Not because it is election season, I have been thinking about Dante’s Inferno these days.
In case you have not read it, the book is a depiction of Hell. It goes into great detail about the various punishments awaiting those who have sinned while they were alive.
I would not say that I am a believer or deeply religious person, but I have always been fascinated by this work. I am especially fascinated by the fate that befalls those who never make a choice in the world of the living — those who do not commit. They are condemned to chase after banners for eternity, just outside the gates of Hell.
The reason that this has been on my mind is that I have been “rebooting” various practices in my life. Yoga, meditation, working out, prayer, and more. In all these activities, it is very tempting to say, for instance, “I meditate,” and yet, not really actually do any meditation. If I never really do the meditation, if I never commit to the practice, I am condemned always to be chasing after a banner — wanting the benefits, but not receiving them.
Over the summer, I decided that I wanted to learn how to do a handstand. I worked at it every day, little by little. Eventually, I was able to do a handstand and stick it for about five seconds. However, I stopped practicing. I can’t really say, anymore, that I can do a handstand. I can get there for a moment, but since I have not been practicing, I cannot stay standing on my hands for any appreciable length of time. It is tempting to say that I am “working on my handstand.” But that is not really the case, I have not been putting in the effort.
I am not steeped in any organized religion, though I do count myself as spiritual. Still, the image sticks with me and I feel in many ways as if I am that person chasing after a banner. In so many areas of my life, my practice has slipped, and I find myself saying that I do more than I really do. I say I meditate when, to be honest, of late I have mostly been intending to meditate. I intend to go practice more yoga than I do. I intend to work out more often. At some point, cognitive dissonance must overcome me, and I must either commit — or not.
Thankfully, there is a way to correct such things. All I have to do is to begin to actually do these practices. So that’s what I’ve done. A reboot, if you will.
[Note: Some friends know that I have become fascinated by dictation of late. The first draft of this post was written entirely using Siri on my iPhone 5 — dictated into the DayOne journaling app and then ported over to WordPress. I then edited in the standard way.]
At my most recent yoga teacher training weekend, our teacher challenged us to find the essence of what drives our commitment to teaching yoga. We were asked to complete a simple sentence: “My name is __________ and I am a commitment for __________.”
The invitation came at a funny time for me. I had traveled to the west coast for a number of business meetings just a few days earlier. A lot of anxiety was involved. In one meeting, my colleague asked me an odd question: “What is your essence?” he asked me. You don’t get questions like that in a business setting very often. It took me by surprise and I said the first thing that came to my mind that felt true: “To help others to feel they are becoming better people.” A little sappy, I know. But it accurately captures what motivates me most right now. It has not always been this way, but for a while now this sense of helping people has been a core driver.
Now, in teacher training, I was being asked to boil it down to one word. I thought. First I wrote down “love.” But the more I thought about that, the less I was happy with it — too vague. Easy to misunderstand.
Finally, the word “inspiration” came to me. I crossed out the “love” and wrote “I am a commitment for inspiration.” That felt right. With that, the exercise was complete and we dove into our yoga practice.
After practice was complete, we sat in a circle and talked a bit more. At one point, we were asked to quickly say what we get out of yoga. First word that popped into our head.
Out from my lips came the word “clarity.” I hadn’t expected to say that. But there it was: Again, it felt right. Yes. Clarity is what I get from yoga.
As the weekend progressed, the two words tumbled through my head. Clarity and inspiration. Neither won the battle for supremacy — they are tied together.
I get — and seek to give — clarity and inspiration from yoga.
Having these two words as guide stars as I practice and as I live life has been illuminating. They give me an anchor in difficult parts of practice. They guide me to the right attitude with which to step onto my mat.
I have tried to unpack each of these words slightly.
Clarity: In thought, in deed, in word, in intention.
In seeking to inspire others, we find our own inspiration.
I recognize that I am a work in progress, like anybody else. These guiding words will no doubt shift over time as I grow and change.
But, for now, they work for me.
My name is Brad, and I am a commitment for clarity and inspiration.
When I first learned of this requirement, I thought it would be relatively easy. I have for many years had a spiritual practice that involved daily contemplation. I have learned since that the kind of mindfulness that meditation requires is difficult.
Over the last few weeks, though, things have clicked for me and I’ve begun to dial in a regular practice that I now look forward to with relish.
One of the books that we were asked to purchase for training has been quite helpful. It’s Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield. (Affiliate link.) It’s very simple and straightforward, and comes with a CD that has a number of meditations recorded on location at various retreats. It’s helped me get started — and from there, I’ve begun to grow.
I started out just meditating for 5-10 minutes four times per week. Now I am meditating 20 minutes every day (pretty much: some days I skip, but I don’t skip two days in a row).
A Different Practice
For many years, as a part of my spiritual practice, I have engaged in morning contemplation of spiritual principles. Sometimes this takes the form of a written letter to God, sometimes it takes the form of prayer, sometimes I read inspirational books.
But meditating is different than all that. The goal is to quiet the mind, and bring awareness to the present. Contemplation, writing, and prayer actually work against that (at least, that’s what I have found). I am not stopping all that, but they do not quiet my mind in the way I would like.
So, as I have begun to meditate, I have become increasingly aware of the differences — and how far I have to go.
What I have found different than what I had been used to is that, instead of contemplating a spiritual principle (as I had been doing previously), I am bringing attention and awareness solely to my breath. Focusing awareness on breath forces my attention into the present and away from the mish-mosh inside my head.
This, it turns out, can be difficult. The mind has a tendency to wander. I was surprised to find out just how much chatter I have in my head normally. Planning, pondering, reviewing, worrying, hoping, regretting, recriminating, figuring, budgeting . . . all these things and more occupy my mind. It does not seem to want to stop, it just goes by itself!
But, little by little, just by focusing my attention on my breath, I have found that my mind quiets. I get little stretches of respite from the chatter. Over time, these have begun to lengthen, and they come more quickly. At the end of each session, I feel refreshed and ready to face the day.
One of my yoga teachers suggests that we meditate first thing in the morning. “RPM” — Rise, Pee, Meditate. I’ve found that is a little early for me, and I tend to snooze off a bit, even though I am seated upright.
So, I wait a while until I have been awake long enough to have a certain amount of alertness.
I sit kneeling with my sitting bones on a yoga block (turned so it is at the “medium” height, resting on a long narrow side), and set my iPhone timer for the amount of time I wish to meditate. (I have learned it is easier than I thought to set aside the time to meditate, if I know just how long it is going to be.)
I close my eyes, inhale, and exhale. I bring my attention to the physical sensations of the breath — the feeling in the back of my throat, cool as it goes in. My belly expanding slightly.
As other physical sensations arise, I bring my attention there, naming the sensation (itching, itching, or, pressure, pressure) until it subsides. I try not to move or fidget.
When I notice my mind has wandered — which it does, often — I try to gently bring it back to breath, like I’m placing a puppy back on its newspaper. I don’t get uptight about it, I just return to breath. I do this over and over.
This practice has opened a new door in my world. I feel more connected and calm as I start my day. It used to be difficult to make it through five minutes sitting still. Now I find twenty minutes has passed by in a wink.
If meditation is something you are curious about, I encourage you to give it a try. Just start with a short time, a few times per week. See where it takes you. You might be surprised! I know I was.
As last year ended, I announced that I had decided to take a yoga teacher training course. The first weekend (of eight) is done. I am both exhilarated and tired. I am excited to be taking these first steps along a new path, and to deepen my connection (and understanding) of the practice.
The teacher training is being presented by Down Dog Yoga — my home yoga studio. Down Dog has taught over 150 teachers. One of the strengths of the studio (which is consistently voted best of DC) is that all the teachers are of uniformly high caliber. As one fellow student put it, “there is no teacher I am hiding from.”
On the first day, we were invited to respond to a simple question: “Why are you here?” I had, of course, already answered this question for myself in a rudimentary way — else why spend the money and time to attend? Neither investment is trivial.
My rudimentary answer had been something or other about wanting to “deepen my practice.” That was enough to get me through the door.
However, when it came my turn to answer, I found myself thinking much more intently about my reasons for being there, and the role yoga — this yoga — has come to play in my life. The style of yoga I practice is called “power yoga” and it is rooted in the teaching and practice of Baron Baptiste. It is quite strenuous and at Down Dog it is practiced in rooms heated to 99 degrees. It literally transforms me as I practice. I enter in one state, and exit in another. I enter as a head attached to a body — by the end of practice I can feel my body and mind integrated. The practice has taken me out of my head, and landed me right in my body.
This sounds a little kooky, but it is my experience.
There are many styles of yoga, and they all hold a different intention. Some styles promote flexibility, some relaxation, some strength, and some love. Most styles deliver all of these and more in varying amounts, but they all have a primary purpose. The primary purpose of power yoga is personal transformation.
Why Are You Here?
I said on Friday evening that “yoga went off like a bomb in my life.” As many of my friends know, about two years ago I had an epiphany around my physical body. I have had a handful of experiences throughout my life where I have been driven to make major changes in my outlook. Two years ago such a reorienting experience hit my physical body. Put simply, I realized that I was no longer 20 (even though I felt that way in my head). My physical body was the vessel that was carrying me through life. It was time to focus attention on its maintenance.
I have always been a person who enjoys exercise, but that was really the extent of my relationship to wellness. I would have said I was “a fit person,” perhaps even athletic. I had run marathons, and did some regular cardio work at the gym. My friends saw me as fit.
But my epiphany was that this dilettante approach to wellness was wholly inadequate. I was fooling myself. Because I had been blessed with a decent body, I had not had to face the shortcomings of the little attention I paid to my physical being. But vanity drove me to confront that which I had denied: I had gained enough pounds that I did not like the result. This was not about how I “looked” (although that did figure into it) — it was that when I looked at myself, I could not apply the label “athletic” to what I saw. I saw that my intention (fitness) and reality were far apart.
Looking back, there are three things I take away from that experience, which are now relevant to me: 1) I did not make any nutritional changes, so while I gained strength, my weight-loss results were minimal; 2) I learned that I enjoy strength training; 3) I discovered yoga.
Part of the P90X program is a once-per-week yoga session. The P90X yoga routine is hard. As I continued in the exercise program, and after it ended, I stuck with the yoga and began to do it more. It is hard to maintain solo exercise for me, so I looked for yoga studios. I tried a number of them, and nothing really gave me the same feeling . . . until I discovered Down Dog.
At Down Dog, I discovered the experience that the DVD I had been working with only hinted at.
I began to experience personal transformation.
Since that time, my yoga practice has grown, as have a number of other wellness-related areas of my life. I learned about nutrition and shed a great deal of unhealthy body fat. My entire relationship to my physical being has changed:
I eat a strictly “paleo” diet (the evidence against the modern American diet, based on mass agricultural products, is compelling to me);
I do heavy resistance-based strength training 2-3 times a week;
I have abandoned long-distance cardio/endurance activities, as the evidence is strong that they are counterproductive to health and fitness; and
I practice power yoga at least four times per week.
Of these elements, the two I cannot give up are the nutritional approach and the yoga. Other elements come and go, but the nutrition and the yoga are what are at the core of this transformation I am undergoing. I have never felt (or been) better than I am now — on a number of measures including feeling of well-being, capacity for exercise, and medical biomarkers such as cholesterol and insulin levels.
My transformation is this: I brought consciousness to my relationship with my physical being. The fruits of this transformation have been life-changing.
Some may view my emphasis on physicality to be shallow. First of all, I engage in a number of other practices (I don’t drink, I meditate regularly, I connect spiritually with others on a regular basis) that are “deeper.” But secondly, this criticism misses the point. I have come to focus on my physical body not because I want to look cool — it is because I was forced to realize that my lack of relationship with my body was a gaping hole in my life.
Power yoga, as I have found it at Down Dog Yoga, has brought me into relationship with my body. I respect my body, and plan on taking care of it as I would an heirloom passed on to me by a loved one. It is this relationship I want to learn to pass on to others. We all live in bodies, and we can all be in better relationship to them. I have first-hand knowledge of the benefits of developing such a relationship.
I have so far to go in my understanding and practice. I know only a little — I am painfully aware of that. But if I can pass on the joy I have come to discover, then I feel I will be doing something beneficial.
And so, I embark on this journey. I don’t know where it will take me. But it seems clearly the next right step — so I take it.