Tag Archives: moderation in yoga

The Yoga of Self-Expression

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” -Martha Graham, as quoted in The Life and Work of Martha Graham (1991) by Agnes de Mille

When I was a little kid, I loved to draw. I could draw lots of kind of funny-looking things: people, flowers, animals. Often there was a joy in the simple expression of putting pencil to paper. As I grew older, however, and began to compare my artistic attempts to others’, I would get frustrated. I could see that what I was doing wasn’t the same, but I didn’t know how to make it “right.”

One particularly upsetting day, I was struggling to draw a person. I tried again and again to draw a nose that made sense- that looked like what I thought a drawing of a nose on a face should look like- but it just wasn’t happening. I was overwhelmed with frustration and maybe even the beginning of a sense of grief that I wasn’t able to live up to what I thought I should be able to do. This is when my mother intervened with a little bit of absolutely brilliant parenting.

She opened one of the many magazines that we had around the house and flipped to a cartoon of some little kids that was part of a frequent column. “Look,” she said. I looked: the children had been drawn with no noses at all. And yet they were still clearly children. They were a different expression of an idea of children, but they were people, and the nose was assumed, or it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter, because suddenly it became clear to me that there were many different ways to draw, to visualize, to convey the idea of something.

My lovely mom in that moment, took on the role of a teacher. Teachers can cultivate our individuality  or (perhaps with the best of intentions) impose someone else’s idea on us. My mother had given me a gift that is still carrying me 30 years later: the knowledge that self-expression is individual, unique, and not better or worse than anyone else’s expression.

Perhaps you can remember a time when you felt stifled by a teacher. Last week, for some reason, I recalled with stunning clarity a picture of a potato that I drew in high school. Well, let me be clear– I had started drawing this potato in my art class, but it wasn’t going very well. My attempts to capture the essence of potato in colored pencil form were failing pretty spectacularly. Our art teacher was a demanding and troubled guy, and the best you could sort of hope for in that class was to be left alone. Sadly, his eye fell on me and the potato art that day. He sat down beside me, took the drawing, and completed it for me. It was a masterpiece. Subtle shading, deep-set eyes and utterly potato-like curves. It could have been promo material for the Idaho Potato Board.

I remember watching him draw my potato, explaining where I’d gone wrong; I remember taking it home and somehow it even ended up framed over my dresser for a time! But every time I looked at it, I felt sad, a little shamed- it wasn’t really mine, and in fact it was a reminder of how I had failed as an artist according to the teacher’s standards.

This memory came to me during a class I was teaching last week, actually. I was watching a group of my students in Warrior 1. Each of them looked different. Their feet were in different places, their knees were more or less bent, their arms were doing slightly different things, and their hips were in varying degrees of proverbial Warrior 1 “square”-ness. And I thought of how, in previous years, I would ask them to place their feet in particular ways, and move their hips into a certain position, and place their arms just so, in an attempt to “get them into the pose.” I’ve attended classes recently that asked the same thing of me. And knowing now what I do about my body, and my students’ bodies, I wouldn’t confine them to exacting specifications. The cues I give to the class at large are much broader and likely to ask them to explore their own range of motion and comfort. My assists or adjustments are becoming more rare- while I love the idea of communicating through touch, I’m more cognizant now of how I may be inadvertently indicating “wrongness” on their part- that I might be sort of metaphorically taking their pen and drawing their potato.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe that we are always trying to do the best we can as teachers. I certainly was. It’s simply that with time, I’ve gotten more information- injuries in my body, observation of my students, research from teachers that I respect, and communication with my students.  While I have no interest in taking on the role of a guru, there is an element of power inherent in the word teacher. I believe that entails moral responsibility. For me, it means that I want to empower my students to recognize their own power, grace, and strength within their yoga practice. I want them to learn the value of their own unique expression of creativity in their body.

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How could I do better than to emulate the instinctive wisdom of a mother? To demonstrate to my students that however their creativity presents itself- as artists, as yogis, as human beings- is not only okay, it’s an expression of their luminous, radiant nature and an opportunity to celebrate their singular essential goodness. To me, if a yoga practice is making me feel like I am wrong in any way, I’m happy to hand the pencil back to the teacher and move on.

(Gratitude and love to my wonderful mother, whose love of me and celebration of my life is so complete that she would be proud of me if I lived in a cardboard box down by the river). 

 

 

Enough is (Never?) Enough. Brahmacharya, Take 2

You’ll never believe it, but I had an actual real-life request from someone the other day to write about Brahmacharya (the law of yogic moderation). I felt, for one heady moment, as though I’d hit “the big time.” A blog request! For me!

The idea that anyone was interested in hearing my blogged opinion about anything was so  gratifying that I was really excited to get right on it- until I realized that I’ve already covered Brahmacharya in this post.

But, I considered, it’s almost certainly not coincidental that I am being asked to revisit the topic. Brahmacharya is a lesson I have yet to learn, or at least to assimilate fully into my life and practice.

I am highly qualified to talk to you about over-indulgence. During the early 2000’s (especially during college and the confused years right after), I over-indulged in caffeine and cigarettes. This paired nicely with my video-game addiction so that I was no longer a very functional member of society. A typical day might look something like this:

11 AM. Wake up, start video game on way to make coffee.
11:05 AM.  Sweet rush of relief. Cigarette and heavily sugared coffee in system, ready to engage in online drama of elves, dragons, etc., for next 12 + hours.
12:30 PM. Phone rings, but I can’t answer* because I’m either a) too busy with game or b) feeling guilty about what I’m doing. Open bag of Doritos and the second-to-last bottle of Coke.
3:00 PM. Remember that I forgot to take the garbage out, write a paper about Love In the Time of The Cholera, and that the Marlboro Lights are running low. Suppress emotions with some more Doritos and another cigarette.
6:00 PM. Bag of Doritos is gone and down to the last liter of Coke. Time to put on pants and go to the store. Decide to wait another hour for the online group I am in to disband as I don’t want to miss out on anything.
6:35 PM. Group has ended but there is now an online raid on a dragon starting and my presence is absolutely critical. Call Little Caesar’s. Ask if the driver will stop and buy cigarettes. Brush hair for the first time today. Consider brushing teeth, but time is limited. Keep mouth closed when pizza arrives.
2 AM. Raid is finally over. Eyes bleary and throat stinging. Chest feels heavy but I am very close to level 47 and having a lot of (delirious)? fun with an online friend killing giant spiders in an ice fortress.
2:15 AM. Last cigarette of the day. As I log off the game (“Night Lyssandra, **HUGS** Farramir”), I feel a wave of panicky sadness. Where did the day go? What am I doing with my life? When will I get it all under control?

Just for fun, here is a picture of me from that time. I am drinking a wine cooler, I believe, but put the cigarette down for the photo. I also put on my happiest smile, as you can see. TX Laura

While I eventually overcame the gaming and smoking vices, the underlying pattern has manifested in various ways throughout my life.  Later years would see me do things like compulsive exercise and calorie-counting. Over-working is another compulsive activity that I am still fighting. And yeah, yoga can be the same way.

These latter activities are more dangerous to the compulsive over-indulger because society is set up to reward them. “Oh, you’re so good about exercising,” someone might say to me. Or, in a corporate job where the unspoken expectation is that you work 50 hours per week, you weren’t going to get anywhere if you weren’t working 51**. And yoga, with its halo of wholesome goodness- well, of course, a daily yoga practice can only be good, right?

Deborah Adele, in her book  The Yamas & Niyamas, says, “In yogic thought, there is a moment in time when we reach the perfect limit of what we are engaged in. It is this moment of ‘just enough’ that we need to recognize.” She goes on to say, “Nonexcess is not about nonenjoyment. It actually is about enjoyment and pleasure in its fullest experience. The questions before us are: Are you eating the food, or is the food eating you? Are you doing the activity, or is the activity doing you?”

Blerg. I recognize the painful truth in the last question. There have certainly been times where my own yoga practice has gone from pleasure to excess. The physical signs are there, if I can heed them. When I’m over-practicing, I feel strain in my wrists, my neck, my knees.

There’s also a set of addictive mental and emotional behaviors. I can recognize the signs- a feeling of worry or stress if I’m not able to practice daily, or an unbalanced sense of displeasure if I feel that I’m not “performing” at my peak. A crankiness if someone comments that I certainly am practicing a lot lately. I might even be careful not to mention certain aches, pains, or injuries to certain people that know me too well. I might (and this is a little scary) not even tell people the truth about how much I am practicing.

I am really loving my Ashtanga practice, but there’s an element of danger there for someone of my disposition. I love the discipline of practicing 6 days a week, 2 hours per day. Of seeing the changes in my practice, measuring my progress against the previous week’s. The headiness of finding myself suddenly slipping into a new posture- and the (exhilarating? crushing?) knowledge that I could continue this practice for the next several years and still have places to grow. The endorphins are unreal.

Another way that I might over-indulge in my yoga practice is with specific asana. It’s easy to get really excited about a particular posture. Right now, I’m wooing Handstand, Supta Kurmasana, and Urdva Dhanurasana. If I were to be honest with myself, and with you- I need to back off at least one of these and let my body recuperate. Oh, it’s not easy, when I’m having so much fun- but when I ask myself:  Am I doing the practice, or is the practice doing me? I know I’ve crossed a border. I’ve gone beyond “just enough” into “just three more!”

But the fault itself is not in the asana (physical) practice. The fault lies with the practitioner (in this case, maybe, me) who is disregarding the ethical limbs of yoga. Brahmacharya. Ahimsa (non-violence).

As often happens, I often find just the encouragement or wisdom that I need, just when I need it. I ran across these words from BKS Iyengar this week. His ‘balanced practice’- well, that’s Brahmacharya, to me. See what you think:

When your posture is imbalanced,

the practice is physical;

balanced asanas lead to spiritual practice.

As a goldsmith weighs gold,

you have to adjust your body so that it is

perfectly balanced in the median plane.

As pearls are held on a thread,

all the limbs should be held

on the thread of intelligence.

Yogis, what’s your experience with Brahmacharya in your own practice? Leave a comment, please!

*Dear Everyone I Knew During This Time: I’m really, really sorry. 

**Off-topic, but I’m reminded of Office Space. “If you want me to wear 37 pieces of flair like pretty-boy Brian over there, why don’t you make the minimum 37 pieces of flair.”

Brahamacharya (Gesundheit!)

Brahmacharya, the fourth of the Yamas, is also the one that sounds most like a sneeze. ‘Bless You!’, you might think. Appropriate, I guess, since this term is sometimes translated as “Walking with God.” Bless you indeed!

This is a tricky Yama. It is often (mis?)interpreted as celibacy (see this article “Life Without Sex?” on yogajournal.com). Others (myself included) interpret it as mindful use of energy. I like the word “moderation,” although that may over-simplify it somewhat. Another phrase you might hear is “continence,” although this brings to mind adult diapers, so I tend to avoid it.*

Okay, back on track. Brahmacharya! Using energy mindfully means not wasting your resources. BKS Iyengar says, “When one is established in brahmacharya, one develops a fund of vitality and energy, a courageous mind and a powerful intellect so that one can fight any type of injustice… Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.”

What a great metaphor! By using our mental and physical resources intelligently, not draining the battery but recharging it as needed, we will be better able to shine our light in the world. Whether your goal is to make it through your next Power Yoga class without modifying a posture, or to act in service to those who need it, brahmacharya makes us a better-run machine.

Where do you squander your resources? Do  you…

  • Overeat?
  • Overindulge in alcohol/other substances?
  • Oversleep?
  • Undersleep, because you were doing something else instead?
  • Over-exert, physically?
  • Spend time worrying about the future, or
  • Spend time living in the past?

All of these can quickly become evident on your mat. If you’ve ever eaten a big pancake breakfast and then gone to a vigorous hot yoga class (as I did, one regrettable morning) an hour later, you know that the body isn’t going to live up to your demands! A commitment to the physical practice of yoga will eventually demand brahmacharya of you- there isn’t energy enough in your body to both squander your resources AND cultivate an effective practice.

And, as always, the physical practice (asana) is just one place for this to show up in your life. The same thing is going on, obviously, in all other areas- once we open our eyes to see.

Brahmacharya! I raise my battery-operated torch to you.

See you next week, when we conclude the yamas with a discussion on Aparigraha, non-hoarding. Get ready to clean out the closet!

*Although this is a really ridiculously silly thing for me to have said, it raises a pertinent point. Through use of mula bandha, the root lock engagement of the pelvic floor, which is used to prevent energy leakage in our practice, we females can strengthen the pelvic floor, which sags as we age, and thus, perhaps, avoid the need for adult diapers. I’d hoped to use this post as a discussion for mula bandha, but it’s gotten a bit too long and the bandhas really deserve a big discussion of their own. Stay tuned, I’ll get it out there.