If You Are in Pain

fire_alarm_by_alrine21xe-d4u7i1k

Pain is utilitarian — an alarm.
Pain should be dispensed with when possible.
A fire alarm that goes off all the time isn’t much help when your house is on fire.
So much of our pain comes from our own grasping.
Pick something painful to let go of — an easy one.
There may be things you think you can never let go of.
That’s ok, you can hang on to them a little longer.
Holding on to pain sometimes feels like a consolation.
We protect our wounds.
But maybe you could let go of some dumb kid who teased you in middle school.
You could decide you’re no longer your insecure pre-teen self.
You have grown up, and you can forgive the ignorant child who hurt you.
Forgiving others may be the easiest way to relieve your own pain.
Forgiving yourself is harder, but powerful.
Let go of these things, and carve out space for joy.
It feels good not to hold so much all the time.
You’ll get braver.
You’ll work on the big stuff later.

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Yoga Sutra 1.15: Let Go of What’s Holding You Back

by Gisela Giardino

DRSTĀNUŚRAVIKA VISAYA VITRSNASYA VAŚĪKĀRA SAMJNĀ VAIRĀGYAM.
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.

Vairagya. Non-attachment. This is one of the most important concepts in yoga and perhaps in any spiritual practice. Non-attachment is something we have to work on constantly. We are attached in large, obvious ways as well as smaller, subtle ways. We are attached to our loved ones and our belongings. We are attached to our beliefs and the outcomes of our actions. We are even attached to our thoughts — that’s why when your mind starts to wander, it’s sometimes very hard to let go of your thoughts and pay attention to the present moment.

Sometimes, when we talk about vairagya, people get defensive. They say, “Of course I’m attached to my husband/mother/child. I love them, and I’d be devastated if I lost them!” But what if that person you love needed something important like medical treatment, and receiving that treatment meant they would have to go away and you wouldn’t get to see them again? You would probably send them to get the treatment, right? Why? Because your love (your desire for them to be happy and healthy) is stronger than your attachment (the desire to hold on to them). So, it’s important to distinguish between love and attachment.

Another way to view attachment to loved ones is that we think the people we love make us who we are. Being in love is one of a few limited ways society teaches us to seek validation. How many love songs are there all about being unable to live without your lover? In reality, that’s not romance, it’s codependency. So cultivating non-attachment is a way of teaching yourself that it’s possible to love others and still be a complete person in your own right.

The reason non-attachement is so important is that attachment creates fear — fear of loss, fear of suffering, fear of change, fear even of new information. It’s extremely difficult to grow and learn when you’re in a state of fear.

In the end, vairagya does not mean giving up anything in particular. You don’t have to disavow your old ideas, beliefs, belongings or loved ones. You just have to understand that all these things may come and go from your life. Even if the person you love most in the world or the one truth you thought you knew disappears, you will still be you. Being independent of any attachment is how Patanjali defines self-mastery, and for most of us, it’s a pretty tall order.

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Yoga Sutra 1.12: Practice and Let Go

Windmill

ABHYĀSA VAIRĀGYĀBHYĀ TANNIRODHAH.
These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.

There are two steps to enlightenment, but you have to repeat them an infinite number of times. First, practice being present and aware to develop mental continence. Second, do not be attached to the results of your practice. If you’re meditating and you notice your mind wandering, don’t berate yourself for being unable to focus — that only takes you further from your practice and ultimate goal. Instead, detach from your thoughts and expectations. Let it all go and resume your practice.

Sometimes the simplest concepts in the world are the hardest to carry through, and that’s why it takes years  of practice to get the hang of it. Even if you’ve been meditating for a very long time, you’ll struggle with all kinds of stupid human problems like troubling memories, and emotional attachments. That’s why the yogis say it takes lifetimes to reach total enlightenment, and that’s why I don’t touch the topic of enlightenment with a ten foot pole. It’s best for most of us to forget about becoming a saint or a sage and just focus on our two tasks: practice and let go.

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Yoga Sutra 1.11: Humans Have a Memory Virus

Circuit Board

ANUBHŪTA VISAYĀSAMPRAMOSAH SMRTIH.
When a mental modification of an object previously experienced and not forgotten comes back to consciousness, that is memory.

Memory is the last of the vrittis, and it’s also possibly the trickiest. After all, the things we remember are real to us, even though they only exist in the past. How many times have you been sitting quietly, minding your own business, when some memory pops up in your mind for no clear reason? The memory may make you feel sad, or you might cringe with embarrassment. Maybe it makes you long for some happy time in the past or starts you wandering down a winding path of tangential thoughts. Suddenly, you’re not in the moment at all. You’re in the past. That’s memory.

If your computer randomly pulls up items from its memory regardless of their relevance to the current task, it’s really annoying, right? It crashes your game, slows down your work, and generally frustrates you. Same thing for human memory.

Like all the vrittis, memory has its place. We learn from it — I remember the only time I burned myself on a hot stove, so I don’t have to repeat that lesson! But I can’t keep thinking about that one time I burned myself when I was a little kid every time I try to cook something. If I get too distracted with that thought, I’ll wind up setting something on fire or just never trying to cook again. So, we do better when we moderate this vritti like all the others.

And how do we do that, you may ask? Well, that’s what we’ll start discussing with next week’s sutra! In the mean time, here’s a little bonus practice for you!

Bonus!

This week, practice being in the present. Keep an eye on your thoughts as you go through your days. Whenever a memory comes up or you find yourself lost in thought, pause, let the thought go, and bring your awareness back to the present moment. This sounds pretty simple, but you’ll soon find that the mind really likes to wander more than we usually realize. Make some mental notes or write in your journal about what kind of recurring thoughts you encounter and what happens when you let them go. Next week, we’ll delve more into practice and non-attachment.

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Be Imperfect Together

Bridging Nature

I have to be reminded quite often about the importance of Patanjali’s first sutra: Atha yoganusasanam. Now begins the practice of yoga.

Now.

And now.

And now.

Begin again.

Every time I think I have it all figured out, I have to begin again. In fact, I think that believing you know what you’re doing is a sure sign that you need to start from the beginning.

Our practice begins now. And now. And now again.

Right now, I’m in my hometown with my husband. We’re staying at my parents’ house and spending time with my siblings and their kids, and as tends to happen every time I visit home, I’m reminded of the strangeness of family, our weird patterns, our imperfections, the assumptions we make about each other, and the unreasonable expectations we cling to. The hardest part is that I love these people and this place, and I just want everything to be perfect. I want us all to be the best possible version of ourselves 24/7 and make the best of this limited time we have together. And I get attached to that. Attachment creates suffering. I get upset when it doesn’t work out the way I want. I get hurt when my loved ones prove to be imperfect. I feel bad because I’m unable to make everyone happy.

So I begin again. Atha yoganusasanam. Because this is yoga, too.

Today, my sister brought me to a yoga class where the teacher turned out to be a high school classmate of mine — a really sweet person who I hadn’t been close to, but who I always thought was pretty cool. I was thrilled to see that she had become a yoga teacher, too, and a really good one! But my high school mentality crept in a little bit, and I caught myself comparing my practice, my class, my body, my strength and flexibility to hers. When I teach, I always remind my students that we are all in a different place on our unique paths, and that no one’s path or progress is better or worse than the rest. When I teach, I see my students striving for their personal best, and I feel honored to witness them doing this beautiful work. But it’s harder to apply that same appreciation to myself, my practice, my struggles. Ain’t that just the way it is?

Begin again. This time, with compassion.

It was an absolute blessing today to practice with my old classmate. She looked beautiful and happy and healthy, and I was so grateful to share that moment. Likewise, it’s a blessing to be here now with my family. We are imperfect, but to be imperfect together can be so beautiful.

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