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One of the hardest lessons we face in a physical body is learning how to be fully present with what is. Yet Eastern gurus – and even some Western sages – teach that the cause of all suffering is our resistance to, or attempted avoidance of what is.
If we like our experience, we feel good; if we don’t, we feel bad. The trouble starts when we try to hold onto what feels good. But our bodies, environment, temperament and relationships change so rapidly that it’s impossible to hold onto anything. The only way to suffer less is to give up trying to avoid the changes. How do we do this? By paying attention to whatever is happening right now – including the desire to resist what we don’t like.
Focusing our attention and our breath on the tension, the place between what is happening now and what we want to happen, may stir up more discomfort. Yet there’s really no other place we can be. Attempts at avoidance just leave us with a shadow, one that looms larger and larger until we finally face it.
In Western society, we aren’t taught how to be with ourselves. We’re conditioned from an early age to cover our pain, guilt and shame with activities, objects and relationships. So we never develop “presence muscles.” But making a conscious decision to stay in the feeling, in the physical tension, is a form of self-love. We are in essence staying with ourselves, and the more we practice this, the stronger and more loving we become.
Yoga is a great example of openings that occur when we remain in the tension of the posture. Trikonasana is hard for me, and I usually come out of it before my instructor’s guidance to do so. Last week, I felt the discomfort of the pose and my longing to get out of it. My body was rebelling: “I hate this pose. It’s too hard.” Then, I heard a soft voice in my head saying, “stay.”
The voice reminded me of the end of my favorite movie, E.T. It’s the scene where E.T. is getting ready to board his spaceship to go home. E.T. and Elliot touch fingers, E.T.’s finger lights up, and he says to Elliott, “go.” Elliott pleads in the sad voice of a little boy who doesn’t want to lose his best friend, “stay.” That was the same childlike voice I heard in my head: a sweet, oh so loving, reminder not to leave myself, yet again.
How do we abandon ourselves? It happens any time we move out of the present moment, whenever we are judging, resisting, wanting, whenever our energies are focused on thoughts of the past or the imagined future.
When we stay in a yoga pose, not to the point of pain, but linger in the tension of the pose, something amazing happens. Energy opens up and is experienced as a softening or sometimes as an inner, or outer, trembling. Insights may surface, and almost always, the pose becomes easier and we become lighter.
When we stay with an uncomfortable emotion or physical sensation, we gather our scattered energies and gain a sense of empowerment. From this place, it’s hard to project, to expect anyone else to fix us, or to do for us what we won’t do for ourselves. With staying comes power, relaxation, deep breathing, and the joy of not knowing where the tension will lead.
And that’s the only place aliveness can be felt. The familiar way might feel safer, more comfortable, but if we look deeper, we’ll see how dead it is – void of life force, energy or passion. And as we evolve, it becomes harder and harder to live in this place. Like a drug that no longer works, the hangover just becomes more and more painful.