December 9, 2010

Downward Facing Dog

In the beginning, there was the mat…

So many good intensions of mine evaporate before they can ever bear fruit. Diets disappear into mid-afternoon dust on the very first day. Projects are left abandoned, like mangy dogs dropped off  the pound—you know the ones, you can’t even bring yourself to look at them out of shame. Who would have imagined that my first downward facing dog in a loud, mirrored, industrial cement room all those years ago would make it to the other side?

That period of my life when I first started yoga was a neurotic quest for more, more, more. Nothing was ever enough: no workout, no amount of success, no expression of love, nothing. I managed to turn everything into a letdown. I was restless, impatient, and had decided that I was horribly lonely. That was my story and I was sticking to it.

Though I spent hours at Crunch spinning and stepping and God knows what else, I had no interest in yoga until I stumbled into a class one evening pretty much convinced that it was not going to burn enough calories to be worthwhile. I’m sure the teacher that night remembers me as the sulky student with a chip on her shoulder. I mostly remember the nausea. Yoga definitely got and kept my attention. Between the waves though, I could feel something important calling, something radically contrary to my insatiable need for more I was completely irritated by the pace of the class, by the teacher who kept reminding me not to fidget and bite my lip. I could not seem to manage the simplest of instructions. I knew that I would either return the very next day, or escape in the opposite direction without looking back (or breathing through my nose).

There is something confrontational about that first down dog. Yes, we are inverting our heart and hips above our head, and strengthening and stretching places and things we didn’t realize we even had. But that’s not all. We can feel that we have stepped into something deeper than we realized, like stepping out in the surf and suddenly finding an unexpected drop off beneath our feet. Off balance in this new terrain, we have to find courage, footing and patience. Without courage, we will slither away back to what is familiar and comfortable. Without patience we will find ourselves overwhelmed and giving up.

The Bhagavad Gita is a sacred Hindu scripture and an important historical text. Part of the larger Mahabarata, it is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna before the start of the Kurukshetra war. From a yogic point of view, it addresses the tension between our easily distracted senses and our intuition, as well as how we view our place in the world as an individual versus a being unified with all. It is an exploration of how to balance Self (Atman) and the Supreme Being (Bhagavan). Mahatma Gandhi says of the Gita “it is an allegory in which the battlefield is the soul and Arjuna, man’s higher impulses struggling against evil.”

 In our own way, as we climb onto our mat for the first time, we are like Arjuna—grappling with our own unfortunate tendencies (hopefully they are more annoying than they are “evil”) and suddenly being asked to focus in ways and in poses we have never done.  We find that there are myriad emotions around trying to create stillness amidst physical challenge, and to staving off the distractions of our impulsive minds. And needless to say, it doesn’t help that our ego is tap dancing wildly nearby, hopped up on the Adderral of self-absorption, thumb to its nose as we do our best to follow what is being explained without feeling too foolish, clumsy or loud. Not to mention that we’ve become addicted to swinging from Face Book to email to our cell phone and back again like monkeys swinging from branch to branch. In this jungle of instant, immediate and often vapid “communication,” it is easy to lose sight of anything higher, larger or universal.

 So suddenly there it all is, up in our face in our downward facing…

Ultimately, yoga is an experience, not a discussion. It is not precious or self-involved—instead it is honest in ways we may not like to hear. It is, as we sense in that first dog, larger than the poses, and it tells us who we really are, like it or not. It is an opportunity for us to realize that it is more fulfilling to do the work than it is to avoid it. It challenges us to dig ourselves out from under all our distractions and affectations and create a real blossom, not a showy synthetic one. As if Krishna were whispering in our ear, we try to muster courage to move forward, and find the kind of patience within ourselves that will allow our potential to grow even larger than we could have imagined.

I did return the next day, and the next. And though I have plenty of learning, evolving and footing to find ahead of me I have managed to change much of my “woe is me” into “fortunate me”—or at least “grateful me.” I often wonder what in the world would have become of me had I found my way into a pole dancing class that night instead.

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