Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Every Day May 3, 2012

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 3:02 pm
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Lately I feel like I’ve been getting hit with a lot of requirements and tasks that I should be doing “every day”. Being pregnant, there are a whole slew of things that I’m supposed to do: eat healthy foods, take vitamin supplements, watch my protein intake, get plenty of sleep, do prenatal exercises. I’m supposed to do daily “kick counts” to keep track of the baby’s activity level at different times of day, so I’ll know if suddenly he or she is less active, since that could be a bad sign. And now that I’m farther along, I have a host of tasks I’m supposed to accomplish every day for my childbirth class, like listening to my joyful pregnancy affirmations CD and practicing my hypnosis techniques. And all the pregnancy daily tasks are in addition to the things I do regularly and have a passionate interest in. I want to practice my yoga and my meditation every day, write in this blog, keep up with reading to improve myself as a yogini and as a teacher. And then there’s my writing – I should certainly be doing that every day, especially if I don’t want to lose track of myself as a writer in all this motherhood stuff. I need to be reading poetry, writing new poems, revising my poems. I need to go to work every weekday, too, commuting there on the train and then completing all the variety of tasks that make up the job for which they pay me. And all of that is in addition to the regular tasks of daily life, like fixing breakfast, washing dishes, doing laundry, and keeping the house tidy. My husband was just away traveling for a full week, and all of those duties somehow took up most of my time when I had to do them alone. And that’s just the daily stuff. I also need to make progress on long-term projects like preparing the baby’s room, keeping up with friends and family, someday putting together our honeymoon album, sending my writing out to journals, trying to build my portfolio as a freelance writer and sending out book review and article queries to magazines, then writing the book reviews and articles. And I have to be doing all of these things, every day, while I am more consistently tired than I’ve ever been in my life, while I am metaphorically carrying around two bags of groceries at all times, while I am moving much slower than I’m used to doing.

The only thing I don’t have to do every single day is shampoo my hair, because with the preggo hormones, my hair has become thick and shiny and lustrous and for the first time since I was a kid I can go a good three days without washing it and it still looks great. And I feel so overloaded with everything else that not needing to wash and dry my hair every morning has been a gigantic relief. Two weeks ago I told F that I wanted to take a bath that night, but then said it seemed like too much work. He asked, like what, and I said, you know, like filling the tub and stuff. He looked at me like I was insane; he’d thought I was going to say something about cleaning the tub first (as it needed to be cleaned, which I’d forgotten about, and which made the prospect of my pleasant bath even more intimidating). But that’s how tired I was.

The result, of course, has been that I just ain’t getting shit done. Most days, in addition to routine life maintenance, commuting, and work, I can manage to do one extra thing. Sometimes it is a yoga thing, like teaching on Tuesday nights. Sometimes it’s a writing thing – I have a packet of poems I’ve been carrying with me on the train and I’ve been working on them slowly. Sometimes it’s cooking a fancier-than-usual meal, or paying bills, or clearing a box of crap out of the room we eventually want to put a baby in. Occasionally it’s taking a nap, but not nearly as often as my body would like. Sometimes I can do two things at once, like reading or working on poems while I’m on the train, or listening to my childbirth hypnosis stuff while I’m sleeping (which they swear works anyway). But I just can’t seem to manage doing more than the one extra thing, at least not on a week night.

My usual instinct is to get upset with myself for failing as a wife or mother or friend or independent woman. But that’s not going to do anyone one iota of good. I’m trying to practice ahimsa and satya, my two favorite yamas. Satya: The truth is that I am slow and tired and heavy, and there are many things on my plate. The truth is that I can only do what I can do. Ahimsa: There’s no use beating myself up about the things I can’t manage to do. Instead of getting upset and angry, it will be far more beneficial to me to practice kindness and love and give that to myself instead. If I’m supposed to be eating healthy foods so the baby gets good nutrition, it’s got to be at least as important to feed myself healthy emotions so the baby gets a good daily dosage of love instead of sadness.

Here are the things that I commit to doing every day:

I eat.
I sleep.
I brush my teeth.
I tell my husband I love him.
I tell the contents of my uterus that I love him or her.
I do the best I can with everything else.

And that bath two weeks ago? I cleaned the tub, I filled up the tub, and I took the bath anyway. With bubbles, and chocolate truffles. It was lovely.

 

Yoga philosophy in practice: dealing with shadows of the past July 14, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:32 pm
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The other day I was confronted by a photo of an old boyfriend/crush. One of my Facebook friends still keeps in touch with this guy, and had posted a group picture from a recent event. I have to tell you, he looked good. He got taller since high school, for one thing, and he’s obviously been working out (it’s summer, so no shirt in the photo). He grew into a nice-looking man. I found myself feeling a little regretful and wanting to post a comment on the picture where he would see it.

This sort of thing happens to us all the time, whether it’s somebody popping up online or whether you run into him at the grocery store (of course while wearing your grungiest sweatpants and with spinach in your teeth). Or maybe it’s not an old flame but a former friend who did you wrong, or that girl who always beat you at everything from classroom grades to homecoming court. When people we had strong feelings about in the past resurface in our lives, it can bring up a lot of those old feelings. How do we respond when these situations arise?

First, I try to practice satya, or truthfulness. When I saw that photo, why did I feel regretful? Where did the impulse to contact him come from? Well, thinking back, he was the one who broke things off with me. Part of me wants him to see how well I’m doing, see how great I look, maybe feel a little regretful himself. See what you missed, Mr. Blast-from-the-Past! But that’s kind of vengeful, isn’t it? And when I examine that impulse to get in touch with him, I have to question what the motivation is. Hello, happily married now! I obviously don’t want to date him again. From what I’ve seen, it looks like he grew up into a genuinely interesting person, someone I would have liked to have had as a friend, but if I try to think about it realistically, that would be pretty weird. There are plenty of other genuinely interesting people out there whom I’m also not friends with, and it would probably be better all the way around if I tried to meet some of them if I want a new friend. Plus, I mean, I really like my life. My life isn’t missing anything by the lack of this person’s presence.

Now I’ve examined my feelings and I see that, although the feelings themselves are a valid response to the situation, there’s no need to act on them or reach out to this person. The next step is to practice non-attachment. I’ve recognized that I still have some feelings bound up in my past relationship with this person, and maybe it’s time to let that go. I’ll never truly know how he felt about me back in the day or what, if anything, he thinks of me now. That’s okay. I might selfishly wish to know that, but I accept that I never will. I need to try to let go of my attachment to the things that occurred in the past. At the time, I wasn’t happy with the outcome, and I would have liked to change it, but looking back, the things that happened all those years ago led me to becoming who I am today. If things had gone differently in the past, I might not have ended up where I am now, and that would truly be something to regret.

Once we let go of the past, we can try to let go of our attachment to results as well. For me, I don’t ever expect to contact this guy or to hear from him. That’s a part of my life that’s over, and I do wish him well. Instead of feeling regretful when I see a picture of him on Facebook, instead I can decide that I’ll be glad to see him looking happy and enjoying his own life. Namaste, dude. Maybe you’re in a similar situation, but after examining things you decide you will reach out and contact the person. At that point, you can let go of the results too. Maybe he or she will write you back, and maybe they won’t, but you did what you needed to do and now you can move on. Employing some yogic philosophy can help us deal with these situations more maturely and come away feeling more satisfied, not just with the situation itself, but with our own behavior too.

 

Practicing Patience, Patient Practice July 8, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:29 pm
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The other day in the car at rush hour, I was stuck at a red light behind a guy in a jeep. His mind clearly wasn’t on the the road. First he vigorously dug around on the floor on both the passenger side and all over the backseat, all while letting his car inch forward bit by bit as cars progressed through the light, barely glancing ahead as he did so. Then he leaned out the window to fix his hair in the side mirror. When the light turned green, he was all ready to move forward, only to throw his hands up in frustration when it changed to red before he made it through the intersection. When he did finally make it through, he stomped on the gas going up the hill… only to have to stop at the next light. Watching him, I couldn’t help but realize that I know I act like that all the time, but how silly it looks to see it! I had a much better experience in traffic that day than the guy in the jeep did, partly because I was entertained and horrified by his antics, and partly because I spent the time practicing patience.

I have always had a really difficult time being patient. As a kid, if I wasn’t good enough at something to do it right the very first time, I just wasn’t interested. Patience? Practice? Nah. Everything to do with reading and books and school came naturally to me, so that’s what I did and that’s what I got better at, and I decided sports were stupid. I could have been good at sports too if I’d wanted to be, if I’d practiced hard, but I wasn’t interested in being patient. I didn’t understand that good things come to those who wait; I wanted good things right now.

Many of the different texts I’ve read so far in yoga teacher training have emphasized being patient, slowing down, using time more mindfully. Mr. Easwaran includes a whole chapter on slowing down in Passage Meditation, because going slower allows us to think through our choices before we decide, helps us remember to be kinder to others. All the pranayama breathing techniques I learned last month emphasize that the breath should be slow and deep and even; the breath and the mind are closely related, so if you slow down the breath, you calm the mind too. Calm minds generally make better decisions, and calm people are often more content.

In the yoga sutras about the yamas and niyamas, we read about asteya (non-stealing), which includes being generous with our time. If we stop rushing around and leave when we need to leave to get to our destination on time, we’re going to have a much more pleasant experience. Don’t be distracted thinking about the next thing, but focus your attention on what’s going on right now. Sometimes what’s going on right now may be boring, but if we’re patient, we may learn something useful.

It’s important, too, to practice patience in yoga class. We can only do what our bodies are able to do that day. Sometimes I can get my leg straight in revolved triangle, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I feel strong enough to hold side plank pose comfortably; sometimes, no matter how I modify it, I wobble around. When we see someone demonstrate an exciting new pose, of course we want to try it right away, but our bodies might not be ready for that pose, or it might be hard to get the hang of it on the first try. We have to be mindful of our limits as we practice, be patient with ourselves, and not force our bodies into postures that could harm us. A patient practice is a healthy practice.

 

Kleshas July 7, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 9:29 pm
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In the yoga sutras, Patanjali identifies five “kleshas” or obstacles to achieving enlightenment. These kleshas are ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and fear of death. Each of us has these five obstacles rooted in our minds, but by following the teachings in the yoga sutras, we can learn how to push the kleshas down so they have less power over us.

Ignorance is the first and most important of the kleshas. By “ignorance” Patanjali doesn’t mean simply not knowing something; if I held up a banana but you’d never seen one before, you won’t know what it is or that it’s good to eat. Patanjali isn’t talking about that sort of normal ignorance, he’s talking about ignorance on the spiritual level. Our world, our posessions, even our bodies are changing all the time, but we keep on trying to view these things as permanent, trying to make them be permanent. We blind ourselves to the fact that things change. The only thing that doesn’t change is our true Self, the innermost Self that doesn’t age or get sick. We say, “I’m tired” or “I’m sad”, even though it is the body that gets tired and the mind that feels sad, not really “I”, our true unchanging Self. When we remain ignorant about our true nature, this prevents us from making progress on our spiritual path. Ignorance is the most important of the kleshas because once you remove it, all the other kleshas fall away too.

Egoism is the second klesha. We fall victim to egoism when we confuse our true Divine Self with the individual self. We all have a tendency to get caught up in our egos. We insist on looking at the world from our own limited perspective, not thinking about how others feel or what we can do to help. To remove egoism, we practice humility.

The third and fourth kleshas, attachment and hatred, go hand in hand. We tend to focus on our likes and dislikes, disregarding what’s truly healthy for the body and for the spirit in order to pursue pleasure or avoid discomfort, but pleasure and discomfort are both momentary. Of course we want to enjoy pleasant experiences to the fullest, but it’s important to keep an awareness that they only last a short time. When unpleasant situations come up, we should face them head-on, knowing that the challenge will make us stronger.

The final klesha is fear of death or clinging to life. Because of our egos and our attachments, we’re afraid to leave this world. It’s hard to get around this one – I for one really like my life and don’t want to give it up any time soon. But what I think Patanjali is getting at here is that everyone someday must die and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so why suffer needlessly with worry? Patanjali thinks we should practice acceptance: love our lives while we’re here, but go forth unafraid when the time comes.

These five kleshas hold us back, keeping us focused on the material world and preventing us from achieving enlightenment. So how do we combat them? Practicing the yamas and niyamas seems like a good plan. Patanjali specifically recommends three of the niyamas: tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (spiritual study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender, faith, devotion). This makes sense: spiritual study is an obvious way to combat ignorance, and practicing surrender would certainly help the fear-of-death thing. (And tapas, of course, is good for everything.) There’s also a lot in the yamas that can help. Practicing satya, or truthfulness, can be a reminder that everything changes except our true Self. Asteya, or non-stealing, and aparigraha, non-greed, remind us not to cling so tightly to material possessions, and ahimsa, of course, reminds us to put others first and be kind to all. When I first read the yoga sutras about the kleshas, I felt down – here’s yet another thing to worry about – but putting it in the context of the yamas and niyamas, which I already understand, helped to make this complex spiritual concept feel more manageable. I’m already working on this!

For more on the kleshas, and how you can use backbending yoga poses to work with the kleshas in your life, check out the great article “Fear No Backbend” by Hillari Dowdle in the June 2011 issue of Yoga Journal (84-91, 114).

 

yama/niyama redux / I-should-be-better syndrome June 20, 2011

I’ve been thinking a lot about the yamas and niyamas lately. Remember those? My first big assignment as part of my yoga teacher training was to read and think about the yamas, a set of five practices of self-restraint, and the niyamas, a set of five observances. After spending March and April reflecting on these things, I thought they’d be pretty ingrained in me. I was hoping I’d naturally remind myself to practice them throughout the day, and that I’d start to see my thought patterns changing.

Well, as you all know, I’ve done a lot of stuff during the past month or so, but consciously practicing the yamas and niyamas has not exactly been up there on the list. I think I still work on ahimsa pretty consciously (and I figure, if I’m only doing one of them, that’s the right one), but paying attention to and trying to improve my thoughts and my behavior is important for every single day, not just days when I’m supposed to be studying it. This is kind of the yogic equivalent of the ten commandments here. Don’t harm others, be truthful and generous, be moderate and balanced; be pure and simple, content, and disciplined; study hard and well, practice devotion. Be mindful. If I’m not paying attention, how can I say I’m being mindful?

Thinking back, I can say that even without being fully cognizant of the yamas and niyamas, I think I did a pretty good job of following them. I think I’ve been better about practicing non-violence in my words and in my thoughts. I’ve had the opportunity to be generous with my time and my support, and I think I’ve done a good job of that. I’ve studied hard and worked hard in my yoga practice. I’ve been very accepting and content with where I am in my life right now (although admittedly my life is pretty spectacular at present).

My husband F, with his usual impeccable sense of timing, sent me this great link the other day: Six Ways to Deal With I-Should-Be-Better Syndrome. This fits right in with thinking about the yamas and niyamas.

I’ve actually posted about my own experiences with I-Should-Be-Better Syndrome before, and I already try to do many of the things Amy Johnson recommends in her blog post: striving to be honest and truthful (practicing satya) and breathing (which, I’ve learned this month, is something we could all benefit from being more aware of). I also like her awareness that this is a universal issue – in Buddhism and in yoga, you work to feel compassion for everybody, every living creature, even that nasty parking attendant, even yourself, and if we understand that everyone is striving to be better, that it’s not just us, then that helps us to love everybody a little bit more, including ourselves.

I like Johnson’s practical, no-nonsense approach to this very emotional and personal issue. It’s hard to admit that you think you should be better, because really, you don’t want anyone to notice that you’re not already super-great. We feel shame when we get into I-Should-Be-Better mode, and it’s natural to try to hide shame. But being honest with yourself about these feelings is the first step to moving past them and feeling more content, more satisfied, and more peaceful, and that’s what the yamas and niyamas are all about.

 

Thoughts from Last Night’s Class June 15, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 7:06 pm
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A few miscellaneous thoughts on last night’s yoga class:

  • N’s classes are a pretty amazing workout. I feel challenged in a completely different way than I do in J’s class. It’s kind of humbling, actually, because I think it’s not hard for me to get puffed up about my yoga practice, and N’s class brings me right back down to earth where I belong. It doesn’t matter how bendy or strong you are – what matters is the intention behind the practice – but really, I am not so bendy or strong as I think I am.
  • N’s class also serves to make me feel old. Last night, my back hurt, the backs of my knees hurt, my standing leg hurt all through the balance poses, and my arms hurt and wobbled all over the place. The arms are a strength thing, and clearly I’m working on that just by showing up, but the back and the knees could be age-related. N’s classes, while inspiring me to do more, work harder, and get stronger, also remind me to be careful, be mindful, and not hurt myself.
  • Speaking of the standing leg in balance poses, N had us do another balance sequence that kicked my butt again. I think the issue for me is that we’re going from balance poses where we bent forward (like ardha chandrasana) into balance poses where we’re upright (like crane and tree). Plus, putting that much pressure on the standing leg for several poses in a row without a break is really rough, and N doesn’t give us time to shake it out after we come down. (I say “without a break” but I gave myself several breaks last night, and it was still really tough.) This looks to be just one more area where I need to practice ahimsa and be gentle with myself.
  • When I find myself hurting in yoga class, or unable for whatever reason to keep up and do the pose as everyone else is doing it, I have a tendency to get angry. How long have we been holding this?!, I’ll think to myself, or Down-dog twist again? We’ve done it five times now! Last night it was really hard for me to practice tapas and work through the burn, and really hard to practice ahimsa and counter those negative thoughts with positive ones. Again, I have to turn my brain around and see this as an opportunity: a difficult yoga class is frustrating, but it’s going to make me stronger, and my negative thoughts are natural, but they give me a chance to practice some loving-kindness towards myself. If I need to rest, it’s okay to rest.
  • I hate ardha chandrasana. I really, really do. I’m practicing it more this month and I’m improving, but still. It is just Not Fun.
  • And speaking of Not Fun, someone near me in last night’s class was experiencing a gas problem. Now, I have nothing but sympathy for whoever it was – I’ve been that person before, we’ve all been that person – but it just makes the whole “deep even breathing” thing a little more difficult. Grabbing my lavender-filled eye pillow for savasana was a big relief, let me tell you.
 

Gilgamesh and the Yamas and Niyamas April 17, 2011

Filed under: books,reflections — R. H. Ward @ 6:25 pm
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Reading the yamas and niyamas this month, I was reminded of one of my favorite literary passages. Gilgamesh is an ancient epic poem, chronicling the adventures of a long-ago king. Badly shaken and grieving after the death of his best friend, Gilgamesh sets out on a journey in search of the secret to eternal life, but what he learns is that we can’t control life or the future. What he learns is to live the life he has as best he can. Here’s my favorite quote:

“Humans are born, they live, then they die,
this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.”
– Shiduri the tavern keeper, to Gilgamesh

I see the yamas and niyamas in every line here. If Gilgamesh follows Shiduri’s instructions, he’ll also be following the yamas and niyamas, and he’ll be a better man with a simpler, more joyful, more spiritual life. I love that this wisdom isn’t just in spiritual books like the Yoga Sutras but also in one of the earliest stories known in human culture. I love that this epic isn’t just about adventure and ass-kickery, but about coming home and finding the best way to live.