Although most people comment upon my “high energy” and emotional accessibility, I consider myself a pretty reason oriented person. I like scientific proof. I ask a LOT of questions - or so I have been told by almost every teacher who has taught me. (Mrs. Bennett, I LOVED your Anatomy class in high school. Do you realize that I would have been a Forensic Scientist right now if you hadn’t admonished me in front of the entire class by saying, “the problem with you, Lisa, is that you ask too many questions?” I went home that night and decided that since Mrs. Hay, who was my Shakespeare teacher, was encouraging my questions, I must be better suited for a career in English academia. And so here we are 35 years later – a Yoga Studio Owner with a Ph.C. in Critical Theory who currently coaches prospective triathletes and a triathlon race director who used to be an Adjunct Professor. My scientific and academic base tends to make me skeptical, and sometimes slightly derisive, toward what my partner, David, calls the “Green Tea” aspects of yoga. You know the touchy, feely, mystical aspects. I think what he is really worried about is that I will stop joining him in our evening glass of wine and begin judging him for it. He need not worry. Despite the fact that I do spend a lot of time cultivating the 5th yogic limb (pratyahara), defined as mind and sensory management techniques, my practice and teaching is still much more heavily weighted toward the more exoteric yogic limbs of “asana” (postures) and “pranayama” (breath control) rather than the more esoteric limb of “samadhi” (union with the collective). And, my deeply rooted belief in “all things in moderation - especially moderation” (hence the red wine) keeps me one or two unintelligible Sanskrit words removed from your stereotypical “yoga enthusiast.”
But there have been a few notable times in my life where yoga has transcended the poses and become a transcendent and defining moment. The knowledge I have gained ON the mat has manifested in these critical situations and provided me with profound experiences which have seemed to include all of yoga’s eight limbs. In turn, I have been able to “bring these experiences back to the mat” in order to expand my practice. The first time this happened was when I was hiking on Washington’s “Brothers” with my older son and several friends. We had summitted the mountain and were descending. The shale was loose and my son was below me. He called out to me to direct my attention to something that had interested him. (He claims he did not, but he DID.) Anyway, I turned toward him and slipped on the shale. The little hiking experience I had reminded me that you are supposed to “fall into the mountain.” When I attempted to do that, the bulk of my backpack hitting the ground caused me to topple over and begin free falling down the mountain. The first impact with the ground was a shock and an affront. And, it caused me to bounce. As I was in my second free fall, I reasoned that I needed to “brace” myself for the second landing. However, when it came, I bounced higher and continued free falling. It was at this point that I am claiming, with green tea firmly in hand, that yoga “saved my life.” After the second impact, I reasoned that if tensing had made me bounce higher and harder, the only thing that would stop me from bouncing yet again would be to completely relax. And so, despite the fact that I was in full fledged “fight or flight” mode, I summoned my yogic super powers and willed myself to relax every fiber of my being. I made a reasoned decision to turn off my sympathetic nervous system and activate my parasympathetic nervous system. I figured, like George Costanza, “if every instinct I had was wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.” And, I am here to tell you . . . IT WORKED! Despite my distress, despite my fear, despite my pain, I went willfully limp in mid air. On the third impact, I did not bounce! I went “splat” like a jelly fish on the side of the mountain. I say I fell 30 yards; my son claims it was 30 feet. I say I landed perilously close to a 30 foot cliff; my son claims it was a 10 foot cliff. Despite my ego’s need to hyperbolize the statistics and my son’s desperate need to minimize them, what no one contends is that if I have bounced a third time, I would have fallen off a precipice and this ultimately hilarious story which, when continued, involves a frigid emergency “bivvy,” a high altitude standoff with multiple mountain goats, and compulsory cuddling with the husband of a dear friend, would not have had a happy ending.
Despite practicing daily, I have never in my life so deliberately put “mind over matter.” And I suspect that I was only able to do so because of how very much it “mattered” that I control my mind. Yoga sutra 1.2 states: yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. Translated from Sanskrit, this means: yoga is the process of ending movement in the field of consciousness.” In this situation, my field of consciousness was full of lots of reactionary and instinctual mental movements. Yoga Sutra 1.4 warns that if we do not still these mental movements, then we run the risk of aligning with them in a limiting, and potentially problematic, manner. When the mind is agitated by movement, it conforms to this movement. However, when the mind is still, it is like a quiet pool of water capable of reflecting accurately and revealing profoundly. When my natural instincts compelled me to “tense up” in between my first and second bounce, my mind aligned with this tension and fear and compounded the very distress I was seeking to eliminate. However, when I quieted these mental movements and willed myself not to be tense in one of the most intense moments of my life, I was no longer compelled to conform to that movement. Instead, my still mind was able to create a stillness of body which served my highest needs for self preservation.
Each day on the yoga mat, we attempt to use our focus on our breath within the pose to drive out the mental distractions that float through our consciousness. Again and again, we choose to release a distractive thought and return to the present experience within the pose. Years of yoga practice had prepared me for clearing my mind of everything else and had convinced me that I had the power to not only choose, but to execute, the thought I wished to think in the present moment. I realized that the only thing which would save me was a pervasive calmness that flowed into every fiber of every muscle in my body. So, calm I was. And, alive I am.
I recently had a second experience which reinforced the “transcendent” power of yoga. This experience is much more delicate and requires a lot of “coded” explanation. So, please bear with me. (Or bare with me, if you wish. As I write this I am in sunny California and feeling very uninhibited and unfettered - I mean I forgot my phone in the car and left it there OVERNIGHT for goodness sake;) For fear of betraying confidences, I can’t give you a specific back story but suffice it to say, I found myself alone in a room with a man whom I had very good reason not to trust. What is not in contention is that his resume includes committing an act that ranks right up there with “murder” in my hierarchy of “bad deeds.” And quite frankly, a murderer would disgust and anger me less. He knows I know what he did. I have made it quite clear I don’t approve. He has made it quite clear he resents me. On the night in question, my role and goal was to broker a compromise which would indirectly help a person whose physical and mental well being is important to me. I was there to ask for a key – and I mean that literally. The English Professor in me just loves the symbolism of that fact.
When I walked into his room, he was very angry at the situation which had brought me there. He needed to vent – and vent he did! He vented about the women in his life, he vented about women in general. He used words I do not appreciate. Words I do not allow my sons to use in my presence. Words I sincerely hope they do not use in my absence. Every dollar I spent on a graduate degree in Feminist Critical theory begged me to “educate” him. His misogyny was palpable and it was vile. In his attempts to justify his perspective, he oscillated between a patronizing and a threatening tone. I had a myriad of reasons to be truly afraid of him: our negative past history; the fact that I knew there were guns on the premises; the fact that he has a past history of physical violence against his “friends”; and the fact that he is military trained.
Before I went in to attempt the “compromise,” I reasoned that two things were necessary: 1) I needed use my “animal” instincts in order to ascertain whether I was or was not safe; 2) I needed to remain completely calm in order not to escalate the situation. I needed to be vigilantly observant of my surroundings, of his behavior, and of his changing demeanor in order to know whether it was safe for me to stay or not. The level of threat he potentially posed as well as the level of awareness I needed usually activates one’s sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system. However, I knew that type of energy was contraindicated both to remaining calm and to my compromise goal. I sure the heck wasn’t going to “bully” him into giving me the key. My conundrum was how to remain safe AND calm. Luckily, I had learned an important lesson from my fall down the mountain. I knew that even if one’s first instinct was to “tense up” in order to protect oneself, one actually protected oneself more effectively by “letting go” and completely relaxing. I called upon each and every moment of my 16 years of yoga practice in order to stay both safe and calm. I used my pranayama breath to lower my heart rate. I didn’t just “act” calm; I became calm. I didn’t just appear “unafraid”; I was unafraid. I was the yin and the yang. The whole of myself comprised both these opposites. Each of the opposites included a small aspect of the other. I relied completely upon primal animal instincts while acting upon my most reasoned desire to remain emotionally calm. I was completely attuned to my body’s sensory data yet as cerebral as I have ever been. I was fully open to hearing his complaints yet absolutely unaffected by them. Despite being passionately invested in the well being of women, I took none of his misogynistic anger personally. I was both utterly transparent and thoroughly cloaked in a protective shield through which none of his “shit” could penetrate.
At one point, he accused me of judging him. I thought very carefully about how to respond. I knew that nothing except the absolute truth would suffice; anything less would escalate his anger. The first limb of yogic practice (yama) concerns the “universal disciplines” we use to guide our interactions with others. One of these disciplines is “satya” or “truth.” He felt I had no right to judge him; I abhorred his past and present behavior. What response could I utter which would satisfy his need for non judgment and my need to uphold my deepest principles? I had to dig very deep into the depths of my conscience to craft a statement that was both true to myself and true to what he needed from me. This is what I came up with: “Obviously, I do not condone your past behavior. But, I firmly believe that all people deserve to be treated with respect. I think that the best way I can respect you is to remember that I don’t know all the facts of your life and to assume that if I did, I would have more sympathy for you.” This truth seemed to be the “key” because when I asked him, once again, for the actual key, he gave it to me.
To save me from catastrophic injury on The Brothers, I practiced the 5th yogic limb (Pratyahara) defined as the “withdrawal of the senses” in order to achieve the 6th yogic limb (Dharana) known as “concentration” or the “aptitude for directing mental functioning.” In my recent situation, in order to attain that key, I believe I achieved the 7th yogic limb (Dhyana) which involves “meditation or the aptitude of developing, without fail, interactions with what we are trying to understand.” And, for a brief moment as I walked home, I experienced the bliss of the 8th yogic limb (Samadhi) in which one achieves “complete integration with the object of understanding.”
What I learned from both these experiences is that when the stakes aren’t high enough, we make excuses. And what is worse, we believe them to be true. We empower our problems by claiming that they are bigger than our behavioral, mental and meditative techniques. Yet, when the stakes are critical, not only are these techniques all we have, but in our desperation, we are willing to believe they will work. This willingness on our part imbues the techniques with the very power they need to be successful. Once these techniques are successful, we can bring them back to our mats to deepen our practice in ways we previous thought impossible. And perhaps even more importantly, we can bring these techniques back to the daily problems which we have unwittingly and unnecessarily empowered and then decided to “live with.” If you have yet to have a “transcendent” experience, then trust me, there is no physical, emotional, situational, or behavioral “problem” that you have that can’t be managed by summoning yoga’s eight limbs to the rescue. And if you HAVE had one, I recommend that you start using its power to tackle your daily problems.