Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Does Yoga Change Us?

I think of someone telling me to pay attention. This normally would come from outside me and is a request to attend to something outside me. In yoga, this is not so, but a simple question - "Can you be attentive?" - with encouragement to just try it, just be attentive. This is so different from "pay attention." We start wherever we are, with whatever our past history or opinions might be about anything or everything. Our yoga teacher simply asks us to begin to draw our attention towards something directly, and in this process, begin to explore how to direct your mind, what the myriad reactions are to that activity, and just notice how incredibly hard it is to keep your attention on anything for more than a few seconds, really. This is amazing, and reveals so much about the way we function in a most basic sense.

Yoga is not a series of lectures or principles. It is an ongoing direct experience that is unpredictable, open ended, and, in a way totally constructivist to use jargon from the educational world. We build our own knowledge base, one breath, one realization, one move at a time. Each of us takes our own time, our own path.

Just sitting is new and reveals stories about us. How many times did I sit down in a class, in a meeting, at a meal, on a couch and not give a single fleeting thought to the act of sitting? Yet the first yoga class I taught, I was asking people in the room to bring themselves to a seat and observe the act itself of finding themselves sitting. I asked them to explore this totally common position, noticing whatever they might notice. To loosen and tighten their lens and see if they could focus, and if so, on what? the hip joint? the knee? the inhale? the way the rib cage spreads with breathing?

Our attention brings with it all the layers that we have learned about our human experiences until we learn to see them as such and let them go. So just sitting brings up our feelings about ourselves and the people next to us, about our bodies, about our wounds and our goals, about being in the room at all, about our stiff neck and our thoughts. Alertness at this level is new and can be tiring, but it is also energizing and raises our curiosity at the same time. The stunning thing we realize is that we cannot stay alert for long.

"Let your attention follow your breath. If it wanders,just notice that and bring it back to your breath." Wander is hardly the word. When we begin practice we can hardly notice that our attention has shifted. Even noticing that is new and strange. To remain so focused, to be entirely engaged in this very moment is extraordinary for most of us until we encounter yoga practice.

The authenticity of the experience has a ripple effect that is both subtle and enormously obvious. What we feel in our bodies after a yoga class is easiest to remember in a way, since our muscles and joints remind us of that fluidity, that flexing, that strength building practice. Maybe even the new shapes and uses of feet and hands will remain in the way we move. Remembering the intensity and open space of the mind in practice is another matter. Perhaps it comes back as we remember to draw our attention to our breath as we wait for our morning oatmeal to be ready, just noticing that we are standing there breathing. Maybe we feel ourselves making the choice as we take a big exhale after one phone call, before inhaling and looking up the next number as we work. Yet it is this reality of existence that transforms us off the mat. The way we can see beyond the wandering mind, bringing our focus into our awareness, learning how to direct this attention as we simultaneously learn to release unnecessary effort. It becomes clear that we must release in order to focus, and as our actions become less and less effortful, we find ourselves changed in relation to much of the story we have previously told ourselves about ourselves and everything else.

Compared to all the times I have mindlessly just sat, this new awareness is totally transformational. I am in my body, I am directing my mind, my awareness is active and alert. I am directly experiencing the moment I am living. Even as my mind searches for words and my fingers type, I feel the energy from my core, the earth and air supporting me, the movement in my cells, the endless possibilities. I am not judging myself or anyone else. I am clear of the inner obstacles that might hunch my shoulders, strain my back, overuse my wrists. My thoughts are available to me, and I am free to choose my words with care that I not load them with unwanted meanings and assumptions. This freedom lives in my body as a way of being, reinvented every time I remember my breath. My yoga practice continues to wake me up, even after 8 years, to be authentically experiencing this moment.

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