Yoga & Detoxification: Working with Preferences
Salamba Sarvanagasana. When yoga teachers inevitably call out this pose, my mind screams. The shoulder-burning, the fatigue of holding myself up with my hands on my back. The claustrophobia of halasana/plow pose and karnapidasana/ear pressure pose that unfailingly follow shoulderstand. I once stopped practicing shoulderstand for two months. Starting again after realizing that avoiding the pose wasn't helping me with my utter burning hatred of it. The only thing that helped was to do it, and do it again, and again. Daily. Until my experience of shoulderstand began to change -- magically -- first to indifference, and then to a sort of looking-forward-to-it kind of feeling.
We all have the poses that push our mental/physical buttons. The poses are meant to challenge us to step beyond our own personal preferences and prejudices. Its not just the poses themselves that are meant to challenge us. We've all sat in a yoga class thinking, 'it's too hot in here', or 'its not hot enough,' even the teacher themselves can challenge you......'I really don't like that teacher's voice,' or the poses they choose 'there aren't enough inversions,' or 'there are too many inversions.' Its not the poses, or the teacher, or the people around you, or the music, or the temperature of the room; its you and your mind.
Yoga is meant to agitate the mind. Hatha yoga implies a forceful practice, not in the sense of going past your boundaries of physical safety, but in the sense that the practices are supposed to force you to your 'edge' in a way. Each pose is meant to stir up those feelings of 'it’s too intense,' or even a thought that it’s 'not intense enough,' which is also a form of that dissatisfaction with being in the moment. Each of the thoughts that come up are a signal that we are always trying to change our present situation instead of sitting with what is. It can be very powerful to practice in a way where we notice the tendencies of the mind to be anywhere except here and now. By practicing this way, we can notice a feeling or a thought arise and let that thought go.
Most of us constantly attempt to control or modify our surroundings or experience. 'I'm a little sleepy, I'll take some coffee,' quickly pendulums into 'that coffee made me wired, I need a drink.' We constantly self-medicate with a little more of this, a little more of that. All in an attempt to make ourselves happy. The underlying feeling is that happiness or sadness or weariness must stem from the outside world. We habitually try to get more of what we think we want, and try to push away the thing that we think we don't want. These tendencies are called 'raga' and 'dvesha.' Raga refers to the habit of mind that grasps to things that we perceive as bringing us happiness. Dvesha refers to the habit of mind that pushes away things that we think will make us unhappy. Raga means attraction to the things I think will bring me happiness; more french fries, more kale, the boyfriend, a new job, more money. Dvesha means trying to avoid the things that I think will bring me unhappiness; shoulderstand, that-annoying-person-at-work.
Neither grasping things that we feel are pleasant nor trying to escape things that we feel are unpleasant are helpful reactions because the premise is faulty. Take the coffee/alcohol example. At the time, you thought coffee would make you happy, and maybe it was momentarily pleasant, but ultimately the coffee was only pleasant in the morning, not in the evening. Then the alcohol seemed like it would bring you happiness too, but it was only temporary relief and in the morning may be the source of discomfort. (And possibly the feeling of need for more coffee......) These things we grasp at are not the source of lasting happiness. That said, it doesn't mean that yogis can't take pleasure in things or that we aren't supposed to like things. It’s just that whether we get the coffee or not, it’s no problem.
During meditation, every time I scratch, wipe away a bead of sweat, roll out my very tense neck, I'm potentially trying to modify my experience of the present moment. Instead of resting in the present, and finding contentment in the moment, I'm constantly trying to change my circumstances. Meditation is the place where we can potentially free ourselves from the chain of reactivity that goes from hunger to gratification to guilt. Meditation cultivates the space to intervene in the reactivity. Meditation is the opportunity to notice desire and let it go, or choose to fulfill that desire with the wisdom to know that ultimate happiness doesn’t stem from the thing outside me. Meditation is even sitting with the discomfort of the pain that comes after the fulfillment of the desire, without wishing to change that too.
In this way, Yoga and Meditation could be helpful with addiction or compulsive behavior. Both meditation and yoga emphasize that when we are feeling discomfort, whether an uncomfortable physical feeling, emotion, or thought, that we can sit with that feeling and either choose to react or choose to let it go. We can feel the feeling of hunger and we can either react to it, or we can choose to let it go.
Even the desire to 'detox' or 'cleanse' is at its root the same wish to change what we are experiencing in the present. I know many people for whom the 'detox' is part of alleviating discomfort, a purge or self-flagellation for an indulgence or a lapse in willpower. Many times we feel the need to detoxify when we feel we've overindulged. The toxins that need to be 'cleansed' are not the physical toxins, but the very desire to detoxify! The thoughts that want to pull us out of our present feeling by adding or subtracting more pleasurable or unpleasurable experiences. The desire to detoxify is a desire for things to be other than what they are right now, in the present.
Could the practice also help us heal relationships? We've all known someone who lost themselves completely in another; maybe we’ve even been that person ourselves. It cannot be: if our bliss were completely dependent on a knight in shining armor then we should give up our search for happiness now, because its a doomed proposition. Same with those people who seem repellent to us: how will running away fast and far enough from the difficult people in our lives lead to an experience of the 'oneness of being?' Erm. Its only through sitting with the bliss of infatuation, the chest-sinking heartbreak, the skin-crawling aggravation of being with other people that we come to find that we are, at our essence, love and joy, and that our purpose in life is to return to that joy.
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