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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

NO MUD NO LOTUS: How Yoga Can Transform Challenge into Grace

Apr 01, 2020 09:00AM ● By Sheila Ewers

(Photo: Sheila Ewers)

If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.― Masaru Emoto, The Secret Life of Water

The image of a lotus flower floating delicately on the surface of a pond has long served as a metaphor for spiritual transcendence. It has become so commonplace that the phrase “No Mud, No Lotus” appears on T-shirts, bumper stickers and other merchandise throughout the world. The saying represents the ability of the soul to transcend the condition of physical embodiment that can often feel muddy or murky, like the floor of the pond from which the flower emerges. While the “mud” of our human condition shows up as suffering, negative emotions and challenge, yoga can offer a pathway to turn that suffering into grace.

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)

(Photo: 2Tphoto)
Sit comfortably with eyes softly closed. Take a breath or two to settle in and notice the state of your mind. When you’re ready, inhale. For the full length of the exhale, make a low- to medium-pitched humming sound in the throat. Notice how the sound waves gently vibrate your tongue, teeth and sinuses. Do this practice for six rounds of breath and then, keeping your eyes closed, return to your normal breathing. Notice if anything has changed. In addition to lengthening the exhalation, this breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, helping to turn on the rest-and-digest response.

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):

Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Flex your feet, drawing your toes towards you as you press through your heels. Lengthen through the spine by lifting your sternum up and broadening across your collarbones. Then, hinge from your hips while keeping the front of your torso long and extended. Draw your tailbone back as your sternum reaches forward towards your toes. Find more depth by continuing to lengthen the front body and encouraging the sternum forward. Pause each time you meet resistance (the edge), and wait several breaths to see if more space emerges. Keep the breath fluid and full in the pose, using each inhale to lengthen and each exhale to hinge deeper. Hold the pose for up to three minutes before slowly releasing with an inhalation.

Developing our skills to regulate the nervous system and staying present to an “edge” of discomfort can help us see suffering in a new light, one that reveals the transience of experience and the resilience of our highest nature. Suffering and challenge are an inevitable part of the human experience, and often we have little control over the events that cause them. It can be difficult in the moment of despair to pull ourselves out of the mud and see any kind of path towards the surface, especially if we have not cultivated mechanisms to help heal and sooth ourselves. By practicing yoga, we train the mind and body to prepare for the inevitable so that we can access means to healing when we most need it. We can be fully rooted, as a lotus flower in the mud, and still find our way to the surface to bask in the light that is always available to us.

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Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads daily yoga classes and yoga teacher training classes, and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published in several online magazines, including Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach Sheila at [email protected]
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