Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yoga & Weathering the Storms of Suffering

A friend of mine has lost her husband to a short and intense battle with cancer. We understand the salient features of a story like this, that there is sorrow and readjustment, grief and even anger perhaps, but also relief at the end of the suffering, and loneliness. So many times it is suffering that brings people to the practice of yoga and the spiritual practices of meditation. It took me a while to understand that, just as with joy, this suffering is part of what binds humans together, holds us on earth in a way, and reflects the deepest resources of my compassionate heart. No matter what a person may look like, or what experiences they have had, they exist in the moment itself with choices as to what they grip, what they release, and how they continue to inhale and exhale.

When I began practicing, I read many different kinds of books to get a grip on the insights and meanings in the bits and pieces of philosophy and Sanskrit, as well as the physical experiences, that I encountered. My shelves and surfaces are still accumulating resource materials about Zen, Buddhism, Patanjali's Sutras and other ancient texts, and the practical perspectives of an ever longer string of American yogis, like Donna Farhi, Stephen Cope and Sarah Powers, as well as the revered elders in the field, like Iyengar, Krishnamurti and such.

I reinforce my compassion-based yoga practice with poetry, with music, with long walks, with writing. When I heard the news that my friend had released his breath after the long travail of illness and treatments, I felt joy that he was free, and sorrow for his family and for the new absence of his smiling, earnest, intelligence on earth. Yet I do not feel him to be gone. It is as though his human suffering has ended and he has found a way to transform into the deep true energy that always lived in him.

It seems that we can worry ourselves sick over what might happen, but the practice of yoga helps me understand deeply that we will all make this transformation out of the familiar flesh and bones into the energy and bliss body. In practice, I encourage this understanding by centering in the breath itself, that air moved by energy, that which literally sustains my life itself. As I told my students just yesterday, you can live a lot longer without water than you can without air. In fact, you cannot live without air at all. So connecting to the breath is a connection to life, and even in the fiercest storms I can lean into my breath and allow it to support me.

The emotions do not disappear, the sorrows do not evaporate, the pain is real. We can let our attachment to our reactive nature go a little and ease the suffering. Perhaps it helps to imagine that the breath is like the deepest ocean water, waves on the surface change with wind and temperature, which makes it quite choppy and difficult to keep an even keel. Yet the powerful support beneath that surface remains unperturbed, moving in every cell, and containing the most profound stillness. Perhaps the practice is to soften, to let go of resistance. Like a twig riding the surface, I can rise and fall, even occasionally dip below the surface, but I will bob up once more and float as the surface calms. Using the breath, I can feel the feelings, that surface texture, and feel wholeness in the simplicity of the inhale and exhale.

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