How yoga empowers you

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”– Nora Ephron

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The late writer Nora Ephron said this: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” When I happened upon that quote years ago, I instantly connected to it. I was at the confluence of several life-altering events, and I was feeling hurt and injured by circumstances that were not in my control. I had been victimized.

Around that same time, I was beginning my yoga journey.

Ephron’s quote resonated because it, like yoga, gave me a chance to see that victimhood is often a choice—a way we’re choosing to frame our personal narrative. Her quote reminded me that I could choose to be the master of my life, despite what was thrown my way. Her quote became a personal intention. I wrote it in my journal and often recited it to myself in meditation or at the start of my yoga practice. It was my mantra.

Victimization is very real. In our society, we’re having an important discussion right now about the myriad of ways white culture victimizes minorities. Women have talked for 100+ years about the ways that patriarchy oppresses. LGBT citizens can now legally wed in the United States, but they still aren’t protected by equal anti-discrimination laws in every state. Not all oppression is equal, and I’m not suggesting we make light of systematic, cultural oppression. Being victimized is a great equalizer, though: it isn’t a unique circumstance. Everyone is a victim at some point: a victim of interpersonal cruelty, infidelity, abuse, neglect, dishonesty, or poverty. It’s not a pleasant, comfortable, or safe role. But it also doesn’t have to be a defining one.

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim,” because despite circumstances, despite limited power over much of your life, despite your family, wealth, health, or background, the perspective you choose becomes your narrative. Your perspective, your personal choice, determines if you’re going to be the victim or hero of your life story. You get to choose.

Yoga helps us see this choice, too.

In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the ability to control the mind. In Sutra 1.2, we’re told yogas chitta vritti nirodha: yoga is the quieting of the fluctuations of the mind. The Sutras continue, and a path (and potential obstacles) are explained. But what’s clear immediately is this:

Your meandering, anxious mind causes suffering.

There is a way to quiet your mind and find peace.

The steady and dedicated practice of yoga is that way.

You can choose to be a victim of the internal pushing and pulling or you can choose to forge another path. The root of your suffering is within you. The path to contentment and peace is within you, too. It’s you, yoga says. It’s all you. Whether you suffer or you find peace, the choice is yours. Whatever happens outside your mind, you can cultivate control of your mind and your perspective. What could be more empowering ?

“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

You get to choose.

 

 

 

 

The push and pull of attachment and aversion

Raga and dvesha are at the heart of your suffering.

In yoga, the self-derived causes of suffering are called kleshas. There are five of them, but the two I’ve been thinking a lot about lately are raga and dvesha: attachment and aversion.

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Raga

Raga—attachment—means, essentially, attachment to pleasant things. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying life and all the sweet parts of it. Raga occurs, though, when you suffer because you want pleasant things. At the heart of raga is unmet desire: raga occurs when you experience suffering because you can’t have what you want. The enjoyment of good things is fine; the attachment to good things is problematic.

When I think about raga, I recognize a particular (routine) moment in my life: Sunday night. Without fail, on Sunday night I feel down, mournful, cranky. On Monday, the week begins again, which means less time with my family and more time doing work. Even though I enjoy my job, I’d still rather be experiencing leisure. I’m attached to the pleasant experience of the weekend. I suffer because I can’t have more of what I desire: the sweetness and ease of lazy, connected family time.

Dvesha

Dvesha—aversion—is the inverse. You probably have things, experiences, and people that you find unpleasant. Like any normal person, you generally try to avoid these things, of course. You probably don’t enjoy having to come face-to-face with unpleasantness. But because life inevitably makes you confront sources of displeasure, you suffer. You experience suffering because you are averse to these particular aspects of life.

When I think about dvesha, I think of the tasks that have remained forever at the bottom of my to-do list. I keep avoiding them; I keep putting them off. I find more enjoyable tasks to complete whenever I’m doing work. But these unpleasant things really need to be done; these things I don’t want to deal with must eventually be dealt with. I suffer because I have created an aversion to these necessary, normal tasks. The problem is with me and my attitude.

So, what’s to be done?

At the heart of most change is this: awareness. Recognizing the cycle you’re in begins to change the cycle. That’s the miracle of mindfulness. You get to slow down and see what’s really pulling and pushing you in various directions.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that the way out of the kleshas is through meditation. Sitting in stillness, choosing to let go of the thoughts that come into your mind isn’t easy. But practicing meditation is just that: a practice. It takes time to get comfortable with sitting in quiet, but the effects continue long after you leave your seat. Whether you choose a formal meditation practice or you just take some time to sit quietly, observe and breathe, this little bit of space will allow you to get more perspective on the pushing and pulling of your mind. The next time you experience suffering connected to the idea of “I want” or “I don’t want,” you might find a little buffer: that’s your chance to choose a different path than the habits of raga and dvesha. It’s your choice to choose not to suffer.

 

Be gentle

When I tell my daughter to be gentle, I’m asking her to begin a lifelong practice of kindness, politeness, civility, patience. I’m asking her to start working on the things that I continue to work on in adulthood.

This month, my sweet and silly 11-month-old baby has developed a new habit of swatting. She does it when she’s tired, excited, or frustrated, and it’s her way of communicating that emotion or need to us. Regardless, being swatted in the face isn’t pleasant, so 3-4 times a day my husband and I lightly redirect her hands and encourage her to be gentle.

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That’s a powerful little hand.

Be gentle. I’ve repeated that phrase so often lately: patiently, calmly again and again.

I’m not always the most patient. I don’t always communicate my needs with grace. I can be downright demanding. I can approach a disagreement with a certain amount of righteousness. I’m often quick to judge and quick to speak, and the result is sometimes that I say things I wish I’d said kindlier—or not at all.

When I tell my daughter to be gentle, I’m asking her to begin a lifelong practice of kindness, politeness, civility, patience. I’m asking her to start working on the things that I continue to work on in adulthood. When I think of it this way, I feel humbled. I also feel tremendous empathy for my swatting little daughter at the start of her life-long journey toward impulse control and gentleness. Her lesson—at 11 months—is a lesson for us all. It’s a reminder to cultivate more empathy, more patience. It’s a reminder to continue to strive for kindness toward others.

Be gentle. Be gentle when communicating: your loved ones will more easily remain open to your needs if you tread lightly.

Be gentle. Be gentle in your approach to others. They may have had a hard day, a long day. Give them a buffer, too.

Be gentle. Be gentle with your family and friends. They are the ones you’re closest to.  Don’t take their presence for granted. Treat them with love.

Be gentle. Be gentle with others—and be gentle with yourself, too. The way you treat others often mirrors the way you treat yourself. Whenever you can, be kinder, be gentler, be more loving.

Be gentle.

 

Satya: truth and authenticity

The deeper aspect of satya is being authentic and operating from your place of truth.

Satya is the second of the yamas, the yogic laws of universal morality. It translates from Sanskrit as “truth.” The basic principle is honesty: practicing satya means being honest, not lying, and not omitting information.

But the deeper aspect of satya is being authentic and operating from your place of truth.

Being authentic means that you are who you are, whether people like it or not.

How does that sit with you? Do you feel any deep-belly, queasy sensations?  If you’re having a visceral reaction to the idea of disregarding the opinion of others, it may be because you’ve spent a lot of your life trying to make sure people like you. And that, my friend, is bullsh*t.

Now let’s pause there: I’m not advocating that you make no effort to be connected to your fellow mankind. Community is one of the most important and powerful aspects of our lives. We need others.

But we have to balance our need for community and connection with our responsibility to ourselves. We have to be who we are, authentically. You do you, as the current prescription goes.

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I love this picture because I’m not posing for the camera. The image captures connection, honesty, authenticity, truth. It shows my unbridled joy at my daughter’s smile. And also my hair looks amazing.

When we are ourselves, when we operate from a place of deep truth and honesty, our true community will emerge. We will find our tribe.

But in the interim, it can be scary to speak up, act, and choose things that those around us may be startled by or not approve of. It is an act of tremendous bravery, especially if you’ve made a habit of putting others before yourself. But it’s a requirement of living a full, true life. There is no other choice.

 

 

Every emotion has an attendant breath

With every breath, you have the power to change the way you feel.

When you’re sad, you breathe a certain way. When you’re angry, anxious, or fearful, you breathe a certain way. And when you’re surprised, joyful, happy—there’s a corresponding breath for each of those, too. Whatever emotion you’re experiencing, your breath reveals it and mirrors it. Your breath informs it and reflects it. There is a relationship between the two: what you feel and how you breathe.

(And just to bring it home, pause here and try it. How do you breathe when you’re happy? Okay, how about when you’re angry? What about when you’re worried? Take a moment to tap into the breath you automatically go to for each emotion.)

Once we realize that our breath and our emotional state have a connection, we can start to shift our emotions by noticing (and changing) our breathing. Truthfully, you already know to do that: consider that when you encounter a friend who is upset, you instinctively offer support to your friend by saying “just breathe” or “take a breath.” You know attending to the breath can help someone regain a sense of groundedness when their emotional state feels out of control.

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Close your eyes and breathe, deeply and slowly, for 5 full breaths. Powerful stuff.

In yoga, breath practices are called “pranayama,” which translates to “breath control.” There are many types of breathing offered by yogic philosophy: breathing through one nostril to calm (left nostril) or energize (right nostril); breathing equally through each nostril to balance (called nadi shodhana or anuloma viloma); taking short rapid breaths to feel more awake and encourage core awareness, big exhalations through the mouth to cool and calm (simhasana, or lion’s breath, accomplishes that.) These are just a few types of pranayama. There are many more.

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Here I’m practicing simhasana  (lion’s breath), which is cooling and calming. (With those sunglasses, though, I don’t need much more coolness, am I right?)

There are many breaths to learn about and study, if that interests you. It’s fascinating!

But in my own practice, I find that simply deepening and slowing my breathing can have big results.

Deep and slow breathing changes things physiologically: we bring more oxygen into our lungs, our parasympathetic nervous system turns on, and as a result we feel calmer and more in control. We have more spaciousness in our emotional landscape. We relax a little more. Our emotions shift.

Yoga poses and meditation are super important practices, but breathwork can be done regardless of circumstances: it’s ninja-like. You can do it anywhere and no one knows. You can change your breath mid-meeting, mid-argument, mid-presentation—you don’t need special props or a yoga mat.

The next time you’re flooded with emotions, go to your breath and see what’s happening there. Slow it down. Deepen it. Then watch the power, magic, and beauty of just breathing.

 

The art of not wanting stuff

We’re subtly taught to believe that buying something will fix something else.

Aparigraha is fifth of the yoga yamas. The yamas constitute the ethical rules of yoga, and as the last of them, aparigraha is focused on non-attachment to stuff. Non-greediness, non-grasping, non-coveting.

When we break the word down to its Sanskrit roots, the meaning gets even clearer: the a at the beginning negates—it’s sort of like adding “not” at the beginning of a phrase. Pari means essentially from “all sides” and graha means “to take.” All together: don’t take from all sides. Don’t take more than you need. Don’t be greedy.

That’s hard, particularly in a culture that constantly sings the siren song of more is better. There’s hope though: in recent years there’s been more interest in the concept of non-attachment to stuff. There’s the Marie Kondo-inspired movement of decluttering and a focus on simple, clean living that flies in the face of the dominant culture messaging that says buy, buy, buy.

The most insidious part of that consumerist message is the advertising that encourages us to see products as a solution. We’re taught to believe that buying something will fix something else. (And we fall for this message again and again, despite the fact that the previous product—and the previous one before that—was not the fix.)

At the heart, then, of our modern-day grasping at stuff is our erroneous belief that we need to be fixed. We need something, anything. We are flawed,  broken, or problematic, and the stuff we buy can solve that. Ahem.

If that’s the message we’re fighting, then obviously just telling ourselves to be less greedy or to let go of material possessions isn’t going to do much.

We have to begin by recognizing that we are enough. We have enough. We are whole.

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You are enough. You are balanced. You are whole.

We have to begin by seeing that the pattern of need-buy-repeat doesn’t offer any solution or make life any better.

We have to begin by seeing the limitation of material goods.

Now, hang on. I like to buy stuff sometimes. Do I have to give up all shopping as enjoyment? No new lipstick? No new earrings? No new *insert your happy purchase here*?

I’m not a monster, you guys.

We have to examine our intentions around buying and collecting and owning, not cease to do these things altogether.

When the impulse to buy something arises, look at it closely. If it’s an honest need or a healthy desire, you’ll know if you look closely and stay with that desire for a few moments. But if the desire to buy is there because you think on some subtle level that the purchase and ownership of this item will bring it all together, make it all okay, solve it all… well, then, it’s probably time to go to your mat and breathe and settle into a mantra like I am whole.

You are whole. Nothing else needed.

 

Have 20 minutes? Do some yoga!

Balance Your Body and Your Mind and Twist It All Away Sequence

  • Begin on hands and knees (Table) and move through Cat-Cow for 3-5 breaths.
  • From Table, move to Thread the Needle, beginning with the right arm. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Repeat Thread the Needle, beginning with the left arm. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Table and on an Exhale, move to Downward-Facing Dog. Move arouna dn squirm in Down-Dog for 10-15 breaths.
  • From Downward-Facing Dog, walk your way to the front of the mat.
  • Inhale, rise into Mountain Pose. Exhale to arrive.
  • Inhale and raise your arms overhead.
  • Exhale and bend your knees to Fierce / Chair Pose. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Inhale and draw your hands to your heart center.
  • Exhale and twist right, hook your left elbow on the outside of your right knee, if possible. This is Revolved Fierce Pose. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Inhale and draw your hands back to heart center.
  • Exhale and twist left, hook your right elbow on the outside of your left knee, if possible. This is Revolved Fierce Pose. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Inhale and draw your hands back to heart center. Exhale to land.
  • Inhale, reach your arms overhead, returning to Fierce Pose.
  • Exhale, straighten your legs and release your arms and return to Mountain Pose.
  • Move into Tree Pose, balancing on right foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Move into Tree Pose, balancing on left foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose.
  • Step into Warrior 2 with your right foot forward. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose and shift weight into your right foot.
  • Move into Eagle Pose, balancing on your right foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose.
  • Step into Warrior 2 with your left foot forward. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Return to Mountain Pose and shift weight into your left foot.
  • Move into Eagle Pose, balancing on your left foot. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
  • Come to your back on the mat and bend your knees. Drop your knees to the right. Hold for 30 breaths. Drop your knees to the left. Hope for 30 breaths.
  • Rest in Savasana for 5-10 minutes.

 

Ahimsa: compassion starts within

Ahimsa is the yogic notion of non-violence. Even when our actions are non-violent, we might feel violence in our hearts.

Ahimsa is the yogic notion of non-violence or non-harming. It’s the first of the Yamas, the yogic ethical precepts that suggest the right path for a yogi.

When I teach the concept of ahimsa, I often joke that it’s an obvious one: if you’ve showed up in a yoga class, you’re probably not a violent person. You’re probably already on a path toward kindness. You’re probably already seeking to be more compassionate in your actions toward others.

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Open your heart! Even when it’s cold and snowy, open your heart!

But while external manifestations of violence certainly belie a violent heart, the reverse is not always true. We think of violence as grandiose, but internal violence can be quite subtle: we might be walking around with a lot of violence in our hearts—resentment, guilt, anger, fear, shame.  That internal violence may never manifest as an outward expression. That’s a good thing, of course, but it doesn’t mean we should leave that internal violence to rage on without check or change.

Indeed, it’s only by ceasing to struggle internally that we can cease to struggle externally—as individuals and as a collective society. That’s the true teaching of ahimsa: non-harming, non-violence starting internally. Starting with ourselves. Moving from the internal to the external. True compassion for ourselves to true compassion for others.

This is where the practice of yoga comes in: yoga allows us to acknowledge, confront, and address inner brutality. The practice of arriving in your body, moving with grace, accepting your body’s limitations; this is the practice of compassion. Being present with discomfort, being honest about your thoughts, being aware of what you’re feeling; this is the practice of compassion. Accepting yourself as you are: the most radical practice of compassion. Accepting others as they are. Even more radical, I know.

Acknowledging that inner violence exists is not the same as expressing that violence. When we act from a space of violence we cause violence to others. The destructive cycle continues. But when we acknowledge the pain in our heart, we are often amazed to see how quickly it melts away and how easily we become free of it. And more: we see then how big and full and beautiful the heart can be when the little thorn of himsa (violence) is removed.

 

Have 20 minutes? Do some yoga!

Heart-Opening and Super-Stretchy Seated Pose Sequence

  • Begin on your hands and knees in Table Pose; move your spine and stretch your body, finding what feels good
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Move back to Table Pose and slide onto your belly for Sphinx Pose; stay in Sphinx Pose for 3-5 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose for as long as needed
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose for as long as needed
  • Slide onto your belly and as you inhale float into Locust Pose; stay in Locust Pose for 3-5 breaths
  • Rest in Child’s Pose for as long as needed
  • Slowly root through your feet and move to Downward Facing Dog; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Transition to hands and knees in Table position and stretch your spine with Cat-Cow for a breath or two
  • Sit down and move to Seated Forward Fold; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Cross your legs into Cow-Faced Pose; stay here for 3-5 breaths; switch the cross of your legs; stay for 3-5 breaths
  • Draw your feet together for Bound Angle Pose; stay here for 3-5 breaths
  • Lower onto your back and practice Bridge Pose 3 times; hold each pose 3-5 breaths; rest in between
  • Rest in Corpse Pose for 5-10 minutes