The key to home practice: Desire before Duty

A little pink never hurt anyone

Image by Darwin Bell via Flickr

Committing to home practice is such a transformational step that it’s very easily turned into a goal, an item on the to-do list, a get-through-to-get-done: in short, a duty.

And setting aside the time on your calendar or to-do list can be an effective method for keeping this promise to yourself. But how to maintain the practice mind and not slip into goal seeking?

Here’s what I mean: One morning you set your alarm a little early – 20 or 30 minutes to start – and feel triumphant because you kept this promise to yourself. And the practice, short though it was, transformed your day and was filled with moments of sunlight and inspiration. Three weeks later, the alarm rings again, you find yourself on the same mat with the sunlight streaming in, but can’t keep from pushing yourself through the poses you’re working, measuring your progress from yesterday, and none too flatteringly. What a way to start the day!

What happened to that first morning’s lightness and joy in the practice? What happened to that blinding insight from the Bhagavad Gita, something about releasing the fruits of action, putting your heart in but non-attachment to outcomes?

If the “goal” is to meet yourself on your mat every morning, you’ve satisfied “duty” by arriving. Before you do anything, ask yourself one question: “What do I really want?” Maybe it’s more sleep. Fine, take legs up the wall, or yoga nidra. Maybe you’re feeling a backbend. Cool, warm up with some gentle heart openers like sphinx and cobra. Or maybe you need a good laugh or cry. Nice, that’s pranayam.

You might even find that when you follow it, your desire changes, transforms into something that supercedes goal, need and thought.

You are what your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your DESTINY. ~Upanishads

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Adjust Yourself

The steering wheel of World War II Chevrolet f...

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I learn something new about yoga every single day. Lessons and teachers are everywhere, and the challenge of maintaining equanimity is ever present. Right now, my husband and I are in Mountain View, California and he’s interviewing for a new position. Now, we live in Albuquerque – in the middle of the desert, in the largest small town you’ll ever find. So this would be big. Huge. Tremendous.

Being the planner and the mapper, the finder and the schemer this gives the monkey in my mind whole new rain forests of possibilities. Last night, after wonderful husband gave another dry run of his presentation today, I discovered he’d not packed a tie. Off I was in the rental car I’d not yet driven, in search of a blue tie in a city I’d never seen. Did I mention he declined GPS? Anywho, one of the skills my job demands is navigation, and though I’ll never win any awards, I get the job done. Another of those skills, driving, is something I’ve always found a comfort and a joy.

So the discomfort I felt upon embarking was puzzling. The car was lower to the ground with a deeper cabin than I’m used, but that wasn’t it.  I was so uncomfortable I could barely pay attention.

So, of course, I gripped the wheel a little harder, opened my eyes a little wider and thought, “Wake up Girlie-pie! Pay attention! This is no time to be wandering aimlessly!” As I pulled my back up straighter and pressed my sitting bones down, it struck me: I hadn’t adjusted the car for me to drive.  The seat was way back and not upright the way I like. The steering wheel was too low. The mirrors were reflecting sky.

After a few more intersections of nearly veering into other lanes, intense anxiety and a feeling that all was not right with the world, I finally pulled over. I found the seat adjustments, the mirrors, the wheel. When I got back on the road, it was like the world had changed. I could tell where I was going, I had control of the car, it was even fun to drive. But it wasn’t the world that had changed: it was me. My first reaction was to harshly tell myself to buck up! Sit up! Get right! But no amount of bearing down was going to change situation.

But softening, getting curious, making some minor adjustments and fine-tuning made all the difference in the world. The key was getting curious instead of furious. Not furiously mad, but furiously grasping and controlling. The difference was softening instead of gripping. I can’t wait to take this lesson into my vacation yoga class.

Grace

Landing with grace

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Grace lives somewhere between denial and dissolution.

In the land of denial, the truth tickles our imagination, possibly irritating like a feather, or a fly. But instead of becoming curious and investigating, we wriggle away from the tickle and  white-knuckle through whatever we’re doing, resisting the actual experience of the truth – usually to “get-things-done.”

We usually get to the land of denial through fear of dissolution, but years of denial can indeed lead to a large dissolving event. In dissolution, we are so incredibly overwhelmed by the truth that we melt like sugar into a puddle of goo, in the very spot upon which we were struck by the full force of the truth. In the land of dissolution, there is no “getting-things-done” and not only the list, but the very structure of our lives can lose meaning. This is scary in ways that can keep us in list-making and slaying mode.

Yoga, years of yoga, have helped me wend my way between these modern manifestations of Scylla and Charybdis.  As an athletic, all-out life-loving, really geeky and slightly loner kid, I learned early that “grace” was not a quality likely to be admired in me. I was clumsy. I was the kid with bruises on her shins from climbing trees and jumping fences. Born with an appetite for everything, and not one to shy away from challenge (think bull, red flag, and yes, china shop comes next), I did a lot of white-knuckling and brushing away of tickles for the first several decades of my life. No regrets, either. I have a lot of experiences that are hard to come by and full of the nectar of life.

That life, too, led me to many moments of dissolution, some transitory, others full-on halting stops to the hustle and activity of life. And through the churning in the passage between the extremes I’d created, I became quiet with life and easy with the quiet. And in this quiet arose a voice like that of a child asked to say grace for the family before dinner: thin and reedy at first, finding it’s channel and finally flowing quietly back into the silence.

That voice was the tickle of the truth I’d swatted away so persistently before. I learned to laugh at the insouciance of tickle, and that lightness allowed space to open around the experience.  By actually having the experience, I never had to dissolve. Rather, the experience itself dissolved into another, and often into realization, and into natural action.

Grace is the moment of presence, pure opening, creating space in the now for simply “what is.” Grace can be cultivated in meditation and on the mat by watching, feeling, diving in. Once cultivated, it has a tendency to pop up in the strangest ways. Sometimes the dawning realization of how the body is feeling, and the space to adjust “the plan” ever so slightly to accommodate. Or perhaps it’s the presence of intuition about when to stop or start, or when to speak up or just listen. Grace comes in silence and doing that is not-doing, but actively reveals the truth more eloquently than wrestling and bending to our will.

I’ve always wanted “it all” and never accepted that this was impossible, or even that hard. I just had a different notion of what was included in “all.” Grace is merely opening to the all in the moment. Grace is the union of the opposites into which we try to split our experience. It’s taken a lot of swimming in the churning pool between “balls-to-the-wall” and “puddle-on-the-floor” to find my way to flow: to finding that “all” is not something I do, not merely a gathering of juicy experiences, because all the experiences in the world are meaningless but for the space to drink them in. And that everything I ever sought is here, now, for the price of a breath and a grateful and perhaps-momentarily silent mind.

Relaxation Revolution!

Nucleosome structure.

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Revolution is a powerful word, and well applied to Dr. Herbert Benson‘s work.  As a Harvard Medical Center researcher, it is indeed a revolution for him to mention yoga as frequently as he does in his advancement on the Relaxation Response, published more than 3 decades ago. You can watch him in a bookstore talk here, or listen to a wonderful interview by Diane Rehm here. Newest science is overturning the notion that genes are destiny. We powerfully affect gene expression with practices such as yoga, meditation and chi gong.

You’ve heard of the fight or flight response of your sympathetic nervous system, and probably know that stress increases cortisol levels and has detrimental effects on your whole body. Dr. Benson is championing the opposite system indigenous to us all, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the relaxation response.

Yoga can be described as one big compendium of methods for invoking the relaxation response. What Dr. Benson stresses and what has been too little stressed in our popular understanding of yoga and ourselves, is this fact: relaxation does not equal passivity. Relaxation does not mean passivity. True, if you relax and you are uber-sleep deprived, you’ll fall asleep, because that’s what your body needs most. Relaxation is an alert and effortless, open expansion of the mind, allowing you to respond in the moment to what is actually arising.

In a state of true relaxation, you respond to the nature of the moment, to what is true in that place and time. If your body-mind is so fatigued that what you actually need is rest, then that response will occur. Similarly, if what arises is profound and deep emotion that you’ve been avoiding with busyness, that is what will arise. Allowing these intense needs to surface and be addressed rapidly brings about a state of equilibrium. Once relaxation has systematically surfaced remnants of stress, injury and pain, you will encounter a  clear field, and enter a state more usually associated with relaxation.

For most people this response is nearly immediate, because as much as most of us like to play the stress-monkey,we really crave the alert, openness of true relaxation. Dr. Benson’s work is emphasizing how simple and close the experience can be. It’s truly one yoga practice away. What are you waiting for? Your practice is as close as your breath.

Allowing and Creativity

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Image by laurakgibbs via Flickr

Oy, the chatter! No, not out there…. in here. Where is this “in” anyway, I wonder….. off into more chatter. Oy!

I write to you dripping, seized by a revelation just after sinking into a tub of luscious bubbles, my Tricycle magazine and 40oz bottle of water at the ready. Sinking into the bath I’d put off for the whole day, flagellating myself for not being more active, for “just hanging around” – which was really a lot of mindless chores I hadn’t gotten to earlier in the week. Recriminations for not taking the dogs to the foothills, for not calling friends, for not having completed 108 Sun Salutations yet, had each hopped on its own little tricked out racing bike, and they were outdoing one another lap after lap around my brain.

So finally, I let myself sink into the bath – even though I hadn’t earned it with sweat or brilliance or whatever else is supposed to earn one some letting go time.

And I felt a deep, subtle, infinitely delicious “click” deep at my core. “Click.” This is all I had wanted since I rose this morning with grandiose notions of busyness, bustle and accomplishment. All I’d wanted was a bath. As soon as I “indulged” myself, the heavy steel door trapping all of my creative energy and verve became a cloud, as light, transparent and inconsequential as a breeze.

What if all my life, all your life, all our lives were “indulgences?” Perhaps we’d “indulge” ourselves in meaningful work, dazzling play and creative connections. What if “indulgences” aren’t indulgences, but rather calls from our true selves to our busy selves? What if the thing our busy self most fears, that we won’t amount to much, is the thing it’s threatening to create? What if we take our busy self to the bath or the beach more often, and become the self we’ve been dying to be?

In praise of Sun Salutations

It took me about 3 years to finally feel comfortable doing Sun Salutations.  I would squint and puzzle and squish my face through the series a few times and then plop back into the hot springs. I’d struggle with synchronizing my breath and figuring out whether I should breathe in or out as I stepped back and how long I should stay in Downward Facing Dog.

Then it “clicked” for me one morning, and it became my new addiction. What a remarkable feeling, bending forward and backward, upside down and right side up.

Then I learned the drshti for each pose, and how to jump back, and then I found the bandhas through the glorious repetition and flow. When I learned that there were mantram for each of the “stations” in the cycle, I was over the moon! There’s no part of my mind or body that this wonderful series doesn’t wring and wash out, and leave better than before.

Whether you put a plank before or after your dog, throw your warrior in for “B” versus “A”, go slow or fast, the beauty of the series is that once engaged, the flow will teach you where and how to go, will lead your breath in the right direction and your mind into peaceful water. The series can be fast or slow, exercise or meditation – or both, few or many, sinewy or rigorous – infinitely modifiable, portable and indescribably subtle.

My favorite place for Sun salutations is on a particular mesa overlooking the hoodoos outside Chaco Canyon, with my YogaPaws on and no one else in sight – and out there you can see a long, long way.  That’s just about tied with the plateau above Angel Peak  behind the Orwellian sounding “Land Farm”  – another story.

The YogaPaws turn a good core workout into an amazing experience of solid, centered energy and reveal how much work the yoga mat regularly does in yoga poses. It’s a revelation.

So now you know where I’m off to for the next for week or so. There’s another post queued up, and it’s a good one – a link to my new favorite meditation. I’ve gotta go get me some Sun Salutations right now – then you’ll find me somewhere lost among the hoodoos. No phone, no computer, no talking. Just walking, yoga and land. Ahhhhhh.