Friday, March 27, 2015

Zoology Meets Yoga? Animals Are Our Teachers...

Last week I attended a three day yoga and meditation retreat at the Prama Institute in North Carolina, and something the retreat facilitator said to us is sticking with me: most yoga poses have animal names, because animals are our teachers! If you practice yoga, this is something you've undoubtedly noticed: upward and downward facing dogs, puppies, cows, lizards, crows, eagles, cobras and even scorpions make their way into our verbal and body language in yoga classes.

Our retreat facilitator, a veteran yoga teacher and clinical psychologist, referenced the history of yoga and the ancients' practice of closely watching animals and the ways they moved to provide insight into how we humans can best manipulate our bodies to reach a more enlightened state. Although animals were not the theme of the retreat (the actual theme was the Science and Practice of Meditation and Yoga), what we learn from animals figured prominently in my experience over the three days. 

As soon as we pulled up to the retreat center and took our bags out of the rental car, we were greeted by a dog who looked to be a boxer/hound mix, young and tentatively friendly. The staff informed us that this dog was a stray who had been abused and had adopted the retreat center as its new home. The dog seemed to want to make friends with us right away, yet acted skittish as we offered our hands to pet it. Over the next few days we encountered several other dogs who had also been cared for by the retreat center community and who seemed to be adjusting quite well. The staff told us, "the dogs are our teachers!" 

Horses also figured in our experience since one of the teachers leading the movement classes uses equine therapy in her teaching and work with psychotherapy clients. One of the techniques she used in class was bouncing to eliminate stress, emotional imbalance and pent-up energy--I had the sense of trotting on a horse as we bounced. I later discussed with her my previous horseriding experience as an adolescent and how the relationships we have with particular horses can teach us a lot about where our challenges lie in relating to people! 

In my own work with yoga students and clients, I use shaking and swaying motions to warm the body up and help "shake off" unpleasant moods, lethargy, frustration and other unwanted sensations. One of my teachers refers to the way dogs shake off anything they don't want on them: water, dirt, negative contact with other dogs and humans--I have seen my own dog do this many times, even when she is scolded by me! 

The dogs I interacted with on the retreat during breaks outside had an important lesson for me. All of these dogs had been abused in some way and were working on their ability to trust humans again. Many of us, by simple virtue of being alive on this planet for X number of years and not living in a cave, can relate to some type of abuse or painful relationship dynamic. Like the dogs, we all want and need loving acceptance and companionship. When I took a walk off the property one day, I had started to jog and a large, black dog barked loudly, running from its owners yard and jumping on me in a threatening way. I kept moving and spoke sweetly to the dog in a high pitched voice until he calmed down and began to trot alongside me. Another dog joined us and I talked to both of them, pet them a little, and they stayed by my side on my hour long walk accompanying me back to the retreat center before they went their own way. The strays I had met earlier were somewhat intimidated by these dogs and there was a show of territoriality; the strays cowered. I thought about human survival and predatory instincts, our fear, protectionism and territoriality, in spite of our need to love, be loved and create safe families and communities. I felt empathy and compassion for the dogs, because I too struggle with balancing protective impulses with my need to be loved and my desire to show warmth to everyone.

The lesson I took away from these dogs was this: there is a scared, territorial dog in me, and in each of us. The best way to deal with this dog, whether internal or external, is to greet it with consistent, confident friendliness and acceptance. Each time I see this dog, inside or outside of myself, if I react with consistent loving acceptance, the dog will learn to trust. I made a commitment to myself that very day, at the retreat: I promised to show lovingkindness to myself in acknowledging and embracing my fearful impulses and emotions like distrust, diffidence and jealousy with an attitude of quiet and comforting reassurance. Like the friendly yet skittish stray dogs, I too could relearn to trust and be at ease among humans, dogs... perhaps among all creatures. 

In practicing yoga and meditation we can use every experience, every relationship, every posture and each and every moment to learn, grow and evolve. This applies to our internal and external worlds. Who and what will be your teacher today? Will it be your pet dog or your downward dog? Your pet snake or your cobra pose? Your cranky boss or your cranky hips in lizard pose? Your impatience as you drive or your feelings of sadness as you sit in meditation? The dream you had last night or the daydream you had waiting in line at the pharmacy? Pay attention to all of your life as it passes, greeting each unique teacher with as much lovingkindness as you can muster, and you will be well schooled in Yoga, a yogi in the truest sense. 

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