Friday, March 28, 2014

Creative Visualization Practice

"If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it." We've all heard this quote ad nauseam. Who said it? William Arthur Ward, apparently. Also, your soccer coach probably said it, or your high school guidance counselor, or your uncle or your great aunt or your hypnotherapist. We hear this idea regurgitated in various forms all of the time. "If you build it, they will come." That one's a little different, but same principle. 

Is it true? Is it right? Is it a wive's tale or a fairy tale or a logical fallacy? Like a lot of "kitchen soup for the soul" advice, it turns out that this bit of oft-repeated wisdom is mostly legitimate. Brain scientists, doctors and mental health professionals have done the work to scientifically prove how we can retrain our brains and improve physical and mental performance through visualization. When we purposefully imagine a specific action before performing it, we increase our odds of success. This is a fact. When you imagine raising your right arm, the area of the brain responsible for performing that action in the body is activated. When you imagine your presentation going off without a hitch, you decrease anxiety and create a map in your brain of how you want the presentation to go. When runners visualize completing a race within a specific time, their brains get ready to channel the body's energy and resources to execute that plan. We have scientific proof of the positive results of what is commonly called "creative visualization." Most of this proof comes from research on the brain and neuroplasticity along with multiple studies conducted to see if visualization helped athletic performance. Does this mean we can sit and imagine winning the lottery and turn up the next day with a winning ticket? No. That's the logical fallacy and fairy tale part of the story. 

When I was 25 someone recommended I read the book, Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. For a few years it was like a little bible for me. I forgot about it for a while in my thirties, then I ordered a lovely hard copy of the book a few years ago. The book provides simple explanations and techniques for harnessing the power of our imagination to shape and improve our lives. I love it. Creative visualization is simply using your imagination to custom design your experiences. You already practice it, even if only unconsciously. 

More recently the book and movie The Secret have been popular and drawn a lot of criticism. I will leave you to make up your own minds about the law of attraction, if it is a real law and if it may also be a cultural construct made to fit a materialistic definition of success. Think (or imagine) what you want to about The Secret

From years of personal experience, some of it good and some of it bad, I can tell you that creative visualization works. It also takes work. It takes a good deal of time and self-inquiry to consciously harness the power of your thoughts and imagination. Like most of us, I am easily distracted. I am lucky to take time out to meditate a little every day. Taking the time to ask myself tough questions about what I want and don't want, then taking more time to get myself into the right mind/body state to visualize specific outcomes...well, that's hard. But when I have done it, my dreams have materialized. All of them. For real. Why am I not rich and famous? I don't think about being rich or famous. I have vividly imagined, in great detail, each of the blessings I have in my life, from my spouse, to my former and current jobs, to the way I spend my days, places I have traveled, the house I live in now and the way my clothes fit. I don't think I have any sort of ideal life. In fact, I have jumped around a lot and done some kooky stuff. I have also imagined some negative outcomes, and those have come to pass as well--like what?--like getting into arguments, getting fired, getting sick, having a bad experience with a particular person...the list goes on. I have materialized fears as well as blessings. I sometimes wonder why I have imagined and achieved the things I have, rather than other things. I am happy with my life, though, and in moments when I am not happy, I do make myself get back to work with the tough questions and the visualization. 

I have used creative visualization to a small extent in my yoga asana practice. Why to a small extent? Because I haven't felt particularly driven to change anything in my practice. I usually just let it come and let it be what it is. Often yoga practice is simply a good way to create space in our minds that supports creativity in all of our other endeavors. 

Today, I am inviting you to think about and to practice using creative visualization before, during and after your yoga practice. First, in using the breath and some quiet time to get centered, we will access the spaciousness within ourselves. Then, we will bring a vivid image into that spaciousness, an image of something we'd like to achieve (it can be anything we are working on in our lives, as simple as a yoga posture or as complex as a better relationship with a family member). Next, as we move through our postures, we will stay connected to that vision and imagine that our movement on our mats is channeling our efforts to achieve that goal. We will dedicate our practice today to our dreams, using it to work towards the fulfillment of our desires. On the micro level, if we do a tricky posture today, we can take a moment before executing it to imagine how that posture will feel once we are in it and how our body will move and appear to achieve it. We will imagine a little video of our asana and then hit replay when it's time to do it. To close our practice, we'll do a special guided imagery visualization to seal the intention we formed here, adding the energy we spent today to the sum of energy we are putting into achieving our dream. When you go home, write down the details of the vivid image of your dream, and keep that paper in a place you can look at it often. And when you practice yoga at home, visualize your postures before you do them. I will try that too! "If we can do it on our mats, we can do it in our lives" -Michelle Garrison Hough (and every other yoga teacher in the world).

Friday, March 21, 2014

Your Lion's Heart of Courage

There is an ancient story from India still told by Hindus and Buddhists today, about a lion cub adopted and raised by a flock of sheep when its mother abandons it. Having never known its mother, the lion cub believes itself to be a lamb. It sleeps and grazes with the sheep and even bleats just like a sheep. As it grows older, the lion never learns to roar, knowing only sheep behaviors. One day a large lion jumps out from behind some bushes where it had been waiting to devour the sheep. Still believing itself to be a sheep, the adopted lion crouches among the other sheep and bleats in fear. The predator lion sees it there, staring in complete bewilderment. He calls out in lion language, "Brother, what are you doing among these sheep? Why are you hiding and bleating? You are a lion!" The sheep-lion answers only, "Baaaa! Baaaa! Baaaaa!" its eyes wide with fear. The predator lion thinks this animal has lost its mind and is hallucinating that it is a sheep, so he pounces on the sheep-lion and drags him over to the edge of a clear lake so he can see his own reflection. All the while the sheep-lion is still bleating in sheep language, "I am a helpless sheep! Please just kill me now, or spare my life and stop tormenting me!" His eyes are tightly closed in fear. The predator lion continually shakes and slaps the sheep-lion and keeps telling him to open his eyes and look: "Wake up! See that you are a lion!." Finally the sheep-lion opens his eyes and is shocked to see that he does not look anything like a sheep--in fact, he is a very large and majestic lion. In that moment, the sheep-lion achieves enlightenment and realizes his true nature. 

This story reminds me of the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz who goes on a journey to find his lion's courage. 

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." 

Courage is not the absence of fear, but moving ahead in spite of fear. For if there is no fear, who needs courage? The word "encourage" contains the word courage. At the root of the word "courage," is the French word for heart, coeur. 

Sometimes we find our lion's heart of courage in the midst of a frightening experience: the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, facing sickness or our own death. It is often in those terrifying moments that we find the strength we never knew we had. Those earthquakes in our lives can shake us awake so we are no longer living life asleep, like the sheep. 

We also find our courage and the reflection of our true nature in encounters with other people. As we go through life we are lucky when we find friends and teachers who encourage us by helping us connect to our heart of courage, our lion's heart. Sometimes those friends may look threatening on the outside, almost like an enemy. Think of how the other lion looked to the sheep-lion at first! We can choose to recognize the awe and maybe even the fear that certain people inspire in us, as a sort of alarm, signaling us to wake up to our own strength and power. We are all lions who've been lead to believe we are sheep! When we wake up from the illusion of being sheep, we find immense freedom and power we never knew we possessed!

What can we do about the habits of the sheep: staying safe within the flock, bleating in fear and negativity, living in fear of being devoured? How can we shift our identity so quickly? Do we have to achieve total enlightenment like the sheep-lion? For us the transformation is happening gradually, so we need to use every experience and encounter to practice living from our new identity. We can start to show up in our lives in an empowered way, connecting to our courageous heart when we drive, when we fly on an airplane, when we send a child off to school, when we work a graveyard shift, when we take care of an ailing parent, when we train for a sport or a race, and even when we do yoga. All of these things present us with challenges, so how do we respond? We learn to recognize the alarm bells of fear and let them wake us up instead of shutting our eyes even tighter. 

In the Wizard of Oz, the lion goes to the "great and powerful" Wizard to ask for courage because he believes he can't summon it from within, and we often look to others to show us how to be strong. The truth is that we are all great and powerful. Others can play a role in showing us the reflection of our own greatness, but they don't possess a power we don't have. The power was always within us. Once we wake up to our own courageous heart, we are able to become the "other lion" for those who still identify as helpless sheep. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Yoga Microcosm

What if your yoga mat had no borders? What if your yoga studio had no walls? 

What if your breath ceased to be yours alone and got lost in the collective respiration of your fellow students, your friends, your family, your office, your entire community? In fact, it does! We know our breathing is tied in with the other animals and the plants around us in an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide that allows for cellular respiration and photosynthesis. Our breath is connected to the cycle of life happening within and around us. In fact, our own bodies and our breath are microcosms of the life of our entire planet. 

On some level, almost everything we do, every place we go and everything we have is a kind of microcosm for something that exists on a larger scale. As yogis, this includes our practice. Just this morning as I was contemplating teaching a class based on yoga as microcosm, this quote popped up in my newsfeed: "The whole world is your yoga mat!" Of course, Judith Hanson Lasater posted this because I can't seem to stop quoting her these days, but any of my fellow students or teaching colleagues could have said it: it's a recurring theme in yoga. 

I like this definition of microcosm from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: something (such as a place or an event) that is seen as a version of something much larger, and then the following full definition:
1. a little world; especially, the human race, or human nature seen as an epitome of the world or the universe;
2. a community or other unity that is an epitome of a larger unity. 

I do think of my yoga mat as a little world unto itself, with all of the bacteria, dirt and other microorganisms we find on my floor at home or at the gym or the yoga studio (yikes), and I certainly see the reflection of the larger community in the places where I teach and practice. 

This week I want to take these obvious microcosmic relationships a step further to envision one group class as a microcosm for the practice of yoga over our lifetimes. Each time we come to our mat there is a natural progression to the practice. We go through stages in each yoga class, such as a time for centering, a time for breathing and meditation, a time for flowing standing postures, a time for an inversion and/or backbend, a time for a spinal twist, then moving onto a restorative posture and resting in savasana. Quite obviously, we also progress through inevitable stages over our lifetime: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood (young adult, middle aged adult and advanced age). 

How would it be to consciously structure a practice around smooth transitions through each stage of our life? That's what I want to find out. I am motivated to do this after a recent workshop given at the studio where I teach, based on yoga for each stage in our development. 

The traditional Sanskrit yoga terms for the three stages of our life are vrddhi (growth/youth), sthiti (stability/middle age) and laya (dissolution, absorption/old age); past and present yoga sages recommend adapting yoga practice to suit the stage we're in biologically and also the stage we identify with mentally (so you could be a middle aged person identifying more with youthful growth and vigor and want your practice to contain balanced components of both sthiti and vrddhi; or you could be a young person needing to find the centering effects of meditation and spiritual focus, balancing laya and vrddhi). 

Envisioning yoga practice as a microcosm for my life leads me to follow a progression of vrddhi, sthiti and laya each time I come to my mat. I think we can do this not only as individuals, but in a group setting with mixed ages, because no matter how old we are, we're all experienced in moving through progressive life stages. 

So how would this class look? As with any class, first we'd find a way to settle in and connect with ourselves and our intention of carving out a specific space and time for yoga. 1. Prepare: take a posture of stillness and receptivity. Then, we'd move on to building up our bodies and energy levels to grow into a blended movement practice (asana, vinyasa). 2. Grow: build the energy through breath and structured movement, rising to a crescendo of activity. Finally, we'd start to focus our activity inward once more and allow the stabilizing effects of our practice to settle in the body and mind. 3. Absorb: slow down, internalize and rest. This is the usual progression we follow in classes, without framing the practice as a metaphor for the arc of our life. 

This week I want us to purposefully connect to yoga practice as a microcosm of our life. Our efforts on the mat symbolize and extend to the whole of our lives and our communities. Remembering this adds joy and focus to the practice. Namaste

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The White Flag Wins

There are times when we just want to yell, "Uncle!" Remember playing those games as a kid? If your opponent had you in a bind he'd shout, "Say Uncle!" I remember saying it when someone was tickling me and I couldn't escape their grip on me. Saying "Uncle" is tantamount to surrender and defeat. It means you lose. No one wants to be a "Loser" -- except in Yoga. No crying in baseball. No winners in yoga. Huh??

Now this is for real: in the philosophical and moral teachings of yoga, we read in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that the quickest and most direct route to Samadhi or Enlightenment is: drum roll, please: Surrender! That's right, Dorothy. No need to click your heels three times! Instead, just wave your white flag high in the air. Surrender will take you Home, little girl.

The Sanskrit key phrase for surrender is Isvara Pranidhana. Ishvara is translated as the Supreme or personal God, the all-encompassing and all-powerful Divine that resides within each of us and is thus personal to us--God as a person, and not just an impersonal and aloof Higher Power. Depending on how religious a person is, this word Ishvara can come to mean the God he or she worships, or simply the Higher Self. The word Pranidhana means, most simply, "surrender," though it also carries the notions of dedication and devotion. So then the key phrase, Ishvara Pranidhana, is translated as, pick your version, here: "Surrender to God," or more commonly "Self-Surrender."

In Book One of the Sutras, Patanjali lists several different ways the yoga practitioner can progress towards Samadhi, and as part of that list, Sutra 23 states, Isvara Pranidhanat va, "Or, by total surrender to God." Further along, in Book Two, Sutra 45 proclaims, Samadhi siddhir Isvarapranidhanat, "By total surrender to God, samadhi is attained." This particular notion of God is a real, concrete entity that is higher than our small selves and to which we can turn over the fruits of our efforts. In humanistic terms, it helps to think of surrendering to humanity as a whole and to the best of yourself.

Surrender is sweet. To surrender is to give up the struggle and let go. Some people like to say, "Let go and let God." This idea is captured well in the classic Beatles song, Let it Be. To surrender is to relinquish control, or the illusion of being in control. To surrender is to stop and lay down your burdens because you just can't or won't carry them anymore.

To reach the state of peace, bliss, and union that is Samadhi, Patanjali and Paul McCartney have told us to surrender, turn it over, let it go and let it be. Personally, I tend to hold onto and bear the weight of too many things that don't need to belong to me: temporary and seemingly permanent problems in my life, other people's problems and even other people's aches and pains! Dwelling and worrying and hanging on in our minds and bodies makes us sick and sad. I have been sad about my husband's upcoming shoulder surgery for the past few months, even feeling pain in my shoulder. He gets his surgery tomorrow, and when I told him I was anxious about it last night he said, "I'm the one who's getting this. It's happening to me." So we are helping each other to turn over that worry and pain and trust in the healing process that will come.

It feels good to surrender, whether we are being tickled to death or crushed to death by our worries. Each time we practice yoga, we are training in the art of surrender. It is a skill and an art. It's not easy to surrender. In many ways, surrendering goes against our genetic wiring and our survival instincts; but if we believe that we are more than "a sack of meat," (one of my husband's favorite terms for the human condition) then we see the value in transcending our animal nature that keeps us crouching and growling in the corner, hanging on for dear life.

Savasana, the resting pose we take at the end of practice, is the posture of surrender, eyes closed and belly and heart open to the world. We can bring that attitude of surrender into all of our yoga postures and into our lives. We can find surrender in our forward bends, bowing to the best in ourselves and others. We can find it backbending postures, opening up our heart to the unknown and turning over our struggle. We can find it in our lives through identifying what we hang onto when it's counterproductive.

What can you let go of today? What can you surrender to a higher purpose or power? What can you turn over and leave behind you today, so that you can feel lighter when you walk out of yoga practice and into the world? Keep that thing or those things in your mind and use your yoga practice as a conscious way to surrender. Wave your white flag to go home--now, today.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Softening into Difficulty

When life gets really hard, we respond in the best manner we can in the moment. When faced with a difficult task or situation, we pull on the strength and resources we have available. Do we react based on our habits and conditioning, or can we respond with a deeper awareness? 

Practicing yoga helps us rewrite some of the unconscious programming that dictates our reactions to stress and hardship. Through executing the postures and learning to control our breathing, we train ourselves to soften into resistance. We connect to our inner strength so that we are firmly rooted, yet soft and yielding in response to the storms of life. Our roots are firm so the wind can't pull them up, yet we retain the flexibility to bend and not be broken. 

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras verse 46, Sthira sukham asanam, tells us to practice yoga with a balance of strength and ease, effort and relaxation. We must balance hard with soft. 

We may intellectually grasp the concept of sthira sukha, but to embed it into our being and learn to live that way, we need to experience it in our bodies. Asana is the third part of the formula for that reason; it is through our postures that we learn how it really feels to balance effort with ease and strength with flexibility. How wonderful if we can apply this principle to each and every area of our lives! We will live happier and longer if we do this. 

When a person is alive, she is soft and supple.
When a person dies, she becomes hard and rigid.
When a plant is alive, it is pliant and tender.
When a plant is dead, it becomes dry and brittle.
Hence, the hard and rigid are companions of the dead.
The soft and supple are companions of the living.

Therefore, a mighty army is ready to be vanquished.
A tree that is dry is ready for the ax. 
The mighty and the great will be laid low.
The soft and the gentle will outlive them all! 

-Chapter 76 of the TAO TEH CHING (translation by Hua-Ching Ni)

In her book, 30 Essential Yoga Poses for Beginning Students and Their Teachers, Judith Hanson Lasater provides this mantra for daily practice: "The harder a thing is, the more it requires my softness." 

In your practice today, both on and off the mat, see where you can soften into hardship and ease up on resistance when things get tough.