Monday, December 30, 2013

A few of my favorite things (about practice)

It occurred to me yesterday, as I was taking a solo hike in a forest overlooking the sea, that what I've taken away from my yoga practice can very well be applied to ANY practice. It also occurred to me, that as the year is coming to a close, many will resolve to start a yoga practice. If that is you, hooray! I have many students who came to classes in a January and are still around, practicing regularly, and I would venture to say that their lives are better for it.  You want to know what is required to make your resolve more than a January fling? It is less about physical alignment and more about attitude adjustment. Here are some of the absolute non-negotiables that you'll need in order to build a lasting relationship to your practice:

1. Sincerity: if you come to a teacher and by extension to a practice, be sincere about wanting to learn. Often what we think we know gets in the way of deeper knowing. This goes for those of you who don't have a teacher and like me, practice at home. Every time you step on your mat, sit at your piano, or talk with your family on the phone,--whatever your practice may be at the moment--sincerely open to learning, to not knowing, to receiving. There is tremendous freedom in not knowing, and yes, when it comes to learning, you get extra points for enthusiasm.

2. Curiosity: don't lose it. The quickest way for your practice to become stale and take a backseat to everything else in your life is to lose your curiosity. If you get bored in your practice, the chances are you are not paying attention. How can you stay engaged? How can you find ways to want to know more? How can you practice presence when learning?

3. Consistency: You want results? Practice often and with consistency. Repeat what is really difficult for you. I took my first yoga class at 17, then didn't go back until 19. I went through periods of being really excited about practice that would last a few months, and then letting it slide because life got crazy. It wasn't until ten years later when I was desperate enough to be long-term consistent that I saw the effects of practice in my life and in my body.
Want more proof? I live with a musician. When he is learning a new tune, he will play it over and over and over for hours, day after day. How else would he learn it? If you are posturally-driven in your yoga practice, how do you expect to learn the fancy moves if you don't put in the effort? If you are spiritually-motivated, how do you expect to learn patience, become calmer, and have an appropriate response to the situations in your life if you don't put in the time for practice? To expect otherwise is simply crazy.

4. Boundaries: We need them. We thrive in them. Anything-goes and do-anything-you-want-anytime-you-want can be dangerous, as they fan the flames of well-established habit patterns. Whatever your practice is, create a container for it: a set time, a set space, a certain level of ritual to get you in the proper head-space. You'll find that there is abundant freedom to be found when the edges are clearly marked.

5. Love of practice: chances are if you love what you do, you'll have no problems maintaining it. Examine your definition of love to include the practices that are difficult, that force you out of your comfort zone, that ask of you to be a bigger person, that scare the shit out of you. Love the process of practice rather than the results of it. Read that last sentence again.

6. Commitment: don't be afraid of it. Or, if you're afraid of it, notice it, examine the why, and make a conscious choice to give it importance in your life. Recently I was talking with a bright sophomore in college who told me how he notices a glorification of lack of commitment among his peers. It's in our culture to window shop, to look for something else, to not stick with any one discipline. Why? Because we can. Ask yourself if it's serving you. Ask it often.

7. Perseverance: If the practice gets difficult, and if you're lucky it will, choose to practice showing up. Choose to practice consistency, commitment, and respect within your set boundaries and practice letting go of negative self-talk. Yes, things can be hard. What you've been working toward may feel really far away, while for others, the same thing comes rather effortlessly. No one said life is fair. Get over it, and, practice. We're all in this together. We all have our own set of grievances, our own limitations, our own strengths. Comparison may be inevitable, but it doesn't help anything. Also, if you slip up, keep coming back to it. It's not all or nothing.

8. Flexibility: Hopefully you know I'm not talking about putting your legs behind your head, rather, redefine practice and its boundaries. Be open to practicing when conditions are not perfect (they rarely are), be open to practicing when you don't feel at your best, be open to practicing when the world around you is falling apart. In fact, be open to practicing all the time. The time on the mat is play compared to all the non-controlled practices of your life. Enjoy the play! It's a luxury.

9. Respect: have respect for what you are learning, who you are learning it from, and the tradition that it comes from. Have respect for the time that you are spending in practice; don't waste it. For whatever reason, you may not have that time again tomorrow. Have respect for the people you are practicing with, near or far, and make it less about yourself and more about those who really need it. It doesn't have to be a verbal show of dedication. Quiet gestures go a long way. At least in the yoga practice, where we become attuned to energies, less talk is more.

10. Compassion: figure out the difference between compassion and self-indulgence. Compassion is kindness in thought and action, self-indulgence is to give in to negative patterns and repeat them. Example: to not practice when you have a fever is practicing compassion toward yourself and others around you; to beat yourself up for not practicing is to indulge patterns of self-flagellation that probably extend to other parts of your life.

11. Patience: to learn something new takes dedication and time. A big part of any practice is developing patience: plant the seeds and do not hover over them until they grow. Give it time. It goes hand in hand with enjoying the process rather than counting and picking the fruits before they ripen.

12. Sense of humor: when all else fails, laugh. When all else feels like a burden, feels like crumbling walls inside and out, feels like the world has turned against you, open your mouth and laugh a great big laugh as if you were mad. Let the sound be catharsis. Let your breath move in this new way. Laugh and move on. Feeling sorry for yourself is fun only for a short while; unstuck yourself as swiftly as possible, and get on with, you guessed it, practice!

Here's to a new year filled with enthusiastic, heart-felt, sincere, dedicated practice! Onward! (and don't be afraid to fall!)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The gift of Pain

 It seems that I've been having the same conversation with several different students lately. This conversation revolves around why we do what we do, and what does it mean, and how to maintain the practice when there is pain and discomfort in the body. 

I've mentioned before how pain and my desire to be rid of it brought me to yoga initially. While I am in a much healthier place than I was when I started, largely due to the gradual lifestyle and outlook changes that yoga inspired in my life, I am not pain free. I have periods of intense, recurring pain. What is different for me now, is that I am involved in my own well-being. Yoga allows me to engage with pain, rather than run from it. But you see, engaging with pain has always been my preferred method, though not always in a healthy way. By nature, I  tend to move into intensity, rather than away. In the past, this mostly manifested as suffering: depressive episodes, periods of intense sadness, and enjoying the sadness enough to perpetuate it. Nowadays, yoga provides me with the container to be with intensity, even revel in it, and get to actively observe the why, the who, and the how of my particular predicament (or gift, depending on my perspective and mood). Now, on my mat, I relate to my pain. I examine its many facets and manifestations, its root causes, my involvement in its dramas, and I am able to shift it. Before you get the idea that I somehow enjoy pain and chase it, I have to tell you that what I've learned to enjoy is active participation in my life. My practice is a place where I can safely delve into the uncomfortable parts of myself and come out of the other end more or less whole. Pain brought me to my mat, but what keeps me returning to it is the memory of those ephemeral moments of insight, of great pleasure, of ecstatic ease, of letting the pain and its many stories go. Of not allowing pain to swallow me whole. That inexplicable state of flow, our inevitable craving for more of that, the honeymoon phase of our love affair with the practice, is useful, necessary even. It is this physical attachment to pleasure (egoic or purely of the body), that you must call on to see you through the mundane or even unpleasant periods.

Why I do this practice is a question I ask of myself periodically, and the answers are always changing. The layer that was relevant, no matter how embarrassingly un-evolved from today’s vantage point, served its function of bringing me to this soon to shift layer. The more I practice, the more I realize that it is not about the postures. I know this, yet, if I didn’t love to try to figure them out, I wouldn’t continue with asana practice. If I didn’t, all else considered, cherish the sheer physicality of it all, I wouldn’t keep at it year after year, day after day.

You may be different. Your relationship with the practice does not have to look like mine. This all should go without saying, but I realize that it’s good to be up front about the language. What I’m suggesting is that regardless of how you relate to your practice, you must learn to love it. Otherwise, it won’t last. You must form an internal relationship with it; more than trying to figure out the physical alignment of the postures, you must be willing to inhabit the energetics of them. Richard Freeman comes to mind: his way of penetrating the practice is through vivid imagery and subtle energetics. David Garrigues looks at it through the lens of dynamism. Chuck Miller's obsession is with the very concept of sama as it takes shape in the various postures. You must learn how to get inside the practice in your own way. Your teacher can't do that for you. You must take the initiative, you must make the effort, you must want it very very badly and be willing to work for it.

If you allow it, this practice will wake you up. If you pay attention, the practice will show you to yourself. If you don't react, your attitude towards pain will shift. But you must practice presence most diligently.

That's how you will show up to practice whether you are inspired or not. You will be a detective in your own body. You will learn to become a healer of your own ills. You will be grateful for every bit of breath that you manage through your beautiful lungs.

I hear this often from new students: this practice is like a drug! What they mean to say is that I am falling in love. I want more. I'm feeling things that I've never felt before. I feel like I have wings. What I often say to them is twofold: enjoy this phase, and, shift your thinking about it as less of a drug and more like brushing your teeth, or, better yet eating a meal. Something you do everyday to stay healthy and to be a pleasant person. Some meals are going to be mindblowingly amazing; some will be rice and beans. If you think that your practice will always feel like this very short-lived honeymoon phase, chances are when the plateau hits, you won't stick it out; you'll move on to something else. If you think of it as a drug, you'll burn out chasing the high of breakthroughs (physical and emotional). If you practice for a very long time, chances are most of your practices will be uneventful. Manage your expectations early on. 

So, let the honeymoon phase dazzle you; get into it and really revel in it. And, let the uninspired periods of necessary plateau be a chance to get to know yourself day in day out; plateaus are periods of dormant integration. And if there are dips, injuries, and pain along the way, let them show yourself to you fully in your capacity to be with discomfort, because, let's be honest, we all know pain is coming. Whether we like it or not, we do not live forever. If we are very lucky, our bodies grow old and decay. You are alive now. Inhabit yourself fully.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kapotasana and Kino MacGregor

So, this is happening:

(I did an instructional video for Grokker, a site for Yoga, Fitness, and Cooking enthusiasts, and Kino MacGregor wrote a companion piece for it.)