Facing the Monkey: take the banana or hug the monkey?

Sloth monkey

Image via Wikipedia

Rarely do I teach a “contained” yoga class, so the transition I’ve witnessed this week has never been so clear as it is now. These people inspire me. Many have never practiced yoga, and some have been wildly sedentary. Every one of them who attends is transforming radically. And that means that every one has faced monkey mind and decided, “Do I take the banana and run, or hug the monkey and invite him to practice with me?”

By “contained” I mean a class lasting a certain amount of time with a plan. Currently, I’m teaching a class for Presbyterian Health Plan in an exciting experiment: 12 weeks, 2 hour and a half classes a week, vital signs and stress scale monitored before and after the first, 13th and 23rd classes (we’re taking Thanksgiving Day off). Participants signed a contract committing to attend from beginning to end with no more than 3 misses and participate in the vital sign and stress scale monitoring. For this, they receive classes and a mat free, where they work, and the Health Plan pays me. The syllabus is below.

Last week were classes 5 and 6, “Forward Folding: The Turn Inward.” Before the sixth class – so only 5 classes under our belts – six different people came up to me at separate times with stories of lost pain and found calm that bring tears to my eyes even now. At this same juncture, nearly an equal number dropped out. What gives?

Even the people who dropped out had stories of transformation. So why quit now? The reasons given overwhelmingly had to do with family commitments, but the trends and the timing make me wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on.

During my first morning practice yesterday, I was churning and turning in preparation for next weeks’ “Twist” classes, and you would not believe the endless clumps of unrelated and mostly unimportant detritus my mind heaved up. But occasionally there would be an “important” bit and I’d catch myself about to run off and “take care of it” before taking a deep breath and recommitting to the pose.

And it occurred to me: this is probably what the students are experiencing, too. Probably not the first class, or the third, but maybe by the fifth they’ve had the experience of both Sivasana Bliss  as well as the monkey mind taunting them, something like this: “Really, 3 hours a week? How important are your hamstrings when you haven’t returned that book or done the shopping for little Lisa’s party this weekend? Aren’t you special, having  your special yoga class, what makes you so special?” And so on. At least that’s what my monkey sounds like. Annoying little primate.

When we engage something new and potentially transformative, the first decision is to begin, and this requires a certain activation energy, curiosity, and acknowledgment of a need.  The next decision is to continue and requires balancing the original need being met by the activity against other needs and the ability to regard them all dispassionately. This second decision probably happens for most of us after the first one has been made repeatedly, because those prior attempts are how we build up the space in our minds to make the second decision.

So I’ll count even the dropped students as successes, though they won’t add to our “experimental” results. Each one of them has built up their stock of experience in choosing health and transformation, and learned something more about their own responses to stress and quiet. Here’s to the monkey dance! When we’re full of bananas, we each learn to hug our monkeys.

Yoga of Alignment: The poses

1.  Principles of alignment: standing poses

2.  Back bends & heart opening

3.  Forward Folds: the turn inward

4.  The Twist: churning the pot

5.  Breath & Bandhas de-mystified

6.  Core: where it is, what it is & how to work it

7.  Downward Dog: Transitional pose

8.  Arm balances: from plank to taking flight

9.  Sun salutations: putting it all together

10.       Vinyasa: finding the flow

11.       Finishing poses: shoulder stand & full wheel

When you hold your breath…. The 3 causes and 1 Solution

A sober message about competitive breath holding.

Image by cristyndc via Flickr

You may not realize you were holding your breath until you let it go. And in that great whoosh of exhalation you have an amazing opportunity: what was going on in your internal environment leading to that impressive subversion of sustaining rhythms?

Breath holding, as the sign says, can be detrimental, though perhaps not often deadly. Because of the interruption of normal exchange of nurturing and toxic gasses, you’re retaining the very stuff your body so wisely was prepared to let go. More importantly, you can’t receive the next breath. Mind rides breath, so you remain stuck in that moment, unable to move forward because like the monkey with a peanut in his fist, you can’t get your hand out of the jar.

Whether you’re on your mat or in traffic with that near miss, or in a meeting  – “Yeah, those words just came out of his mouth…” – the moment when you let your breath go, give yourself the gift of wondering what that was all about. I’ll wager a week of yoga class that in every case it’s a reaction to one of three things: novelty, fright or exertion.

Novelty: ever been taken by surprise, even a pleasant surprise? A room full of unexpected people, a man on one knee with a diamond ring or an unexpected visit from a friend: any of these can trigger a rapid, rushing intake of air with a potent pause.

Fear: the unexpected discharge of a gun; a rapid, unexpected motion when you are either very relaxed or very wary; watching the car in front of you spin out of control all can trigger a frozen or elongated moment and the breath can become hostage to the halting motion of time.

Exertion: You didn’t wait for help to move that massive walnut bureau, and so it’s no surprise when you’re over matched and noticed the squealing grunt of strain. And in some forms of exercise, such as kettlebells and boxing, breath holding is a technique – but accompanied by specific and intentional exhalation. This kind of breath holding creates an internally stabilizing pressure in the center of the torso which is then converted to force with a rapid and full exhalation. The key is intentionality.

Solution: Awareness and Intent The next time you find yourself holding your breath, treat yourself and your breath gently, kindly release and exhale fully and completely. Wonder: was I scared, surprised or exerting?  Bring your awareness and intent to the moment, ask yourself the question, and then just listen. You’re extra lucky if you have a chance to practice this on the mat, because you have a great chance to notice and loosen a pattern, referred to in yogic circles as samskara. Samskara are the ant hills of repeatedly going around a place of resistance, rather than investigating and remaining with the resistance itself.  Noticing breath holding is one way down the center of hill to find the source of the resistance, the source of the work around, and clear an open path for moving forward, letting go of the residue of prior experience and becoming present for all that this moment holds.