Four ways to practice pratyahara in the modern age

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Eighties movies set me up for disappointment. Whenever the main character had to transform in some way there was this awesome music montage. A power ballad played as the plucky girl got a makeover, got into the college of her dreams, got the man of her dreams, and so forth. Change was visible and fast and pretty. When I arrived at adulthood seeking to transform, I wondered: Where is my Air Supply? OK, I"ll settle for Boston. Nothing? Transformation is not always observable from the outside. You can't always write the fiercest, proudest moments in the holiday card. You can rarely see them.

This is highlighted as we approach the darkest day of the year. Traditionally, this has been a time when humans throughout the centuries have drawn inward: the harvest is done and it's time to reflect on the year behind and the year ahead. It's a time to be close to those we love. It's a time to un-do and maybe even move into the dark places a bit more bravely.

We might have lost that connection to this quiet, introspective time in the modern era of blinking lights and screens brighter than the sun. However, I'd like to suggest that it's important to take some time to go inside. Into the quiet parts. Into the dark parts. I have experienced beauty, awakening, and transformation that no Cyndi Lauper montage can emulate. Seriously.

In yoga we call this pratyahara (drawing the senses inward). It is one of the eight limbs of the yoga practice. I'd like to offer you four ways to take a little time to draw into the quiet, even as we have a holly jolly time over the next few weeks.

1. Turn off the phone. No, really. Turn it off. My husband and I have a saying around the Brommel abode. When we are with each other and one of us is absorbed in Buzzfeed's funniest cats wearing Santa hats (totally hypothetical...totally didn't happen...last night), the other says, "Hello, I'm a real human. Want to go on airplane mode and talk to me?" When you're with your family and friends, see if you can really be with them. Maybe it's just for a few hours, but take the time to unplug and really be there. Use your breath as an anchor to the present moment and cultivate the attitude of explorer (I wonder what Aunt Bertha might say next...). I have the intention of turning off my phone at 9pm so I can light some candles and enjoy some restorative practices before bed. This is a nice time to check in with any residue from the day and perhaps meditate. (Tips on how to do that here.)

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2. Wrap your head. It's really as simple as that. You want a clean, breathable bandage that you can wrap around your head comfortably. I like the Indian-made bandages from the Iyengar tradition, but I hear ACE wraps work just as well. After you wrap, sit or lie comfortably and focus on lengthening and smoothing your breath. The slight pressure on your eyes helps to activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest) part of your nervous system. It's amazing how immediately restorative this practice is, and it gets special points for helping with those holiday headaches. This is something you can do absolutely anywhere you don't mind looking like a mummy, too. (I'd do it on an airplane. Don't think I wouldn't.)

3. Allow time for un-doing.  Maybe you have to say "no" to a holiday party invitation or two. I have. That's OK. Find space and time to un-do. Maybe for you it's watching a movie, reading a book, going to yoga practice, watching the moon rise, or taking a hot bath. Use your mindfulness practice to assess when you are ready for more activity and when you need to just...be.

4. Meditate on the koshas. The koshas in yoga are the layers of our beings. Think of a Russian doll, with one inside the other. Seated quietly (anywhere will do... passenger side of a car works!), move through the layers of your being with the simple goal of sensing and feeling how that part of you feels today. Use the breath to air out any sensations that feel stagnate and send compassion to yourself as you move through. Systematically move through with an attitude of curiosity.

  •  Annamayakosha (physical sheath): How does your physical body feel? What sensations do you notice?
  • Pranamayakosha (breath sheath): How is your breath moving? Where does it fill your body? What is the texture like?
  • Manomayakosha (mental/emotional sheath): What patterns of mind are you experiencing? What emotions are with you? Where do you feel those emotions in your body?
  • Vijnanamayakosha (wisdom sheath): Can you connect with the part of you that feels the wisest? What does this part of you feel like? Does this part of you have anything to say?
  • Anandamayakosha (bliss sheath): What are you most grateful for in your life?

How do you get better at drawing inward and allowing space in the quiet? You practice, of course. Come practice with me this weekend, as we explore various yogic techniques which will allow us to savor some quiet space and prepare for a powerful 2014.

Saturday, 8:30a

Sunday, 2pm

Sunday, 6pm

Monday, 10am

All details here.

 

Five Key Ingredients for a Sustainable Meditation Practice

I’ve had a busy seven years since first beginning my mindfulness meditation practice. I’ve overcome chronic physical pain and debilitating anxiety and depression. I’ve learned to love a diet rich in plant-based whole foods, and I’ve learned to recognize when I’m eating emotionally. (Oh, and I’ve lost 65 pounds in the process.) I’ve changed my career from something I was not passionate about to something I absolutely love: teaching yoga. And, perhaps most difficult to quantify but most important: I’ve become really (really) happy. I personally believe that a combination of Western modalities and Eastern wisdom has been crucial to my health (and I use many tools to foster health for myself). However, one thing stands apart as a critical ingredient for my wellbeing: every day I sit quietly for at least 10 minutes and I focus my attention on my breath. Inevitably, at least a few hundred times, my attention will stray and I will smile and take a deeper breath and return to the present moment. This has profoundly changed my life in ways I cannot even begin to comprehend.

And it’s not just me. You can find hundreds upon hundreds of studies citing the benefits of this simple practice. The short list? Meditation: regulates stress hormones, increases mental resilience (including after trauma), improves cognitive function, improves focus, decreases loneliness, increases immunity, helps improve sleep quality, aids in the treatment of depression and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, helps relieve pain, and helps you be nicer to those around you. Whew. Still, I believe that the profundity of this experience cannot be described in words or captured in studies; it must be experienced.

Convinced and ready to try it? It’s challenging to set up a sustainable practice and even many long-time yoga practitioners I know have a hard time making the time every day. Here are my five top ingredients for a successful, sustainable meditation practice. I have given them a good run for their money. See the reference list below or come to class for more information. All credit for this knowledge goes to my teachers, especially Ani Pema Chodron.

1. Planning. OK, I’ll admit it. I had a lot of false starts. This did not come easily to me. At all. Part of creating a new habit (or samskara as we’d say in yoga) involved learning how to outsmart that lazier part of myself that rebelled at the idea of … just sitting there. Practice suggestions:

  • Set the space. Create a special spot in your home for your practice. If possible, adorn it with inspirational images or objects. Place it in a prominent location where you are reminded of the importance of your practice
  • RPM: Rise, pee, meditate. Do not pass go; do not go for the coffee. It works for many yogis, including me. Try it out.
  • You might not feel like it. I rarely do, and I talk about how great meditation is to anyone who will listen. That’s OK. That’s an old samskara resisting the new. Resolve to practice, whether you feel like it or not. Even if you’re just sitting there not counting a single breath, you have made the commitment to your new practice.

2. Compassion. My main meditation teacher, Ani Pema Chodron, emphasizes time and time again, “Harshness is an obstacle to meditation.” Harshness, or any other form of escapism, is not the way to enlightenment. It’s moving in the opposite direction of connection with the true self. When I started, I received basic mindfulness meditation instruction: notice the thoughts as they arrive, acknowledge them with the word thinking, and return to the breath. Well, it wasn’t long before I became like that old cartoon of Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits. Every time a thought even dared to peek around the tree, I was there firing off my bazooka and yelling THINKING. I gotcha! BAD. Which spiraled into I’m a bad meditator. I can’t do anything right. I quit. This harshness did not take me further into peace (surprised?). It took me further into anger and confusion and self-aggression for several years. As one of my teachers says, “A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk.” That was pretty much what I did for a while. It's possible, even with the best of intentions, to use these practices to become harsher, more narrow minded, and profoundly unhappy. Practice suggestions:

  • Smile. When you get distracted, regard your mind as you would a child you love very much. Smile, take its hand, and guide it back to the breath. It’s really hard to be happy if you are mean to yourself all the time. Trust me.
  • Be realistic. You are not trying to eliminate your thoughts. You’d probably have to sever a part of your brain off to do that. I’ve never been given that instruction in any of the traditions I’ve studied. Thoughts will come and go. Soften and allow that process. Use gentle persistence and lighten up a little.

3. Curiosity. Ram Dass says, “Everything changes once we identify with being the witness to the story, instead of the actor in it.” Learning to be mindful is the process of learning to take a step back and become the observer. This means that we practice realizing that we are not any of the endless streams of thoughts and emotions that parade through our minds. We cultivate the witness by becoming curious about what’s happening. As Ani Pema teaches, whatever is happening (even the most terrifying of emotions) is an opportunity to become more aware of what goes on in our minds and in turn more compassionate for ourselves and for others. Practice suggestion:

  • “Isn’t that interesting.” This is my favorite phrase of all time. When you catch yourself getting caught by a thought or emotion, step back, take on the role of the curious observer, refrain from judgment, and say to yourself, “That’s interesting.”

4. Bravery. One of the most profound misunderstandings about mindfulness meditation is that it’s a “relaxing” activity. Some forms of meditation I do find to be relaxing, but sitting quietly and attending to the various thoughts that vie for my attention? I don’t find that relaxing all the time. Ultimately, it leads to greater overall relaxation through a greater ability to stay in the present moment. So it’s more like training, really, and sometimes training in mindfulness can feel uncomfortable, boring, or even downright scary. All that we have been trying to avoid, repress, keep quiet, annihilate resurfaces; it all comes up because it never really went away. So, my dear friends, we must be very, very brave to be meditators. We must be powerful warriors to sit in stillness. Practice suggestion:

  • “Everything in life is a vehicle for awakening. Nothing needs to be rejected.” Pema Chodron.  That flat tire? Your outburst of frustration? Yay, a promotion! That grand moment of forgiveness? Uh, oh, rejection! That “fantastic” meditation session? The friendship that ended in betrayal? It’s all part of the path. All of it. Pema teaches that every event, however big or small, is a chance to wake up. This is because all of it is a chance to soften, to find compassion for ourselves, and ultimately to create greater understanding of ourselves and of others.

5. Community. I truly believe that we were meant to work toward our goals of peace together. This is why the community at Moksha Yoga Center has been such an important aspect of keeping my practice sustainable. As a student, I find that the support of an entire room holding space for meditation is incredibly powerful. I also find so much guidance and support from my friends and teachers in the community. As a teacher at Moksha, I want you to know that I’m happy to help you develop a practice in whatever way I can. I always incorporate mindfulness meditation into my public yoga classes, and I have a new class specifically focusing on guiding you in meditation. Check out my schedule here and commit to a regular practice with me or another teacher of your choosing.

This practice has tremendous power for transformation, but you absolutely have to put in the work and commitment. I wish you really well on your path, and I hope to see you soon.

 

Resources and Recommended Reading

My Visit with Pema Chodron

Seven years ago, I was lost. I knew exactly one thing about my life: I loved my husband. I had very little idea how to be in a real adult relationship however, and, probably relatedly, I had only very dim analyses of where I’d been, where I was going, or which version of my carefully curated presentations was the real me (if any?). On one fateful trip to my local bookstore, I just so happened to wander from my usual stomping grounds (among books about how to firm my butt, color my parachute, attract money through the ether, and organize my closet) into the spirituality section. There, on a bottom shelf, totally out of the way, Pema Chodron’s book The Places that Scare You called to me. I didn’t even really look it over or open it. I just impulsively took it to the cash register and bought it.

In some ways, my path started on that day. The rest is history (and a longer story, to be sure). Seven years later, I find myself living, teaching, and dreaming the practices of yoga (which, by the way, are influenced by the practices of Buddhism, among other traditions, and I am proof that you do not need to be Buddhist or Hindu or Jain or Taoist to find huge benefits in these teachings). And seven years later, I found myself in a little Subaru heading out from Chicago to a small town in New York to study with the woman that set the whole grand, messy thing into motion. When I returned, many of my friends asked me, excitedly, how was it?! and seemed a little disappointed when I looked at them slightly blankly. Two months later, I can finally write this. This is some of what I learned from that trip. My intention is to write about a few of Pema's teachings and share how they are at work in my life and my practice as an example. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

(All credit for these teachings goes to Ani Pema Chodron and her teachers. All misunderstandings, confusions, and so forth are my own.)

“The whole mechanism of trying to get strong by avoiding disappointment is destined to fail.” After settling into our cabins and excitedly filing into the lecture hall, this was what we heard first. You could almost hear the mutual halting scratching record sound in the room. Wait…it is? I mean, I know that I guess, but why do we have to talk about it? I want to feel peaceful not afraid. What if I’ve built my whole life around trying to eat right, be pleasant to others, get my checkups, take my medicine, move my body, free my mind, and so forth, all to feel as though I could outrun or outsmart disappointment, failure, sickness, loss, death, even (OK, I know that one is a little silly, but I can't help myself)? For an hour, my whole schtick (Buddhists would call it ego-structure) felt like it was sinking into quicksand.
    Here’s the important point. This philosophy makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable. Pain will happen. You will get sick. Things will sometimes fall apart. It’s hard to think about and it can lead to some morbid philosophy. But ultimately, it’s true. Resisting reality, pretending we can control reality, pretending there is some final destination of perfection to arrive at, this is what leads to suffering according to this philosophy. Suffering compounds pain. Suffering is the force that has the power to rob us of our happiness even when life is good, propelling us unendingly into the past and future and robbing us of our present. The alternative, as presented by Ani Pema, is to recognize that life is more like flowing in a river than standing on solid ground. As the old saying goes, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” It’s like that in life, right? There is a fluidity and, once accepted, it can be very liberating. Things fall apart and they come back together.
   How I Practice: I basically have daily opportunities to practice this.  Every time I get a difficult work email or feel the jealousy or anger of a friend, or have an off day with my beloved, I pause. If possible, I go to my meditation cushion. I tighten up a little around whatever feeling it is: hurt, anger, sadness, pity, a parade on Mt. Ego, boredom. With my inhale, I take in the situation in BIG way, almost asking it to come forward even more. I tighten my eyes. I clench my body. I feel the weight and constriction of that feeling of wanting reality to be other than it is or of wanting reality to stay just like this. I call forward the crushing feeling that there is not some final destination sans disappointment. Ever. And then in one breath I exhale through the mouth, open my eyes, and let it go. I repeat this as necessary. For me, this does not eliminate the pain, but it does help to eliminate the resistance to the pain.  From there, I drop the storyline of whatever is going on and simply feel the feeling. Let it be what it is. Sit with it. Give it a voice and then listen to it, without pushing it away or making up some story about why it’s so-and-so’s fault or unfair or final in some way.

“Harshness is an obstacle to enlightenment.” In my experience, there is a tendency to hear the above and want to escape it. There are many ways that I've experienced of doing so, and I went through a few of them on retreat. First: a Nietzsche-inspired depression. I can almost imagine myself as Eeyore the sad donkey (he was a donkey , right?). I guess I can’t control anything, so why try? It’s all going to end in pain. Why try to build something? Next, I moved on to what I like to call whoa...man territory. The surrealist bubble: This might as well just be a dream. What is reality anyway? What does it matter if this is all a dream? Third, would you like to meet my inner football coach? I'm on a retreat, I need to BRING MY A-GAME. 99 PERCENT PERSPIRATION. Do better. Get better. No more wandering off. Focus. GO TEAM GO. EYE ON THE BALL. IT'S JUST FOCUSING ON THE BREATH, YOU CAN DO THIS. TOUCHDOWN!!
    I say this with love and having been to those places: Nope. That’s not it. Those are too blunt of thinking tools. We need to sharpen that thinking a little. Those are ways of escaping the questions that we need to address.
    Harshness, or any other form of escapism, is not the way to enlightenment, per Pema. I remember starting a meditation practice years ago. I practiced simple breath mindfulness meditation. The instruction was to notice the thoughts as they arrive, acknowledge them with the word thinking and return to the breath. Well, it wasn’t long before I became like Elmer Fudd hunting wabbits. Every time a thought even dared to peek around the tree, I was there firing off my bazooka and yelling THINKING. THAT’S THINKING. BAD. This harshness did not take me further into peace when I practiced this way. It took me further into anger and confusion and self-aggression for several years. As one of my teachers says, “A jerk can walk into a meditation hall and emerge a more focused jerk.” That was pretty much what I did for a while. It's possible, even with the best of intentions.
    Pema taught us that pain need not be our only mode of operation or our only teacher or our default state. If we’re stuck in traffic and getting frustrated and there is an off-ramp, she said, take it. (Someone asked if this was a metaphor, causing one of the many group giggles. Yes, she said, it is.) If a relationship is doing more harm than good, set new boundaries. If a practice, medication, therapist, yoga practice, breath technique, or good old-fashioned break will help us be more present, it can be a healthy part of our routine. However, during those times where there is no off-ramp, or when the off-ramp is a form of self-destructive behavior, we are asked to work with the situation rather than resisting it.
    How I Practice: The instruction is to find some “unconditional friendliness,” as Pema puts it. The practice that I’ve found to be most helpful on my cushion? Smiling. That’s it. When I get an old familiar feeling that I’d usually push away or berate myself for, I just smile. I assign this feeling a form and I embrace it. Sometimes I will tease it a little, almost making a caricature of it. Here's an example of such a caricature of myself that I found helped me create lightness. All with love. I will acknowledge that it is a part of what makes my life rich. Tasting sour is a part of why I can taste sweet.
     
“Everything in life is a vehicle for awakening. Nothing needs to be rejected.” That flat tire? Your outburst of frustration? Yay, a promotion! That grand moment of forgiveness? Uh, oh, rejection! That “fantastic” meditation session? The friendship that ended in betrayal? It’s all part of the path. All of it. Pema teaches that every event, however big or small, is a chance to wake up. This is because all of it is a chance to soften, to find compassion, to create greater understanding of ourselves and of others. So, worry not. You need not retreat to a cave or monastery. Your ordinary life will do just fine. These practices are meant to help us in the real world, not necessarily to make us the eccentric one at the Thanksgiving dinner table (though, I must say, I took that prize years ago). Life is a big messy proposition and we’re not usually in complete control. We can choose to think of it like one problem after another or we can choose to think of it as life coming along to teach us some lessons (we call this karma in both yoga and Buddhist thought).
    How I Practice: When something I don’t like comes up, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. When something good comes up that I enjoy and savor, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. When boredom comes up, I consciously choose to regard it as my teacher. You get the picture. It’s simple: it’s just a cognitive task, but it works for me.

Thank you for reading my thoughts here. I’d love to hear yours, too. How do you incorporate yoga and meditation into your daily life? There are lots and lots of ways to do so.

If you’d like to go deeper, some possible journaling or reflective questions to inspire more thought follow.

  • How open are you to the inevitability of change?
  • Is the “you” that started reading this article the same as the “you” that is reading this sentence? Is there a core “you”?
  • Do you feel as though your life is more like floating on a river or more like standing on solid ground?
  • How can you bring more gentleness and friendliness into your life? What would it mean to drop some of the harsh commentary?
  • Do you have a daily meditation practice? Would you like to start one? (My students should feel very free to approach me for resources and support.)

Three Simple Rituals to Inspire the State of Yoga

Did you know that "yoga" does not mean contortionist postures? It's easy to conflate "yoga" and " yoga asana" (physical postures). But actually "yoga" means "to unite." There are many ways of interpreting this concept. For me, in a state of yoga I unite my mind, my body, and my inner wisdom. This wisest part of each of us is known as "atman" in yoga texts, and basically means your highest self. You know the voice that stays above the fray? The voice that urges you do take care of yourself and those around you? The part of you that knows best? That's the one. That's what we're up to during yoga practice: trying to quiet down the chitter chatter of the fluctuations of the mind enough to hear that wisdom. That's why it doesn't necessarily matter what exactly you're doing during yoga practice... it more matters how you are doing it.

All yoga practices (including yoga asana) aim to foster a greater connection with this part of you. And regular practice is essential. Yoga asana is very important, in that it helps keep your body healthy, flexible, and strong, introduces your mind to your body (in case you forgot that you're more than a brain), and encourages you to confront your "mindstuff" on the mat. However, there are many daily practices that can bring you into this state, even between classes. I find that the simplest practices are the easiest to actually do each day. Here are three of my favorites. Comment with yours.

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1. Look up. When you're walking outside, take a moment to look up at the sky. Even the simple act of turning off your iPhone and connecting with the ever-shifting nature of our sky can broaden your perspective.

2. Meditate. Anywhere. Think you have to be on a cushion in lotus pose to practice meditation? Think again. Some of the simplest of daily tasks can become meditation practices with a big dose of mindfulness. All you need is a simple task and one of your senses. How about focusing on the sensation the cool water on your hands as you wash your veggies for dinner? Or the smell of your soap or the feeling of the water during your daily shower? What about sending out kindness to those you encounter on your commute, wishing them happiness and freedom? How about thinking of five things you're grateful for as you wait for your tea to steep? Can you direct all of your attention to the sound of the rain outside? Or the sensation of the cold? Or the feeling of your feet as you walk down the sidewalk? Notice the mind's tendency to wander and make judgments, but with compassion. Gently guide your mind back to the focal point. Do this for a month. I bet it changes you.

3. Surround yourself with beauty. This doesn't mean your apartment needs to look like the Crate&Barrel catalog. It really doesn't. But finding small ways to bring beautiful things into your life can lift your spirits. Buy a plant. Make a photo collage. Light a candle. Watch the grace with which your cat moves. Get the pretty Kleenex box. Keep items around you that you feel are personally meaningful. Hang inspirational quotes or pictures around your home. Treat your home like a sacred space. Learn to see and cultivate beauty in the everyday. As Rumi says, "Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you truly love. It will not lead you astray."