Mindfulness as an Antidote to Frenzied Media Culture

Since I have worked in the radio and news media since 1986, I have had an insider’s view of this business and gained a unique perspective of how it works. Media, all media is driven by ratings, which is about attracting attention. Once the attention of those ears and eyes are secured, they are used as leverage to gain advertising dollars for profit and non-profit media outlets alike.

More often than not, the most sensational stories lead any newscast or pop culture program. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the old adage. The word “sensational” is key to this discussion. By sensational I mean that which is the most surprising, emotionally titillating, upsetting and attention grabbing. Many stories are simply bad news, like war, disasters, threats to our safety et cetera. They are amplified repeatedly like a psychological battering ram.

Also, remember this: news outlets often act as organs of particular political points of view. This is a long tradition.

Once upon a time, networks made their money on other types of programming like dramas and sitcoms. Now, all commercial networks demand that the news broadcast also be a profit center. This is one thing that has led to the sensationalist 24 hour news coverage we now see. It’s all about the money, the worship of money and the influence that money can buy in our society.

This is also true about the entertainment media. The number of programs on currently that deal with the deepest kind of human depravity or silliness has skyrocketed along with the number of cable tv channels.

A steady diet of sensationalism can have a strong effect on the human nervous system. It can provoke a range of emotions that keep us in a constant state of turmoil or at least imbalance. It can contribute to depression and despair.

But here’s the worst thing about feeding heavily on media trash culture: we so often feel disempowered to do anything meaningful to change our world. Disempowerment leads to apathy, and apathy to inaction. We can get frozen into a permanent state of inertia. We are then subject to manipulation by a whole host of demagogues whose points of view are eagerly broadcast by—the media.

Thought I wouldn’t claim that there is a conspiracy involved in media programming, it’s wise to remember the words of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Hamilton, who strove to secure the support of the wealthy for the fledgling U.S. government, had little but contempt for common folk. He encouraged the wealthy to supply the “the rabble” as he termed us, with “bread and circuses” while our betters handled the serious business of governance. And that is, by and large the pattern we have today: poor quality fast food on nearly every corner and 24 hours of news, sports and celebrity drivel.

This is where mindful practices like yoga, tai chi, qigong and meditation come to our aid. These ancient mindfulness practices offer us a way to take control of our nervous systems so that we can connect with what’s in our soul instead of being whipped into the chaos that is the commercial news media.

For those of us who may yearn to stop the world so we can get off for a while, these mindfulness practices help us reset our nervous systems so we can gain a clear perspective on life untainted by the greedy maw of consumerism promoted by the media industrial complex. When we regain autonomous control over own minds, we get a panoramic vista of our own lives and how we fit into the crazy world we’ve created. We are no longer manipulated by every violent atrocity, celebrity news tidbit or the other magnified trash foisted upon us. Our buttons and triggers are not so readily accessible to the barrage of commercial stimuli constantly directed toward us.

So, if you’re weary of the rat race and the endless, ruinous competition that is being offered, retreat. Retreat to the nourishing practices that our ancestors have nurtured and handed down to us. We may always drink from the fortifying springs of these traditions as an antidote to the toxicity of so-called modern culture.

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Disease, Resistance, Surrender, Healing

As I prepare to serve Y.O.G.A. for Youth (Your Own Greatness Affirmed) by teaching yoga to middle school boys this semester I try to put myself in their shoes. I know most of these boys will enter class knowing little to nothing about yoga and many of them may even think it’s a little weird. Some may not even want to participate at all. That prompts a memory of my initial resistance to yoga way back in 1981.

After surviving my first debilitating attack of Crohn’s Disease and subsequent hospitalization, someone recommended yoga to me. There was class nearby so I thought, “What the heck. I’ll give it a try.” So, skinny from Crohn’s weight loss and jacked up on doctor-prescribed steroids I trotted of to my first yoga class.

During my first bout of the disease my left big toe was completely paralyzed. I would often stub it when I walked barefoot. During my first yoga class, the teacher, an elderly be-turbaned Indian man named Baram, mentioned that paralysis of the big toe related to digestive disease. Being kind enough not to single me out, his point made a strong impression on me. At the end of class, his pretty young assistant, Lakshmi, commented,  “Oh, you’ll have to do yoga for the rest of your life to stay well.”

Being the reactive rebel I so stubbornly played in my late 20s, I thought to myself, “Like hell I will.” I never returned to that class and completely ruled out any role for yoga in my recovery from Crohn’s Disease. Of course, I got sick again and again. My next disease episode forced me to withdraw from the University of California at San Diego just as the fall semester began. Not only did I lose any confidence that I’d be able to pursue an education, I settled into a depressive funk of hopelessness that I’d ever be able to pursue developing my full human potential.

Fourteen years later, complaining of chronic back pain, a friend lent me a yoga book he thought might help. I began using the book by myself daily. After two weeks the back pains had vanished. I knew I’d found something important so I kept practicing.

I took teacher training ten years later and began to teach. Even though I’d made progress in my practice, I still hadn’t realized the profound power of yoga to transform my life. After two more bouts of Crohn’s in the early 2000s and several episodes of depression later on in the decade that required medication, I knew that I had to put up or shut up about my yoga practice. Either this practice could help me cope with my dis-eases or not.

I quit the antidepressant medication cold turkey (not something I advise) and devoted myself to daily asana, pranayama and meditation. The combination of these three limbs of yoga relieved the chronic stress and subsequent depression. Consistent practice bathed my brain with a balanced flow of neurotransmitters that I learned to summon at will. It’s been nearly ten years since my last Crohn’s episode. I can say with confidence that I have developed the proper yogic self-care skills not just adequate to keeping myself well, but also to fully enable me to continue my quest towards a life of complete fulfillment and service.

Though I stubbornly spent years wandering in the wilderness of poor health, I have fulfilled Lakshmi’s prophecy that I would have to practice yoga for the rest of my life. Rather than a sentence, yoga has served to liberate me from physical as well as mental illness.

A yoga teacher of mine, Krishna Kaur Khalsa, relayed a quote to our Yoga for Youth training class recently.  It went something like this: “One who seeks the greatest freedom must develop the greatest discipline.” This statement is also a constant thread in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We get out of something what we put into it. It’s the universal law of cause and effect. We reap what we sow.

With gratitude I bow to all the saints and yogis who have come before us to show us the way of yoga (union). This practice will not only heal, but will catapult its practitioners into the lives they long to live.

Blessing to all of you as you blaze your own trail to freedom with the boundless practice of yoga.

Namaste and Sat Nam!

 

 

 

Working Out the Demons

As I mentioned in my last post, the human body is designed as a conduit for energy flow. Another word for flow is circulation. Energy circulates throughout the mammalian body within tubes like blood vessels, nerve axons, the digestive system and the glands and organs. These tubes, or nadis as the yogis call them, are of many sizes and shapes and have pathways unique to their functions. When everything is flowing freely, we feel well and able to participate in all parts of our lives. When prana flow is decreased through illness, injury, or inadequate nutrition we feel the effects in a variety of ways.

Not only is this true for the physical body, it is also true for the mind. Incomplete recovery from limiting beliefs, attitudes or psychological trauma can continue to live within us, often without our awareness. This residual trauma can live as memories in our minds and in the very tissues of our bodies. In our not so distant past these manifestations of persistent psychological disease were often called demon possession. In a metaphorical sense demon possession is not as far fetched as we may think when we identify “demons” as the forces of stress and tension. These demons can be the beginning of high blood pressure, heart and kidney disease and chronic mental illness often manifesting as depression.

In Amy Weintraub’s ground-breaking book, Yoga for Depression, she devotes an entire chapter to the subject “grief in our tissues” and how to release it. Amy uses two incisive quotes to get the heart of the matter. One of them is from Lama Palden Drolma.

“Yoga practices bring us into a state of ripeness. They purify the energy channels for the free flow of prana. In the process, the sludge is brought to the surface. It’s like cleaning the sewers. The psychological and emotional obstacles get flushed to the surface.”

I have had the experience of “cleaning out the sewers” many times  before and enjoyed yoga’s amazing cleansing power again this very morning.

Since I finished my yoga therapy training I’ve been involved in the slow struggle to build my business as a yoga therapist. As with any uphill battle it can take its toll. All the old stories start rising from impermanent interment to haunt me once again. You know the common lies we all face: I’m not good enough, I’ll never belong, I’m obsolete (if you’re over 55 or thereabouts), the world doesn’t need what I have to offer; the list goes on and on. As Lama Drolma says, it does feel like our minds and bodies become a toxic sewer aching with the trauma of the past.

As I always do when these feelings begin to overwhelm me, I take refuge in my practice. I rolled out my yoga mat like a magic carpet and practiced yoga postures for nearly two hours. All the bending, extensions, twists, and balancing poses acted like an exorcism to rid me of the demons of depression and doubt that were ready to blow down the door of my equanimity. With the powerful assistance of deep breathing and conscious movement I worked the demons out. This practice never fails. It is there for us everyday to massage, tone and cleanse every muscle, organ, gland and cell in our bodies. We can always take refuge in our practice. As we do, we connect with all souls past and present who turn to yoga to cultivate peace, strength and victorious living.

Namaste!