St- Cloud Yoga

A tangle of hopelessness and gratitude

The Dalai Lami responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris, like this:  "We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place . . . So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments." photo: Matt Mead

Meanwhile, I was making preparations for a silent retreat over the New Year, during which I plan to take my Buddhist vows.  Also, meanwhile, an unarmed black man was shot by the police, possibly while he was handcuffed.  And while police brutality against blacks has been increasingly covered in national news, this time it was local.  I haven't said much about this shooting.  I've talked about the others.  Someone asked why; if I was just overwhelmed, or was afraid that students would get tired of finding anxiety and pain in the studio instead of a respite, from it.

That isn't the reason.  Or all of it, anyway.

I haven't spoken of it yet because this local incident also involved domestic violence.  And while there was an immediate furor, protests, media coverage because all of our nerves are so frayed and this has happened so often, there was really no mention of the woman beaten by the man who was then shot.  I haven't said anything because I haven't been able to find the words for this tangled, complicated problem.  It is racism.  It is police brutality.  It is, also, domestic violence.

It is my niece's second birthday today.  Also, the birth of one of my best girlfriend's first child.  I was in the grocery store when I heard her daughter had been born.  I was shopping for milk, but staring at the tinsel and aisles of candy cane colored cheap shit that replaced the orange and black cheap shit of Halloween.  It isn't thanksgiving, yet, but Christmas insanity has descended upon commercial America.  Two pictures, via text message, that made me stop in place.

I am trying to figure out what gratitude means.  Or how to have it, when everything feels so very hopeless and I myself feel unable to make any difference at all.  There is so much harm in the world.  There is so much, wrong.

I've said, often, when I teach, that gratitude is the first thing I lose when I lose my practice.  I'm not making that up.  It's a palpable measure.  But I'm not sure I've ever managed to say how to find gratitude in the first place.

It's often hardest for me to sit meditation or to practice asana when the world seems awful.  Easier to practice asana.  Perhaps because tension and heartache are things I can feel in my body and I want, in a very controlling, urgent kinda way, to work out.  This is experienced truth, and I use it.

But it's probably also harder to sit meditation because I know how that works, too:  you sit and the real of whatever is happening comes up.  Complicated, terrible, terrorized, unsettling.  When days are hard I often just want to get through them, not sit with.

Yet I teach this stuff, and I know it, and so this morning I bolted myself to my blanket and I sat.

As expected: tears, anxiety, and a whole lot of "i don't know what to do I don't know what to say I can't do anything I can't help but this contradicts that contradicts all of it and nothing nothing nothing I can't".  Outright exhaustion, more tears, flippity heart and tight chest that is my brand of anxiety.  Rape victim rage, domestic violence victim rage, images of infants and nieces and black friend's faces, and handcuffs, and guns, and roaring sounds in my ears.

Not expected: gratitude.

I believe many things.  But some days, there isn't any hope left.  Without hope, there isn't any reason, either. And from there, just nihilism, rank and pissy.

Truths, left to their literal selves, stun me to helpless and I do nothing.  Meditation is where hopelessness becomes gratitude, and then action.

Truth number one is that black lives matter.  It's ridiculous that we have to affirm such a thing, enraging that we do, and yet true that we have to.  It's also true that all lives matter.  And it's also true that to say so as a retort to #blacklivesmatter is racist, completely dismisses the reality of racism, and redefines terms.  It is also true that gendered violence is endemic, silent, and taboo.  To say Jamar Clark was an abuser detracts from the argument that he was killed by the cops because he was black.  To not say he was keeps domestic violence taboo and silent, less an issue than men's lives and politics.  Mr. Clark's attack on his girlfriend is directly related to the fact that he was shot as an unarmed black man, yet this is just too complicated to talk about.  And it is also true to say that every single victim of the terrorist attacks in France, every single one of their family members, are all just as heavy, soul and flesh wise, as my very own.

I'm saying that anyone who tells you they have an easy answer to these things isn't telling all of the truths.  There isn't an easy answer to this.  There is only growing evidence of a systemic problem, a sick and completely shattered society.

I am not saying gratitude is simply a realization of how lucky I am.  Luck is undeserved and impersonal.  I didn't earn my skin.

Realizing privilege is not gratitude.

That would be mistaking an impersonal thing for something personal.

Meditation is often misunderstood or misrepresented as being somehow a resolution.  Somehow a clarifier.  Somehow a truth reveler.

I think this is a dangerous misinterpretation.  Meditation does not simplify.  Meditation proves how subtle and complex everything is.  How tangled.  We can't use meditation to analyze our problems or look for answers.  There aren't any answers.  To keep looking for them even in our 'mindfulness' practice is to superimpose our ego, our flaws, our compulsions, and our dualistic thinking onto something that simply will not resolve.  We can't 'resolve'.  We have to change.  There is a difference.  The difference is gratitude.

The only thing meditation is any good for is honesty of what is present.  And the contradictions, therein.  And the feeling, thereof.  I think meditation is about embracing hopelessness, not a resolution of it.  Just as meditation becomes a way to embrace illness or pain, grief, anxiety, depression, and trauma.

I used to think gratitude was about simple things.  Grateful to be alive; grateful for food on the table; grateful for the handful of human beings in my life who love me in their messy - our messy - ways.

This year, I don't think that definition works.  That version of gratitude, of 'attitude adjustment' and the decision to be happy, feels as tacky and as untruthful as all the cheap plastic shit in the grocery store earlier today.  It feels selfish and full of denial.

I think gratitude is endlessly complicated.  As finely striated as muscle.  Infinitely complex and far beyond my comprehension, control, or will.  It isn't a thing of decision or trying.  And this is good, because simplifying is an insult.  Because somedays there isn't any hope left.

Gratitude is a thing more fleshy than thought.  And it comes from hopelessness, unresolved, and sat with intimately.  I think you only get gratitude - get hope - by acknowledging the pain of hopelessness and helplessness.  By realizing how truly impersonal world hurt is, yet how personal response must be.  It's the razor thin paradox between knowing my opinions cannot heal the world, and that my actions matter.

In 1996, Bernie Glassman started a meditation retreat to Auschwitz.  Anybody who isn't a mediator might see this as crude spectacle, as garish, or outright pointless.  Just as anybody who hasn't really sat with the concept of Dukkha dismisses 'life is suffering' as pessimistic.  According to Glassman, you sit with the pain, you face it as honestly as you can, and then you come back, changed.  Pain informs your humanity, wakes it, startles it.  Pain is the doorway to loving action.

When I sit on the hard days, I often start with agitation, frustration, and apathy.  I don't want to sit still, but to break things.  Or to run away.  To say screw the world and its pain, let me get the best I can on my own.  That was whole chapters of my life. You can read them, elsewhere.

But now, in this chapter of my life, I sit.  What shows up is both expected (anxiety, discomfort, sadness, restlessness, tears) and not (a softening, a gulping, a slowing of time, a realization I'm making fists.  Gratitude).

When I stand up from meditation, awareness of moments and of feeling go with me.  And then I can't be apathetic anymore.  When you have really allowed yourself to feel the unresolved problems, the very unsolvability of them, each new pain is both unbearable and trifling.  When I hear of the suffering of others, I care.  I care.  And this is the only way I have any hope.

I speak to my dog and I hear the modulations of anger, fatigue, and wavering love in my voice.  I notice it, too, projected onto other drivers when I'm in my car.  I notice it in the way I handle the silverware and plates as I'm washing the dishes.  Noticing,  I soften.  The dog forgives me, because he always does.  The drivers don't know any different, because it wasn't road rage but muttering.  The dishes don't clash so hard, but I don't think they're conscious of the shift. I've been to protests before, and black men have died after them.  So I can't quite say that my actions matter in the world.  But I can't quite say that they don't.

I'm going to the protests.  Tomorrow I'm buying a gift for a newborn baby girl and one for my niece.  On Thursday, Thanksgiving, I will teach a gratitude asana class in the morning, go to dinner with my family, and maybe go to the protests again.

I can't, really, say that my actions resolve the issues.  But they do change the world.  Gratitude doesn't seem to be a realization of how privileged I am, right now.  That is a completely moot point that answers nothing and resolves to apathy and doing nothing.  No: Gratitude is admitting how hopeless I feel, and how much I love the bloodied world, anyway.  Gratitude is a question of how willing I am to touch it, blood and all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Resolution, change, and broken promises

We can't help but measure ourselves, wish things were different, make grand gestures and ultimatum type statements about how we want our lives to be.  This time of year it comes as 'resolutions'.  We reflect on how things have been going or what resolutionshas passed and set some goals or dreams for the future.  There is good in this.  It is important to grow. There's the fact, too, that resolutions are promises broken, more often than not.  They are one more thing to beat ourselves up over.  We know what it is we need, what we need to change, but are stumped and frustrated and hurt because we don't know how to break out of where we are.  Most of the things we've been taught don't actually work very well: try harder, make a list, go on a diet, set up a schedule.

Why is it we want to change so much, but cannot?  Why is it we become our own worst enemies?  Why is honest change so hard and so rare?

Yoga has very direct answers to these human questions.  We can't or haven't changed because we have karma.  Karma being our habits of mind, feeling, and behavior.

We change our karma in recognizing the kleshas, by seeing with clarity where it is that we are stuck.  Through persistent practice, meditation and mindfulness, through clarification and purification of body, mind, and relationships we start to hack through the dense dark matter of karma.  We begin to see.

There are five kleshas or obstacles, five barriers to the self and to happiness.  They are the path, the threshold, both the obstacle and the obstacle's overcoming. They obstruct our lives and our vision.  For the next five weeks I'm going to teach each of the kleshas, as well as ways to break through them, as a way toward deeper self knowing and self practice.opening

Abhinivesha is fear.  Fear - or what most of us would recognize as anxiety - determines much of our presence in the world.  Seeing fear, knowing it, knowing where anxiety is in our body and how often it's seeping into our thoughts, is a cornerstone of yogic practices.

Opening ourselves up in spite of fear is both the goal and the way to the goal.

Backbends, tonight, as fear mongers and also release of fear.

In upcoming weeks, we'll look at all of the kleshas: abhinivesha (fear or anxiety), asmita (false identity or confusion about who you really are), raga (attachment), dvesha (aversion), and avidya (blindness or ignorancence; not being able to see reality).  Avidya is the source of all the other kleshas, the granddaddy of human suffering and confusion.  The way to strengthen our resolve, build our character, change our lives and practice yoga is to continually enlighten.  To transform.  To hack through or blow on or tentatively consider the idea of lifting the veil of our own blindness.

Prana. The moving.

Prana yama 1. The breath lies at the very boundary between our conscious and our unconscious selves.  It lies between our thoughts and the whole of our physical, emotional, cellular and metabolic makeup. Because it lies there, between, it is a bridge.  It is an autonomic system, like our digestion and the ticking heart.  But unlike those things, we can feel and pay attention to it directly, without a need for medical tools or machines. And unlike those things, we can choose to influence it.

2.  Furthermore, there are few sensory experiences that have such an immediate effect on our nervous system – that is, our brains, our spinal cord, our nerves and neural pathways.  The nervous system is responsible for mood, instinct, fight or flight, rest and digest.  It plays a major role in our thinking and behavioral patterns.  It is also intimately related to the way we age, the way we process internal and external stressors, and our ability to remember, imagine, create.  We could change our nervous system over time with intensive therapy, drastic physical shifts, ongoing dietary change, drugs or brain surgery.  With breath, though, we can affect our brain, nerves, and spine within seconds.

Books could be written, and have, about the thousands of ways in which the breath is central to a yoga practice, but these two form a rock solid beginning.dandi

By learning to pay attention to our breath (and, at times, to influence it), we take a step back from the thinking, ego part of who we are and directly experience our larger selves.  We literally start to play with the world of the subconscious, the dream, memory, cell structure, brain tissue, nerves standing up or calming down, the life processes of birth and decay.  There is metaphor and poetry to talking about the breath: the breath of god, the breath of life, stopping to catch a breath, you take my breath away.  It’s important to realize this is no metaphor, but truth: changing your breath changes your physical reality, immediately, in ways your conscious self can only catch glimpses of or appreciate at a surface level.

Because the breath occupies this boundary land of conscious and unconscious, it is a unique trap door we can use.  It provides a way for the conscious self to step into and begin to influence and explore all that is unconscious and murky and so terribly influential in our lives.  It is very hard to imagine controlling the secretion of digestive proteins, say, or to willfully slow down our heart rate or participate in the life cycle of a cell.  It is nearly impossible to think our way into feeling better or believing other than the way we do, no matter how many affirmations you repeat to yourself.  Those are all processes dominated by the unconscious; they are stubbornly resistant to will power or conscious intervention.

But the breath – the breath is something we CAN notice and even change.  It requires no fancy tools or expensive equipment, no laboratory tests or radical change in diet.  It doesn’t require years and years of study.  It is available to everyone, at any moment, and literally brings us to the gate of all those ‘subconscious’ processes happening within us.  It is proof that we are participant in those larger, shadowy processes, even though our participation is usually unconscious.

The word ‘prana’ is usually translated to breath or life force.  ‘Yama’ is restraint, observance, practice, control, or mastery.  Hence, pranayama,  fourth branch on the eight limbed path of yoga practices , is observance and practice of the breath or life force within us.

 

Prana

Life, physicists tell us, is energy.  I am not a physicist, and I couldn’t very well explain this to a toddler, let alone another grown adult.  All that E=Mc squared, stuff.  Yet I know and accept, on an intuitive and intellectual level, that life and cosmos are a mysterious tapestry in which our universe burst into being out of nothingness eons ago, that millions and zillions of stars circling are and exploding with materials so heavy a teaspoon’s worth weighs many billions of pounds and the shifting of seasons is actually, on a level I cannot see, a shifting of atoms.

There is something that causes us to be alive and, after our last breath leaves us, to no longer be the same any more.  I am not a theologian, either, and I will not bother to explore concepts of afterlife.  But I will say there is something that is us that doesn’t seem to be just our bodies, since our cells change every second, but isn’t just our brains, either.

That self, the yogic tradition tells us, is one manifestation of prana.  Prana is energy.  Life is energy.

That, says the yogi guru, pointing to energy and mystery and wonder, is what you are.

**

The yogic sages were brilliant.  They were able to discover and intelligently talk about this stuff without the benefit of a microscope.

Our western medicine has identified 6000 nerves in the human body: conduits along which impulses of energy move back and forth, shifting our hormones and cell structure and chemical composition along the way.

A yogic sage would nod at the concept of nerves.  He would call it a nadi.  The nadis are energetic and informational pathways that course our bodies in a manner as detailed and variegated as the nerves, the lymphatic system, and the circulatory network combined.nadis in the head nadis in the torso nadis one

The yogic sages say there are not 6000, only.  That is only what our microscopes see.  Some yogic maps show 72,000 nadis or energy/nerve pathways in the body.  The yogic map of these pathways is uncannily like our map of the nervous system.  Other yogic sources, though, say there are more than 350,000 energy pathways, coursing and roadmapping out the entire field of who we are.  They’d say our science is just not sophisticated, not subtle enough to see it.

**

Life is energy.  Life is prana.  And yoga is a practice or path of learning what and where energy actually is.  What has power and what doesn’t.  This sounds simple, and it is: we learn we function better when our bodies are open and cared for, when we eat well and rest enough.  But the study or practice of energy is also profound, and goes deeper and deeper the more open you become to exploring it.  It will start asking difficult questions, along the lines of why do I feel or act this way?  Why does this feel so good or bad? When I say ‘I’m feeling sad’, what do I actually mean?  Is there a physical sensation to sadness or is it a set of thoughts?  Where are those physical sensations, and can I tolerate or change them? What happens when I sit down and look fear right in the face for a moment? Why do I always feel this way after talking to so and so? How much longer will my body take this?  What IS that pain in my neck? They are difficult questions, and push us toward self-knowledge and self-mastery.   They also open into remarkable possibilities.

There is, at any flickering moment in time, a tremendous amount of power and intelligence in your body.  The human body can power up televisions, they say.  Human bodies could light up whole cities.  Every heart beat is triggered by an electrical surge.  Anger has a voltage.  So does laughter.

What yoga begins to show is that we have this huge potential, this oceanic tide of kinetic energy, even if we feel sluggish and stuck and powerless.  The power in us is often misplaced, repressed, or resisted – which causes energetic turmoil and dis- ease.  But it is there.

 

Prana and the energy body

deep breathPrana is life force , or breath.  It is the energy of the million, billion stars exploding and gyrating in the sky.  Human beings receive this life force directly into the body through the process of breathing.  We take it in in other ways as well: through live foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, minerals, through fresh water, through living, breathing trees and vegetation.

I tend to think that we also take it in through the love of other people and other creatures.  We probably also take it in in more subtle ways still, through music, the sound of inspiring words, beautiful sights.  Through empathy and art (neuroscience is backing this up).  Human beings are hardwired for connection: the tug and pull of affection, inspiration, rejection, or acceptance leave tracks or stains or floods of energy inside us.  It is the emotive force, complete with its ocean of endorphins and stress hormones and sex hormones and joy, that binds us to life and makes us want to live, more.

Yoga discovered that in addition to the physical architecture of our body we have an interpenetrating and underlying sphere or tapestry of reality.  They called it the pranamayakosha (the body of vital energy or airs.  (There are five bodies.  Food for a different essay)).  The nature of this subtle structure is movement, flow, change and tidal shift.  Over the centuries, they developed not just the theory of the pranamayakosha, but the anatomy of it.  They discovered the roadmap to our emotional selves, our characters (again, see picture at the end of the essay).

The structure is shot through with these invisible channels, those nadis, through which prana flows, energizing and literally sustaining all parts of the physical and energetic and intellectual structure.  Again, a visual representation of these tracks looks very much like our representations of the nervous or circulatory systems, but many times more dense.

Many western students are loosely familiar with the term ‘chakra’ or energy wheel.  According to yogic science, these energy wheels are like grand central terminal for the railway of the nadis.  They are energetic hubs, major thoroughfares of power and information.  Interestingly enough, these chakra points correlate directly with major nerve plexuses, organs, circulatory and lympathic centers of our body.  Their observations were physiologically accurate.

The energy body is deeply intelligent, although it doesn’t exactly speak English.  Much of yoga practice is learning to develop awareness of and trust in the wisdom of this energy body.

As yogis learned to experience the energy body directly, to map the flow of its major currents, they made another fascinating discovery:

Breath has an immediate impact on the entire flowing, waving, shimmering thing.  More than anything else, it is breathing that builds and regulates the flow of prana in the body.  On the most basic of physical levels, breathing sustains and supports the metabolic processes of every anatomical system in the body.  The very life of the body’s tissues is created by and dependent on the process of the breath. A body can go more than a week without food, almost that long without water.  Without breath, we would die in moments.  Breath supports the strength, responsiveness, and ability to detoxify the bones, the muscles, and the organs.  Unhealthy breathing habits (which most of us have) cause cellular structure to weaken, become dysplastic, irregularly shaped.

The breath balances, regulates, opens, closes, controls, and channels the flow of energy across the entire field of who we are, from our core beliefs and emotions to the skin of our toes.

Yama

The word yama is translated restraint or ascetic practice.  This is a harsh word, to our modern day ears.  It rankles of renunciation, fasting, rules and regulations.  Yet the point wasn’t an embrace of suffering for the sake of suffering.  The point was to suffer less; to be oneself, more.  Yogis sought reality.  Knowledge as ‘taught’ by priests, hierarchies, rituals was not their goal; experienced truth was.  There is an element of hard truth to ‘yama’; but there is also an element of authenticity and integrity.  The practices and restraints may be thought of as cultivated habits, a dedication to right things over easy answers, or an approach to self mastery.  At its most general, practice is the effort to replace blind auto pilot with conscious choice and mindfulness.

The earliest yogis dedicated their lives to spiritual and psychological experimentation.  They investigated diet, breathing, physical exercises, ethical behavior, prayer, meditation, chanting, worship, dedication to every conceivable kind of god and goddess.  Over the course of time, some headway was made in discovering the path to a fully alive human being.  A loose tradition was born.  A set of reliable and verifiable principals and practices emerged.  At some point, these principals and practices came to be known as yoga.

Yogis used their own minds and bodies as laboratories for experiments in living.  They arrived over and over again at a series of stunning insights into the human condition.

In the final analysis, they found that it is not what you know or believe, but how you live that counts.  Yamas are rungs on a ladder, a net to catch our days and our experiences with, a guide away from suffering and into that ‘more’ we suspect is there.

Interestingly enough, yogic wisdom does not make any claim to be undertaking spiritual writing or theology.  There is no interest in founding a new religion or disabusing one from the religion one already has.  There is little of entertainment, and not much drawing on the archetypes of the religious imagination.  Instead, the yogic wisdom texts seem to say that what mature human beings require is not another or different religion.  What we require is not more theology, but a reliable practice; a training program that may help the body and the mind realize the full potential and ramifications of being human.

Pranayama – practicing life’s energies

I taught a woman in a domestic violence shelter for two months, and after she left the shelter she continued coming to some of my classes.  Over time, the change in her was so poignant, and so inarguably TRUE, that I was baffled.  Of course, I say that yoga is change and transformation all the time.  I believe it.  But to see the change so radically, right before my eyes, in a way that was not metaphor but real, was stunning.

In the beginning, she showed up in jeans, a thick sweater, and tennis shoes.  I made a general comment to the room about the sensory receptors on the bottoms of our feet, but didn’t push it.  She practiced in those clothes for months.  When I gave cues to stretch the arms or take big steps, she would either mince her way into it and then draw back to her norm, or lose all control and not be able to move her arms and legs in co-ordination.  She always took the same place in a back corner of the room.

Although her disconnection from her body was obvious, it wasn’t really any different than the disconnect most of us have.  There are variations.  But it is a difference only of degree.breath

Yogically speaking, we begin a personal, spiritual, and psychological change through the body.  While this may seem a bit of a stretch for western minds, to yoga this is a very valid path.  The body plays a central role in the development of our character.  When we were young, those things mostly happened to us.  When we begin to practice, however, character and psychology are things we begin to make, ourselves.  Most psychology, self help, or spirituality begins with what the yogis would call the ‘mental body’ – thoughts and feelings.  But yogis take a radical step in moving the entry point right into the body.  They understand it to be the doorway to the more subtle interior worlds.

One evening this woman showed up to class in sweats and carrying a yoga mat of her own.  She sat down and took off her shoes.  I caught her eye and she gave a slight, shy smile before she went seriously into her pre-yoga practice cross legged seat.

It was as if she knew she had found something, here.  She was willing to see what else she might find.

A week or two later, she took her yoga mat out of the back corner and found a place in the front row.

All of this was beginning to show in her yoga postures, as well.  She became intensely concentrated in her practice.  It was clear she was enjoying, especially, the standing postures and heart opening practices – the warrior poses, mountain, dancer.  She told me one day after class that she loved the sense of feeling her feet on ground.  For the first time in her life, she said, she felt strong.  I noticed that she had taken a sudden leap with her breathing: it was steady and smooth and full even when she was most tired and other students were distracted.

One day, I noticed she was crying in camel pose.  Everyone went into child’s pose, afterward, where our faces are lowered to the ground.  When I cued the class to move again, into the next pose, this woman stayed down.  I noticed that her tears had turned to a kind of quiet and slow weeping.

This has happened before in my classes.  It has happened to me.  But I was surprised when a few minutes later, the woman stood back up again.  She followed the cues and did a few more poses with all of us.  And then, all on her own, she went back into camel pose and stayed there for a very long time.

It wasn’t until weeks later that she and I processed this together.  We were able to process not just that day but all the slow weeks and months that had come ahead of it.  Yoga works that way.  There are obvious and sudden moments of epiphany.  But there is also consistent, day after day subtlety and the basic willingness to show up.

She told me much of what I myself had seen: that she felt a powerful kind of concentration in yoga, and sometimes just moving from one posture to another felt inexpressibly good to her.  She noticed how her breathing had changed and grown more steady and free, and said this was true especially in class, but was showing up in her life off the mat as well.  She said that her arms and her legs began to have energy in them, and it was like there was a burning, fiery power right behind her belly button as well.

In talking about what happened the day she cried, she shrugged. She said it was ‘weird’.  She had begun to feel very dizzy.  Her heart began to race and her vision blurred, as if there were dust motes in her eyes.  Her whole chest and throat began to feel hot, “full of heat, it really kind of hurt”.  She felt she was going to pass out.  Then she realized she was crying, and felt ‘relief’ that we were going into child’s pose afterwards.

But what happened, later, I asked?  Why did you decide to go back into the pose?

She shrugged again.  “I knew that I could.” she said; “I knew it was okay, and there was something in my chest and throat that just needed to be felt again.  I don’t know, Karin….but a few weeks ago I heard something you said in class, and I realized I felt beautiful.  I’ve never felt beautiful in my whole life.  Somehow, it seemed a beautiful thing to do to go back into that pose.”

I know that this moment was an outward and visible sign of a major shift in her practice.  She was able to touch – to literally reconnect and feel – her feelings.  Feelings are the subterranean life of our energy body.

What I saw happen in that student is a thing I have felt in different ways – and to many different degrees of intensity – in my own life.

It is a stunningly beautiful thing.  You see it happen and you feel privileged, blessed to see a human achievement so rare in our day to day life.

But honesty tells me I have seen this happen, over and over and over again.

It would take hours to discuss the ways in which yoga – and perhaps other practices or people in her life – helped this woman.  We’d launch into psychology and theories and about how healing works, how people become stronger or happy.  But all of those discussions are really diversions from the real truth: it would be impossible to articulate all that happens to us in a yoga practice, but the sum total is good.  There is something to simply watching our breath that opens doorways to the soul we didn’t know were there.  If what we need is a way to feel better, stronger, more alive and more self-assured, than theory or theology don’t matter so much as practice does.

Practice, practice.  Practice.  said Patthabhi Jois.  Practice and all is coming.

 

Jivan Mukti recap - my old 'emotional yoga' mission statement to self

jiva Buried in and central to yogic practices are ways of breathing, moving, and being that profoundly change the way we feel.  It doesn't merely change the way we feel in the moment or for the few hours afterwards - it changes the way we feel our feelings, think our thoughts, and experience our moods.  Science and medicine are proving, each day, what yogic science has known for a very long time: yoga changes our brains, our bodies, our hormones, and the way we think, feel, and process our experience, inner and outer.  Stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, grief, trauma, insomnia, eating disorders and addictions all respond powerfully.  Those with self esteem issues, childhood abuse issues, combat experience and sexual assault or trauma histories have all found healing on the mat that they may have given up on, elsewhere.  Yoga touches these very human experiences and changes them in ways medicine and traditional talk therapies simply can't.  It is one thing to understand our problems and to understand healing.  It is altogether different to feel change, beginning at the soles of your feet.

The practices of yoga began as a quest for that kind of healing and emotional well being.  What we think of as a physical practice or a form of meditation was actually a deep inquiry into the human condition.  Yogic sages knew human suffering just as we do, and their intention was to understand the human condition in order to  attain freedom, joy, and emotional balance.  The central archetype in yogic lore is the Jivan Mukti - or soul awake in this lifetime.

The Jivan Mukti expresses the idea that healing is possible.  But not healing in the way we usually think.  This isn't about coping skills, getting over it, or learning to let go.  It isn't even about returning to okay again.  The Jivan Mukti runs deeper.  Healing actually becomes a deeper sense of being alive.  Our grief becomes resonate with more compassion and a stronger sense of joy.  Our stress becomes our wisdom and our teacher.  Healing, passion, enthusiasm, attention, compassion, and love become deeply embodied.

Yoga as Therapy

Psychotherapy and medicine feature a rich collaborative relationship between client and therapist, or patient and doctor.  Both are eloquent in addressing mind and emotions, as well as physical health and disease.  Yoga bridges the science of body and mind.

The range of human emotion, mood, and cognitive ability cast a wide net, from panic attacks to joy to perfectionism.  Each and every one has some answer in yoga.  Western medicine and therapy are starting to prove the fact that mind and body interface in both subtle and obvious ways.  Our memories are held in our muscle structure.  Our emotions are stored across the physical field.  The feedback loop works both ways, so that our thoughts can change our body, but our body can also literally change our minds.  When we don't deal with the body, we leave out important parts of healing.

Many of the most basic human conditions are actually conditioned prior to our learning language.  We learn our core standards of trust, security, anger, how to self sooth, how to respond to fear, and self-worth long before the language parts of our brain have matured.  Additionally, traumatic experiences such as an assault, a fire, or even a serious illness are processed not in the language and rational parts of our brain, but in our instinctual, emotional, and spiritual selves.  The concept of neurotransmitters and their role in cognitive functioning and our general mood are common knowledge.  What is less well known but every day more evident is that similar 'neural pathways' and 'neurotransmitters' work in our spinal cord, our hearts, our fascia, and our muscle tissue.

For all of these reasons, it is strange to think that we could 'talk' or 'reason' ourselves into healing.  If our hurt, fear, stress, or memory is stored in the body, it only makes sense to believe healing should involve the whole body.

The Ways We Hurt

There is nothing wrong with feeling stressed, angry, depressed, or anxious.  These are a natural part of the human experience.  In fact, they are appropriate responses to the world we live in.

All of us, at one time or another, experience grief.  Anger is a natural and appropriate response to feeling violated in some way.  And stress, psychology has shown, is actually a motivating, strengthening, learning human response.  The problem is not that we feel these things.  It's that we become overwhelmed by them.  At times, it may seem that we experience so much fear, anger, or sadness that all other emotions lose their place.  At other times, we may be so overcome by the power of an emotion that we feel swept away, powerless, or dominated by whatever it is we are feeling.

We live in a stressful world.  The World Health Organization suggests that by 2015 depression will be the #1 health problem on our planet.  One in five persons struggles with some kind of depression disorder, and another one in five some kind of anxiety disorder.  Add to this chronic stress, multitasking, the pressure to have it all, and a cultural value system that emphasizes achievement and individualism over self-care and community. Emotional imbalance is more common to the human experience than emotional balance.

That imbalance manifests in thousands of different ways.  Low self-esteem, constant worry, insomnia, persistent body image issues, chronic pain, fatigue, compulsions, invasive thoughts, ruthless self criticism, and an underlying sense that there is something wrong are all terribly common.  'Terribly', both in the sense of being overwhelming in it's frequency, and 'terrible' in the way it actually feels and expresses itself in our lives.

Imbalance may come from core family issues, abusive relationships, stressed-out or absent parents, financial or social strain, poverty, spiritual alienation, overwork.  It is important to recognize how imbalanced our culture (and, to be fair, much of the human condition) is: competitive, consumer culture is stressful; difficult economic realities are stressful; world poverty, violence, terrorism and war are difficult; sexism, racism, and agism are realities.  In very real ways, our global existence is under constant, if unacknowledged, threat.  The sum total of human knowledge took thousands of years to double up until the last few centuries; our collective knowledge makes everything we thought we knew obsolete, now, within a few years.  It might happen only once in a while, during particularly stressful points in our career or on the heels of a significant loss.  Grief is, in it's very nature, a form of depression.  But for an increasing number of us, stress, frustration, powerlessness, apathy, sadness, or anxiety are more normal than not.

Yoga as Healing

No matter what 'caused' it, and no matter how long it has been present, we do have the capacity to heal.   To heal more deeply and more powerfully than we may be capable of believing.  Much of our emotional and cognitive wiring is set, locked into a pattern, and difficult to change no matter how much you may want or understand.  But therapeutic yoga can actually go deep enough to re-set our emotional and cognitive wiring.  It literally provides new learning, new insight, and new experiences, while addressing the old 'hardwiring'.  Yoga gives a new collection of tools - experienced, felt tools more than logic tools - that reverberate deep into the mind-body-spirit network.

Yoga can be a first hand, embodied experience of vitality, strength, peace, and calm.  It can also be a first hand, embodied experience of self-worth, at-one-ment and grace, which are so central to our religious and spiritual selves.  Atonement and grace form the bulk of theology and prayer.  Yoga, oddly enough, is a way to feel the power of prayer, and deep connection, in every tissue of your body.

"Emotional Yoga" as a yoga class

We tend to think of yoga as a fairly intense physical practice.  No matter what style or brand of yoga you practice, you will be getting some of the therapeutic benefits of yoga.

But science and tradition also show that one does not need the intense physical workout, nor a daily practice, to experience the profound transformation available through breath, meditation, and posture.  Indeed, some of the most healing work may come in gentle, restorative postures and simple breathing exercises.

You do not need to be in shape, flexible, or entirely mobile to participate in the class.  You do not need any experience with yoga.  Nor do you need to 'buy in' to any spiritual practices or cultural traditions.  All you need to do is show up.

We all have different needs.  There are specific postures and breath work that energize us from the lethargy of depression, and others that help to ground us and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system - soothing anxiety. The first standard in yoga is ahimsa, or do no harm. That is a guiding principal to all yoga classes.  So while some poses might work especially well with depression, others with anxiety, etc, no pose will be harmful. The principal is balance. I'm committed to understanding individual students, and will be ready to change the class according to need and hopefully give further information and additional practices to those students who have specific concerns.

Ahimsa. First, Ethics.

(more for the body, mind, feeling, world workshop coming up Sunday December 30th.  Come!) Ahimsa.  First, Ethic.ahimsa

Karin L Burke

 

My practice began with asana.  It began in the body.  Words and understanding, all this ethics and philosophy, came later. I felt a strange, deep stirring when I practiced.  I chairdidn’t know a thing about yoga philosophy; it would be a stretch to say I ‘understood’ it.  Yet I intend to say exactly that:  I think that strange and deep physical stirring was ethical, what the body said and the mind heard was the beginning of understanding.  This is who you are, body said; why can’t you remember?

 

First, the body.  Later, the words. Like life its own self.

 

What I thought, at that point in life, was that philosophies and religions fail when you try to use them as actual tools to open jars with, relieve headache, or cope with a difficult human being.  They are pretty.  Pretty like a dress you wear on banner days when you yourself feel gorgeous and all the world is right.  But most of our lives – my life, anyway – didn’t happen in the way of lace and poetry and kid gloves.  It happened with bitten nails and chapped lips, screaming alarm clocks, and much weariness.  Makeup, and make believe, church and ethics, all amounted to the same thing.  Fairy tales and palliatives.

 

Yoga’s ethics are different.  They are not an excuse or escape from the body, but an expression of the body.  They are part of the human, as skeleton is.

 

Harm none, honesty, purity, ahimsa are words written on and of bodies.  They are as much a part of us as is skin.  As is bicep, bone matter.  The smoke and heat of blood.

*

When I was a girl, I wrote poems.  Sometimes, lacking a notebook or simply trying to catch the moment of clarity, I wrote on the inside of my forearm.  But I don’t think convenience was the whole reason I wrote there; I think it was a part of what the words were, a piece of their meaning.  It was important to have the ink there, on my flesh like that; a constant flicker of ink in corner of eye reminder.

 

Like a branding.

 

Words for the sake of argument are sterile.  Words in a book may or may not be read.  Words around ideas are just words.  As marking, though, as witness, words take on gravity and dimension.  They are a manifesto taken to bodily extremes; a manifesto of the body and for it.

One of these poems little girl me wrote described a storm and a lost man.  It got cold.  The sky poured.  The man was alone, had nothing, and there was darkness.  Over and again the poem said naked, damp, and hungry.  Every human being of us knows what that means.  All the saints and native gods of all the corners of the world have known it.  We know.

 

As in, This is my flesh.  Our veins are veins of compassion, not of blood.

 

When I was a young woman, I still had poems inside me, but my lifestyle ricocheted from safety and fairy tales to darker, harder places.  New Orleans Parish Prison, for one.

 

I thought, while sitting there one day, that I was now qualified to write folk songs.

 

I have a tattoo, now, woman grown, on the pale and thin flesh on the inside of that left forearm.

 

Yes: the place I used to scribble and ink on day after day.  It is my handwriting, this tattoo; the needle traced over what I myself had written and made it stay.  Naked, it says.  Damp.  And hungry.

 

When people ask, I say it’s just a prison tattoo.  This makes them laugh and the conversation stray.  But it is exactly true: I laid my forearm across another woman’s lap and she patiently, slowly, branded me.

 

When people ask about the words, all that nakedness, they usually think it’s some innuendo.  All is sex.  I don’t correct them.  But the words are not about lusty, satisfied desire so much as they are a description of need.  These are the words we know.

 

Is it strange, I wonder, or delightful, that the most rigorous intellectual exercises and sublime metaphysical contortions of yogic science echo what I’ve felt and tried to express my whole life:

 

We know what the words are.  We ought to know our veins as compassion.  We ought – because we do, in a sense – have first words branded into our arms and the palms of our hands.

To have the words bless and sanctify everything we touch, mark everything we do, witness our hours; we ought to be reminded of ethics as soon as we are reminded of body.

 

First, ethic; first.

 

All two year olds know what generosity is.  And every two year old knows selfishness.  We stay infants all our lives.  Unless we decide to grow up.

*

You stand, you breath: the whole body trembles.  The nerves flash.  The breath roils.  It all says yes: yes, this has been true, all along.  This is who you are.  You were born to love, and yet you are alone.

 

Figure this out.  Go slowly.

*

Nonviolence is not a discrepancy or diversion of the body.  It is the logical outcome of having one.  Do this, and remember.

*

Still, I am a wordy, philosophical kinda gal.  It tickled me no end when I found the philosophy.  I found the philosophy to be a pure distillation of what I felt on the mat, knew with my hands and my eyes.  The point of practice is not physical contortion and heavy breathing; it is a question of aliveness, is sensitivity.  Yoga is ethics, first.  If it begins as a flash of physical knowing, it holds true all the way to the most rigorous of intellectual understandings.  Compassion is a truth we know across all the different fields of knowledge.

 

The logic of yamas and niyamas appeals to our highest level of intelligence.  At first glance smarts isolate us, put the smart one on a different level and lead to accolades, cloisters, academia. Intelligence separates us from the fold. But this isn’t the whole thing; intelligence taken to its conclusion resolves to withness and leveling. Full expression of genius lies in relation, not isolation.  I don’t say easy, I just say genius.

 

The fully developed human being knows his own self, and where he stands.  He knows everything amounts to this: either he sees the body of every other as equal in importance to his own, or he does not.

 

Compassion, ahimsa, is inborn and instinctual.  But it is also – and this makes it rare – a truth the mind can find no shortness with.  Any shortness found is with the self, and not compassion.

 

Like god, I suppose: bigger than mind, it contradicts the mind.  This doesn’t prove the smallness of god. It proves the smallness of self.

*

Ahimsa is historical. Hippocrates, father of medicine and citizen of ancient Greece, is credited with the healer’s code to ‘first, do no harm’.  He understood medicine holistically and humanely; illness is not the concern of wellbeing, wellbeing is.  When healers act out of their own diagnostics of what is ‘wrong’, they may injure the person while treating the limb.  To ‘fix’ a disease or wound at the cost of harming the person in some way is worthless, even if the disease is ‘cured’.  To not harm, then, takes precedence over the healer’s own accomplishment and the treatment of disease.

 

A doctor is concerned with physical pulp and tissue.  Oxygen, the grey matter of the brain, depression and anxiety and the muscle fisted heart.  From there, directly, a doctor is concerned with the soul and the being.  With communities.  With the bodies of history and the eyes of the not yet born.  Compassion, ahimsa, is the only way such disparate bodies of knowledge form a whole.

**

The body is knowledge, see?  To feel is to sense one’s humanity, however jaded and limping.  To sense is to know.  To know one’s own senses is to realize the mirror and shadow and echo of oneself in everyone else’s body.  It feeds directly into using one’s wisdom as a means of connection.  One’s history and secrets and accomplishments as communication.  One’s fear as the impetus to love.

paschi

The body is wild, and messy, and discordant.  There are reasons we prefer to live in our heads.  And yet to feel what one feels, moment by moment, is ultimately the kindness of telling the truth.  It demands bravery; it is frightful to see not with our expectations and ideals and shoulds and oughts and musts but with what is.

 

The word courage translates, in latin and old french, ‘with heart’.  Compassion, as translated as the greek of the new testament, means to feel ‘from the bowels and gut’.  It is not easy, no.  To face reality.  To stop living in the boundaries of our heads and enter the field of the body, where things are not so orderly and are, quite frankly, terrifying and hard to understand.

 

It is large and expansive, that land of what we do not understand.  To ground ourselves there we ourselves must grow huge.  We must, sooner or later, realize that courage, bravery, ethics, true self, are not things without fear.  But a place where the fear doesn’t matter any longer, where fear can be felt without leaving us paralyzed.

**

Our eyes grow gentle to see this way.

 

This is what eyes were capable of, all along.

 

You were born to love, and yet you feel alone.  Figure this out.  Go slowly.

**

If you pay attention to the breath, eventually you realize it is not you, breathing.  It is your body responding to the universe.  It is atmospheric pressure, breathing you.  The breath is, with out you.  When you end, there will still be others breathing.

 

This is a primordial, gut wrought, deep stirring experience.  It starts in the privacy of the body.  From there, it softens the eyes and reveals a universe, an atmosphere, a word.  It speaks. We develop like children: first in body, later in language and its brainy knowings.  If you allow yourself to feel what you feel, see what you actually do see, you resolve to fierce compassion.

 

Ethics are visceral.

 

Every human being is marked, branded.  We all have these tattoos across our foreheads, written into the lines of our hands, but the things are mostly invisible and private.  I am born to love, built of it, it says; and yet I feel alone.

 

We know the words by heart.

 

Give the gift of yoga

Why not give yoga?  To your mom, to your boss, to your best friend? Easy.  It's elegant, it's personal, it's meaningful.  (Yes, yes, I still remember the one who first got me in a studio.)

Buy a (new student) $30 for 30 days package, a workshop (every last Sunday of the month, $40).

Or, hey, ask your loved ones to buy you a month.  You want that more than socks, don't you?

I have a stack of holiday cards I can fill out with the gift information for you to give to your loved one.

If you are not a student, but would like to purchase a gift, you can click on the paypal 'donate' button to make your purchase.  I will add your gift to the student's account or create an account for a new student.

The Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project

The Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project provides high quality yoga classes to veterans, first responders, at risk youth, and survivors of trauma.  All veterans and first responders are invited to participate - service and health providers are invited to collaborate with Return Yoga.  Participants are asked to pay $30 per month for unlimited yoga classes.  A veteran's i.d. card or first responder i.d. is all you need to sign up. Sign up must happen in-studio for Strong Body, Quiet Mind.  Every class on Return's schedule is open to project participants.

Participants are invited to all yoga classes rather than 'special' classes: there is no need for labels, anonymity is respected here, and all to often 'help' comes with stigma.  The truth is, we all need healing. Further, 'special' programs or classes are all to limited in time and scope, leaving participants after a few weeks rather than encouraging an on-going, life process of growth.

The Need:

Our society is rife with anxiety, stress, and trauma.

Studies have shown that PTSD and 'shock' in this generation of military will overshadow anything known to previous generations, costing billions. Veterans returning from service are finding a depressed economy, a dirth of future and career opportunities, and a shortage of services that answer their physical and psychological needs.

Research is showing that domestic violence and sexual assault survivors are just as likely to suffer trauma symptoms, with an even fewer sources of support and intervention.

Similarly, first responders are on the front lines of crisis situations day in and day out.  On going exposure to traumatic situations takes its toll on responders, who are under appreciated, under respected, and under protected.  Trauma, stress, and shock are status quo.  The private costs are often invisible, but no less deep.

These populations suffer in their own lives, and the effects of trauma are passed onto the next generation. These demographics are over-represented in the unemployed, the homeless, the incarcerated, those seeking emergency services, addiction services, and medical assistance. Their children struggle in education, health, and social connections. These kids are more likely to be involved in crime, high risk behaviors, and have inadequate medical and educational support.

HOPE

Trauma has proven to be one of the most difficult issues to 'treat'. However, current research has shown that the skills of mindfulness, meditation, and yoga promote autonomy, well being, and genuine healing in away medicine and traditional 'talk therapy' can't. 8 weeks of a yoga practice has proven to calm the sympathetic nervous system and increase activity in the areas of the brain associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, sense of safety and autonomy, and cognitive functioning. Further, yoga can be taught at very little cost, with no negative side effects, and is accessible to any level of ability/mobility.

The effects of trauma (or stress, for those who have been labeled too much already) are pernicious, at times devastating, at other times manifesting as a numbing sense of being 'damaged' or 'broken'. Many who have lived through trauma (from a car accident to the death of a loved one, a sexual assault to active duty)often describe it as a chronic state of hopelessness.

Yoga is a rediscovery of hope, and the lived experience of grace.

It was so for me.

There is a profound difference between trying to 'get over it', and feeling oneself okay from the soles of the feet to the deepest parts of the brain.

Yoga allows us to experience ourselves not as 'wounded' or getting over it, but as powerfully alive and worthy human beings.

How the Program Works:

Return subsidizes costs directly, in such a way that every class dollar spent by students goes to funding the Strong Body, Quiet Mind Project.  Return is incorporated as a non-profit.

Additional funding may come from community or private donations or grants.

If your program is interested in accessing yoga classes for your demographic, please contact Karin Burke at karinlburke@gmail.com.  All support, whether by participating in class or donating directly, is greatly appreciated and provides a demonstrable good.

Fertility yoga

Now and again people ask if I teach or would teach a prenatal yoga class. The short answer is no.  The long answer is yes; always, of course.

I do not host a specifically prenatal class; such classes are hard to maintain fiscally, hard to hold class numbers high enough, and it is impossible to randomly pick one time during the week when all the interested pregnant women could make class.  It doesn’t help much if I do offer a class Wednesday mornings, if four out of five people can’t make that time slot.  In my experience, holding a prenatal class is too small for too big a need.

I do, however, teach pre, post, and fertility yoga.  I also know that fertility and health often times include loss of a child, aging, and sexuality issues that a ‘prenatal class’ doesn’t touch.  While pregnancy certainly does have specific practices in the yoga tradition, I also believe that fertility touches men’s health as well as women’s, that bio, psycho, and social aspects of gender, identity, self esteem, health and wellness span relationships and life cycles, and yoga has specific tools and suggestions for ALL of these things.  The question is not what prenatal yoga is, but what your process is and where you are.

My recommendation is this: take a private session to discuss your own needs, goals, and circumstances.  You will learn in a private or two the poses that will help and the way to avoid or modify poses that are contraindicated for pregnancy.  Once you have done this, you can attend ANY yoga class, anywhere, safely and effectively.  Of course, you can continue taking a private sessions as you need and want the individual feedback and support.  I believe that individual feedback and support is crucial; pregnancy, sexuality, and fertility issues are profound embodied and psychological experiences, felt individually and existentially.  You deserve such support.

Once you have that foundation, I strongly recommend attending the healing classes.  Unlike a once a week, hard to get to prenatal class, healing classes are held five nights a week.  Classes are small and tailored specifically to who shows up for class.  Each class explores specific healing postures and meditative traditions for our own unique needs.

Those who have a long yoga practice behind them can absolutely attend strong classes the full term of pregnancy, provided they are willing to make appropriate modifications.

Body, Mind, Feeling, and World. A yoga and mindfulness workshop.

Sunday, December 30th 9am - 12 pm.  $40.

Register here.

What: a workshop part movement, part dialogue, part silence.

Mindfulness, yoga, and 'stress reduction' are buzzing words these days, related to everything from dieting to worship to treatment of mood disorders.  But students repeatedly ask me what exactly meditation is, how body movements can possibly heal old hurts or daily grind stress, and what 'enlightenment' and poses named after saints and myth might have to do with our 21st century selves. Learn what science and ancient tradition say about 'mindfulness'.  Learn, too, what 'healing' and 'stress reduction' might mean in your own body and life.

Wear: comfortable clothing you can move freely in, as well as a warmer shirt to cover up with/socks as we will NOT be engaged in a strong practice or move the whole time.  Have something comfortable for the discussion part.

Bring: a notebook and pen, your mat if you've got one, possibly a towel or small blanket to sit on and shift around on as we discuss.  (pillows, props, all welcome.)  Something to sip.

Any questions?  Let me know.  I'm excited!

Holiday Schedules, and a workshop

In asking students whether they would be a) in town and b) interested in yoga during the holidays, the only clear answer I got was yes.  Yes. So, as I'm not leaving town myself, I plan on having class both Thanksgiving day and Friday morning at 6:30 am.

I'll close Christmas eve and day, but will have regularly scheduled classes the rest of the holiday season.  Including new year's eve and day.  (It is good to start the year this way.  It is good.)

Also, since a number of students have requested longer workshops, I've gone ahead and scheduled one.  On Sunday, December 30, from 9 am to noon I will host something part movement, part dialogue, part meditation.  I'm calling it 'body, mind, feeling and world: yoga and mindfulness'.  More to follow.

Come, practice.  The door is open.

 

Strong Medicine

More and more I find myself referring to yoga as medicine.  As science.

Of course, I say in class, yoga has elements of a spiritual path.  It has elements of fitness and diet.  But it is not a religion and it is not a fitness program.

Yoga is a science.  Yoga is strong, strong medicine.

In a world of many illnesses, a country of unprecedented stress, anxiety, mental illness, obesity and cardio vascular diseases, you would think this would be embraced.

It is not.  Western Medicine itself will only refer to yoga as a useful tool for 'stress reduction', in spite of a growing body of evidence that it can reverse heart disease, treat 'treatment resistant depression', and ease carpal tunnel syndrome, to pick out of a grab bag.  Even within the world of 'alternative medicine', mention of yoga is dismissive and scant - perhaps because nothing is ingested or inserted or removed from our bodies and we can't fathom medicine, otherwise.

And even in the world of yoga, it's teachers, authors, and serious practitioners, yoga is called a 'discipline', a 'practice', or a personal path.  I don't mean to suggest it isn't those things.  But I believe it is more.  I believe it is science and ought to be treated as such.

We know it builds strength and confidence, if not character.  We know it improves flexibility and stability, that it fosters serenity and poise.  Beyond its attributes as preventative medicine, we know that it heals - not cures, necessarily, but heals in quantifiable ways - low back strain, chronic pain, MS.

One of the difficulties is financial: studies cost.  More deeply, it is that cultural assumption that healing involves ingesting something, inserting something, or removing something from the body.  The cultural assumption focuses on disease rather than health and has no real way to discuss, let alone understand, yogic well being.

This raises a question.  Call it philosophical if you like.  Wonder about your own, or your best friend's, particular body if you want to be more poignant.

When you have an intervention which appears safe and effective, when it has no negative side effects, when it in fact has positive side effects, should one wait for proof before trying it?

I say no.  I say yoga will help in ways you wouldn't think possible.  I say it will change your ideas about health and wellness.  I say it will heal you, though the healing may not be what you expected.

I am not a doctor.  I will never encourage someone to go against a doctor's advice.  I will and frequently do insist a student talk with a doctor before beginning, changing, or returning to a yoga practice.  But I do believe a yoga practice can compliment traditional medicine, and make us more well.

And I believe yoga's potency, what makes it strong medicine, is largely it's ability to return you to control and autonomy: it will immediately teach you things you can do to relieve symptoms and influence your health, whereas so many of us feel we have no choice, no influence, no way to navigate the body mind other than to 'suffer' it or 'deal with it'.  How powerful it is for the fibromylagia patient, who has been told there are no cures and that she must learn to live with her pain, to realize there are, actually, things she can do for herself.

This is fierce medicine, indeed.

The word, yoga.

English is an indo-european language - our word yoke is a direct descendant of the sanskrit word yoga.  It means - yoga - to bind or link, to connect, to unify.  To be bound to. The question is, bound to what?  At its most basic, most pared down, bare as dust definition, yoga is the linking of mind, body, and movement.  Our soul to our skin.

Binding the pieces of ourselves back together again. Perhaps knowing where they severed; maybe not.

This is the important point: the belief that body and mind are separate is part of our cultural, philosophic, and medical heritage.  We believe when we have a mood or an anxiety we should be able to just 'snap out of it'; that diseases are strange things visited on our animal bodies, having nothing to do with our 'self'.  We believe our bodies are just vehicles, handy mechanisms for wheeling the brain around from one part of the world to the other, but mostly disgusting, inconvenient, bestial.  Mostly a thing to be contained, controlled, covered up and cleaned up. Managed. Hidden. Used.

Yoga, when I found it, was a life saving bridge.  I didn't know it then. It wasn't what I was looking for, exactly.  I didn't give much credence to the idea that what I felt and believed and thought everyday could be altered, let alone healed.  I didn't believe life, or myself, could be any different.  I certainly didn't suspect and would not have believed that my body would be the thing to do it.  I scoffed at faith healing, energy talk, wispy and weak kneed ideas about karma and souls and manifestation.  They simply didn't hold up to logic and experience.

I still scoff.  But yoga's heart and very definition have very little to do with wispy and weak logic.  There is nothing about auras or faith healing there.  It is simply and forcefully the stated fact that our mind and our body do interface.  That our body hears and remembers everything our mind happens to say.

And our mind feels, remembers, everything the body has lived through.

 

**

Yoga has been a bridge.  It has, in ways that no political science, biology, doctor or religion or common sense self help book ever has, given me actual tools and ways and means to sort through things.  Tools that work.

For as much as the mind body separation is taken as fact in our culture, we are confused about it.  We say one thing but mean another.  We say 'self' or 'soul' or 'personality' as if it were distinct from the bag of bones, but we suffer.  And we say that ideas are more important than bodies, but we act as if bodies were something, after all.  Politics is very much about bodies, what they are worth, who gets what, who gets to be where and who is excluded.  We have bought and sold bodies, buy and sell them still.  We pretend to be intellectual, democratic, evolved homo sapiens but when it gets right down to our hours and our relationships and our days it involves hunger, fatigue, sex, boundaries, love, anger, disgust, and longing.

Approaching my days, now, from yoga, from the starting point that mind and body are both aspects of self, I suddenly have a better way to live.  Hour after hour, how I deal with hunger and sleep and posture and schedules; but also in how I understand what to do in terms of global politics, familial relationships, art and philosophy.

**

It is important to wonder how personal growth, character, phsyical sturcture, and health/dis-ease relate to one another.  It is important to realize the way our body has been acted upon, cared for, regarded both by ourselves and by others are stored into our bodies on a deepset, cellular level.  It is important to realize that our craving for 'something more' and sense that something missing, or ambition and hope, or hints of god and joy or simply the wishing we could know joy, are part of our human body and as real as blood is.  As actual as the kneecap.

It is wonderful to realize the questions, simple stress, out and out boredom or dull abiding inner fears can be touched.  Not by talking about them or popping a pill.  Not by removing something wrong with you or getting over it.  But by listening to your breath, lowering your forehead to the ground, spreading the fingers of the hand.

**

Many of our medical, educational, religious and philosophical institutions base themselves on the assumption that such an interfacing system and, indeed, such direct relationships do not exist.

Yet wellbeing (either purely from a physical point of view, 'success', or an intellectual/emotional standpoint) cannot be infused intravenously or ladled out by prescription.  Nor can they be willed or manifested by positive thinking or die-hard pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.  Health and disease do not just happen to us.  They are part of a matrix, laid out on the lines of the body mind.

**

When I begin to teach, when the student is new, I repeat and repeat myself: yoga means connection, unity, binding.  The mind to the body, the intention to the action, the breath to the movement, the brain to reality.

All our dis-ease, from headache to chronic illness to broken bones, to longing and depression and overwork, are disturbances of that connection.  Yoga is reconnecting.  Yoga is return.

**

Our bodies and our imaginations are walking autobiographies.  We hardly know who we are.  Yoga is reading, and writing, our own stories, our own lives.

By listening to the breath, lowering our foreheads to the ground, and spreading the fingers of the hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLASSES IN ST CLOUD START TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

Return is ready to open the doors at 6:30 am this Tuesday.  I am eager, and I am afraid, but I have figured out that the two usually go together.  That if it is really happiness, if you are really growing, there will be an element of poignant, gut grabbing panic.  It doesn't mean stop.  It means you're on to something important. There have been a few questions sent along.  About what kind of yoga I teach, what classes will be like, whether yoga is right for all the various 'me's out there.

The short answer is this:  our medicine, our psychology, and our culture have accepted yoga as mainstream.  We know that it improves health and deters decline associated with aging.  We know that it works to combat cardio-vascular disease (America's big number one); mitigate stress, depression, and anxiety (the numbers two and three); improve concentration and sense of wellbeing; heighten performance and reduce rates of injury and illness.  It is not a religion, although it has aspects of spirituality.  It is not a workout nor a diet and fitness plan, although there are elements of those things as well.  Yoga is, at it's heart, a proven set of practices designed to make human beings find and follow their own highest potential and step into their authenticity.

Return practices that, over the currently popular 'power yoga' classes that are very much like jazzercise and will, sooner or later, lose it's fad appeal.

Because I teach that, my classes start from the belief that any body can practice yoga.  You do not need to be in shape nor have a super healthy body.  You do not need to have any experience.  You don't need balance or flexibility and you do not need to know a thing.  The 'healing' classes, in particular, are intended to be open to bodies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities.

Also because I teach a yoga of authenticity, I teach 'strong' classes that are challenging and demanding.  More demanding, probably, than the power yoga class taught at the gym.  You will not do crunches and we will not talk about your abs.  But I will provide a framework for you to chisel out your own relationship with your body, figure out what you are capable of, and be more healthy five years from now than you are today.  Keep practicing, and you will be more healthy 25 years from now than you are today.  I will teach you inversions and arm balances and deep backbends.  I will push and you will sweat.  If you're an athlete, you'll learn how to detoxify your body post work-out and bring more proprioceptive facility to your time off the mat.

The practices are deeply healing and a private experience of accountability, growth, and self revolution.  They go deep.  But they also can be taken small, tiny small pieces at a time.  You take what you want.  You practice when you can.  If what you want is an hour to yourself, it is that.  If you want to sweat and stretch and literally change the edges of what you are capable of, it will be that.  It will help heal what is wounded and bring your body to its most alive expression, most productive state.  It will be both inspiring and soothing.  A yoga practice is both solace and new challenge.

That is the yoga I teach.  And I am excited to teach it in St. Cloud.

Your mental health

Jim Campbell - OmLight Yoga Photography

Earlier today I had a conversation about mental illness.  It made me think of yoga, and I posted on the facebook page.  But then that same friend and I talked again, and he reminded me of the difficulty: on the one hand, it is too easy to call negative emotions or problems in life 'illness' when it is part of being human; on the other hand, 'mental illness', along with a hit list of things from fibromyalgia to IBS to PTSD, are too often minimized and dismissed as being 'in your head'. Clarity: it is not just in your head.  I hope that anyone who knows my teaching knows I believe these things to be very real, very physical, a cornerstone to reality.  I do not advocate over simplistic views of 'healing' that encourage you to meditate your way past DNA or cancer or depression or alcoholism or schizophrenia.

But I do think - I know - that yoga helps.

Western medicine (humanity, maybe) has floundered on these kinds of illness, and yoga offers a kind of healing that is unheard of, elsewhere.  I do not say it makes it all better.  I do not promise symptoms will all go away.  I cannot make the blind see or the dead rise and I will never, ever tell someone NOT to listen to their doctor.

The best shot you've got involves both your doctor and your yoga.

Here is what I said on facebook:

talked with a friend this morning about 'mental illness'. How, of all the medical conditions in the world, most of which have seen an improvement in life expectancy in recent years, the opposite is true for the chronically depressed, anxious, and struggling.

Yoga helps, I kept thinking. Yoga heals. I know this is true.

But I also know that 'illness' is itself limiting. There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, sad, or angry. Life is anxiety provoking. We should feel sad and angry.

The problem is not that we feel these things, but that we feel overwhelmed and damaged by what we feel.Yoga, though, teaches us different. Teaches us to find more more meaning and more power from what we feel. To use these very things to feel more alive, not less so.Yoga helps. I know this is true.

The fact is, anyone who tells you they have a cure or it is all in your head is minimizing your experience.  Anyone who tells you they can change the way you feel or that you SHOULD change the way you feel is being harmful and dishonest and misleading in very important ways.

 

I do not want to offer you something to make you feel better or to change you.  I want to say it's okay to feel what you feel.  To say yes, I see it, it is there.

 

To say, still: yoga helps.  I know this.

 

Oddly, though, I want to throw in an immediate caveat: yoga isn't for everybody.  The gurus who try to tell you their yoga is for everyone are false gurus.  This yoga has worked for me, and I believe there is a yoga that will work for everyone.  It may not be called 'yoga'.  It may have nothing to do with physical postures or breathing or philosophy.  But if it is an ongoing personal transformation, it qualifies in my book.

 

I throw caveats, everywhere.  Like breadcrumbs.  As if I'm going very deep into the unknown woods.  Perhaps I am.

 

Mental health.  Yoga for everyone.  I think I will continue to write on these things, to teach and to practice and to sweat them out.  I am not preaching answers.  I'm asking questions.

 

The problem with mental health is hopelessness, pathology, and society.  Within the individual, healing and a full, humane, joyful life are entirely possible.  Yoga is the process of finding it.

 

I know, this: I am watching someone I love be destroyed by active alcoholism and am maddened by her inability to see it, crushed by my inability to understand why I was able to get better and she has not.

I sat with a woman for a long time last week talking of chronic, debilitating depression and crushed my fingernails into my palms as she said she didn't believe she could ever have kids for fear she'd pass 'this' on, yet she was grief stricken by her loss; she didn't believe she'd be able to live to old age if it kept on this way, that suicide is inevitable; I knew exactly what she meant.  I know, because I have that depression, too.  I tried to explain that I have it - I have it STILL - but that it is different, now.  That it is truly my strong point, my revolution, my actual reason for being alive and finding joy and being strong.  I cannot much explain it, but it happened on a yoga mat.

I have seen autism, trauma, manic states, and schizophrenia change because of a yoga practice, people become alive again and not crushed, not broken, but sweet and powerful and glad to be alive.

These are the questions.

If this is possible, why not try?

 

 

Commit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Until one is committed, there is always hesitancy The chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation There is one elementary truth, The ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; The moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help that would never otherwise have occurred.A whole stream of events issues from the decision, Raising to one’s favour all manner of unforseen accidents and meetings and material assistance Which no man could have dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

Goethe

Stability. Balance. Grace.

A recent study of Parkinson's disease showed a gentle yoga practice, once a week, returned people's ability to balance.  To stand, on their own.  To walk.  To hold the hand steady. Parkinson's is a withering disease, a slow erosion of the neural pathways.  The body slowly loses its capacity and the mind, I imagine, begins to close in upon itself, moving in smaller and smaller cages.  The mind forgets how to relate to the body.

Painful.  Frightening.

Yet I don't think it's terribly far from what most of us are living, most of the time.   I think we have forgotten (mistrusted, misused, tried to hide or control or shrink) the body to the point we can no longer feel it.  We have become trapped, disembodied.  We have, in very real ways, forgotten how to feel and what it means to be embodied.  To be alive.

It's a common experience in yoga classes to feel we're going to fall on our faces, that we're on the verge of toppling.  We feel the anti-thesis of grace and beauty.  When I teach, I watch this happening; feel your feet on the ground, I'll say, or notice your breath in your belly, and half the people in the room look up to the ceiling as if the answers and the sensation were up there somewhere.  They crane their necks around to see what the teacher or the experienced students are doing.  If I say feel your hand, from the inside, I get looks of skepticism.  There's yoga teacher talking crazy again, the look says.

I am not speaking of advanced poses of gyration and balancing on one foot.

I am talking about tadasana, mountain pose.  Or sitting up tall.

This is very, very hard for most of us to do.

**

We cower, instead.  We hunch.  We try to make ourselves small, or have a chronically puffed up chest.  Old injuries, our childhoods, our belief and self esteem all cow the body into misalignment and unbalance.  This isn't metaphorical, either: if you think of how a depressed or grief stricken person stands, how they breath, you can imagine the postural changes.  Four or five minutes of this posture has a ripple effect on our mood and our chemistry.  Ten or twenty years, and the mood and the chemistry have re-formed the body and made it hard.

Feeling violated or insecure causes some bodies to protect themselves with added weight.  Anxiety and constricts the muscles around the heart, freezes the shoulders and the back into a hard shell.  People who have been told to be quiet, to not draw attention to themselves, who have learned to focus all their attention outside (on alcoholic parents, an abusive partner, an unstable environment) hold a very small stance and seem to shrink in space.  Even assertive, confidant, or aggressive persons have an overdeveloped strength in the neck, chest, and arms but stand on cocked legs, bowed legs, hurt their knees and their ankles over and over again.

Some of this is malicious feeling, as though we have to 'deal' with all our unresolved issues in the past.  It needn't be.  Similar structural changes happen simply because we over use our dominant hand, fell off a horse when we were twelve, or were rear ended five years ago.

These are only questions we can start asking ourselves, directions in which to move.

What happens inside when someone cues you to stand tall?  How does it feel to occupy as much space as you can, to stretch your arms wide, to kick hard?

Do you hands shake?  Why?

*

The Parkinson's study suggests yogic movement retrains the brain and neural pathways, establishes new pathways, reconnects brain and intention and nerves.

Even if parts of our brain have died and eroded, we can learn how to stand again.

*

I feel I'm going to fall over, a student said in virabadrasana 2. If the slightest wind blew, I would fall.

How, then, do we learn to feel balanced, to feel strong and stable?  What does a yoga pose have to do with our mind, our self?  Where do you start?

I asked him to pay attention to his feet.  In an effort to stay stable, he was unconsciously taking small steps, keeping the movements and the poses conservative.

Yoga poses begin with foundations, with the way our body comes in contact with the floor.  A strong, balanced pose means the joints are stabilized, which means the muscles and connective tissue are engaged (which means tightening joints up, not flexibility).

Personal trainers and physical therapists often teach movements with a ball or a wobble board.  The point is teaching the body to stabilize itself.  The body does this by contracting muscles in co-ordination, creating foundation.

Yoga uses the body itself to teach stability and poise.  If it is true that fear, anxiety, depression, or a car wreck fifteen years ago changes our body, than it is also true that consciously training our body to stand confidently will change our minds and our moods.  It offers a way to confidence, stability, and grace that is altogether different than psychotherapy or positive affirmations.  It asks us not to worry about the thoughts and feelings that happen over, and over, and over again but to pause for a moment and consider the skin of our toes and the structure of the ankles.

But to get there, we have to feel our feet on the ground.  We have to know our relationship to the floor.

We have to start getting out of our heads, and into the body.

*

There is an illustration floating around the internet, that say's "When you fall, I'll be there for you" and is signed, affectionately, The Floor.

Some yogis have altered the illustration and crossed out 'floor' to read 'mat'.

This is the point I love, in yoga.  The point where the idea, the philosophy, the meaning, is ripped right out of the abstract and into the real.  yoga is the practice of reality.

On the one hand, this idea of the floor catching you is humiliating.  It culls up images of awkwardness, embarrassment, all that learning how to walk and ride a bicycle. Let alone dancing, which most of us can not, in any impressive way, do.

On the other hand, there is a honest comfort here.  Reality is the only solid ground there is.  Our plans, our expectations, our heads have proven us to be silly, more often than not.  They are houses of mirrors and will lead directly to suffering and disappointment, if not just a chronic sense of being numb and stuck.

Reality, though, touching our hands or our feet to the floor and learning how to build stability, has an element of power to it.  I have friends who swear by the grounding effect of gardening, others who will mutter something about needing to use their hands when they start to feel overwhelmed or have to work something through.  Most of us, I think, can remember a time when an emotion swelled so powerfully we had to go for a walk, had to wash the dishes or clean a closet or sweep the floor.  Most of us can acknowledge the fact that a difficult to solve problem often needs us to stop ruminating and spend time doing: tinkering on a car, walking the dog, playing with a child, cooking a meal.

It isn't that there is anything wrong with thinking.  Only that thinking, to be inspired and fully formed, to be genius, needs to have its feet on the ground.  It needs time, ground, experience.

We will never, I mean, think our way into feeling better or more alive.  We can never burn by thought alone to an answer to life's questions.  We can never work through the issues of our past or our unfulfilled dreams or our nagging anxieties unless and until we experience our selves as strong, fast, stable, and breathy.

*

This is a gift.  This is a promise.  This is why yoga is so powerful for those of us who might feel anxious, vulnerable, or afraid.

At moments of heartbreak, overwhelm, or panic, it is possible to find our feet.

Yogic movement retrains the mind, reconnects attention and nerves, gives us the floor.

This is why yogic practice is hard, and the hardness has very little to do with physical limitations.  The hardness is in our minds, in finding a willingness to let go of our thinking habits and just show up, instead.  Most of us resist.  Our mind insists we aren't any good at this stuff, that other people are strong and flexible and athletic but not us.  The mind wants to stay afraid, says things like I'm always alone, this situation is unfair, why me, why can't I.  It is packed with 'always', 'never', and doubt.  It is ruthless in it's perfectionism, procrastination, blame, and fear.  It becomes rapt with it's own preconceptions, prejudices, and self-preservation to the point it loses connection with reality.

Yet emotional balance, emotional intelligence, and healing are reality bound.

Remember, for a moment, those times when you were so emotionally charged you needed to move.  Or how physical reality (song, walking, washing the dishes, touching something alive) has helped you work through a problem.

Now know, for a moment, that the quickest and surest route to getting out of your own fear and suffering is to consider someone else's.  Wisdom practices throughout time have taught that the surest way to solve your own problems is to help someone else through theirs.  The point is not altruism, per say.  The point is reality.  If we can, for even a moment, crawl out of the mind and into the world we come back in contact with reality and perspective.

We remember time.  We know relativity.  We realize we can, actually, stand up.  However big our fear or panic, we'll know that there is more to life than it.

There is more to us than it.

The mind closes in on itself, moving into smaller and smaller cages.  It forgets how to relate to the body.

Eventually, we learn how to feel panic or fear or uncertainty full on, but still stand.  We'll know they are not constant, not solid, and that we do not actually become overwhelmed.  We'll learn emotional balance, intellectual gravity, skill in life.

We experience ourselves standing tall.

 

 

Who you are

I don't believe we any of us know who we really are, what we are capable of.  Yet our 'identity' - the things we believe to be true about ourselves and tell ourselves - is the strongest motivating force and understanding of life that we have.  So we hurt.  We hurt because there is a primal discrepancy between this identity and the truth. One of the fundamental human traits is an ability to change and to grow.

Yet the nearly universal experience is a feeling of being unable to change.

The practice of yoga has the power to so drastically re-arrange our bodies and our psyches and our souls we might be startled.  This isn't metaphor.  It isn't self help craziness.  It is the practical outcome of a very specific set of practices and observances.

I have seen persons with chronic pain become agile, joyful, active and more alive than the majority of american adults.  I have seen persons work through severe trauma, anxiety, depression.  I have seen people who were told they would never walk again run, dance, and jump.  Others lose hundreds of pounds.  I have seen a 'paralyzed' man become a gifted and compassionate yoga teacher and himself move into poses that are 'impossible'. A 'blind' man so increase his proprioceptive functioning he can see.

But here, here is the secret: it is not a thing you can think about, believe, or wish your way into.  It will not be what you expect.  The truth is you cannot 'will' your way out of an addiction, a depression, a panic attack, grief, hormones, or pain.  You cannot 'control' your thoughts or your consciousness.

It is a thing you let go of, instead.  It is an experience, not an idea.  You may have to be willing to 'let go' of your old ideas and stories of identity.  Some say so.  I don't necessarily agree; I think it just happens.  I think that we show up to meditation or a yoga studio because we want to fix a sore back, or our girlfriend made us do it, or we are intrigued enough to try.  The practice itself is a biochemical change to consciousness.  It is a re-ordering of our endocrine system.  It is a suspension of our stories and an experience of how many other things could, actually, be possible.

When I say stories and identities, I mean the voices in our heads.  The rock hard belief that 'I am not a flexible person' or 'I am bi-polar, this is just who I am' or 'I need chocolate now' or 'I can never tell this to anyone, ever'.  We all have a little city inside, a whole population of 'selves'.  We fill various roles (daughter, employee, born in such a such a city, American, woman, mother, shopper at Walgreens, watcher of romantic comedies).  If we watch our thoughts, we'll start to know them.  We'll start to see that 'mother' isn't even the end of it, we have "I'm a good mother when I..." and "I'm an awful parent when I..." inside there.  We've got a holographic imprint of every experience, every conversation, every relationship covering our insides like decoupage to the bones, a library in the brain, mostly unconscious but active in us still.  As instinct.  As impulse.  As pattern and personality.  And behind all of these selves there is usually a more prominent, more 'rational' self.  A kind of manager or director.  It's the one who keeps all those other crazy characters in line.  The one who hands out assignments and judges outcomes.  It's the one we usually think of as 'me'.

But even that self is a story and an identity.  Even that self can be seen as 'pattern', 'habit', 'conditioning'.  It is not true.  There is more to our potential and our body.  Yoga is a remarkable way to begin playing in terms of that potential, that more.  A way to experience biochemistry, expanded awareness, the life of life and the body of body, which alternately feels more authentic and more impersonal than any one of the 'voices' we've ever heard before.

Yoga is a delicate and probing exploration of our self.  Our selves.  We trace 'I am just an angry person' and 'I don't know why I did that' and 'I want to be a better person, but' to it's root source.

Yoga is revelation.

Yet you can't just read this and get it.  You can't just hope for it and watch it happen.  I'm a yoga teacher, for crying out loud; I know this and I've seen it happen in students over and over again and yet it's hard for me to do the truth.

Do: do.  The truth is done, an action.

Yoga will not change you unless you do yoga.  Meditation will not change your brain chemistry unless you meditate.

If you show up on the mat, you will change.  But you must show up on the mat.

I do not say easy, and I don't say magical.  I say real.

Give me strength...

There is strength to open pickle jars.  Strength that can hold a twisted, inverted asana where all of one's body weight is supported across the five fingers of one hand.  And then there is the strength that burns down cities in war, of storms that rips trees from the earth, the true strength of death that makes smoldering matchsticks of us all. It was a hot, smoldering summer.  Without thunder or mercy, just the drone of dry heat.  It was easy to fall into lassitude, into believing everything would go on being the way it was.  To think of strength as the muscles, and a personal thing.  I practiced handstands.  There were many black flies.  I flicked at them, absently.

Then one day it thundered.  It roared.  Someone said 'it's fall now, so...' and I thought but no, no it isn't.  By the end of her sentence, though, it was.  September is irrevocable.  And I was snapped out of my dailyness when told I'd have to move, things are changing, I'll have to make decisions and things won't be the same anymore.

The westernest leaves of the sugar maples turned a burned red.

**

When you meet persons who have practiced yoga or meditation for a long time, you are struck by their levelness.  They have a kind of grace.  A quality of being touched, joyful.  It seems, sometimes, that they are a lucky brand of bastard whom suffering and the chaos of life hasn't touched.  Their lives must be different, less stressful than ours.

This isn't true.

When you ask, you learn that they suffer and worry just as we do.  Their lives are no less stressful than our own.  I've known yogis who battle massive depression.  Folks who weep when their parents die.  Ones who have lost money, a limb, a child.

It is not that they don't suffer or that they are immune to life's changes.  It is only that they have learned what true strength means.  It isn't that they don't age, don't hurt, don't have headaches or have to work and find time and defecate like the rest of us neurotic humans.  They suffer and struggle.

But they are not overwhelmed.  They are strong.

**

Before I practiced yoga, my life was a kind of war.  It seemed very hard.  I seemed to have to work, constantly, to hang on with both hands, to keep the whole thing going by my own efforts.  I wavered between a kind of self-pity (why can't I have a life like hers?  Why is that person so lucky?  Things would be different if I had the money, time, if I lived there, if I met the right person, didn't have to deal with this person...) where everything appeared very random and an overweening sense of importance: I would make my own life happen, I would learn the right skills, I would or would not make relationships work, have a happy life, be healthy.

Most of us spend most of our lives with this kind of erratic, frantic movement.  Where we have to juggle and keep dancing.  Where we are constantly busy or too busy, but never really seem to get anything done.

I thought of my depression (devastating, disgusting, brutalizing and wanting me dead) was a thing I had to manage and control.  I thought of my time as I thing I had to control.  I thought happiness and success were things you got if you were good enough at it, and I tried but doubted the outcome.  I thought, most of the time, that I understood The Way Things Are, whereas others seemed only to have opinions and not know The Whole Story. Relationships, just like projects, were things I had to navigate.

I rarely noticed the color of leaves or the passing of seasons.  Unless, of course, it came as a kind of insult and affront to my efforts; the passing of time making a mockery of my best intentions. The whole of 'life' being out of control and myself as powerless.

**

We forget who and what we really are, says yoga.  We are blind.

The practice is to discover strength.  Not of muscles, not of pickle jars, but the strength to be fully alive with the burning leaves and the thundering storm.  To know we are not supposed to and never can 'control' life - we can't even control our own thoughts and feelings, for chrissake -

we are supposed to live it.  To participate in power and strength, rather than fight against it.  To realize there is power and passion and awesome, more baffling strength in being than we'd ever glimpsed.  Strength is there, is real, but we've been looking for it in the wrong places.

**

Yogic strength is in attention, in showing up and watching without turning away.  We watch our thoughts...churning, not so pretty, unstoppable, sometimes just plain stupid, every once in a while deeply provocative and profound.

When we learn to watch them, we are not crippled and driven by them.  We can access the profundity.  And we learn to not be cowed by all that pettiness and drone. Attending can let it be, thoughts being thoughts, mind being mind.

When we learn to attend, we may be slapped with the shock of strength.  Craving, for example.  We slowly start to practice just watching and will notice that 'craving' is an understatement: it is an avalanche of physical sensations, sweaty palms, salivating mouth, a spreading subtle tension across the entire body of muscles, a tightening in the belly, a compression around the eyes, perhaps even a closing of the hearing; it's a ruckus of thoughts, terribly uncomfortable and pressing and insistent, and you cannot stop it.  Attempts to stop it make it worse.

Muscle, for another example.  When we learn, slowly, as we can, to literally pay attention to what stretching feels like, it might hit us like an orgasm or an drug altered state: reality is more intense, more vivid, more than it was before.  We notice not only that the muscle is tensed, but whether it is clenched or trembling or steady, hot or cold, rough in texture or smooth like water, we notice how one muscle touches another muscle, where sensation begins and ends, that sensation in one tiny part of the body spreads like ripples in water.  A clenched hand spills up the arm and into the neck, it alters our breath, it clenches the jaw, it tightens the chest, it shifts our toes, and it literally changes the way we think, shouts a change in our hormonal levels, heats or cools the skin, raises hairs, focuses or unfocuses the eyes.

Every emotion, every movement, has this powerful swell of energy behind it.  Even boredom, apathy, hunger.  Attending shows us how powerful these things are.

When we get stronger, we might be able to tolerate attending to a thing like anger, rage, depression, anxiety.

I am afraid, we will think.  And we'll have the strength to go on, anyway.

We'll realize, more and more and over and over, how much is involved in this being alive.  It's as profound, I tell you, as the ocean is deep or the cosmos is baffling.  We cannot control our minds, we cannot control our lives and our deaths.  But we can know them.

**

Do this, and the strength in you suddenly seems something out of a fairy tale or a comic book, something almost divine.  There is a reason yoga talks in metaphysics.

Oh, my god, you'll think: I LOVE this person, and your love will swell.  I am HUNGRY, you'll realize, and start to eat differently, all the colors and textures and tastes being louder than they were before.  I want to be happy, you'll know, and you'll start moving, moment by moment, into the person for whom happiness is possible.

A person of strength and grace.

It doesn't matter if I can do the pose, or not, you'll think in your yoga class.  And you'll be dumbstruck to realize you're standing on your head.

**

Life, friends, is hard.

We cannot control life.

But it is possible to be alive in it.

Walking, I notice the passing of time.  The cicadas are dying and lay on the sidewalk in alien corpses.  The air is sharper, pungent.  There was a time in my life this would be hard: to be suddenly without a place to live, to be asked all of the sudden what my plans were.  I am different, now.  I can feel the panic, like a little fist in my heart, pulling the whole body into it.  I can feel afraid, but I can also wonder and feel: I wonder at all the options, I wonder what is possible, I realize what a difference I can make, here or there.  I decide to open a yoga studio in a little town I used to know.  I do not know whether this will succeed or not.  But I can try.

The fact is, I try more now.  In relationships, in my heath, with my very body thrown upside down with a seeming disregard for things like safety and bruises.  Truth is I am more afraid, more often, than I have ever been in my life.

But the fear doesn't matter any more.

I am strong.