The Art of Yielding

Will and I were in the car a few days ago, about to merge onto 495 when the traffic in front of us came to a dead stop on the ramp.

As we were paused, Will looked over and noticed the yield sign.

“Mom, does that mean stop?”

When I explained that it means the cars on the ramp have to make way for the cars on the highway and slow down to find the right time to fit themselves into the flow of traffic, Will was perplexed by why the car ahead of us had stopped.

I told him that it can be scary to have to merge into this fast moving lane of traffic and sometimes it feels safer to just stop.

“I can understand that,” he said in his oh-so-wise 8-year old way. “But mom, how do you know when to go?”

Now that question made me pause.

How do we know when it is time to go? How can we tell if it is time to assert ourselves into the flow or if it is wise to hang back?

The answer, of course, is my favorite… IT DEPENDS.

And of course, we know when it’s time to go because we practice.

Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness by Donna Farhi

This whole conversation with Will reminded me of this book. So when I got home, I dug it out from the depths of the bookshelf and remembered the brilliance of Donna Farhi’s Seven Principles of Moving. In very brief summary:

The first principle is to breath, and more specifically to let the breath move you.

Second, she says we need to yield.

Yield to the Earth to find levity.

At first the idea that we need to yield to the Earth to find lightness seemed almost counter-intuitive. But I realized that my idea of yielding was this first set of definitions in my dictionary:

capitulate… relent, admit defeat…quit, give in, give up…

I don’t know about you, but giving up or giving in rarely makes me feel light.

But what Donna Farhi is really talking about is here:

This is what we are called to do, my friends, whether it is on the road or on our yoga mat or in our relationships.

Pay Attention.

Permit.

Allow.

This is kind of yielding that gives us access to levity. And to possibility.

It doesn’t feel like sinking or giving up.

It doesn’t feel like fear.

And it definitely doesn’t feel like uncertainty.

When we pay attention, permit, and allow, we know when it’s time to take action…Or not.

But you know what?

It is not easy. It takes tons of practice.

Just like driving the car down the onramp to merge into the fast-moving traffic on 495 takes practice.

So I’ll see you on the mat and out in the big wide world where we can practice the art of yielding together.

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.

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.

The Call of Autumn

I’m so weary of this hot late summer heat. And while it is a big relief to have the kids back to school and the corresponding routines settling into place, this transition back into the fall has me feeling all out of sorts.

In an effort to ward off my fall transition funk, I took a wonderful Yin Yoga class with the predictably phenomenal Machelle Lee. During class, she reminded me of this old Krulwich Wonders piece I heard long ago on NPR about what happens to leaves in the fall.

Of course this season gets its name because the leaves from trees fall. But what is actually happening is much more fascinating. If leaves were to stay on the tree in winter, they would photosynthesize during the warm part of the day and then they would have water in their veins, which would freeze. That frozen water would cause the leaves to die. With the leaves dead, the tree would died shortly thereafter.

Perhaps even more fascinating, as a way to defend against this possibility, the leaves don’t actually fall from the tree. Instead, the tree develops these cells that cut off the leaves. Basically the tree pushes the leaves off. It’s as if the tree is saying, ‘Get out of here, leaves; it’s time for me to cut back and hunker down for what’s to come.’

This is the call of the season:fall leaves

Get grounded.

Pare down.

Take care of yourself.

 

So consider this your official autumnal invitation to get back to your mat. The fall semester at Willow Street begins Tuesday, September 6. Check out my full list of weekly classes.

And there is still space for you to join my annual fall retreat. There is one room for 4, 2 spots in a room for 3, and one spot in a room for 2.

Plus, if you are ready to take your yoga practice to the next level, the Willow Street Immersion begins September 9. It is such a huge honor to be a part of this program.

Hope I’ll see you soon!

Back to school

It’s back to school time in Chez Lemerise. What strikes me the most is the change I see in my kids and their friends after being away all summer. It’s not just that everyone has grown a few inches and are wearing new shoes, but there a clear shift in their energy and mine as well.

It is such a big time here that I sometimes forget that not everyone has this big transition at the end of August and the beginning of September like our household does. And yet in class last night one of my students remarked how even though she doesn’t have kids, she can feel the back to school enthusiasm and it renews her interest in yoga.

Whether you or members of your family are heading back to school or not, it really is a great time to recommit to your yoga practice. If a weekly class isn’t in your schedule these days, check out one of my workshops. Or maybe you need a whole weekend away. My fall retreat at the beginning of October can fit that bill.

I hope to see you on the mat this month or maybe at that PTA meeting.