Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Do You Want to Be Healed?


Covered in colorful Mexican blankets I use in yoga classes, I keep an old couch in our dining room. When we moved into this house fifteen years ago, Don's friend and co-worker donated the couch to us. She'd had it for some years, and since then, we, our kids and the cats have sat on it regularly. One evening Don gave it a good once-over and suggested it was long past due a cleaning.

"We can't do that!" I exclaimed. "It's the dirt that's holding it together!"

Sometimes I feel that way about my life. It's the dirt and gunk of my tensions holding me together. If I were to let them go, I would disintegrate. Who and where would I be without my anxieties, opinions and controversies?

The yoga center where I learn yoga and how to teach it offers a technique called tension release Swami Rudrananda developed. It's very simple, like most of the teachings, and very effective when done regularly and sincerely. Sit down on a meditation cushion or a chair. Close your eyes and release your fingertips to or toward the floor. Inhale, drawing air in through the nose around your heart. As you exhale, release the breath through your nose and say to yourself, "I consciously wish to release all negative psychic tension." As you say this, you may feel your fingertips tingle. Imagine that you're draining away your accumulated tensions through your fingertips. For more on the subtleties of tension release practice, I recommend "Sacred Journey: A Guide to Meditation in the Shambhava School of Yoga," by Swami Kripananda.

I have been doing this exercise regularly for the past four years, and I'm happy to report that not only have I not disintegrated, I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. Many of the tensions I'd been carrying around are released or releasing. The anxiety that I'm not good enough. The resentment about sharing life and the world with a bunch of assholes. Vague and specific fear. I can simply sit down and let my breath and intention remove them through my fingers. Or if not remove them all at once, begin to move them.

Being freer from the inside has a positive effect on the externals of my life. Strangers smile at me. I don't waste energy I don't have chasing after those things I can't control. The people in my life are nearly always happy to see me, because they sense my happiness.

Jesus asked the man who had been an invalid for 38 years, "Do you want to be healed?" That's as pertinent a question as it was when he asked it 2,000 years ago. Making ourselves whole is within our power. Healing does not mean that all wounds are healed or all missing parts restored. One image of wholeness is the china plate that split into several pieces and is lovingly put back together. It may be missing a few slivers of porcelain, with clearly visible fracture lines. But it is whole enough to serve your dinner on it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The blessings of meditation

Today I went to teach yoga to my neighbors, a couple in their eighties, for our regularly scheduled session, only to find that L had taken a terrible fall in a parking lot late last week. She landed on her face, and though she is healing quite nicely, she was in no shape to do even the gentle class we typically do. She has balance issues and has taken several less serious falls in the two years we've done yoga together. I suggested that she needs to make sure she's not putting herself in situations where there is only a narrow space to walk in, because a wider stance improves balance. I also suggested that they consider having at least some of their groceries delivered, to avoid icy parking lots. L is a sweet, soft-spoken woman, but my innocent recommendation touched a nerve. She launched into a tirade about how she'll never have groceries delivered, because she isn't ready to be chained to an armchair for the rest of her life.
When I came home from our visit, I started thinking how grateful I am that I have an established meditation practice. I am thankful to my teachers, especially Sri Shambhavananda, for so generously sharing the gift of silence. Twice a day I practice sitting, doing nothing other than opening my intention to the Divine Guide. If I am forced to sit in a chair or stay in a bed because of some catastrophe, I feel confident my practice has prepared me to deal with these restrictions as gracefully as I can.

The cultivation of silence and stillness is totally countercultural. Students have told me they won't or can't do pranayama because their minds race and it makes them feel bad. They believe they need a more active practice that allows them to escape the menace of their thoughts. This complete connection to doing at all costs, linked with a fundamental inability to be with oneself, is to me totally sad. Because what happens when they get to the place in their lives where they can't do an active practice of any kind, when perhaps even going about doing their daily chores is too big a challenge? Because if they're lucky enough to live a long life, they're going to get to that between a rock and a hard place.

If you've successfully set up your life to avoid facing and taming the rollercoaster of your own mind, you're going to be ill-prepared when you can no longer hop onto all the carnival rides the world offers you. Even then, there's time to begin to meditate and learn to understand and calm the mind's fluctuations.

But why wait? It's as simple as sitting in a chair, closing your eyes and paying attention to your breathing. Start with at least ten breaths, because that is the minimum needed to reduce the circulation of stress hormones. The goal of meditation is not to cease all thought. Thoughts are inevitable. Let them pass by as if you're watching clouds float past your window.

This will likely be so welcome you'll want to continue. When you open your eyes, you might find that five to ten minutes have passed. For one month, commit to practicing every day in this way, first thing every morning. Over time, it's best to build up to thirty minutes of sitting. I guarantee you'll feel more open, relaxed and able to face the world, receptive to all its joys and challenges.

Once you get a taste of the pleasure that comes from being better acquainted with the rhythms of your mind and breath, you may want to consider joining a meditation group. I find it enormously helpful to meditate with the yogis at Eldorado Mountain Yoga Ashram and with my yoga students. It's like linking train cars to a mighty engine--the shared momentum allows everyone to roll along with ease. If you're lucky enough to live near a yoga center, you can receive instruction from experienced teachers there. Some recreation centers offer meditation classes. Most also offer yoga classes. Not all yoga teachers are meditators, but ask if any of them also teach meditation.

There are no failures in meditation. Even if you stop for a while, it's always there for you. The worst that can happen is that you get to know yourself better.