Gratitude: We All Built That

 

September 6th, 1984 is etched deep in my cells. I remember exactly where I was sitting (in my kitchen), and what I was reading (The Vegetarian Epicure) when the phone rang. Back then there was no caller ID, but when I picked up the phone, the brief silence at the other end of the line told me something was wrong. When my mother spoke, her lilting voice seemed weak and vacant. “I have some very bad news,” she said.

Twenty-eight years ago today my dad answered a business call at home, as he did most days. In the middle of the call he interrupted the caller to tell her he didn’t feel right. He handed the phone to my mother. Twenty seconds later she hung up the phone. She then went to my dad who had lain down on the floor. He wasn’t breathing and his heart had stopped. This man, a whirlwind of energy, cat lover, gymnast who exercised almost every day of his life, built the house I grew up in, built a swimming pool for us—by himself, instilled in all his daughters a passion for music, and taught us all how to tune up our cars and change our oil because he believed girls were every bit as capable as boys, was gone. Just like that.

This morning as I walked to my yoga class, I reflected on my dad, how he was an exercise freak in the days when very few people thought exercise was important. I felt grateful for his insistence that my sisters and I walk the mile to school rather than taking the bus, and I felt grateful that because of this, I have always made a point to live in walkable neighborhoods. I never drive somewhere when I can walk. There are few activities that ground me and provide the simple pleasure that walking does.

Not every time, but many times when I am sitting in the middle of the Salt Lake Symphony or in my sextet Red Rock Rondo, being carried away by the sonic beauty of some musical masterpiece, I am grateful to both my parents for making me practice back in the day. It was a struggle sometimes. But without their passion and perseverance I would not have the joy of music in my life to the extent that I do.

About a year after my dad passed, my mother, sisters and I were hanging out together at my sister’s house. Ronald Reagan was president, and all our hackles were up about his trickle-down policies. I flashed on my last conversation with my dad, a mutual rant about Reagan, and my dad’s disappointment that his reelection was in the bag. I thought, “Look at us all, ranting about politics. My dad isn’t gone. He’s right here, in all of us.” I was grateful that he had inspired us all to stay informed, to question and to read between the lines.

Our Fortunate Lives

While President Obama was president, he made his famous speech that was quickly distilled into “You didn’t build that.” Several of my conservative friends interpreted this as a devaluing of their efforts and accomplishments. I read it instead as an acknowledgment that whatever we have accomplished in this world has been as a result of not only our own efforts and choices, but the support we’ve had from countless people over our lifetimes. I found Obama’s speech to reflect a larger view of the world. It made me grateful.

Just in my own small life, my parents provided examples not only for my musical life but my healthy physical body, my commitment to authenticity, even my stubborn commitment to punctuality and keeping my promises. The public school system taught me the basics of English without which I could not have written two books. My mentors, Pujari and Abhilasha of The Last Resort Retreat Center, provided space and support for me to go deep in meditation, which has changed my life in a million different ways. My other yoga teachers, especially Donna Farhi and Judith Hanson Lasater, have given me a solid foundation that acts as a springboard for my own yogic inquiry. If I think about anything—anything—I’ve ever accomplished I am infinitely grateful for the countless events and people that came together to make it possible. And gratitude feels a whole lot better to me than feeling like it’s me against the world and everyone in it.

The Definition of Heaven

A traditional Chinese parable tells the story of an old man who knows he will die soon. Worried about the afterlife he seeks out the village wise man and asks him to tell him about heaven and hell. The wise man says, “Come, follow me.”

They walk down a long path until they come to a large dwelling. When they walk inside they find a huge dining room. In the center of the room is a long wooden table bearing a sumptuous buffet of unimaginable proportions—all the culinary delights anyone could possibly desire. Many frustrated and unhappy people ring the table. They have been given chopsticks that are twelve feet long and therefore are unable to feed themselves. The food remains untouched, the people hungry and dissatisfied. The old man says, “This must be hell.”

They walk down the path a bit further until they reach a similar large house. Inside they find the same beautiful buffet, same ring of people, same twelve-foot chopsticks. However, in this scenario there is much laughter and conviviality. The people here have learned to use the impossible utensils. “In heaven,” says the teacher, “people feed each other.”

The potential for Heaven exists on earth, right here, right now. We can isolate ourselves, jealous of our time, effort and energy, or we can acknowledge the infinite amount of love and support we’ve received in our lives and share that bounty with the rest of the world.

I’m grateful for all the people and events—and yes, my own efforts and choices—that have brought me to this moment. And in this moment, on this day, I am especially grateful to my dad in all his complex, difficult, fun-loving, opinionated, generous, stubborn, humorous, volatile, creative, passionate intensity. While I wish he was still around, I’m even grateful for his shocking, sudden demise because it brought home the fleeting nature of life, and the urgency of appreciating this moment.

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How Not to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga

 

Not long ago the American yoga world was upended. Yoga, the ancient practice that Americans have adopted in increasing numbers over the past 10 years, had its dark side exposed by an extensive article in The New York Times. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Broad, the article first appeared on the web with the inflammatory title, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” A few days later the article appeared in the New York Times Magazine under a title that was only slightly less incendiary.

The article made huge waves in the yoga world. Pointing to several cases of serious injuries—from hip replacements to sudden stroke—all of which happened in the 1970s, the author highlighted yoga’s physical dangers. While I question the author’s use of 40-year-old anecdotes to make his case, I feel that the conversation he started is long overdue.

There are many reasons for the rise in yoga injuries in the past 10 years. More people are practicing; of course, there will be more injuries. The rise of high-volume, quickie trainings that have produced thousands of well-meaning but undertrained yoga teachers is certainly a factor, and an important issue that deserves a conversation of its own. But I see this as a symptom of a deeper issue.

The root of the issue is that we have imported one fragment—asana, the physical practice—of an ancient Eastern practice into contemporary Western culture. The problem with plopping one component of a practice as vast and deep as yoga into a completely different culture is one of context.

In the West, from an early age we are conditioned to interpret physical endeavors through the lens of competition. Think about it:  We watch competitive team sports for entertainment. Even sports where the judging is clearly subjective—think ice skating and gymnastics—are competitive. For many of us physical endeavors like running, hiking and bicycling are subject to the “no pain, no gain” conditioning we’ve all grown up with. We almost expect to injure ourselves in physical practice, so on the surface, yoga injuries might seem completely normal.

Let me clarify that I’m not knocking competition. I grew up going to Cincinnati Reds games and watching the Olympics, and I still enjoy these things. I’m also not saying, “Western culture=bad, Eastern culture=good.” I’m simply pointing out that most of us have been conditioned passively, simply by growing up here, to equate physical activity with striving for excellence, winning and pushing ourselves hard to get there. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the context from which most of us, at least initially, will perceive and interpret asana practice because that is the lens with which we are most familiar. When competition, striving and forcing are our context, yoga injuries are likely to occur.

We all know that yoga is not just about poses. Yoga is a comprehensive eight-limbed system that encompasses mind/body/spirit practices. For thousands of years yogis studied and practiced the first two limbs—yamas (ethical precepts) and niyamas (personal practices)—before beginning to practice asana. Integrating concepts such as non-harming, truthfulness, self-reflection, contentment, wise use of energy, non-greed and selflessness—and practicing from this foundation—creates a very different context for learning asana than “no pain, no gain” does.

Most people coming to yoga practice for the first time are not interested in philosophy, however. This is why it is important for teachers to have at least begun the lifelong process of integrating the yamas and niyamas into their own lives. When we as teachers come from an integrated practice of the yamas and niyamas we are less likely to transfer a competitive message to our students. When the yamas and niyamas become our context, our students are more likely to act from this context.

If we took just the concept of non-harming to heart, and practiced asana through this filter, practice in the West would look very different. As it is, we watch classmates, teachers, and the plethora of YouTube videos and magazine photos of people doing fancy poses, and we think this is “advanced” yoga. We judge ourselves as either good yogis or bad yogis based on how we measure up to these images. Judging ourselves in this way is not only antithetical to non-harming, it is also antithetical to how the yoga tradition defines mastery of asana.

The Yoga Sutras define mastery of asana as the point “when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” There’s no mention of “perfecting poses” or performing “advanced” poses. The idea that some poses are advanced and others beginning is purely a modern invention. Until the British colonized India and introduced gymnastics, the majority of asanas were simple, seated poses designed to prepare one’s body for sitting meditation.

If we practiced from the context of yoga’s radically different idea of mastery, far fewer yoga injuries would occur. Instead of trying to force our bodies into poses that are structurally unachievable for the vast majority of people, we would instead relax into the pose we are in at the present moment, and the practice that is appropriate for our bodies right now—no matter what it looks like or how seemingly simple it is. The freedom that the yoga tradition promises is available not through fancy poses, but by relaxing into the pose of this moment, here and now.

How the Eight Limbs of Yoga Promote Healthy Practice

  1. Yama:  The yamas teach us to approach practice with honesty, generosity and the spirit of non-harming.
  2. Niyama:  The niyamas teach us about contentment, self-study, and that our practice is not just about ourselves, that it is for the benefit of all beings.
  3. Asana:  The sutras say, “The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.”
  4. Pranayama:  Breathing practices show us how to practice with the continuity of our breath in mind, so that we don’t move beyond the limits of our body’s ability to breathe freely.
  5. Pratyahara:  Pratyahara teaches us how not to become attached to the pleasant—or unpleasant—sensations we feel in practice.
  6. Dharana:  Dharana steadies the mind so that we can see more clearly what is happening in our bodies as we practice.
  7. Dhyana:  Dhyana refines our awareness of the experiences of each passing moment.
  8. Samadhi:  Gives us a taste of the settling of the mind into silence—the true definition of yoga.
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