Category Archives: Philosophy

Pratipaksha Bhavana

In the last week I’ve been gently, or not so gently, reminded of a really lovely concept in yoga philosophy.  Let me back up and explain.

I’ve been undertaking some home improvement projects in what will become my practice space and home office.  The projects are mostly of the do it yourself type.  And it’s not been going well.  It took forever to get the new flooring installed.  The old wall color could be seen through my beautiful new wallpaper.  The table legs didn’t fit my intended table tops.  The local big box home improvement store was out of every supply I needed and when I asked for help finding alternatives the guy shrugged his shoulders and walked away.  I couldn’t get the plan B table top up the stairs.  The relatively new can of paint I planned to use on the Plan B table top was completely rusted closed.  After painting my new baseboards I accidently peeled back a large corner of wallpaper.  My drill died.

All this happened despite carefully planning out my little DIY projects so that as little disruption and mess to my daily life and the rest of my house would occur.  That didn’t work out so well.  With each setback the negative thoughts flowed even more freely.  “Why am I bothering?  This will never look as good as I imagined!  And now I’ve wasted all this time and money.  Everybody at the hardware store is a jerk.  This is all their fault for being out of what I needed for my projects!”

Downward the thoughts spiraled leaving me annoyed, impatient, and unpleasant.

Then, from out of nowhere, the words pratipaksha bhavana floated to the surface of my consciousness.

Pratipaksha bhavana comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  In Sutra II.33* it is instructed,

“When presented with disquieting thoughts or feelings, cultivate an opposite, elevated attitude.” 

In other words don’t let your negative thoughts run away with you.  Instead change your attitude.  Right.  I think it is safe to say I wasn’t doing that.  Not one little bit.

There was no way I could change the situations I was finding myself in.  I couldn’t bring a dead drill back to life.  I couldn’t force the table legs to fit on the table tops (though, boy, did I try).  I couldn’t make the store have in stock what I needed.  The only thing I could control was my reaction to these situations.  It wasn’t anyone or anything causing me to be annoyed or impatient or unpleasant, it was me.

I needed to find a healthy dose of pratipaksha bhavana.  It was becoming very hard to find an elevated attitude while staring at a pile of unfinished projects.   So to begin the process of changing my negative thoughts, I had to change my environment.  That started by getting myself out of the house, into nature, with a friend.  Fresh air, a still river, and the colors of changing leaves conspired together to clear my head and bring everything back into perspective.

I decided I would replace annoyance with delight that I have been able to find creative solutions to my (so called) problems.  I would replace impatience with giddy anticipation of the first sight of my finished space.  I would replace unpleasantness with kindness towards myself by abandoning my random self-imposed timeline.

As a result, things are moving along much more smoothly now.  I’m actually finding joy in the process of sanding, priming, painting, assembling, and on and on.  Things are coming together just as they should.  Because not only am I supposed to be working towards a new space, I’m also supposed to be working towards living my yoga more fully every day.   And that is exactly what this adventure in DIY has helped me to do.

*Translation from The Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi
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Practicing Self-Compassion

Yellow DotOver the last few weeks, during the initial centering in class, I’ve been instructing my students to scan their bodies and notice what is happening.  It’s a way to begin connecting mind and body in a way that we seldom do throughout the day.  From that budding connection I encourage them to accept the body that they came to class with so that they can move through their practice with compassion and kindness.

It’s my hope that they’ll take the time to consider what is best for their body in this present moment.  Should it be plank or knee down plank?  Should it be upward facing dog or baby cobra?  Should it be yet another downward dog or maybe child’s pose?  The answer changes day to day but the willingness to ask the question and wait for the answer is a willingness to treat one’s self with compassion no matter what the postures in the practice end up being.

This past week I found myself needing to be taught this lesson again in my own practice.  I was in a one-on-one session with my teacher and we were working on donkey kicks into handstand.  I was on my fourth attempt when I crashed head first into the wall and rolled towards the side.  I wasn’t hurt but my ego was badly bruised.  I was frustrated and embarrassed and about to start a conversation in my head that could only be described as cruel.  Sensing this she very calmly said to me, “Keep a cheerful attitude.”  It was simple but disarming.

I thought about that statement for three straight days.

It finally dawned on me that she was telling me exactly what I’ve been telling my own students: to treat myself with compassion and kindness no matter the expression of the pose.  Only here it wasn’t just about taking care of my body it was also about taking care of my spirit!

This idea of compassion is intimately tied to ahimsa, one of the central tenants of yoga.  Ahimsa is often translated as non-harming or non-violence but my favorite interpretation comes from T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga.  He says that ahimsa is more than non-violence.  Ahimsa is acting in “kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration” to other people and ourselves.

What became surprisingly clear in the days following that session with my teacher was that I had been applying the idea of compassion for myself to a single dimension of my practice of yoga be it on the mat or off the mat.  I routinely apply it to my physical body but I almost always toss it by the wayside when it comes to my mind and spirit.  I hear the critical self-talk, let it move towards center stage, and begin to believe that that just might be true.  It is easier to allow the negativity and feelings of inadequacy to be present than to acknowledge the tenderness of the pain in that moment, the humanness of my situation.

The importance of paying equal attention to all parts of the self was brought home for me in the commentary of the Yoga Sutras by Nischala Joy Devi in The Secret Power of Yoga.

 “When we refuse to take the time to treat our bodies, emotions, and minds with reverence and love, they will often remind us – not so kindly – by failing to respond when we need them.”

So how am I going to find more compassion for all aspects of my being?  Practice, of course.  When I find myself on the mat having just fallen head first into the wall I will be kind to myself.  I will acknowledge the thoughts and emotions that well up: frustration, embarrassment, a fear of failing.  I will acknowledge that pain but not let it define who I am.  I will remember that I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, who will fall into a wall.  I will revel in this shared connection with fellow yogis.  I will remember that it is just a pose and that what I’m really learning is how to be kind to myself off the mat.

What is Yoga?

Yellow DotMy first experience with yoga was through asana or the physical practice on the mat. My neck and shoulders were a mess. I could feel the tension stored in tight knots throughout my body. I needed a way to move and release some of that tension and so I found my first yoga class.

I was a quick convert. I started with two classes a week and soon found myself in four. I loved how much better my body was feeling.  As the months and then years went by I began noticing something else though. Each class left me feeling so quiet and peaceful. I was completely happy, blissful even. I was content in my own body. It seemed there was more to this practice of yoga than open shoulders and hamstrings.

Yoga translates as union. It is a joining together of so many things. Breath and movement. Body and mind. Head and heart. Here and now. Life on the mat and off. Its purpose is simple.  From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as translated by Satchidananda:

Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. ~ Yoga Sutras I.2
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.

Yoga’s primary aim is to calm the mental chatter that attempts to take over our lives. The many practices of yoga provide a means to quiet the internal dialog we have playing on a loop. Notice I say quiet the dialog. It is not the abolishment of all thought that is the goal. It’s finding the focus in the middle of the storm so that you can truly be present to what is happening in and in front of you.

Asana is just one of the practices that yoga gives us to cultivate that quieter, more focused mind. We often think of asana as being the achievement of the pose. The physical practice is without question filled with wonderful side effects: strength, flexibility, balance, release of tension and more. However, the pose is just a tool, a training ground really, for practicing quieting the mind. Through linking breath and movement, we give the mind a place to rest upon so that gradually we find ourselves fully present on the mat. As we become more adept at finding that presence on the mat we find ourselves taking it with us into everyday life.

Everything we do then has the ability to become a yoga pose. Chopping vegetables for dinner. Talking on the phone. Reading a book. Sitting in a meeting. Whenever our mind quiets and we have complete focus on the task at hand we find ourselves practicing yoga.  Yoga becomes a way of life.

Finding Steadiness and Comfort

Pink Dot

I’ve been experiencing a love/hate relationship with surya namaskar B, or sun salutations B, for awhile now.  I love all the poses individually.  Put them together with a single inhale or exhale each though and something goes awry.

For quite a long time last year, I would include a round or two of surya namaskar B in each of my home practices. I hated every minute of it. It was just part of the curriculum I had to get through to practice the poses I really loved.

Then surya namaskar B disappeared entirely from my practice. I didn’t notice. I certainly wasn’t missing it. No, not one little bit.

Almost as suddenly as it disappeared from my practice last fall, it reappeared early this year. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I just found myself sinking into one or two rounds each practice and really observing it in a way I hadn’t before. My mind would scatter, my breath would become forced, and my jaw would set. I was powering through.

Yoga Sutra II.46 instructs sthira sukham asanam.  Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.  It is about finding the balance between effort and ease in a yoga posture. It is pushing against your edge while remaining relaxed and engaged. When you find that beautiful balance you sink into the present moment.

My practice of surya namaskar B was all about sthira, the effort of the series of poses, and I was moving through them as a means to an end. Jaw set, I was exploring an edge but with an agitated mind. Allowing myself to relax into the effort that the poses required was the furthest thing from my (agitated) mind. I wasn’t even coming close to practicing yoga because my asanas were missing a vital component.

My practice of surya namaskar B was missing sukha, the ease, comfort and relaxation that would complete the already present sthira. These days I’m cultivating more sukha by slowing down in the series. I’m giving myself a few breaths in certain poses so that I have time to sink in, to observe whether the impulse suddenly shifts to just getting it over with. If that impulse does arise I take a few more breaths to consciously encourage myself to relax before letting go and moving on.

Getting to a place where I could observe what was coming up in my practice was in itself a huge step forward. In the previous year I just knew I really didn’t like surya namaskar B and so I unconsciously began avoiding it. Being able to recognize where I was truly starting from made it that much easier to identify what was missing and focus on growing that within my practice.

Because yoga is a practice both on the mat and off, I’m now starting to think about how this shows up in my day-to-day life. Where do I try to power through a situation without finding the ease that might exist in the center of the storm? Am I pushing against the edge of what may be comfortable for me in order to grow?  It’s an interesting investigation indeed.

The Art of Downtime

leisure

Downtime.  It’s that completely unplanned, unscheduled bit of time in our days.  It has no purpose other than to revive and energize the rest of our life.  It’s a form of self-care that should come easily to us.  Yet, I stink at it.

I am a planner and a doer.  I cross things off massive to do lists.  I get things done but it’s a lot of go, go, go.  In yoga this highly energetic and on the go quality is called rajas.  These qualities are great when things must get done.  Inevitably though. all this going and doing wears me out and I can be found sacked out on the couch for a week straight.  This quiet, slower, perhaps lethargic quality is referred to as tamas.

What I want to cultivate in my daily life though is a balance between the two, or sattva.  It’s in my practice on the mat that I find the greatest training ground for cultivating this idea.  Within the movement of a vinyasa sequence, sinking into a restorative pose, or sitting for meditation is where I find that beautiful balance between doing and being.

Off the mat, that balance between doing and being is going to take a great deal of practice for me.  Crossing things off of lists is important to me.  It keeps me moving forward, focused on the goals I want to achieve.  So this year I’m going to acknowledge my strength in list making and put downtime on that to do list in a big way.  I’ve dabbled with this intention before, placing things like a weekend nap or a leisurely Sunday morning on the list.  Only I might not get around to it because I could be doing somethinggetting something done instead.

I’ve found though, it is in these quiet moments that realizations make their way to the surface, that I gain greater clarity, and dream up new ideas.  Strangely, out of that downtime, I find myself accomplishing far more than I ever expected.  It’s not because I’m doing more things though.  I’m doing the ones that are most important in a fully present manner.  It’s mindfulness in the action as well as in the quiet.  And I want to practice finding that more often.

Practice and Letting Go

Orange DotOver the last week I’ve found myself attaching a great deal of expectation to my practice on the mat.  The first time it reared its ugly head was in a restorative practice on Friday.  I had had a long, though admittedly shortened, week at work and desperately wanted some nourishment from my practice.  I spent the first 45 minutes chasing my mind around like you might an overly sugared toddler.  At one point, I yelled very loudly into that swirling space, “Just let it go!  Who cares what spices you’re going to add to dinner tonight?”  I don’t know if it was the right approach but something clicked and I felt my jaw release, my eyes go heavy, and my entire body sank into the support of my props.  It didn’t last very long, but for those few minutes I felt fully present.  I had let go.

The second time occurred Sunday morning when I rolled out my mat.  I stepped onto that mat with a plan.  I wanted to work on refining my transitions in the vinyasas, and, as if that weren’t enough, inversions and maybe some backbends.  It was planned expectation under the guise of practice.  It knocked me on my butt.  After the first several vinyasas I was more than a little disappointed at how weak they felt, as if I’d regressed in my practice.  I moved onto some standing postures and just breathed.  It was standing in my second warrior 2 when the realization bubbled up.  I was intent on achieving an outcome based on some previous result, not on being fully present in my practice.

I realized I wasn’t accepting my practice for where it was that morning.  I wasn’t beginning in the now.  Over the holiday season my practice on the mat changed to reflect what I needed in that time and space.  It was gentler, more restorative, and filled with many fewer vinyasas than before.  Yet I came to the mat that morning expecting to pick up right where I’d left off in mid-November.  I wasn’t being realistic with my expectations and that led me to feeling disappointed and angry with myself for what I could and could not do.

It was a lesson I needed reminding of: persistent practice while letting go of the result.  It’s abhyasa and vairagya from Sutras I.12 to I.15 and I wasn’t doing either very well.  While I had had a consistent practice throughout the holidays, it wasn’t in this more vigorous style that is typically the base of my practice.  Yet I wanted the same result I had had then and I wanted it now.  So instead of being fully present, having a quality of ease for where I was in my practice, I became very attached to my idea of what my practice should look like.  The result I got was what I was practicing: being unsettled, anxious, and a bit angry.

In that warrior 2, I recommitted to practicing from where I am right now.  Instead of a dozen or more full vinyasas in each practice, I can take some of them and move from plank to downward dog with longer holds to rebuild strength.  It will require persistent practice to get back to where I was before.  With that persistent practice, I’m going to need to cultivate patience (which I am not famous for!) and my full presence so that I’m bringing the same qualities onto the mat that I want to take with me off of the mat.  And I need to do that regardless of what the outcome might be.

As a very goal oriented person, letting go of my desired outcome is the hardest part.  I have to keep reminding myself of what being attached to the result left me with: disappointment, anxiety, and a bit of anger.  I’m not going to be a more fulfilled person if I do the perfect transition from chaturanga to upward dog to downward dog.  What it provides is a training ground for life off of the mat.  How am I going to respond to a situation when I don’t get the result I expected or hoped for?  It’s human to be disappointed or angry but I hope that out of that I can cultivate a quality of presence and ease in the chaos that disappointment can bring.  Because what comes with the end of a hoped for result is my favorite thing of all: a new beginning.

Happy New Year!

Pink DotI love beginnings.  They are filled with excitement, hope, and possibility.  I think that is why I’m drawn to this first line of the Yoga Sutras over and over again.

Now begins the practice of yoga.  ~ Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I.1

This one short line is simple yet powerful.  It is all about beginning, from wherever you are right now, the practice of those things which are most important.  It says that you don’t have to be perfect but you do have to be willing, in each moment, to begin again.

At the beginning of a new year, we often find ourselves attaching so much expectation to that turning of a calendar page.  There are long lists of negatives we intend to banish from our lives.  If we slip up, we often give up.

How about being a bit kinder to ourselves this year?  Instead, let’s try focusing on the positive things we wish to grow in our lives.  Then let each day be a powerful new beginning in which to watch that growth take place.

I’m not going to lie.  It’s not always easy to keep beginning.  I sometimes get impatient and wonder when I’ll “get it” already.  It’s worth it though.  As I continually begin again I find my practices becoming stronger and, bit by bit, it does get easier.

Now, what do you want to begin practicing?