Saturday, January 31, 2015

Yogi Gumby

Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me, as long as you love me, it's alright. Bend me, shape me, anyway you want me. You've got the power to turn on the light! -The American Breed, 1968

Groovy, baby! Let's talk about grooves: you know, like the grooves in a record, inset patterns and ruts. Yogis, you guessed it: samskaras! Oh yes, we yoga people love to talk about getting to the root of our samskaras (mental and physical patterns and habits).

Sometimes the way we groove can get us bent all out of shape, like Gumby on a really bad day.

Yogis have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves to bend and shape themselves into a more peaceful, balanced state. One of them deals with moving to a new groove: pratipaksha bhavana. Roughly, this term means "opposite thoughts." It's kind of like changing the radio station. Here, I'll throw you a freakin' bone, people: Patanjali uses the word twice in the Yoga Sutra. One sutra [2.33] says, “Vitarkabadhane pratipaksha bhavanam.” That’s a very simple sentence. It means that when we have afflicted thinking, then “Pratipaksha bhavanam”: Contemplate and take another view—look at the situation from another perspective. In another sutra [2.34] Patanjali says if you have negative thinking that comes from anger, greed, or delusion, whether you’re actively in it or just thinking about it, the fruit will be unending suffering and ignorance. Therefore, “Pratipaksha bhavanam”: Take another view, reframe your perspective on the situation. (Borrowed from a discussion on, from March 24, 2011, author not identified).

So when Gumby gets bent out of shape, he's got one thing to be really thankful for: he's a plastic dude, plasticity is his middle name. He can be bent and reshaped, just that like that! He can reframe his perspective on the situation, with a little help from his friends (who have hands).

We humans have hands (and feet, and eyes and ears), and brains! We have brains. And guess what? We're plastic, too! Just like Gumby. Well, not exactly. While we may not be plastic we have something amazing in our brains and tissues, called: PLASTICITY! Hoooooo-ray.

What it is, homeys:

Plasticity in the body: the ability of a bodily tissue to have its shape molded or altered, and then retain that new shape (sort of like bubble-gum, or play dough).
            Some cells can do this, some tissues can do this. We heal. 

And it gets better:

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.

Some of your bodily tissues, along with the grooves and patterns rocking out in your brain, can be shaped, and reshaped, and shaped again, and YOU, yes you, can move to a new groove. You've got the power to turn on the light!

So get up, get grooving, move to a new beat, believe that you CAN become aware of negative, defeating patterns. You can move and shake and bend and shape yourself into who you want to be, baby.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Trust in the Face of Loss

When faced with loss, many of us feel untethered and frightened. Depending on the magnitude of the loss, the amount of time it takes to regain our peace and confidence can range from an hour to a decade. In some cases, the feeling of loss persists for a lifetime, even after we've made peace with it.

I experienced a deep personal loss over two months ago, and in working through it, I am finding some comfort in new depths of faith and trust. This week I was reading in the Yoga Sutras about the Hindu and Buddhist word for "faith," Shraddha. I did some research on the translation of the word and watched an uplifting talk about the role of faith in yoga practice, given by Dr. Douglas Brooks. I learned that the word shraddha is more similar to the concept of trust than to religious faith. It does include the notion of faith in God, but not in a God who regularly intervenes in our affairs. The God alluded to in the Yoga Sutras is a transcendent God, more akin to Paul Tillich's "ground of being" than to the personal savior in many forms of Christianity.

I was immediately drawn in when Dr. Brooks explained that shraddha has to do with where we place our hearts, that our very heart is the essence of true faith. The following root word analysis comes from Reflections on the Dharma by Harold Stewart, and closely resembles Dr. Brooks' explanation:

Shraddha derives from the Sanskrit shrat added to the verbal root dha, the t of the first assimilating to the d of the second in the compound. Shrat is related to the Greek kardia and the Latin cor and likewise means heart but it is also cognate with sat, from which comes satya, being or truth. The verbal root dha means to put, place, or set, so that the compound word shraddha signifies to put one's whole heart or being into something.

I had been reading about this concept of faith in Yoga Sutra 1.20, which has many varying translations of the original Sanskrit; some resonated with me more than others. My current favorite: "The concentration of the true spiritual aspirant is attained through faith, energy, remembrance, absorption and illumination." My mind affixed to this part, that the true spiritual aspirant gets further along the path with sure faith. Faith for me is definitely about where my heart is, and this brings to mind the verse from the Christian New Testament, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," (Matthew 6:21). If we ask ourselves what we value the most, that's how we get to the root of our faith, and discover in whom or what we place our trust. In my study and self-inquiry on the concept of shraddha, I found that faith in oneself and in other people was at least as important as faith in a Higher Power. What's most important to you? What do you trust? In whom do you trust?

A loss of any kind, be it material or personal, catapults us into a questioning place. When we lose something or someone, we start asking questions: Why did this happen? What will I do now? How will I go on? How can I know I'm OK? In seeking these anchors in a storm, we discover our deepest values, our true reference points.

I want to share examples of two recent losses which are helping me find my anchors. The first is a fairly trivial one: my Iphone stopped working. It went completely dead even though it was fully charged. I had just sent a text to confirm an appointment with a client and the screen went black. Nothing I did worked to reboot the phone. I was somewhat anxiety-ridden for half an hour. The list of reasons I needed the phone typed itself out in my head: my client needs to let me know her arrival time and doesn't have my other number, the auto shop still has my husband's car and needs to reach me, my kids' school uses this number to contact me if they are ill, my husband is getting big news at work today and I don't want to miss his text... . When I accepted the fact that my phone was no longer working, I reassured myself that I trusted myself, my client, my mechanic, my kids and their school's employees, my husband, and God (the ground of being sort of God); my client would show up with or without confirming and if we mixed up the time, we could work it out later; my husband's car was fine sitting at the mechanic's for an extra day; the school has other emergency numbers; my husband will share the news with me as soon as we see each other; and most importantly, I trust God, myself and the people in my life more than I could ever trust a phone. In our technology driven world, that was a good reminder.

The second loss is more significant and personal, concerning a friendship and work relationship. In processing this loss, I have asked myself what it was I valued about this person in relation to both my professional development and my happiness. Just because we lose a person does not mean we have to lose the qualities and experiences we associated with that person. This is little consolation for those who have lost a family member or close friend to death or some other unforeseen tragic circumstance, yet over time, people find ways to go on and fulfill themselves. People are irreplaceable, yet in the face of loss, we remain whole. I am discovering that while I lost an irreplaceable person, I continue to trust myself and God; I am welcoming new people, experiences and opportunities into my life. The qualities I appreciated in the person I lost still exist abundantly in the world and can be accessed in innumerable other ways in new and different forms. I am being enriched day by day through the provision that is always made for me and by me, and learning to have faith in this provision.

It can take an entire lifetime to learn what we truly value, to confidently know where to place our hearts. I am finding out that my trust in life goes deeper than hanging onto one person, place or thing for fulfillment. My deepest trust resides in an unchangeable, immovable quality of joy, abundance and peace that lies at the heart of every person and at the very ground of our being on this Earth. I am learning little by little to access this place in myself and to see it in others. As I do this, I gain more trust, my faith grows, and with this growth comes a certain serenity, the peace that passes understanding. The song, It is well with my soul, by Horatio G. Spafford, is a poetic description of shraddha, real trust in the face of loss. I am finding a place where my heart can reside, coming one step closer to the true meaning of faith, trusting in the soul of all things and all beings.

In the face of loss, we find where our treasure resides. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Making Friends With Your Mind

I don't think we can calm the mind--I believe the best we can do is learn to live with it. -Judith Lasater

What do you think? Do you find it easy to shut off your thoughts and restrain your mind? When you have a drink or smoke a joint or pop a Xanax or do your deep breathing exercises, are you calming your mind specifically? Is it your mind you are calming, or is it your body? When your body is calm, do you perhaps notice your mind a bit less or find it less offensive? How do your mind and body work together to create your experience of what it means to be calm?

In working with the discipline of Yoga to improve our mental and physical health, we learn about the inter-relatedness of the parts of ourselves we may otherwise think of as separate. Yoga philosophy looks at five main aspects of our being that interconnect and cooperate to form our human experience. We can read about these five aspects in the Taittiriya Upanishad, the foundational source of the pancamaya or five dimensional model of the human being which includes the physical, mental, energetic, intuitive/innate and spiritual aspects of the self. Everything we do to affect one of these parts has an impact on the other parts; for example, eating a wholesome, delicious meal not only feeds the physical body, it also helps our mental clarity, heightens our awareness, increases our energy and uplifts us spiritually.

Some people speak about the five aspects in the pancamaya model as layers or sheaths moving progressively from the outside in, like the parts of a Russian doll. One of my teachers said to think of the five aspects as blended all together, like ingredients in a smoothie; each part is present with the others at all times, in every experience, so you can't really take one part of the Russian doll out and play with the remaining ones; you have to play with the whole doll.

In Judith Lasater's quote about the mind above, she seems to be saying something similar to the smoothie or "whole doll" (that's my quote) proposition--we can't single out the mind and lock it down--instead, the best we can do is find a way to make friends with our mind so it plays nicely with the rest of us.

In the five dimensional model just explained, our mind or mental aspect is referred to as manomaya, and includes our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, judgments and reactive tendencies. Disturbances in our mind impact our whole being, creating health imbalances such as eating disorders, anxiety, chronic depression, insomnia and addictions.

Our Yoga practice makes us more aware of our mind and its fluctuations so we can accept it with compassion and get along with it better. Yoga helps us learn to live with our mind. When we move our physical body through yoga postures, this has a particular effect on the other parts of us. Because we are moving and breathing mindfully, our energy is honed and our awareness is heightened, making our thoughts clearer and more conscious, rather than unconscious. We may then experience more spacious stillness in our meditation, where we greet the mind with acceptance and compassionate presence. When every part of us begins to harmonize, we're no longer resisting our thoughts and trying to clamp them down, instead we're observing them and consciously integrating them into the whole of our being. We're not only living with our mind, we're getting to know it better and making friends with it, bringing harmony to our whole self. A harmonized being is a healthy being.

As you do your postures, breathing and meditation, invite your thoughts and feelings to join in, just as they are. Notice how your movements, breath, thoughts and emotions interconnect in your practice; sometimes you'll notice tension and resistance, other times harmony and fluidity.Try to keep your practice varied rather than repeating an automatic routine, and notice how your mind reacts. Appreciate and play with the whole experience.Yoga is meant to be practiced holistically, so remember to invite your mind to the party.