Power

January 24, 2017 § 1 Comment

Gosh, it’s been a while since I last wrote here. There’s been a lot going on in my world and many things have unfolded, changed, erupted, vanished, shifted at such a fast pace that my writing has not kept up with the reflexivity in my head.

The trip to Mysore offered a lesson in many things, but the one I want to talk about is the lesson of empowerment. Given the current socio-political climate, notions of power, empowerment and disempowerment in all its varied forms have been on my mind recently, from the personal to the social.

Let’s start with the personal. I went to Mysore with a practice routine that was a twice-a-week occurrence on account of a cyst-laden wrist and the advice of a PT who believed that it’s better to do the full expression of the pain-causing activity less frequently than to do a modified version more frequently. Shaped by current perspectives about the body, physical fitness, injuries and how to recover from them, this point of view is very much grounded in the physical, and thus, also views yoga as an inadequate fitness routine. I agree with him on that count. If you’re looking for ‘fitness’, there are far better programs out there to help you achieve your goals (calorie burn, weight loss, etc etc etc). This advice however, effectively distilled the role of the practice in my life and my relationship to it. It is, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “a ritual that let’s the rest of my life breathe“.

In the weeks leading up to my departure for Mysore I sought to balance PT logic with the inner, embodied, as yet unarticulated knowing about the practice’s importance. (I think there is a part of my relationship with Ashtanga yoga that will never be able to be fully articulated, because the resonance goes so deep.)

Preparing for this trip meant giving myself permission to cut it short if things were not ‘working out’ in Mysore. There was also a fair amount of anxiety about what I had to do to mitigate cyst-related pain in a daily practice situation, how to avoid aggravating it, how should I modify my practice and should I modify at all? These questions eventually clarified an intention to preserve and protect my body going into Mysore. I resolved to put self-care and compassion above conforming to an external representation of what the practice was supposed to look like. I would show up each day and modify accordingly, tuning into the sensations around the left wrist and shoulders and letting those nerve messages guide the shape of my practice. This meant stepping, not jumping, even in led classes. Skipping Bhujapidasana, a 1-breath Kukkutasana, a clumsy-looking Supta Kurmasana exit and no or very short Utpluthis for pretty much the first month. What I discovered quickly, was that my fears of being called out for modifying the practice were completely unfounded. It’s not that Sharath didn’t see the changes I made – he really does know everything that goes on in that room – it’s that he saw me and my practice and he let me do it. By not calling me out (as some teachers would do), he was telling me that I know what’s best for my body and how to manage whatever pain or injury I’m experiencing. And in doing so, he empowered me. For someone whose personal narrative has mostly been about disempowerment, especially in relationships with authority figures, this is a massive shift in how I see myself, my ability to trust my body and my intuition about what actions are best suited for me at any particular time. A big deal. And this is why I have come to accept him as my teacher after years of skepticism and doubt.

The notion that we have the power to shape our lives is a tired New Age cliche and yet that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a lesson that keeps showing up in practice, because the the practice and experience of yoga is about challenging the limited mental projections we have about ourselves and the world around us: how we choose to see ourselves, who we are, what we are capable of accomplishing, our capacity for discomfort, etc. The ripples that come from stepping into and owning the power that each of us has is infinite, and also, potentially subversive. We have the power to choose to see the good, the kind, the fear in others, to empathize instead of projecting and blaming our insecurities. We have the power to behave in ways that draw healthy boundaries for ourselves, for standing up to narratives and behaviors that gaslight and disempower our faculties for critical thinking.

(It’s important here to highlight that I’m not denying the structural forces behind the social issues of our time, because this is the sort of argument that a good conservative would use to justify cutting programs for the most vulnerable in our society. No, I’m writing this specifically for the other affluent and privileged individuals who live in my world, who don’t have to worry about the color of their skin, where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep tonight. These are the people who have the means to effect real change.)

Which brings me to the social: Coming out of the Women’s March last weekend I found another kind of power – the power to speak up and be heard and be counted for values that I believe are important. It was my political awakening, in an active, visible sense. As a Sociology major in college I’ve always been aware of power dynamics in society. This, along with years working as a paper-pusher in an autocratic government and then in PR, built and refined my personal bullshit detector, particularly as it relates to authority.  Being born and raised in an autocracy that basically runs on an apathetic, disempowered electorate in exchange for the creature comforts of modern living, I’ve long had a malaise around activism and skepticism of the real value of doing things like voting, marching, protesting…..all activities that represent a healthy, engaged citizenry in the democratic process. Last Saturday showed me how it has been in the State’s interest to keep me (and the other people of my home country) disempowered about our ability to effect real change. Because when people get together in civic spaces to speak up about the values that are important to them, it is a powerful experience. It is an embodied encounter, one increasingly rare in this Internet Age, and that experience empowers you even more because you see for yourself that you’re not alone in this cause that you’re championing. That together, we can make a difference, and this realization stays with you, energizes you and inspires you to keep the momentum going. This is real power and it’s up to us not to squander it.

Mysore, Round 2

July 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

I got the email a few weeks ago informing me of my spot at KPJAYI this October and, for me, it is bittersweet. The prospect of this trip is occupying my heart and headspace in a different, deeper way, coming as it does at a point in time when my ruminations have more of a soul-searching/meaning-making flavor about them.

Following my first trip in 2012, I returned with a strong sense of purpose about building my life here. The trip extinguished a chronic discontent with “my present life”, wherever I found myself, that plagued most of my adult life until that point.

What was less clear to me was the prospect of returning to the Shala. I knew that I wasn’t going to be on the annual pilgrimage circuit, and I did not appreciate the palpable atmosphere of Sharath-worship while I was there. I respected (and still respect) the institution, the lineage and what he and his mother are doing as asana teachers, but I wasn’t sure about calling him my ‘teacher’ or ‘guru’ as so many people seem to do once they get to Mysore. Not enough time had passed for me to make a claim like that, which I don’t do lightly. Maybe I’m taking things too seriously. In any case, I wasn’t “feelin’ it” and I certainly wasn’t going to let the groundswell of adulation sweep me up without my consent. This ambiguity towards Sharath continued for a while as I continued to practice back home. Beyond being the head of a lineage, I didn’t know where to put him on my spectrum of ‘teachers’ as it applied to my practice.

After a few years, I went on the Yatra last fall that included a week in Uttarkashi. It was my way of dipping my toes back in to the Mysore vibe, to the Sharath-as-teacher proposition while also spending some time exploring the northern cities of India. It was a clarifying experience on many levels. That week in Uttarkashi cleared up any ambiguity I had about his place in my now-smaller-and-precious list of teachers. Thanks to a conversation I had with a non-Ashtangi but very devout Ramana Maharishi follower on the trip, I realized that Sharath and his mother (and like his grandfather) are, simply yoga asana teachers. They are not enlightened beings. They are human, fulfilling their dharma. Everything else is a product of student projections, which are illusory. I came to terms with navigating the projections that sometimes reeked of kool-aid and found some clarity around what Sharath and Saraswati mean to me, in my asana practice. They may not see me everyday, but they are yoga asana teachers at the top of their game and that is enough for me to want to make the trip to study with them. At the end of the week Sharath caught me by surprise by asking when I was coming back to Mysore. I replied, “Maybe next year”. And so it is.

I’m really looking forward to practicing in that room again. I am not interested in: getting poses, becoming BFFs with yoga-lebrities, perfecting asanas, shopping, accumulating FB friends, sightseeing, doing photoshoots, dissecting Sharath’s every word, hustling to get into led classes, coconut stand gossip, filling up my days with classes, tours, chai chit-chat…

All I want to do is to practice in that room. To tap into that energetic stream and let it course through my nervous system, healing, cleansing, shaping, changing me as it goes. Removing what does not serve and creating spaciousness for what needs to take root and grow.

I want to dissolve into the singular vibration of that room’s chants. To disappear into the sea of breaths and learn how to ride my own.

In 2012 I went for 6 weeks. Now I’m going for 8. It won’t be easy.

The countdown begins.

Perfection

July 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Some thoughts from last month’s full moon + solstice buzz that I thought would be worth sharing here.

***

I live on an incessant internal tension between striving, constantly, for perfection in my endeavors and also shying away from making it a reality. This is my center of gravity. The endless contradictions of wanting/notwanting as it relates to the social/professional self. I am trying to figure out where this comes from, what feeds it and nurtures it.

The big questions I am currently wrestling with relate to “doing things” in a way that can be easily measured by conventional metrics such as: “fame”, “Social media engagement” (collectively rounded up in numbers), money/profits, prestige and length of one’s client roster, number of “friends”, offspring. I feel constantly inadequate because the quantifiable answers that I can give to this big question (“What do I do”) do not measure up to the standards that are used to evaluate one’s standing in this conventional world. How do I compare with my peers with their careers, degrees, titles, children? By all measures I am unremarkable. In this paradigm I am practically unmeasurable and invisible. I am a problem for the paradigm because I don’t fit neatly into its limited checkboxes.I never wanted to fit and have sought to break out of it. And in many ways, I have now successfully rendered this paradigm a useless tool for evaluating my life, and yet I am mourning my failure to measure up to it and clinging to something that I never really cared for in the first place. Instead, I’m using this ‘failure’ to explain my low self-esteem, fuel my efforts for affirmation (in a perverse, roundabout way), and shield myself from trying new things and putting myself out there.

Wow. I sure enjoy making things difficult for myself! There are all sorts of fear tied up with letting go of this shield-crutch, which is built out of fear.

What will it take for me to let go of this crutch? Is this the only thing holding me back from my full potential?

Wobble Wobble

May 9, 2016 § 3 Comments

Hello Internet. A lot has happened between the last post and this one. I think of this space fondly, in those slivers of wonder where I’m awed by the grace and beauty of this practice and think “Oh I should write about that!”, but upon further reflection, realize that what the depths of what I would like to convey is immediately rendered banal by the use of words. And so I don’t.

One of the biggest changes in the past few months is that I have found my Teacher. The Guru. The person who will hold me accountable, not just to an asana practice, but to everything else that requires showing up in life. This person is an expert on holding up a mirror to my blind spots and requiring me to be present with sensations/emotions/behaviors that I would prefer to avoid. To constantly push me to keep my legs straight/sternum lifted/chin up without compromising the integrity of the breath, and in so doing, taking me past my physical edge and showing me that I can do it. This teacher’s gift of connecting the dots between on-mat behavior and off-mat personality quirks with sharp, incisive wit is unparalleled. At least compared with all the other teachers I’ve practiced with up till now. Case in point: making the observation that I’m trying to do the perfect Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, by not allowing myself to wobble in the pose.

“I’ve done this pose for so many years and I still wobble in it. You need to get comfortable with the wobbling and calibrate your balance internally.”

Not allowing for any wobbling is an accurate summation of my personal tendency towards meticulous planning and strict adherence to the best laid plans. I’ve gotten better with age at dealing with changes to plans and itineraries, but you could say that I still have some way to go with allowing for more wobbling in my life. It’s a mental practice I’m still playing around with in the weeks since that class and I have to say that a touch of wobbling does wonders for the anxiety. It frees up the rib cage to breathe more fully, triggers the vagus nerve and generates a sense of calm – very useful especially when travelling, driving in peak hour traffic, <insert other anxiety-inducing situations here>.

Here’s to the Wobble!

The Precipice

January 14, 2016 § 3 Comments

If I were to imagine a place where my Self lives, it would be a small, spartan room with one window facing southwest that streams the afternoon sun at varying angles depending on the time of year. There is a basic bed for one. A wooden writing desk and chair and not much else. On that table is a book that runs on its own time. A book of my life to date. Part narrative, part textbook, it reminds me of adventure books from childhood where, at certain junctures in the story you could choose from a variety of actions to reach a different conclusion. Except in this case the choices aren’t so much a matter of flipping the page as much as they’re puzzles to solve. More and more I’m faced with puzzles that are intractable and opaque, and are often obscured in a heavy fog of big emotions like grief and sadness. Occasionally anger. Often, the feelings are so big that I cannot even fathom the question, I am too busy setting anchor in a tempest of emotions that often linger for days.

It is lonely, at this desk. I want to leave the room, to look for someone to commiserate with, to exchange notes about where they are at with their puzzles. I am looking for distraction from this onerous drudgery of sorting through heavy, isolating stuff at this stage of my journey, but I also know, deep down, that the time for conversation is over. My experiences so far have equipped me with all the skills and knowledge I need. Any search for more knowledge is a trivial pursuit. Time-wasting.

It is time to do the work, work that only I can do. That in itself is a sobering realization. I feel like I’m at the edge of a precipice that I know I have to jump off. The past 18 months have been deeply transformative and I’m surprised by the sorts of changes that have happened both within and without. But the job is not over yet, and yesterday I saw, with utmost clarity, the name and form (namarupa?) of the task ahead.

Everything clicked in place the moment I settled on the mat for Dandasana. The mind had been churning even before the first ekam, and with each breath and movement, the tension between mind/ego and Self/heart became increasingly apparent. The former wanted to cut things short and the latter urged steadiness and fortitude. I was stressing about my commitments for the next month. And the back-and-forth continued until Dandasana when I realized that the anxiety for two unrelated events shared the same root: I was stressing because I’m afraid that I’m not going to be good enough.

Not good enough for my parents (who are coming to visit).

Not good enough to do a two-week workshop with a certified teacher (who I’ve practiced with before).

Not good enough to (fill in the blank).

That’s my life story, in three words. “Not good enough”. It is the lens that shapes how I view myself in the world, the shackles of fear that paralyze me when I embark on a new project or conjure up a new idea. It is the driving force behind everything I do. I have high standards when it comes to, well, almost everything (yes, I am a snob), but the standards for myself are always that much higher. I am motivated by the fear of not measuring up – never mind that I don’t even know what “enough” looks like, thereby setting for myself an impossibly high standard for which there are no observable metrics.

When you realize that what needs to be changed requires you to upend a mode of being that is at the core of who you have been for 36 years – how do you even begin? If all you’ve known is what needs to be changed, then who is left?

Who am I?

 

 

Starting Over

December 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

The last month of 2015 took it upon itself to really drive home the lesson of learning how to be a beginner. This, in a year that has been especially about beginnings and endings. I get the sense that the Universe is really giving its all into impressing the gravity of this particular module of Life 101 before the clock runs out on 2015’s curriculum.

It’s new year’s eve and there’s a palpable anticipation of the “new year” all over my networks, with all the sentimentality of bright-eyed aspirations, courageous hopes and best wishes that today brings. It is sweet to read and to ride this wave of goodwill, a refreshing change from the endless parade of dismal news and cynicism the other days of the year. Dec 31 shows that we’re actually all optimists at heart. Tomorrow will be better, in all its newness. Tomorrow holds the potential for change and continued transformation. Tomorrow is another chance to start afresh and revisit my endeavors with fresh eyes, perspective and courage.

Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

What we forget (so easily) is that this promise of an abstract ‘Tomorrow’ is always present with us. Each inhale and exhale is the ‘tomorrow’ that we keep projecting out of ourselves. You don’t need to wait to find the courage to face your fears, pursue your dreams, unfold into a radical acceptance of who you are/what you look like/how you age, etc. It’s always there, waiting to be found in the rhythmic spaciousness of the breath.

Life: Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

Happy New Year friends.

Karma + Future Suffering

September 1, 2015 § 1 Comment

A friend shared this podcast where meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg elaborates on the concept of ‘karma’. Spoiler alert: we’ve been too liberal in applying this concept to everything and everyone around us!

The true meaning of the word is complex and more empowering than pop culture would have us believe. It is not something that is inevitable, but instead, it is a tool for introspection and when applied intelligently, could help me avoid future suffering (Sutra 2.16). If where we are now is a product of the choices we have made in the past, then the choices we make now will shape our future. Therefore, it’s in our interest to choose intelligently. Or, as a Buddhist would say, to live skillfully.