As my journey of meditation progressed, I decided to try a different tactic with my meditation practice: loving-kindness.Read More
The following post was written by Katherine Moore. Katherine has been teaching for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body since 2013. You can find her running all over New York City, working as a teacher, choreographer, freelance dancer, and writer. Relax with her at Steps on Broadway on Friday nights at 6:30pm for restorative yoga.
I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast that reminded me of a blog post I had written in 2013, Body Image. This podcast (Radiolab Live: Tell-Tale Hearts featuring Oliver Sacks) begins with the story of a woman and her experience recovering from major heart surgery. I won't spill the beans on the whole story, but after going through months and months of some unusual complications and resulting anxiety, this woman finally experienced relief when she was able to actually see her heart via an ultrasound image. By seeing her own heart pumping blood through her veins, she was able to acknowledge how hard her body was working to keep her alive. She felt gratitude and awe and, perhaps most importantly, love for her own body.
Many people recoil at the sight, or even the thought, of blood. There may even be evolutionary reasons why we have this instinctual response to seeing our own insides, a topic which this podcast later explores. It is natural to feel a sense of fear, sometimes even obsession, about what is happening inside our own bodies, especially when it seems that something is going wrong.
As teachers of movement, we often have students and private clients coming to us with a list of bodily ailments. From common aches and fatigue to injuries to major illnesses, the running tally of what students say is wrong inside of them can get a bit overwhelming. My work as a teacher and observer of human health and wellness seems to consistently throw in my face how unwell the majority of the population truly is.
At the same time, however, I also feel consistently supported by research and personal accounts indicating that our relationship to our bodies and our healing process drastically affects both outcomes and quality of life. Recent interviews by Krista Tippett with Eve Ensler and the late Bruce Kramer come to mind. Ensler, a cancer survivor, and Kramer, diagnosed with ALS, both speak of their illnesses almost as friends. Their experiences with what was going "wrong" with their bodies taught them how to grow and live and love in monumental ways. Kramer in particular suggested that instead of asking, “How shall we fight this?” we should ask instead, “How should we grow into the demands of what is beyond us?”
Language that equates illness and injury to a battle, that makes our relationship to healing a violent one, is often not only ineffective but can also severely diminish a person's quality of life. And while on average, we probably won't be getting a slew of terminally ill students in our open yoga classes, chances are high that almost everyone in the room has felt pain of one sort or another. Discomfort and disappointment and pain are an integral part of life and what it means to live in our own bodies. How we relate to the uncomfortable parts of life, in our minds and in our muscles and in our bones, is just as important as preventing them in the first place.
As yoga teachers, I think this gives us a unique opportunity, and possibly even a responsibility, to help people love their bodies more, especially when things are going wrong. From old school dance training to fitness "boot camps," people are constantly bombarded by the idea that the body can be beaten into submission, that working harder, faster, and stronger will make our bodies well. The "no pain no gain" mentality is rampant. The fact that so many people either hate their bodies or are simply unaware of them is a disheartening yet motivating force for me to continue teaching compassionate movement practices.
What we can offer as teachers is a way for people to experience their bodies in a way that is mindful, kind, and loving, which is surprisingly rare. We can begin by helping people treat their chronic illness, or their anxiety, or their old shoulder injury not as enemies, but as friends. It may sound like kooky yoga speak, but just as in a relationship between two people, there is a difference between loving and obsessing. In heartbreak there is a difference between experiencing pain and wallowing in it, or even fighting against it.
As a teacher I know that I am fearful of talking about love. I don’t want to sound like a hippie, and our society has been ingrained with the idea that talking about love will discredit our professionalism, and not without good reason. However, I think there’s a way and a need to teach a love for the body and the mind, and all the parts in between. The English language is famously lacking in other words for “love,” but at the heart of the yoga practice it is there, so we need to find ways of talking about it. We would be doing ourselves and our students a disservice by not doing so.
This time of year is often culturally associated with new love, and anatomically we often use the spring season to focus on heart opening. In a season of blooming, what better time is there to ask your students to invite love into their practices?
In yoga we learn to accept that the body is not always symmetrical. The way in which we inhabit our bodies creates all sorts of imbalances and differences from side to side, from hip to hip, from arm to arm. This is an essential lesson in teaching and in practicing, because it encourages both loving-kindness and awareness of the present moment that can dispel goal-oriented thinking.
I like to think of myself as someone who knows her body, someone who understands the tweaks and the twinges, as well as the strengths, and understands that achieving balance is not merely an attempt to be the same from side to side. After all, a lifetime of dance and regular movement practices would indicate a certain level of body awareness, yes? Well, this may be so, especially in comparison to the average person who spends most of his or her day sitting and doesn’t know the difference between a scapula and a sternum. Lately, though, my body has been teaching me more about what I don’t know than what I do.
My close friends and dance colleagues will tell you that I’ve spent a deal of time the past few years complaining about my “broken wing,” also known as my left shoulder. First aggravated during some rigorous dancing in college, my shoulder has pained me for years. As many young (read: unwise) dancers do, at the initial onset of pain, I danced through it by popping ibuprofen and pretending it would go away once I had some time off. And the pain did disappear sometimes, but only intermittently, coming back to annoy me once or twice a year and leaving me with some weird tension and muscle weaknesses in between.
This is a common story I think. Dancers become used to injuries of overuse, and as long as motion is still possible, the tendency is just to keep on moving. We deal with the discomfort, rest when necessary, and mostly just accept that this pain or tightness we feel is just one part of our relationship with our own body. If you ask any dancer if they have any chronic pain in their bodies, most can give you a lengthy description of their ailments. For myself, I accepted long ago that my left big toe, my right hamstring, my lower back, and my famous “broken wing” were probably going to irk me for most of my life. In a way, these little pains become part of our body identity, a map that we travel through from step to step, continually finding ways to accept, problem solve, balance, and sometimes, compensate for the little quirks that make our bodies uniquely ours.
Late this summer I became aware that my broken wing was feeling more broken than usual. Worried by a sudden acceleration of symptoms that haven’t changed in years, I finally took myself to the doctor at Harkness Dance Center to have my shoulder checked out. Buoyed by my anatomical knowledge as a dancer and yoga teacher and, let’s be real, some self-doctoring via WebMD, I felt confident that I would get a vague diagnosis of impingement syndrome, bursitis, maybe a minor rotator cuff injury, and then be referred to the wonderful world of physical therapy.
For the most part, my self-diagnosis and treatment predication were correct. However, what my preconceived notions had not predicted was the profound muscular weakness in my left arm that became apparent during my exam.
After performing several exercises to test my strength, pain tolerance, and flexibility, my doctor asked me to extend both of my arms forward in front of my chest with the palms of my hands face down. He then proceeded to press down on my forearms and asked me to resist. My right arm: strong and sure. My left arm: instantly swung down by my side like a pendulum. I had absolutely no ability to resist the pressure my doctor was giving, and more to the point, I had not expected that to happen. My jaw, literally, dropped. I laughed out loud and said, “whoa! I had no idea!” We tried it again, and got the same result. I was floored.
Other than begrudgingly accepting the obvious lesson that we should see the doctor occasionally instead of relying on Web MD (ego check!), I left that appointment feeling a little off-kilter. My broken wing, a term I had comically applied years ago, was not only, indeed, “broken” in a sense, it was also a very, very different ailment than what I thought it was. The idea that I was capable of standing on my head, but not of resisting a little arm pressure, and didn’t know it, was disconcerting to me.
This experience has not only reawakened the mystery of the body to me and its wondrous ability to adapt, it has also thrown the concept of balance into the forefront of my mind and my practice. I think sometimes, in our practices on the mat and our outside life, we are so determined to strive for balance, for equanimity, for everything to work as a whole, that we miss crucial lessons that could, with time, propel us forward instead of holding us back. How can we learn what we truly need to balance if we never allow ourselves to fall, to be off-kilter, to really experience the pain and discomfort that, in the end, will teach us what we need to do to be stronger?
Balance is not the same as standing still. It isn’t equivalent to maintaining the status quo. Balance can only be achieved by learning how to adapt to the constant fluctuations in our bodies and our lives, not by trying to prevent those fluctuations from happening. I needed someone to show me how seriously weak and out of alignment my shoulder was in order to accept that it was time for some serious change in how I was practicing and thinking about my shoulder alignment and movement.
We are now moving into late fall, a busy, off-kilter, unbalanced time for many people anyway. I’m wondering: what if we lean into that imbalance instead of resisting it? Will we start to fall? Maybe. Will we crash to the floor and never get up? Doubtful. Somewhere between standing upright and laying on the ground in a heap are important lessons we need to realize, lessons that will teach us about our strengths and our weaknesses, lessons that will show us where to take risks and where to back off.
My broken wing and I are headed to PT for some serious re-acquainting. Where will you go?
TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
American historian, author, playwright, social activist
Powerful thoughts – especially for this time. Now I recognize that I share this not as a youth from Gaza or a Muslim in Burma or a mother of Mexico. I am a privileged, white American. If I had a Twitter, I could fill my feed with #FirstWorldProblems. And yet I sense that this passage’s message, while immensely valuable to the whole of the world, must especially move those of us who are comfortable (read: can sleep knowing we will be safe in our shelter of a home and have abundant food and water the following day). In my mind, those of us blessed with much bear the responsibility to, at the very least, live lives full of compassion, tolerance, patience, and kindness. Because it really is a grass-roots operation, this motive to bring lasting peace to our world. What we begin ourselves, in the most mundane of moments, can build gradually, spreading through our communities to our neighbors, and on and on. So we can hope, and so we can try.
I realize that much of our world’s suffering probably wouldn’t list peace as their first priority at this point. There are more dire, essential needs at hand. But if we could cultivate qualities that promote care and love for those we know well, as well as the strangers we pass on the street, could other social, economic, and political issues be dealt with in a more efficient, altruistic manner?
The situations that prompt a push for peace often exist as a result of years of historical strife, which unfortunately could not be solved by one measly blog post. However, what we do on small scales can effect change, and that change can be contagious. Think of random acts of kindness or the expression, ‘Pay it forward’. If we give worth to such small acts, we can recognize the capacity for change that loving-kindness meditation can proffer.
I recently read that the Buddha first taught loving-kindness, or metta, as an antidote for fear. How fascinating, no? We may imagine those who are fighting in the Gaza Strip, for example, as angry, and perhaps they are, but could we not attribute some, or even much tension over land or between ethnic groups to fear? Fear of other? I don’t mean to simplify the incredibly complex sagas around our world, but it’s something to consider, even in regards to the milieu of our personal lives.
With loving-kindness meditation, we work to quell negativity and self-doubt, in an effort to develop a stronger acceptance of ourselves. From there, the meditation extends our attention beyond ourselves to others. Different teachers offer differing methods as to who you consider, but often, they encourage us to develop loving-kindness towards people we love and admire, then someone more neutral in the sense that you interact with them on a less personal level (i.e. the man or woman who served you coffee this morning), and finally, someone you are challenged by. Sending loving-kindness to each of these can break down any barriers that have arisen in our hearts and minds and open us to the possibility of compassion’s workings on our relationships. If just five minutes of morning meditation can alter a day, how powerful could the practice of loving-kindness meditation be for our wounded world?
I began giving more thought to loving-kindness meditation after a friend recommended Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness 28-Day Challenge. Since the exercises for this ‘challenge’ live in a book and corresponding CDs, I downloaded the audio files onto my iPod and continue to listen to them when I sense I need some guidance in my meditation practice. It can be especially nice to have on the subway! What I appreciate about Sharon’s work is that she makes meditation accessible. Before each meditation exercise, she educates you on the purpose and method of each meditation practice within the series (Breathing Meditation, Walking Meditation, Loving-Kindness Meditation). When she speaks of loving-kindness meditation, she talks about taking an interest in other. We don’t need to pretend that we have no problems, that everything is good; instead, we look to this practice as a means of attaining a more realistic, full picture of the people and matters around us. Loving-kindness meditation does not promote the manufacturing of feelings. It gathers our attention behind mantras – repeated phrases that wish ourselves and others well, in this case. Sharon offers the phrases below:
May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.
Sitting comfortably, not trying to force anything or make something happen, we present this mantra to ourselves, for ourselves. Then, after a time, we extend these same phrases to others. Again, the people we offer up these phrases for can differ, but here are those Sharon proposes:
-Someone who helped or inspired you. Imagine a countenance, or say a name to yourself; get a feeling of that person’s presence. Wish for them what you have wished for yourself.
-Someone who is hurting or having a difficult time right now.
-Someone you encounter now and then. You might not know much or anything about them.
-A difficult person, whose words and actions are hard to bear. If you struggle to offer up these well wishes to this person, she recommends you center your attention once more on yourself, so that you can soften the barriers obstructing you. Clearly you need some compassion in regards to this relationship!
-All beings everywhere, the boundlessness of life.
As with any meditation, we may find ourselves following or attacking emotions or thoughts that arise. Simply let go, and begin again. This chance to continually begin again is a beautiful piece of meditation that can be drawn into our everyday lives, promoting patience, faith, and hope.
Loving-kindness meditation doesn’t necessarily have the capacity to be the singular savior of our suffering world, but at this point in history, couldn’t our world use a little or a lot of it to get us started? Let us consider how we foster or mar the peaceful potential of our own lives each day, so that the compassion and spirit of generosity built inside our homes can swell and spread throughout the world. It’s at least worth a try.
- Liz Beres
Violence and suffering saturate our world on a daily basis, yet certain tragedies like those in Boston, Texas, and Newtown tend to draw this reality into a harsher light. Hearing about conflict that exists far away from us can become just another piece of news, glossed over, even when we recognize the horror of the situation. What can we do to help those in Syria, for example? How can we solve the problems that underlie these terrible crises?
We would like to believe that human beings are inherently good, yet it seems that violence between individuals and larger groups is inevitable in our world as it exists today. While we would hope to never again hear of a shooting or civil war, perhaps the incidents that hit closer to home benefit us at least in the sense that they trigger something sharper within us, something that drives us to act and work against such unnecessary aggression. Considering the vastness of the universe, we could consider ourselves to be lowly individuals, but as human beings we possess immense powers to promote peace in our world. We can indeed look after each other, as well as the world that swaddles us, through small actions as much as larger ones.
In his book One City, author and Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern suggests that we live from a place of 'thinking globally [and] acting locally'. I find this mantra inspiring in its recognition of the bigger pictures of our world and simultaneous direction to take action closer to home. What we learn from outside sources - newspapers, television, social media, even word of mouth - contributes to our worldview which, in turn, affects our behavior. Taking the time to stay informed seems to be a first step towards Ethan's suggestion; making the time to read and listen becomes requisite to taking that time.
As members of the 21st century, most of us live unbelievably busy lives that often leave little time for personal downtime. Rushing from obligation to obligation, it can become difficult to see further than what lies directly in our sight line. This disappearance into our own lives can lead us further from active engagement with our community. It becomes important then to remember, as Ethan also notes, that the world comes from each of us, not just at us. The way that we treat the man who works next door at the bodega will affect the way he treats his next customer, which will affect the way that person interacts with the next person he or she comes into contact with, and so it will continue, on and on.
In her most recent On the Mat post, TaraMarie spoke to the power of intention. She particularly offered the practice of maitri, or loving-kindness meditation, whereby you send intentions of happiness, health, safety, and ease to those near and far (http://mindbodybrew.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/on-the-mat-a-difficult-practice/). During a workshop with Ethan, he mentioned he attempts to pick up and dispose of one piece of litter each day. This physical manifestation of his attempts at looking after the world, which most certainly includes our natural environment, reminds us that contributing to goodness can be as easy as bending over and standing back up.
Our actions, our choices are directly related to the state of our world. Perhaps it is idealistic, even naive to think that a slight shift in each of our own life moments could result in a calmer, cleaner, more peaceful world. But if each of us made a conscious choice - to smile at the next person we meet on the street rather than look away, to pick up that piece of litter, or to pay for the next person in line's coffee just because - I believe we could birth seismic shifts that would benefit those who walk this earth today, as well as all those to come.
- Liz Beres
* To read up on some easy ways to stay green and look after our Earth, visit http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/green-new-years-resolutions-10109?src=soc_fcbks#slide-1