25 January, 2013

Message of the week: Expect the unexpected

The last three classes on my calendar were "planned" well in advance, eager to arrive after a week and a half away from the yoga studio:  Elizabeth McE on Tuesday, Carley on Wednesday, and Elizabeth T on Friday. As life would have it, not-a-one of those panned out as "planned." Tuesday was Pat, a teacher who was subbing from another studio, Wednesday was Tina T, and Friday was Michelle, teaching her first official class at Be Luminous. It wasn't what I had been expecting, but it was still yoga. In fact, maybe it was even more yoga than had it been the teachers I was "expecting," because there can be an element of "entertainment" when taking a class with a teacher who you're particularly excited to see. In some way, the focus can shift to what they're saying, and all of the emotional elements that get triggered by the connections we feel to people. While that is inspirational, and makes class a joy, it can sometimes actually take me out of the yoga, out of your body. These consecutive surprises this week served to really anchor me to the all-important "This is what is happening" mindset, and just get on the mat, down to business, and be inside my body.

This whole week has been plagued by the low energy that comes from jet lag. Leaping fifteen hours ahead has resulted in my being awake for nearly the entire night, the last three nights, only truly hitting a deep sleep, unfortunately, in the morning hours, and then sleeping right through my alarm, arriving late at work every day this week. It's a luxury that I can do that without someone cracking a whip on me. It's also a luxury that I can still show up and do my yoga, albeit with my engines running barely at "impulse power" (a reference only meaningful to Star Trek fans).

Lately, I have had several people ask me what it is about yoga that makes me so attracted to it. It would be easy to rattle off a list of 5-10 things that are all significant. But there's one thing that I try to offer, when I want to drive home a point that will hopefully "stick," without having my audience tune out, or think I am getting all woo-woo. That one thing is "Yoga has helped me to realize that any change that's worth happening in life is going to happen gradually." I shared this with someone today who was, on the one hand, telling me how great it was that I do yoga but, on the other hand, saying she could never do it herself. That's exactly how I used to feel, as you've heard me say before. I was "too tight" to do yoga. I am still tight, but now I have a much better understanding of how I am tight, and how I am not tight.

A year ago, I would have been awfully frustrated with showing up for a yoga class and having a different teacher than I expected to have. I would have probably thought "Why should we have to be putting up with this?" if the class were harder, hotter, more confusing, or whatever the case may be. The gradual change that's come about over the past year is that I no longer have those attachments to expectation. I can still become excited about the prospect of a class, or whatever it may be. But that anticipation doesn't interfere as much with my experiencing of the reality of the situation when it arrives.

I'll tell you a bit more about that when I talk about the Similan Islands.

11 January, 2013

Finding the balance between "off" and "on"

I used to get nervous and try to control everything, when faced with uncertainty. I suppose it is progress that I’ve let go of that to a great extent. But what I have noticed in its place is a new tendency to transition to a flat affect in the face of any type of pressure, whether it be an argument, or a stressful situation. It’s my new coping mechanism. And that’s interesting to me, because it’s a case of overcompensation. I spent so many years amped-up, and didn’t like the way that felt. Finally, I reached a point where shutting down was a viable alternative. But the ultimate balance will need to be somewhere in the middle. And it is not necessarily an averaging of the two extremes. It would be more accurate to ask “How can I be fully present, without being reactive?”

One way that I have seen this attenuation manifest itself has been when I am about to go on a trip somewhere new. It happened when I went to Italy a few months ago, and then it happened again for the past few days before this trip. It creates a bit of an awkward feeling for me, too, from a social perspective. People will say to me “You must be getting excited about your trip!” And my response is “Actually, not really. I am not really feeling anything. I can’t even really believe I will be going anywhere.” That ends up also creating a bit of depression, because then I start doing this “should” thing, where I think “Well, it’s kind of depressing that I should be feeling excited, but I am feeling nothing.” That’s one of the downsides. Another thing I have noticed is that I am much less of a planner than I used to be. I remember, when I was younger, I would have such a rich sense of what the experience was going to be like, from all the reading and planning I would do, that the actual experience was a bit like going to a movie after already reading the book: “Oh, yes. There’s the giant piece of driftwood they described on this secluded beach… Yes, it was extremely ill-advised to try to drive the rental car over those lava rocks… Yes, there were, indeed, howler monkeys on that trail… No, the food at the hotel was not worth the money…”

I have mixed feelings about that. Glass could either be half full or half empty here. On the one hand, I am not “reading up” on Thailand (though I do have all the books with me). But, on the other hand, part of me just wants to show up, and only plan so far ahead of me as I can see: “What should we do today?” rather than “At this time, on Wednesday, we’ll be eating Pad Thai from this vendor who got a really good review in Lonely Planet.”

In reality, I know what will happen. Once we actually hit the ground, we’ll start planning the time. And I also exaggerate, because we did book all of our accommodations, and in-country flights, and we booked two full-day snorkeling trips. So it’s not as if we’re landing without a clue. But I am curious about why I am not fueling the fire of excitement regarding this experience, which is about 13 hours away from becoming the present moment.

09 January, 2013

Yoga teaches us to never say never

Today was Power Vinyasa with Carley.

And it was also the first time that I've ever rested comfortably and deeply in Virasana, or Hero's Pose. This is a pose where you crouch on your knees with your feet and calves folded under you, the tops of your feet on the floor, and sit all the way down. It's intentionally a compression of the lower leg, and it requires a degree of flexibility in both the knees and quadriceps, as well as the feet and ankles. For a year and a half, I have not done this pose fully, and usually not at all. It hurt my right knee so much to compress onto it, that I had even made the proclamation to myself and others that this was just a pose that I was "never" going to be able to do. For those of you who are not yogis, I should back up and make it clear that this is not an advanced pose. It's not challenging, nor strenuous. In fact, it is supposed to be an incredibly restful, meditative posture. But until now, it was a pose that was not available to me because of the physiology of my body.

A few months ago, I think in Elizabeth McElveen's class, we were told to sit in Virasana, or to put a block under us if the position was not possible otherwise. And we spent a long time sitting in the pose. What I discovered, much to my surprise, was that it became a little less unbearable to be in the position the longer I spent in it. This made me curious. I started to want to take this position, on the block, every time we are asked to sit. Rather than sitting cross-legged, I choose this one now. And it keeps feeling more and more available. And when I sit in the pose at the start and end of a class, I can always notice a big difference at the end of a class. So today, I felt more loose than I'd felt perhaps ever before, and decided at the end of class to try Virasana without the block (at the start of class, an attempt without the block was still too tender). But sure enough, there it was. I'm in the pose. That which my body had not been able to do it is now able to do. There's no doubt about it. It's not subtle.

There are really two lessons here. One is that it's really important to listen to my body when it's telling me that I can't yet do a pose. And to not get angry, or sad, or impatient, or force it. But the other lesson is to not run away from it permanently, because what wasn't available a year ago may now be available. There were just other things I needed to focus on first, and I am not even really sure what those were. Only that the progress has been made that enabled this tangible milestone.

Lesson three (I know I said there were two lessons) is that we should never say "never." Or, alternatively, we should listen to ourselves when we are saying "never," and make a mental note to keep exploring all those nevers, and seeing if we can't surprise ourselves.

I am sure it's a little amusing to fellow yogis to hear someone get so excited about Hero's Pose.

08 January, 2013

The Eightfold Path to Political Freedom

There's been a coalescence of forces lately in my life that are shaking many of the so-called "truths that I hold to be self-evident." There are a lot of scattered thoughts here, but I will try to paint a general picture.

The yoga practice, not surprisingly, has helped me to start gaining perspective in my life in all the ways that you'd expect: becoming less reactive, more of an observer, more at peace, better at listening to others, better at pursuing my goals patiently.

A few months ago, I participated in my first "book club" where we read a book by Iyengar, that presented many of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga practice. One of the things that really stuck with me, so much that I set it as my official "intention" moving forward from the book club, was the notion of "Right Action, based on Right Knowledge." That comes from something known as the Noble Eightfold Path, which is full of all sorts of great stuff, which I'll leave you to read the original sources for elaboration. But I wanted to share this figure from the Wikipedia page, which shows the factors:

The reason this stuck with me is because it resonates with the "researcher" in me. Who wouldn't want to take "right" action based on "right" knowledge? Yet, so often we do not. It's essentially an unattainable goal, but something that can always be worked toward. You can get closer and closer, even if never arriving there.

Lately, some of the events in the world, such as the fiscal cliff and the Newtown shootings, had me feeling very strongly about questions of political, economic, and ethical nature. These strong feelings led to my doing a lot of spewing forth of vitriol on my Facebook page, and to anyone who would listen. By and large, this is comprised of a supportive audience of like-minded folks: call them liberals, Democrats, whatever you wish. However, there were a few dissenting voices. Three to be exact. I am generally inclined, in the paradigm of my ideology, to dismiss these dissenting voices as being typical, expected, whatever, based on what I believe I know about the worlds of the individuals who were making the statements.

At many times in my life, this would have been the end of it. I would have held my ground, dismissed the oppositional views as ridiculous, selfish, uninformed, biased, etc. And moved on with my current beliefs. But this time, perhaps because of all this "inner work" (I hate that expression, but it applies) I have been doing, I ended up having a series of discussions and debates with one friend about issues such as gun control, regulation, taxation. In some instances, these discussions have resulted in a change in my views. In other cases, I don't know that I have changed my views, but I understand the issues now to be far less black and white than I thought, and far less about others being stupid, or selfish, or uninformed. Rather, the case is often that issues are extremely complex, and one's philosophy and ethics barely serves as a dim light for navigating situations where there's no clear path.

But what it has made me think about is that, as a nation, and perhaps even when considering most civilizations, "free thinking" is overshadowed by the desire to subscribe to a community that shares beliefs and ideals. The vast majority of us rally behind the labels of Democrat or Republican, even though the vast majority of us, when pressed, have quite different beliefs on a large percentage of the issues than the legislative agendas of either party. We're even told in our culture that supporting a third-party candidate is "throwing your vote away." Even now, for some, Ralph Nader, who actually is a free thinker, has been forever vilified for "delivering" George W Bush to the White House. All that, in spite of the fact that his views actually would have better served many of those who were so angry at his candidacy.

So, what I'm basically saying here is that living by "right action, based on right knowledge," in modern society, might mean having the courage to think about the issues on our own, and come to our own conclusions, based on what data we can find, rather than just subscribe to one of two party-based agendas. That's not easy, because it takes time. And it's also not easy because it means we sometimes will be sacrificing that sense of belonging that comes with saying "Yeah, me too!"