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.

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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.