Nothing gets our attention like suddenly being confronted by the unexpected. As if misjudging a headstand and tumbling to the floor–hurricanes, earthquakes, dramatic political turns, news of inconceivable destructiveness, and hate also slam us into a surprising new landscape for which we weren’t prepared. It feels like looking up and seeing we’ve missed our turn off and are now in a different country. That which we had taken for granted has given way to something new. There is going to be change. With unexpected change comes doubt and fear. But if we can approach these moments of transition with a response instead of a reaction, we might just find opportunities beyond our wildest expectations.
Close to Om: Unite
Change, unexpected or intentional, is tricky business.
Change, unexpected or intentional, is tricky business. We tend to cling to what we know with white-knuckle intensity, play it safe, and hope for the best. When the winds of change blows us off our beaten path, we feel exposed. But these unguarded moments are the most valuable of all. When we review our lives, it’s the falling and getting back up that makes us who we are.
The truth is, everything is changing all the time, even if it is mostly microscopic. As the Buddha said, “Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” The trick is for us to bring a bit of consciousness when it occurs. We want to direct our change towards transformation—to allow it to make us wiser, kinder, and stronger whether it’s the kind of change that finds us, or that which we have managed to inspire from within.
This search for new footing brings us to the yogic tenet ahimsa. Ahimsa literally translates as non-violence, but it also suggests that punishing ourselves with desires to change that are so far-fetched they queue us up for feeling inadequate and inept, which is a form of violence too. Ahimsa is compassion – both for ourselves and for everyone and everything around us. It is our way from moving to a knee-jerk reaction to a progressive response as we wander through inevitable change.
I weave in yoga philosophy On Your Mat and On Your OM… in other words in your postures and in your life. I’m going to give you a taste of that here.
On Your Mat
It’s easy to limit yoga asana (poses) to just the body aspect of body/mind/spirit, but asana leads us to a more conscious and less reactive way of living too. Asana is a powerful gateway to ahimsa (compassion). What better time to remind ourselves of generosity than when we feel wobbly, impatient, weak, or tight — least likely to exhibit grace and awareness in a pose? In our postures as in life, it’s easy to be considerate when everything is going well, but it becomes magnanimous when it blossoms amidst the rubble. Compassion for our own foibles lends itself to a similar compassion towards others.
Tree pose (vrikshasana) grows out of mountain pose (tadasana). With both feet evenly standing on your mat (samasthihi), place your hands on your chest to find even breathing (samavritti). Shift all your weight into your left foot and bring the bottom of your right foot into the inseam of your left thigh, calf, or even ankle. Flexibility will have something to do with where this right foot ends up for you. It’s important not to feel that one expression of the pose is better than the other. We’re all unique combinations of genes, strength, balance, and pliability. It will feel different for you depending on the day, what you’ve eaten, any injuries you’re working through, how much sleep you did or didn’t get, and who you slept with… Over time and through the seasons, our trees will assume variegated shapes and forms.
Appreciate the experience of all four points of your left foot rooting your tree into the soil – the big toe knuckle, pinkly toe knuckle, and inner and outer heels. Since this small but mighty left foot of yours is not a whole lot of real estate to stand on, what you build above it is essential to balance – both in terms of physiology and focus. Tone your standing leg by feeling the outer hip hug in towards the midline. Bring your hands into a prayer in front of your heart. Find ekagrata –single pointed focus– gazing at one point either right out at the horizon or, if it’s helpful for balance, down towards the ground. Our drishti (concentration point) is our way of looking out while turning our awareness inward – our way of seeing the forest for the trees. Stay as long as you can on this first side, and then try the same configuration on side two.
We’re going to inspire some playful (and likely precarious) change, using tree pose as our guide. With each of these creative add-ons, find a healthy dose of compassion as gusts of wind inevitably challenge your commitment and most likely huff and puff and blow your tree down from time to time.
From our basic formation above:
- Try extending the branches of your tree to the sky
- Shift your gaze up to your extended branches
- Play with coming on to the tippy toes of your standing foot as if you were wearing very impractical high heels – combine that with your gaze to the sky for a little bang for your bough
- Still standing? Try closing your eyes.
- Be sure to do side two
Know that consistency will bring connections and a better understanding of your balance, body, brain, and botanical bravura. If we use our yoga for more than just a workout, it will educate us far beyond our muscles and bones. It will guide us towards ahimsa (compassion) where we will land in a productive response instead of sabotaging reaction. We may never be able to balance on our tippy toes with our eyes closed, but we just might be able to one day thank our challenges and adversaries for what we’ve learned about compassion.
On Your OM
The empathy (ahimsa), flexibility, and balance you witnessed in your tree pose can come with you off your mat and into your life. You just have to be willing to (as I say in my book) Become Bendy. Becoming Bendy allows us to shift our perspective from contest or performance to a laboratory experiment. When we do, we lose the competition and are no longer burdened by “success” or “failure,” “good or “bad”– we’re simply observing and learning — just as you practice in tree pose. Test drive this in your life the next time you catch yourself comparing-away at work, in your bathing suit, or in your relationships – stop – put on your lab coat and tinker in your laboratory instead of entering another contest.
Though some is sudden and unexpected, real change is incremental and occurs over a committed stretch of time. “Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained. Transformation is sustained change, and it is achieved through practice.”-B.K.S. Iyengar
In yoga philosophy, the five layers covering the Self are called the Koshas. You can think of them as layers of an onion, or those Russian dolls that fit inside one another. The outermost layer is the Annamaya Kosha (the level of skin and bones). Followed by:
Pranamaya Kosha (life force body)
Manomaya Kosha (mind body)
Vijanamaya Kosha (intellectual body)
Anandamaya Kosha (bliss body, or soul body).
In order for change to be the transformation Mr. Iyengar is talking about, it must touch all of these layers. So even if it is the sonic boom of divorce, a medical diagnosis, or getting fired from your job it takes time for the change to make its way through the layers of our onion. The initial impact may blow our wigs back, but it’s how we evolve from there that determines who we become as a result. We’re going to have to be compassionate, bend and stretch if we want find grace in the inescapable changes that will find us, as well as those we will aspire to make in our lives.
That’s why we practice.
Practicing On Your Mat gives you tactile tools that translate On Your OM where Becoming Bendy goes beyond stretching muscles and provides space for a response and integration through the layers of your Koshas so that you can learn and grow in your laboratory. It’s where you discover, to quote Mr. Iyengar again, “ It is through your body you discover you are a spark of divinity.”
We’re surrounded by reactive Tweets, posts, and opinions, especially when the winds of change seem to be blowing at gale force. Keep coming back to your compassionate tree both On Your Mat and On Your OM. Find the deep roots and wide branches of ahimsa (understanding), even as you feel the vulnerability of tippy-toed-newness and eyes-closed-unchartered terrain. Extend your benevolent branches towards other trees in the forest, supporting the response and integration of those around you as they face their changes as well. Yoga is the consciousness of connection – first within our self and then with everything around us. When we let our yoga spill from our mat to our lives, we encourage response instead of reaction, we bloom even when the ground beneath us feels unsteady, we transform obstacles into opportunities and I like to say we hold each other Close to OM.