Life may be absurd, but why stop searching for meaning?
My asana practice has felt a bit stagnant lately. I feel like I've been stuck on a plateau with no clue how to get to the next level. I do a daily practice at home, but almost begrudgingly because I know that if I don't there will be unfortunate consequences.
Dealing with anxiety flare ups is among those consequences. Daily asana practice keeps me not only feeling better physically, but it keeps me mentally and emotionally balanced as well. I am less reactive, more patient and more in control of my responses in general.
These past few weeks have been a bit mad...our "dependable" vehicle bit the dust, I started 300hr Yoga teacher training (which involves me driving to 2 hours to St. Louis few times a month), I started recording a new podcast with my sister-in-law (@hathasisters if you want to check that out), and I've been focusing on transitioning our household to Spring (which means lots of cleaning, organizing, and gardening).
How is it that with so much going on I have not had one anxiety attack? I didn't even freak out when my car was smoking on the side of the road leaving me stranded off of I-70. I also didn't allow worry about how I would get to my Yoga classes in St. Louis. In the recent past, that would have been the first thing on my mind. It's pretty liberating living in the present moment. Especially when shit hits the fan. At least if you are paying attention you have a chance at dodging the poo.
We can't stop shit from hitting the fan, but we can work on how we respond when it happens. Mastering asanas is possibly the best way of going about this. Even a fairly straightforward posture like Downward Facing Dog can reveal so much about how we handle conflict. I used to get SO ANGRY in that pose, now I could stay in it for 15 minutes, no problem.
There are a lot of postures I can do now with no trouble that used to be really hard for me, but that doesn't mean I should stop reaching for new levels of body and breath control. I have been doing more pranayama and applying bandhas to improve my focus and concentration. I have also been working on strengthening my core in back bends and working on difficult inversions, like Scorpion.
This image of me doing scorpion makes me cringe a little. All I can see are my weaknesses and where I need to improve. It's hard for me to appreciate where I am because I have been stuck here for so long! This is what a plateau feels like, you think to yourself “there's no way I could go any further” and yet in this case I know in my gut that it's not true!
I realize that to some people this already looks impressive. I am definitely proud of the changes Yoga has brought about in my body. I NEVER would have guessed I'd be doing poses like this when I was in my early 20s. Now I'm 30 and I feel like my body is just getting better with age (and the wisdom that comes with it).
Of course, I have to work at it. I get on the mat daily, but I am finding that I need to spend a bit more time there in order to really find what I'm searching for. I want a new perspective on things. I want to be able to look at my problems and then flip them and turn them in my mind easily, without attachment, fear and worry.
I want to promote ease in my mind and body. This means searching for dis-ease and liberating myself from it gradually. That is what asana allows, a gradual, steady change, that not only affects your body, but your mind as well.
I love books. Walk into my house and you will immediately see books everywhere you look. I have a hard time reading one book at a time. I flutter from book to book taking what I can use to improve my life.
Most of the books I read are non-fiction and centered on spiritual and personal development (shocker, I know!). There are some books I come back to again and again because the content is so useful. The Yoga Handbook by Noa Belling is one such book.
The Yoga Handbook: Great for Teachers and Students
This book was assigned in my 200 hour Yoga teacher training with West East Yoga in St. Louis. We used it in class along with a few other resources to break down each Yoga position for study and reflection. It is a great tool for teachers, but I also see it as a welcome mat companion to anyone who is developing their home practice. I often refer it to my students to help them take their learning to a deeper level.
Grouping Postures to Learn with Efficiency
The most helpful feature of this book is the layout. It is color coded by asana families. Asana is the Sanskrit word for Yoga positions, or postures. An asana family is a grouping of postures that share a similar theme. For example, the book groups several back bending postures in the section title Back Bends. There are also seated postures, forward bends, standing poses and so on. It helps give someone who is new to Yoga a way to remember the alignment for postures not simply one-at-a-time, but as a posture family.
Meeting Yourself Where You Are
There are also plenty of variations and safety precautions listed in this book. One of the things I worry about with new students is them taking things too fast and accidentally harming themselves. In Yoga we do things gradually and with respect for the current state of the body and mind. This book help a beginner Yogi adjust the postures to meet their needs and reminds them about proper warm-ups and proper relaxation as part of the balanced Yoga practice.
An Ancient Practice
It also includes a brief history of Yoga which helps the new Yogi connect to the roots of the practice. Yoga has withstood the test of time and continues to help humankind better themselves. I think it is important to take a moment to appreciate the influence Yoga has had on humanity for centuries.
More Than Just Poses
Finally, their is a section called Yoga Principles that explains how Yoga differs from other forms of exercise. This section helps one cultivate the mindset of a Yogi and can set you up for a better experience of the asanas.
If you are new to Yoga I hope you order yourself a copy of this book. Let me know how it works out for you!
the four noble truths
Before I begin telling you about Tonglen, I would first like to walk you through some Buddhism 101. In my experience most Westerners don't really understand what Buddhism is really all about, so this short introduction may help some of you connect with Tonglen more deeply.
The foundation of Buddhism is a doctrine known as the Four Noble Truths. Very simply stated they are:
- Suffering exists
- Suffering arises from attachment to desires
- Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
- Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path
Humans are not perfect beings, we make mistakes which lead to our own suffering. Much of our suffering is due to our desire to have things or to control things. For example, sexual desire leads some men to take advantage of women, which leads to suffering for both parties. Sometimes we repress sexual desire, but never really release it in a healthy way, which also leads to suffering.
In Buddhist teachings, we can liberate ourselves from suffering by practicing non-attachment. By letting go of our desires we also let go of the suffering that comes from our attachment to having and controlling.
We see this all the time in intimate relationships. People act is if being in a monogamous relationship means ownership of the other person. The desire to control what the other person does, who they speak to, how they dress, act, speak, etc...this kind of attachment, this desire to have the person, to make them our own is not healthy for either party. It ultimately leads to suffering.
Tonglen meditation was introduced to me by my cousin Emily on a recent trip to her farm in Avon, IL. She mentioned it in passing and I was struck by the sound of the word. It seemed familiar to me, and yet I am sure I have never practiced or discussed it before.
I immediately set the intention to learn more about this practice of compassionately transforming darkness into light. As I looked into it, I realized I have intuitively done meditations like this without formal training or study of this concept. I am sure many other Reiki practitioners and holistic healers have done the same, but I believe it does help us evolve our practice to learn more about ancient techniques that have withstood the test of time.
This description from the article How to Practice Tonglen struck me as a wonderful introduction to this meditation practice,
Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age- old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others
Try it for yourself
Learn how to practice Tonglen Meditation with Pema Chödrön. Pema Chödrön is a well known teacher who brings the practices of Tibetan Buddhism to Western audiences with skill and grace.
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite spiritual authors. His words are soothing and simple. I can feel his kindness eminate through his writing.
His book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames has been especially important to my self-healing journey. In this book he teaches how to have compassion for yourself when dealing with the heavy emotional weight of anger.
There is of course no quick fix for most of life’s big problems, and dealing with anger is no exception. The seeds of anger are often planted during childhood and remain hidden from our conscious view for many years. Each time we become angry those seeds are watered and the tree of anger grows within us. A tree is a much harder thing to remove than a seedling, and so it is with long-held anger, it’s real son-of-a-bitch to get rid of!
My favorite part about this book is that in its simplicity it offers hope. Just because we have allowed the seeds of anger to grow in us does not mean we have to live out our lives as angry people. He teaches us to separate who we truly are from the anger we carry. This objective view of our emotions is helpful when it comes to altering our behaviors. We can take the same approach with the thinking mind, learning to step back and form an objective view of the happenings of the mind. Most of our human suffering stems from overidentification with the mind.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we view our anger like a baby who is crying for attention. Instead belittling ourselves because of our anger, which only serves to feed the problem, he suggests a more compassionate and gentle approach. When angered we must learn to self soothe, in much the same way we soothe an infant who is having a hard time.
The reason it is so important to address anger is obvious to anyone who has ever done something they regretted while in an angry state. Anger robs us of our higher mental functioning. When we are angry the animal part of ourselves takes control, and depending on how much we have fed our anger we may lose control completely. The things we regret doing in a state of anger can lead to shame and guilt. All these unresolved, painful emotions can build up over time and damage our self esteem and our relationships.
If you want to understand your anger better, and learn simple techniques for howto resolve that anger then I suggest reading this beautiful book. You can order it on Amazon or check it out at your local library and start healing your pain with mindfulness and self compassion.
"Every action, thought, and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intentions is a cause that exists as one with an effect. If we participate in the cause, it is not possible for us not to participate in the effect. In this most profound way we are held responsible for our every action, thought and feeling, which is to say, four our every intention." - Gary Zukav (The Seat of the Soul)