Wandering Away, Wandering Back

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By Rebecca Ingalls

 

If eyes can see, they can see yoga represented in online snapshots, in videos, in classes, in magazines. The eyes see bodies not our own doing yoga, and the mind may inspire the heart toward yoga. See the yoga, go to the yoga, sign up for the class, arrive. The rumor of yoga has been a blessing in many ways.

 

But the mind may also pressure the heart to do yoga so that a drive toward doing leads to a kind of physical or mental being. The pressure may push the heart out of the dynamic present and into a series of stills of the imagined body, a picture of a self. And, in so doing, we lose the inner sight of the yoga.

 

It’s a challenge to be among others in a room where yoga is being guided and not to be distracted outside of our insides. The job of the teacher is to gently help the body and the mind to find space, but the mind is busy. Very busy. It wants to know when this body will be able to do what that body does; it may also want other bodies to see what it does so beautifully. The mind may wonder what’s for dinner, or when this practice will be over so that other tasks can get done and be over. The mind yanks us out of the attention to the breath and the quivering presence of a posture, and we reach with the brain toward what we hope we will become, or to what we imagine or worry is next. Or to what we fear we will never become. Or, with pride, toward what we have become.

 

Now,the teachings of yoga.”

 

The first of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the guiding texts of yoga practice, is this: atha yoganuaasanam. Now, the teachings of yoga.” I emphasize here in this quotation the word “now”; this first sutra anchors the attention to the present moment. The present moment—the now—is where we begin our practice, and it is where we aim to remain in our practice as we softly attend to the breath-led movement of asana. However, we know that the reaching back, around, and forward with a goal-oriented awareness takes us out of the now, out of the body, into an ethereal space that is disconnected from the process. In those long, distracted stretches of time we are not in the now. So, what to do?

 

Compassionate understanding: being out of the now is where the mind wants to be. It is essentially human to engage in surveillance of the environment, to future-think, to dwell on the past as experiential teaching and use it as a lens to perceive the present and future. It is fundamentally self-protective to respond to struggle with anxiety, to practice a vigilant comparison of ourselves to others. Indeed, negativity bias is what has helped us to survive in the wild for thousands of years.

 

And yet, can we ask ourselves whether surveillance is always necessary, and whether it may be causing unnecessary pain? There is suffering in the tension between what we expect and what reality is presenting to us; do we have to subject ourselves to such suffering? Can we believe that when we allow ourselves to bring the mind to the present moment—to the breath, to the nose, to the feet on the floor, to the bottom in the seat—we can actually let go of that struggle?

 

That inquiry is at the heart of yoga—are we willing to sit in that heartspace for a while or longer? Are we willing to come back to it again, and again, and again?

 

Because we are accustomed to mind-noise and mind-wandering and self-comparison, we bring those tendencies to yoga. Of course, we do. But the yoga becomes the mirror that shows us we are doing it. The teacher reminds us. And, in our developing self-practice, the Witness in our own minds reminds us. Sometimes it takes long stretches of postures before we realize that we have mentally wandered far from the now. And then we come back to the moment. We wander away, and we come back.

 

That is the essence: we come back. Release from goals, let go of being on the look-out for the past and future. Hear the breath, be steeped in the process of the practice. In turn, we are processed by the practice: wrung out, relieved, relocated in time to the only moment we can know. This one.

 

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Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., MSN, CNM, WHNP-BC, is a certified nurse-midwife, women’s health nurse practitioner, and yogi. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for 11 years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

6 Tips for Yoga Newbies

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Is this the year you’re getting into yoga? Congratulations! What a wonderful beginning!

 

So…being a newbie might mean that you sometimes feel a little confused, hesitant, or self-conscious about your practice. You might be asking yourself: “Am I doing this right?”

 

Working with yoga newbies is my passion. I love helping people find relaxation and confidence, as they step into the yoga world.

 

Here’s my list of 6 tips to help you get started on your unique yoga journey.

 

1. Breathing is the most important thing. 

If you’re confused about how to move or how to position your body, that’s okay. Understanding the poses will come in time. For now, simply set the goal of paying attention to your breathing throughout your yoga practice. Conscious breathing is the cornerstone of yoga. When we pay attention to our breath, there are innumerable benefits to body, mind, and spirit.

 

2. Yoga is pure love.

When we practice yoga, we say YES to a world that is full of more beauty, more love. When we practice yoga, we say yes to a world where people take care of themselves and each other. At the end of a yoga class, when we bow in namaste, we are saying “I see the goodness in you, which is the same goodness in me.” When we unite our intentions in this way, we usher in a new world—a world of love.

 

3. Five minutes is better than no minutes.

If you only have five minutes today, then why not roll out your mat and do some yoga? Getting into the regular habit of doing yoga is so amazing for our wellbeing. When I hear my students complain that their lives are too busy for yoga, I remind them that if they have five minutes, they can practice. I’d rather see someone doing five minutes every day than doing one long session per week. Each time you roll out your mat, you are building new neural pathways that reinforce the feeling that yes, you do indeed like yoga, that yoga is fun. And who knows? You just might develop a pleasant “addiction” to yoga—if we skip a day, it just feels incomplete!

 

4. Yoga is not a competition.

When you’re in a class, the aim is not to do “better” than the other students. The goal is not comparison. Rather, yoga is all about community and collaboration. When we see the woman on the mat beside us holding a beautiful, complex pose, we can compliment her after class (Instead of getting jealous that we can’t yet do that pose.) When we see the man in the back of the class struggling to attain a posture, we can mentally send him warm thoughts. After class, we can strike up conversations with our classmates. “It’s so great to see you today. How long have you been practicing yoga?” Through these simple gestures, we can actually assist our teacher in co-creating an environment where we are a supportive community, rather than merely individuals taking a class.

 

5. Yoga is not a race.

Ultimately, our practice teaches us that time is not important. In fact, we enjoy our practice most when we relax and let go of timelines. We are not trying to get somewhere by a certain date. There is no rush. Our yoga practice teaches us to breathe and surrender to the wisdom of the Now. We realize that everything we need is right here, in this moment.

 

6. Explore different classes.

There are many, many styles of yoga and many, many different teacher personalities. There are yoga classes that make you jump and sweat and there are yoga classes where you sit completely still for many minutes. There are yoga teachers that make you laugh hysterically or cry tears of relief. They are yoga teachers who are more like personal trainers and seriously kick your butt. Try different classes to get a sense of what’s out there. No need to rush the process. In time, your perfect teacher will appear. For me, when I discovered my teacher, it felt like coming home.

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Hope you enjoyed these tips, dear friends! If you’d like more inspiration for your yoga journey, please feel free to drop me a line and I’ll add you to my FREE weekly newsletter. Namaste.

Power in the Practice of Yoga

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I think about how we define yoga.

I think about what it means to say, “I do yoga.”

I think about it because I feel a conviction about re-choosing it before every practice in order to practice purposefully. And, more and more, I feel obligated to find authenticity in my practice and in myself.

 

Defining Yoga

If you open Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, you will find these words in Sutra 1.2: “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah.” While the Sanskrit may seem complex, it actually helps us to define what yoga is.

There are several ways of translating this phrase, and yoga scholars toil over translating it precisely. Here is one way that I particularly like: “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” (Satchidananda, 2007, 3). In other words, through yoga we learn to manage stillness in the mind.

But achieving this stillness is no simple task.

Here in this post, I want to cast a light on yoga that illuminates its connection to power. Power has many meanings, but, simply, it is the ability to manage thought and behavior. Specifically, I want to discuss how, in mastering the fluctuations of the mind, we are facilitating and strengthening a flow of power within us.

To clarify, I am not referring to powerful control over others; rather, I am referring to the mastery of one’s own mind.

Why is it useful to have this discussion of yoga’s relationship to power? It is useful first because power is both elusive and necessary: it is difficult to define, and yet it is a force that we all need in order to move freely and kindly in our worlds. Secondly, it is useful because yoga may not only help us to recognize the presence of power that exists already—for it is often the realization that power is even present at all that is a first step in channeling it—but it may also help us to strengthen it in our lives.

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Power imagined

As an idea, power may be known to us by the dream of what we could do with it, or by how we feel “without” it. We may believe that power will help us to rise above or push through the difficulties of anxiety, chronic illness, conflict, unhappiness, or pain. In so doing, we may believe that it will bring us the energy, strength, motivation, or courage to negotiate those difficulties.

On the other hand, and rather than reaching for the dream of power, we may find ourselves feeling a deficit of power: downtrodden, weak, frightened, at the mercy of something else. In all of these aspects, we are right about how we imagine power.  For each of us as individuals, purposeful and nurturing power is both needed and deserved.

 

Power and protection

A few years ago, a friend asked me how I could possibly commit to practicing first thing in the morning every day. She said, “I would much rather just let my day unfold, to see what happens.” To her, I responded: “That is why I practice. I want to prepare myself for what might unfold.”

Before I began my journey with yoga, I had adapted over decades to awakening in fear and compulsion. It was a ritualistic stress inoculation that I developed as a small child in a stormy, inappropriate grown-up environment. My power took the form of a clenched-hearted surveillance: what could possibly happen today that I won’t expect? What mistakes might I make? How might I upset someone else, or become upset because of someone else? Whom might I disappoint? What if I become hungry? Or tired? Or confused? What if my world is unsafe today? My unending anxiety was a power-draining illness. It presented in my little body with physical symptoms, and it stayed up all night in my dreams.

Of course, we can get used to almost anything, and this form of power stayed with me for many years as if it were my own skin. To be sure, it consistently felt much more like prison than power.

 

Power re-imagined

As many do, I stumbled into yoga. And the shift was immediately palpable. Through yoga, I felt a quieting in the mind. Some days subtle, some days profound. Each day a relief. But also a fear: would this relief take away my power as I had known it? Would I become vulnerable without it? Could I even survive?

“The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” As Pattabhi Jois said, “Do your practice, and all is coming.” Over years, and with dedication to practice (a daily leap of faith), my power has been transformed. Indeed, it was a kind of power that gave strength to the vigilant fear-noise, the angst-ridden fluctuations of mind that aimed to protect me from what might happen. But the quieting of the mind has freed a dynamic flow of power that is composed of:

~the endurance I have always had and the fortitude I have built,

~the spirit I was born with and the wisdom I have developed, and

~the dream of self-love that has stayed with me and the realization of worth that has emerged over time.

In practice, power feels like breath, balance, courage, calm, strength, love, patience, acceptance. In my life off the mat, power is a graceful presence that weaves together the mind, body, and spirit into something not needful, but rather abundant and authentic.

In as much as it is these things, it is also—always—the relief of that hypervigilance that I remember viscerally. Sometimes it feels like floating in the absence of anxiety. And it takes some time to realize that the floating is not vulnerability, but power.

 

Power manifested in practice

Yoga allows us to sense power in multiple forms. Maybe it manifests itself as the audible, palpable release of breath through discomfort, whether it be in the physical body or deep within the emotional or spiritual realm. Perhaps, while we struggle with feeling overtaken by chronic illness, our practice reveals to us a power to maintain strength or comfort or even resilience in the body.

At other times, power manifests as a kind of will, as in a challenging pose: the body wrestles with fear or memory, but the will convinces the fear to abate. Sometimes, power manifests as a peaceful overthrowing of accumulating anxiety: the storm of anxiety rages, but peace floods in and reigns over it with calm.

Or, the presence of power can be as simple (and as challenging) as finding the strength to pull oneself out of bed, into the uncertainty of the day, and onto the mat. To be sure, many days of early morning Ashtanga practice have begun that way for me: on those days, it is enough just to find the ability to push through the morning melancholy and aching desire to hide from myself, in order to find my feet standing in Samasthitihi. Sometimes, I don’t know quite how I got there at the top of my mat, other than to trust that I must have transitioned from bed to mat by a gentle power that I have cultivated over time.

All the while on this journey, the memories of transformation remain steadfast and continue to accumulate. Perhaps they do for you, too. This presence of power—still fleeting—can itself be a reminder of the difficulties we have experienced, and might still be experiencing. Why didn’t I discover yoga as a child? Where was this power when I needed it? And worst of all: what if this power goes away? Although the anxiety is painful to remember, painful to process, yoga is there for us to take its shape in the body and find the breath.

And as we transform, we can hold our memories with some warmth when we consider the wise words of Richard Freeman, who has said, “Yoga ruins your life.”

It does. It ruins it beautifully.

 

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Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., BSN, RN, is a former Associate Professor of English, and is now a registered nurse and a nurse-midwifery student. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for nine years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.