Friday, March 30, 2012

Trauma, Loss and Heart Opening

Yesterday a friend of mine came over for dinner after just coming back in town from a funeral. She lost a family member last week in a bizarre and tragic way and shared with me a bit of her experience. While she talked with me, her hand held the space on top of her heart and she mentioned a few times that she could feel her heart aching, like a pain that resonated straight back and between her ribs.

I shared with her that across cultures, when human beings experience a great loss, their body literally curls inward, perhaps as a way to protect the heart from more trauma. The tops of the shoulders and the collarbones fold in towards one another, the upper back rounds and the center of the chest sinks inward toward the back ribs. I explained to her that when people experience a great achievement, their body will move the other way - the shoulders open apart and back and the center of the chest lifts up.

When my friend held her chest at another point in our conversation, she said, "I feel like my heart is literally trying to break open and get bigger to take this all in,"

In the last two months, I have experienced waves of loss that has left no part of my life untouched. And often during this time, I've had exchanges with people, sometimes strangers, who tell me of a sudden loss in their lives as well and sometimes in the same conversation, there is a recognition that there is also an opening or an opportunity somewhere else...and this reminds me that loss and growth happen symbiotically. Just like the breath, when you lose space on the exhale, it makes room for expansion on the inhale.

I'm reminded of the sanskrit word for the heart chakra, anahata, which means "unstruck," or "unbeaten." My teacher explained this to me once as our hearts being like a beautiful emerald stone, strong and solid and completely unscratched. She explained that regardless of what kind of trauma we endure in our lives, no matter the heart ache, the loss, the suffering we experience or cause in our lives, within all of it there is at least one space that goes unbent, unmarred, unaffected by the friction of our lives, that there is one space inside each of us that goes untouched by the pain and the worry and the weight of our human experience.

Tonight I am moving my heart-space open in spite of the loss I feel, and the heaviness of that on my shoulders and head. There is a piece of me that remains intact, unharmed, beautifully okay. So tonight I will breathe into that space, trusting that the weight of life that I am more aware of right now will grow lighter and become easier to breath through.

aMUSEing: a poem


And here's one of the troubles:
keeping so busy inside and out
that we define ourselves by the known,
the too well known,
the what-we-think-we-know known,
the misperceptions,
the misapprehensions,
the clever enunciations,
intelligent articulations,
a crisscross of wires
so thick
that no light shows through.
That's the trouble.
Becoming as dense as a traffic jam,
so the wind can't blow through.
No wonder God laughs
when we complain we can't
hear him.

~ Alice Klein

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Leg Work [of Shoulder Work]

This past week, my classes have revolved around the same theme - that yoga offers us an opportunity to learn (and observe) how we can support ourselves through challenging and strenuous experiences.

Hatha yoga is all about the experience. I feel that people who are drawn to this leg of yoga are drawn in part because they need the visceral effect in order to have a shift in perspective. To help facilitate this, I've been working up to a variation on the plank -chatarunga dandasana-bhujangasana sequence, focusing on alignment in the upper back and shoulders. Especially challenging for women because we lack an upper body strength privy to men, this sequence clearly demonstrates how empowering it can be to find support against the weight of gravity. When we are standing (mostly) on our hands, it's easy to feel how much weight we carry in ourselves, and what a relief it can be once we learn how to support it properly.

What I've been seeing is that many people 1.) forget to breathe 2.) don't go forward far enough because they believe they'll face-plant on their way down or 3.) both.

Here's the thing: we need breath to support the physical body and we need to move forward in order to move through challenging things.

This quote comes to mind from Rainer Maria Rilke in "Letters to a Young Poet," where he is speaking about being alone on a difficult journey:

" And you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that you want to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult..."

It is fascinating for me to watch this take shape for my students, and to hear their long time student of yoga told me this past weekend that of all the times she has done these poses, she didn't know that she could feel better in them. What an opening for her!

How many times do we find ourselves in an experience (a conversation, a circumstance) that we have been in many times before, and sense that it can be more simple, that it can feel better, that we can breathe easier if we knew how to do something differently?

May we all trust to move forward in our journey, and do the difficult work of learning how to support ourselves.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On the Yoga Mat: Find New Limits

A regular yoga practice lends itself to a lot of newfound self-knowledge [svadyaya]. As a first time student once told me after she had finished class, “It made me aware of all these parts of my body I don’t use enough, and the ones I use too much.” What you do with this knowledge is up to you! If you apply it to an observance of "santosha" [honesty] and "tapas" [perseverance], an ever-evolving practice of self-discovery and enhancement will unfold for you! I think this is one of the most alluring and exciting parts of being a yogi.

We show up to the mat with the knowledge that the work we set out to do is life-enhancing for ourselves and as a model for others. Then, we study. We breathe and we move and we open and we release, and we make room to let our limits be revealed. As we move from a place of honest observation, we see where we are on the physical and mental planes of our practice.

An obvious benefit to a regular yoga practice is an increased cardiovascular endurance as we train our bodies to breathe more completely. Yoga teaches to accept current limits and understand them so that we may move beyond them. This discovery can happen in our posture where we explore how to come into a handstand or back-bend safety, and may happen in our attitude when we discover how it is to maintain composure in gridlock traffic.

Regardless of how long you have been practicing yoga asana [postures] or pranayama [breath exercises], there are always limits to explore and expand. The poses we hold on the mat train us for the poses and positions we find off the mat. It is our beautiful challenge to move through each of them with the honesty, the perseverance and the self-love that permits us to do so graciously.

In the words of Oliver Holmes " A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to it's old dimensions."

Have a beautiful week, readers!