Soon after the death of Leonard Nimoy I attend a screening of “For the Love of Spock.” The director, Adam Nimoy, can be seen in my shot. I sit safely nestled within my tribe of OS fans enjoying the film, the live interview, and my fond memories. I remember watching Star Trek with my mother. The strength of my nostalgic reaction takes me by surprise. My mother died over 30 years ago. I hadn’t thought of her recently. The emotion that floods me is checked by the happiness I feel watching the movie. I paradoxically experience beauty in grieving.
The second sutra of Patanjali, yogas chitta vritti nirodha commonly translates “yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind.” Yoga, with the capital Y (i.e. all eight limbs) is emotionally draining. Yoga, with the little y, the asana – can be physically tiring. But that is not the same thing at all. If you’ve ever wondered how we get to enlightenment from what appears to be calisthenics I’ll tell you what the secret is in the last four limbs. The yoga of doing. The yoga of being. The yoga of awareness, understanding, and perceiving.
When I say I have a “felt-sensation” while watching Jim Kirk Star Trek with my mother, I’m not talking about a mental memory. I mean I’m passing through the actual sensations of home-i-ness, security and a sense of belonging. Our family discussed the dynamics of the show, the multi-racial cast and the philosophical plot lines. The memory is etched in my body as a wholly physical experience. This well-spring of experience is tapped when I sit in the darkness watching the screening. I suppose most of the audience has similar stories to tell. If I had attended this film ten or fifteen years ago I doubt I would have been so acutely conscious of the adjustment of my body.
My breath would have relaxed just the same, or my heart rate slowed – I just may not have noticed. Sensations are arising and regressing with every moment of every day in every physiology on earth. Why does it even matter if I pay attention if they are going to happen anyway? Because ignoring the geography of my felt sensations damaged me irreparably. Once upon a time I worked seven days a week, 10 to 13 hours a day. Sleeping fitfully, hardly eating, attempting to earn enough to hang onto my home. I was stupid. If I had known then my new now would include a permanent persistent pain, and the house foreclosed anyway, I would have quit thrashing myself before the destruction.
As my friend Peter says “You have all the information, you simply chose to ignore it when it doesn’t match what you want to see.” Yoga, if you’re doing it like I’m doing it (and there’s no reason you can’t) strips away pretense. If you practice all eight limbs day after day with no one but yourself there’s no fooling anybody, no one to impress, no reason to ignore what your body is telling you. The habit of paying attention becomes ingrained. The focus on reality becomes interesting instead of disturbing. The nasty brutish offerings of pop culture, internet trolls, fashion and entertainment cease to be relevant.
Where English has but one paltry word for meditation, the yoga sutras distinguish between “focus” “perception” and “absorption.” Focus is being rapt with practice. Chanting, asana, or pranayama are all types of meditative practices that train for focus. Practicing alone and without music is helpful. In a led class (either in a studio or with a recording) it’s harder to get meditative if no one but the teacher knows what asana is next. It’s hard (but not impossible) to turn inwards when listening to something external. Strive to do your own thing to forge focus. Intuitive understanding and insight will organically follow. Absorption occurs when one becomes fully informed of the entire experience, the movement, sensations, mental, emotional, physical and physiological.
Complete saturation is not a comatose state – samadhi is a deeper, richer vibrant resonance with felt-emotions. It’s a fantastic, sensational practice as opposed to a technically brilliant one. It’s an analogue experience not a digital one. It’s both textured and contextual, not isolated in the headspace. Prana is neither a culmination of the five senses nor any one of them, sight, touch, scent, taste or hearing. Prana is the vitality generating all those perceptions. When my prana is sluggish, thick, murky and cluttered my perceptions are unclear. Soon after my mother died I had trouble thinking straight so I took a moment (a two month hiatus) to get real with myself.
Once I awarded myself the proper value of consideration I felt quietly, firmly, confidently sure of what I did next. I didn’t second guess myself. I didn’t regret leaving my childhood home on the South side of Chicago and returning to my newly fashioned home of the South Pacific. I knew where I belonged. I had none of the sensations of anxiety and loss that plagued me when my husband left. I was at one with myself, fully absorbed for what it’s worth. I think far too many religions give self-esteem a bad rap. Healthy pride is as healthy as healthy shame. False humility and boastful arrogance are equally troubling.
You won’t realize prana in a noisy crowded, supersaturated, smelly area. Not at first anyhow. Not without years and years of discipline. In the beginning keep outward stimulations at a minimum. In stillness the energetic quality of emotions become obvious. Grief, joy, anger – each has specific characteristics, textures, shapes, size, possibly colors and edges. The animation of grief causes shoulders to slump, breath to halt and chop staccato. The vivacity of euphoria expands. All emotions either constrict or inflate our physical bodies in actual, carnal, dare I say “literal” ways, even if we’re not aware – others are. Or can’t you tell when your kid is sad?
My first yoga teacher wasn’t philosophical. She taught nothing further than asana. She was encouraging, thoughtful, cheerful and kind. I felt very safe with her. I had fun doing yoga because she was mischievous and entertaining and I continued to feel good long after we were done because the yoga was unblocking my congested pranic channels. Left to my own devices I wanted nothing more than to curl up in the corner and die, but the triangle poses, sun salutes and wide legged forward folds pulled me in another direction. I started opening up. Into my emotionally drained body new sensations are poured.
Some people do their damnedest to avoid uncomfortable feelings. I’ve even heard yoga teachers preach to the positive. Negative feelings are not a sin. I think there is a priceless significance to certain difficult experiences. My former husband refused to go with me to the hospital when our friend was dying. “It’s too sad,” Howard explained. “And I’ve had enough sadness in my life.” As for me? I wasn’t sorry I went. It’s not that I wasn’t sad. Sitting with the sick and dying is extraordinarily emotionally draining. Draining my emotions completely and fully from time to time affords me the chance to refill. In short some things are worth doing if you want a life worth breathing.
Now y’all play nice!