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!

Let It All Be

savasana-quote

Where is the love?

During recovery from surgery, a student of mine asked her doctor when she would be able to return to her asana practice, adding, “I love yoga!” Her doctor simply replied, “Does yoga love you?”

It’s a question worth asking.

How many times have you come to your mat as a way to “fix” something that’s “wrong”?

How many times have you come to your mat to practice as a celebration of love for whatever is happening in your body, your mind, your emotional self?

And how many times have you come to your mat to achieve, to “own”, a particular pose?

For a long time, my asana practice was comprised of wholly corrective measures.

Savasana to make up for my chronic lack of sleep…Handstands (and caffeine!) to get me amped up for big presentations in my former office worker life… A punishing vinyasa practice to make me feel better about eating that pint of ice cream.

I also had my fair share of yoga practicing simply to achieve a particular pose.

I wasn’t doing these poses to understand body mechanics or to celebrate the amazing possibilities of human movement.

Nope. This was just me doing crazy stuff for the sake of crazy stuff. This was me, consuming and commodifying yoga postures.

Don’t get me wrong. Asana is incredibly good and helping you right the ship, so to speak, to help you strengthen and mobilize the body when you are off kilter. And it’s also really fun to be able to do arm balances and big backbends! Sometimes those poses are the kinds of things you need to motivate you to get to your practice.

But yoga asana is also offering you more than all of that.

As you know have by now noticed and perhaps experience firsthand, the postures in asana practice are never really done. There’s always something more to explore, another step to take, a different variation to try.

When I figured this out, I felt a little disheartened at first. I had this moment where I thought, “Wait, you mean I’ll never be done with this!?” But as time went on, I realized this is one of the most fantastic things about asana and the whole reason we call it a practice.

Yoga in all of its forms, not just asana, is a continual process of discovery.

There is always something more to consider, something else to try, some other way to contemplate what you discover. Simultaneously each asana you practice, in whatever form you do it, is always complete.

It is as if yoga is saying to you, yes, there are another 27 version of this pose but what about the one you are doing right? THIS pose. THIS version.THIS moment. Why are you doing this? Are you fully present to what is happening here? Can find steadiness and ease in body and mind, just as it is? If so, this pose is just as much yoga as all of the others. This pose is not lacking.

And by extension, YOU are not lacking. You are whole. You are complete.

Purna is a Sanskrit word that means ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ or even sometimes it is translated as ‘perfection’.

Purna in asana practice is a call to be really present at each stage and each moment as you are experience it. Because this stage, this moment, is totally and completely whole. Only in experiencing it fully can you see clearly for what the pose or the experience might have to teach you.

So does yoga asana love you?  The answer is yes. Yoga always loves you when you practice from a space of curiosity and celebration of the wholeness that is inherently you.

Goodness and Love

goodness-and-love-quote