote a series of beautiful essays about the yamas and niyamas.  She breaks down the meaning of brahmacharya like this:

The actual definition of the word, she writes, is based on the translation of the syllables of the word.  Brahma comes from the name of the deity Brahma; char means to walk and ya means actively.  Thus brahmacarya means walking with God.

Yet I still find this yama far more complex and nuanced than ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth-telling) and asteya (non-stealing) – especially when I try to place brahmacarya in a 21st century context.

It’s one thing to be called to celibacy but what about sexually active individuals who are not married yet in a loving, committed relationship?  Are they to be denied a yoga practice?  And by ‘yoga practice’ I mean one that is not limited to asana.  A living, breathing, walking-in-the-world yoga practice.

And assuming Lasater’s deconstruction of the word is correct, what does this mean for individuals who don’t believe in a god?  Is belief in a deity a pre-requisite?

I am in a loving, long-term, committed relationship with an atheist to whom I am not yet married. Once deeply religious I am now agnostic at best.  But our yoga practices are thoughtful and strong.  Is it possible they are fraudulent?

TKV Desikachar’s translation speaks of the vitality and strength we can gain through self-restraint and moderation.  Framed like this, brahmacarya has more resonance for the 21st century yogi.  It becomes something I can happily embrace and apply to my daily practice.  And yet this lightweight acceptance of simple moderation seems a little too easy.  It lacks power of a disciplined approach.

What if the celibacy were asked to practice has less to do with our relationships with friends, lovers, husbands and wives and more to do with unbridled compulsion, selfishness, blind ambition or extremes of emotion?  If I consider these ideas and pay attention to how I walk through life I can become aware of when I am compulsive, selfish, ambitious to the point of unfeeling blindness and over-reactive.  I can pay attention.  I can step back.  I can moderate my behavior. 

I can see my world with clear vision. 

The promise of brahmacarya.

As yoga teachers, a personal practice of brahmacarya energetically influences our students.  Our clear-headed and calm demeanor will instill a sense of trust.  Furthermore, our practice of brahmacarya will encourage the same attitude of restraint and moderation in our students practice.

Most of all, our practice of brahmacarya will conserve our energy.  That means well be able to teach our last class of the day with the same open heart as the first.


Asteya

pinkeyeglassesAsteya is the third Yama, or social observance, in Patanjali’s Sutras.  It means ‘non-stealing’.

Superficially asteya is a concept easy to grasp yet there are greater depths to explore beyond the simple idea of not taking what isn’t yours.

On the gross level we can steal another’s belonging.  On a more subtle level we can steal another’s time.  If we interrupt a conversation we are, as Nicolai Bachman writes in his volume about the sutras, stealing attention.

Pulling the veil back further we recognize that covetousness and envy are also forms of thievery by the manner in which they tarnish attitudes and dull joy.  Both Bachman and scholar IK Taimni draw our awareness to the truth that when we embrace asteya we rise above our basic nature.  When we are honest and honorable we nourish the heart and soul.

And that is why asteya is important to me.  I want to live an honorable life.  I try to not steal joy, celebration or even sorrow and pain from others.  I don’t take what is not mine.  I avoid feelings of envy.  I listen without interruption.  Usually.  But I am not perfect and this is a practice.

What resonates for me most as I practice asteya and non-stealing is my relationship with time.  I place huge emphasis on arriving where I am needed on time.  To that end I am especially cognizant of beginning and ending my classes and private appointments with clients on time.

Anything less?  That would be stealing.