Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Books: The Art of Happiness, by H.H. the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler May 27, 2014

The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for LivingThe Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living is based on conversations that Howard C. Cutler, MD, a psychiatrist, had with the Dalai Lama over several years. The author’s introductory note states that the purpose of the book was to collaborate “on a project that would present the Dalai Lama’s views on leading a happier life, augmented by [Cutler’s] own observations and commentary from the perspective of a Western psychiatrist” (ix).

Cutler chose to organize the book’s content thematically. The topics include the following:

  • Part I: The Purpose of Life (hint: it has to do with happiness)
  • Part II: Human Warmth and Compassion
  • Part III: Transforming Suffering
  • Part IV: Overcoming Obstacles
  • Part V: Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life

Each part except for Part V is comprised of three or four chapters discussing related topics. Cutler will often introduce a topic by giving a brief overview of the Dalai Lama’s thoughts, then will delve into the psychology behind the issue before returning to H.H.’s viewpoint and suggestions for dealing with the issue. Overall I feel like Cutler succeeds in meshing the sometimes very different viewpoints of Tibetan Buddhism and Western psychiatry, and I enjoyed the stories that both of them had to offer, but there were times when Cutler just didn’t seem to get what the Dalai Lama was saying and vice versa. In those instances, I was more interested in hearing the Dalai Lama’s viewpoint and just wanted Cutler to stop harping on whatever it was already, but overall this was pretty rare; I tended to enjoy both viewpoints.

One thing that I found interesting was how the Dalai Lama talks about eliminating negative states of mind. Just as in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Dalai Lama agrees that one of the best ways to eliminate these states of mind is to think of positive ones instead. For example,

“When talking about eliminating negative states of mind, there is one point that should be born in mind. Within Buddhist practice, the cultivation of certain specific positive mental qualities such as patience, tolerance, kindness, and so on can act as specific antidotes to negative states of mind such as anger, hatred, and attachment. Applying antidotes such as love and compassion can significantly reduce the degree or influence of the mental and emotional afflictions” (239).

This passage comes in Part IV, Overcoming Obstacles, in Chapter 12, Bringing About Change. This view fits in so well, to me, with Patanjali’s words in Sutra II.33: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.” I was really impressed and excited that Buddhist thought on this topic meshes so nicely with the yoga sutras.

The Dalai Lama’s wisdom is practical and straightforward; you can tell that he himself practices the same techniques he recommends. The book also includes instructions for several meditation practices (like this one), written in the Dalai Lama’s own words from transcripts of his talks. These are scattered throughout the book, as this isn’t intended as a meditation manual, but it’s nice that they’re included in places that make sense thematically.

Overall, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the Dalai Lama, one of the holiest and most revered people alive today, and to understand his perspective, his kindness, and his compassion.

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How Yoga Changes Your Body October 31, 2013

I’m loving this roundup of information from HuffPo on how yoga improves health and well-being. Click on the infographic for more information!


yoga infographic

 

The Latest Fresh Start: Holidays, “I Should Be Better” Syndrome, and the Power of a Good Routine July 16, 2013

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 2:00 pm
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Last week I was feeling a little down: angry, overwhelmed, the works. In mid-June I had (re)started my daily yoga practice and it had been going great, even when I could only manage 5 or 10 minutes a day. I saw myself become more productive in other areas of my life, too: at work, on the blog, and I even finished a writing project that’d been hanging over me for months. And all of this while YB was having a rough phase of sleep! I was so impressed with myself. But last week things got away from me. The July 4 holiday weekend meant a break in our routine; we had some houseguests, one of whom stayed an extra few days longer than planned, which was wonderful but also outside of our usual routine; and we threw YB’s first birthday party, which was a lot of fun and a lot of work. At first I hung onto my yoga practice and even took time for a good long asana session on July 4, but soon I was only getting in some seated stretches on the floor during YB’s playtime – which isn’t necessarily bad, but isn’t what I want to do every day, either. And then Wednesday and Thursday last week, I missed my yoga practice entirely. After fitting it in every day for 20 days in a row! I felt so angry at myself, even though missing yoga gave me the chance to catch up on some much-needed sleep. I also began feeling a bit overwhelmed at work, particularly in light of my upcoming job transition and all the things I need to accomplish before handing off my projects to other editors. When I feel overwhelmed by my projects, I sometimes cope by procrastinating and doing nothing at all, which is a terrible coping strategy and just makes everything worse. And Thursday night I fell down the emotional rabbit hole: I’ll never have a steady yoga practice again, I’m a bad mother, YB loves F more than she loves me, I can’t even water the garden right. You know how it goes. Another flare-up of “I Should Be Better” Syndrome. And thus did it happen that I neglected my blog all last week.

On Friday morning, I dragged myself to my mat, and after keeping my practice going over the weekend and catching up on some things at home, I’m feeling better now, but as I well know, “I Should Be Better” Syndrome is a chronic condition. It’ll be back at some point. So what have I learned this time around that can help me to deal with the problem next time? First, there’s the value of sticking to a routine, even on holidays and weekends, even when disruptions are occurring, even when I’m tired, because it makes a big difference in my mood. If I can stick to my routine and keep my practice going when things aren’t on a normal schedule, maybe it’ll give me the stamina to get through that non-normal more gracefully. And if I can stick to my routine in the long term, the practice might prepare me to deal better when life gets derailed on a larger scale.

And, as always, it doesn’t do any good to lay blame. There were certainly some events and issues in the past two weeks that I could have done a better job of handling, some behavior I could have improved and some yoga I could have done more of. But the past is in the past. Instead of laying blame on myself and looking backward, better to assess where I am right now and what I need to do to fix the situation and move forward. A friend of mine loves the saying “It is what it is,” but as F mentioned to me last week, “It was what it was” also holds true. No use worrying over what it is or what it was, since that can’t be changed; I may have some input into the future, but “it will be what it will be” is also an accurate thing to say. All I really can change is my attitude.

 

Man of the People May 23, 2013

Filed under: reflections,TV — R. H. Ward @ 12:40 pm
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Recently F and I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Man of the People.” In this episode, the Enterprise is transporting Ramid Ves Alkar, an ambassador and peace negotiator, along with his elderly mother, to a war-torn planet. When Alkar’s mother dies en-route, he remains calm and composed, and no one thinks much of it since she seemed to be old and sick, suffering dementia. Then Counselor Troi starts exhibiting strange behavior: acting angrily and maliciously, dressing seductively, making inappropriate lewd comments to other crew members. When she begins aging prematurely, the crew discovers that Alkar has created a psychic and empathic link with Troi: in order to stay so tranquil in his work at the negotiating table, he dumps all his negative emotions into Troi, and the onslaught is killing her. Captain Picard discovers that Alkar has done this many times, and the woman they thought was his mother was actually just his latest victim. Alkar argues that his success in negotiating peace is worth the women’s sacrifice because millions of people will be saved from death in war. The Enterprise crew disagrees and finds a way to break Alkar’s link with Troi. The overload of negative emotions rebounds onto Alkar, ending his life.

From a yogic and moral perspective, there’s a lot going on in this episode! Many people would agree with Alkar that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. However, Picard disagrees, saying, “You cannot explain away a wantonly immoral act because you think that it is connected to some higher purpose.” As Captain, Picard’s primary responsibility here is for the safety of his crew member, but Picard also refuses to let Alkar continue using others; when the Enterprise crew makes their plan to save Troi, they know that Alkar will choose another “receptacle” for his emotions, and they keep that woman’s safety in mind as well. They must rescue Troi, but sacrificing another innocent person is an unacceptable alternative, even if it means that Alkar will be unable to negotiate a peace treaty for the warring factions. Compromise isn’t acceptable here. Picard acts in keeping with the yogic principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

From a yogic perspective, I’m interested in Alkar’s chosen method of dealing with negative emotions. While we can’t create a psychic link and channel our emotions directly into another person, most of us do have some experience with pushing negative emotions away so we don’t have to feel them, or taking our hurt, fear, or anger out on another person with negative consequences. It’s perfectly natural not to want to deal with dark emotions – it’s not fun! But learning how to be with our emotions, how to experience them and then set them aside, makes us stronger people, calmer in the long run, and better able to enjoy happiness when it comes our way.

Alkar had chosen to work as an ambassador and peace negotiator, which is a noble aim, but it’s telling that, with an entire galaxy to explore and the meditation techniques of thousands of races to choose from, Alkar instead chose to oppress another person to accomplish his goals. Alkar tells Picard, “I get no payment. I have no power base, no agenda. I’m willing to risk my life simply to help others,” and Picard responds, “Do you think that makes you appear courageous? Because you’re mistaken. You’re a coward, Alkar. You exploit the innocent, because you’re unwilling to shoulder the burdens of unpleasant emotions.” Cowardly and selfish, Alkar is not the hero he thinks he is. He took the easy way out of dealing with emotion, unconcerned about the harm it did to others. Meditation is difficult, and learning to deal with strong emotion is difficult, but in the end, the rewards are far greater.

 

Stop Worrying April 4, 2013

Filed under: wellness,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 12:49 pm
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I was impressed with this article: The Most Surprising Regret Of The Very Old — And How You Can Avoid It. The author, Karl Pillemer, asked hundreds of older Americans what they regretted most, and the answer was often that they regretted the time they spent worrying. Here’s a quote:

Their advice on this issue is devastatingly simple and direct: Worry is an enormous waste of your precious and limited lifetime. They suggested training yourself to reduce or eliminate worrying as the single most positive step you can make toward greater happiness. The elders conveyed, in urgent terms, that worry is an unnecessary barrier to joy and contentment.

The implications of Pillemer’s research are clear: don’t waste time on worry. Instead, go out and live your precious life! The article includes three tips for how to accomplish this, including focusing on the short term instead of the long term (present moment!), and practicing an attitude of acceptance. This strategy fits right in with what Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras: when negative thoughts arise, positive ones should be thought of instead. For more ideas along these lines, check out my past post on Yoga & Emotions: Worry.

What do you think? What are your techniques to reduce how much you worry?

 

Thinking about shame March 12, 2013

Filed under: books,reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:21 pm
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Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, by Harriet LernerI’d read Harriet Lerner’s book Fear and Other Uninvited Guests before, about six years ago, but thought that rereading it now would be helpful for some of my current mommy guilt issues. And it was helpful, but I felt like a lot of the information was very familiar to me, either because I’d read the book before or from my yoga work and yoga reading. So rather than a full book review, I’ll just hit the highlights that particularly spoke to me this time around.

Lerner focuses on fear, anxiety, and shame, three emotions that everyone has but that no one particularly wants to deal with. Lerner’s book is unique in that she doesn’t attempt to come up with a quick solution. What she recommends is learning to work with these powerful emotions: rather than being afraid of them, dreading them, and trying to push them down, she recommends getting used to them and learning how to function with them. I kind of like this approach; it reminds me of what I’ve read in some Buddhist books about moving through strong emotion.

A few sample passages that I particularly liked:

Unlike guilt, the experience of shame is not tied to a specific behavior. Instead, it is linked to who we believe we are, deep down. We feel shame when we think we’re too ugly, stupid, fat, mentally ill, needy, or incompetent to be worthy of receiving love or even walking around on the planet, using up valuable oxygen. Shame feeds the conviction that another person couldn’t possibly love or respect us if he or she really knew the whole, pitiful, God-awful truth about us. Helen Block Lewis, perhaps the first psychologist to give shame its due, made this crucial distinction. Guilt is about doing. Shame is about being. (page 121)

Sometimes, though, our feelings about our appearance have little to do with anything about our physical selves at all. We’re anxious, insecure, or upset about something else. Shame and self-loathing get focused on the body, but the true sources of anxiety are obscured from view. Anytime we become anxiously overfocused on this or that part of our body or appearance, it’s a good bet that we are underfocused on something else, past or present, that we don’t want to look at. (page 155)

I thought these two passages described really well some of the things that I’ve experienced when I’m in a dark place. The first passage really nails my whole “I could be better” problem: it’s one thing to want to do a better job at something, but it’s something else to wish I were better in and of myself. There’s been many a time when I’ve been sobbing my eyes out in the kitchen telling F (or my previous partner, he got hit with it too) about how I fail at everything and wish that I were a better person: a better wife, better mother, better friend, just *better*. Reading this passage really connected, for me, that this wanting to be better isn’t about how good or bad I am in actuality, but is about some shame that I must feel about who I am. I can say confidently that this sort of shame can be really painful and debilitating. I struggle with it all the time.

I like the second passage because it’s the first time I’ve seen someone explain another thing that often happens to me: that when I’m upset about something specific, like a bad day at work or letting a loved one down in some way, the next mental step I take is to get down on myself for my appearance. I call it “falling down the rabbit hole”, because my thoughts just spiral down and down. “I really disappointed my mom – she deserves a better daughter. I was such a slacker at work today, I didn’t get anything done. And I’m SO FAT,” I’ll think in disgust. And whether I’m overweight or not, what the hell does that have to do with anything? Nothing. It’s just another convenient way to put myself down, a shame target for my brain to aim at.

Lerner’s point is that no matter how strong emotions like shame, fear, and anxiety are, we can’t let them take over or stop us from doing what we want to do. We have to keep moving, through the bad feeling. Everyone has negative feelings sometimes – we can’t help that – but if we just hide out and wallow in it, the shame or anxiety will only get worse, more paralyzing. It’s by daring to take action in spite of our fears that we can learn to deal with these strong emotions and get past them.

 

Anger and Patience December 11, 2012

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:00 pm
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A week and a half ago, YogaBaby got her first bad cold with a fever. Coincidentally, it was also the first time my husband F had to travel for business since YB was born. My mom came down and stayed home with YB on Thursday, since she couldn’t go to daycare, but the two of us were on our own Thursday night. I was pretty terrified: YB hadn’t been sleeping well anyway, and now she was sick. How would we get through the night?

It was an incredibly hard night, but we did get through it. I was there with my poor sick girl every time she woke up, over and over all night, ready with comforting arms (and boobs) to soothe her. It was the best mothering I’ve done since YB came into my life – I didn’t think about it or complain, I just did. As I rocked her to sleep one more time and watched the sun rise early that Friday morning, I let myself realize that the hard night was over – in a few hours we would go to the doctor, and a few hours after that, F would be home from his trip to help share the load.

Fast forward to Sunday morning. YB’s fever was long gone, but she was still under the weather, and even with F by my side, it had been a rough weekend. We were all tired and grumpy, me most of all, and I wanted a break. No nap or quiet time in the swing was long enough for me. I felt angry and resentful at being so needed, defeated and discouraged about my independence. What happened to that supermom who’d been here just a few nights ago? I hate being angry, and it was even worse to be angry at my little sick baby who couldn’t help being miserable. I broke down and cried.

I had been hoping to go to yoga class on Sunday afternoon, but after the weekend we’d had, I thought I should stay home instead. F made me go. The baby, feeling fine, was hanging out in her stroller helping her dad rake leaves as I drove away. The yoga class at EEY was taught by a sub, one of the current YTT students about to graduate in two weeks, and meeting her gave me a chance to reflect on where I was one year ago at the end of my teacher training. Throughout the class, I focused on centering myself here, right now on my mat, letting go of all the anger and bad energy I’d been feeling, reaching towards my truest self and the patience and kindness I know live there.

After class, I felt refreshed, as if the reserves inside me had been empty and now were full again (or, if not full, at least not empty anymore!). I came home feeling like I had something to give to my family again. Of course, when the baby cried for half an hour as we tried to eat dinner, I lost my composure again, but anyone would have felt that way, and later on in the evening I reached for patience and was able to find it.

This experience made me think about a few things in yogic terms. First, it was important for me to remember that sometimes I need to take care of myself first. I want to give my best self to my daughter, and if I’m exhausted physically and emotionally, I can’t possibly do that. This is such a vital thing to remember, and such an easy thing to discount and forget.

Also, examining my feelings and realizing I was angry made me think back to my musings on yoga and emotion last year. First, I had to acknowledge that I was angry, not just to myself but to my husband, out loud, and share my frustrations and fears, and let loose some of the intensity of the emotion by crying it out. Too often I bottle things up, which only serves to make me angrier in the long term. Then, according to Patanjali, the way to end negative emotions is to cultivate the opposite emotion instead. For me in this situation, the opposite of my anger was patience, kindness, my love for my baby, and my compassion, both for her feeling sick and for myself feeling tired and worn out. When I was able to focus on these qualities in a thoughtful way through my yoga practice, the anger dissolved.

I also needed to remember that I can’t be a supermom all the time. Sometimes I’ll do a great job, and other times I won’t, but that doesn’t make me a bad mother or a bad person. It just makes me human. We all strive for perfection (and I think I have a separate post brewing on that topic), but in an imperfect world, we have to take the good with the bad. I will never be a perfect supermom, but in all my imperfections, I’m still a super mom.