Thursday, January 26, 2012

Focus Right Where You Are

Focus on your breathing. Not changing anything. Where do you feel it most? Don't get lost trying to quantify more and most, or choosing here or there. Try to simplify and feel wherever you are feeling the sensations of your inhale and exhale just now.

Stick with that for a few breaths.

Notice where you are finding the breath to feel more vivid in your body, and if you've already wandered, come back to the inhale and focus on where you sense breath more fully in your body. Just for now, just right there. Allow your mind to quiet down a little bit.

Begin to find the three-dimensional quality in your breath, just as it is, just where you feel it most now.

Notice how it describes your internal spaces from front to back of you. Spend several breaths on this.
Notice how it finds a way to describe the top and bottom lengths of you. Spend several breaths on this too.

Just come back to where you feel it most. Perhaps that has changed. Don't think your way into this, just notice that you are thinking about where you feel the breath, and come right back to feeling the breath.

Continue to allow your attention to notice the way your breath describes you. I know you cannot notice everything, but imagine that you could! Follow your curiosity into your hip joints, along the back of your rib cage, into the subtle tilting of your pelvis with every breath. Is your inhale grainy or smooth, is the exhale noisy or soft? Are there qualities in this breath, now? coolness or heat, jaggedness or elasticity? Don't worry about using words to describe qualities. Notice what you can and come back to noticing without getting lost in cataloging. If you do get lost in words and trying to find language, just come back to focus your attention on the breath. No big deal. One great aspect of this is that there is another breath right after this one, so nothing is lost. Just come back to your focus.

Seek out any dull areas in your body, where you don't seem to feel any connection to your breath. Pay attention to that space for a few breaths, allowing your awareness of the breath sensations elsewhere to soften, like a gaze that is unfocused.

Restart if you got lost, and notice where you feel the breath now. Perhaps you can move around a little, do a few yoga postures (asana), or walk around a bit for a few breaths. See if the focus of your attention can keep coming back to find where you feel your breath and where you don't so much. After a little moving about, return to a position you can hold for a few minutes, sitting comfortably, or perhaps laying your body flat on the floor. Bring your attention back to where you feel the breath in your body, continuing to explore its three-dimensional qualities, seeking out any areas that feel dull or unmoving.

Even a few minutes of this every day helps support you in physical, emotional, and psychological ways! There is no "goal" or "end" to this; just set aside a little time to get interested first in what you notice, and then in how that changes.

This is one way of meditating. It offers a way to begin cultivating awareness, increase your ability to focus attention even with all the distractions in the mind, and to strengthen the connections between your mind and your body. This definitely helps me to be right where I am, wherever that is.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Warrior Walking

This morning after teaching, I experienced a remarkable synthesis of yoga and the moment in daily life. Walking home there was a saturated feeling of soft support of my bones through my contact with the earth, spaciousness in the joints of my hips and shoulders as I moved, a wide open quality in my view of the urban scene around me. There was joyousness balanced with stillness in my thoughts. I recognized this sensation as that of Virabhadrasana, the warrior, in my yoga practice. I was startled to find myself a walking warrior on the streets of Brooklyn!

What really awakens in the warrior poses? Can the gaze be soft and inclusive? Does the support felt in the foundation of the earth allow a subtle rising energy that is alert and poised? Where does the breath expand, what is releasing? Where does the mind grasp, find clarity? Can there be spaciousness in the joints and a balance of effort and ease that prepares you for whatever is around you? All of this can be going on at the same time in all of the three traditional standing warrior poses, Virabhadrasana I, II, and III.

The subtleties are in the cultivating of your awareness to enable you to take in the muscular work, the alignment of the structural elements, the softening of the edges and the gaze, the placement of the breath as a buoyant support for staying in the present moment. This allow you to stay present, not blanking out or fading away. Often in classes students are led through a vinyasa that takes them through one warrior into and out of another. In that experience there can be a collaboration of stillness and movement if the student can let go of gripping, yet hold steady to alignment and ease throughout the muscular and joint shifts. This is really not a simple endeavor, and often I see students physically muscling their way from here to there and back again. Of course a yoga practice often begins right there, at the junction of the physical and the alert awareness that effort can spark.

Experiment with remaining in the asana, exploring your own experiences in the moment, and see if you can struggle less, effort less, and notice more. Take out an element, perhaps the uplifted arms, and discover what is happening with your bones and breath. Acknowledge the emotions and the patterns that effort and resistance might bring up. See if you can soften more by attending to the quality of your breath. Then, perhaps add the arms back into your pose. Can you express the open gaze and steady heart of the warrior through the soft expansion of your collarbones from the soft center at the base of your throat all the way out to your fingertips?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

No Goal + Open Outcome = Experience

I set myself tasks, getting groceries, showing up for practice or for teaching. It is easy to put objects on the calendar and begin investing in how all that comes to pass, whether it does, and with what efficiency. The checking off of the list becomes another layer of goal. It is strange that I can so easily rely upon all of this to define myself. I can identify with having the capacity or not to do these things. But using this to define myself is as though assigning myself a meditation practice and putting my body on the cushion is the same as meditating. Looking at that straight on, it is so clearly not so. The setting of a goal may well influence the formation of an intention, but is not the act itself of doing and being.

The action of being present is not the same as aligning the spine. Aligning the spine can help with many layers of awareness, to be sure, and that’s where some confusion might enter the picture about yoga and the practice of yoga. A recent article in the NY Times about yoga and injury brought up questions among students and teachers these past few weeks. The article clearly describes the negative physiological effects in specific cases of repetitive overdoing or predisposition to injury in asana practice. It can happen even in meditation if a person insists on sitting motionless for many hours a day, disregarding physical best practices. These are distortions of what the practices demand, in my opinion, since yoga and meditation actually do make demands but more squarely in the areas of commitment, cultivating attention, and willingness to see patterns of behavior and reactivity and bring intelligent awareness to these patterns.

I have no intention of mimicking the life and practice of spiritual renunciates from previous centuries or even current times. Neither is yoga a weight loss program or a new age form of aerobic workout. Teachers who teach this way are grossly misrepresenting the depth and range of the practices in order to serve a client base who want this from them. So everyone takes some risks along with that approach.

Any body can benefit from connecting to their physical body, and from initiating a conscious practice of cultivating awareness, deepen the understanding of the interactions of breath and energy and apply some yogic principles and philosophy to their way of being and doing. Students of yoga can be young or old, able bodied or disabled. There is no requirement to achieve specific asana or lengths of meditative sessions. Asana practice certainly can develop strength, flexibility and stamina, body awareness and cultivation of energy use without participating in a sport. Meditation practice does enable the loosening of constraints of habitual ego patterns developed over years of responding and reacting, and gives insight into seeing conditions that continuously change with more clarity.

Perhaps seeing one’s own drive and emotional baggage when doing yoga is one of the first and greatest benefits of the practice. Learning to step back from the pressure we put on ourselves can help us see that there can be a less encumbered flow of energy for us to use. This is truly a saving grace. Good teachers are on this path, and can help students discover their own feet there too.