Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Triple A's of Identity

There are three words in Yoga philosophy that I like to call the Triple A's of Identity: Atman, Ahamkara and Asmita. All three of these words come up when we're posing the eternal question, "Who am I?" 

First let's dig them out of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and define them: 

Atman: This is the Sanskrit word for the true self, the inner self, or what some people call the soul. Yogis believe it to be the most real and enduring part of us. 

Ahamkara: The literal translation is the "I maker," that which gives the sense of a separate existence. It is your own distinct entity, appearing, thinking and acting in the world. It is somewhat close to the Western concept of "ego," and to live in this world, we need to have some sense of our self that is part of a healthy ego. However, the ahamkara is distinct from atman. 

Asmita: This word has a more negative connotation than ahamkara, and it literally means "the false self," or "the thing other than the real I." Asmita is listed as one of the five obstacles preventing enlightenment and leading to suffering. Asmita is mistaking your ego, your thoughts, your body, your senses, and all other impermanent aspects of yourself for the real you. 

I have thought about the Triple A's of Identity all week, due to things coming up in my life related to image and appearance, and how these relate to yoga. 

I have a certain teacher I love, though I can rarely attend her classes anymore. I follow her and some of my other teachers on Facebook and Instagram. This week she put up some cool videos of herself doing a beautiful wheel posture from standing, and an impressive handstand. She accompanied these with inspiring words along the lines of perseverance and dedication, basically "show up" and "work hard." I see similar images and words from other teachers on a regular basis. Though I love to practice the physical postures and link them up with life off of the mat, sometimes I feel like backing off of the more difficult postures as end goals. I even feel at times like yoga gets shortchanged as gymnastics with a veneer of self-improvement. (Many of the postures we do are truthfully from a Scandinavian gymnastics system developed in the 19th century and imported to India. More on that later.) 

I also noticed another of my teachers posted a different sort of message this week, an article called "Un-cover Girls," featuring two overweight yoga teachers in a photo shoot. These women were interviewed about how yoga helps their body image and self-esteem and how they have something unique to offer as opposed to the slender and flexible looking models we see in most yoga advertising images. These women want to prove that yoga is truly for everyone. 

These varied images of other people doing yoga made me a little nervous about a website I am planning to unveil this week. There will be photos of me doing yoga on the site, and I feel conflicted about this. I want to share my practice and be able to market myself as a teacher, but I don't want to send a message that people should admire my practice for how it looks, or that I resemble some sort of ideal yogini, or that an ideal yogini even exists. How do the Triple A's play into this? Well, to market myself as a coach and yoga teacher, I need ahamkara (the I-maker) to work for me, not against me. I don't want to fall into asmita, a sense of false identification with my image and my body. I want to work and serve from a pure place, and to live from my atman. 

What helped me make sense of all this was a conversation I had with my father this week--He is suffering from Bell's Palsy, (facial nerve paralysis). I have long-lasting residuals from this same condition, which I experienced while pregnant with Lyme disease. When I talked to my Dad about how hard it is to deal with, I was able to speak from experience. I told him he may be able to find some comfort in meditation, since that was where I found comfort when it first happened to me. He said he doesn't want to scare my little niece when she sees his face; I remember feeling that way, too. I told him that the experience helped me to stop overly identifying with the way I looked. I found comfort in meditation, because it was there that I was able to connect and identify with my inner self, the part of me that is real. I was able to stop identifying completely with my appearance, and start identifying more with the real me. It didn't take away the reality of a changed appearance, or even of the importance of appearance in real life, but it took away the anxiety I was experiencing from overly identifying with my condition. So in terms of my yoga teaching and website, I know that appearance is part of it, but there doesn't need to be any preoccupation with how any of that looks from the outside. 

Please don't get me wrong: I know we all have to care about our appearance and take good care of ourselves. I also know the physical practice of yoga is a healthy way to take care of our ego and nurture positive self-esteem. There is nothing wrong with admiring and aspiring to execute beautiful asana. None of this becomes a problem unless it is taken to extremes and we begin to over-identify with how we appear. When we start comparing ourselves to other yoga students or teachers, focusing on our image in a mirrored studio, feeling offended when a teacher tries to help with a pose, thinking about impressing the person on the mat behind ours, that's when we know we've stepped into false identification (asmita). The same is true in our life off the mat; when we get too caught up in our role as an earner or an achiever or a supermom, suffering from either inflated self-esteem or a feeling of not measuring up, we know we are off-balance and could use an ego check. 

We can work with the Triple A's of Identity in our yoga practice, not judging ourselves for being ego-driven, but instead just noticing which one of the A's we're experiencing. We can simply observe ourselves as we move through the practice, noticing our thoughts, sensations and reactions. We can do this is in asana, pranayama and meditation. If we are pleased with ourselves in a posture we love, we can note that. If we feel inadequate in a backbend our neighbor excels in, we can note that, too. If our breathing feels smooth, we note it. Witnessing our practice in this non-judgmental way, we start to connect with our internal witness, leading us back to our authentic self. We become aware of what changes and what remains steady, learning to identify with the part of us that endures. In the end this is a comfort to each of us, irrespective of appearance or physical condition. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Yoga Pendulum

Here in the West, we live in a culture of extremes. The ideal we are taught is the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people; be all you can be; go to your edge; supersize your meals; give yourself an energy boost; a flavor boost; an extreme makeover; be the biggest winner, or the biggest loser. Max everything out. Do it big. Go long.

Last week I attended a yoga retreat led by Judith Hanson Lasater, someone who has been teaching yoga since the year I was born. I took away many gems from her teaching, and I listened well when she talked to us about extremes. Many of us bring our penchant for extremes to our yoga mats. We may come to yoga because we are already flexible and we really want to max out those splits or see how deep we can go with our backbends. Yoga becomes about the asana (postures) and how extremely well we execute them. Many of us get hurt this way, and end up with overuse injuries. Why do we do this? And why do we push so hard in our culture in general? Judith gave the simple answer that we are afraid of not being enough. If this is true, then our penchant for extremes is born of our fear. How accurate, yet sad, that fear is so often the motivating factor in our life.

For me, yoga needs to be a place I can go to confront the fear of not being enough. It's a place I can get quiet and focused and take a good look at who I really am. It's a place I can find space to just be, to heal, and to find my motivation in love, rather than fear. During yoga teacher training, this was something I struggled with, because the practice was placed within a different context, requiring objectivity, judgment, and an ideal of mastery. Was I good enough to be a teacher? Was my voice good enough? Was my body good enough? It is easy to confuse all of that with, "am I enough?" This mentality created a lot of friction for me internally and with my yoga practice.

Then I started teaching and the students and fellow teachers I met helped me get back on track. I always knew we are all enough and none of us need to chase extremes. I always knew to bow my head to my heart. But I was helped tremendously when one teacher in particular reassured me that I was "good enough" to teach, gave me a chance to do it, and showed me how to let go of the focus on asana and the need to push myself or my students. He opened me up to a new place of exploration and creativity in my practice. He also set the stage for everything I was to learn in my recent retreat with Judith.

Judith taught us last week how we use yoga to reverse a lot of the damage we do to ourselves with extremism. We instinctively know that practicing yoga brings us back into balance, but how?

Think of your daily movements as a pendulum, swinging from active to passive, introverted to extroverted, nervous to calm, distracted to focused, loud to quiet. At the edges, the pendulum swings out to the extremes. In the middle, you find your equilibrium. On the level of the nervous system, we swing from the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight, jump, run and duck) to the parasympathetic nervous system (heal and restore, relax and rejuvenate).

We use yoga to orient our mind/body to the point of equilibrium. This is the purpose of asana, not a pretty backbend or an extreme arm balance. As Judith said, "The asana is not the yoga...the yoga is in the residue the asana leaves in your nervous system. Through yoga we manipulate the nervous system so we perceive in a new way and act out of choice, not reaction." She also suggested that our movement shouldn't come from the brain to the body, but instead from our body to our brain. We are reversing the trend we follow in our daily activities to find equilibrium. "All day long our thinking mind is the extrovert. In asana, our head becomes the introvert and our body the extrovert. We want to be rooted in our own being so that what happens around us swirls around us and never shakes us."

Instead of exerting effort to execute perfect text-book asanas in sequence, think about your practice as using movement to induce calm, stillness and strength. Your body is moving outward but your busy mind is calming down. I sometimes have a tendency to throw my head back and look out into the room with wide eyes when I practice asana. This is a symptom of my often overactive mind. Teachers have told me to keep my head down, but Judith made the reason very clear when she said, "Don't do the pose with your eyes. In any pose, do not lead with the eyes. Tilting the head back stimulates the cortex, the thinking part of your brain." Through our practice, we can give our brains and nervous systems a chance to turn inward as we extend our bodies outward through asana. She applied this line of thinking to what we are doing in our forward bends. She said, "The back body is the unconscious mind. The front body is the conscious mind. We are always pointed up and out. We need more time to go down and in."

I love this concept of using our practice to reach equilibrium through discovering the movements that reverse the effects of what we usually do in our lives. I want to take the concept a step further and line it up with tailoring yoga to the individual. This goes with what Judith said about how her teaching changed over the years. She said she used to think it was about the asana first, then her students, and then herself. Now she says she starts by connecting with herself, then focusing her attention on the students, and then finally zeroing in on the asana. I believe that my mentor teaches this way as well. If we teach like this, it won't always be a shift in the direction of calmness that is helpful. Sometimes we need a shift in the opposite direction. Let's say we've been snowed in for a few days, as is the case this week in New York. Let's say we've been depressed, or bored, or spending a lot of time alone. In that case, the pendulum wants to move towards higher energy and enthusiasm; I have a suspicion that this was part of my mentor's use of backbending sequences in yesterday's class.

Fortunately there are asana for every type of shift we may need. "Each asana is its own mandala, its own archetype," said Judith as I nodded emphatically with my eyes. And each of us will craft our personal practice and our classes from a unique position, from the place where we alone stand. Each of us is learning to use the pendulum of yoga to restore equilibrium to ourselves, our communities, and to the world by extension. As Judith would say, "Jai!"