One of the first aspects of meditation I was introduced to is that it can be taken anywhere and practiced at any moment. But over my first few months of consistent practice, I developed an increasing aversion to finding new spaces in which to meditate. I had my ideal space at home dedicated to my practice, which felt like enough when I considered...Read more
Lately I have this desire to get rid of things—it’s not a familiar sensation.
I’ve always admired the adventurous types that can pack their lives into compact suitcases; the people who are ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice, who aren’t afraid to leave where they’ve been in order to go where they haven’t. I admire them, but I’m not one of them.
I like to root into the places that I live. I take comfort in seeing familiar faces, and in walking familiar paths. I collect books for my shelves, spices for my kitchen, and artwork for my walls. I hold onto letters from old friends, gifts from relatives, and even the candles from my twenty-first birthday. I crave adventure, but I often get cold feet. I love hellos, but I dread goodbyes.
But in the past few weeks, three things that I’ve read have settled into their own homes in my mind: and they don’t seem ready to pack-up anytime soon. These things have caused me to confront my desire to collect, to hold close, and to stay, without wanting to toss away, to release, or to go.
1. "Let live what can live, and let die what must die."
This phrase is from Clarissa Pinkola Estés Women Who Run With the Wolves, a book that some of us at The Perri Institute have been reading over the past couple of months. In it, Estés talks about the “Life/Death/Life” cycle, which is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—or beginnings, endings, and beginnings again. As I continue to read this book, I am fascinated by the manner in which the author talks about death—not necessarily the death of humans, but the death of certain aspects of our lives. It isn’t something scary, or sad, or even all that alarming. It’s actually something rather freeing, and more importantly, it’s necessary; if we don’t allow what must die to die, then there is no space for the living to live. Particularly thought-provoking to me was her application of this cycle in relation to love:
“A part of every woman and every man resists knowing that in all love relationships Death must have her share. We pretend we can love without our illusions about love dying, pretend we can go on without our superficial expectations dying, pretend we can progress and that our favorite flushes and rushes will never die. But in love, psychically, everything becomes picked apart, everything...To love means to embrace and at the same time withstand many many endings, and many many beginnings—all in the same relationship.”
Whether it’s love for our family, our partner, our friends, or our art, each one of these relationships must be able to withstand both addition and subtraction. We must be able to recognize what these relationships need more of, and what they need less of. We can’t be afraid that letting go of what we no longer need will deplete us—instead, removing unneeded luggage will actually revive us.
2. “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”
Recently I read this post on Elephant Journal, in which the author, Tamara Star, states that the way we keep our homes translates directly into how we run our lives. “Let’s pretend I’m in your home right now,” she writes. “Take a moment and open your closet. Are there a bunch of clothes in there you never wear, but continue to hold on to, just in case?” Guilty. “When we hold on to things just in case…We’re not trusting that what we need, or who we’ll want, will be there if we let go of what’s no longer working.”
This issue of trust is huge. There’s something scary about getting rid of things, about saying goodbye—it’s frightening to think we may never see them again. What if there comes a time when we need them? What if there comes a time when old ideas, old desires, old relationships, and old goals become relevant again? But this author is right to question the validity of these fears. If we’re afraid to let things go because we’re afraid they won’t be there in the future, then that fear is masking the fact that we don’t trust we’ll be able to handle circumstances that may arise. We’re not trusting ourselves. We’re not trusting that we’ll be able to gather our materials once again, should the time come in which we need to do so. By not trusting ourselves and the wisdom and strength that we’ve developed simply by living, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.
3. “Well something’s lost but something’s gained in living everyday.”
When in doubt: Joni Mitchell. This quote from “Both Sides Now” perfectly encompasses the inflow and outflow of our daily lives, and it also taps into how we address this cycle. We can focus on loss, on death, and on what we have to give up, or we can focus on gain, on life, and on what we now have room to receive. Mitchell reminds us that the Life/Death/Life cycle Estés speaks of is occurring every single day. We can’t afford to mourn every loss. We also can’t afford to be afraid of letting go. Being human is about experiencing hellos and goodbyes on a daily basis.
So what does all of this have to do with yoga?
Aparigraha, translated often as non-hoarding, is one of the five yamas—or disciplines for conscious living—in yoga philosophy. In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar writes the following:
"By the observance of aparigraha, the yogi makes his life as simple as possible and trains his mind not to feel the loss or the lack of anything. Then everything he really needs will come to him by itself at the proper time.”
Training ourselves not to feel any loss might seem a little ambitious, but the overall point still stands. Estés, Mitchell, Star and Iyengar are all saying the same thing; as yogis, part of our work is to recognize that we must be willing to let go of what no longer serves us. We must trust that what we need will be there for us when we need it—often what we “need” is something we already have, tools that we’ve already developed in our practice that aid us in whatever is to come. This reminds me of my home yoga practice, in which handstand plays a starring role. I’ve been so stuck on the idea that my heels must touch the wall in order to achieve the asana, that I haven’t taken the time to step back and realize that this idea is no longer serving me. I’m no longer thinking about how I need to organize my body in a strong, supportive way that will allow me to stand on my arms—instead I’ve become obsessed with the end goal, a goal that won’t be realized by practicing in a way that is no longer useful to me. Now I’m focusing more on finding maximum suspension: advice that TaraMarie had given me a while back, that I feel it is time to return to now. I’m challenging myself to see how long I can float my legs off of the ground, before gravity pulls them back down. Right now, the flotation duration is pretty minimal. But the idea is new, it is exciting, and it makes me feel more like an adventurer, and less like someone who is stuck in a ditch. I’m letting new practices live: new practices that never would have arrived--or rather returned--if I hadn’t been willing to let the old ones slip away.
When we’re off the mat, applications of aparigraha are also plentiful. Whether it’s old clothes in our closets, excessively expired food in our refrigerators, or understandings of our friends and families that are no longer relevant, we must be willing to recognize what we’re hoarding, recognize what no longer serves us, and be able to let it go. Only then can we clear space for what's new, and what's prevalent.
Lately I have this desire to get rid of things—I’m hoping it becomes a more familiar sensation.
As we move into the tail end of summer, I can't help but sense a little bit of unrest. Aside from the unseasonably mild, cool temperatures, this summer season has been a tumultuous one. Injustice and discord in Ferguson ,MO, fighting in Ukraine and Israel, an Ebola outbreak, and some shocking celebrity deaths come to mind. On a more personal scale, many of my close friends, family members, and colleagues are experiencing upheavals in health, relationships, careers, and projects. Simply put, I've found the typical ease of summer to be lacking.
Especially significant to the yoga world, we experienced the death of B.K.S Iyengar a week ago. Attributed with bringing yoga to the Western world, Iyengar believed that yoga could be practiced by anyone, regardless of any physical or mental challenges. Particularly influential was his introduction to using props (blocks, straps, etc.) to achieve better alignment in yoga postures.
I'd like to share this section of this New York Times article about his death:
“We were just coming out of the ’60s change-your-consciousness thing, and many of us were in our heads, and wanting to meditate, and reach Samadhi,” or enlightenment, Patricia Walden, a longtime student of Mr. Iyengar’s, said in an interview in 2000. “Iyengar was, like, ‘Stand on your feet. Feel your feet.’ He was so practical. His famous quote was, ‘How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?’ ”
Were it not for his celebrity in the West, Mr. Iyengar would hardly have gained a reputation in India, said Latha Satish, who heads a major yoga institute in the southern city of Chennai.
“He was at the right time at the right place; he would not have survived here,” Mr. Satish said. In India, he said, “everybody was interested in Western education; yoga was not so popular.” Mr. Iyengar’s trademark improvisations — like the use of blocks, blankets and straps to assist in holding difficult postures — were adopted “because of the need of students abroad,” he said.
I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about the elite, privileged status of yoga in modern culture. With so much injustice, violence, and suffering happening in the world, how can educated and wealthy Americans ignore the needs of others and spend their money instead on yoga classes? Is there some sort of inherent moral dilemma in choosing to spend one’s time stretching and “letting go” instead of spending spare dollars and hours in the fight for human rights? Are we hiding from bigger problems within the comfort of our own need to self-analyze and self-serve?
As out of context and over-simplified as these questions are, I’ll be the first to say that I really have no idea how to answer them. The issue of a human obligation to aid economic and racial injustice is simply too complex for one person to answer in a Sunday morning blog post.
What I do know, and what I think Iyengar knew, is that the yoga practice is a transformative one. By examining the self in physical, mental, and energetic capacities, I believe yoga teaches useful skills in life off the mat: empathy, forgiveness, tenacity, the ability to pay attention to details, skills of discernment and decision-making, how to listen, how to see subtleties and interpret cause and effect. Iyengar gave Western practitioners blocks because he saw a need for them. As teachers, where do we see a need for our skills in a world full of immense suffering and inequality on an immediate and global scale, as well as in a world full of seriously over-stressed, technologically saturated, and unhealthy (albeit comparatively rich) Americans?
Interestingly, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the 8 Limbs of the Yoga Practice begin with codes and guidelines for ethical living, or, in essence, how we relate to other human beings. I believe our relationship to self and other is intricate and multi-directional. We cannot love and serve others if we do not know how to love and serve ourselves, and vice versa. The yoga practice gives us tools to navigate this scale from out to in.
As I begin to make preparations for fall amidst a late summer that has been less than joyous, I am challenging myself to look at yoga and the needs of others on both an intimate and large spectrum. Even as I say that, I’m not sure what it means. While certainly opinionated, I’ve rarely ever been an activist. Perhaps I’ve never thought that I was the one for the job, or perhaps I’ve been living with my eyes half-closed.
However, I do know that to whomever I’m teaching, this practice does not belong in a bubble. Forgiveness, empathy, and the ability to deal with fear are not elusive ideas belonging only to those who have the time and privilege to practice them. These are concrete and necessary aspects of a peaceful and equal world.
I’m not sure of the yoga community’s role in meeting the enormous needs of the world, but I think this community is definitely capable of discussing it. So here’s to preparing for fall as gentle warriors.
- Katherine Moore
Nearly six months ago, I began to plan the next chapter in my life: graduate school. The news that I would be a MFA student on the dance performance track at the University of Iowa was new and wonderful! Yet this also meant I would have to leave the grand city of New York that had become my home, my friend (sometimes my enemy!), and my life. We have all experienced the overwhelming feeling of a new journey soon approaching. With thoughts bouncing from one side of the brain to the other, organization becomes extremely hard, and stress tends to set in.
The physical side of yoga can be such a benefit to our bodies and minds, helping us maintain a sense of stability. We can begin to uncover deeper layers of ourselves as we connect body, mind, and spirit into one cohesive being. After my goodbyes in New York, I traveled Europe throughout the month of July. I found it difficult to find time for my practice, asana in particular. There never seemed to be enough space or enough privacy, and I simply lacked motivation on my travels. I found that with the void in my physical practice, I dove further into my meditative practice. Traveling seven hours across Europe on multiple occasions just may have its perks! But as we learned in our training, both our physical and spiritual practice guide us towards a more balanced life – that place right in the middle.
Now as I sit here and reflect on this year, last year, and what the future may hold, I can only smile. It seems to me that a continuous circle of life is drawn for each of us, and I just completed another orbit. The trick becomes how we find the ‘middle path’ along our circle, and even more importantly, understanding that when we stray, it’s okay. Rather than letting ourselves Frogger this way and that continuously throughout our days, the simple (or not so simple) act of allowing our bodies and minds to breathe may just allow us to keep flowing with each moment, in the moment, falling into that middle stream of our circular path.
In B.K.S. Iyengar’s book, Light on Life, he explains that the yogic journey is continuous; that throughout, you will discover layers (kosas) of your being. With patience and persistence in our practice, we can develop our minds and better understand ourselves and our situations in the world, with maybe a little less stress along the way. Whether a major life event has seemingly built a barrier on your yogic journey or not, it’s never a bad idea to dedicate a little bit of time each day to breathe and just be.
- Melanie Swihart