yoga practice

Being a "Good" Yogi

IMG_1336.jpg

How do you measure the efficacy of your yoga practice? The answer to this question is often only thought of in terms of flexibility and strength but that is not a measure of a yoga practice, it is only a measure of an asana practice. Asana is only one branch of yoga and if that is all you are doing, I hate to break it to you, but you are not doing yoga, you’re just exercising.

 

The modern yoga industry sells this version of yoga idea to make it more “palatable” for the masses, more salable, more commercialized and easier to reap a profit. This is a gross appropriation of an ancient practice for the commercial industrialized world. A “palatable” yoga practice is as far from yoga as yoga can get.

 

Yoga is a spiritual practice. Spirituality like yoga is also marketed to the masses in a “palatable” way, as a thing that makes “life all good”. But calling life all good is just spiritual bypass. Life isn’t always all good. Sure, from the spiritual perspective it’s all divine, but that’s not all good. Sometimes the divine shows up in shitty ass ways. Take the 400 years of white supremacy that makes up the backbone of the democracy we call America; it’s shitty and it’s an invitation to doing great soul-searching work; it’s the divine showing up say look here and do the work here. Spirituality is not about transcendence of the world but deeper involvement in it. Spirituality is the act of recognizing our ego is not in control, something bigger is dealing the cards, and our response to the hand we get dealt is where the work gets done; that is where the human evolves, that is where a better world is created – internal and external. That means acceptance, accountability, commitment, awareness, forgiveness, compassion, and most of all love.

 

That awesome pose you can do doesn’t mean shit in the face of life – ugly, real, honest life; that picture of you in some awesome pose just means you can do some awesome pose. If you use the journey into and out of the pose as a reminder of how to face and dance with life off your mat, it means more. If you can use the pose to remember that life isn’t comfortable and the way you choose to perceive the experience you are having in your mind, a choice that may or may not disturb the resonance of peace and love in your heart, then it means more; to explore the boundaries of your fear and your relationship to courage while there, and to continue - not despite the adversity but in the face of it - then it means more; to explore the nature of your willingness to reckon with self-accountability while rumbling with the self-aggrandized ignorance of your beliefs, it means more. If you’re only striking some awesome pose for that great Instagram shot and more followers, it doesn’t mean shit; and it certainly does not mean you’re some advanced yogi.

 

Sure, I can do some pretty big asana poses but my ability to do those poses is not my measure of the efficacy of my yoga practice. I measure the efficacy of my yoga practice in my capacity to sit in the company of myself when I’m feeling fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional without asking those things to change, but rather addressing myself there with more compassion, love, accountability, courage, and forgiveness. I measure the efficacy of my yoga practice in my ability to be compassionate towards others who are living human lives; ignorant, self-aggrandized, shut down, and afraid. I measure the efficacy of my yoga practice in my ability to be more like my hero’s, people who have stood or still stand with love and courage in the face of adversity for the sake of the greater good. People who lead and have led the way for the rest of us to follow. The list is long and the majority of them are people of color.

Having flexible joints and muscles doesn’t mean you have a flexible mind; doesn’t mean you can rid yourself of a destructive belief for one that is life enhancing. Having strong joints and muscles doesn’t mean you have strength of character nor the ability to be in the presence of difficult people or experiences without getting taken out by them. Strong and flexible joints and muscles are not measurements of a strong yoga practice, nor a strong spiritual practice, they are only poor imitations. If like me, you are a white yogi and you want to be a “good” yogi in the world today it is time to educate yourself on white supremacy; have difficult conversations about your complicity and privilege with yourself and others; stand for something bigger and more life enhancing than your desire to nail that press handstand and do it in public. Let your conviction and commitment to a cause greater than yourself be a measurement of your yoga practice no matter how many followers or students you gain or lose; no matter how big your poses get; no matter how much anger and grief you have to sit through; let your flexibility of mind, strength of character, and spaciousness of spirit speak for you.

With Love, Allways, In All Ways, For Giving, In Joy,

Genevieve

Life Is Spiritual Practice

IMG_9464.jpg

Lao Tzu said, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Sound advice for any age. And to live this advice, is to live the life of a Sage.

I am living the life of a human striving to live the life advised by the Sage. It isn’t so easy for me to let things flow. Instead I make plans. All too often I make plans for my day ahead just to be thwarted by the unexpected. No matter how precisely I control my life, things happen. Mail isn’t delivered. Traffic makes me late. The line at the bank takes three times longer than I’d expected it would. My dog is sick and must go to the vet. I receive a call that someone close to me has died. The list goes on. Life happens and pushes my plans off the tracks. I think most of us experience life like this. Most of us make plans because making plans helps us to navigate the unknown. Making plans is easier than letting things flow. That’s because by nature, humans believe that if we let things flow we are even more likely to be thrown off the tracks, or even worse, killed.

Darwin capitalized on this fact, that which is fittest – survives. Through our evolution humans have adapted to be on the alert for dangerous surprises that could kill us. Human brains are prone to be cautious and ready for a bad situation, skeptical of new potentially dangerous situations, and attached to the beliefs of what has proven to keep them alive, in order to not get killed. The history of human civilization tells this story on repeat.

And yet we continue to make plans. It’s not that making plans is bad its more that making plans sets us up for disappointment when life has other plans for us. No matter how well any of us knows this we continue to make plans to mediate an implicit and often explicit fear of the unknown and react to life when our plans go awry. We make plans because the mind is fast, capable, and ultimately fallible. Most choices are made in an instant, without second thought or rationalization. Reaction follows when our idea of reality is confronted. Some react to life as victims of a merciless God’s meaningless whims. Others as dominators constantly striving to force their will upon the world. Reacting is the norm and responding a much uncharted territory. Reacting is a symptom of a weak mind.

IMG_0933.jpg

I think it is fair to say that we all do our best to not spend our lives in weak minded reactions, yet fear and reacting is the norm. With so many of us walking through life with long to-do lists and little time for anything else, it is no wonder the human population struggles with excess stress and anxiety overall. None of us help an already difficult situation by living busy lifestyles packed with stress and overwhelm, but we all do it. We have evolved to direct our lives in a way which keeps us alive but not in a way that mitigates our fear and reduces our stress.

This is why I continue to turn to my yoga mat. This is why I daily invite others to join me. Not because I want all the people I know to touch their forehead to the sole of their foot while balancing on their hands, but because yoga heals the reactionary mind and the serves its seeking curiosity. Yoga helps us get into the flow by teaching us how to quiet the fluctuations of the mind stuff. Responding, not reacting, is a result of awareness and mindfulness practice and is an example of a strong mind. Yoga trains the mind to be strong.

Weak mind reacts to life happening with fear. Fear of the unknown and the weak mind’s penchant to write stories of why, how, should have, etc. in that fear, is one of the minds common states, Vikalpa. In yoga philosophy the five mental modifications  are named in Yoga Sutra 1:6.

Pramana Viparyaya Vikalpa Nidra Smrtayah

“The five mental modifications are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory.”

Writing theater dramas in the mind of situations from the past and how they should, or could have happened is an example of Vikalpa. Day dreaming, fantasizing about future events, or thinking that the elephant in the room does not exist are examples of Vikalpa. Vikalpa is delusional fantasizing and not life enhancing nor healthy for a human mind or spirit and must not be confused with the practice of Sankalpa - meditative visualization, which is life enhancing.  Vikalpa are thoughts and imaginings that are not connected to abiding awareness, rather they are fragmented and demanding to be knit into a valuable whole.

A weak mind learns to choose a response by first being challenged, then exercised, all while held to strict standards and nourished with kindness and love. To sincerely mitigate fear the weak mind must be confronted and its habitual reactive nature opposed. Without opposition toward the habits of the weak mind one cannot effectually move out of reaction and into response. Until a person learns they have a choice to respond to life rather than react they will experience life through the lens of their Vikalpas.

Vikalpas are trains of thought that can and do take our lives off the tracks, but they can also be worked with and resolved. One way to work with Vikalpas is to ask yourself while you are experiencing a Vikalpa, why you want to run away with the fantasy and story you are telling yourself? What is the motivation? What is the pay-off? Another practice is to engage in a dialogue with yourself in which you contemplate the usefulness of your fantasizing and storytelling. A third practice, which can begin the process of disengaging from the bound cycle of Vikalpa, is to ask yourself where the fantasies will lead to. These basic practices bring attention to the mindlessness and destructive nature of Vikalpa. They also bring attention to the weak minds anchors and provide insight into where the weak mind needs additional strengthening.

            Over time, and with effort the mind can be trained to look for the good before looking for that which will kill it. By turning your gaze at the dysfunctional behaviors of your mind you becomes attentive to them and they can no longer act out like criminals with no accountability. Following attention to the negative behaviors of the mind, the mind learns to choose a state of response when life happens, though it may have no choice of the circumstances of experience. This is the practice of the strong mind. A strong mind can experience stillness and peace amidst a torrential world swirling about it. A strong mind knows how to get into the flow of life and let reality be reality. A strong mind is at the heart of Spiritual practice.

Spiritual practice is not fulfilling the obligations of your dogma, it is opening to the flow and getting into life’s current. Spiritual practice is stillness. Spiritual practice is the trust that in yielding, you are receiving. Spiritual practice is a fearless faith that your prayers will always be answered. Spiritual practice is acceptance of all the gifts bestowed upon you in your short magical life, no matter how they present themselves. Spiritual practice is being happy you have what you have, all the time, no matter what it is. Spiritual practice is all abiding awareness of and reverence to the magnanimity and beneficence of the Divine. Life is spiritual practice. Peace is a strong mind’s reward.

IMG_0672.png

Peace comes through gentle persistence. A gentle and persistent practice of mental confrontation will teach the mind to be strong and respond with spaciousness. Like any muscle training the mind will, overtime, become more capable. Eventually revealing the mind of the sage, consciously surrendering to the current that it cannot control, from the heart, with unconditional love. For peace, surrender is the only practice and so the invitation is, to let life flow.

With Love, Always, In all ways, For Giving, In Joy,

Genevieve

Photos Courtesy: Sue Hunt, Sean Ratliff, and me.

 

 

Ignorance May Be Bliss, But Knowledge Is Power

One of my favorite stories, a story that I find very inspiring, is the story of Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi. Socrates served in the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. After the war, he devoted his life to the pursuit of truth. His reputation for being a man with a deep love of wisdom spread throughout Athens and beyond. He was told at some point along the way that the Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him the wisest man in Athens. Socrates, being in constant pursuit of the truth did not believe this to be true outright, and instead he decided to prove the Oralce wrong. Henceforth, Socrates set out on a quest to find anyone who knew what was truly worthwhile in life. For anyone who knew the answer to this riddle was truly wiser than he. Questioning everyone he could find, the quest proved a great challenge indeed. For all that he questioned pretended to know something they did not, and he felt he never got a pleasing or honest answer. Despite his effort to prove the Oracle wrong he decided that the oracle perhaps was right after all. He was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was willing to admit his ignorance and not claim to know something he did not.

Just as much as I enjoy the story of Socrates’ search for a man wiser than he, I am endeared to the note written above the door to the Oracle at Delphi. “Know thyself” and the lesser known second half of the sentence “and nothing in excess.”

Like the story of Socrates, the writing above the door to the Oracle invites one into the never-ending quest for self-empowering gift of knowledge. And what makes knowledge self-empowering?

With knowledge, we become able to make well informed decisions. Wisdom itself is the power of being discerning and making thoughtful decisions. And making a choice in the moment is the only power we ever really have. Therefore, having a broad base of understanding and perspective to choose from we enable ourselves to make the best possible choice for the circumstance, from our most authentic and present self.  This is power. Even more powerful is the ability to acknowledge that we do not know something. In such an acknowledgement, we accept our ignorance and our opportunity to learn. In learning we lift the veils of our ignorance and step more deeply into the power of self-knowledge. This is stepping from ignorance into awareness, this is the great gift of revelation.   

This is one of the many gifts of a yoga practice. Through yoga we are revealed to ourselves over, and over again. To ourselves it is revealed what we know and what we are learning, in our bodies, in our minds, in our breath, in our emotional responses and reactions to the animate world we are living in. The revelation takes place in the friction between our willingness to surrender and our desire to stay attached. Through yoga we get to continue to experience the revelation of that which is true for us at any given moment. And the ultimate truth, that what is true right now, may not be true later, as all things are always changing. Knowledge is power and it is the opposite of ignorance is bliss.

Knowing thyself and nothing in excess allows us to face our ignorance and rather than see it as an impediment, to see it as an invitation. This is beginners mind. This is true flexibility. This is the root of the ability to yoke or bring all facets of our being into balance finding a state of unification in all matters of being, self, and the world. Perhaps it was being in a war that led Socrates on a lifelong pursuit of the truth. Perhaps somewhere on the battlefield he realized it was only an illusion of separation that created a false premise of difference. Perhaps it was there that he realized rather than seeing enemies in that which we do not know, we have an opportunity to see that which we do not know and an invitation to learn something new.

And for the question as to what is truly worthwhile in life. We all get pursue the answer to this mystifying riddle and greatest of quests, with each breath, and each I don’t know.

With Love, Always, in All Ways, For Giving, In Joy,

Genevieve