Resolve to Intend

If you’re anything like me, you may view New Year’s Resolutions as just another chance to set yourself up for failure.  After all, how likely is it that you’ll really only eat whole, unprocessed foods or exercise daily for the next 365 days?  Last year, I resolved to meditate 10 minutes daily with a caveat that I wouldn’t beat myself up for missing a day now and then.  Even that moderate resolution fell to pieces by about March.

Lately, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of integrating the Resolution with the Intention. Before many yoga classes, you’re invited to set an intention for practice, a way of drawing the mind inward, away from the world and toward your goal or intention of choice. Again, if you share my monkey-brained tendencies, you may find this invitation frustrating rather than, well, inviting.  When the monkey mind is asked to focus, it often does anything but.  Perhaps this is laziness on my part, but what if you could set a New Year’s Resolution that could then ALSO be your weekly (or occasional) yoga intention?  What if you could integrate the best of the intention with the best of the resolution?

Look first at the two words: resolve, intend. Resolve, as a verb, makes me want to clench my teeth and push through the pain. There’s a steeliness about the idea of resolve, a gritty set of the jaw. Intend, on the other hand, strikes me as a little more compassionate. If you intend to do something, there’s a built-in release valve, a way to graciously let yourself off the hook.  Choosing intend over resolve for just that reason can get dicey, though: “Gee, I’m sorry.  I intended to be nicer to you this year, but golly if the year didn’t just get away from me!”  But remember, we’re not choosing between resolve and intend, we’re examining them for their best qualities – resolve: discipline; intent: compassion – and combining those ideas.

Part of my problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they happen only once a year.  Inevitably, I need reminders about these big changes more frequently than annually.  Setting an intention occurs with greater frequency, whenever you attend a yoga class.  In rolling the New Year’s Resolution into the setting of an intention, you’re building reminders into your goal setting.  It’s a lot like setting yourself up to succeed (or to become a nag, depending on your perspective).  It’s not taking the easy way out, it’s integrating the best of both ideas - a big, bold, brassy resolution with the gentler reminders of intention - again a set-up for success.

For 2012, I’ve chosen satya, or truthfulness, as my reso-tention/inten-lution. Does that meant that come midnight 12/31/12 I expect to have accomplished truthfulness?  Crossed it off my task list?  Of course not.  I have purposefully chosen a resolution much bigger than my to-do list with the expectation that, as I gently set my intention each week in yoga practice, I will strengthen my resolve to be more truthful in other areas of my life as well.  As I practice truthfulness in class – am I being honest about pain versus intensity? am I stopping to ask questions when I don’t understand? – I expect I’ll begin to see other opportunities for honesty off the mat, as well.

The Folly of Fast Life

Recently I re-heard a Fresh Air interview with Grant Achatz , the famous avant-garde chef who lost his sense of taste to cancer and then got it back.  It’s a fascinating interview and if you have a half-hour, take a listen.  At his latest restaurant Alinea, in Chicago, you’re likely to see 20+ courses cross your placemat; 23 tiny, tiny, two- to three-bite courses.  Achatz is playing with the concept of diminishing returns.  In the interview, he says that the first two to three bites of food are all you really notice; by bite five, you’re probably eating just to clear the plate.  It’s a cool idea – tiny bits of taste to titillate the tastebuds – but it also put me in mind of its opposite, the slow food movement.  From the Slow Food Austin website: “We believe in elevating the quality of our food and taking time to enjoy it as a simple way to infuse our daily lives with joy.  We stand against the folly of fast life. ”  Ahhh.  Whereas I heard Achatz’s description of his many-mini-coursed meals and thought, Neat, but isn’t that food ADD?, I read about Slow Foods and felt myself relaxing.

There’s a famous mindfulness food exercise* that encourages focused attention on an everyday food.  Pick up one raisin (if you don’t like raisins, try any other dried fruit) and try the steps below:

    • See it.  Get up close and look at the wrinkles, the folds and ridges.  Notice where the light hits and where there is shadow.
    • Touch it.  Roll it around between your fingers and in the palm of your hand.  Really feel it – texture , weight, moist- or dry-ness.  Close your eyes while you do this.
    • Smell it.  Have you ever smelled a raisin?  Do it.  What happens in your mouth, in your mind, in your stomach?
    • Place it.  Notice how the raisin gets to your tongue, and where on your tongue it lands.  Notice how hard it is not to immediately start chewing.
    • Taste it.  Chew slowly.  Be aware of where you’re chewing, and again, how difficult it can be to not swallow right away.  What does a raisin taste like?  (Don’t you dare say “raisin!”)
    • Swallow it.  Have you been fighting the urge to swallow already?  What does that need feel like?  Does taste linger after swallowing?  Do you want another?

Of course, you don’t have time to eat this way all the time, but use this exercise as a jumping off point, and see how your meals change, whether you’re eating filet mignon or beans and rice.

I have no beef with Achatz.  Like I said before, it’s a cool idea.  There’s a time and place for fast-paced food, for the excitement and intensity that 23 tiny, unusual courses can bring.  I just think there’s more of a need to slow down, to pay attention to your life, and why not start with food?  By bringing your mind deeper into each eating experience, you’re meeting not just your physical need for nutrition, but also your mental and emotional need to slow down and be aware.

 
 
*This exercise is adapted from the book, The Mindful Way Through Depression by Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn

Free Day of Yoga: 5 Things to Love

1.  Free-ness.  It’s all in the name.

2.  Spirit of Adventure.  There’s something about free yoga that makes you say, “Sure, I’ll try Japanese Zen Circus Yoga on a Paddleboard!”  What have you got to lose?

3.  New Faces, New Places.  So often, you see the same teachers (your amazing favorites) every week (as you should!).  On Free Day, though, it’s new faces and places for all.  (See Spirit of Adventure above)

4.  Beginners’ Mind (aka my favorite part of Free Day).  Since you’re probably out there adventuring (for free!) with new faces in new places, you can – just for the day – leave behind the idea of what-you’re-supposed-to-know-about-yoga and be a beginner again.  Isn’t it nice to let go of those expectations?

5.  Did I mention it’s free?

 

Thank you, thank you to everyone who came out to participate in Free Day of Yoga on Monday! 

Keep yoga-ing!!

Yoga citta vrtti nirodha

 Yoga – 8-limbed path, citta – mindstuff (i.e. your mind when you’re not paying it any mind),
vrtti – fluctuation, revolution, nirodha – to make something cease to exist
 
 

The Yoga Sutras were written way back in BCE by a sage named Patanjali.  Sutra means thread, so these are threads of wisdom or knowledge about yoga.  The Sutras are divided into 4 chapters, each chapter with 30-50 sutras.  Some sutras are simple and aphoristic, others complex and weighty.  Every time you read a sutra (individually) or the Sutras (collectively) you walk away with a deepened understanding of yogic philosophy – it’s a lifelong study.

This sutra, Yoga citta vrtti nirodha, is one of my all-time favorites.  It’s the second sutra in the Sutras, so I consider it pretty fundamental, as in In The Beginning There Was Yoga Citta Vrtti Nirodha.  When you put together the definitions of all those individual Sanksrit words, you come up with something like “yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind,” or “yoga stills the attachment to the fluctuations of the mind.”  This has always been an appealing idea to me, as I often feel that my mind runs the show, and my mind-as-ringmaster isn’t always looking out for the rest of me.  Sad but true, making the concept that yoga could help quiet the mind quite enticing.

This week, I’ve noticed two new ideas in this simple sutra.  First, Patanjali’s not saying “IF you have citta vrtti,” he’s just assuming that every reader does.  Whew!  I don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed of my monkey mind because this great sage, Patanjali, implied that this is something we all face.  Probably (gasp!) even Patanjali.  Not only did he imply that we all struggle with the mind, he put this sutra up front and center in recognition of the fact that, for those interested in the study of yoga (or any form of meditation), we often find that our minds get in the way.  This brings me to the second idea I’ve been mulling over this week.  If monkey mind makes quiet mind seem unreachable, what can we do about it?  The term vrtti (fluctuation or revolution) pops up in all sorts of asanas, and can help give us a clue.  Many twists have a vrtti component: jathara parivartanasana (revolved belly pose), parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose), parivrtta parsvakonasana (revolved extended side angle pose).  What have I learned about mind vrtti by working with body vrtti?  First, it’s never a good idea to enter into any of these asanas with an I’m-going-to-kick-some-vrtti-ass attitude.  The more I force my idea of a twist on my reluctant body, the more tension builds in my trapezius muscles and the more likely I’ll be to wind up with a headache later in the day.  You simply cannot (successfully) muscle your way into vrtti poses.  Second, twists teach the importance of working with the breath.  Doing any twist, I always inhale to lengthen the spine and exhale to softly move deeper into the twist.  The breath is a gentle assist for vrtti in body and mind, inbreath encouraging expansiveness (length in the spine, openness in the mind) and outbreath encouraging movement toward change (healthy twist of the spine, quieting of the mind).

Take away lessons?  ONE: Don’t beat yourself up for having a mind-in-vrtti, we all do.  TWO: Don’t try to strong-arm your way to quiet mind.  And THREE: Let the breath be your friend for loosening tension in body and mind. 

Yoga citta vrtti nirodha – giving hope to the monkey-minded-est among us!

Minding My Neck

I’ve been thinking lately about my posture, which, as a yoga teacher and student and as someone with sufficient anatomical knowledge to know better, is shockingly bad.  For those of you fellow slumpers, chew on this: when you slouch and allow the shoulders to round forward, your gaze is directed ever-so-slightly downward.  In order to look straight ahead, you have to slightly tilt your head back and stick your chin out.  Over time, this slump in the upper back and overextension of the neck become more and more ingrained as the muscles between your shoulder blades weaken from constant over-stretching (rounded upper back), and the muscles across the front of your chest tighten from constant under-stretching (hunched shoulders).  Therefore, bad posture often equals neck pain.  In my quest for good posture off the mat, I’ve started with the basics just as I start with beginners: shoulders down and back.  For the last month, I’ve been taking this idea everywhere, and, though I do sometimes catch myself slouching , more often, my default is becoming shoulders down and back.  (If you make this your own experiment, don’t expect it to come easily.  Shoulders-down-and-back is something that won’t feel so pleasant at first- the muscles required for good posture are tight and weak, and strengthening them can be fatiguing.  Not to put you off trying, mind you, just a reality check.)

As I observe my posture more closely, I’ve also noticed that whenever I lift something with my arms (or even lift my arms out in front of me), my neck muscles tense.  Constantly tensing the neck (and surrounding) muscles can lead to – you guessed it – more neck pain!  My current work on the mat is to pause long enough in every pose to soften both my neck and the huge trapezius muscle that runs from the base of the skull to the middle of the thoracic spine; when someone massages your “shoulders,” and they pinch that big, often tender muscle on the shoulder tops, that’s your trapezius.  In class, whether my arms are by my side or overhead, whether I’m right-side up or upside down, I ask myself: could my neck be more relaxed? could my trapezius soften?  This is not easy, but as I teach my students, I’m teaching myself as well.  Now the goal is to take this idea off the mat as well: this morning, as I lifted a full teapot off the stove, I caught a glimpse of myself in the microwave window and saw my shoulders bunched up to my ears.  With that image burned in my memory, I was motivated to keep softening those areas first, as I did the dishes, and now as I sit here typing.  Tonight when I brush my teeth, I’ll be watching myself in the mirror and asking:  could my neck be more relaxed? could my trapezius soften? 

All this good intention goes out the window when I’m in a hurry.  To add to my usual list of offensive neck-holding habits, when I’m in a hurry, I tend to – and this is really weird, I know – freeze my jaw with my teeth slightly separated and swish saliva quickly from the front of my mouth to the back.  It’s not something you can see (or else thank you all for not shunning my oddity!), but it’s something I catch myself doing several times every hour.  Especially when I’m in a hurry.  So this morning when I was rushing through chores, I kept stopping myself mid-jaw clench to take a deep breath, relax tongue and jaw and neck and trapezius, and only then move on.  It’s a lot to keep in mind - shoulders down and back, neck relaxed, cut the saliva-swishing – and I repeatedly forget.  But I’m minding my neck, both in the sense of tending it kindly, and also in the sense of inserting some part of my intelligent awareness into my neck, so my actions become more mind-full.  First, I will mind my neck consciously, reminding myself over and over (and over and over) to release the unwanted and encourage the desired movements; and then (hopefully!) unconsciously, as the healthier habits become as deeply ingrained as the painful ones once were.

Breathe Light, Breathe Dark

There’s a Buddhist meditation technique called lojong where you imagine breathing in darkness (fear, anger, claustrophobia, tension) and then breathing out light (love, compassion, spaciousness, relaxation).   Ultimately, you’re offering to breathe in the dark so there’s less in the world, and breathe out the light so there’s more.  I have always balked at this idea because it seems so self-martyring: let me take on the weight of the world so you don’t have to.  I do that enough already.  But there’s another way of thinking of it, one I like much better.

All of us have darkness within us – it’s already there, in the form of rage, jealousy, bitterness – and we spend a lot of time and energy running from that darkness, or pushing it away.  Lately, I’ve been trying lojong this way: in the beginning, I breathe into the darkness that’s already there, in the same way I’d breathe into a tight or injured body part.  Instead of shutting down and resisting my darkness, I look it square on and say, “I’m still breathing.”  So it’s not that we’re inviting darkness in, in this variation of the meditation, we’re not bringing in anything from outside of us, we’re just accepting that sometimes we feel bad, or think unkind thoughts, but if we breathe in space around those feelings and thoughts, we realize they’re not as overwhelming as we initially thought, and they have less impact.  And the outbreath, the “breathing out light” breath, is a softening of our identification with the darkness.  As much as I hate the dark things and thoughts in me, I find it much easier to identify with them: “I am angry or sad,” lingers longer than “I am content.”  And there is a lightness, a brightening of mind and body, that comes with releasing our constant battle to push away or deny those darker parts of us.  It’s not that we’re embracing our rage or depression so much as we’re forgiving our very human tendency towards those states.  So this lojong meditation becomes an acknowledgement of both those parts of us- the parts we like and cling to, and the parts we hate and try to make invisible.

After a little while of this more personal lojong practice, it then feels natural to open up and extend it outwards, not in the spirit of martyrdom, but in the spirit of compassion.  It’s a realization that this darkness and light that is in me, is also in everyone else, and learning to live with my own shadows and light makes me more willing to live with others’.   

 

Breathe light, breathe dark.  Live in dappled sunlight.

Effort & Ease

It’s one of the most famous sutras in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: sthira sukham asanam.  Translated, that’s something like, the posture is steady and comfortable.  Doesn’t sound too earth-shattering, so what’s all the fuss?  I’ve been discussing this verse with my students the last few weeks, looking at the individual words and searching for what’s radical in that simple sentence: the posture is steady and comfortableSthira means steady, firm, resolute; it is synonymous with work and effort.  Sukha means comfortable, easy, gentle; think release and relaxation.  Asana is the pose, posture, or seat.  In our practices, we are to look for the effort and the release in each pose; the work and the rest.

Still not blown away?  Here’s why I think this simple statement borders on revolutionary.  First, each of us, individually, tends towards either sthira or sukha.  I, for example, am more likely to push myself harder than is good for me (sthira) instead of resting when I need to (sukha).  So this sutra tells us that, within each asana, we should be balancing our own leanings towards effort or release.  On top of that, each pose contains differing levels of sthira and sukha for each person.  Again to use myself as an example, I love backbends; they make me feel great.  So when I do backbends, I usually find it easy to cultivate both sthira and sukha; I feel the effort of the pose, yes, but also the release as my chest and shoulders open and I relax into the work.  On the other hand, I do not love twists.  When I twist, all I can feel is the work: my shoulders tighten up, my neck tenses, my jaw starts to clench.  I have to consciously dig down to find the places in myself that are relaxed, happy, comfortable, and ease-ful in these twists.  So not only do we each have our overall propensities towards sthira and sukha, we also have complex and fluctuating relationships with the individual poses.

Now it’s getting interesting!  What if, bear with me here, you then extended this idea of sthira and sukha into your life off the mat?  Think of a challenging situation you’re facing at this moment.  You can probably feel the sthira start churning: your mind starts racing, your heart beats faster or your breathing speeds up.  How can you find the sukha, the sweetness, even here?  It’s not as simple as Pollyanna optimism: “just look on the bright side!”  I’m talking about something more organic.  Something like noticing those sensations of racing-mind-heart-breath, and then relaxing.  You can’t make the situation go away, but maybe you can stop grinding your teeth and internally fuming or worrying.  Maybe, for just 30 or 60 seconds, you could take a break from that sthira and allow yourself the space for sukha.  Again, I’m not advocating seeking out silver linings; sometimes life’s a bitch and you don’t have to like it.  In fact, it may really, really suck.  But instead of tensing up (which is our natural instinct when the fight-or-flight response kicks in), what if you looked for places where you could still relax – in your body, in your mind, in your life? 

Sthira sukham asanamThe pose is steady and comfortable.  May your life be more like that, as well.

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