Building Faith

I just read this post in the Well blog at NYTimes.com about a recent study which seems to 2315799128_34796ccc7d_zhave found a correlation between a person’s faith in something bigger than themselves and the effectiveness of therapy. Those who professed a belief in God or Spirit seemed to respond better to treatment and have more positive outcomes. One possible explanation is that faith, once attained, extends beyond the spiritual and into other aspects of our lives.

Faith is basically saying “I’m not sure how or why, but I believe…”. Some might call it wishful thinking. Some might, less generously, call it sticking your head in the sand. And some might see faith as an ability to reflect on past experiences and, using the knowledge and wisdom gained from these experiences, feel confident moving forward.

The findings of the study quoted in the NYTimes were not at all surprising to me. As someone who has spent many years in therapy I see a direct correlation between a person’s ability to let go of the need to know/control/understand everything and the ability to build and maintain healthy boundaries and relationships.

For me, letting go is the very definition of faith. Admitting that we can’t control anything beyond our own actions and that we will always live in a sea of unknowns and that much of it will not be clear to us until after the fact, if ever, is both freeing and terrifying. The terror is managed by the faith.

The conversation in my head goes something like this:

“Things I’ve never wanted to experience have happened. They have been difficult and devastating. But I’m still here, I’m still breathing, I’m still learning and growing and changing. Despite the fact that I have no control over anything that happens outside of me, I’m still okay. I have no reason to think that this will stop being true anytime soon because as far as I can tell, it’s always been true.”

Faith, like everything else that is healthy and good for us, requires effort. To build muscles, we must exercise them continuously. To create good habits, we must do the same things over and over again. To have solid faith, we have to practice letting go. The more we let go, even when it feels impossible, the easier it will become.

I think about this in my asana practice, especially when I’m in a posture that is particularly challenging for me. Agnistambhasana (fire log pose) comes to mind. Nearly without exception, each time I enter into that posture, my mind goes crazy. “This hurts! I hate this! Can I get out now?”. But my years of practice have taught me two things: 1. I’ve never left an asana practice feeling worse than when I went in, and 2. Every pose feels better/works better when I find proper alignment and then release tension. Letting go while in my deepest expression of the pose allows me to experience it and its benefits more fully, even though initially it feels impossible to do.

For asana to be satisfying and beneficial to the body, we must strive for the balance between effort and ease. Trying and letting go.  Life is no different. We are in the Yoga state when we are both doing our best and letting go. This is faith. Do what you know to be good and healthy and right, and let go of the outcomes, trusting that everything will be ok. This is true whether we can name where our faith comes from or not. Is it in God? In Spirit? In Humanity? In the Higher Self? Faith allows you to not even have to answer that question. Knowing the source of your faith will not make it stronger. Only using it will.

Namaste, yogis.

What’s it all about, Yogi?

My recent time at the Evolution Asia Yoga Conference was, as I have mentioned, wonderful. In addition to spending several straight hours with Dharma Mittra, I also took a two-hour backbending class from Jason Crandell. One of the reasons I chose this particular class was because I’m not a huge fan of backbends. I know some people love them, and I do love them, but only when they’re over. To me, nothing feels quite as great as coming out of a backbend.

Interestingly, Jason began the class by asking who loved and who did not love backbends. I was in the majority, as it turned out. The practice was great, and I was able to enjoy some backbends thanks to Jason’s excellent instruction and suggestions. Indeed, Jason is known for his deep knowledge of anatomy. It is very obvious when you take a class from Jason – he knows how the body works.

The thing that has stuck with me the most from his class, though, was not about backbends at all, but rather about Yoga in general. He said Yoga has almost nothing to do with range of motion or flexibility. We like to make it about those things because they are easily quantifiable. Flexibility is valuable but it does not determine quality. Yoga is really about equanimity – of body, mind, and spirit.

As Jason was saying this I was trying very hard not to come out of the pose I was in and nod my head vigorously in agreement. He put into these few sentences the message that I so desperately try to get across to my students and to people who ask me about Yoga.

Yoga is about balance and unity, not flexibility. It is this fact that makes Yoga something that EVERY PERSON can do no matter their physical condition. It was this realization about Yoga that led me to create,with a partner,  Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center.

I was so pleased and grateful to get to spend those few hours with Jason. He has been named “one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future”. I hope that’s true.

 

Namaste.

The Yoga of Korean Temple Food

A major bonus of living in Korea is undoubtedly the food. It is simple, colorful, mostly healthy, and often spicy. All of my favorite things.

Korean temple food is the cuisine that has developed in Buddhist temples around the country. It is vegetarian and like all other Korean food, simple and healthful. What makes it such an experience to enjoy, though, is the focus on balance, moderation, and pleasure. There are generally small amounts of many dishes, each dish meant to satisfy different taste buds. There is a seemingly perfect combination of sweet, salty, tangy, bitter, and savory. The food itself is served in a beautiful way, the colors of the food varied and balanced. Some dishes are served hot, others warm, others room temperature, and some cold. There are many different textures.  A meal of temple food is a completely satisfying sensory experience. And because all of the senses are completely engaged, it becomes a very mindful experience.

Yogis have long known the importance of eating with mindfulness and intention, of managing the senses, and of caring for the physical body as a way to ensure the health of the mental and spiritual bodies as well. Temple food is right in line with the yamas and niyamas (attitudes and behaviors towards self and others) which Patanjali laid out in the Yoga Sutras. From the yamas of non-harming and moderation to the niyamas of purity, contentment, and discipline.

How and what we eat is a big part of our life, considering we do it every day, usually at least 3 times a day. And the choices we make do affect our body, our mind, and energy, our intellect, and our spirit. Aphorism 2.43 of the Sutras says that it is by living a disciplined and well-balanced life on all levels that we achieve “perfect mastery over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions”. A healthy body and mind allow us to effectively manage both the quantity and quality of our energy. It is this vital energy that prepares the way for connection with the Divine and Ultimate Reality.

Even when we know this, it can be difficult to maintain balance. When was the last you felt you got exactly enough time for eating well , sleeping well, exercising, spiritual practice, and personal relationships? I know I couldn’t tell you.  There have been pockets of  time and moments, but it remains a challenge. I know the goal for me is to have these pockets and moments of time get longer and longer, until there’s no break in between. (I may have to move somewhere with no access to cream for this to happen)

In the meantime, I am feeling so very grateful for temple food. Grateful to have access to it, to be nourished by it, and to learn from it. Each time we enjoy it, my commitment as a yogini to a well-balanced and healthful life is reinforced and nurtured.  You don’t get that from a McDonald’s, that’s for sure.

Balance

This perhaps goes without saying, but I really love Yoga.

Ever since pregnancy drastically changed my body, I’ve found many new challenges to my practice. I’m no longer pregnant, but my body did not go back to the way it was before. This makes for a very interesting asana practice. On the one hand, through years of practice, I know my body well. On the other hand, because of pregnancy and childbirth, I have to get to know it all over again. The great thing about Yoga is that it teaches us the mental flexibility necessary to do this – to flow easily through changes without fear and attachment. One of the things I’ve been really working on is balance. It seems my whole center of gravity has shifted and balancing poses feel completely different in this new body.


Balancing postures build strength and mental focus, while also teaching us how to find stability. When we’re standing on one leg, in Vrksasana (tree pose), for example, we have no choice but to focus on that standing leg, as the root of the posture. Trees can only grow and remain upright with a strong root system, and the same is true of tree pose.

The thing is, if we never tried to stand on just one leg, we would never be challenged to invest in our foundation so that we could do it. It is only by attempting to balance that we learn what is necessary to achieve it. We cannot know it by reading it in a book or being told how to do it. We have to experience it.

Focusing on our root system, that which keeps us grounded, strong, and flexible, in asana practice and in life practice, helps us to achieve balance. For me, finding my balance is not just about working with the changes in my body, but also the changes in my mind and spirit that inevitably come with the result of pregnancy and childbirth – motherhood! We’re four months in and while it is the most wonderful and amazing thing I’ve experienced in life, it is not without its challenges. Particularly in the area of balance.

How do I maintain my balance? How do I give the right amount of myself to my child? To my husband? And what about me? How do I take care of me? These are all issues of balance and the only answer I can come up with is the same answer I have for tree pose – by investing in my foundation. Knowing what keeps me grounded and connected and flexible and then investing time and energy into those things.

For me, Yoga is a big part of that and this is why I love it so much. Yoga not only gives me the tools to achieve balance but it is what gave me the courage to attempt a life that would require balance in the first place. If it weren’t for my Yoga practice, I don’t know that I would have ever opened myself to the life I have – a wonderful husband, a beautiful baby, fulfilling work.

The idea of standing on one foot can be scary – I might fall! I might hurt myself! I might look silly! All of these things are true.

But you also might establish a connection to the earth, to your foundation, and from there you will most certainly grow strong and flexible, poised and balanced.