Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't Lose Your Touch

We live in a hyper-connected culture: FaceTime, Facebook, texting, Skyping, Tweeting, chat rooms, message boards. We connect through technology more than ever, staying in touch with record numbers of people at one time...but how many people really touch us? How many people do we touch, with our hands, our eyes, our hearts? Experts such as social psychologists and our own grandparents have suggested that most of us are actually out of touch...we're missing out on true connection. We are becoming lonelier. 

A Facebook friend of mine, who also happens to be one of my very few true friends, recently posted an article about loneliness and social media, confessing that she cried after reading it. We are holding our phones and tablets instead of each other: “the very magic of the new machines, the efficiency and elegance with which they serve us, obscures what isn’t being served: everything that matters. What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are.” 

In our fast-paced lifestyles which prioritize multitasking, we are not only spending less time physically connected to our tribe, the members of our social and familial circles; we are also spending less time with ourselves. Although loneliness is a growing problem, we have all but eliminated solitude. This explains our growing interest in yoga and meditation. We need time to connect through disconnection. 

Practicing yoga, alone or in a class, cultivates a deep interior connection. Through our practice we tune into who we really are. We go within and connect deeply, accessing our natural qualities of empathy and compassion. This allows us to make more meaningful connections in the world. Seeing the suffering in ourselves and learning to ease it helps us to recognize suffering in others, and informs us as we reach out on a deeper level than just a chat room, just a text message, just a "like" on Facebook. 

A focused, physical practice like yoga is self-care for the mind, body and spirit. By steadying the breath and the mind, we learn how to take care of our own feelings, our own injuries, our own hearts; in turn, we become better able to cultivate sweetness and openness in our relationships. As we connect on our mats, we become better connectors in the world outside, experiencing deeper connections and facilitating them for others. 

Do this for yourself today. Don't be a lonely heart. Light your heart aflame and shine that torch for others. I tell this to myself, too: put the phone down, get off the computer and go hug someone, knock on your neighbor's door, call your friend instead of texting her (I did call my friend when she posted that she was crying!) Maybe even go to a yoga class! Hug yourself on your mat. I ask my students to do this. Try it. Be present for yourself, not virtually, but completely. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Why Marcel Proust was a Yogi

From the time we are in our mother's womb, we learn and follow patterns that help us to survive. Our brains and nervous systems are wired to pick up and settle into patterns; in the womb we attune to our mother's heartbeat, her particular voice quality, her unique biorhythms and the predictable schedule of her life: when she eats, when she is physically active, when she sleeps. A baby is born into the world having already learned that life unfolds in predictable rhythms and patterns. As it grows, it develops its own patterns based on stimuli and reactions to the stimuli; some reactions work and others do not, so the brain adapts and finds a predictable structure of behaviors to follow, allowing the little baby to grow up, survive and thrive.

Beyond survival and comfort tactics, we develop and follow all sorts of patterns in our day to day lives as humans. Most of our physical and mental patterns operate on an unconscious level. Some patterns are what we call habits. We like to think we choose our habits and have control over them, and sometimes that is true. Anyone who has ever tried to stop smoking or kick a sugar or other dietary habit knows that we can master certain habits, but it takes determination.

In Yoga philosophy there is a term for the deeper or latent causes behind our habits: samskaras. The word sounds like "some scars," and that is a helpful way to think about the concept because a scar is a fixed imprint, like a brand that is burned into the skin of cattle. Scars and brands are deeply implanted grooves in the skin.

At a deeper level of the body, in our brains and nervous systems, we have grooves called neuropathways; when we perform an action, think a thought or experience a sensation repeatedly, a particular neuropathway is activated each time; that repetition forms a groove, like a groove on a record player or a line in the sand that gets deeper as we build a moat for a sand castle. When a wave washes up on the shoreline, the water goes right into the groove we created for it. Eventually, the groove will wash away or get replaced when someone else builds a new sandcastle. Our brains can work that way, too. Thanks to a scientifically observed phenomenon called neuroplasticity, our neuropathways are pliable enough to be weakened and overridden; in other words, we can consciously apply ourselves to recognize our thought and behavior patterns and create new ones when needed.

Our habits are formed based on the structure of our neuropathways. Samskaras are thought to be patterns which run even deeper than our neuropathways. Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, reads the second sutra of Book One of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga). Do yoga--free your mind and the rest will follow. Sutras 9 and 10 in Book Three describe the process of observing samskaras, sort of catching them in the act, and then restraining them. A major goal of Yoga philosophy is to restrain not only our thoughts, but our deeply ingrained patterns so that our true Self can emerge. This is deep stuff. Many yoga teachers and yoga experts don't even want to talk about it for fear of sounding like proponents of pop psychology or pseudo-science or a mind-erasing cult. Maybe it doesn't seem practical to talk about the deep, spiritual roots of thoughts and habits. On the other hand, it is certainly practical to use Yoga as a framework for dealing with habits.

Our habits are both physical and mental and it takes effort and awareness to notice and change them. Some habits we can't help, and they may even be good for us; if you are someone who always double checks the locks on your home and car, does it make you neurotic or judiciously careful? In any case, why fight it? Some habits we can change, and when we do, we prevent harm to ourselves and others and enhance our health and happiness. Through Yoga we can work with the habits that are holding us back in life: these can be as simple as poor posture, shallow breathing and weak abdominal muscles, or as complex as holding onto harmful beliefs about ourselves. In our practice, we repeat similar movements and breathing exercises again and again; this repetition brings our habitual patterns to the surface; we may prefer a certain style of yoga or react to a certain posture the same way each time; the repetition alerts us to our habitual patterns.

When we can break out of our patterns, even for just a few moments, a whole new world opens up to us. We can perceive things differently. Our slate gets a little cleaner, we become more childlike, our view becomes less clouded.

One of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust, wrote about, "The deadening effect of habit, which cuts away from things we have seen many times the taproot of deep impression and thought which gives them their real significance." (The Past Recaptured). Habit impedes inspiration, joy, the fullness of life. It protects us from painful truths, and in so doing it anesthetizes us from living an impassioned life. To uncloud our perception and uncover the most powerful parts of ourselves, we must confront our own habits.

We will work with habits in our practice today by staying aware and remaining open to trying new things. Notice your preferences and reactions. Notice how you feel when a preferred sun salutation or transition into a posture is changed. Come into Warrior I in a new way. Then try it your favorite way. Notice the differences. See if something opens up for you, in your body, your mind, or both.

“Habit enables us to cling to the familiar, to the self we think we know with a persistence almost irresistible. An anodyne for the terror of the unknown, it effectively keeps us from knowing, and is fatal in itself. Habit is a fiction the organism requires to dim perception. It screens us from the world, and from the true world of the self. Habit—no matter how intense the suffering it causes—is the last thing the personality will give up. It is arming itself against danger. The weapons may be more painful to use than the pain they seek to deflect. No matter. Habit allows us to live—by which Proust means it allows us to exist while it simultaneously compels us to miss Life.” 
― Howard MossThe Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust

Friday, November 1, 2013

Whole Body Listening

I love school. As a yoga student and yoga teacher, I have found an ongoing way to continue the experience of school.  Right now I get to play the role of the teacher, but I know that each of us are teachers, no matter our jobs or our age. Some of my greatest teachers are my family members. I learn from my family each and every day. 

Last week my kindergarten-aged son Rhys brought home an award he received from his teacher: it was a Whole Body Listener certificate, and attached to it was a poster illustrating what it means to be a Whole Body Listener, with pictures of the eyes, mouth, hands, feet, brain and heart. Here is what I read from the poster:

Whole Body Listening is more than just “hearing” with the ears. It includes:
  • listening with the eyes (looking at the speaker)
  • listening with the mouth (closed and quiet - no talking or making sounds)
  • listening with the body (facing the speaker)
  • listening with the hands (quietly at the side of the body or in the lap)
  • listening with the feet (standing still or quietly on the floor)
  • listening with the brain (thinking about what the speaker is saying)
  • and listening with the heart (caring about what the speaker is saying)
Rhys was so proud to get this award. I know he has worked on his listening skills in kindergarten. While he was telling me about his award, he said, "Mommy, you're not listening with your whole body right now," because I was distracted by the dog and my other son, and we were sitting on a bench so my body was turned partly away from him. Even more importantly, I know that I am not a Whole Body Listener most of the time. I told him I was sorry and that I want to listen better. 

The next day, my Mom arrived from Missouri to visit us for a week. Obviously, she is another one of my teachers. Just this morning, as I was thinking about what to say to yoga students about Whole Body Listening, she said, "I need to talk to you. I am asking for just ten minutes of your time so that you can sit and really listen to me. I need you to listen to me about how I feel left out of your life." I sat and truly listened to her. Listening with my eyes was easiest. Facing her with my body was also pretty easy. Listening with my heart was a conscious choice, and it was hard because it hurt a little. I had to let down my usual defenses. Listening with my brain turned out to be even harder, because when she asked me questions or needed feedback, my brain jumped in with all sorts of ideas and words I wanted to say to her, and in turn I stopped listening with my mouth. Then I came back to my intention of Whole Body Listening and became quiet again. At the end of that ten minutes, which had turned into half an hour, my Mom and I worked through something that had been troubling our relationship. We found a good solution to serve us both: so that we can both practice speaking and being heard, giving and in turn receiving communication, we will schedule bi-weekly phone calls, one with just me and one with my boys present as well. 

In the context of Yoga, my teacher Al Bingham has been instructing a group of yoga teachers in how to best listen to our students. As a teacher, I need to be a good Whole Body Listener. Students listen to the yoga teacher, but they also need to be heard. If I am listening to you instead of just up here giving cues and doing postures, then I'll be able to respond to you effectively. Sometimes I will make mistakes, and other times, because it's a group setting, I won't be able to listen simultaneously to every person. At those times, keep listening to yourself and move from your own wisdom, not always in the way I guide you to move. 

Through Yoga, we learn, practice and teach the art of the listening. What are we doing when we get quiet and centered and focus on the breath? We are listening. Listening to what? We are intently listening to ourselves, our own bodies, our own minds, our own hearts and souls. If we have spiritual beliefs, we can expand this idea to listening to the Divine, however we may call it. As we move through postures we move with consciousness, focusing our attention and listening to what our hands, feet, hips, shoulders, knees and heart have to say to us. If we mindlessly force ourselves into pretzel poses, we are not listening, but instead talking over our own body's wisdom--we want to do the opposite of that. If our body, our breath and our heart tell us to slow down, then we slow down. If our chests and hearts soar in a certain posture, then we open up freely and deeply and we go for it. If we listen to our heart in savasana, sometimes we shed a few tears. That's a beautiful thing because it shows we are listening. 

The art of Whole Body Listening is always at the foundation of our practice, but we will set this as our whole intention today. The chakra system, Yoga's metaphorical map of our energetic body, has a particular area devoted to communication: the throat. Vishuddha is the name for the throat chakra, which is responsible for speaking, hearing and listening; located at the throat, vishuddha also covers the area of the ears. Many postures we will go through today are traditionally associated with vishuddha. We will use both sound and movement to channel our energy towards listening. This will help us listen to our own bodies and our inner voice, so that we can hear what we need to hear. In our lives off of the mat, this will help us in our relationships with ourselves and others, so we can listen when we need to listen and say what we need to say, at the right time and in the right way.