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The room was quiet and cold. My eyes were closed and I was scanning my body, “listening” for sensations. I was grateful for the thin, paper “blanket” that the nurse had draped over me. I could feel my muscles clenching and the tight stretch around my chest as I breathed. I was scared. In just a few minutes I’d receive news that could change everything.
I turned my mind’s eye towards the rhythmic flow of my breath, expanding and releasing in my belly. In all the familiar ways, the holding around my heart softened. My legs felt heavier. I felt my mind clear like the settling of sparkles in a snow globe. It was no longer a problem that I was alone in an unfriendly room awaiting a diagnosis.
My mind tried to drive me towards the fear and towards an imagined future of turmoil and pain. I simply continued to draw myself back to the breath, until I settled there. I was not caught up in catastrophe. I knew in a palpable way that in that very moment I was completely fine.
Moments continued to tick by, and eventually the doctor opened the door. I was calm. I was ready.
Two weeks before I had gone in for my first routine breast cancer screening, a middle-aged right of passage. Everyone tells you not to freak out if you receive a letter calling you back for more tests. Mammogram screenings involve comparing current images to previous ones; they’re looking for changes in the tissue. When you’ve never had a mammogram, they don’t always know what they’re looking at.
Needless to say, I got a call-back. The letter was formulaic and unrevealing, and of course it arrived on a Friday. I spent the first few days after the letter arrived rationalizing and reminding myself that they told me not to freak out. I didn’t tell anyone but my family, knowing full well that it could be nothing. As my appointment approached, however, my composure eroded.
Like anyone on the verge of crisis, I started making “deals.” Even though I don’t believe in god, I started promising (who? I dunno) that I’d be a better person if I received a clean bill of health. I skipped ahead to next steps, going so far as telling my husband that if I’m going to die, we’re selling the house and traveling the world until I do. My mood gradually deteriorated until the night before my appointment. I was still worried, but the fog of dread in my mind started to clear.
To those who don’t know much about Buddhism, it can seem like Buddhists are overly concerned with suffering. And it’s true that the Buddha’s teachings are filled with categories of all the ways in which we suffer. But what has always drawn me to the teachings are the aspirational practices, meditations that serve as antidotes to the struggle of life.
The most common example is compassion meditation, my go-to because I tend to be a grudge holder. Cultivating compassion is essential for overcoming feelings of disconnection. Indeed, the really interesting fMRI studies that show how meditation changes the brain are usually looking at compassion practices.
But the mother of all aspirational practices is gratitude. It can diffuse or even eradicate any negative feeling.
I happened to be reading Timber Hawkeye’s book “Buddhist Boot Camp” during the time between my appointments. He devotes an entire section on gratitude, which is about where I was when I hit my low point. His chapter called “You’re in Charge” knocked me back to my senses. At the end of the chapter Hawkeye writes: “..nobody is in charge of your happiness (or unhappiness) except YOU!”
I realized that while it was very possible that I would soon receive extremely disappointing news, it would only be devastating if I let my feelings overtake me. And there was a good chance that even if I had cancer my mind had already concocted a scenario that was much worse than reality.
I took Hawkeye’s words to heart. Whenever my mind ran afoul, I redirected it away from it’s vivid imaginings towards my actual life, to my beautiful family, fulfilling job, comfortable home, supportive friends, amazing teachers whose lessons I continue to learn, even the unseasonably stunning weather. I soaked myself in gratitude for all that I had to sustain me. Cancer couldn’t take any of that away from me, but my own despair could and would if I let it. It was up to me to take charge and get back to living moment-to-moment, not in my made-up world of fear.
I doubled down on my meditation practice. I sat a little longer and added in extra sessions. In the hour before my appointment I went to sit with the group at the Mindfulness Practice Center.
In the end, I have several cysts. They’re completely benign and there’s nothing to be done about them. I’m lucky, and I’m really, really grateful for that luck.
We shouldn’t wait until death comes knocking (or Thanksgiving) to count our blessings. Practicing gratitude daily would be a game changer. Appreciating what we have softens the desire for what we don’t have. Desire, according to the Buddha, is one of the primary afflictions that causes suffering. Gratitude is a reminder that the vast majority of us, especially if you’re reading this, have enough.
I once read a book on how different cultures express gratitude. A particular point that I found interesting is that giving thanks and appreciating what we have is not a sentiment we are born with. Anyone who has spent time with young children know this.
Gratitude is something that we learn and train up. I call it “faking it until you make it.” Just like compassion meditation, at first it may not feel sincere but have faith that flooding your mind with positivity eventually rewires it to actually feel. Recall those interesting fMRI studies.
I’ve decided not to wait until my next health scare to incorporate gratitude into my daily practice. In fact, I’m going to share little Drops of Gratitude on my Facebook page and on Twitter every day for the next year. Some of these expressions will, no doubt, be trite. But I hope that over time I can cultivate an honest and heartfelt appreciation for the gifts of this amazing, precious human life that I have the privilege to call my own.
Recognizing that there is no “pure” yin or “pure” yang, it is perhaps easier to describe Yin Yoga in contrast with active, yang styles of yoga. Consider the dynamic flow of movement and breath in a typical vinyasa class. We often begin our yang practice with tadasana, lifting the inner arches of the feet to draw up Earth energy through the inseams of the legs into the deep core of our belly. Using that energy as fuel, we inhale to stretch the arms over head, beginning a vigorous dance that generates internal heat, muscular flexibility, physical strength, and fortitude. We match movement and breath with rhythmic beats. We engage, we hold, we try harder, we strive for more, we change.
Nevertheless, many people with a committed yang-style practice find something missing, whether it’s never seeming to move past a certain level of flexibility or never quite attaining that inner peace that many yoga practices promise. One might suggest that the missing element is attention paid to the yin areas of the body and our inner yin nature.
Referred to as “The Quiet Practice” by Paul Grilley, Yin Yoga seeks to attend to the forgotten inner realms in body, heart and mind. While the approach may seem simple (holding floor-based postures for several minutes) the results are transformative. Yin Yoga offers a unique opportunity to ease and release deeply held tension in the physical body, unleash stagnant or blocked energy, and cultivate peacefulness in the heart and mind.
Though Yin Yoga postures look like recognizable asanas, we approach the practice with a different intention. Starting with the physical body, practicing familiar postures in a Yin way enables us to target connective tissue (ligaments, tendons and fascia). By relaxing muscles and holding postures for several minutes, we can, over time, increase the flexibility of our joints to the full range of our natural ability. Wider range of motion in the joints offers us more grace in movement and ease when we’re still, especially when sitting for long periods of time.
When considering the energetic domain of the body, Yin Yoga is especially effective for enhancing and invigorating our lifeforce energy (prana/chi). It is believed that chi flows within meridians that are housed in the connective tissue. By “exercising” the meridians through Yin Yoga, we can remobilize blocked or stagnant energy. When our chi flows freely, we feel more balanced, harmonized and experience increased vitality.
Unlike yang forms of yoga that emphasize physical precision, alignment and movement, the long-held postures of Yin Yoga offer a unique opportunity to marry physical practice with mind training. Whether through visualizations, contemplations or vipassana meditation, the quiet space created in a Yin practice is ripe for exploring our emotional and spiritual environments.
In the beginning, we notice an intensity of sensation in the body that evokes habitual patterns of reaction or suppression. By inviting us to dwell in a safe space outside our comfort zone, Yin Yoga allows us to practice and embody healthier mental patterns, what Sarah Powers refers to as “growing emotional maturity.” Ease in the physical, energetic and emotional realms unlocks a door for deep compassion and what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” the recognition that we are all interconnected in the human experience. In essence, Yin Yoga is an opportunity to cultivate our spirit body for “ever growing, deep knowing.” (Sarah Powers, August 2012 at Kripalu Yoga Center).
This article is an excerpt of an essay that I wrote following the Insight Yoga Teacher Training retreat with Sarah Powers that I attended in August of 2012. As a student of Sarah’s Insight Yoga Institute, we are required to demonstrate understanding and mastery of the material following each retreat by answering relevant essay questions. This was, essentially, part of my homework. I hope this article helps to illuminate what has become a deeply personal and rich practice for me.
Where do you go for refuge when you need support?
This was the question offered to us to contemplate during butterfly pose, the Yin Yoga version of cobbler or bound angle (badha konasana). Such a simple question that relates directly to not only your external support system, but the kinds of internal resources that you may (or may not have) cultivated. The interesting thing about settling into a deep posture and then contemplating a deep question is that really clear images and thoughts can sometimes emerge. In this particular experience, it was like a door to a very bright room opened up - a touch more profound than just a light bulb going off.
Aaaand this is why you send yourself on a retreat… sometimes you need to eject yourself from your every day life in order to create the space for dramatic ah-ha moments.
What I ultimate came around to is that despite the fact that I have a lot of tools to help me navigate difficulty, somehow I have allowed myself to be drawn into circumstances where I no longer have even small increments of time to tend to myself on a deep level. Much of this situation is born of my own choices. I chose to get married and have a child. I chose to take on, perhaps, a bit more work than I can comfortably sustain. In many ways I choose a lifestyle that makes me exhausted at the end of the day.
And this is the normal landscape lately. When stress starts to mount, the lack of a refuge creates more stress. It’s like I don’t have a valve for my my internal pressure cooker. Then the snippiness starts, the impatience, the exhaustion… it’s a bad cycle.
But what we sometimes forget about choices is that we can unchoose many of them. I’m not going to take back the promises to my family, and nor do I want to. But I can certainly pull the throttle on other parts of my life. And in doing so, I can reincorporate personal time to take refuge, recalibrate my mood, and hopefully be a better member of my family in return.
And this is why I tell my yoga students that taking care of yourself is not selfish. When you are happier, centered, more grounded, and able to draw on your own internal resources without depleting yourself, then you have a heck of a lot more to give to those around you.
So, why not put yourself into butterfly pose and ask of yourself: Where do you seek refuge when you need support? Such a simple little exercise could change your life.
"We use the postures to get to know our body, not use the body to perform postures." - Sarah Powers, Insight Yoga Training, August 2012
Let me first just say that this is probably not a precise quote, but definitely very close to how Sarah introduced our first session on Yin Yoga today. I’m sending updates from a training program I’m attending at Kripalu Center because I wanted to create a framework for thinking about what I’m learning each day. Often when I attend these yoga intensives, I cram as much as I can into a little notebook hoping that one day I’ll review it. But mostly I end up just trusting that the essence will bubble up in my classes. And actually it does.
This is a more concerted effort to process, in real time, what I’m learning. I’m glad that I decided to do this because not a single word of what Sarah says is extraneous. I can’t possible write fast enough to capture her teachings. It is, at times, frustrating. I don’t want to miss anything or forget anything. So, I’m sharing in order to process and dial it in.
Back to the quote…
Even before this program, I have been spending a lot of time contemplating just exactly what we’re supposed to be getting out of asana (posture) practice anyway. On the one hand, it’s a no brainer because our practice feels good and sets us up for a healthier lifestyle. Quite a lot of health consciousness begins with that first child’s pose. Since I began practicing yoga, many aspects of my life are fundamentally different for the better.
But along with this emphasis on the postures comes this near obsession with the right way to do postures. Am I doing this right? Why don’t I look like that woman in this posture? She’s obviously a better yogi than me. My teacher isn’t going to like me because I can’t do this posture.” Etc. Etc. Etc. This isn’t yoga, and it certainly isn’t healthy.
It’s important to remind ourselves that our asana practice is not about marking off a checklist of how many poses we can do or even how precisely we do them (I believe there’s a reasonable amount of latitude for safety in most poses). Asana practice is an environment for self-inquiry and reflection by way of the physical sensation. Through asana practice, we initiate a process for knowing ourselves more intimately. Asana is not the end game.
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