You’ve heard the phrase “knowledge is power.” I’ve been thinking about this. Information is a useful thing. Especially information about yourself and how you handle things, react to things. Knowing yourself makes life easier and nicer. It helps you engage more deeply with the world, to want to engage more deeply. It helps you avoid pitfalls and obstacles, or at least accept them and move through them more gracefully. Even things you don’t really want to know, the stuff you avoid knowing, is necessary to look at, finally.
Most of what you know, you find out through experience. When you do something again and again, when you have a routine, you start to notice patterns. You start to notice whether or not these patterns are working, whether they make you feel good or bad. Just being aware of the pattern and how it feels might help you start to change it.
Sometimes you realize something out of the blue, and it seems so obvious, you don’t know why you didn’t see it before. Or someone tells you, and you can’t believe you needed someone to tell you. Or you didn’t realize it until you heard it in just those words. Or you finally admit something to yourself and see that it feels better to know it than to pretend you didn’t know.
Sometimes you need to do the work of finding out. You need to go to the doctor, or to therapy, or to AA. It’s not always fun, but ultimately it’s a relief to understand. And to have some guidance about what to do next.
Because once you know things, you can’t just sit around and know them. You need to use them, to apply them. That, I believe, is living fully.
Here a few things I know about myself:
— I am not a morning person.
— I’m funny.
— I’m a little boy-crazy, even at 41 (see Simon Le Bon, Robert Downey Jr., et. al.).
— I get snappish when I’m frustrated or distracted.
— I get quiet when I’m tired.
— I get skinny when I’m sad.
— I love being with people, but I’m also a homebody.
— I like to feel on top of things, and to have things in order.
— I’m a recovering perfectionist.
— I couldn’t live without books and music.
— I’m stronger than I used to think I was.
— I subscribe to The Four Agreements.
— I think there’s some higher, divine order to the universe. I don’t really need to know more than that.
Here are a few things I know about myself and yoga:
— I am not afraid of backbends and never have been, even though opening your chest and heart brings all sorts of emotions to the surface.
— Lately, I actually love them, because I finally figured out how to really get my shoulder blades down my back.
— My left thigh bone doesn’t fit perfectly into the hip socket. The right one absolutely does. Things that feel great on my right sometimes hurt on the left. It’s frustrating, but I can work with it.
— I have a bit of scoliosis in my lumbar spine. It curves out to the left a bit. This makes me tip that way sometimes. I can work with that.
— My Achilles tendons get tight, and pressing down through my outer foot helps in poses like triangle.
— I tend to tuck my chin into my chest, and I have to remember (or be reminded) to lift it. This makes breathing easier and nicer.
— I can’t yet kick up into a handstand, but one day I will.
— I really don’t enjoy utkatasana (chair pose) or warrior 1 (seriously, what is with the placement of the back foot?). I adore ustrasana (camel), and I also really love and appreciate ardha chandrasana (half moon).
— The Universal Principles of Alignment are key, no matter what we’re calling them these days or who made them up. In yoga and in life.
Here are a few things I know about myself and running:
— I don’t do well in humidity. I prefer 35 degrees to 75 degrees.
— I like to run in the morning, but not too early in the morning (in the summer, this is going to have to change).
— I love running outside and detest the treadmill.
— I can run in a snowstorm or a rainstorm.
— I need to drink a lot of water before and after, because otherwise I get dehydrated, and I also get a horrible headache.
— If my knees or ankles start to hurt, it helps to pull in to the midline (yoga trick).
— I can go six miles, which means I can probably go 12 miles. Or maybe even 13.1.
Today on my run I decided that when I’m going downhill, I really feel like a runner. (And I’m from the Midwest, so every slight rise is a hill.) Uphill, not so much. Of course, I know the reason for this: gravity. Downhill, I can go faster, my form is better, and I just feel good, strong, capable. Uphill, I struggle, slow down, breathing is tougher. I feel like I’m puttering along, and I certainly don’t feel masterful.
However, I do know that the hill won’t last forever, and that I can do it. I will make it to the top.
And then I’ll get to coast down again.
These past few weeks, as things have sort of exploded into chaos in the Anusara yoga world, I’ve been thinking a lot about being still.
My pattern my whole life, when things got painful or uncomfortable or crazy, was to freak out. Just fall apart. Respond immediately in a rush of whatever emotion was present. To grasp on desperately if something was ending or someone was leaving, without stopping to take a breath, to think, to get my head around what was going on.
This didn’t serve me well.
So finally, in my late 30s and early 40s, I’ve learned to take that breath. To feel my emotions without giving in to the intense need to do something about them, or about the situation — which I’ve realized really amounts to trying to avoid sitting with the feelings. Because it’s not fun to sit with icky feelings.
But what it comes down to is that if you don’t take the time to be still, to fortify, to find your bearings, you’ll just make the chaos worse. You might think an unbridled emotional outburst will make you feel better. Sometimes it does, I suppose, but my experience has largely been that in the long term, it really won’t.
Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing. It’s a conscious decision. It also doesn’t mean you’re not engaging; it is a boundary you create to protect yourself, to give yourself the space you need to think clearly, and to show other parties that there’s a line you’re not letting them cross just now. But it’s a line that protects them, too, because you’re going to be able to have an authentic response if you slow down and become still. You’re changing the quality of the energy between you and the other person, or you and the situation.
And ironically, though it might feel, look and seem like you’re building a wall (which perhaps, temporarily, you are), this is what will allow you to maintain your connection, if you choose. It will let you become more receptive. Instead of lashing out blindly or desperately, possibly with pain and anger, you’ll be able to process, sit with the emotions, and then reach out voluntarily, with clarity.
Though the organization called Anusara is in a period of intense upheaval right now, I would bet that all the yogis involved are still holding to their midline, the Universal Principles of Alignment. And there it is: First be still. Then you can be receptive to what comes next.
I spent the weekend in Montclair attending my first-ever workshop with John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga. I had no idea what to expect. I came away delighted. Far from being your typical stereotypical “guru,” he was amazingly — normal. Down to earth. Funny. Smart. So smart. This is the guy who came up with the Universal Principles of Alignment. And though they map on to emotional and spiritual freedom, far from being loosey-goosey spiritual babble, they are based on decades of scientific observation and study by John himself. I was impressed, and grateful for the opportunity to learn firsthand from him.
In Anusara, the Universal Principles of Alignment are applied physically to every pose. If you learn to do this, you’ll always be aligned properly — and not just with your skeleton. Mentally, emotionally, energetically. Tiny little adjustments can make amazing differences to how a pose feels, to your body and to your spirit. When it all comes together, when you find that sweet spot, it almost seems too easy.
The idea is to align with the flow of nature, with the rest of the universe. And it’s not at all passive. Far from it. You need to actively work your muscles, to engage, and then you get to experience bliss, to shine.
To be open to doing so is the first and perhaps most important principle, because none of it is possible without this: Opening to grace. This means setting your foundation and your intention to align your mind and heart with the energy of the universe. You soften your boundaries, stay present, and become more aware and receptive. Anusara teachers like to say “outer body soft, inner body bright.”
Grace is something I’ve been thinking about lately. Being graceful, going through life with grace — those are things I aspire to, that I work toward. One definition of the word grace is “ease and suppleness of movement or bearing.” That goes deeper than just looking nice or being attractive. It goes beyond physical suppleness and ease, though I’ve come to believe that having those things physically is necessary before you can have them in any other way. There’s a comfort with oneself involved, a center that’s strong and free simultaneously. There’s a mastery of doing something else that got mentioned this weekend: facing uncertainty with certainty. Coming at everything from a place of security and surety, even if you have no idea what’s going on outside or around you.
Of course, grace also has major spiritual and religious connotations. Several other definitions: “divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification”; “a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine grace”; and also “a virtue coming from God.” Depending on how you define the Divine, grace can be something sacred that’s inherent in yourself, not just something granted to you by a deity. I like to think about the energy all around us and in us as being the Divine, and in that sense, we really are in the flow of grace, all the time. We get to choose whether to engage with it or not. And it feels really, really good to engage with it.
There are also the Graces, three sister goddesses in Greek mythology who are the givers of charm and beauty. That makes me think of our lovely teacher Emma Magenta, our hostess for the weekend and an all-around amazing yogi and person. If anyone I know epitomizes grace, it’s her.
Our Anusara immersion ended yesterday. Sixteen of us came together with our exceptional teacher Emma Magenta for nine weekends over the course of a year. Altogether, it was 108 hours. It was a big, serious committment of time, money and effort, but one we all felt was important and managed to convince our loved ones was important.
We were all there because Anusara struck a chord with each of us, and we wanted to go deeper. It was a lot more than just a class where we took notes, or a workshop to improve our poses. Though we did learn all about the Universal Principles of Alignment that our style of yoga is based upon and did many hours of tough asana, we also studied the Tantric philosophy that makes Anusara unique. We read and discussed the Bhagavad Gita. We practiced pranayama, meditation, and kirtan. And we got to better understand how yoga touches all parts of our lives — physically, mentally, spiritually. If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you know that two of the Universal Principles in particular have made a major emotional impression on me: muscular energy, or creating a strong foundation by contracting and pulling in, and organic energy, or extending and shining out.
We created a kula. We went from a group of strangers — or, at most, people who’d seen one another once or twice in class — to a cohesive community, a circle of love, trust, and safety. We established strong bonds of friendship.
When I started going to South Mountain Yoga about three years ago, I knew almost immediately that Anusara was going to be significant for me. I was feeling so battered and lost, completely foundation-less. I walked in there and it felt like a haven. What I got out of it was just what I needed.
It still feels that way, and I’m a completely different person — because of all kinds of work I’ve done since then, but in large part because of my yoga. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been, physically and emotionally. I’m more comfortable in and confident about my body. I’ve found a language to understand the spiritual ideas that I already had.
It’s hard to articulate what Anusara is and why it’s special without sounding like some sort of cult member, so I try not to proselytize when my friends show an interest. I tell them that yoga is like anything else — you find the studio, teacher, and style that work for you. Of course I want them all to come do Anusara with me. But I’d love for them to come to it organically, like I did.
There’s the possibility of teacher training in the fall, and though I’ve never considered myself teacher material, I’m starting to rethink that. Good teachers are passionate about their subject. I don’t think I have the amazing gift that Emma does (that’s her front and center in the picture, in the bright blue jacket). But I’d love to help other people see what I see in Anusara, to get what I’ve gotten out of it. Whether I’m a good prospect for such an important job remains to be seen. But I’d love to learn more. So I’m thinking about it.
But I’m really going to miss having immersion weekend to look forward to. It was always so nice to know one was coming up, that I’d get to spend the weekend talking and thinking about something I love, with people I love, and doing something soothing and healing for myself. This last one was a week after my father’s memorial service, and the timing could not have been better.
One of my classmates put it this way: When we began, it was like we were in the lobby of a museum, and we were there to see an exhibit we were interested in. But it turned out the museum was huge, cavernous in fact, and there was more and more to explore. So now we’re wandering through the infinite museum of Anusara yoga.
The nicest thing about this metaphor is that even if we’re in different rooms or focusing on different exhibits, we can still meet up in the cafe. See you all there.