Posts Tagged ‘yoga and the brain’
practice is the goal
Last week I was working with a new client. She’s 52, and she’s been practicing yoga for a long time. It shows in her attention to the detail of the poses, and, as important, in her ability to find meditation and stillness in her daily life.
As we discussed what it takes to revive a stalled yoga practice, she said, you know, I need this work with you to get restarted for 2010, but I’m so grateful that I actually do know how to quiet my mind. She went on to say:
I wasn’t sure I ever believed that you could just turn your mind off, but then, after practicing for these years, I’ve figured out that, yes, you can. It just takes practice.
She stated this fact so simply, without any drama, discomfort or complaint. She said it better than any teacher I’ve ever had, in fact: You can still your mind without any real issue — you just have to keep at it. It isn’t a drive-through experience, and it cannot happen while you are moving, unless you have figured out how to meditate while you are actually still, sitting, for a little while. Then you can be anywhere — walking, in conversation or relationship with someone, in a fast-paced vinyasa class — and you can observe whatever is happening at that moment and be still in your heart with it.
Yoga teaches that the heart is the true mind. I believe that my client was talking about being at peace when she talked about “turning off” her mind. This was a powerful teaching for me, and I am grateful to share it here.
I wish you a still and peaceful 2010, filled with practice and gratitude.
Where the stories live
Last night, at Tara Brach’s Insight Meditation group, we meditated and then listened to Tara talk about hearing the stories that we tell ourselves, over and over — the stories about our lives that feel “normal,” but that keep us unhappy and restricted. She pointed out early on in her talk that when the mind is constricted, so is the body. This means that we tighten ourselves when experiencing (thinking) stress, and we escape or fight the stress by developing coping strategies that eventually settle in as constriction and repression in the body. This happens from childhood. We can only unearth these repressions if we sit with ourselves and create space for awareness to enter the body.
Tara concluded her talk by emphasizing how essential it is to catch ourselves in a story — “I’m so depressed,” “I’m weak when it comes to…,” “I never meet the right guy…,” — and feel where that story lives in the body. Where do we feel constricted or held back?
In the context of a yoga class, the question can often be answered simply. Forget the story! It’s my hamstrings! My upper back! My abdomen!
And yet, combining the physical learning we do in a yoga class with mindful meditation is powerful. Whereas Tara suggested that we listen to our bodies when we catch ourselves telling a “typical” story about ourselves, we can also feel what’s in the body first — and then notice our thoughts.
So in yoga, you can say, OMG I’m in savasana (corpse pose) or trikonasana (triangle pose) or this friggin’ backbend and can’t relax my shoulders! What kinds of thoughts are you having right then? What are they about, and do they sound familiar? From there, sit in meditation — later that night at the end of class or after class, or the next morning before work — and observe the shoulders. And then notice the thoughts again. And then go back to yoga class in a few days and see what turns up.
This is the work of opening to consciousness. It comes in from every angle, whether you want it to or not. It comes flooding in when you give it more than one door.
from a new teacher trainee, on the discussion of dharma
and i think a better translation of dharma than “duty” is “groove.” not groove as in “rut,” but groove like on an LP: you’re the needle. you move along the groove, music happens. don’t travel in the groove, and you’re either just bouncing along the edge, around and around, or (if you’d been previously traveling along the groove for a while) making a horrific screech. it’s binary, too: you can’t half-assedly follow the groove. once you start on the track, you’re either in it making music or making a horrible noise. and eventually you spiral into the center of the record.
gasp in, breathe out
One of my graduating TTs is writing a paper on asthma, yoga, and medicine. We just had a very interesting talk about how to reconcile the medical approach to asthma, and the yogic approach to breathing.
My perspective is that while there are other factors — genetics, environmental pollutants and allergies, immune system — one of the main things that causes asthma is stress. This is the same for most if not all other diseases.
The purpose of yoga is to still the mind, which can only happen after layers of stress have been recognized, dealt with, and released by the practitioner. This is not a simple, linear, or even one-time process. It involved a lifetime of observation, and finding and trusting qualified teachers to help you shake the stress out of you.
Once you know how to shake it off, you always know how to shake it off. That’s how embodied knowledge works.
Pertaining to asthma, yogic breathing (pranayama) is a remarkabe way to take stress out of the body. As stress leaves, the nervous system approaches what it knows to be equilibrium, and breath panic calms down. I believe that all asthmatic patients should explore pranayama with a qualified practitioner, at least in conjunction with their medication if not in replacement of it. This is a good book advocating the same thing.
A reason we avoid asanas we don’t like is because typically we want to avoid pain. This makes sense, as pain could be associated with death, and we have a biological imperative to live on.
Your brain is always going to go where the strongest sensation is, which during yoga class can often be–especially for beginners–the place of pain or discomfort.
This is why breathing mindfully is so radical. Who knew? This process is waiting for you, right under your nose, and yet the breath wafts in and out, sloshes through the lungs and out, every day all day, without ever being noticed.
Breathing mindfully through a strong sensation in class–the hamstrings, the shoulders, and neck as their tightness emerges–will relax the reaction to the sensation and give you more information. Am I really in danger here? Should I back away as though from a predator in the wild? Or can I stay here for a few more breaths and see what happens next?
As you breathe and contemplate these question when “pain” or a strong sensation comes up, the brain goes to that spot through the breath. This is when the practice becomes much more interesting, and harder to avoid. If we stay in the space where we let ourselves avoid the sensations we don’t like, and search only for the ones we crave, growth in yoga doesn’t happen. If we really breathe and inquire, the only thing that *can* happen is change.