Monday, June 17, 2013


For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about the same series of sentences:

Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. Then pure awareness abides in its own nature.

I’m not sure where I read this, in its language. It’s kind of a compilation of several translations I’ve read; although when I page through my own copies of the yoga sutras, usually in the back of any of a number of books—Ashtanga manual, The Heart of Yoga, a Stephen Cope book—none of these is quite right, none of them matches. A word is different, or the meaning changes somehow.

(Sidebar: it’s interesting that these words keeps floating up toward me, like scripture. I remember as a child being required to memorize verses: I John 4:7-8; I Corinthians 13, that ubiquitous love chapter read at every wedding you’ve ever attended; the 23rd Psalm. The idea, based on scripture, is that when you fill your head and heart with scripture, you equip the holy spirit with the tools to greet you internally with the verses that you need to stay strong or be encouraged or whatever. Sounds magical. Never mind the idea that the holy spirit should be powerful enough to reach you regardless of your ability to recall bible verses. I love magic, but in my experience, the dark side of this coin is that these verses get used as weapons by people who are trying to tell you what to do, or not to do, or who are trying to make themselves more comfortable. Frankly, I’d be more interested in the holy spirit just talking to me in plain English. I’d probably hear it better if I got a text message on my iPhone. Sounds jaded, sure, and I believe in the power of the divine enough to take any shape it needs to reach people who are open to being reached. But at this point in my life, I’m a little twitchy about a disembodied voice that speaks scripture into my brain. I imagine a combo of Jiminy Cricket, St. Paul and Pat Robertson. Shiver.)

So maybe this is new information, and in a minute I’ll pull it apart a little, but I just want to reflect first on the idea that yoga is not (just) poses: it’s not sun salutations or whether or not you can drop back to upward bow from standing, or how many arm balances you can hold or how long you can stay in headstand. Asana, right, the Sanskrit word meaning poses—yoga is not asana. Yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of the mind. Yoga is stillness, quiet. According to the Desikachar translation, “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” My absolute favorite definition so far is in The Wisdom of Yoga: “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.” It is as if all elements, all molecules, all thoughts and actions in us that are radiating out into the universe—and often outside of our control, much as we believe otherwise—are being brought closer and closer to the center of us, slower, closer, ever more still and quiet, until we are quiet, clear and undisturbed, like a glass-clear pond reflecting the world, to which you can see the bottom.

I like to think about this phrase, the patterning of consciousness, because I feel like that means so much. Just think about it for a minute: Consciousness is what you’re thinking, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about what you’re doing, what happens around you and how you respond to it: your awareness. How much are you conscious of, or not, in a given day? I know it takes me time to figure out what I’m reacting to that may not actually be present: for instance, this morning I was watching a TV show called Your House, My Money—and if that title doesn’t give you a clue, then I don’t know what will—and found myself all wound up. My chest was tight and I wasn’t breathing, my stomach was hard and (not that this doesn’t happen every day but) I was talking to the TV like we were having an argument: “You don’t have to live here. Either you want to help or you don’t, but you don’t get to control everything!” 

So I realized first: this show makes me feel like crap. Then, remote in hand, I thought, I don’t want to watch this show, and I clicked the TV off. Then I thought, wow, this is really quite a trigger for me. I don’t like watching adult children be bullied by their relatives and their relatives’ money, because I can remember many experiences when my parents bullied me with their money. Their money (and by extension their support and/or love) was forthcoming and boundless, so long as I made decisions they favored. It was really hurtful for me to feel like my parents were investing in the business that was me; they were the board of directors happy to write checks and smile benevolently at board meetings, so long as I brought back the returns that they wanted. It really damaged our relationship. 

The whole process start to finish probably took me five minutes or so, which is an eternity when you're talking about your brain's and body's ability to input information and respond to it. Maybe it happened a lot faster than that, but it felt slow.

So was I doing yoga this morning on my sofa watching HGTV? I doubt it, but maybe. I didn't spin off into a foul mood; instead I had a feeling, investigated it, understood it, and then it no longer controlled me. The patterns of my mind didn't cease, but they did slow. So maybe I was: houseandgardenasana.
I'm no yoga scholar to be sure, at least not yet, but I love that there's a practice that I can do that helps me look at my patterns: of thinking, of reacting, of ideas and behavior that I repeat over and over. I love that I have a way of discovering why I'm attracted to the same kind of woman as a friend, or why I struggle to find work that is both financially safe and emotionally satisfying, or why my Favorite and I may have the same fight over and over again.
Took this at a yoga studio in  Logan Square; the Tin Man is trying to get into adho mukha, and his little speech bubble says, "This is bullshit!" It made me laugh out loud. I'm wondering, what kinds of patterns occur in our asana practice that mirror our patterns off the mat?

How many of us really honestly examine our patterns? Flannery O'Connor says, "Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information to last him the rest of his days." Well, certainly enough writing material. To paraphrase my therapist (and Harville Hendrix), when we pick a mate, we're trying to work out some childhood damage with a parent. I know, I know, it's so trite we all want to gag, but maybe there's something to it. We're probably ruled by our unconscious patterns a whole lot more than we know. I remember watching patterns reenact themselves over and over in my family growing up: we all had our patterns that made us feel safe, or less bad or less scared or more present. Yoga, as a tool for slowing the patterning of consciousness, of shining a light on what is often so dark that we don't even know it or see it, sounds so exciting to me. Not only do we have a practice that can help strengthen our body and our breath, reduce our stress levels and help sharpen our focus (and here I'm talking about a few of the eight limbs of yoga, not just asana, aka limb #3), but it can help us understand why we got so mad at that barista who reminded us of our wicked grandmother.

So what does this mean? Do we have to spend the rest of our lives in Downward Dog? Are we going to have an epiphany in headstand one day, and suddenly we'll come out of the closet, and realize we've been so mean to our girlfriend because we really wish she was a man? Well, maybe. I heard Bryant Terry say in a speech that he was in a history Ph.D. program and was also doing a lot of yoga when he realized his destiny was to be a plant-based chef so he could bring healthy food to his community. So maybe with enough physical practice our enlightenment will change our lives. If you believe in your body's connection to your mind and soul, then it could totally happen. But this idea of yoga being an activity and a lifestyle that can give us the opportunity to grow, to understand ourselves more deeply, to  change who we are: I'm super-excited about that. I'll be thinking about these words for a while.

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