What do you do when you know you’re living through History?
It’s hard to know. Look busy! History in the past seems to be important, interesting events that shaped our world. History in the present seems to be (at best) the unwelcome disruption of “normal” life for some unknown period of time. When will this History be over so we can get back to what we were doing? I had some projects going, and I definitely miss eating out.
Wisdom traditions tell us that there is a common arc to all events and experiences. If we pull back far enough, we see a kind of rhythm. Gain and loss. Rise and fall. Ebb and flow. The flux of fortune, culture, and all other systems. This is the law of nature, with a grace and majesty beyond (and behind!) any and all of our human affairs.
These traditions also tell us about the power of our immediate, raw experiences. The play of light. The smell of grass. The feel of smiling. These too, these building blocks of our conscious experience, betray the mystery flowing beneath the surface of every moment, regardless of whether that moment is, on its surface, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
And beneath and beyond both of these approaches (two different flavors of mindfulness) is the power of the human mind: your mind. Its endless ability to scale and scope, to frame and reframe, allows us to hold these different interpretations, nested inside one another. We can understand that a tree is branches, roots, and leaves, but it is also a singular, indivisible whole, but it is also an impenetrable mystery.
For me, living through History, I find myself exploring these other ways of looking and understanding. Often my default mind is cramped, anxious, and irritable. But when I dial into granular mindfulness of moment-by-moment awareness…Spring is springing, the air is warm, and the Earth is green. Fear of the future can be countered by scaling out to see that no one really knows what will happen next, or what it will mean, and that events don’t have meaning except that which we give them.
So, when living through History…mind your mind. Embrace it’s range and potential. Keep it tidy, fit, and nimble. It is a beautiful servant, but a dangerous master.
One insight in yoga is the recognition that pattern and repetition are foundational to our nature. And they are neither good nor bad, but simply one of our most basic psychological building blocks. Yoga understands that patterns can come to rule us, but they can also set us free.
Most of us are feeling the power of losing our patterns right now. We lean on these structures of routine and schedule without understanding just how much they contribute to our well-being and productivity. What’s more, patterns are how we make meaning out of our lives. Context cues, setting, timing, and location all contribute to the sense of purpose that moves us from one task or part of the day to another. There is a better term for this: ritual. We live in a web of rituals – work, recreation, family, and otherwise.
Classical yoga is especially concerned with negative patterns that limit us, called samskaras. And here is the real wisdom – yoga recognizes that patterns are not optional. To fix negative patterns we can’t simply do away with patterns altogether. The solution to a bad diet is not to stop eating. Yoga understands that structures of routine are among our greatest tools because action, setting, and intention make meaning, and meaning is what sustains us.
Yoga gifts us many plug-and-play rituals – the sun salutation, mantras, pranayama exercises – and also gifts us the building blocks of ritual itself: action, setting, and intention. When you find yourself adrift these days, try making a new ritual, giving yourself a new structure. Take a walk at 4. Listen to the birds at 7. Reach out to a friend at 11. Accomplish something at 2. Find a way to give back at 6. Choose the meaning you want, take action, and give it a few days to sink in. Gift yourself a new ritual to make the meaning that sustains you.
Resilience is the quality of development through adversity. How timely.
We all know deeply that this is possible and can rattle off any number of idioms expressing it: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” “That builds character!” And – for the 2020 wellness scene – “We grow through what we go through.”
We all possess the capacity for resilience. It is a potentiality in each mind that only needs the right conditions to arise. The yoga tradition has known since time immemorial about development through adversity and harnesses it through ascetic practices – vigils, fasts, meditation, kriya and asana and more. In modern day practice we choose to hold difficult postures for long breaths or commit to an hour in a hot room.
It is one thing to have a vague sense of resilience; it is quite another to make it a conscious project. If Resilience Level 1 is knowing the sayings about resilience and supporting friends through difficulty, Level 2 is waking up within our own (natural) struggles with adversity to wonder “What can I learn from this?” Often we will fall back into reaction again and again, only to rise once more to see this broader perspective and open to it the best we can.
With practice, we get better. We see the opportunity within disappointment. We learn to zig and zag. We accept what is and make the most of it, knowing it makes us better. We innovate, evolve, and integrate. We may even someday find ourselves at Level 3, wondering when we will be tested next, ready for the chance. Like the monks of some eastern sects we may even someday give gratitude for adversity.
We can cultivate this perspective with the tools we already have. In the midst of dealing with the crisis, take a deep yoga breath, feel your feet on the floor, and wonder “Where will this challenge take me?”
Our environment matters. Setting up your practice space in a supportive way is at least as important as the practice you do there. You want a space that you want to be in. You want a space that soothes and inspires. And a home practice space is ideal because you have complete control over it. Here are some tips for setting up your space:
- Start small. You need enough space for your mat plus a little room around it. This can be achieved in an unused corner or along a wall. If you have a whole room to dedicate, do so, but it’s not necessary.
- Clean. Declutter. Sweep and mop. Dust. This will begin the process of nurturing your space and connect you with it on a deeper level. This space is important and can be cared for as such.
- Make it special. Bring in a small number of special items to really make the space your own. A picture or poster. A plant. A treasured keepsake. These items might be yoga-related, but they also might not. Pick things that give you “the feels” to deepen your connection with the space.
- Manage time. You will need to make choices about how to track time in your space. If you are doing online classes the time will be tracked for you. If you have a small bedside clock find a spot for it. Figuring out a way to leave your phone outside of your practice space is highly recommended.
- Sanctify the space. Once you have your space cleaned and organized, choose some simple way to sanctify it. Play a song. Do a short practice. Burn some sage. Light a candle. Meditate. Choose anything you like as way to say “This is now my special space.”
- Nurture. As you practice and grow into your space, feel free to continue to adjust, add to, and deepen it. Keep it clean. Mark anniversaries or other special days. Add keepsakes when you feel moved to do so. This will be a new element of practice that will grow naturally over time.
My teacher, Matthew Sweeney, said something during our last course in Bali that struck me. He said that research is empirically validating what yogis have known all along: yoga postures are good for health and well-being. Then, he said the thing that has stuck with me:
“Research has shown too that the benefits are in the simple postures. Doing advanced postures brings no more benefit and in fact, brings increased risk.”
This was a new perspective, if not new information. And yet, many practitioners – myself included – are drawn to complex (“advanced”) postures.
This makes it clear to me that we practice yoga postures for many reasons. Health is one, but there are benefits that complex postures (this being relative to each person – essentially meaning “challenging” in this context) can deliver, for those who choose to practice them.
Humans can be described as “anti-fragile” – a system that becomes stronger, not weaker, under stress. Challenge is necessary for growth and even maintenance and stability.
There is an elegance, art, and aesthetic component to practicing yoga postures. We express ourselves creatively, as both the artist and the medium.
Finally, there is an awareness and an analytical piece: complex postures are typically complicated and intricate. Indeed, the risk is greater – and therefore the awareness may need to be greater, the precision greater, and the depth of understanding of how to express the posture with your own body greater. Challenge can be a lens that magnifies, clarifies, and brings into focus complexities we would otherwise never comprehend.
Needless to say, simple and advanced postures are not mutually exclusive. Understanding our motivations and benefits gives us the leverage to tailor even the mental perspective with which we approach our yoga practice. The choice is yours.