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Yoga and Meditation, Part 2

This post is by Unity Woods teacher Carol Cavanaugh, who teaches a weekly “Yoga & Meditation” class at  Unity Woods’ Bethesda studio. On February 4, Carol will also lead a special workshop on Yoga and Meditation. See the Workshop Listing for details.

The Yoga Sutras (the classical text on yoga philosophy, passed down from thousands of years ago) say about the practice of asana “Posture should be steady and comfortable” (Sthira sukham asanam). In fact, that’s just about the only guideline which the Yoga Sutras offer for the physical practice of yoga poses. Now, you may have noticed that your own poses often feel anything but steady (if you’re doing a difficult balancing pose) or comfortable (if you don’t quite have the strength to hold the pose that extra minute.) How can you find steadiness and comfort even in the midst of struggle?

To talk about this question, I’m going to refer to the recent book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom. Authors Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Richard Mendius, MD say here that “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones”. This is because our mammalian ancestors who kept a sharp eye out for danger were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Today, brain research tells us that we’re more likely to pay attention to negative stimuli, store negative memories longer, and track our environment regularly for the possibility of danger.

Even in yoga poses, we might be more likely to pay attention to areas of physical distress, and to negative emotions like fear, than to allow a sense of ease. Iyengar Yoga helps us to spread our attention more evenly by inviting us, for example, to pay attention to grounding all corners of our feet, as we simultaneously twist our arms uncomfortably into Namaste behind the back. To develop the ability to find ease in the midst of discomfort, I have also found it helpful to teach some Yoga and Meditation classes in which I ask students to do difficult actions, while specifically inviting them to find aspects of the pose which are pleasurable or comfortable.

TO PRACTICE THIS IDEA AT HOME: Of course you will exercise good judgment. Yoga brings up many types of discomfort, and I am not asking you to distract yourself from the kind of pain which indicates an injury is happening (like pain in the lower back or inner knee joint.) With that said, choose several poses which would normally bring up challenge or resistance. If you practice at a basic level, perhaps you’ll hold standing poses for a full minute or longer. In Virabhadrasana II, lower that front thigh down till it’s parallel to the ground…then hold it there. Your mind will be drawn to that front thigh which is working, but where else can you bring your attention? Can you feel the tingling of your fingers, the touch of breath in chest or belly, the movement of air currents around your body, or other sensations? Notice that if you allow those perceptions as well, you may be able to hold the pose longer and more calmly. If you are a Level 2 student, maybe you’ll try this experiment in Supta Virasana for 5 minutes or so. For more senior students, inquire what actually brings you out of headstand. Is it lack of strength to keep your shoulders lifted (if so, come on down) or is it a vague sense of antsiness or boredom? If so, stay in the pose. Try absorbing your mind with neutral to positive internal sensations.

I’ll close with some notes I took at a retreat with meditation teacher Jack Kornfield. I’ve found these comments useful in practicing both yoga and meditation.

“ Pleasure uplifts the heart, in the moment before we grasp at it and try to hold on to it. Grasping is a reaching out, being pulled off one’s center. Pleasure is a state of receiving, of going into one’s center.” Without grasping for pleasant experience, try allowing for ease even in the midst of challenge as you do your yoga practice this week.

Author Carol Cavanaugh teaches a regular “Yoga and Meditation” class that seamlessly combines the two practices to enhance our capacity to appreciate life and weather its storms. Each class includes asana practice plus seated mindfulness meditation practice. For Level I/II and up. Classes meet Wednesdays at Bethesda.

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