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!"

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