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402 days. 402 (plus or minus… mostly minus) posts.

Tag: yoga

Day 701: Time to Be Gentle

It’s fall – a gorgeous fall – and it’s a sad, sweet season. Things are slowing down, dying, preparing to fold into themselves and hunker down for winter. People (like me) are mirroring nature – we’re going to bed earlier and sleeping later. Waiting until the last possible moment to slip sideways out of bed, hoping the sun has gotten up, too.

In Ayurveda, a system of traditional Hindu medicine – often cited as the sister science to the philosophy of yoga – the dry, windy, cool and somewhat erratic nature of fall is easily reflected and amplified in the body. And if we’re not paying attention, we can get knocked off balance by this subtle season.

Taking a step sideways, the Ayurvedic view is that all systems of nature are bound and balanced by three primal energies, or doshas – vata, pitta and kapha.

Vata contains ether and air, pita is fire, and kapha is dominated by earth and water. Everyone has a mixture of these energies, or biological types. Vata types are typically thin and airy, with cold hands and feet. They can be creative and carefree, but also restless and emotional. Pita types are energetic and muscular, with an aversion to heat and a propensity for high intelligence, competition and aggression. Kapha types are typically heavier and stable. They tend to be serene and thoughtful, and may not seek excitement or activity.

(I’m summarizing fairly complex concepts, but if you’re interested in finding out what dosha may be most prominent in you, here is one of many online dosha quizes.)

Fall is the vata season. Dry leaves become dry skin, short days become short spans of energy, windy days become upset stomachs, etc. Instead of swinging too far into the vata energy of fall and becoming increasingly anxious and scattered (especially if your constitution is already primarily vata), you can cultivate the opposite energy to create stability and balance.

So if you’re like me, and are feeling a little too swept up the season, here are some tips:

  • Drink warm beverages with lemon and fresh ginger.
  • Use warming herbs when cooking, like ginger, cardamom, basil, cinnamon, rosemary, nutmeg, vanilla and oregano.
  • Wear soft and warm clothing, and cover your ears when the wind is cool.
  • Exercise consistently, at a slow and steady pace, as opposed to in quick bursts.
  • Spend time in silence, and breathe deeply while you’re there.
  • Eat oily, nourishing foods – like cooked vegetables, grains, soups and stews.
  • Avoid cold foods and iced drinks.
  • Wear reds, yellows, oranges and whites.
  • Regulate your cycles – go to bed and wake up at consistent times.
  • Focus on grounding down and rooting, particularly with yoga.
  • Be gentle to yourself and with others.
  • Quietly pay attention. Notice things. It’s hard to come down when you’re already too far up in the air.

October

Fall leaves, from my walk to work yesterday.

Day 435: About Empathy

Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s harm in being too empathetic.

The straightforward answer here is probably yes. My admittedly shallow understanding of personality disorders is that while some people experience a debilitating lack of empathy, others can have such emotional hypersensitivity that they’re overwhelmed to the point of inaction.

So – as a defining characteristic of disorders (or things we consider socially unacceptable), excessive absence or presence of empathy seems real, and harmful.

But even if we (the cultural we… you know, “We”) think about empathy within a normal or accepted range, we still run into trouble with it. In general, we consider empathy an altruistic and necessary attribute – its definition is intimately tied to kindness, compassion, patience and a host of other virtuous qualities. But when we overuse it, do we cause more damage than good?

Recently, a writer for xojane.com wrote a story about her experience in a yoga class, and it revolved wholly around her effort to embody another person’s experience. While I believe her article was written from a place of compassion, it comes across as presumptuous and pretentious. As a slim white woman, the writer imagines that the experience of a new “heavyset” black student is negative and alienating – and she becomes obsessively upset with the thought.

The Internet reaction to this article was fairly negative and critical – in some cases, productively so, but in others, just plain mean. (I’m purposefully not linking to it, because the initial content and resulting discussion is easily found elsewhere. The point of this post is not to stir that pot, although I think it’s a terribly interesting stew.)

My own reaction to the story was twofold. For one thing, yoga is a personal experience. It’s designed to help individual people quiet their own minds and bodies, which means not paying attention to another person’s private journey. True yoga practice doesn’t happen when you’re wrapped up imagining someone else’s experience.

Secondly, the article reads as empathetic to a fault. In trying so hard to put herself in another woman’s shoes – and then publicly posting about it – the writer made her own point of view more important than the other woman’s actual perspective. Somehow, empathy turned into self-involvement.

It’s a conundrum.

To offer one more example, I had a conversation with a friend the other day about gay marriage rights. From our shared everyone-should-be-able-to-get-married point of view, we determined that those on the other side of the issue suffer from an inability to remove empathy from the equation. It seems reasonable to assume that a straight conservative male may not be able to empathize with a gay male. Thinking about two men having sex is probably more than uncomfortable (See how I just tried to appropriately empathize there? Can o’ worms, baby.).

So the question then becomes, if we can’t empathize with another person’s actions, does it mean what they’re doing is wrong?

I obviously don’t think so, which means that maybe we’re placing too much emphasis – and moral value – on empathy. We should be capable of being compassionate and fair without being empathetic.

To close the longest blog post I think I’ve ever written, this topic confuses me in a really delightful way. If you’re also stimulated and muddled by our emotional capacity to understand other people, I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts. Please feel free to share.

Day 103: Vocal Repetition

There’s just something about vocal repetition—saying something over and over again until the meaning changes form; until the words morph into something else and unfamiliar, and then become physicalized.

Remember Good Will Hunting? When Sean (Robin Williams) tells Will (Matt Damon) that his past isn’t his fault? Sean pointedly repeats, “It’s not your fault,” over and over until Will breaks down into tears and grasps Sean in a tight hug.

The actual language is more powerful than the sound in this case, but it’s still a good example of a physical reaction.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you should probably Netflix Good Will Hunting. Or watch the “It’s not your fault” clip.

good-will-hunting-its-not-your-fault

In my yoga class this evening, we repetitively OM-ed. We chanted ahhhhh-ooooooooh-mmmmm, over and over and over.

I spent the first few rounds wincing and feeling sorry for the pour souls who couldn’t hear themselves OM-ing so wretchedly off-key. Then, I wondered if I was the poor soul so wretchedly off-key, because it was kind of hard to tell. And then five or six OMs in, our class perfectly hit the pitch of the opening theme song to Battlestar Galactica (it was seriously dead-on) and I got the OM-ing giggles.

For the next few OMs, I tried to settle down and get serious. My “ahhhh”s sounded suspiciously like “ahh-hah-hah”s, and I  really wanted to invest in the experience instead of picturing Caprica City and sleek cylon fighters.

Eventually—and I’m not sure exactly when—all my wincing, giggling and cylon fighter-picturing faded away. I became enveloped in the sound of OM and experienced it in my body instead of in my head. I felt the sound vibrate around my skin, inside my skull, in my chest and my throat, and through my pressed-together hands. For lack of a more articulate way to say it, it was really cool.

When our instructor gently interrupted us, I had no clear concept of how long we’d been OM-ing and had to climb my way back to the surface to open my eyes and begin moving.

Although we don’t often think about it (let alone remember to experience it), sound is physical. In order to make noise, the tiniest vibrations of our vocal chords reverberate inside and outside of us. Weeding through the discomfort to actually experience the sounds we make is a very worthwhile endeavor. I’m sure Sean and Will would agree.

Day 74: Beginning

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class with me, I’ve probably shared this quote with you. More than once.

It’s so simple and straightforward, yet so hard to implement sometimes. It’s one of my favorites.

“We begin where we are and how we are, and whatever happens, happens.”
– T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga

It’s an open invitation to all of us to approach every single moment of our lives from our present states, without judgment. We move from wherever we start (and we get to choose if the direction of our movement is positive or negative). We don’t have to wake up each day focused on yesterday or anxious about tomorrow, because we can only begin from where we are and how we are in the current moment.

We are always beginning.

Day 67: What’s so great about quiet?

My yoga teacher recently told our class about a conversation she had while learning to teach yoga years ago. One of the other students in teacher training asked her if she had any trouble quieting her mind while meditating. She responded that she had no trouble at all and that her mind was perfectly quiet as soon as she sat down.

In retelling the story, she laughed and said that at the time, she had no idea what she was talking about. What felt like a quiet mind was actually another form of absence; she ignored her racing thoughts and focused on something else instead (like being quiet). When she finally recognized all the thoughts and worries zig-zagging behind her eyelids, the noise was almost too loud for her to be able to sit still and feign attention.

Meditation is hard. And frustrating.

So why do we try? What’s so great about quiet?

A couple of years ago, a research study was done using “magic mushrooms” as therapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder. The mushrooms succeeded in helping the patients feel reconnected to the beauty and sacredness of life. Their altered mindsets lasted long after the mushrooms’ effects had worn off. At the end of the article, the researcher pointed out that the great meditators of the world report the same experiences during meditation: connectedness, peace, reverence, calm.

I might inadvertently be making an argument for taking mushrooms, but what I’m trying to get at is that if we can succeed in being focused, quiet, patient and present, even for a second, we can be content. And if we’re able to be content using our own body and breath, the world is completely open to us. Stress becomes manageable, arguments fade and our relationships improve.

There are no adverse effects to meditation. None. For that reason alone, it seems worth the effort.