Making Space for Contentment

I’ve just returned from leading a 4-day summer retreat that was all about cultivating contentment. Santosha (sometimes spelled samtosha or santosa, as well as several other variations) is one of the niyamas or recommended habits and practices of yoga.

Santosha is described as a state that is essential for changing the future.

Yep. I know. That seems contradictory, right? If we are content, why would we need to change anything?

It might be easy to misunderstand santosha as a need to remove all desires (which of course is a mysterious paradox: the desire to remove desire.) But I think it’s more helpful to think about santosha as a process of clarifying the difference between pursuit of cravings and pursuit of needs.

If we are always focused on what we don’t like in this exact second, or not exactly the way we want it in this moment, we are more likely to make rash decisions that are based on our immediate attractions and aversions. We go for quick fixes and we are less likely to make decisions that take into account the long view.

Restorative yoga is the quintessential place for cultivating contentment.

It can be so tempting to work to acquire postures, to own them, to be able to “do” them, which in the end isn’t so different from wanting to acquire stuff in an effort to be happy.

Don’t get me wrong here. I love doing crazy hand balances and working on achieving the almost unbelievable movements and shapes possible in body. There is something totally empowering and motivating about having a goal pose and then nailing it. But the real magic of yoga comes for me when I’m not working to achieve anything physical and instead working on being curious about and contented with whatever I encounter when I practice restorative poses.

Restorative poses give time and space to withdraw from the demands and the pressures to consume and achieve.

We get permission to land in a place where we don’t have to be motivated. This idea of being in a space where I lack motivation is an often uncomfortable one for me. Doesn’t that sound like a bad thing? I hear lack of motivation and I think lazy.

But imagine, or perhaps even remember, a time when you were still and quiet in savasana and you noticed some sound but you thought to yourself, “I hear a sound. I don’t care about that sound and am not going to do anything about it.”

When we make space and give ourselves permission to abide in that place, we have an incredible amount of control. We are choosing for ourselves what is important and what deserves our attention without any pressure to have more or to do more.

Judith Hason Laster, says

“You can’t run after contentment. It has to find you. All you can do is try to create space for it.”

Just consider whether or not you making space for contentment in your life and in your yoga practice. It’s not easy but I think it’s worth it.

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.

Focus, Fire, and Letting Go

Not too long ago, Will came inside from playing in the back yard and asked me if I knew where he could find a magnifying glass. We ended up finding one buried in his closet and he tromped back outside. Assuming he was just looking at some interesting bugs, I went back to whatever I was doing. Moments later Sadie came running in, shouting,

“Will is starting a fire in the yard!”

My reaction was just as you might expect but it turns out I needn’t have worried. Will was *trying* to start a fire… With his small hand-held magnifying glass, wet leaves, and the 4 pm spring time sun.

But… if all other conditions were right and if Will had been holding the magnifying glass still, it would have been possible to harness the power of the sun. A magnifying glass is able to focus the rays of the sun into a concentrated beam, then multiply it through the lens to make a fire.

This is… wait for it… yoga. (I’m so predictable, I know!)

We are capable of amazing and powerful things, including the power to heat, transform, even to destroy, just like the sun.

However, we can only harness our power with concentrated effort.

This kind of concentrated effort only comes with dedication to practice. And this part of yoga is hard. Because habits. The Sanskrit is saṃskāra, or the impression of our past actions.

We need to practice – many times in a vigorous and dedicated way – in order recognize and then replace the old habits that are impeding our paths or causing us suffering. In Sanskrit this is abhyāsa.

That all makes sense. In order to learn something new, you have to practice. Even my 6-year old in the backyard trying to start a fire knows this to be true. You need a dedicated practice, focus to get the fire started.

But you also need to let go. This word in Sanskrit is vairāgyā.

As hard as it is to practice, I think it might be harder to let go.

It might help to understand the importance of releasing, and for that we have to come back to saṃskāra again. Any actions, even the positive forming habits are saṃskāra. Just like the old patterns, these new ones we are forming eventually will not serve us anymore either.

The whole cycle is one of many beautiful paradoxes of yoga. We are called to practice, to be fierce, to become master.

But then, just when we feel like we are getting “somewhere”, we are called to let go of that mastery.

One of my students recently wrote, “I find it remarkable that Tara, who practices and teaches highly athletic versions of yoga, is also an advocate and teacher of restorative yoga. Her classes have helped me realize that both activity and deep rest are necessary.”

You got it, Margaret. Dedicated practice and then letting go. That’s the most yogic combination there is.

Get the conditions just right, start the fire, but then know when and how to put it out.

Need more “athletic” yoga in your life? Dedicate to your active practice in my summer weekly classes. Better yet, get your partner in on it with you. Need more resting and letting go? Retreat is almost sold out so get registered!

There’s more to strength than big biceps

This past month I’ve noticed a fair amount of discussion of “shows of strength”, from politics (“North Korean Missile Launch Fails, and a Show of Strength Fizzles”) to fitness (#bicepswinraces.) It’s got me thinking about strength, specially the Sanskrit word vīrya.

Of course it only takes a few moments of holding a warrior 2 pose to convince anyone of the role that strength has to play in yoga asana practice.

However, vīrya is describing a richer concept than just sheer physical strength.

The word vīrya comes from the root word vir, which means “to subdue, to overpower, to tear open, to display heroism.”

You might even recognize this root word from the name of the pose virasana. It is named for the well-known Hindu monkey god Hanuman, who is sometimes called “Vir Hanuman”.

Wait a minute, some of you are saying, isn’t Hanuman’s pose called Hanumanasana? And yes, you are right. The splits (hanumanasana) are expressions of Hanuman leaping through the air, one of many great heroic feats he does in service of Lord Rama. Wouldn’t this pose, a representation of Hanuman’s great physical strength and stamina be better suited to the name virasana?

Instead, the pose virasana is a kneeling posture. It is a pose of humility and devotion. It is a pose that is often used for meditation and a posture that you might take if you were in the presence of someone that you wished to honor. Many depictions of Hanuman show him in the kneeling pose at Lord Rama’s feet. Lord Rama represents a higher power. Hanuman’s heroism is in the context of devotion and service to a higher power.

I think the message here is that vīrya is more about the kind of inner strength we drawn from devotion and service to something bigger.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an external god to be worshipped (though it certainly could be if that is your faith tradition!) but instead one way to understand this higher power is as a power that is within each of us.

Which leads me to a story…

There once was a young woman who had grown weary of the unfulfilling grind of her daily life so she decided to quit the things that made her feel dull and lifeless. She knew it would be a struggle and didn’t know where to find the strength to pursue happiness.

She asked her teacher where she could get the strength and he replied, “It is in all of the books ever written. It will take you many lifetimes to learn it. Let’s get started!”

She asked the priest who told her, “The strength you need is obtained by devotion to God. You can find it through prayer.”

She asked the strongest man she knew, an endurance athlete, who explained, “I found it in climb to the summit of Mount Everest. I can help you train!

Everyone she asked had a different answer. She felt confused and even more distraught than usual. She went to her mother and explained her dilemma. On the verge of tears the young woman explained “I have a dream of happiness but I don’t know where to find strength for its realization. I asked everyone, but there was no one who could help me.”

Her mother smiled and said, “Darling, I gave you the name Virya at birth because it means strength. You asked everyone else but you never asked yourself.

The strength you need is part of who you are. Go and change what needs to be changed.”

Your Life

Snakes in the Grass

Not long ago a whole group of kids were playing after school in the neighborhood park. All of sudden, two kids came tearing out of the wooded area at top speed, screaming their heads off.

“A snake! A snake! A SNAKE!”

Predictably, my two boys – Jack and Will – immediately dashed up the hill in the direction of the snake with an eager look in their eyes.

Standing on the playground area it was hard to see exactly what was happening. Both of them bent down. Jack pick up a stick. There was a collective gasp among the kids and parents as he gingerly poked with the stick. Then he tossed the stick aside, reach down, and picked up…

…a rope.

What happened is an example of a avidya. (And in fact, a classic Indian example often told to explain the concept!)

Avidya is sometimes translated as the English word ignorance.

My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ignorance as “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness”. But it wasn’t that a lack of education or unsophistication that caused the first two kids to think they had seen a snake. Of course they know what a snake is and looks like.

However, in order for them to have seen that ‘snake’ in the first place, their minds discarded the possibility that it was a rope. Then their minds filled in the blank so they saw a snake in the rope’s place.

It was a kind of confusion or mistaken identity that caused the problem.

Avidya as not ignorance as Merriam-Webster defines it but more like a false impression.

The correct information or understanding is still there, it just gets obscured by something else. When all of the kids finally saw the rope as a rope, the snake was gone and everyone had a good laugh.

This kind of mistaken identity happens all the time, and not just to elementary school kids. We see situations, experiences, and other people unclearly all the time.

I’d even argue that we rarely see ourselves clearly.

So yoga is giving us the opportunities to figure out if we are seeing clearly or identifying with our misconceptions. It’s only with dedicated practice and a healthy dose of non-attachment that we can cultivate correct “sight” and see the ropes and snakes as they really are.

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!

How to Make the Season of Giving Last All Year Long

Many years ago, I went to a yoga class when I was on a vacation in South Carolina and the teacher kept saying things like, “this pose isn’t for you; it’s for someone else” and “give away this pose”. Every time she would say things like that, I would bristle.

What do you mean, this isn’t for me?

This time that I’ve worked so hard to carve out this time for yoga practice? This warrior 2 we’ve been holding here for an eternity? This backbend I’ve been attempted so diligently? These millions of rounds of kapala bhati? This busy mind of mine that I’ve been working to understand for years in my meditations? No, no, no. This is ONLY for me!

Then back in October, I went on a retreat with my best friend. The whole weekend was only for me; it was a girls-only weekend getaway reminiscent of the road tripping my friend and I used to do together back in our college days.

Several times throughout the weekend, Natalie Miller, the retreat leader, would say something like, “be generous to yourself.”

To be honest, going on that retreat felt like a big splurge, one that I felt a tad bit guilty about, but with Natalie’s reminders I started to remember that by practicing yoga, by setting aside a whole weekend to practice and just be, I was giving a very generous gift to myself. And it was a gift I deserved!

All weekend long, I noticed that I was more patient with myself when I didn’t know what to do. I was more forgiving when I messed something up. And above all, I was more curious than judgmental about my reactions to things.

But the unexpected thing was that all of the amazing benefits of my generous practice time ended up working to the benefit of others.

I didn’t feel flustered when the drive home took an hour longer than usual and I ended up 10 minutes late for a workshop I was teaching. My husband noted how relaxed I still looked and acted, even the day after I returned home. I felt undisturbed by the giant pile of laundry that had accumulated in my absence, something that otherwise would have caused me great angst.

You get the idea, right?

So I guess you could say that it just took me a really long time to learn the lesson that teacher was trying to impart in that class so long ago when she kept telling me that my yoga practice was for someone else.

Yoga practicing is an act of generosity and the benefits extended well beyond the practitioner.

Now as we are sitting at the end of the season of giving, I offer you a challenge. Come to your yoga practice this month, not because of a New Year’s Resolution and not because you are committing to change something about yourself.

Come to your practice as an act of generosity to yourself. Because you deserve it!

Practice and practice often. And notice how your practice benefits you and also everyone around you. It’s the best way to keep the season of giving happening all year long.

Threads of the Prakriti Carpet

The thing I love the most about home makeover shows is where they find something really valuable and unexpected under some badly designed wall or worn out carpet or boarded up fireplace. That stuff that’s over the top of the hidden treasure, like that old ugly carpet, is just like the yogic concept of prakriti.

Prakriti is the stuff of the material world. You can think about it as layers of forces or energy. The Sanskrit word for these forces/energies is guna. The word guna literally means strand or string or thread. So you can think about the gunas as the threads that make up a cloth. That cloth is prakriti.

In The Bhagavad Gita, the gunas are described as the threads of the cloth that make a mask or a veil. And that veil, like the bad 70’s shag carpet in the Fixer Upper house, is disguising something amazing.

One way to apply this in a more practical way is to start to consider what is underneath, out of sight for you. What is behind your desire to practice yoga? What is happening in your yoga poses that is more than just the outward appearance of the shape of the pose? What motivates you on (and off!) your mat? What is the intention that informs and underpins your yoga practice?

The fall is the perfect time to start to ask these questions and settle into the ways that yoga practice can serve you best through the colder and darker months ahead.

Not the Territory

m-sage-twist