As I was sitting in meditation and not thinking, a multitude of thoughts arose about packing—packing for vacation, packing for moving, and packing for life. In a split second, I had loaded my suitcase with a yoga mat, a block, a thin strap, an inflatable zafu, and nine novels. Of course, I hadn’t actually left the zafu I was sitting on! Back to the breath and to being present.
If I listened and responded to every thought that wafts across my mind, I would be crazy. Literally. My busy mind has a List of Things to Do that never ends. Some part of me believes that if I get everything done, I’ll be happy. And there are plenty of books and online programs available to show me how to be productive and get it ALL done. The truth is that my To-Do List will never be “done” because some part of me keeps adding on to the list. Dust the baseboards. Pull vines off the trees. Walk the dog. Check the list.
Then there’s the Self-Care To Do List: Practice yoga, eat healthy foods, exercise, meditate, read more books about yoga and meditation. I can get very stressed contemplating all the things I need to do to decrease my stress!
What if happiness is an inside job (not a head job at all!) unrelated to the completed to-do list, especially to the one designed to quiet my overactive mind? How does happiness feel? Or contentment? Can you find the visceral experience of happiness in your body right now? Sit still for a moment and conjure up a memory of when you felt happy or content. Let yourself fully feel that throughout your body. Remember how that feels.
Back to me! As I awoke from the trance of thinking on the meditation cushion, I realized that my skin was tight and my jaw clenched in anticipation of “getting everything done.” I softened my jaw and relaxed my eyes, listening and looking inward. I opened to the feeling of contentment that I discovered. Ahh. Can I take that ease into the rest of life? Yes, if I’m attentive to what I’m doing right then and there without being one thought ahead of my actions. Without being caught up in any thoughts.
So whether we are practicing yoga, sitting in meditation or prayer, watching a bird in flight as the sun sets, or packing for a much-awaited vacation, let’s practice tuning into present moment awareness and finding acceptance of what is. Let’s tune into the spaciousness that comes from being fully engaged with life as life unfolds, not as it is in our head. My own experience is that the practice of present moment awareness is at the heart of self-care and it doesn’t require any list at all.
As I look forward to attending the annual IYNAUS convention (Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States) next week in Dallas, Texas, I want to share how I first became involved with this style of yoga and what it means to me. Simply put, the practice of Iyengar Yoga changed my life. I took my first class in 1984 and I continue to be so very grateful I got on that particular mat.
Initially, I began yoga as a physical exercise, like running or swimming. Immediately, though, there was something different about how I felt after that first yoga class. I felt settled. That experience stayed with me during my job as a pharmacist. I began to see life from a different perspective, perhaps an effect from those twisting poses or inversions. I slowed down. I became a better listener. I had fun! I hated savasana.
Asana was the way in for me. Paying attention to the physical aspects of my body led me to experience aspects of my body-mind that I couldn’t see, although I could feel them. Who knew that strength, endurance, and flexibility were more than physical attributes?
I wanted others to feel as good as I did. I wanted to tell strangers on the street that Iyengar Yoga opened doors of understanding to other layers of existence—to the Great Mystery. That didn’t seem like a very smart idea! The compassionate self-discipline of yoga had already taught me to stay put and watch my impulses before acting on them.
The world became my mat. Using blocks and straps on the mat taught me how to use problems and challenges of life as support for growth rather than as obstacles to happiness. I learned that everything changes—the weather, my body, and especially my mind. I learned that I have no control over external circumstances, although I do have at least some control over how I respond to them. I credit this understanding to the ongoing practice of yoga, to the determination of staying put in a difficult pose, like savasana. Who knew that corpse pose entailed dropping the ego as much as dropping the body?
An ongoing practice brings me “from the periphery to the core to the periphery”—to borrow the theme of the 2016 IYNAUS convention. Although I first attended yoga classes for the exercise, I stayed for the other benefits I received beyond the physical. These benefits are hard to put into words, but I suspect as yoga students that you experience them, too. As a teacher, I witness the changes in energy that flow through students during class. I see the transformation! Students also share with me how yoga off the mat has given them valuable tools for engaging with life’s challenges.
The theme of the IYNAUS convention is “Exploring the Path of Practice,” and that about sums it up. I practice Iyengar Yoga because the practice itself—especially in savasana—is an exploration into uncharted territories of the self.
While I’m away from April 11 to April 18, please explore your practice with the wise and generous instructors who are teaching my classes (see Schedule). I’ll see you when I return, full of new ways to be on the mat together.
Walking on the malecón this morning alongside a calm, blue ocean, I was roused by waves of memory. As I raised my cell phone to call my sister, Jennie, on her birthday, I remembered the many times I have called her over the years from this same Mexican island. Instantly, I pictured the various phones I have used in my life—from a bag phone that plugged into the car cigarette lighter to a rotary dial landline and back to a party line in Granny’s house in Mt. Airy.
Memories are part of the transient nature of thoughts. As yogis we practice staying in the moment as we learn to be attentive to our experience as it arises. We strive to notice when we are ambushed by emotions or wander off on a tangent of thoughts. At that very moment of noticing, we become conscious of our current mind state. Then we can utilize our memory in a different manner—to use the yogic teachings.
I’m fascinated by how memories show up either spontaneously or when prompted by a sight, sound, smell, or story. Because I’ve vacationed on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, yearly for decades, memories frequently arise about events that occurred on previous visits. The other night as I watched the sunset over the ocean with my husband and our cherished Canadian friends, one of them remarked, “Remember last year when we saw that guy drop down on his knee on the beach and ask his girlfriend to marry him?” I’d forgotten all about that until Shelley mentioned it. We had shared the experience and I didn’t recall it until prompted.
I’m not suggesting that memories are bad or that we shouldn’t reflect on the past or write a memoir. Stories connect us with one another. Shared experiences bond us. It’s important to notice, however, if we are so caught up in the stories that memory archives that we are inattentive to the present-moment connections that occur with every encounter.
On a day-to day-basis, having a sharp memory allows us to remember where we placed our glasses and what to buy at the store (especially if we forgot to take the list). We can recall the names of our friends and how to get back home. We’re able to bring to mind the wisdom gleaned from prior experiences. Each moment of existence includes the past. The mind becomes our servant rather than our master. There’s less thinking and more awareness.
Taking this concept to the mat, each Warrior Pose has its own life. Recalling the basics of the pose, I’m able to move into the Warrior-Pose-of the Day with joyful readiness—not attached to a memory of when I “did the pose better.” If I’m pondering the past, I’m not in the pose. I’m in my head. When I wake up to that idea, I turn my attention to physical sensations. I feel my feet. I lift my chest. I remember to be present.
Taking this into daily life, tomorrow, as I sally forth on my morning walk on the malecón, my intention is to be present to the sunrise of that day without comparing it to another one. I want to feel the warm ocean breeze, hear the low roar of the waves. I recognize that memories of today or expectations of the next day may color that precious moment. I’ll take a breath. Maybe I’ll simply sit down and be. I don’t want to miss a moment of this life.