Anxiety, Ahimsa, and A New Earth

Feeling overwhelmed with training homework and a busy schedule, I took last week off from posting–and wow, did I beat myself up for it! Every day I felt guilty, and often had repetitive worries surrounding my next post, because secretly I thought that “this one has to be really good to make up for skipping.” Meanwhile, my jobs go on, dishes pile up, and preparation for my next training looms over me–reading, sequencing, creating my own ten minute warm-up to teach, finding and learning to lead a new pranayama practice, identifying areas I need to work on, attending classes, and so on. An unkind voice goes with me. She says, “You’re forgetting things. You didn’t do _______. What’s wrong with you, this is supposed to be your passion! Maybe you’re just kidding yourself about this. You want to be a writer, and a yoga teacher, and you can barely write or keep up with yoga!”

So, let’s explore that.

On my first teacher training weekend, Sept 12th &13th, we briefly went over the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Despite the two hundred hours that we could spend discussing those alone, training requires moving very quickly over a lot of material so that we can safely teach a physical vinyasa class, not just guide a philosophical dialogue. To scratch the surface, the Eight Limbs are comprised of: yamas (restraints), niyamas (disciplines), asana (physical practice), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (liberation). While traditionally the limbs must be mastered in succession, modern interpretations see them as concurrent practices. The first of the five yamas is ahimsa, or nonviolence–a semi-familiar concept in contemporary culture via civil rights and peace movements. Less common to the conversation of nonviolence is the necessity of its cultivation towards the self, “observing with compassion and gentle humor the successes and setbacks on the yogic path, [taking responsibility for one’s own behavior],” as described by Linda Sparrowe’s summary in Yoga. The phrase “gentle humor” should follow me wherever I go. I get way too bogged down by the seriousness of my aims, and it sets me up for the following problems:

  • not enjoying my life
  • not noticing the present moment
  • always becoming, never being
  • comparing myself with others
  • rigidity in thinking/lack of creativity

The spectacular thing about the Eight Limbs (and, of course, the Sutras) is their scope; one small idea, phrase, or image can have massive implications for delving into one’s own, or social psychology. I could run my self-criticism through many of the principles of the Limbs, but that would consume pages and pages, and perhaps be a bit pedantic for the updates in thinking and practice that I want to convey here.

Once I applied some “compassion and gentle humor”, presence came back to me like a boomerang: how useful is it to beat myself up about the past I can’t change or the future that hasn’t happened yet? Does stressing out about missed items on my to-do list give me more brainpower, more time, or even a strategy? A resounding no, as everyone experiences.

Another sneaky, previously undiagnosed facet of my worries came to me earlier today, by remembering a few passages from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which was part of my required reading over the summer–“when you want to arrive at your goal more than you want to be doing what you’re doing, you become stressed.” So often, when I’m disappointed, lacking, or frazzled, I build my story of how things are going off of a few outliers, and dive even deeper into depressed fantasies of becoming someone different than I am. Everything that supports me, and that I do well *now* goes out of focus. Time, external events, and other people become distorted into the narrative that the future could be better and is therefore what matters. But the truth is that as long as we are alive, we’re arriving, never arrived. It’s not so much that these ideas around compassion and presence are novel–they’ve been expressed in countless ways across cultures and millennia, and have come to me in a plethora of forms and people, but to really incorporate them into the response I have to daily life makes them meaningful now. Tolle asks, “What is the relationship between something that you do and the state of joy? You will enjoy any activity in which you are fully present, any activity that is not just a means to an end. It isn’t the action you perform that you really enjoy, but the deep sense of aliveness.”

Do I go to yoga for it to be over? Do I want to write just to have things written? Both cease to be practices, then, and seem hollow, like objects instead of experiences. The busy nature of life often feels so alienated from the sense of spirituality and consciousness that I’m drawn to; meditation reminders pop up from an app on my iPhone, I most frequently listened to A New Earth in morning rush hour traffic, trying not to lose my temper at anonymous strangers who are in reality, living Beings with an emphasis on that capital B.

Finding the balance between doing and Being, Presence and planning is difficult. C’est la vie. That’s the work. I remember a gem from one morning’s car-ride: “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.”

It’s. Really. Happening?!

I wasn’t very excited about my 25th birthday. I felt lackluster, adrift, and uncomfortable. I had been struggling with my mental health, as well as to make ends meet, for a long time. I was unsure of my future, and ashamed that I hadn’t achieved more. Up until that point, I maintained cognitive dissonance regarding my direction; because I never could pinpoint an exact course to take, I abstained from taking one altogether. A sense of urgency thumped against my ribs–do something! I grabbed an empty notebook page and began to brainstorm things I could do. Then, things that I wanted. Things that I held away from myself because “I don’t have the time, talent, money, resume, etc.” and closed my heart off from. Instead of saying, “I should become X,” I allowed myself to develop a diverse group of intentions I wanted to pursue. First I fantasized, then I narrowed those ideas down to goals, and finally, I set a deadline for achieving them. They are mostly things I knew I would regret not doing, with a few for career and self-improvement. They’re all challenges; chances to grow, refine, and create myself. They became my “Before You Turn 30” list. I took each goal and divided it into steps, with a general timeline. It’s been about 20 months since I sat down and wrote out my aims, and I can happily say that I’ve made progress on each one.

So, guess what one of my goals was? To become a yoga teacher! (Imagine confetti here. Or at least all the party-related emoji.) A big smile swept through me today, when I realized that this was a goal I set almost 2 years ago. It took a lot of patience to get here, and it’s really happening. In less than 48 hours!

This week, some of my new yoga supplies came in the mail. I upgraded to a Jade Harmony mat (the grip is incredible), and purchased blocks, a strap, and a meditation cushion for my home practice. Despite being a regular yoga student for over seven years, I never invested in these; I didn’t think of myself as “good enough” to deserve props like blocks or cushions at home. Now that I see the long view on self-investment, as a by-product of my goal-setting journey so far, that belief was so self-limiting! Having extra instruments at my disposal would have improved my practice all along–and they weren’t more expensive than dinner at a restaurant. Having spent many years assailed by bills, I understand the difficulty of funding activities outside the realm of necessity. But I can also say that money I’ve set aside (slowly, or at least semi-reasonably) to spend on my wellbeing has always given me the energy, confidence, and resilience to make wiser choices in my relationships, to take better care of what I have, and to seek out better opportunities for myself. Lovely lightning bolts of poems, essays, and clarity in editing come to me more often when I recharge my spiritual and/or earthly batteries.

I’m also extremely grateful when I reflect on how things are coming along, because I didn’t get here alone. It’s amazing what happens when you set positive intentions for yourself: people will help you. Even when you don’t tell them about what you’re trying to do! This both is, and isn’t, magic. In a very practical way, when you find the self-regard and courage that it takes to really set an intention in your heart, you behave differently. You start to do things your future self would thank you for, and you feel better about living, whether or not your current circumstances have changed much yet. I found that I started to see myself as more of a fluid continuum, rather than a fixed personality, and this allowed me to feel less embarrassed around, afraid of, or judged by, others. That shift let me be more present, a better listener, and more engaged with loved ones and friends, and new people as well. You can see the energetic dominos here. Simultaneously, I made more connections that were unexpected, and positive. New possibilities appeared, and while not all of them were objectively big moves, each one seemed to bring me a tiny bit closer to my desired goals.

The best thing about the list is that now that I’m actually in the thick of it, I love it. What was once impossible isn’t even scary anymore! Stressful? Yup. Worth it? Totally.

Yoga On The Internet

I like to write. I like yoga. Mix and mash and see what happens, right? Sort of. I have a lot of ideas for this blog. Two full pages of quasi-titles in my notebook that suggest stellar subject matter, ripe for the delving–and I believe it, too. In fact, I couldn’t be more excited to explore in this fashion, in these disciplines, on this very blog.

So, what’s the catch? Writing about yoga isn’t doing yoga, and writing about writing isn’t writing (per se).

These are complicated issues to address, yet I feel driven to face them. Specifically, because of time. I, and we as culture, have so little time. The weight of responsibility to work, family, education, and other commitments, plus the pressure we all experience between our real-world schedules and the maintenance of digital and online media, becomes this incredible piston-like downstroke, compressing time. Personally, I have two jobs, two ongoing freelance contracts, I’m a part-time student, I have two families (divorced parents), a boyfriend (who also has two families), and two beloved cats. I offer my sincere respect to any moms reading this, invariably shaking their heads (“she’s stressed? psshhh…”). If I’m barely able to put on my socks, why the heck am I blogging about yoga? More importantly, why should anyone read my blog about yoga?

I have a few ideas. First, inspiration. I don’t expect to inspire anyone because I have special powers; I hope to inspire because I don’t. I overbook myself constantly, I’m occasionally late on deadlines, I don’t practice yoga every single day, and I still can’t hold a handstand for more than three seconds. I cry in the car between jobs sometimes, I don’t make as much money or write as often as I would like, and I feel splintered in one hundred directions about what course of action will guide me towards a better future. If I can train to become a yoga teacher, and find few a morsels worth sharing about it, so could anyone willing to put in the effort. Seriously, you might have it way more together than I do!

Secondly, what yoga teaches us isn’t entirely physical. For the first few years of my practice, I noticed how different Yoga Class Rachel was from Rachel in Life. By contrast, Yoga Class Rachel can fall over, flat out, and recover emotionally in ten minutes, while Rachel in Life can barely recover in five days from a questionable choice of words. Yoga Class Rachel is patient, compassionate, and dare I say, joyful? I often wondered how to integrate the two personalities. It wasn’t until I started journaling about my experiences in yoga and meditation that they began to cross over into my everyday life and mental landscape. For me, journaling made those insights internally accessible; yoga wasn’t happening to me, I was participating in yoga, and I could take its ideas with me when I left class. Sharing these lessons feels like a natural evolution of this process.

Lastly, both yoga and writing happen individually, but there’s an undeniable magic about collaboration. In yoga, the collective energy is palpable, breath filling the room like an electric charge. With writing, the process of workshopping or bouncing pieces back and forth with a group or even one other person can be transformative. The internet is certainly no substitute for here-and-now people, but it doesn’t have to be a binary, either. Creating a positive web presence isn’t mutually exclusive from real relationships, and it’s unrealistic in our age to separate from the billions of people online.

Yoga on the internet will continue, along with yoga on the mat, and writing on paper and digital page. Crisis averted.