Friday, October 22, 2010

Letting Go Into Movement

Judith Lasater, in her book "30 Essential Sequences" that I mentioned in my last post, suggests a mantra to go with each of her daily sequences. The mantra for Day Seven of the weekly sequence is "Letting go is not the same thing as giving up."

While I can see the wisdom in this point of view, and would dearly love to be able to let go of some of the old issues that make emotional and psychological peace elusive at times, not to mention those that cause physical pain and health problems, I had to admit that--until last night--the only alternative to letting go that I could truthfully imagine was, in fact, giving up.

Last night in our yoga "In Depth Studies" class, the instructor led us through an exploration of the second chakra, and in so doing, showed me a new way to think about the sometimes scary idea of "letting go." Physically located in the body at a position where the line between the hip points crosses the line between the naval and the pubic bone, this energy center, chakra two, has always seemed to me to be either vaguely threatening, too powerful to pay much attention to, or profoundly confusing.

The second chakra is, indeed, associated with lots of powerful and potentially scary things, not the least of which is our sexuality. Anodea Judith in her excellent book, "Eastern Body, Western Mind," explains that it is also often considered the seat of our emotions, of desire, need and pleasure. Because of all this, I know I am not the only one who has ever felt overwhelmed or especially vulnerable in this area of my body.

Another aspect of the second chakra, though, is that it is adjacent to the area of the body that allows us to move: the hips and the sacroiliac (SI) joints that connect the pelvis to the spine. So, the second chakra is associated with movement in addition to all the other powerful aspects of life that are located there. The flip side of this rather positive aspect of the second chakra is that energy which is not allowed to move freely through this area can get stuck or sent in the wrong direction, causing problems in the SI joints, back or leg pain, hip problems and many other things none of us want.

So, the lesson in last night's class was a very exciting, but very simple, different way to look at the second chakra. Our instructor led us through a simple exercise of carrying out a sun salutation sequence, which all of us had done many times in our yoga classes, but in a new way. She put on music and encouraged us to let our bodies move as if we were inspired by the sequence, but not rigidly bound to the forms.

Within a few seconds I saw what was happening: we were all dancing, everybody doing a slightly different version of sun salutation, but in a way that was truly a dance. I have always been a person who is easily inspired by music and can slip into tapping my foot, swaying and full-out dancing without too much encouragement, but I have to admit that I had never thought of doing my yoga as a dance.

The wisdom of this simple method greeted me this morning when I woke up, the pain in my hip and right SI joint that had been bothering me for days, completely gone. I had been experimenting with stretches in different directions and different ways, but the simplest approach had eluded me: all I really needed to do was let go and let myself move.

PS: the illustration I've used here is a photo of a painting I made many years ago, on a day when I was especially inspired by music and had learned the wisdom of letting go into movement. The story of how this painting came about will have to wait for another day and another post, though.

In the meantime: Namaste...and remember to dance!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Establishing a Daily Practice

I have had a regular daily yoga practice for about four years. Some time ago, I wrote about my experience with establishing this practice on The Virtual Abbey blog, a team blog about modern monasticism that I contribute to from time to time. Establishing this daily practice changed my life in ways I could never have predicted. One of the most unpredictable of the outcomes of my daily practice has been this new venture in training and study to become a yoga teacher.

Recently, I decided to make some changes in my daily practice, inspired by Judith Lasater's excellent book, "30 Essential Yoga Poses for Beginning Students and their Teachers." In the back of this particular book, Lasater provides several suggested pose sequences. There are sequences for back pain, fatigue, strength, energy, balance, and so forth. There is even one special (short!) sequence called the "Busy Day Practice."

Last week, I decided to work my way through the "Day-of-the-Week Practice," a set of sequences, one for each of the seven days of the week, and I liked the experience so much, I'm going through the "sequence of sequences" again this week.

My biggest challenge in implementing this sequence of poses has been what might be considered the easiest pose: savasana, or basic relaxation pose, which is required for at least five minutes every day. Until this week, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I did savasana at home during my own practice. After one week, I've more than doubled that number and I'm here to say that this pose is the single best addition to my practice in a very, very long time.

My yoga teachers have been telling me for years that savasana is the most important pose, and I believed them, looking forward to it at the end of each class. But, I could never allow myself to take the time to do this pose at home. Lying on my back on the floor when I needed to get to work or to one of a multitude of chores or any number of other things that awaited me in my busy day always seemed like the last thing I should choose.

But I was wrong, and my teachers were (as usual) right: without savasana I have not allowed the poses I've practiced to sink in and become integrated. I have lost the better part of my daily practice because I have not (until now!) taken those crucial five minutes to let my body and heart wrap itself around the experience without my mind getting in the way.

So, I have learned a valuable lesson this week. Something tells me this is just the first of many lessons that await me on this remarkable journey.


Monday, October 4, 2010

Lonely for Ourselves

The last three weeks have been a flurry of activity including among other things: (a) an unexpected trip out west for my grandmother's funeral; (b) moving out of my office at work and into my home office; (c) working on revisions of my first book and trying to keep up with the writing schedule for my second book; and (d) two nearly back-to-back three-day yoga teacher training intensives. 

Today, I feel like I finally caught up with myself and  arrived at the place I most want to be: home. Although I enjoyed being in Idaho, was grateful for the time with my relatives, felt very good about moving on from my job and into the freelancing phase of my career, and totally loved the yoga training, when I finally settled onto my meditation cushion this morning and realized there was nowhere I needed to be today except right there on that cushion, an amazing sense of freedom and joy settled over me. 

I lit the candle, like I always do for my meditation, and was struck by the utter beauty of that tiny flickering flame. It was so extraordinarily beautiful, and I wanted nothing more than to sit and gaze at this little fire burning away inside my upstairs room, listening to the soft rain pattering on the window. 

Even now, as I think about it, tears come to my eyes, and I realize that what I have been is, "Lonely for myself," as Stephen Cope describes it in his book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. It was actually his friend, Paula, who voiced that description of the feeling that she could not shake, a sense of having reached a point in midlife where the career she had once loved, could no longer fill the void she sensed inside.

I distinctly remember when I first encountered that same empty sensation, now over twenty years ago. At the time, it bothered me a great deal that I felt unfulfilled by my life, since I had managed to fill it with the things and people and activities I thought I most wanted: family, a home, work that was interesting and challenging. One of the problems was that I had filled my life with all those things, leaving no time for myself. And leading, inevitably, to the strange sensation of being lonely for myself.

I know I have just completed a very busy few weeks, and one in which my attention was largely focused on others and on external events. I realize the balance has been tipped too far toward extroverted activities for me, an introvert who requires regular doses of solitude. And yet, I think this need for time with our true selves is one that all of us share, introvert and extrovert alike.

This hunger for ourselves is something we all feel from time to time, and there is no cure for it except to spend time with that person who wants us: our own true self. Not that it's easy to dig down through the layers of thoughts, and planning, and list-making and worries that fill our minds. It's not easy to get through these protective internal barriers, and it can take a long time to learn how to let all those thoughts go. Nevertheless, I find that it's worth the effort to return to the cushion, every day, since the only way I have found to fill that emptiness is to spend time with the one that wants to be with me--and is as lonely for me as I am for her.