You and the Terrorist: A Shared Humanity

Yesterday morning, as I prepared to leave my apartment to teach a class, I read the news of the tragedy in Nice, France.

I had a dharma talk planned for class already.  I was going to discuss the ego’s attachment to plans and read inspiring quotes from Pema Chodron about going with the flow in the face of uncertainty.  New York has driven me to become a more rigorous calendar planner than ever for fear of precious time wasted, and when things go awry, my anxiety peaks.

But reading that piece of news immediately brought so much sadness, and discussing any of my personal issues seemed far beyond insignificant, like minor inconveniences.

Only one month ago did I read the tragic news of the Orlando shooting right before heading to teach a class, and again, feeling like my planned dharma talk was too far removed from the present circumstances, I heavily contemplated what I could possibly share, what I could say to inspire anyone coming to a yoga class to recharge his or her mind, body, and soul.

Then it became clear that yoga has everything to do with terrorist tragedy.

I’m completely aware that terrorism is a big picture issue requiring a systemic political and cultural solution that I couldn’t begin to understand.  But thinking about terrorism, and many other world issues, only in this way can leave us feeling helpless, removed and unresponsible.  

I believe there’s a ground level perspective to terrorism, and it’s this: You and I have something in common with the man that drove that van.  You and I have something in common with every terrorist.  It’s frightening, but it’s enlightening at the same time, that we share a very basic need for human connection.  Every terrorist acts from a place of emptiness, a place of desperation to feel connected to someone, to something, a place where the seed of love that we all shelter has not been nurtured and grown.

You and I as individuals may not be able to create a systemic change that will save the world, but you and I as individuals can so powerfully affect other individuals in our lives every single day.  We can cultivate that human connection with every single person we meet, whether we come across friends or strangers, the elderly or children, those who share our race and ethnicity or those who are different, those whom we already love or those whom we feel we hate.  Especially toward those who are so different from us, people to whom we assume we cannot relate, if we remember that we all have something so fundamental in common, maybe we can start growing that intimacy, allowing a compassion to become infectious and spread beyond the few people in our lives to whom we already feel close, to people we don’t even know or understand.

But how do we cultivate this connection without first being connected to ourselves?  WIthout first being connected to the only truth we know, that which is our own?

It’s why we practice Yoga.  It’s why we come to our mats day after day.  It’s why we work so diligently to apply what we’ve found on the mat to our lives beyond the mat.  That fuzzy warmth, that calm, that momentary peace we cultivate after a practice or a meditation, can we hold onto that, and as we take it out into the world with us, can we offer it to someone else?  Like a gift, a wordless exchange that acknowledges our shared secret: we are the same, and we want to feel connected.

Keep practicing.

Effort and Ease

One of my favorite principles of Yoga that I’ve come across is the duality of effort and ease.  Patanjali mentions this concept in relation to Asana in two specific Sutras.  Sutra 2.46 translates to, “Posture should be steady and comfortable.”  The following Sutra 2.47 translates to, “Such posture should be attained by the relaxation of effort and by the absorption in the infinite.”  Relaxation of effort.  I love that.  

So let’s be reminded that the physical practice of yoga has one main purpose and it’s to prepare our bodies for meditation.  The poses are a means to an end, not an end in themselves, which is why it becomes so important not to wrap our minds up in the ego of perfecting the poses.  The physical component of the poses strengthens and stretches all our muscles, corrects bone alignment, regulates digestion, and stimulates the nervous system in a way that should allow us to eventually be able to sit in an upright position steadily and comfortably in meditation so that the body is not a distraction during meditation.  The mental component of the poses is where the real challenge comes in.  A steady pose, as Patanjali states, means no movement.  Movement of the body is understood to be a distraction to the mind.  A comfortable pose means “the poses must not cause trouble to the yogi” (p.287 Edwin F. Bryant translation of The Yoga Sutras).  And herein lies the best part.  The poses may be difficult and require strength and stability, but as soon as we allow the mind to waver and lose focus, it’s our mind that becomes troubled with our physical efforts and the pose is no longer comfortable (if it ever was).  Challenge of a lifetime.   

So here is a more concrete example.  Maybe you’ve heard a teacher mention that Down Dog is supposed to be a “resting” pose . . . The first time I heard that, I thought, “Resting (!!!) pose? My triceps are on fire right now!”   Resting is a misleading word because it equates to relaxing, and Down Dog is not a relaxing, passive, restorative pose.  It’s active, intense, and requires a lot of strength in various parts of the body to maintain alignment.  So, we can safely say to maintain steadiness in this pose requires a lot of effort.  While holding this pose, your mind’s script may look something like this, “OMG my arms are tired, when are we going to sit in Child’s Pose? Why is the teacher still talking? Does she realize we’ve been here for two minutes already?  I should put my knees down, but I’m in the back of the room so everyone will see me, I hate this teacher.”  Meanwhile, you’re wiping sweat off your brow, pulling your shirt down, and still pedaling out your feet.  Sound familiar?  These are all methods of distraction to take you away from the physical effort you’re having to apply.  You’re in an unnatural and difficult physical state of being so you’re naturally going to fight it.  The moment we stop fighting and resisting and surrender to the effort--give in to it, accept it--we allow our minds to just be present in the pose focusing on our being in that moment.  That is the comfortable part, the ease.

It’s important to note that we’re not talking about balancing effort and relaxation.  This effort and ease duality is often misinterpreted, especially when taken out of the context of the physical practice and applied to daily life.  The prevalent interpretation is that effort and ease oppose each other as opposite sides of a balance scale so that there’s a give and take, a push pull relationship between the two. Assessing which areas of our lives need a break and which need work, we may decide to place less effort into our 70 hour a week work week and more emphasis on ease and comfort with self healing alone time, restorative yoga, meditation, etc.  Yes, we should definitely do that.  But that’s not what we’re discussing here and that’s missing the most beautiful part of the whole concept: Relaxation OF effort. The two don’t exist as separate entities, rather one can be found within the other.   That’s the key nugget.  It’s not about placing less effort into your challenging relationship with your sister, it’s about surrendering to what it is--it’s challenging--and accepting that.  You’ll find that your demeanor and your approach to your sister or even just the thought of your relationship to her will soften as you become less resistant.  It’s not about placing less effort in Down Dog so it can be comfortable and easy.  It’s about letting go of the fight, of the resistance so you can find the ease within the effort of the pose.  Ease, not easy.    

I truly find this to be such a comforting idea, because life is never going to be easy.  But we can find a way to allow it to be more easeful.  Maybe that’s where joy is found, the unwavering peaceful and meditative state of being that exists among life’s hardships, allowing us to move through them and still look forward to tomorrow.

Think of an area in your life--a relationship, a chore, part of your job, an errand, anything--that you are fighting, resisting, placing so much effort without any return or let up.  Imagine what it might feel like to surrender the fight, let go of your resistance, and accept the effort.  Imagine how your relationship to this area you have chosen may change with a newfound ease.


Keep practicing.

A Decision Making State of Mind

For the past few weeks, money has been on the mind.  The restaurant world is always at its lowest lull during the first couple of months of the year, and Jerid and I are looking for an apartment together--which in New York City involves outrageous broker fees, proof of income, deposits--the works.

In my anxious, cyclical, 90-mile-an-hour inner voice dialogue, I decided the only option was to pick up extra shifts at a second restaurant, and I contacted an old boss.  Last week, she got back to me and I committed to working weekends throughout the summer, but as soon as she texted me with a start date for the following week, I panicked. Like when there’s a pit in your stomach, and it’s not because you're nervous in a good way--it’s the pit feeling your body generates to signal that something is not in alignment.

I pondered and tossed thoughts around, and although I truly didn’t want to bail on a commitment, especially one which I had initiated, I also realized the pit in my stomach was there for a reason and to ignore it would only cause future problems.  I asked myself, “Why on earth did I reach out to make this commitment?” and I then began to beat myself up about not tuning into my intuition earlier.  But, it soon became so obvious to me why I did it: I was stressed!  Of course I reached out, because when we’re stressed, we make impulsive, quick fix decisions because that’s what our brains as humans are designed to do.

When we’re stressed, we activate the sympathetic nervous system in the body which controls our “fight or flight” response signals.  Our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure rises, and our bodies and brains move into a survival mode of being so that we focus on how to immediately get out of the current situation in the quickest way possible.  The fight or flight response system was evolutionarily developed to protect us and keep us alive when being chased by animals or any other such life threatening situations.  Maybe you’re thinking, “ Well this doesn’t apply to me, I'm not in fear for my life on a regular basis.”  FALSE.  The fascinating thing is that our sympathetic nervous system activates the same exact way whether we’re running from a lion or late for a meeting.  Especially living in New York, the stress factors we consider daily parts of life--missing the train, traffic, finding an apartment/moving, long distance relationships (and by long distance I mean Gramercy to Crown Heights), saving money, fighting for space on the sidewalk--all these things actually trigger our sympathetic nervous system so often that we are in a chronic state of stress and fight or flight mode.  Many of us have become so accustomed to these factors that we don’t even realize it’s not the normal restful state our bodies and minds strive to maintain.  

So, at the time, I made the instinctual decision to protect myself by finding the easiest and quickest way possible to make more money for survival.  And immediately regretted it because it wasn't in alignment with my self.  Where yoga comes into play here is the breath.  Slow and mindful breathing, arguably the primary focus of the practice, changes the nervous system's responses in our bodies and brains, and we move away from our fight or flight sympathetic system being activated to our “rest and digest” parasympathetic system being activated.  Our body moves into a mode of healing and relaxation and our brains move into a mode of rational decision making instead of survival based decision making.  When we consistently work on controlling our breathing, we literally retrain the brain.  Studies have shown that we can rewire the relationship between the two systems so that our fight and flight response system is not so quickly triggered in our everyday lives and we’re more often than not residing in a rational, calm, rest and digest state of being.

The next time you sit on your yoga mat to begin your practice, I urge you to really hone in on those first few moments where you center your mind, focus on your breath, and turn inward.  Know that those moments are the foundation from which we grow the practice, but also from which we want to operate our lives.  What we do in those few moments are the exact tools we can use to calm ourselves down in any situation in which we feel “threatened,” keeping that parasympathetic nervous system active allowing us to better access our intuition, and make more calm, centered, rational choices that are in line with ourselves and our honest intentions.

 

Keep practicing.

 

 

The "If, then" Trap

There’s little more gratifying to me than the lightbulb switch going off in my head as I learn something new about myself or my relationship to the world. But many times I mistake that momentary gratification for personal growth.  Not quite.  Growth isn’t knowledge.  Growth is something that happens when you absorb knowledge into your life and actually live it.  Just like anything in school, just like learning a language, or learning how to cook, life lessons take repetition and practice to be fully integrated into our everyday experiences.  So, I find myself confronted with the same lessons over and over.  The “If, Then” lesson is one of my most frequented.  The “If, Then” rule by which most of us live our lives states that “If” certain criteria are met, only “Then” will we be happy because those criteria will result in social acquisitions such as love, money, careers, marriage, homes, etc that our society tells us we’re supposed to have.  If we lose weight, then we’ll be happy because we’ll feel more attractive and self confident.  If we get a promotion, then we’ll be happy because we’ll have more money to do all the things we want.  If we can sell our artwork or bring in more clients or publish that book, then we’ll be happy because we’ll have a successful career.  If we meditate everyday, then we’ll be happy because we’ll be less stressed. I can obviously go on and on with examples, and I'm sure you can too.

The “If, Then” mentality is an imprisoning life structure. It’s a 100% guarantee against ever reaching contentment, the happiness that we’re ironically trying to find by using this very structure.  Living by this mentality inherently suggests the following underlying assumption: I am not good enough and my life is not good enough to be happy.  Pema Chodron writes in Comfortable with Uncertainty, “Abandon any hope of fruition.  Fruition implies that at some future time you will feel good . . . As long as you’re oriented toward the future, you can never just relax into what you already have or are.”  There’s a sanctity that exists in living the present moment that doesn't exist anywhere else.  Needless to say, it's not an easy place to find, and especially not an easy place to stay. 

I've been trying to write this post for 3 days now.  And every time I come back to it, I realize how difficult this concept is and how difficult it is to write about it because I haven't yet discovered how to live in this way consistently.  It’s a concept that directly opposes everything we’ve ever been taught.  We’re so ingrained to believe in goal setting and consequently, that reaching our goals is what will make us happy.  How do we balance this hunger for life we’re taught to have with being content with now?  How do we push ourselves to become healthier, more creative, more confident and self affirming, to find love . . .  all while accepting where we are in the moment at the very same time?  As one of my yoga teachers says, there is no such thing as balance.  I imagine life as a multitude of seesaws.  For me, yoga is where I learn how to become aware of the times where one side of the seesaw is getting too heavy and where I should distribute the weight.  

Keep practicing. 

Mindfulness Amidst Frenzy

I walked into what was about to be a super packed yoga class.  Sometimes, the process of getting settled into class is so antithetical to the calm, grounded, compassionate practice into which we’re frantically trying to get settled.  There’s a mad dash to get your yoga mat down in the exact spot you want it but just far enough from someone else’s mat that you’re not going to have a foot in your face.  This mad dash happens right after the mad dash into the teeny tiny coat closet where you get to stuff your coat and scarf and sweater and boots and socks and bag and possibly groceries and right before the mad dash to the teeny tiny bathroom to pee out all that morning coffee and tea so as not to disturb class later.  The hurricane of women (dotted with a few men) is almost half settled before the teacher comes in to announce you have 10 more students coming in who need a spot so please everyone move your mats so you’re directly on top of one another, thank you.

Today was one of those days.  One of those 10 extra students comes to snuggle in beside me asking me to shift my mat even further to the left than I already have. I give an indifferent, “Sure,” and begin to shift my mat back first as I see there’s another student trying to roll out a 6 foot mat in a 3 foot space in front of me.  The first student impatiently repeats, “Could you move over so I can fit my mat right here??” and before the last word leaves her lips I snap, “I’m getting there!” and shifted my mat to the left.  What is buyer’s remorse for communication?  Whatever it’s called, I immediately feel it.  I berate myself for my rude and unnecessary tone and blame it on being jaded by too many years in the restaurant service industry.

Sukhasana, close your eyes, settle down and bring your awareness to the present moment.  Ooommmmm.  I forget all about it and enjoy a beautiful class.  At the end of class as we begin the backwards flurry of madness back out of the studio, I’m rolling up my mat and the same student, the victim of my attitude, so kindly and without thought says, “I just want to apologize for snapping at you in the beginning of class, I didn’t mean to be rude.”  

(As I’m writing this I realize her apology may not seem so significant.  But I’d like to add to the perspective by noting that in New York City in particular, people tend not to apologize, and it’s not because they’re not sorry.  Apology takes time and that’s a diminishing commodity here, so even if you’re sorry, you have somewhere else in your life those 10 seconds need to be allotted. Also, people here tend to have quite thick skin and apologies aren’t always necessary, more taken for granted sort of.  You have to let things roll off your back and move on.)  

So, the fact that she approached me in this way completely took me off guard, especially since I felt like the prime offender.  I respond with an apology on my part as well and we agree on a mutual lapse in civility toward one another. And, just like that, in less than 10 seconds, my perspective on the day shifted.  

We have literally hundreds of interactions with others per day, so many that we forget to acknowledge how significant each interaction actually is.  The subtle energy, the gestures, the nuances of what we all say and do and the looks we offer with our eyes builds throughout the day and affects our moods and our performance.  Yoga is a lifestyle of self awareness and mindfulness, so can we learn to be mindful of every interaction we have with another human being?  Can we consciously slow down the channel between our thoughts and words so we have time to reflect on those thoughts before we expel them out our mouths?  Can we consciously choose to soften our faces, calm our nerves, and understand that the smallest changes in how we present ourselves to others have the most profound effects on our daily lives?

 

Keep practicing.