NO MUD NO LOTUS: How Yoga Can Transform Challenge into Grace
Apr 01, 2020 09:00AM
By Sheila Ewers
(Photo: Sheila Ewers)
In our modern culture, most people attempt to push unpleasant experiences and emotions away. And there are endless means to do so: We distract ourselves with television, tablets, social media, compulsive work or overindulgence in food and alcohol. Our minds, bombarded by sensory stimulation, chatter non-stop and repeatedly remember and revise what’s passed and worry about what may come in the future. When suffering deepens due to loss, trauma, illness, or unexpected setbacks, we often lack tools to contend with these difficulties—and the patterns get more entrenched.
Yoga can help transform these patterns by releasing physical and mental blocks that keep us stuck. By refining awareness and encouraging practitioners to stay present to the ever-changing ground of experience, yoga helps reveal that aspect of human nature that is changeless and transcends suffering the way the lotus flower transcends its muddy roots. In yoga, as we intentionally place the body into unfamiliar and often challenging positions, we can learn to stay with the experience itself, watch the breath, note the sensation and seek a still point of concentration and attention. Over time, guiding the physical body to remain calm during these challenges can help train the heart and mind to stay quiet when other challenges emerge in life.
One of the main tools we use in yoga to accomplish this is conscious breathing. The respiratory system impacts and is impacted by the autonomic nervous system that connects the brain to the body. When we are under stress or feeling the impact of negative emotions, the brain shifts into the fight-or-flight response. This causes rapid, shallow breathing, increased heart rate and elevated blood pressure.
The good news is that the opposite can also occur. By consciously regulating the breath, especially by elongating the exhale, the heart rate will slow and signal the brain that everything is calm, which activates the nervous system’s “rest-and-digest” response. Furthermore, as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, “When we breathe in mindfully, we bring our mind home to our body, and there is a reunification of mind and body.” Attention to the breath creates peace both physiologically and emotionally.
Practice: Bumblebee Breath (Brhamari)
In addition to the breath, a second tool for learning to transform challenge is what long-time practitioner Joel Kramer calls “playing the edge” in one’s yoga practice. The human body has “edges,” maximum points of endurance, flexibility, strength and balance, and yoga positions encourage us to explore them. Kramer writes, “The edge moves from day to day and from breath to breath. It does not always move forward; sometimes it retreats. Part of learning how to do yoga is learning how to surrender to this edge, so that when it changes you move with the change. It is psychologically easier to move forward than to back off. But it’s as important to learn to move back if your edge closes, as it is to learn to move forward slowly as the body opens.” By exploring the edge of our abilities without attachment to a preconceived goal, we give full attention to the present moment and our response within it and cultivate the non-judgmental awareness that allows us to approach limitations and challenges with curiosity and compassion.
Practice: Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottonasana):
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