[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”16″ align=”left”]The yoga is not for exercise. It is for looking at the soul. That is all. – Guruji (Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) [/mk_blockquote]
You’re not alone if this pronouncement from the father of Ashtanga yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, makes you pause. After all, we spend a inordinate amount of time and energy learning how to arrange our bodies into yoga postures. We work hard to get stronger. We are persistent in coaxing flexibility from our tight muscles and connective tissue. We show up regularly to break a sweat. The exercise of yoga is not easy.
All of us, at one time or another, come face to face with a posture that eludes us. Whether it’s a frightening pose or one our body isn’t yet ready for, it is frustrating not to be able to do something. Sometimes (and these can be the most frustrating times), it’s a mental issue – it’s a posture we’ve pulled off once or twice, but still derails us each and every time we try it. Whatever the reason, over and over again, on my mat and others’, I’ve watched elusive postures become a bit of an obsession.
We hammer away at them physically. (More hard work. More sweat.) We “noodle” with them even when we’re not on our mat. (What if I tried it this way? What was it I saw the man across the room do?) We berate ourselves. (Why on earth can’t I do it? Why am I such a chicken?) And, at the end of our practice, it feels as if the only posture we did was the one we couldn’t do. We can’t even remember all of the postures that made up the rest of our practice. Postures like this can be like an eclipse.
The eclipsing tendency of negative thoughts isn’t limited to those of us who spend a great deal time jumping around on rubber rectangles. In fact, psychologist Dan O’Grady says that our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away. We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts before they “imprint.” When we don’t make that choice, the positive slides away while the negative (i.e. the one posture out of 30 that we didn’t pull off) sticks with us like Velcro.
Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditation: Turning Toward the Good (February 18, 2016), expands on this idea: “Neuroscience can now demonstrate the brain indeed has a negative bias; the brain prefers to constellate around fearful, negative, or problematic situations. In fact, when a loving, positive thought comes your way, you have to savor it consciously for at least fifteen seconds before it can harbor and store itself in your ‘implicit memory,’ otherwise it doesn’t stick. We must indeed savor the good in order to significantly change our regular attitudes and moods. And we need to strictly monitor all the “Velcro” negative thoughts.”
In short, the choice to “savor the good” is not just a sweet slogan for a refrigerator magnet. It’s an important way to retrain ourselves to live life in a way that inspires us, invigorates us and instills in us a deeply rooted optimism. As you can imagine, retraining our minds away from a natural bias is not easy. It takes a lot of practice. Where better to do this practice, then, than a yoga mat? After all, each time we unroll our mat, we have many chances to draw our awareness back to the positive. We can pat ourselves on the back for simply showing up. We can savor postures that come easily. We can celebrate postures that we finally conquer. Even in postures that do not go well, we can choose to focus on what we can learn through our mistakes.
This close look at our thoughts, reactions and inner monologue is the beginning of the work that Pattabhi Jois says is at the heart of yoga. As we watch ourselves on our mats – not the feats we accomplish with our bodies, but the way we respond to these feats and also our failures – we are taking a good, hard look at our soul. Each time we redirect our minds to savor the positive we release the Velcro grip of our negative thoughts. We do this day after day. Over time, savoring the positive becomes as second nature as settling into a well-aligned downward facing dog. At this point, we find that yoga is changing the way we experience our lives. It is touching us – body, mind and spirit.
The next time you find yourself caught up in the hub-bub of your yoga practice – the hard physical work, the laser focus on what you still can’t do rather than on all that you can do – remember that this is nothing but distraction. Rather than helping you to advance your practice, obsessing over the physical practice is eclipsing the real purpose of your practice, which is decidedly not physical. You are not setting aside regular time for practice to twist into a pretzel or to stand on your head. No indeed. You unroll that mat to create space in your days for some spiritual stretching and reflecting. You jump around on your mat to make room in your life for quiet and stillness.
When you practice, you are, to borrow words from Jois, taking a look at your soul. With practice, what you see changes. One day, you’ll take a look and smile brightly because the light of the good within you will no longer be eclipsed by the things you’d like to change.
Training a dog to do something – whether it’s to sit, lay down or wait at the door rather than exploding through it – is an accumulation of baby steps. Like a “Pez dispenser” of tiny treats, the human rewards each miniscule step in the right direction and lures the dog onward. As you might imagine, getting a bouncy puppy to understand that the word “down” means “please stop leaping around the room and, instead, lay down and hold still” takes a remarkably long time.
You begin by rewarding eye contact. You hand over another treat when his little butt hits the floor. Yet another lures the dog’s nose toward the floor between his feet. Still another treat rewards elbows on the floor. The puppy hits a “jackpot” – treat after treat after treat – when his hips flop over and he looks like he might stay put for longer than 2-3 seconds. Then you repeat. Roughly 8 million times.
All the while, you, the teacher and observer, are looking only for baby steps to celebrate. This is no place for reprimands or frustration. Your voice stays gentle. You tone friendly and upbeat. Scolding is simply not constructive. When he backslides, as puppies do, without missing a beat or succumbing to frustration, you simply begin again where he was last successful. When you’ve lost the puppy’s attention (it happens), you stop, drop to the floor to dole out kisses and belly rubs. After all, there will always be another time to try again.
Progress will either be glacial or a tidal wave. There’s no way to predict. And it’s worth noting that the fact that the puppy responds to your command 16 times in a row today is irrelevant to his performance tomorrow. For the first few days at least, it is just as likely that you will be starting from scratch as it is that he will remember his new trick. Your job is to be as upbeat when you have to start over as you are when he remembers.
My husband missed puppy school the other day, so he was watching me to see what we’re working on this week. “Dang!” he exclaimed. “It’s just like yoga.” I looked at him quizzically as I dodged a sloppy puppy kiss. “Think about it.” he said, as he took the pups out to relieve their residual excitement and joy from their practice.
Learning how to do a yoga posture – whether it involves standing on one foot, perching in a precarious hand balance or folding forward – is an accumulation of baby steps. As you might imagine, mastering even the simplest of postures can take a long while. The more complicated ones can take months or even years. Just like training a puppy, it takes patience, persistence and a positive outlook to pull off these postures in a way that is safe and productive for your body. And, just like training a puppy, there is no guarantee that a new posture will “stick” right away. More often than not, the next time you practice, you will have to start from scratch. At least for a little while.
This can be frustrating. As you work on a yoga posture, the “Pez dispenser” of praise (heck, we’ll settle for simple acceptance) is also you. And, if you’re a normal human being, your eyes are probably more attuned to mistakes made rather than to baby steps to celebrate. What you may not be aware of is that you are just as susceptible to the destructive effects of criticism and scolding as a puppy. This is true even when (especially when!) you are scolding or criticizing yourself. When you’re on your yoga mat treat, treat yourself with the tenderness you would lavish on a puppy.
Like a puppy, I promise you will get better results from noticing and celebrating the things you do right. By focusing on each baby step, you reinforce helpful patterns that will become the foundation of your evolving posture. By breaking things down into tiny bits, you can more easily “lure” yourself to the next step along the way. By readily accepting mistakes as a cue to try again, you develop a willing persistence that will be your ticket to eventual success.
Puppies enthusiastically view a chance to try again as a chance to play. While this may be farfetched for you as you face a tough or particularly scary yoga posture, it is certainly plausible for you to approach each opportunity you get to try the posture as a chance to learn and grow and challenge yourself. When you do so, your positive approach will set the stage for some good, productive (and possibly even fun!) work whether or not you nail the posture with the same panache that you did last week.
We all know that yoga rarely stays on your sticky mat, right?
In the end, with the same gentle persistence, compassionate patience and cheerful attitude that you train a puppy, you are training yourself. You are training your eyes to turn away from mistakes made to notice the baby steps you’ve taken at work, within a difficult relationship, or in a new hobby. You are learning to pat yourself on the back at each tiny sign of growth. After all, whether glacial or with the sudden force of a tidal wave, growth is always something to celebrate.
And, if today isn’t a growth day, give yourself a quick hug and try again tomorrow.
PS Please forgive the sequential puppy essays. They say that yoga meets us exactly where we are … and this is where I’ve been!
“The dogs ate my essay.” Yes, I’m using the classic homework excuse that no one ever believes. But I’m serious. They did.
In a gigantic leap of faith (or spasm of lunacy), we adopted two puppies two weeks ago. Not only did they consume every second of my time the entire first week at home with us – including the time I typically dedicate to writing, but they’re in the process of chewing this week to pieces too.
There’s a reason babies are born cute, right?
Seriously, though. For a person who leans heavily on routine to stay centered, calm and (mostly) serene, it’s pretty funny that I voluntarily invited chaos to come and live with me. Funny in a way that feels almost like providence. It feels like these little guys have something big to teach me.
So big that, in an effort to discover what it is, I went to my most fertile prayer place – my yoga mat. I tucked the puppies into their bed across from my mat for “yoga time” and stood quietly holding the question in my heart. “What am I to learn here?” As they have done every morning, the pups watched me intently through my sun salutations, and were sound asleep before I finished my standing postures. I spent the next hour and change repeatedly drawing my mind back to my body and my breath, deliberately staying focused only on the moment at hand. Each time I wandered ahead to coming postures or to the house-training that lay ahead of us, I deliberately drew my awareness back to what I was doing right then.
By the time I sat up from my rest in savasana, I was again feeling centered, calm and (all the way) serene. I picked up my mat and props, put on my jacket and boots, and knelt down, “Wake up, puppies. What good yoga you did. Good yoga.” They stretched and yawned as I opened their crate. They sat quietly as I put on their leashes (nearly miraculous) and we headed outside. As I watched them frolic, I noticed that I was smiling. My smile slipped as I started mentally planning what was “next” and trying to figure out how on earth I’d get it all done while watching these two love bugs. Luckily, I noticed this too.
At that moment, I had my answer. The puppies, if I let them, can teach me to stretch my ability to stay in the moment. Right now, I’m pretty good at staying present when things feel “under control,” for example on my yoga mat or when my next step is obvious or when things are quiet. Doing so is much harder for me when I’m surprised or thrown off guard or simply feeling hurried. And, for the next few months at least, I suspect I’m going to feel surprised, off guard and hurried a fair amount as I figure out how on earth to raise two puppies into well-mannered dogs while continuing to live my life.
While I’m convinced this story will have a happy ending, it isn’t a fairy tale. There is no fairy godmother or magic spell. There is only practice.
Just as I had to refocus my mind over and over again on my yoga mat while my pups slept nearby, I’ve had to redirect my mind a hundred times a day to stay in the moment. Luckily, it’s pretty clear when I’ve lost my focus. Some signs include, tears of frustration when I’m standing outside in the cold for the 6th potty break in an hour, storming at my husband for allowing me to do such a foolish thing as bring two dogs home, stomping, fretting and losing sleep.
But these moments aren’t failures anymore than losing my focus on my mat is. Instead they are chances to notice that I’ve become distracted. They are opportunities to learn about what temptations lure my mind away from what I’m doing. They offer me the gift of another try.
When I receive this gift and draw my awareness back to the present, I’m never sorry. After all, these days I can have a lap-full of puppy love if I’d just sit down for a second. Even better? As I continue to try and try again to stay in the moment, I’m finding that it’s astoundingly likely that whatever is distracting me can wait for a second while I sit down and hug a puppy.