Like many repeated endeavors, yoga practice can take the body and mind to higher functionality and health, or toward pain and suffering. The mat is a laboratory where we can experiment with our own strengths and weaknesses.
Originally published in The Huffington Post
The great yoga teacher Vinnie Marino once said, while teaching an advanced yoga pose, “I know a lot of people who can do this pose and they’re not any happier than anybody else I know.” In other words, when you seek happiness in a pose you can’t do, or in any thing that you don’t have, you come away disappointed. It’s a sure way to be perpetually unhappy, and that’s a great reason to stop doing it. Although I still have a long way to go with this, my work on it started abruptly a couple of years ago during my daily ashtanga practice. As I set up my yoga mat that day, I discovered that I’d not brought my shorts. Sometimes people practice in their underwear, usually boxer briefs or similar, but I had on loose boxer shorts under my jeans, which wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. And the studio’s store didn’t have anything to wear. So, I explained the problem to the teacher and we decided that I should try practicing in my jeans and see what happens. The jeans had a little elasticity to them, so it seemed like a good idea, and I was happy that I could practice. I took my shirt off, rolled up the jeans, and began. Things started out better than expected. I sweat a lot and, as I heated up, the jeans got wet, becoming progressively more supple. Plus, practicing in my jeans got plenty of winks and smiles from my friends practicing around me. The whole chain of events, from arriving ready to practice, to encountering an obstacle and finding a compromise between the two, then discovering that it was actually more fun, had seduced me.
Ashtanga practitioners each do their own individualized sequence, with help from a teacher as needed. Within each student’s unique series are some poses that they can’t yet do easily. It’s at those points, where ability intersects confrontation, that the best and most potent work can happen. As I approached my fanciest poses that day, my ego was already on fire. I had kicked the ass of challenge and done so looking great while having a blast. My practice had become a celebration of my skill and of my ageless finesse and beauty, along with my amazing jeans. One of the advanced poses in my sequence is karandavasana. It’s done upside-down with only the forearms on the ground, parallel with palms down. The legs, once they’re up, go into full lotus, an advanced cross-legged pose which, if forced, carries high risk to the connective tissue at the knee joint. Until that day I had only done the pose in shorts. With bare legs, slippery with sweat, my feet easily slide into place. But, this time, my feet found the tight traction of denim instead of slick, wet skin. So, high on the ego of a conceited, sexy superhero, I heel-toed my feet into place, using the grip of the fabric to walk each foot to its opposite groin. That wasn’t a good idea. Maintaining careful ankle alignment is crucial to getting into lotus safely. I knew that, but I walked my feet into place anyway, discarding familiar safety so I could feed my ego. And, predictably, something snapped in my knee and I immediately felt the unmistakeable sting of a serious knee injury. I went to the emergency room, where they provided a knee immobilizer and told me to follow up with my doctor in a couple days. When I did, he told me that I’d likely torn one of the menisci, which are crescent-shaped cushions deep in the knee joint. He ordered an MRI and told me that I’d need surgery. I chose to hold off on that for a couple weeks and see if I could strengthen the muscles around the knee and avoid surgery. It worked. But even though my knee got better, I knew there was deeper mental work ahead for me. My ego had lured me into being greedy, which, as happens, resulted in pain. But, instead of feeling ashamed, I felt inspired. I promised that, as soon as I heard myself craving any thing in my practice, I would stop and focus on the present. I learned this wildly simple approach to self-improvement, called pratipaksha bhavanam (literally “do the opposite”), in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, and it always works… when I remember to do it. As I started my first ashtanga practice since the injury, I reminded myself of my task: Any pang of desire would be replaced with a silent mantra, “Be content with what is here now.” I had plenty to work with. At first, only a few seconds would pass between cravings. But it was easy to shift each time because the present is always available. The future, where I’d focused before, is never there. That much is logical, which is why I decided to do it. What surprised me, though, was how incredibly luxurious it felt. The stunningly delicious sense of contentment I found there made being present so much easier than the frustrated yearnings of past practices. And, ironically, as I restrained my thoughts, over and over, from moving ahead, I watched my body going more deeply into the poses, with much less exertion. By letting go of harmful desire, I got more of the physical depth that I’d wanted before, yet the shapes of the poses barely mattered now. What did matter was how good it felt to just be with what is and let go of what isn’t. Like many repeated endeavors, yoga practice can take the body and mind to higher functionality and health, or toward pain and suffering. The mat is a laboratory where we can experiment with our own strengths and weaknesses. There, we get to fix things before they become bigger problems. We can start the process of positive transformation by listening to our own inner chatter. Eventually we learn to reinforce patterns that serve us and discard the ones that harm. A yoga mat is a great place to do it, though you can do it any time. You don’t have to wear stretchy jeans or injure your knee to learn how. When I teach students to work with the habituated patterning of the mind like this, I emphasize that in most cases, it’s not the content of the mind that matters as much as the pattern of thinking that fuels it. For me, it wasn’t about the jeans or the pose, it was about harmful desire itself. It could have presented itself in any moment of wanting. When we crave, no matter what it is that we are craving, we are structuring the mind to be very good at being unsatisfied with what is happening now. The pattern that we reinforce when we feed desire is the pattern of not being okay yet. What we find, if and when we get the thing we were craving, is that we can’t really enjoy it because we aren’t good at being with what is present. We’ve let longing obliterate presence. So, we start wanting something else, because we’ve become such skilled wanters. Any thought-form of “I will be happy when…” strengthens a pattern of putting off happiness. Whatever completes that sentence for each of us, if and when it comes, won’t make us happy, because, by then, we won’t know how to be content. By replacing those thoughts with “I have what I need to be happy now,” we more accurately align our thoughts with what actually is, and find a reliable happiness that is available in the context of any circumstance.