Vicissitudes

tude:  a suffix denoting a condition or state of being.

 

vicissitude: abrupt or unexpected changes in one’s life

 

We are all subject to changes that are beyond our control. These changes that come, seemingly, out of nowhere, have a direct bearing on our moods which are temporary and on our outlook, which can be more long-term. These vicissitudes, turns or changes can be addressed with the regular use of some of the basic tools of Hatha Yoga. As we are whipped from one direction and then another, it is easy to get confused as to how we should deal with so many things coming at us from different directions.

I look at it like a tempestuous ocean torn and driven by strong winds that produce gigantic swells crashing in every direction all at once. The cosmic sailor’s dilemma is how to chart a course in such a chaotic environment. It seems that no matter which heading the sailor chooses, her craft is still beset by pounding seas that dwarf any effort to protect the occupants of the vessel. This is what the mind feels like when life gets to be just a little too much.

Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, says that “yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” Utter stillness.

One simple way to smooth out the fluctuations or vicissitudes of our consciousness is through our awareness and use of the breath. We can use the breath to probe the mysteries of life, to listen for the answers that lie ever within us and to use our intention to solve our reactions to life’s constant vacillations.

This is a rhythmic, steady breath. It is regular, stable, uninterrupted and unremitting. This breath asks and listens with the intention of calming the violent waves that heave through our consciousness. This is breath that must be trained by our will. In our training of the breath we learn to inhabit every milliliter, and perhaps every molecule of the prana (life force) that suffuses our being to keep us alive. In this type of realization of the breath we are not just keeping these meat bodies alive, we are connecting to and opening up the divine presence secreted within us. Whether you are a religious person or an atheist, it doesn’t matter. It is not a matter of belief, but a matter of practicing the coupling, the union or the yoga of our minds with the great inexhaustible source of all that is.

The result is a fortified consistency of mind. The fluctuating, gyrating, monstrous waves that threaten to engulf us flatten out to allow us a course of steady direction. Our grief may not be instantly turned to joy, our defeats may not instantly reverse themselves to victories, but we get the backing, the support and eternal providence of infinite grace to move beyond our storms.

Life will always change. Indeed it may be defined as change. Our connection to the divine, as we cultivate it with steadfastness, will establish us on unassailable terrain.

 

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Blind Balance: What Lies Inside our Ability to Balance Without Sight?

Learning the one-legged balance poses are challenging in many ways. One of the first things we realize is that balance is as much a function of focus or concentration as it is strength. Sometimes, at the beginning of practicing poses like tree, warrior III, or dancer we are so wobbly at first that we don’t notice the distinction between strength and focus. As we practice and build strength, we realize that dharana or concentration is equal to strength in helping us sustain and perfect these poses.

One of the instructions you will often hear in a yoga class concerns the drishti or gaze and how we are to use it to focus our attention in order to hold our balance. Generally a teacher will suggest focusing at some stationary object in order to aid our balance. But drishti is more than simple visual focus. In Sanskrit, drishtican also mean a vision, a point of view, or intelligence and wisdom.[1] So, drishti refers to our inner sight as well as to what we see with our physical eyes.

This brings me to a practice that I’ve been working with on and off for a couple of years now: blind balance. Closing the eyes while performing a one-legged pose is the practice of blind balance. If you think you possess balance and equanimity, standing in tree pose with your eyes closed will either confirm or challenge your assessment of your state of inner balance.

Give it a try. If you are truly composed, focused and quiet, you should be able to maintain your balance with ease. If you lose your balance, you will see that you need a bit more practice. Most of us, me included, will lose our balance rather quickly when we try this practice. You may find, as I have, that sometimes you will be more successful than others. I asked myself why many times. At certain times we are more balanced and may not be able to explain why. Steady practice, as it is so good at doing, will eventually reveal the answers.

A good place to begin is near a wall or some other sturdy object. Start by holding onto to the object as you close your eyes. As you become comfortable and stable, begin releasing your hold one finger at a time until you are free of your prop. This may take awhile, perhaps months depending how much you practice. Enjoy the journey. As you do you will discover many things about yourself that have lain dormant awaiting this exploration.

Since you are practicing a type of pratiyahara, or consciously withdrawing from your normal dependence on vision, your concentration on your breath will be all important. Whenever I’ve succeeded in blind balance it has been because I became totally focused on and absorbed in a slow deep breathing pattern.

One recommendation about tree pose and blind balance. Be sure to pull your knee cap up by engaging your quadriceps muscles as you practice. This will help keep your knee in proper alignment as you stand in tree pose for periods of time longer than what you are accustomed to.

Since I have not mastered this technique yet, I cannot tell you what to expect. But if my current level of experience is any indication, the possibilities are tantalizing. One thing I can say with confidence is, that this technique most certainly has a potent and positive  effect on the brain.

I would love to hear from you as you embrace this simple but potentially powerful practice. I’d also love you share your insights with all my readers.

 

[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=drishti+meaning&oq=drishti&aqs=chrome.2.69i57j0l3.6321j0j1&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

The Science of Building Confidence Through Yoga Asana

 

 

One of the great contributions to culture in the recent past is the TED Talks. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design. Accomplished people from all over the world and from many disciplines appear on the TED stages to share the compelling work they are pursuing.

National Public Radio in the United States has formed a partnership with TED and broadcasts a weekly one hour program comprised of related talks. One that was aired recently brought together five experts addressing language. My favorite talk of this recent show is Amy Cuddy, Professor of Social Psychology at Harvard University. Dr. Cuddy’s presentation focused on the intentional use of body language and how it can change our attitudes through influencing our neurochemistry. Cuddy’s talk has been heard by more than 17 million people.

As others have done before her, Dr. Cuddy has analyzed postures that communicate both confidence and defeat. The confident postures are expansive and broad. Defeated postures are contracted and withdrawn. Our nearest cousins the primates exhibit these postures just as we do.

Of course, I immediately thought of yoga postures and how their practice changes our feelings and attitudes. Cuddy’s work also aligns with her Harvard colleague, Sara Lazar (another TED alumna), about whom I’ve written in the past. Lazar used MRI to show the positive brain changes in yoga and meditation practitioners.

Cuddy’s favorite illustration of a confidence building pose is what she calls the “Wonder Woman” stance. Picture Lynda Carter, who portrayed the character in her trademark pose—feet wide, hands on hips, erect torso, and direct gaze. Practice this pose with intention and breath awareness and see if you don’t feel more confident.

Cuddy cited medical evidence that leaders who used assertive body language secreted dominance hormones like testosterone (women and smen) and less of the stress hormone, cortisol.

If you don’t quite feel as confident as you look, no matter. You will look that way to others. Cuddy used some recent studies about how people perceived body language and how that body language caused them to favor people with confident postures versus those who looked less self-assured.

But the major point of her talk that stood out for me was her “fake it ‘till you make” attitude or do it until you become it. Rather than faking it, what she is really saying is practice who you want to be until you become that person.

This is the whole point of practicing yoga. As we practice yoga postures with mindfulness and breath awareness, we change our brain chemistry. The yogis intuitively understood this. As we take up yoga practice we may feel unsure or even doubtful that it will make any difference. With practice we see our lives and attitudes begin to change. We develop self-mastery. Each pose, as I’ve said in the past, is a specific energy template that helps us express prana or life force in different beneficial ways.

Once again, modern science and the ancient science of yoga are in profound agreement. Thank you Amy Cuddy for further confirmation that asana, or postural yoga, speeds us on our paths toward being ever-more positively stronger, better human beings.