Yoga Off the Mat
The interesting thing about Yoga is not what it is on the mat but how it plays in the 99% of life that happens everywhere else
Here’s what I mean:
I had a bad night last week. I was tossing and turning. A friend with cancer was in pain and lashed out when I tried to console her. Another friend misinterpreted something I’d done and was angry. The resulting email exchange turned that mild misunderstanding into mutual character assassination. I’d eaten not one but THREE Baby Ruth candy bars for lunch, and had TWO drinks with dinner. My hips hurt from being too ambitious in the lunge postures on the mat. And my lungs hurt from the THREE cigarettes I’d had with the two drinks.
My inner skeptic was flat out disgusted with me. Some Yogi. But fortunately for me my inner Yogi stepped up to the plate. Work your yoga. (It works if you work it.) Breathe. Do Tonglen.
A word of explanation before getting into Tonglen. Most people don’t realize that Yoga is not just a kind of exercise. It is a wisdom tradition of ideas and techniques that has been evolving for thousands of years originally in India, China, and Tibet and, since the beginning of the 20th century, also in the West. The core concern of Yoga is how to be an individual in the universe in a way that benefits both the I and the Other.
In the throes of my sleepless night my inner Yogi recommended Tonglen. A meditation technique for managing suffering, Tonglen asks you to understand your individual experience in a universal way. It was originally a Buddhist practice but Christ was the greatest practitioner. The first step in Tonglen is to stop listening to the CONTENT of your thoughts. Stop arguing about whether you are right or wrong, if you have been harmed or abandoned, if you are deserving or are being punished. Instead pay attention to how you feel. How are your shoulders, guts, neck, brow? How are you breathing? Shallowly? Rapidly? Regardless if you are in mental or physical pain, regardless of how painful, the prescription is to FEEL the pain wholeheartedly.
The second step is to start to breathe with extreme intention. Breathe IN the bad feelings—in my case the guilt, resentment, self-loathing— and then breathe OUT a heartfelt wish that you feel some relief.
Step 3 is to take this idea out. Continuing to breathe in your own pain, you ask the universe that you feel the pain of EVERYONE who is suffering as you are. And breathing out, you ask that everyone who is suffering like you feel relief.
The idea is to use your unique suffering to open your heart to the suffering of others. The implication is that you are suffering so that others will not. Does that remind you of something? Christ perhaps?
There are lots of stories about Tonglen miracles—about leper colonies in India where the lepers and their caretakers do Tonglen. Their misery and suffering is so intense and their longing for relief is SO strong that miracles happen when they petition the universe. Some of them actually get well and the people they pray for do too.
So how does Tonglen relate to doing Down Dogs on a mat in the corporate exercise room in the noon hour Yoga class? Every Yoga class worthy of the name begins with tuning into the inner experience. Every Yoga class begins and ends with a benediction that the practice done together will be of benefit to each person and to the group as a whole. And moreover that the benefit will be passed on to others outside of the class. In other words the exercising known as Yoga is exercise performed in the context of a meditation on what it means to be alive. The goal of practicing Yoga is to feel more comfortable in our own individual skins and more compassionately connected to other people.
To go back to my bad night. doing the Tonglen breathing helped me get clear that I was suffering. It helped me stop blaming myself and my friends, feel what I was feeling without denial or defensiveness, and ask the universe for help. From that very real and humble place, I was able to calm down and feel my affection for my friends, and connect with the hero in me who knows how to conduct herself lovingly in the world.
Everyday I catch myself running, pushing, fighting, denying, dreading, fearing, longing, grasping. Everyday I tune into the radical notion that I can stop, breathe, and carry on from a better place. I know this process as Yoga. I am grateful for all the teachers who have been exploring and teaching the insights and praxis of Yoga through the millennia.
It is a generous path.
Namasté ( The sacred in me bows to the sacred in you.)
P.S. Oh, the physical exercise of Yoga oxygenates the body, helps blood and lymph to circulate, massages the inner organs, and keeps the joints healthy. More about that next time.