December 16, 2011

The Yoga of Not Doing Yoga.

Lately I’ve started to feel that, after ten years of (almost) daily practice and eight years of teaching, I’m just beginning to understand what yoga is in a deeper way.  Which is to say, I’m appreciating more fully how it is that yoga enhances our lives, and the effects of sustained practice over time.  I don’t mean the immediate effects of the physical practice, or even meditation, that was pretty evident from the get go. I mean something much deeper, the significant reduction of tendencies and habitual ways of seeing, doing, and being, that cause suffering and discord, what the yogis call ‘samskaras’.

Cue trumpet roll: I am actually becoming less reactive and more responsive! Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal? Believe me, it’s huge.  For most of my life I haven’t been particularly equanimous, I have a short fuse and can be somewhat impatient. And from the time I was a small child anxiety was a frequent companion. I started practicing yoga way back when as a means of stress relief.  I had no idea the gifts that awaited me.

Once I started practicing yoga on a pretty much daily basis, my practice superseded everything else. Nothing, absolutely nothing, was more important. Not because I stopped caring about the rest of my life, or the people in it, but because the practice was giving me something so precious, so essential, that nothing else in my life could. I simply couldn’t not do it; if I went more than a few days without practicing I would be very antsy and out of sorts. It took years and years of sustained practice through good times and bad, before I could take refuge in the practice and allow it to hold me during those times when it simply wasn’t possible to do a physical practice, for whatever reason.

I’m not sure if this is related to the fact that I had so much anxiety for so long, and was not particularly grounded, but I suspect it does. It has literally taken years and years of commitment to the practice, to the breath and to cultivating the ability to be with difficult sensations without running away, for me to get this place and to understand that yoga is for our whole life, every aspect of who we are and what we do, and not just something we do with our bodies on a rectangular mat. I always got it, but now I REALLY GET IT: yoga makes your life better!

I spent seven weeks in Europe this summer, teaching yoga workshops, travelling and spending much time reconnecting with family and old friends. It was a wonderful time. And I didn’t practice nearly as much as usual! What’s more I drank wine, and vodka and tonics, and ate ice cream and drank lots of espressos and went to the theatre and museums and walked by the sea and generally larked about.

In Ireland a very significant amount of my time was taken up with social engagements. I saw friends and old neighbors that I hadn’t seen since I moved to the States ten years ago. I got to meet the young children of people I’ve known for twenty five years, I re-acquainted myself with the streets of Dublin and teachers I had in high school. Total blessing. But all this socializing meant that I didn’t practice nearly as much as I normally do. Sometimes social engagements clashed with the times of classes I wanted to go, and sometimes I just had to let go of my attachment to how I wanted things to go (in a way that facilitated my yoga practice) and just flow with how things unfolded. At times I was conflicted by this.

One night I went for dinner with a group of girlfriends that I’ve known since we were young teenagers.  We spent four hours over pizza and wine chatting about this that and the other and generally enjoying each other’s company. As the second bottle of wine was ordered around 10:30pm I realized with a twinge of regret that I probably was not going to make it to mysore practice the next morning at 7am . But any misgivings I had were soon forgotten in the glow of good company and good conversation. The next day as I enjoyed thinking about the time with the girls I realized that sitting with some of my dearest friends and hearing them talk about the joys and challenges of motherhood and how to get any sleep with eight month old twins was so much more important than making it to mysore practice. What could be more precious than this?

About a month later, having relocated to Berlin, I got an infection in my right index finger. It was incredibly painful. It started as a throbbing sensation in my knuckle on my way to a yoga class. I didn’t really notice it during the class, as I was so focused on my practice, but afterwards I felt totally out of it and as the evening progressed I felt increasingly sick. The pain was ridiculous; it felt as if my entire consciousness had become localized in that throbbing, increasingly swollen and reddening digit. Not fun.

Next morning it was worse, so off to the emergency room at the local hospital we went. Almost four hours later I emerged, first two fingers immobilized and placed on a semi-cast and hand and lower arm bandaged as far as the elbow. In my pocket a prescription for seven days of antibiotics, strong painkillers and under strict instructions to keep the hand above the level of my heart for the next 24 hours and not to even think of moving it. The doctor said he had no idea how the infection had developed. There was no cut on my hand and I didn’t recall anything out of the ordinary happening.  Totally weird.

Given the doctor’s orders to be very careful and to come back to the hospital if I started to feel worse, and the fact that I really wasn’t feeling good, I had no choice but to rest (even typing was exhausting given that I could use my left hand, but only my right thumb) and surrender to the deeper intelligence. Gone my plans to teach a workshop in Berlin and to do my practice everyday and take advantage of the fact that our apartment was about a 15-minute walk from Jivamukti Berlin. Instead, resting, renewing, thinking, listening, free from the pressure to achieve and accomplish.  What a concept!  It took me a few days to get behind it.

All in all my hand was bandaged up and pretty much immobilized for 8 days. After a couple of days the antibiotics started to take effect and I felt much better and by the seventh day I was down to just taking a painkiller at night.  But practicing or doing any computer work was a nonstarter, although I was able to teach at the Barcelona Yoga Conference. Negotiating airports and luggage with one hand out of action was a practice in itself!

This forced rest period taught me a lot. I had to do everything much more slowly. I had to let go of my need to make things happen and to try and advance my career. I had to be more vulnerable, as there were  many things I couldn’t do without the full use of my right hand. One day I asked my husband to help me wash my hair, which he happily did. The thing was it took him two hours from the time I asked to actually being ready to it. Two hours! I’m not the most patient person and I don’t like having to rely on other people. At all.

Oh the shifts I went through in that two hours:

Okay great, he’ll help me wash my hair, but right now he’s reading the New York Times online, so I’ll just chill…

Wow, I wonder how long before he’s ready?…

Dang, I’d really like to shower and get dressed and go sit in the garden on this beautiful, sunny day…

Okay, no problem, just breathe Dearbhla, you can’t have everything on your timing…

Okay, this is taking the piss, what, I’m just supposed to sit around and wait while he takes his sweet time knowing full well that I’m waiting?

Finally: Dearbhla there is absolutely nothing to do but be gracious and patient. You don’t have any control over the timing, you made your request, you want his help, so just wait. Patiently. Graciously. In a relaxed manner. Watch your breath, say your mantra. For goodness sake you’re a yoga teacher. Isn’t fine-tuning the ability to observe the mind and the breath and practicing santosha (contentment) exactly what you talk about in your classes, and do in your own practice?

Ultimately I rode the wave and managed my impatience-anxiety, but I have to tell you there were more than a few dicey moments!

But it was so worth it. Not only did I remain equanimous, I was also surprised and touched at the gentleness with which my husband washed and combed my hair.  Once again I observed that my ability to conquer my impatience and to let go of my attachment to how things should be (according to my schedule) was rewarded with a feeling of deeper connection to others and more happiness.

Hmmm? Isn’t this exactly what all of the teachings point us towards?

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