Passover Ponderings

We are now two days into the Jewish Passover holiday, a celebration of the Isrealite exodus from slavery in Egypt and a reminder of

By Adaptation by Marsyas (Gill/Gillerman slides collection (Yale)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Adaptation by Marsyas (Gill/Gillerman slides collection (Yale)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

the fact that no matter how difficult or dark things may seem, there is always a chance of improvement. Everything changes, both good circumstances and bad ones. Nothing stays the same, ever.

The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means a tight or narrow constricting place. We can all relate to feeling stuck, with no idea how to move or get out. In our asana practice we sometimes do noose pose or pashasana, a posture in which we physically experience the discomfort of being bound. Our arms are literally twisted behind are backs, our breathing is restricted, and our body parts are not in their usual places in relation to one another. As with each and every yoga posture, the physical sensations we experience can move us towards awareness. What do these sensations bring up for us and what insight can those feelings provide?

In pashasana it is we who bind ourselves and we who release ourselves, which can teach us a lot about restrictions that we impose on ourselves and the tools we have within to move towards freedom. But sometimes, the tight spaces in which we find ourselves are not self-imposed. As with the story of the Isrealites sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances that typify the feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. What then?

Then, we rely on faith. Faith that though we cannot see a way out, there is one. Passover reminds us of the redemptive nature of time.  We can all move from slavery to freedom, through work, through grace, and through time.

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When Practicing Yoga Means Not “Doing” Yoga

Several years ago, as a very earnest and eager new yogini, I injured my right knee during a rather vigorous yoga class. Quite frankly, it3655834007_dbd6a5f804 was a class I shouldn’t even have been in, given my lack of experience in asana practice and my inability to do a lot of the postures with proper form. Unfortunately, people being in yoga classes beyond their ability and teachers keeping them safe in these classes is a real problem in the yoga community. (Which is why articles like this show up in the New York Times)

Long story short, after the injury I insisted on continuing a physical yoga practice until I literally could not go up or down stairs and could only walk with excruciating pain. Finally, I surrendered. I listened to my body, I rested my knee, which meant absolutely NO ASANA from the waist down, and slowly but surely my knee healed. It took months. Many long months.

The first of those long months I pouted. But after a few months of pouting, I got back to a real yoga practice. No asana, but Yoga just the same. Within a few weeks of a daily non-physical yoga practice, I stopped pouting. I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped resenting my body and its imperfections and I started feeling compassion towards myself and especially my poor knee that had been so abused by me, its owner. And, most importantly, I felt a profound empathy for people with limited mobility and those living with chronic pain.

It was this experience with my knee injury that fueled my passion for making yoga accessible for persons of all abilities. Not only because I think that every single person can do asana to some extent, but because I know that every single person can practice Yoga whether they have an asana practice or not. Asana is just a small part of Yoga on the whole (not that you’d know it to observe how it is practiced in the West).

Throughout the years I’ve had many students approach me with questions about how they can modify their asana practice because of an injury and many times the answer is: stop. Stop doing asana for a while. Your body must rest. I can count on one hand the number of students who have accepted this answer immediately. The usual response is: “Oh no, I can’t do that”.

I do not judge this response because I know it well. I understand the reaction. And it may be that these students need to do what I did – essentially ignore their bodies to the point of debilitating pain – before they can surrender and listen to their bodies. But until we learn to do just that – surrender and listen – we are not actually practicing Yoga. We’re just exercising.

Yoga means acceptance of what is, compassion towards ourselves and others, and holding space for ourselves to heal and be whole. We cannot be healed or whole when we are hurting our bodies through an insistence on a physical practice. When we are so attached to our physical practice that we do it even when our bodies are telling us otherwise, we have allowed our practice to become yet another “thing” that keeps us from having a clear and calm mind.

A few days ago I felt a sudden and familiar twinge in my right knee. My first reaction was, “No! Not this again!”, followed by “it’s probably not that bad”. It took a few days of this (and lots more pain) for me to once again accept that what my body needs more than anything right now is rest. After many years as both a teacher and a student of Yoga, this is still very hard for me to do.

Sometimes, practicing Yoga means not “doing” Yoga, but practicing all of the things that our asana practice is supposed to teach us and reinforce about letting go, surrender, and acceptance. It means that sometimes we stop doing and we start being.

Softening

Very little grows on jagged rock. Be ground. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are. ~Rumi

I have, at various times in my life, been described as rigid, confrontational, hardened, and jaded and all with good reason. I have been all of those things. I’m learning to be different, though, and I think I’m making progress.

Our society sends a confusing message to both men and women about what it means to be tough and how toughness is both rated and valued. There’s no doubt about the overarching message which is that toughness equals strength and softness equals weakness. I find this very interesting because being soft is much more of a challenge.

Diamond and graphite are both made solely from carbon. Graphite is soft and diamond is the hardest substance known to man. The difference lies in the way the carbon atoms bond to each other in each substance. In graphite, there are strong connections between the atoms, but there is wiggle room between the layers. In diamonds, the atoms are evenly spaced creating a rigidity that does not allow the atoms to move, thus making them very hard.

Rigidity can be very comfortable. When we’re rigid, we don’t need to think too much. We have a prescribed set of rules to follow and we follow them. When we allow for movement, for flow, we have to deal with whatever that entails, usually change, uncertainty and the feelings that arise from both.

In asana practice, one can really only strengthen and lengthen the body after they’ve learned to soften. As any seasoned yogi will tell you, one does not get into the most challenging postures through force. Surrender is key.

I used to think that to soften I had to be fundamentally different in some way. I now know that it’s not about changing who I am or about needing some quality that I don’t already possess. As with carbon, it is merely a matter of how I connect the atoms of my being. I can seek out symmetry and perfection in my connections, or I can seek strength and flexibility.

I’m choosing to be soft (or at least to try) and to see what grows.