June 21, 2011

Why Yoga Won’t Bring Sanity To Your Crazy Life.

I’m sitting here at a beachfront restaurant in Mexico, which may conjure up images of azure water under a golden sun, but in reality, we’re huddling like wet rats in the back of the place while the cooks argue about whether what is pounding against the (hopefully) sturdy windows could actually qualify as a hurricane or not. Consensus: It’s a baby hurricane.

The constant sound of the insane wind literally howling through the place is making me feel insane. This is when I know that all the yoga practice in the world–and as an instructor who travels internationally to teach, I feel like I do all the yoga in the world–can’t help me now.

Before I explain, let me introduce you to Tiffany, one of the most uptight, impatient people I have ever met. I never saw her anywhere but in my yoga classes, if that tells you something. She came 5 times a week, and every one, there was something to distract her, something to complain about, something that made her roll her eyes and/or nearly hyperventilate over. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I would not have believed that she ever wanted to go near a yoga mat, much less did it nearly every day.

As teachers, we say, and hope that with regular practice, you will learn to still the mind in the face of chaos, whether it’s gale-force wind during your much-needed retreat, the raw unknown of falling into (or out of) love, or simply the cacophony that’s ever-present as rolling commentary from other people, your own fears, and the background noise of random thoughts.

The fact that many people actually experience this relief is something they equate with the poses, or consistency, or a sitting meditation practice. And it’s true, eking out a cozy, livable place within the crazy can, and perhaps must include any or all of these things. But they are not the first, most pivotal and deciding factor in whether or not you will be able to do anything you wish, from chillaxing the mental chatter, to dropping a few pounds or cutting loose another kind of weight: Mr. or Ms. Kind-of-Right-but-Mostly-Wrong over there.

If you don’t make a conscious decision to do things differently that you have, a truly deep and lasting choice, mind you, then nothing you endeavor to shift will bring you to peace of mind. Yoga, or in the same vein, meditation, eating healthier, being loved by a great partner, having the kids, the money, the house on a hill–nothing will give you that inherent sense of satisfaction until you decide that existing in satisfaction no matter what is your first priority.

Study after study shows that the difference between people who go to therapy, and people who go to therapy and actually make changes, is that the latter invest their focus on doing what they set out to do–transform–above all else.

I hear it all the time: “He makes me anxious with his smoking so I can’t calm down”…”I’ll be happy when I lose 40 pounds”, or “I tried to meditate but all I could hear was the couple arguing outside, so I lost focus!” Oops! Well then, you’re still stressed, overweight and scattered. You lose, they win.

People expect me to commiserate with how difficult it is to maintain a centered, clear sense of self in the real world. And I do–to a point. After all, the world is a real mindfreak. The spiritual path isn’t a cake walk, and it sure as hell ain’t comfortable. People who choose this road are the warriors of heart and it takes rigorous training to break free of our destructive habits and move into an adventurous, passionate life of clarity.

Yet a powerful freedom comes from the choice to dedicate, repeat, and commit, three words that would have made me run screaming down the street a mere decade ago.

Yet now I know the sweet oasis that we always have inside–what we yogis call the Witness–that observes, reflects and decides, and can do so whether we’re in sun or rain. Any practice is only there to strengthen our inherent ability to reside in the calm present more often than not. Torching those 40 pounds or busting anxiety is only a happy side effect.

It’s when we forget our capacity for peace and reach for something external as our source of happiness that chaos begins to reign…and suffering returns.

SO, what’s your first priority? Engaging with the crazy, yours and other people’s? Or remembering how sane you really are, then acting like it?

The choice is always up to you.

Here’s a pose I offer specifically to mess with your mind, and ask you to get your priorities straight. This is a pretty advanced move, at least at the end, and some of you won’t be able to do it all, but that’s the point. Train yourself to meet the crazy, then maintain your own needs within it.

Do only what you can, and when you feel like you’re going too far, don’t. Hug it back in, do a previous variation, and recognize that there is a place both on and off the mat that you will refuse to participate in if it’s going to mean potential destabilization on any level.

Make sure you’re good and warm before trying this pose. If you want a kick-asana warmup, try my Core Sun Salutations for Weight Loss 3-5 times through.

(‘Cause that’s what you are when you keep your eye on the ball, not on the bleachers.)

1: From Side Plank, bend your top leg and put the foot on the floor behind you, and pretty close so the foot, knee and hip joint line up.

2: Bend the other leg to match it, feet hip-distance. Draw your spine and ribcage into the body as you pour your arm and head toward the floor. The arm should be next to your ear, like you’re in Side Angle or preparing for a Full Wheel (which you are), not out to the side or you’ll end up in Tabletop.

3: If you want to get farther down, you’ll have to bend your standing elbow a lot, as I’m doing here, because trying to get the pose with a straight arm can injure your shoulder (don’t make the expression more important than your center and ground–see how this parallels our lesson?). Firm your fingertips and palm, but definitely bend that sucker. You’ll plant the hand that was lifted on the floor, fingers facing back towards your feet like Full Wheel.

4:Now flip the hand that was down to match the other one, and you’re in Full Wheel. Lift your heels and tuck that tailbone for less back curve, and relax your head as the chest opens and you ground down through your hands.

When you’re done, bend both elbows and lower slowly down to the floor. Find your way back to Dog Pose, and begin again on the other side!

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