Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Giving Thanks

Lately in my classes I have been focusing on softening and being receptive.  Yoga requires many things- effort and stamina among them. But without receptivity we miss the most healing aspect of the practice, which is to open. Without opening we can’t connect- to ourselves, to each other, to our bodies, to nature and the world, to our souls. Receptivity is what allows us to open and feel gratitude for the blessings in our lives, but it also allows us and requires us to feel more of everything. Including all those feelings and experiences we don’t like. Darn it. We can’t really be deeply receptive to the beauty in our lives without also making room for our losses and fears and disappointments and longings.

It seems that as humans we spend a lot of energy not feeling and connecting in an authentic way. To make it through the everyday challenges of life, and to survive pain, loss and trauma we all find ways to protect ourselves, to compartmentalize our pain and suffering. To a large extent this is healthy- we can’t feel everything, all the time. This is a gift known as concealment in yoga- it’s one of the panca kritya or five acts of shiva (all five are: creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment and revelation). There are healthy ways to protect ourselves such as having healthy boundaries, saying both no and yes in ways that are self-caring and life-affirming. We can also protect ourselves from the busy-ness and overstimulation and even the traumas of the world by creating places of sanctuary in our lives- making our home a place that is sacred, loving, a joyful and serene place to be nourished and to let down our guard – and of course there is the sanctuary of our yoga practice. We all need to also choose consciously to find pleasant distractions- reading or movies or whatever it is you might enjoy that takes your mind off things for a while.  We can’t always get on our yoga mat or meditation cushion and breathe and feel. Sometimes we need to feel less and create some healthy space for ourselves. Then sometimes we create too much space- we dissociate or disconnect in ways that don’t serve us. Though we may be trying to feel better we might choose to act in ways that are anywhere from slightly unhealthy to immensely self-destructive. Limiting belief systems and patterns and even addictions of one kind or another that once served us but no longer do will begin to cause more pain instead of masking old pain. These  are ways we humans try to cope but these paths only lead to more pain and suffering.

How do we turn our patterns around? How do we create a life we love? How do we honor our suffering and pain and that of others and also let joy and wonder and yes even bliss into our experience of this life? For me yoga is not only as much about sensitivity and receptivity as it is effort and strength- it is first and foremost about sensitivity and softening. When we soften we can listen more deeply. What is that pain in our shoulder trying to tell us? What is that subtle anxiety running through our body and mind, or that undercurrent of sadness we keep pushing away, or that hard edge we might sometimes feel in our heart? What stories are we telling ourselves that contribute to our feeling unworthy, never enough? What is underneath that? Can we feel the longing for self-expression and creativity? What dreams have we pushed away, or decided are too impossible to pursue? What’s next in our lives, how do we find that next step unless we pause and listen?

Yoga, from the root word yuj, means to bind. Lately I have had some interesting conversations and heard thoughtful questions from students such as: Is yoga about feeling bliss? Is life about suffering and yoga is the path to freedom? Where does joy fit in, what about compassion? The tantric teachings of yoga that I have steeped myself in and that I teach say this: because our essential nature is free, yoga is really about what we choose to bind ourselves to. What has value and meaning in our lives, what has enough weight- gravitas- that we are willing to commit ourselves heart and soul?  We may have chosen this kind of deep, abiding commitment through friendships or a long term relationship or marriage, parenthood, to our careers and/or to the inner work we feel called to in our lives.  Many of us have found the practices of yoga to be worthy of our daily or weekly attention, over the months and then years of our lives. We commit to this practice for so many reasons- for the benefits of better health and vitality, the fun and joy of the practice, the way it helps us remain more calm and centered in our lives. Many of us find the jewels of self-knowing to be the most precious of all the gifts of the practice. We can translate our insights and awakenings on the mat into our daily lives and live with more courage, more compassion, more sensitivity, more joy.

I am taking a while to get to the theme of gratitude, and for a reason. Because although there is likely much for each one of us to be grateful for, we can’t get there without receptivity. Gratitude is something that can naturally well up inside of us, and it is also something we can cultivate, but it is always something we need to experience by truly taking in the blessings of our lives. Gratitude cannot be forced, nor artificially created just  because we think it is a spiritual quality we should exude as a yogi. It is a quality we can cultivate because it is self-generating- the more we feel it the more it feeds us, which can  then lead to feeling more gratitude. Gratitude begins with receptivity. It is the quality of the heroine in the tantric traditions of the Goddess. The heroine is the part of us- woman or man- who is willing to receive life, to take her experiences to heart, to know him/herself. Receptivity is not passive but active and it is a choice.

I know many people who have suffered great losses in the last few years, and holidays amplify this pain. Softening and feeling what needs to be felt is nothing less than heroic. For others, this is their favorite holiday and a time of joyful family connection, a time to savor delicious food and simply relax from the busy pace of life.
 What are you grateful for in your life? If you take some time to pause, to soften, and just feel, what is there?  At first, don’t just dig around for the “good” stuff,  but listen to what is speaking most loudly to you right now. What else is there? Softening and making space for all that is real for you is a profound practice. It is the real yoga because it is about connecting to yourself, and that connection takes courage. Yet from that authentic connection springs the possibility to heal what needs healing, to release what isn’t serving you, to soften your heart and feel kindness towards yourself. And out of this, all the places in your life that are bright and good, that are beautiful and sweet will show themselves too. And the more you keep making space for all of it, the more gratitude for all those good things will shine. And grow.

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