Friday, June 17, 2011

Starting over

During these last few weeks I have come to feel that this is like starting over. Sitting here in rural Spain, waiting for the Ph in the pool to drop down to 7.6. It's not easy. You have to be prepared to let go of what you have already done – maybe even let go of who you are and where you think you are going. When so many of us define ourselves by our jobs, our status in society, our possessions, our cars, our achievements, it's a big deal to put that on the line and start over. So why do it?

If you ask me, reptiles have got it right – the ones who shed their skins. They go happily about their business for some time, reproducing, eating, sleeping, reptiling about and then a little alarm goes off and it's time to change – get a new skin – become a new person – perhaps reinvent. I'm not aware of any big-shot successful reptiles who decide not to do that, but rather stick to the skin they've got. It's like they got half the river bank sown up, stashed away a few thousand eggs in some sand bar, and now they're looking forward to another successful season as one of Nature's possibly least attractive animals. And then, there's the buzzer and it's time for a new skin. They're starting over. I'm pretty sure I heard the buzzer some time ago.

It's a big risk to start over. But twentieth century wisdom suggest that with risk comes reward. That is perhaps not the best source of knowledge but it is where I am rooted. Even worse, I am grounded in finance, project management, accounting, double entry book-keeping – the indisputable logic that requires every credit to have a debit - otherwise a black hole immediately opens up and we are shunted off up some ladder to another, possible parallel universe where things might not be quite the same. We lose control – and for many of us, control has been paramount in our lives. Starting over requires the willingness to cede control, roll the dice and climb up the ladder or slide down the snake. Maybe even trust the Universe.

The yoga analogies are obvious: every time we fall out of a posture is an opportunity to start over; don't get cross and frustrated because your body is not performing like last time. Just accept where it is and try again. I think we all know that one. But what I think are the real gifts are the countless opportunities in class to bring our mind back to the breath, refocus and start again.

There are so many times that I have been lying there in savasana, grateful to my tired body for having got through another standing series, and waiting for my mind to settle down and be still. But instead, I get all kinds of junk – images from who knows where, from my past, childhood, that morning, tomorrow, just anywhere, anybody and anything. My mind just sends me stuff – what do you think of this one? Don't like it, try this – hey, here's another, and so it goes on.

And then I have to let all that junk go and bring my attention back to my breathing. That is my meditation – right there. Starting over. Meditation is full of little restarts – coming back to the breath and letting the mind follow what the body is already doing. If I am inhaling, then I follow the inhale; if I am exhaling, I follow the exhale. The body has figured this out already – it doesn't need advice or guidance from the mind.

Some times we make meditation so very hard: we try to make the environment right, some nice music, get the candles going, some pillows to get comfortable and then what? And then we are frustrated because our mind races off somewhere at top speed and that quiet, that stillness, that peace, seems unobtainable. My best meditation happens when I trust my body to do what it already knows. I bring my mind back again and again, as many times as necessary – come back to my breath and start again to follow the breath – look for that little still point between the inhale and the exhale – rest there for just a moment – and then follow the next breath. Not controlling it – not making it shorter or longer – but just allowing it to be what my body wants it to be. For me, my breath is the key to my practice. I used to say my yoga class was 90 minutes of breathing with a few postures thrown in to keep everybody from getting bored. Maybe next week I'll write about breathing.

And if it happens in the yoga room, then it can happen outside the yoga room too – in the office, in the sitting room, on the deck. Take the opportunity to be still during the day, maybe for just a few minutes, bring your mind to your breath and focus. Expect your mind to wander – that's its job. But gently coax it back to the breath and start again. The rewards are those little glimpses of stillness, and that's a pretty big deal in my books.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

So why this search for stillness?

It may be obvious for those of you who have shared the hot room with me over the past few years, but not all of my friends and readers fall into that category.  For the latter,  a few words of explanation may be helpful. 

I like to see my life through the lens of yoga;  my kids remind me of that each time that we talk and I offer up some words of advice, which tends to elicit the response " oh no, not another yoga metaphor!".  And, of course, that is exactly what falls from my lips - yet another yoga metaphor.  I am indeed that predictable.

It is a truism that aging brings with it the accumulation of experience. In the worst of cases, it tends to be the same experience over and over again. In the best of cases, and if you are really lucky in life, it brings many assorted experiences, gleaned from dipping your toes into this and that. I like to think that Bikram saw that when he said to me “just teach from your worldly experience and you will be alright”. It was one of our longer exchanges – barely a conversation – but I reached out and caught those few words, wrapped them up safely and carried them with me ever since. A rationale for what I do: share my experience.

And this conversation today, this blog, this short exchange of words that is offered to you, is simply that: a sharing of experience. It is no substitute for the learning and the healing that goes on in the yoga room. It is not didactic in nature nor in spirit. For that you need to keep on listening to the teaching, focusing on the underlying meaning of the words and staying in that pristine awareness of the yoga practice – you may remember that from our past conversations in the hot room.

This experience of mine with yoga has been good; but more than that, it has changed my life. I began to see things cropping up in my practice that were a direct reflection of issues that I was experiencing outside the hot room. More and more as I practiced, I saw a reflection of my life laid out before me, in the mirror and on the mat. Challenges in my life reappeared as challenges in my practice. The line between my life and my yoga practice became blurred, and then slowly, over time, disappeared. No wonder then that yoga metaphors now come so easily to my mind when I am seeking to find answers to life's everyday practical problems.

Bikram tried to define yoga for us one day. Of course we started with the simple definitions that we could write down in our note books and memorize: words like “union” and “yoke” and phrases that imply the partnering of mind and body. But it came down to the fact that so much of what we do is a combination of mind and body, and that can be simply explained as yoga.  It is all around us – all the time. He calls it “the science of life”. Reach for a glass of water: yoga;  stand up and stretch your arms above your head:  yoga; lie down and close your eyes and nap:  yoga; write a blog: yoga. I like that.

Each time that our mind and body connect, there is yoga going on – initially a battle, that coming together, that tension, that stress, that pushing and pulling. A conflict between mind and body - one wins and the other loses - unless the conflict can be resolved in some way so that there is no need for winners and losers.  And that's where yoga comes in. It resolves the conflict between mind and body.

Our physical yoga practice came into being many years ago ( roughly three or four thousand years) specifically to prepare the body for meditation.  Yoga was a set of preparatory exercises to quieten and relax the body so that the mind could meditate without interruption from cramps or spasms or the like. Nowadays, Bikram calls his practice, his sequence of postures,  a “moving meditation”, but its origin is firmly rooted in preparing the body for a still meditation.

Look carefully and in each posture you will find a little point of stillness. It might not last long – in fact it might not always be there. But if you are lucky enough to see it, then you know it. You don't have to be this year's yoga champ to find it. Just do the best you can, the best that your body can do on this day, and breathe. Then the stillness finds you. Remember the definition of a hatha yoga asana: executing the posture as best you can, in stillness, breathing always normal. That is my Trinity, right there, at the “still point”.

We borrow this term “ still point” from a poem written by T. S. Eliot in the 1930's. He is perhaps best remembered for his poems The Waste Land and the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, or his plays like Murder in the Cathedral, or his work that resulted in Practical Cats – the source for Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Cats. But it was four poems written between 1935 and 1945 published as a collection called The Four Quartets that earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The first of these poems, Burnt Norton, is where we find the term “still point”. 
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”

I've seen this still point – albeit briefly and from a distance. But I know it's there, and that's what I am looking for now. It's there where the body does something special - it heals itself - and then that sense of quiet, that healing, that “white light” feeds straight into the mind and everything just slows down.  Perhaps not very much - maybe just a few cycles, but it's enough to notice. It's like body temperature:  a very small change in finite temperature can create a very large difference in the way you feel.  And that is my experience.

My yoga and now my life is about that still point – searching not just in the asana in the hot room but in everyday life, in getting the shopping and washing the clothes, in the mundane and in the ridiculous. I know that it's there. One day I'll get another glimpse and maybe inch just a little bit closer to that still point, where the dance is, and where there is only the dance.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A little slow?

It took me some time to understand what has been going on this week.  I thought I arrived here on my own, but in fact there has been two of us:  me and my ego.  So what's the problem with that?  It's rather like your shadow - you just cannot do what Peter Pan had done and cut it off - it's there all the time.  It's not that I mind sharing the villa but I like to be the one making the decisions.  And that wasn't the case this week.

But I didn't even know what was going on until the weather warmed up, the rain stopped and the wind died down - and then I could get a yoga practice in and there we were:  the two of us sharing the same mat, and that just doesn't work.

I had to get into each posture and make myself let go - each time - just let go.  Forget the past - forget what I used to be able to do - forget what is possible in the hot room - and instead, accept what my body can do today, in this moment, in this place, by the pool, in the wind and the sun.  Underneath it all we are all beginners.  And once I shoved my ego off the mat, then the practice made sense again.  It took a long time - the practice was slow and careful. 

And then the past week made some sense:  I had not let go.  I had found myself wandering around, not settling into any one thing, up and down, trying this and that - expecting that a new routine would just materialize out of thin air.  But it didn't.  So then I began to question what I was doing here. Was I going to meet the expectations I had when I got on the plane? And what would happen if I failed to meet those expectations?

Finally the penny dropped and I remembered all the times when I encouraged students to leave their expectations outside the hot room and accept each practice for what it was:  good, bad or indifferent. The big thing was to turn up and try;  let my body do its thing and not let my ego drive my practice by going further that my body was ready to go.  Accepting the situation and being comfortable in that moment.  Nothing happens unless you turn up.  As Robbie Schaefer wrote in Monroe, "it's only a miracle if you turn up to receive it".  The yoga is a miracle but it doesn't happen if you don't turn up.  But you cannot share your mat with your ego - as I found out today.

So do yourself a favour and ask your ego to stay behind while you go do what your body can do best - heal itself.  You just have to trust it.  You may not go as far as you expect to go, but it's better than not turning up at all.  We all have to be reminded of that lesson, and that was my big breakthrough this week.  Finally remembering something that I had been talking about for years!  Sometimes I'm just a little slow on the uptake.