This weekend, we were walloped by a real-life blizzard. Our little town outside of Philadelphia was buried under over two feet of snow in less than 24 hours. In addition, we were buffeted by high winds that obscured visibility, made temperatures plummet and drifted and re-drifted the falling snow. Listening to the news early on Saturday morning, the weather man said, “No sense in shoveling today. The wind and quickly accumulating snow will just undo your hard work. Might as well wait until tomorrow when the storm has passed.”
As a “shovel often” type of a gal who has spent many a snow day hard at work clearing the driveway, I received that weather forecast as a free pass for what became the most luxurious day that I can remember. I rolled over and went back to sleep. When we re-woke, we had a delicious and long breakfast. I read some of my book. My daughters and I watched an episode of “Gossip Girl.” We did some grown-up coloring. My husband made cookies. We watched a movie. Curled up in front of the fireplace, I helped my daughter make a timeline to prepare for a midterm in her AP class. And, suddenly, it was time to make dinner. If you asked me to describe a “day of rest,” I would describe Saturday.
The fact that Saturday – a full day of rest – felt so unfamiliar and so blissful caught my attention. After all, my faith calls for a weekly Sabbath, or day of rest. Resting on Sunday is not just one of the Ten Commandments, it’s in the top 5! And the type of yoga I practice also calls for regular days of rest – once a week plus two additional days of rest each month when the moon is full and new. These two practices are the guiding lights of my life. They are the roadmaps for how I try to live and, daily, help me become the woman I hope to be.
Yet I am positively awful at honoring these days of rest.
Judging from the results of a highly informal poll of fellow yoga students and those who sit around me at church, I’m far from alone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we do not live in a culture that appreciates or respects rest. For many of us, rest is the very first thing to get cut out of a busy day. Rest is viewed as something that can wait, something we’ll get to later. In fact, in a way, rest has acquired the stigma of laziness. Being busy is something we’re quite public about (just listen to your colleagues and check out your Facebook feed), but we immediately feel sheepish if we’re “caught” taking a rest.
Yet humans need rest. It is not some wanton desire or a luxury. We actually need it.
We need to rest in order to grow, to develop, to regenerate and to learn. Sleep expert, Dr. Matthew Edlund (author of The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough, referenced here), has found that rest is as important for people as sleep is. According to his research there are four kinds of rest: social, mental, physical and spiritual. Social rest is simply taking time to chat with friends and colleagues. In addition to the psychological benefits of social interaction, connecting with others has actually been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones.
Mental rest is basically deliberately single-tasking, even if just for a few minutes a day. While you can choose any activity, whether you’ve chosen to read a book, bake a cake or just sit still, it is important to keep yourself fully focused on what you’re doing. We have become so addicted to doing many things at once, that mental rest is especially important. When we do focus completely on the task at hand, we positively affect our nervous system, we change our blood pressure, our heart rate and our body temperature.
Physical rest involves using the body’s physical processes to calm the mind. The easiest and most powerful of these processes to work with is breathing. Taking even a minute to sit and pay attention to your breath can completely change your inner landscape. When I teach yoga, I ask my students to pay attention to about 5 breaths in the moments before we start to move. After class, many report to me that those 5 breaths are the most beneficial part of the class for them. Within those few moments, they feel their minds settle, their emotions smooth out and their body relax.
Finally, Dr. Edlund, recommends spiritual rest. He defines spiritual rest as meditation and/or prayer. This type of rest has been shown to develop the frontal lobe of the brain – the part of the brain that controls concentration, attention and focus, and is also where we analyze our problems. People who meditate also build up more grey matter in the midbrain (which handles functions such as blood circulation and breathing) and the thalamus (which controls information flow throughout the entire body.) In short, spiritual rest is one way to create a healthy and higher-functioning mind.
It turns out that while I’m very, very bad at honoring “days of rest,” without even realizing it, I am very, very good taking rest each day.
Each time I unroll my yoga mat, I am engaging in three of four of Dr. Edlund’s categories of rest. I am taking mental rest as I focus fully on each movement that I make on my mat. I am taking physical rest as I, for the 60 or 90 minutes of my practice, use my breath to calm my mind. And I am taking spiritual rest because, for me, yoga incorporates both prayer and meditation. As far as social rest, I’m getting that too. When I teach, I have the opportunity to connect socially with my students as I share yoga with them. And on other days, when I practice with my friend or when I get to attend a class, I connect with others before and after yoga.
While a full day of rest each week may continue to elude me except on special occasions, I am newly inspired by my snow day of rest to set aside regular, longer stretches of time to rest. In the meantime, I can rest easy (ha ha) knowing that yoga itself is restful in all the ways I need.
Very few of us are at peace with our bodies. The disruption of this peace starts quietly and early. “Play” (something done for the sheer joy of doing it) becomes “sport” (something some are “good at” and others are not) at an astonishingly early age. Young bodies shoot up and fill out at different times, leaving kids clumsy, confused and unsure of their new physiques. Long after we’re old enough to “know better,” we still fall prey to trying to measure up to the supremely high standards set for us in the images of “beautiful” that we see everywhere around us.
In short, it is sadly rare to experience our bodies as the miraculous creations that they are. It is much more common for us to experience our bodies as something to work on or to fix. We need to develop more muscle mass. We need to lose weight. We wish for longer legs. We yearn for toned abs. We hope to fill out, trim down, or smooth out. We look in the mirror and see things we wish were different. Even when we’re playing, we’re seeking to get better, to get stronger, or to win.
It is even sadder how rarely we freely receive the gifts our bodies have to offer us. Movement because it feels good. Physical strength because it helps us to feel strong inside too. A good sweat as a way to release tension. Dancing because we’re happy. Curling up in a ball because it comforts our sad heart. The euphoria we feel from working hard, undiluted by thoughts of calories burned or steps accrued for the FitBit or any other outside goal.
Our bodies are here for us. Yet, mostly, we are at odds with them.
This mindset can easily slip onto a yoga mat, distorting a practice designed to reconnect body, mind and spirit. Some days, I still succumb to this. I judge my body – “I need to develop more core strength …,” or “If only my hips were looser ….” I judge my practice – “That stunk. I couldn’t touch my toes …” or “That was awesome! I nailed my headstand…” or “When I can do that, I’ll have a ‘real’ practice …” I can even be violent with myself, trying a posture again and again and again, well past the point when exhaustion makes my attempts unsafe.
It’s sometimes easier to see the error of our ways in others. I point out to student after student how silly it is to judge their practice, which is ultimately designed to bring inner peace, to restore balance and to center, by a physical feat that they did or failed to do. As I do so, I am also reminding myself of the real intention of yoga. While it is possible to approach yoga as one more thing we can succeed at, one more thing we can be good at, or even one more way we can mold, re-shape or reform our bodies, doing so misses the whole point.
In practicing yoga, we are not trying to fix something that needs fixing. In fact, yoga asks us to step away from the very idea that there is something wrong with us at all. Yoga meets us right where we are – in shape or out, strong or weak, flexible or not, lean or full-figured, injured or well. It meets us where we are, ready to impart all of its gifts – teaching us to pay attention, to work hard, to rest fully, to be patient, to better understand ourselves, and to trust in the process.
As a yoga teacher, I frequently hear, “I’m not [insert adjective here: flexible, strong, patient, focused, thin, coordinated, young or old] enough for yoga.” Every time someone says this to me, I say the same thing, “Yoga is for everybody and every body. It will absolutely work for you.” I am overjoyed when I’m heard. But that happiness pales in comparison to the joy I feel when I see someone gradually begin to embrace their body.
This happens quietly and relatively early in most people’s practices. Suddenly, their language shifts. Rather than talking to me about the ways they wish their body was different, they are celebrating something their body has done, a way their body has surprised them or simply how good they suddenly feel. Like progress in a posture, this shift in their relationship with their body will ebb and flow. But over the years, I’ve learned to trust it. Once we begin to inch back into peace our bodies, we eventually get there.
And when we do, we discover (or re-discover) that our body is, as it always has been, here for us. It’s up to us to keep the peace.
I once overheard my husband singing yoga’s praises to one of my students. The passion in his voice caught my attention. I paused to listen because, at the time, he was a fairly recent convert to the practice and I wanted to hear the ways he felt it changing him.
“It’s totally changed her. While it’s clearly good for her body, the best is what it’s done for her on the inside.” (As he said this, he was making big eyes and dramatically pointing at his head.)
It turns out he was describing the gifts he’d received from my yoga practice!
Rather than getting bogged down trying to figure out all the ways that being married to me had challenged him before I found yoga (still pretty sure that’s a conversation that doesn’t need to happen), I decided to receive his words as yet another affirmation of the power of this practice. In addition to helping me find more peace and contentment in my own life, evidently it has changed my marriage for the better. That’s a big deal.
So, how does it work? How does bending, stretching and twisting on a sticky mat change a person so much that even their spouse is celebrating?
Rolf Gates, in his book Meditations on Intention and Being, writes
In other words, the bending, stretching and twisting may be what we are doing and they may be in the pictures that fill yoga books, but they are not yoga.
Yoga is how we’re doing these things. Yoga is paying such keen attention to how we feel as we bend into a forward fold that we notice when our muscles let go a little allowing us to safely go deeper. Yoga is relaxing and breathing into a stretch rather than forcing or willing ourselves into it. Yoga is drawing our awareness away from the argument we had that morning that is re-playing on a continuous loop in our head, choosing, instead, to experience everything about the twist we’re in. Yoga is giving our all – our focus, our energy and even our strength – to whatever it is that we’re doing in any given moment.
It just so happens that the most obvious and tangible way that we practice yoga is on our sticky mat. After all, your friend will not know that you’re practicing yoga when you pay close attention to what he’s saying, listening so keenly that you know when it would be helpful to challenge him and when what he needs is validation or support. What your friend will experience is feeling cared for, safe and loved during that conversation.
Similarly, your manager will not know that you’re practicing yoga at work. What she will know, however, is that somehow, when working on a big, challenging project, you are the one she wants on her team. You always seem to know when to pause to regroup before moving ahead when the timing is better and the team is more prepared. You have a good sense for the group’s energy. You rarely force an issue. Instead, you choose to take a breath and spend time finding a solution that works from all perspectives.
Likewise, even you may not realize that you’re practicing yoga when you’re dealing with a frightening crisis. Over and over, you notice that you feel sick and helpless when you allow your worry about what’s going to happen to consume you. Instinctively, you keep refocusing your awareness on the present moment. You do this because you’ve found that it’s the only way you feel OK in the midst of the chaos – able to help, centered enough to deal with the rest of your life, sure of the step or steps that need to be taken right now.
In all of these instances and a thousand more, you are practicing yoga. You are putting to powerful use – easily and naturally – the skills you hone each morning as you bend, stretch and twist on your sticky mat. These skills have absolutely changed you. More importantly, in changing you, these skills are changing the world around you. One conversation, one project, one crisis at a time, the way you work with, relate to and understand others changes them.
Which is how it makes such sense that my husband – the person I am with more than I am with anyone else in the whole world – was talking about my yoga practice as he passionately persuaded a student to stick with this life-changing (even world-changing) practice.
My husband studied a Japanese martial art called aikido for years. While it might seem strange that a practice like yoga, which has non-violence at its very core, would have anything in common with a martial art, my husband and I were surprised to find many intersections. One of these is Shoshin.
Shoshin actually originated in Zen Buddhism and means “beginner’s mind.” It is a state of mind taught to students of both aikido and yoga. Beginner’s mind describes an attitude of openness, an eagerness and a lack of preconceptions when studying a subject. While Shoshin always creates an exciting and transformative energy, it is especially powerful when studying at an advanced level. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also hardest to achieve when you are very experienced and adept at something.
Take a moment to think of something you’ve gotten pretty good at. It doesn’t have to be anything exotic. It could be something as simple as driving a car. Think about how you drive. Are you really paying attention to each of your actions – turning on the turn signals, braking or accelerating? Or does your mind wander while you drive? There’s a reason so many of us are able to maintain a conversation while we drive or to sing every lyric to every song on the radio. Even though we may be driving safely, we’re not fully focused on the act of driving. It is so familiar to us that we can slip into “autopilot” and allow our minds to amuse themselves in other ways.
But being on “autopilot” is not actually a great way to do anything. I, for one, have been known to end up at the kids’ school rather than CVS or the library when I’m on autopilot. I’ve also run over my back step as I zipped out of the driveway for the 700th time in a day. When I’m on autopilot, or simply assuming that I’ve got it all figured out, I make more mistakes. Worse yet, I miss opportunities to change things up, to try something different and to fully experience (and enjoy) what I’m doing.
Practicing yoga is another area of my life where it is easy to slip into autopilot. After all these years, there are relatively few postures I haven’t tried before. Because I practice Ashtanga yoga, for the most part, I am moving through a prescribed series, which means I’m doing the same set of postures every day. Interestingly, it is the repetitiveness of Ashtanga yoga that creates the perfect environment to practice beginner’s mind or Shoshin. Were I to allow myself to settle into autopilot each day during my practice, I would be bored to tears. My mind would wander endlessly, precisely the opposite of yoga’s intention. In order for my practice to be fulfilling, I must be as engaged mentally as I am physically. The way to do this, I have learned, is to deliberately choose beginner’s mind.
When I make this choice, my eyes are suddenly clear so that I can see the possibilities in any situation – whether I’m in a posture I know well or one I’m still figuring out. By choosing Shosin, I re-create the willingness to explore and to understand that was very natural to me in the early years of my practice. Opting to be in beginner’s mind frees me from the shackles of assumptions and preconceptions so that I feel again the enthusiasm and excitement that I felt when I was brand new to yoga and falling madly in love with the practice.
Beginner’s mind is a choice. It’s important to note that it’s not always the easiest choice to make. There are definitely days when I drift through my entire practice on autopilot. But these are also the days when, as I roll up my mat, I’m simply glad to be done. These are not days when I’ve learned or stretched past my comfort zone or developed a better understanding of anything or grown in any way. Those are all gifts reserved for days when I manage to maintain beginner’s mind for at least part of my practice.
Beginner’s mind is not reserved for yoga any more than Shoshin is reserved for aikido. Your yoga mat is a great place to practice, but remember practice is designed to support you off your mat. The work you do on your yoga mat is meant to help you live more like the person you hope to be. With that in mind, as we head out into this brand new year, I can’t think of a better resolution than to spend as much time as possible in the powerfully open state of mind of Shoshin that has, with practice, become a little easier for me to maintain while I move and breathe on my yoga mat.
There is no need to get fancy. Start small. Just call up an old friend. Choosing beginner’s mind will help you see this dear person with clear eyes. You might even feel again the thrill you felt when you first met – that sense that this was someone you wanted to know really, really well. By setting aside your assumptions and presumptions, you just might hear what they’re saying from an entirely new and surprising perspective. Given the love you already feel for this person, this could just be the best conversation you have all day. It turns out that starting small doesn’t mean the gifts are small.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start today!
Happy New Year!