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It is not easy to establish a daily meditation practice. In fact, it’s really, really hard. We are generally overbooked and time-starved, and I know from my own experience that sometimes sitting to meditate feels like I’m giving up good time that I could be using to crank through my to-do list.
If you’re reading this, you probably already recognize the benefit of regular practice. If you can just hang on and do it for 90 days (the time it takes to dial in a habit), there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll be able to continue more easily after that. Below are some tips to get you through those first 90 days.
Practice at the Same Time Everyday
Whether you practice in the morning or in the afternoon, pick a time to meditate that you can do everyday. Consistency is the key to developing a habit. At first it will feel forced to go to your cushion, but eventually it will become second nature, like brushing your teeth. Many people find it easier to practice in the morning because the busyness of the day hasn’t had a chance to derail their schedule. I find that in the evenings, I’m much more likely to be tired and willing to give myself a pass on my practice. As you think about what time works best for you, make sure that it’s a time when you’ll be awake and clear-headed.
For the first 90 days commit to just 12 minutes a day. After 90 days, increase the amount of time to 18 minutes. After another 90 days, increase your time to 24 minutes. Try to stick with 24 minutes a day after that. If occasionally you need to do a shorter sit that’s OK. You’ll have established a habit that can withstand the occasional shift in your schedule.
Create Personal Rituals
Whether it’s lighting a candle, reciting a short mantra, or ringing a bell, create rituals around your practice. This not only helps to establish the lifelong habit, but it signals to the brain that you’re “entering the portal of practice,” a time you’ve set aside for a specific purpose that is starting now.
Set Your Intentions
Like rituals, intentions lend a potency to your practice. They reinforce your reasons for practice and can help strengthen your resolve. Consider writing your own “vow,” the specific words of which you recite the same way each time. Think of it as a personalized mantra. You might also choose a variation of your vow to say to yourself at the end of your sit. This helps to make your practice life more relevant to your daily life. I always recite a version of the refuge prayer at the beginning of my practice. Sometimes I add the bodhisattva vow, especially if I’ve been feeling grouchy towards others.
Stick With It
There will be times when you will feel resistance to practicing. At other times you’ll feel like you’re just spacing out and not actually meditating. Try to maintain the habit of sitting anyway. If you experience prolonged periods of resistance, attend a meditation group or class, listen to a talk online, and maybe even refresh your ritual or intention.
The Buddha recognized that meditating is not easy. He noted that there are five obstacles that impede our practice, and he even offered advice on how to overcome them.
Refill Your Cup By Attending a Retreat
Longtime meditators will tell you that one of the best ways to maintain your practice is to periodically attend a retreat. Whether it’s a half day or ten days, taking time out of your daily life helps to replenish your resolve. You will get an extra dose of the benefits of practice to remind yourself why you do it.
The Buddha described Five Hindrances, or obstacles, that can impede or even derail our practice. They even penetrate our regular, everyday life in many big and small ways. They come up when we least expect them, and can sometimes dig straight into the heart of what we we think our practice is all about.
The hindrances are: sensory desire, ill will, dullness, restlessness, and doubt. You probably recognize them. You may be navigating one or more of them right now.
It’s important to note that they are not personal failings nor should they be used as proof that we’re inadequate or phony practitioners. Indeed, when we look deeply at these very basic and normal aspects of our humanness, we see that it is precisely our unskillful response to them that give them their power. We overcome them not by trying to push them away, but instead by shining the light of awareness directly at them.
The Insight Meditation Community talks about the acronym RAIN for inquiring into the nature of our hindrances. We…
We must first figure out what we’re dealing with (R), and then not let ourselves get caught up in self-blaming or self-shaming (A). This can be challenging in normal circumstances, but especially so if you circulate within the yoga community, which tends to have what one of my teachers, Sarah Powers, describes as a “harmony addiction.” Sometimes authenticity, and by that I mean all the different aspects of our self, is valued less than the presentation of equanimity. Try to understand that no matter the outward face of the wider yoga community, there is room for our shadow side. We don’t have to hide it as long as we’re skillful in our sharing.
Instead, get curious (I). One of my other teachers, Don Stapleton, is famous for saying “Isn’t that interesting?” He says this in response to all sorts of revelatory comments that my fellow students bring to his attention, no matter how light-hearted or heavy. He’s modeling the behavior we should have with ourselves. Try to be a dispassionate observer. Get to know your difficulty and you dissolve its power.
I find that investigating the nature of my hindrances naturally evolves into the realization that these obstacles are just things that comes up (N). In terms of my practice life, they’re no different to a muscle cramp or indigestion. They come and they go. They neither define me nor rule me. In my daily life, I find I sometimes need more convincing. I try to remind myself that everyone, and by that I literally mean every single person on this planet, sometimes feels this way.
Thich Nhat Hanh famously reminds us, “no mud, no lotus.” With the investigation of what seems like a “big problem,” we are actually laying the groundwork for establishing and then reinforcing a more kindly and loving attitude towards our self. This leads to the compassionate realization that all beings share this cycle of suffering, which in turn usually alters the way we regard and treat others. Low and behold we’ve made real progress towards transformation. The very obstacles we face in our practice and life are also the tools that propel us down the path to freedom.
That sounds so simple, but I know that it’s not. We don’t immediately recognize what’s going on when we’re in the throws of it, though we do get better at that. We don’t quickly arrive at the point of acceptance. I find this especially true of anger. And even with all this inquiry and insight, sometimes hindrances stick around for a while, like a bad cold.
Thankfully we have antidotes. If we can at least figure out which hindrance (s) is (are) dogging us, we can turn to the Buddha’s teachings for support. If we are entrenched in sensory desire, we contemplate the impermanence of the happiness we derive from those pleasures. With ill will, we practice loving-kindness meditation to transform our attitude. With dullness, we rouse our energy with vigorous and constructive activities (like yoga). Restlessness can be neutralized with deeper investigation into its nature. Doubt can be overcome by reinforcing our understanding of the teachings through study and by connecting with a teacher and spiritual community.
At this point it seems worth noting that often none of this happens quickly and sometimes not very smoothly. Sure, if you happen to be feeling dull or sleepy in your meditation practice, you might get up and practice walking meditation and the hindrance is gone. But just this morning I was feeling really irritated by something someone wrote in a message to me. I finally I had to give up my sit because it was all I could think about. I did eventually get around to practicing metta both for myself for giving up and for this person for being, well, a person. Just keep at it. And switch tactics. And when all else fails, go to your teacher.
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 it.
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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