The Right Stuff for Non-Attachment

One of my kids’ favorite book characters is Chico Bon Bon from the “Monkey with A Tool Belt” series by Chris Monroe. Do you know these great stories?

If you don’t know Chico Bon Bon, you should definitely check out the Monkey With a Tool Belt books.

Allow me to summarize.

Chico Bon Bon is a monkey with a tool belt. (You could have guessed that from the title, right?)

He has absolutely all of the tools anyone could need for anything. All of the things. As you can see.

In one story, Chico gets captured by an organ grinder and taken to the circus. The story is about how he uses his tools to escape.

Every time we read this book – and I’ve read it so many times I could probably recite it from memory for you – I think about the classic Indian allegory about catching monkeys. It goes like this…

Do you want to catch a monkey? Let me tell you how.

Build a small box of wooden slats to hold a banana. Place a banana in the box in the jungle and go out of sight to wait.

Soon enough, a monkey will arrive. He will be able to put his hand between the slats to pick up the banana but he will not be able to get the banana out through the slat.

The monkey will become OBSESSED with getting this banana out. He will try every trick he knows. He will pull and yank. He will twist and bang. He will be so very focused on getting this banana out that you will be about to leave your hiding place and walk right up to him.

He might even notice that you are approaching but he will not let go of the banana. He will be so deeply attached to the banana, unwilling to release it, that you will be able to pluck him right up.

I’m not sure if this is true or not but the point of the story is pretty clear.

Freedom for that monkey is so close. When he hears the human approach, the logical thing to do would be to let go of the banana, pull his little hand out and run. But he doesn’t.

How many times have you been holding onto something so tightly, trying to solve some problem, to the point that it captures you?

I have. Dozens of times.

The story is meant to be a lesson in practicing aparigraha or non-attachment or sometimes non-possessiveness. I hear this message in a infomercial sales pitch voice:

Are you suffering because you are holding on to something too tightly or too long? Let it go and you are free!

Sounds so easy, right? And yet.

Here’s where I think about good ole’ Chico Bon Bon.

I think we need some tools to help us figure out let go of the bananas.

The solution to the grasping too tightly problem is probably somewhere between Chico Bon Bon’s overly stocked tool belt and just simply letting go.

We probably don’t need a zoozle and a snoozer like Chico’s. Whatever the heck those are!

And we definitely don’t need 2,100 yoga asanas either.

Fellow restorative yoga advocate and teacher Jillian Pransky recently wrote a great blog post about the difference between letting go and letting things be. This distinction is at the heart of the lesson of aparigraha. Check it out.

And perfectly on topic, in this short video Chico Bon Bon creator Chris Monroe talks about how Chico Bon Bon is about to get his own Netflix show.

I love how enthusiastic she is and also totally not surprised by it. Consider her attitude as she speaks about how it happened. It’s a great example of non-attachment.

Buying and Selling Goats

Do you know this folktale about a yogi who lives in a tiny house with her husband, her mother, five children, a dog, two cats, a cow, and chickens?

Well, as you might imagine, she was feeling so overwhelmed by the chaos in our daily life that she went to her guru for advice. Her teacher told her the problem was easy to solve:

Buy a goat.

Really? – she thought with great skepticism. Should I really be adding more to this chaos?

Nevertheless, she trusted her teacher who had never led her astray so she bought a goat and brought the goat home.

Now she had her husband, her mother, five children, a dog, two cats, a cow, chickens, AND a goat running around chomping on everything. Things were even more crowded and chaotic than ever before.

The exasperated yogi returned to her teacher who told her the solution was easy:

Sell the goat.

‘Really?’ she thought with great skepticism once again. ‘I just bought this stupid goat!’ But trusting her teacher once more, she sold her goat.

As she looked around her house at her newly goat-less house with her husband, her mother, five children, dog, two cats, a cow, and chickens she thought…

Wow! It’s look how peaceful it is around here!

While I’m (only slightly) tempted to make some joke about the rise of goat yoga, this story is really just reminding us of how yoga can sometimes work in an unexpected way.

So often we come to our yoga practice as a way to let go of something. Maybe it’s tension, the trauma of an injury or an emotional experience, or the distress of life in a fast-paced demanding world. And when the aim is to reduce, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to add something.

But when we add an engagement in a particular part of our bodies, or an intense breath practice, it hones our focus. Then when we let go of that precise effort – when we sell the goat – there is a tangible, noticeable sense of relief.

Buying and selling goats ends up as a perspective shift that informs what it really means to be at ease in body, mind, and otherwise.

Now I know this story of  buying and selling goats might seem like a big contrast to the message I left you in last month’s blog post.

One of the greatest gifts yoga offers us is the promise that we already have everything we need. And also, sometimes we got so wrapped up in everything we have going on, we can lose our perspective. It’s only until we add one thing, and then take it away, that we have the same perspective shift as the heroine in the story.

You must look within for value, but you must look beyond for perspective.

-Denis Waitley

In other words, I know summer can be a super busy time. I can hear you thinking, ‘Come to class now? Really? You want me to add one more thing?’

But yes, come to buy and sell some goats and I think you’ll be delighted by the results.

And I know, I know…

 

Inquire Within

Irish stone sculptor Helen O’Connell at work

Have you ever watched a sculptor working?

Even if you haven’t, you can imagine. It’s totally mesmerizing.

She is there working at a solid block of stone, chipping away small bits at a time to make a something you didn’t even see at first begin to appear right before your eyes.

Her vision and willingness to work at manifesting it reveals the shape. She’s literally removing the stuff that conceals the beauty of the stone for everyone to access.

Many years ago, my teacher asked me to meditate on and write about all of the reasons I wanted to study yoga and to study yoga with him.

I submitted my “assignment” to him, which included all of things I wanted to learn and all of qualities that I admired about him.

He barely looked at what I wrote and simply handed the papers back to me and said,

“I can’t give you any of this. I can only help you learn that when you are truly practicing yoga, you find all of these things within you and know how to discard everything that isn’t.”

This was truly a revelation to me!

All along, I had been trying to use yoga to accumulate wisdom and understanding from someone and something external. I was practicing postures and pranayama and meditation trying to accumulate things into a sculpture of a yogi. But I just kept adding on and adding on and feeling a bit overwhelmed.

At that time, my yoga was a continuation of the message we hear almost constantly from every direction. The message goes like this:

The more you have and the more you do, the better/happier/healthier/more successful you will be.

But my teacher pointed out to me that this was a complete misinterpretation of yoga. And a common one at that.

Practice should be helping us seeing what is concealed. It’s not about adding things on but it is about chipping things away. This is how we reveal and enhance those qualities in us already that are concealed or simply forgotten.

Yoga is really offering us totally revolutionary message:

You already have everything you need.

You are already everything you need.

Chip away at whatever isn’t your best most beautiful self and you will be able to reveal and enhance the qualities that make you the best version of yourself.

Even as I type this, I’m in awe of this possibility. But for as often as I assure myself and even experience this exact thing on my yoga mat and in my everyday life, some part of me remains skeptical.

I can hear that little voice saying inside whispering,

“But are you sure that there is no connection between a perfect triangle pose and everlasting joy?”

Do you hear that little voice too?

It might be a really good time to make a list of your own. What qualities are you trying to obtain in your practice of yoga? What do you admire most about your yoga teachers?

After you make your list, go back and see if you can catch even the smallest glimmer of those qualities in you. I’m betting there’s a pretty good chance, you need to do some chipping away to reveal them in their fullest.

Because, really, yoga is really meant to be teaching us how to “inquire within.” And it takes a lot of practice.

Inquire Within cartoon

 

Step 1: Notice, Acknowledge, Allow (Or Is That 3 Steps?)

Just a few days ago I was cooking in the kitchen and I heard a kid fight brewing in the living room. It started off with a snippy remark. Then I heard stuff animals being throw, then some yelling, then pillows were thrown. By the time I arrived on the scene to intervene, at least one book had been thrown and an iPod with headphones attach was raised for a chucking.

“Hey, hey. Pause here a second! You guys are really angry right now!”

Both boys looked at me and said at exactly the same time, with exactly the same grimace and red face and bulgy forehead vein, in exactly the same growly voice and snarled, “I’m not angry!”

Denying an emotion or an experience we are having is something we have all done at one time or another.

For me it usually goes like this…

Husband: Are you okay? What’s wrong?
Me: Nothing. I’m fine.

Why? Why do we even do this?

I think it might be because we don’t want to feel angry/tired/sad/whatever we are denying. Some emotions have been deemed “bad”. Some of our experiences are painful and just downright unpleasant! And who wants to acknowledge that we are in pain – physically or emotionally?

Yoga invites us – encourages us! – to acknowledge, allow, and even accept the experiences we are having. It’s big part of connecting to ourselves.

If we are using our posture practice as the place for exploration on this point, it might look like acknowledging that our tree pose feels wobbly. Or maybe acknowledging that we are talking to ourselves in a harsh way when we can’t do a pose in the way we think we should be able to do it.

Give this a try in your everyday life. When you stand on the metro platform or in line at the grocery store, is your weight on both feet? I’ll bet it’s not. And what about your knees? Are you locking them? I’ll bet you are.

I’m not trying to say that there is some ideal posture for everyone (read or listen to this fascinating piece!) I’m not trying to say that every time you stand up, you need to be in mountain pose.

And I’m definitely not saying we have to be complacent.

Practicing yoga is not about accepting and then throwing up our hands and saying “oh well this is how it’s going to be.” It’s just the opposite, actually.

The only way we can move forward toward whatever it is we want is to know our starting point.

Back in the day before GPS and smart phones that could pinpoint your location for you, if you wanted directions you had to know where you were before you could plot your course toward your destination.

Let’s go back to the knee locking. Noticing that your knees are locking, or in other words, hyperextending and moving beyond a functionally straight position, can give you good information.

Knee locking is one of those unconscious things many of us do, often in an unconscious effort to brace ourselves and feel a sense of stability. Shoes with heels exacerbate this tendency. The problem is that as the knees curve back, the tops of thighs and hips have to move forward to compensate. This puts a bunch of pressure on low back. To compensate for the low back, the pelvis tucks into a posterior position in an effort to reduce pressure on the low back. Now the lumbar (low back) spine is flattened and the cervical (neck) spine flattens reciprocally so the head juts forward.

Long story short, hyperextended knees can contribute to low back and neck pain.

So if we want to move toward a pain-free low back and knees we have to be able to notice, acknowledge, and accept that our knees locking and that might part of the problem.

Then we can move forward to what we want and intend for our body’s experience. Our asana practice is the place where we can notice and adjust the physical habits like the way we use (or don’t use!) our bodies.

Meditation is our way in to our to do this same thing with our emotional self. It’s our tool and strategy for noticing, acknowledging, allowing, and then choosing to respond in a way that is more helpful for what we want in our lives.

Here’s a great video of why meditation is a worthwhile practice. If you are reading this, I probably don’t need to convince you but honestly, I just can’t get enough of this amazing animated mouse and hedgehog. And who doesn’t want a unicorn thrown in for good measure? Watch and see.

 

 

Precisely Imperfect

woman with question mark sign over her face

Is this me? You’ll never know!

I like going to yoga classes where no one knows me. Too often I’m in a class where students know I’m a yoga teacher and I feel pressure to practice in a particular way. To be clear, this pressure is totally self-imposed.

I’m sure no one really cares if a nail the handstand or not.

But I feel the pressure anyway so I seek out places to take classes where I can be anonymous.

Well, a few weeks ago I went to a studio where I’ve never been before and took a class with a new-to-teaching and new-to-me teacher. It was one of those crazy unexpected times when I ended up at the only student in the class. Hard to be anonymous when you are the only person there.

A few minutes into our session, the teacher asked me how long I’ve been practicing yoga. When I answered that I’ve been practicing yoga for 18 years, she said, “oh, well that explains why your poses look so perfect! You shouldn’t be in a beginner’s class!” She certainly meant it as a compliment but it felt like the wrong kind of compliment. I really considered what she said and the whole thing reminded me of this story that one of my students shared with me.

He came to his first yoga class at the recommendation of his doctor when he was 68. Around that time, his daughter was teasing him about how inflexible he was as he was getting in and out of her car. He replied, “Just you wait until I finish yoga!” Nearly 5 years later, as he told me this story he smiled as he said, “Well now I know better. I’ll never finish practicing yoga.”

My student is totally right. There is no endpoint, no perfect way to do a pose, no final version of a posture. And because of that, we are never done, never perfect.

It’s because we aren’t aiming for perfection in our postures.

Perfection is chock full of self-criticism and judgment. Perfection comes from moving from the outside.

Wait. Does she only have one arm and one leg? That’s not perfect!

Of course we have to have some starting point, some common way to talk about the general shape of postures. For example, an inverted v-shape in your body with you hands and feet on the mat and your hips up high in the air is downward facing dog pose. But the general shapes of the poses are only the start, not the goal.

Instead of perfection, we are meant to practice from the inside out.

Precision cares about the placement of the body, not because there is some ideal shape, but because we are cultivating mindfulness of action. Precision is a process. Practicing with precision means we are never done. I really think we put the emphasis on the wrong things when we are aiming for perfection in yoga poses.

My friend Naomi recently wrote an inspiring blog post about rediscovering the joy in her yoga practice.

Many times we have to step away from the outside pressure and judgements about what is a perfect pose to find our joy in practice.

 

BKS Iyengar in shouldstand lotus

Obviously this is not me doing lotus in shoulder stand (It’s BKS Iyengar)

As my unexpected private lesson was wrapping up, the teacher instructed me into shoulder stand. Then she asked me to add lotus position for my legs. I attempted it and managed to get only one leg in place.

She seemed a little disappointed. So I jokingly told her if I kept practicing shoulder stand with lotus legs for another 18 years I would be able to do it. She shook her head and assured me in an eager and super-earnest way that if I tried it everyday, I’d definitely be able to do it in a few weeks.

Or never, I thought, as I ended in savasana with a Mona Lisa smile. I know it really doesn’t matter if I ever get my legs into lotus while I’m in shoulder stand.

Precision not perfection.

The Yogi’s GPS

I’ve driven to my hometown in York, PA from the DC area more times than I can possibly count. Certainly hundreds – maybe thousands? – of times since I moved to MD in 1999. And yet, not so long ago I was driving to my grandmother’s house and I totally missed my exit. What? How is that possible?

signs pointing in different directions

Well…I have a terrible sense of direction. Like really the worst. I have zero instinctual understanding of where I am and the route to take to get to where I’m going. It was an even worse dilemma in the not so distant past when I needed actual road maps to plot my courses.

Luckily for me, the modern navigational technologies of GPS and a smart phone has resolved any serious issues with my lack of sense of direction when it comes to getting places.

But I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my way when it comes to less concrete things like getting to my grandmother’s house.

Equally fortunate for me, yoga offers me a kind of GPS for the non-physical moments of feeling lost.

Prajñā, often translated as clear understanding, can also be understood as clear direction. It is one of the five virtues, along with focusstrength, faith, and retentive power.

Yoga offers us opportunities to cultivate focus, strength, faith, and retentive power in order to have a clear direction and understanding of the self and ultimately life.

Prajñā has three important and specific components:

  1. Knowing what we want and where we want to go;
  2. Recognizing when we are on the right course to get there;
  3. Knowing where we are when we start.
Where am I going? Hello, sankalpa.

How can I get somewhere if I don’t know where I am trying to go? As George Harrison sings in Any Road, “If you don’t know where you’re going/Any road will take you there.”

Working with an intention or sankalpa is a strategy that helps get at exactly what it is that we want and how we get there. Kelly McGonigal wrote a really fantastic article about sankalpa and how to set one that is powerful and meaningful. I find it super-helpful, especially as the year is winding down and I start thinking about what it means to set a New Year’s resolution.

Am I on the right path? Where am I right now?

line drawing of woman meditatingCyndi Lee is the teacher that has inspired me most lately to access a clearer picture of whether or not I’m on the right path. Her meditation tradition called shamatha, a technique based on Buddhist teachings. The premise is that the essence of our being is unconditional wisdom and compassion. But it’s easy to lose track of our wisdom and compassion because other real (and imaginary) drama gets in the way.

It’s become a regular strategy for me now to ask myself, “is this reaction you are having right now coming from a place of wisdom and compassion, or is it a result of being hangry/tired/sick/scared/grumpy/etc?”

It’s hard to make good wise decisions when the basic needs of body and emotional self aren’t totally met. But sometimes it’s even harder to recognize when I am abiding in a state that is not wisdom and compassion. Fortunately I have meditation and a very helpful husband to continue to call me out in the most loving ways possible.

Reenter the five virtues.

Santa Claus in tree pose

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Chairman and Spiritual Head of the Himalayan Institute, explains as we nurture focus, strength, faith, and retentive power, our clear direction unfolds before us. Essentially prajñā means that we understand “what we are supposed to learn from the pleasant and unpleasant experiences that life brings, and ultimately, know how to use our worldly achievements to fuel our spiritual growth.”

While yoga is helping me to figure out my clear way forward into 2018, I’m still pretty grateful to modern technology for helping me navigate in my car. Even luckier and oh-so-appropriate for the season, Santa is the voice of my directions on Waze right now.

Happy holidays, yogis. I look forward to seeing you this month and in 2018!

On the matter of being in and out of a body

Not too long ago, one of my students had what she described as an “out-of-body experience” in a restorative yoga practice. It reminded me a bit of the experiences described by some of transcendental meditators that I used to hang around.

Those amazing yogis had the most intense meditation practices of anyone I’d ever known.

They were super far out, yearned to be in that space all the time, and specifically cultivated a meditation practice that would take them there at will. (On the flip side, most of them had a hard time paying the rent or being in committed relationships. But that came from never putting their energy or focus back down and into their daily lives.)

The yogi from my class who had the “out-of-body experience” said she firmly prefers the kind of yoga that puts her *into* body.

She jokingly said she was about to jump up out of savasana and into a triangle pose.

I told her a story from the Mundaka Upanishad about Shaunaka, a householder yogi. Shaunaka goes to his teacher and wants to know why he isn’t making more progress in his study of yoga. His teacher explains that while Shaunaka’s practice is steady and correct, he is succeeding in becoming master of only lower knowledge.

The Mundaka Upanishad goes on to explain in a very beautiful and poetic style, more beautiful than my retelling could do justice, the true purpose of yoga.

The benefits of yoga practice come when the student works toward mastering the Self.

My teachers have given me a similar chat about my own yoga practice. I’ve been stuck in asana-land these days and I recognized this experience in my student, too. We joked about it.

If just practice down dog long enough and in exactly the right way, we are sure to attain Self-realization eventually.

Ha! Neither of us believes for a second that yoga asana can take anyone to this place. That doesn’t mean yoga postures are a waste of time. Asana is a fantastic way to improve the health of body, and to get us more fully connected to the body. Asana has definitely helped me to recognize ways that my body and my perceptions of it are the causes of suffering.

But let me tell you first hand, it’s so much harder to face all of the stuff that comes bubbling up when the moving and posing stops.

Even the most complicated yoga posture feels like a breeze compared to those crazy demons that can come popping up in the quiet stillness.

I definitely can’t claim to have experienced any of the transcendent “out-of-body” experiences that my student or those meditators I used to know have had.

But it’s in the quiet times when I really start to dig into understanding the interworkings of Self.

And that’s when the practice of yoga really starts.

Who Has Time and Energy for This?

A few years ago I thought I wanted to go back to school to be an Occupational Therapist. I knew I was going to have to take a bunch of prerequisite courses (a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion doesn’t really cut it) so I went to Montgomery College to talk to an admissions counselor.

The counselor was great; he helped me figure out what I would need to take to be able to apply for the OT program and then he had me take a math placement test.

I tested into Remedial Algebra. That’s a nice way of saying I needed to go back to 4th grade. Seriously. Suddenly my two years of prerequisite courses became four years of just math. Eek! Could I have studied up a bit and taken the placement test again and probably done better? Sure! Could I have powered through those additional courses? Sure! Did I want to? Absolutely resoundingly: no.

Here saying no was actually a yes.

I’m telling this story as a contrast to all of those other stories you hear about incredible and far-reaching goals achieved with hard work and serious acts of willpower. We regularly hear those stories. Things like the story of Alex Honnold, my 10-year climber’s idol, who just happened to do the most dangerous free solo climb of El Capitan. No biggie. Ha!

But we don’t often hear the more common stories like mine. Those ones about regular folks who have an idea, realize how much work it will be to bring that idea to fruition, and then decide not to pursue the goal because it isn’t really worth it.

There’s absolutely something inspiring about seeing someone achieve their goals after lots of sacrifices and hard work. But I think it might be equally inspiring and perhaps more empowering to hear stories like mine.

We all have millions of goals, desires, interests, and behind every one of those is a certain amount of willpower to accomplish it.

If we acknowledge this and the choose with confidence to let go of certain goals, would it be possible to reclaim the willpower and energy that belongs to each of those goals?

There seems to be a kind of unspoken (sometimes very much spoken!) narrative that if you don’t go after your goals you are a slacker or a failure. But sometimes not going after your goal is about optimizing resources.

What could be possible if we could stop directing attention and effort at the things that aren’t really worth it?

In asana this can looks like making the appropriate amount of effort in each pose. This is not about working more or working harder but working differently. Perhaps it comes as a shift to some part of our skeleton, such as unlocking our knees and untucking our pelvis. Or sometimes it just means doing a pose in a different way so that there is a different load on a different part of the body.

Still other times it means doing something different with your yoga that might not even be asana at all. Maybe it’s time to revisit pranayama or to reconnect with your meditation practice. It is an 8-fold path and asana is just one piece of the puzzle.

As you move through the month of July, vacationing, working, summering how you do, consider what kinds of goals you have – the in-process ones, the yet to be started ones, the abandoned ones. How much willpower is there behind each of those? Could you be content with the ways that you have let go of goals that were too much work to achieve? I think you just might be able to redirect the latent willpower in those not-so-worth-it goals in order to move closer to what you really want.

Your Life

Green Cup Moments: A Lesson in Attraction and Aversion

Not too long ago, Sadie, my 3-year old asked me for a drink. When I gave her the cup, she threw the most epic tantrum to ever be thrown. She stomped and shouted:

“I can NOT drink from a green cup!”

I rolled my eyes and nearly lost my temper but we worked it out and I brushed it off as typical three-year old drama.

Not too long after that, I was telling one of my teachers about a time when I attended a workshop with a very famous yoga teacher. I described how this very famous yoga teacher turned me off because she was sitting up on a throne (literally a throne!) to teach and she would make some very big shows of normal things like drinking water. I was also put off by the way she would make these big dramatic pauses when she was speaking, as if to make sure everyone was really paying attention to her.

I said to my teacher, “I prefer when teachers are a more down to earth, not so much pomp and circumstance.”

My teacher replied, “I prefer when teachers know what they are talking about whether there is pomp and circumstance or not.”

Touche. My own green cup moment.

Attractions (rāga) and aversions (dveṣa) can be impediments on the way toward manifesting intentions or fulfilling desires, or getting the experience or knowledge we seek.

Of course just like there are no categorically bad actions, attractions and aversions are situationally dependent.

We can experience this in asana practice. Everyone has attachments or aversions to practicing particular poses or practicing poses in particular ways. When presented with a different variation or way to practice, those attractions and aversions might prevent the practitioner from accessing the benefits of the pose.

The only way to tell whether or not attachments or aversions are impediments is to be really clear about exactly what it is that we want from our practice.

It also helps to continuously inquire about each time we encounter something in practice that we immediately like or don’t like.

Need help figuring out if you are caught in the trap of attractions and aversions? Spring is the perfect time to sort out your intentions, your attractions and aversions, and to renew your commitment to practicing. Come see me on the mat and we’ll sort it out together.

Namaste, yogis, and happy almost-spring!