Monday, September 29, 2014

Perfect Yoga in an Imperfect Body

Would you like to be a better person in every way, physically, mentally and spiritually? Would you like to overcome obstacles and surmount hardships? Were there a guaranteed method to achieve consistent health and happiness and get closer to perfection each day, wouldn't you sign up?

Many people are looking to yoga as a means of overall self-improvement. No one wants to suffer. As a yoga teacher, I am aware that certain people may see me as offering a way out of suffering or an on-ramp to a better way of life. If I can somehow help even one person suffer less or find more joy and vitality in life, then the money I spent on teacher training will not have been wasted. But guess what? I don't have a perfect body or a perfect existence, and I can't show myself or anyone else a permanent way out of the pain inherent in this life. What I can do is help myself and others to generate compassion and see a way through the pain of despair, loss, illness and death when they happen.

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras there are references to bodily perfection and supernatural powers to be achieved through practicing yoga: eg. Rupa lavanya bala vajrasam-hananatvani kayasampat, translated as "Beauty, grace, strength, and adamantine hardness constitute bodily perfection," (Yoga Sutra 3.47). Are you familiar with the word, adamantine? I wasn't. It means unbreakable. Personally I believe in an unbreakable spirit, but not an unbreakable body. My beliefs are based on concrete evidence of the world around me.

I can't ignore how fragile this human life is, or the breakable nature of the body. In recent months, I've received daily correspondence from a friend who lives in Liberia, where the sickness of Ebola is ravaging the country. His neighbor and his cousin just died of Ebola and he is afraid for his life. Another friend of mine is losing her mom to a grueling battle with cancer. These are current reminders of life's fragility, and like all of us, I have previous reminders as well, even in my own body. If you see me smile, you will notice that one side of my face is different from the other due to nerve damage. I also have pain sometimes on that side of my body. I don't believe that I personally caused the damage to my body or that I can supernaturally recover from it and achieve bodily perfection. I also don't believe that anyone else is ever going to achieve bodily perfection, yet I believe us all to be perfect beings with an unlimited capacity for joy and achievement.

Through my practice of yoga and my involvement in various yoga communities and spiritual communities, I have found ever new ways to connect to my bliss and open my heart to my own suffering and the suffering of others. I have found on-ramps to compassion and a doorway into a state of grace. Something I read last week from a Buddhist teacher I like reminded me of confronting our imperfect state with compassion and grace. Ethan Nicthern shared the advice of his teacher Eric Spiegel at a memorial service for a mutual friend: "Stay open...and if fear arises, generate compassion." This is advice for confronting death, our own, or the death of a loved one. It is also advice for confronting pain in all circumstances.

Does yoga teach us how to be perfect and live gracefully in a perfect world? Does it teach us to perceive and experience only goodness? Or does it teach us to live gracefully as a human, with others who are human, in a perfectly flawed world?

Is love seeing only the good in yourself and others? Or is it having the courage to see the flaws, maintain awareness of discomfort, of friction, of missing the mark, and staying open anyway? In the Yoga Sutras, 2.36 contains a teaching on establishing oneself in truthfulness and honesty. The Sutras are kind of like the Bible in that everyone takes out the teachings they want to make their point, perhaps ignoring certain others that seem inconvenient at the time. Nonetheless, all teachings on bodily perfection aside, I believe that yoga helps us to be both fully honest and fully compassionate about our human condition.

I can't model perfect yoga postures or a perfect attitude. Even assuming that I could, if as a teacher I model only perfection, if all I can show you is how to stay open to calm, stay open to beauty, stay open to perfectly executed will that help you to embrace real life? How will that prepare you for illness, death, loss, inevitable times when you miss the mark, upsets and frustrations?

"Strength is perfected in weakness," is one of my favorite quotes from the Bible. Showing up in yoga class in perfect outfits with a perfectly chiseled body and a pretty face and a lovely calm demeanor, modeling swan-like yoga postures...this is all useful as entertainment and diversion, but is it useful in your imperfect life? Meeting your experiences head-on with awareness and compassion is useful in real life. Ultimately I'd like my yoga practice to prepare me for that, instead of a Yoga Journal photo shoot. Although the last one with Kathryn Budig was refreshing, as she gleefully modeled embracing her lovely yet imperfect body! Check it out. And come as you are to yoga, irrespective of adamantine hardness.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Hatha Dance

Yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere we marked the occurrence of the Autumnal Equinox, the day when summer turns to fall and there are equal parts of daylight and darkness as the sun sits at the zenith over the Equator. This is a beautiful time to be in nature and witness the unique quality of light making everything glimmer a little more than usual. We can literally feel the summer turning into fall with warmth at the peak of the day followed by cooler nights descending over us, like a blanket.

We can take cues from nature to inform our yoga practice. This is something the ancient yogis did as well as tribal cultures spanning history and the globe. The Equinox signals us that a time for going inward is approaching. The summer is a time when energy is focused outwardly, heat is generated and released and the balance tips toward external expression. Winter is the counterbalance to summer, where we maintain a softer internal fire and our practice can be more reflective. At the Equinox, we sense and embody a graceful equipoise and we participate in the Hatha dance, moving in and around that point of equilibrium. 

I was able to observe a perfect example of this dance as I sat next to the river yesterday. I watched a heron perched on top of a large rock in the middle of the water. He sat still for what seemed like a long time. Then, with purpose, grace and ease, he opened his wings and took flight over the river. I thought of heron pose (krounchasana) in yoga, and then I thought of the many poses of Hatha yoga giving expression to what we see in the natural world. In Sanskrit, Ha means sun and tha means moon; through the practice we balance both solar and lunar energies, internal and external, passive and active. We go inward to connect deeply, then we turn outward, giving expression to our inner light and bliss. 

Now, and at all times of the year, we can purposefully embrace the ongoing dance in our yoga practice, and in all of life. Our gaze moves inward to our center, and out again into the world. We connect deeply with our self, our surroundings, and the people around us, and we notice that we are all dancing. Yoga fosters an awareness of the universal choreography at play in our minds, bodies, and in the world at large.