Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Surrendering to Discomfort

Something that comes up a lot in yoga classes is the idea of settling into discomfort and being okay with it.  It'll most often come up in a challenging pose like utkatasana (chair pose or fierce pose).  As you breathe in the pose, quads and shoulders burning, sweat possibly beading on your forehead, your teacher leisurely walks around extolling the virtues of having your breath and mind stay as steady and calm as though you were in savasana.

It's always a good thing to cultivate - finding the comfort (or at least the tolerance) in discomfort.  It's one of the most easily transferable teachings to life off the mat as well.  This is also a lesson that I continually find myself needing to be retaught.

A quality I very much like about myself is that when something comes up - a disagreement, an offense, whatever it might be - my preferred way is to talk about it, deal with it, and move on as soon as possible.  I don't like to play games, draw things out, indulge in drama - I like to fix and forget.  This works great for short term, fixable problems, but not so much for other problems in life.  Those long-term problems, of which everyone has their share, are much harder for me to navigate so gracefully.  (This is probably in large part due to a lack of patience, but that's another blog post...)

When it comes to certain more long-term situations, such as a loved one (or yourself) struggling with chronic health problem, addiction, depression, or perhaps a drawn out divorce or custody battle, you need to truly tap into that reserve of strength that gives you a sense of ease amidst your efforts.  It requires patience to take things day by day and to not get discouraged when things become particularly challenging or drawn-out.

A friend of mine and I were talking about a few of these situations yesterday and we discussed this very question of how to live life day to day while enduring something particularly challenging that doesn't seem to have a clear end in sight.  How do you surrender to the situation without giving up the fight it requires to get through it?  How do you embrace acceptance without, to use her brilliant word, feeling like it's the same thing as approval?  So many of these yogi buzzwords we use, like surrender, accept, and finding "ease amidst effort," can seem at odds with our feelings of struggle over the situation we're in.  At the same time, it's so easy to let yourself slip into the deep pool of self-pity if you don't find that inner strength and presence of mind to find some level of acceptance of what is.

As I wrote last week, we can only control so much.  Refusal or inability to accept that very what is is cited as one of the chief causes of human suffering.

Despite how challenging it seems, I do believe it's very possible to surrender to what is while still working hard to change the situation.  It requires a certain amount of non-attachment to the outcome, otherwise you can drive yourself crazy if your labors don't produce the result you want.  I also believe it's possible to accept a situation without approving of it.  Oftentimes, what makes us miserable during dark times in our lives is our inability to acknowledge the truth of the situation.

By fighting against something we can't change, however, we just wind up wasting our energy, making ourselves miserable, falling into the depths of self-pity (which are very hard to escape), and worst of all, letting our challenges define us.

Surrender and acceptance are merely tools at our disposal to maintain our sanity during crazy-making situations.  In the same way that people extoll the virtues of forgiveness by assuring you that it doesn't mean you approve of behavior (there's that word again) but that you free yourself from the burden, surrender and acceptance to a hard situation merely frees you from the futile struggle against what is unchanging. By doing that, you have more energy to give toward changing what you can.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Serenity

One of the main things that has drawn me so deeply to yoga at various points in my life is its ability to provide sanctuary.  It can feel as though it's this spirituality that I've been searching for for so long, as a non-religious person, to call my own.  A great yoga class can feel like having just spent a beautiful morning in church.  And it's something you can turn to in times of crisis.

I've been thinking a lot about the Serenity Prayer the last couple of days.  It's commonly associated with AA, and you've probably heard it before:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

I first saw this prayer as an embroidery at my grandmother's and when I was young, I thought it was a joke rather than an actual prayer - than the final line was a clever little punchline.  I'm not sure why I thought that, but I suppose it can be.  And who knows where a 6-year-old's thoughts and sense of humor come from.

It occurred to me how similar it is to one of my favorite yogi quotes - BKS Iyengar's, "Yoga teaches us to cure what cannot be endured and endure what cannot be cured."

The two seem to really complement each other, and taken together, almost suggest that yoga is the source of that serenity, courage, and that it is the wisdom itself.

There have been a lot of changes going on in my life lately, what with the engagement (and having recently set a date!), my sister's upcoming nuptials, friends preparing to move to and from cities.  Most of these are tremendously positive, but it always seems like the universe balances things out, as I've had a close friend go through a deeply dark and potentially tragic time in the last few days, which has had some unpleasant side effects in my life as well as a result.

With this massive influx of positive and negative stress, set against the backdrop of the absolute madness that is New York weather in the springtime, I find that if I don't come back to one or both of these phrases - treating them both as prayers - it can be a huge struggle for me to keep breathing and keep perspective through it all.

It's kind of ironic, too, how I've finally gotten my nose out of bridal magazines and have really committed to rereading The Joy of Living, which I said I was going to do three weeks ago, now that I'm often finding myself in these moments of free reading time so distracted by heartache involving my friends that the last thing I want to do is read about meditation and it affects our brains.  But then, isn't that the universe showing me that's exactly what I need to be doing?

All I can control is me, my thoughts, my actions, my decisions, my reactions.  It's very tempting to lose yourself in self-pity, and what I love about these two prayers is that they're not sentimental at all, and there isn't an ounce of pity in them.  They're firmly grounded in reality and in dealing with the punches life throws at you.  If you don't already have a prayer or a mantra or something that gets you through the crazy times of highs and lows happening in your life simultaneously, give these a try.  And don't forget to breathe.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Eyes Wide Open

Do you ever close your eyes in a yoga class?  If you have a meditation practice, do you keep your eyes closed or do you fix your gaze on something - a flame, a picture, an altar?

I used to think that closing my eyes in yoga was the best way to go inward, to go deeper.  I think sometimes that's true, and maybe it's true for some people.  Lately, though, as I've been struggling a little bit to connect with my practice (as I touched on in Reconnecting) I notice that when I close my eyes, I'm much more likely to start thinking about the classes that I have to teach, what I'm doing later, wedding planning or stressing, and any number of things under the sun besides what I'm actually doing at that present moment. 

It seems to make sense, this idea closing your eyes is a gateway to connecting more deeply with yourself, but if you have no focus to begin with, then closing your eyes just takes you away from the room, the other people, your teacher, and your own body.  Although it can look and feel awesome to go through a sun salutation with eyes closed, and it's tempting in the latter part of the class - in a juicy twist, say - to close your eyes and get your relaxation on early, it can take away from the richness of your present experience.

Interestingly enough, the book I'll be starting this week, The Joy of Living, recommends meditating with eyes open to prevent the monkey mind from getting too far away from you.  It's harder to play a mind-movie of what you think dinner will be like if your gaze is locked on something physically present in front of you.  I kind of brushed over that the first time I read it, thinking that was a piece of advice that wasn't of particular use to me, but now I'm intrigued by the idea.

If nothing else, it's an interesting experiment for me to embark on moving forward.  With my eyes wide open in asana practice (at least until final relaxation!) and perhaps in my seated meditation, will it be easier to keep my thoughts from getting the better of me?  We'll have to see.  What do you think?  What serves you best in your practices?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Joining the Circus!

Almost a month ago, days after Marc and I returned from our fabulous vacation, I dove headfirst into the Circus Yoga Ring One Immersion.  It's called an Immersion instead of a teacher training because that's exactly what it is.  More than a workshop, but not quite a teacher training.

It was a three day extravaganza devoted to throwing us all in the deep end of experiencing Circus Yoga for ourselves, and it was an absolute blast!  For those of you wondering what the heck Circus Yoga is, it's a fantastically fun blend of, "the consciousness of yoga with the communal ceremony and expression of circus," according to founders Erin Maile O'Keefe and Kevin O'Keefe.  Erin was our "ringmaster," so to speak, for the weekend and she was so much fun.

Circus Yoga is honestly something I probably would never have looked twice at if not for Karma Kids.  Aside from the fact that the two programs have a strong relationship, there is SO MUCH value to knowing Circus skills and games as a kid's yoga teacher.  Whether it be juggling scarves, walking the balance pipe, playing hilarious games like Wrong Room, or learning to fly and do tricky acrobatic partner poses, Circus Yoga provides an absolutely endless array of ways for people of all ages to break outside their comfort zone and pleasantly surprise themselves.  It's a wonderful gift to give to anyone, and it's particularly special and rewarding to be able to share it with kids.

One of the coolest moments I had was when we were learning how to fly each other, and with the help of our wonderful assistant WT, I was able to actually fly Marc!  Keep in mind he's a full foot taller than me and outweighs me by about 70 pounds, and that's a truly remarkable feat.  I had to have about 8 blankets under my lower back so that his head wouldn't just crash into my torso and he could get some traction, and it's certainly not something I could do every day, but it was so amazing and empowering!   It was also really cool that Marc was able to come participate in a workshop, as most of the events at Karma Kids revolve exclusively around kids - and needless to say, we don't have any yet.  Circus Yoga is truly for all ages.

To check out some of our adventures in Circus, go to facebook and "like" the Karma Kids Yoga page and the Circus Yoga page.  Karma Kids has several albums of their Circus Yoga workshop pictures, and obviously the Circus Yoga page itself is rife with pictures from their workshops, immersions, and teacher trainings all around the country.  (There are also plenty of pictures of folks flying each other if you have no clue what I'm talking about...)

Circus Ring One was an amazing experience, and I've been sharing the games and the love with almost every single one of my classes ever since.  Check it out!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Reconnecting

Rereading last week's entry, I'm a little surprised I didn't add one more thing to my big ol' list of all the things I could have written about - especially because it's pretty significant to the topic of this whole blog.

I broke my 7 month streak of daily meditation.  I didn't even wait to get to Europe, either - it 100% slipped my mind the day of our departure and I just never got back to it until we were back home.  Even then, I wasn't consistent.

This wouldn't seem that unusual that on a vacation a meditation practice got interrupted, except for the fact that usually vacations or time spent out of town usually only serve to deepen my practice.  Whether it's having the absolute luxury of getting up early and going down to my grandma's beautiful dock, or just sitting on the floor of a little guest bedroom somewhere for 10 minutes, something about being somewhere else with the routine shaken up always does wonders for my meditation practice.  So what happened?

I won't pretend to know exactly, but I think I just lost a bit of my inspiration and a bit of why daily meditation has always been such a priority or goal or aspiration.  I also took it for granted a little bit - they say that if you do something daily for 21 days it becomes a habit, so I figured after 7 months I would just do it automatically.  But maybe it's that autopilot that became the problem.  I associated it with routine, and the absolute joy of this vacation was taking a break from all things New York and yoga teacher.  Unfortunately, the yogi got lost along with the teacher!

Lucky for me, there are at least two little beacons of hope for reigniting the fire of my practice.  One is that I took advantage of Integral Yoga Institute's free open meditation for the first time.  If you're ever in the area of 13th and Greenwich at 12:15 on Monday-Saturday, you should definitely stop by for 35 minutes of absolutely lovely meditation.  It was being led by my beloved Thai Yoga Massage teacher, Jyothi Watanabe, on Wednesday which made the experience all the more special.  This was also the first time in I have no idea how long that I sat for longer than 10 minutes - let alone 35!  It wasn't nearly as challenging as it would have been had I been attempting it alone.  There's something really special about meditating in a group of people, especially in such a place as IYI.

Second, I'm going to reread a book that I read months ago called The Joy of Living that Marc read and absolutely loved.  I enjoyed it tremendously but it can take me longer than him to really digest books on meditation (which is funny, considering which one of us is the yoga teacher).  I had intended to do a blog entry on it and never did, for whatever reason, so this is going to be a great opportunity to re-explore a great book and to get back in touch with my practice.

I'll be sure to keep you all posted.  In the meantime, I'm back to 7-10 minutes every morning before breakfast!

Have a fabulous weekend, everyone!