On Beginning Again

There’s a funny thing that happens when you accidentally take a break from your yoga practice. The longer you rest, the harder it is to get back into it. You forget how to begin again. Or maybe that’s just me.

I’ve been neglecting this blog, and my yoga practice in general. Life happened. I didn’t run out of things to say or thoughts on the subject, but I ran out of the ability to manage my time. There was a time when nothing could keep me from my mat. If I worked a double shift, I would go in the morning.

And then I burned out. It happens.

I won’t go into it, but I had a series of personal and professional disappointments that sucked up a lot of emotional energy. For a while I was still going to class sporadically, as a coping mechanism as much as anything else.

Then I fell in love. So it goes.

The things I’ve read about getting back into a yoga practice are mostly interested in doing the Asana without injury; reforming the athletic habit. Of course, that is part of the problem; it’s nerve wracking to approach an inherently physical activity when you’re aware of the atrophy that’s occurred. But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there’s a way that I resent Yoga for not being able to protect me from the currents of life.

This is a blog. I’ve written a bit about myself and my practice, but mostly in the context of wanting to teach about Yoga, because I thought that was my calling. But I started feeling instead like my words on the subject had no value, that my life as a Yoga teacher was going nowhere, that my work was fundamentally meaningless.

In another context, one may call this a crisis of faith. In another context, this may be called relapse.

I don’t have any personal experience with addiction, but I do have some experience with Mental Health Nonsense™, and I also have some experience with, like spiritual seeking or whatever the kids are calling it these days.

Every time I’ve experienced this feeling before, I have given up on the Old Thing and sought out a New Thing that seemed like a better fit. It’s kind of how I got into Yoga. I’ve always been the kind of person who decides not to continue to pursue something that is #notworkingout. Generally that’s even been the right choice, all things considered. I stopped playing softball after I dislocated my shoulder. I stopped practicing Catholicism when I realized there was no way for my sexuality and religion to play nicely in my internal landscape. But Yoga has made me genuinely happy. It’s helped me recognize my bad habits and coping mechanisms. I’ve learned some awareness, some tranquility. I had even started to dial back my road rage.

Feeling like Yoga was being taken away from me was a huge emotional loss. I didn’t know how to not give up, and I knew in some way, some part of my practice was dying.

I still don’t know what that means, that some part of my practice has died. I do know that in Yoga, we mark death as a new beginning. One breath dies, a new one is born, and we call awareness of this cycle Pranayama. At the end of class we take Savasana #corpsepose to mark the end of Asana in the studio and the beginning of Yoga in the world.

Being born is traumatic. Essential, unavoidable, and never consented-to, it is the reason that transition in life is so hard. I needn’t extend the analogy too far to make my point. You feel warm and safe, something shifts, you feel squeezed and pinched. Then you feel squishy and vulnerable and fragile. I recently moved in with my partner. During the move I felt immense pressure, and now I feel intensely exposed and raw, in a way that I haven’t before.

My partner is extremely considerate of my feelings and well being, and I’m very happy. A transition doesn’t have to be an unhappy one to be A Lot™. Turns out it’s easier to stay in bed with your lover than it is to go do the work on yourself that you know needs doing. I stopped going to class virtually altogether, because between three jobs and a relationship, I didn’t think I had the luxury of time it takes. And sometimes, that’s been true. Leaving the house before 7:00am and not getting back until 10:30pm with hardly a lunch break has not been an uncommon occurrence. I also have a bit of a habit of wanting to take care of my loved ones before myself.

My point is this: not going to Yoga has been both essential and harmful. I’ve needed the time and space, and taking those things has been brutal on my mental and physical well-being. Some part of my practice has died, and some other part is being born. I’m writing this as a promise to myself, my loved ones, and the students I have yet to meet: I will keep doing the work.


“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” – T.S. Eliot


Samadhi: the Eight Limb

Samadhi translates to “Same as the highest” and is the 8th and final limb on the path of yoga. In Samadhi, one reclaims the wholeness that is their birthright. They are united with the universal consciousness, that is, whatever the thing is that you believe in that you would give a capital letter.

There are a few different schools of thought on Samadhi. It’s generally agreed that Samadhi comes about through grace rather than effort, like Dhyana. However, some believe that once Samadhi has happened, you remain enlightened and live from the place of One-ness for the remainder of your mortal years. Others believe that Samadhi is rather capricious. I’m generally inclined to think that any gift of grace comes and goes, but we get better at being a fitting resting place for that grace with practice.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to translate Samadhi as happiness, rather than as enlightenment. Etymologically, happiness comes from the Scandinavian root word which means “lucky.” Philosophically, happiness is understood more as having a good life, rather than an ecstatic one (it’s been a long time since my Phil 101 class, so I’m going to say that was Aristotle, but I could be mistaken). Good in this case means more just than unjust, more joyful than sorrowful, more productive than slothful, more faithful than fearful, and probably your favorite food at least once a week. Capiche? Enlightenment is the sort of idea that brings up a feeling of failure if it remains unattained, which is sort of inherently the problem.

This week I’ve had a couple of conversations with friends about what stands between people and the happiness they so ardently pursue. One of those conversations circled around ego and insecurity, and the other around the idea of worthiness. Both were difficult conversations.

Did you know that it’s wildly common to feel unworthy of the things that you want and work for? It’s so easy to hold onto the times that we’ve been made to feel lesser. Everything I remember about growing up are the times I didn’t make the team, didn’t get the part in the play, my crush of the moment didn’t ask me to the dance. I don’t remember all the times my softball team won, but I do remember the times that we lost when it was my fault. Our self-worth is made up of the stories we tell ourselves, not of the actual content of our character.

Which brings me to ego and insecurity. This week, one of my friends told me that I’ve been kind of a jerk lately. I’ve been insecure and pushy about it, demanding a lot of reassurances at the expense of our friendship, at the expense of being present in the way that is so important to a sense of mutual trust. It put the goodness of our friendship in a precarious place. I chose to sacrifice the good for the pleasant. At any given time, there are a dozen things in life to be insecure about. But we can make the choice not to be insecure. We can decide to be brave, to be vulnerable, and to revise the stories we tell ourselves.

If I’m being real, it sucks. It’s so hard to be gentle and kind and brave without ego or bravado. It’s much easier to hide, to try to make other people do the emotional work for you. Being the self that you know you can be, the one you want to be, is always a choice you can make. It’s usually the harder one. Alas. Even now I want to change the topic.

I’m no guru, I can’t begin to understand what it means to be united with the divine in any profound way. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the moment I have understood in my bones the depths of my worth and truly unhitched the bullshit of my insecurity and ego, I’ll already be it. Happy. We brush against moments when we feel loved and balanced and fulfilled, of the depth and breadth of our best self. Best, not as in most interesting, sexy, talented, or whatever your ego tells you to be; but as in most good.

I can’t define what it means to be the “same as the highest” in approximately 800 words. I don’t even want to. But there is work one can do now to become it. Happiness is a choice, not necessarily in the emotion of a moment, but in that you can act like the kind of person you want to be. You can be more just than unjust, more joyful than sorrowful, more productive than slothful, more faithful than fearful, and eat your favorite food at least once a week. This is the work of Yoga, to learn which parts of your own inherent goodness chafe your ego and your sense of unworthiness, and sit in them until you can identify and resolve the resistance.

I think one of the hardest things I’m still learning is that it’s much easier to choose the pleasant than the good. Like, when you’re in class and your teacher says you can take the modification if there’s pain, but if there’s discomfort to stay there and breathe into it. All of the good stuff is in the place you want to escape from in your practice. Stay in it, if you’re able. We’ll be ok. And if you can’t, breathe deep & just begin again.

“In Samadhi you enter yourself fully conscious, fully alert. And once you are at the center fully alert, you will never be the same again. Now you will know who you are. Now you will know that your possessions, your actions are just on the periphery; they are just the ripples, not your nature.” ― Osho

“A man cannot be egotistic if he has true knowledge. In other words, in Samadhi man becomes one with God and gets rid of his egotism. True knowledge is impossible without Samadhi. In Samadhi man becomes one with God. Then he can have no egotism.” ― Ramakrishna

“You must continue to go back to the beginning, to the foundation, and question the foundation. Even once you’ve reached Samadhi you must go back so you can create it at will. Samadhi is the beginning of spiritual growth, not the end. You must always be questioning. Enlightenment comes as an accident at first, then you have to learn to recreate it.” ― B.K.S. Iyengar

Dhyana: the Seventh Limb

Dhyana is defined as a profound meditative state. One of my very wise teachers once told me that Dhyana differs from Dharana in that Dharana is an effortful practice and Dhyana is a gift of grace. The last two limbs of the 8-limbed path are not so much things that you can do as things that you can try to prepare for by observing the aforementioned six limbs.

Because Dhyana is something that happens out of grace rather than effort, I’m going to be doing a little “imagining the summit from Mallory’s peak,” if you catch my drift. If you’re interested in a more scholarly understanding of Dhyana, this is a solid resource.

I’ve been turning the idea of a meditation practice over in my mind, and I think there are a couple of cultural things I need to address.  Have you noticed that we have a cult of productivity, and therefore we covet exhaustion? We as a culture, (especially us Millenials, holla) strive to be the sort of worker who is so absorbed in their work that they don’t notice the passage of time, and therefore don’t require rest. We’re trying to compete with machines and computers, because that’s the job market.

Being caught in what’s known as “flow” aka the state in which a person is fully immersed in energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in whatever they’re doing, is distinct from Dhyana. Dhyana is characterized by not only focus but also by detachment from the senses and perfect control of both breath and posture. The reason that this is the penultimate step to achieving Yoga is that it requires years of disciplined focus and effort, and then only happens by grace.

Just because something can’t be achieved by effort doesn’t mean that it can be achieved by accident.

I grew up riding horses, and I’ll be the first to say I’m an inexperienced horsewoman. By no means am I an expert. But having grown up around them, I’ve had a moment, just once, where I felt that the horse and I were moving as one creature. I’d spent my whole life around horses, and achieved something resembling equanimity once. It lasted 3 minutes, and ended when I fell off. This is the closest comparison I have to Dhyana within the realm of my personal experience.

Falling off the horse is a pretty solid metaphor for how progress functions, in general. This applies to addictions, and to good habits, to skills we try to cultivate and to pitfalls we try to avoid. One of the things that Baron Baptiste talks about in his writing on meditation is that when you’re learning, you have to be gentle with yourself, to begin again without judgement.

I may be chasing my own tail with this explanation. Put simply, I think when you come to this limb, if Dhyana doesn’t seem to come, it’s time to backtrack and begin again.

The trouble with a Yoga practice is that it’s something you have to choose, moment by moment. I think of marriage, which is something I have never experienced, and I also think of riding a horse. Both of those things take a single-mindedness on what you’re doing, or you’ll fall. It’s sort of the do-karate-yes-or-do-karate-no Mr Miyagi moment, we’re having here. Do Yoga yes or do Yoga no, but do Yoga “guess so” and soon you’ll be squished like a grape.

Pratyahara and Dharana are both very difficult for me. They’re sort of contrary to my nature. I’m not good at denying myself what I want, in a moment. I’m also not good at sitting still for a very long time and staring at a candle flame. I crave activity nearly constantly. Do those things make me a bad person? A bad Yogi?

One of the neat things that I’m realizing is that Yoga has space for the body and brain that you bring to it, even if they’re fidgety and undisciplined. Those two physical traits have no value assigned to them. The fact is, different pieces of the larger practice come more easily than to others, in the same way that different Asana postures come more easily than others.

So the answer is neither yes nor no, as to whether my bad habits make me a bad person or bad Yogi, because a Yoga practice is about choosing new habits. Or, rather, Yoga is about no longer identifying with our thought patterns and habits, and being able to observe both as an outsider, with neutrality.

The fact is, that if you keep trying, if you gently begin again, then one day you’ll have a moment like when Daniel-san realizes that Mr Miyagi had been teaching him Karate all along, and he had the neural pathways to easily flow into the appropriate block. You’ll have a moment of Dhyana.

It may not happen while you’re rewatching The Karate Kid, but it probably won’t hurt to try.

“One who performs his prescribed duties and renounces the results of those actions is a yogi and a sannyasi. One does not become a sannyasi simply by rejecting the performance of sacrifice and performing no activities.” The Bhagavad Gita, chapter 6.1

Dharana: the Sixth Limb

Dharana is commonly known as “concentration,” aka the thing you think you’re doing when you’re “meditating.” For an introductory resource on what Dharana is, how it’s defined, and what a beginning practice might look like, you might check out this site.

I don’t know if anyone has told you, but sometimes it’s hard to stay focused. In one of my previous jobs, management would talk a lot about the “why” of your actions. The reasoning behind that was if you had a big enough and strong enough reason to keep your focus, then nothing could distract you. You couldn’t be dissuaded by the eddies which are inevitable in sales if you were motivated by something that kept your focus razor-sharp.

I didn’t have that. I’ve never had that. There’s never been something in my life that I wanted so badly that I was willing to suffer in the short-term for it. Willpower carried me through a lot of the things that a bigger “why” might’ve done the work for, but willpower fizzles. The point of a Dharana practice is building the habit of a razor focus, even in the absence of great willpower or great motivation.

I have terrible wanderlust, and I don’t particularly like my day job. Last night I was talking to my best friend, and I found myself asking why I stay here and show up to work every day. There’s so much life out there, the world is wide, and surely there’s a version of my life where I don’t feel my labor stealing my passion.  But this morning I went to work. I worked hard all day, so that I could pay for Yoga. I realized I’m beginning to understand what they meant when they talked about a bigger “why.”

There’s a counterpart to Dharana called Drishti. Drishti is the physical object upon which a yogi fixes their gaze. During an Asana practice, Drishti is really important to keeping your balance, because focusing your eyes helps bring your mind to a fine point. By manipulating the noise of the mind into steadiness, we move towards physical steadiness which is otherwise elusive.

But like, why bother? Why do the hard thing and practice your Yoga when it’s hard and endure Tapas and have less time do things like grocery shop and have to work more to support yourself and your Yoga habit which, if it were anything else, would seem a little like an addiction?

There is a story about a monk praying, and a demon appearing in his path to try to distract him. Actually, there are many stories like that across many theologies. In these stories the monk is nearly always so deep in prayer that the demon flat-out fails.

Dharana is a preparatory limb. It is the launchpad for true meditation, which is the necessary predecessor to Enlightenment or Yoga or whatever you call it. A Yogi who meets distracting challenges in life but has no Dharana practice is ill-equipped to handle them. And everyone meets distracting challenges in life.

Plenty of people make the excuse about this that they don’t have the time to sit down and stare at a lit candle and chant in a language they don’t understand at the start of every day. I actually think that the biggest challenge of this limb is how much of our mental energy we use in concentrating at work, at least for people who roll out of bed and into work, and then roll out of work and into bed. It is very difficult to concentrate if you’re not caring for your own physical and emotional needs.

Every try to parallel park when you’re hungry? Or write a work email when there’s a baby crying? Being a corporal creature means that there are certain physiological responses to stimuli that it is in our better interest to acknowledge and tend to rather than ignore. Very few people are called to asceticism.

There’s a trap in this, though. It is easy to not do hard things when you have a reason not to, like your cat is making noise or you smell something cooking. This is why we cultivate a Tapas practice and a Pratyahara practice. You may smell something cooking, and choose not to let it hook into your mind-stuff. You may know your cat is making noise, and choose to grit your teeth and sit and stare at your candle or your rose and chant the chant you don’t understand until you find the outside noise less jarring.

When I ask myself why I’m still doing this, what I think the point of it all is, I come back to simple focus. Because I don’t know, and I honestly don’t think I should have the answer to that question, at least not a simple and ready one.

It’s like that old quote, “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it,” but in reverse. One of the things that I love about Yoga is that I know that as soon as I have a simple answer to questions like that, then I need to reconsider.

As a human with ADHD and a very full plate, this practice seems to me like a snake coiled in a basket. But it’s not. Fundamentally, Dharana is skill you need to receive grace, to have Yoga where your body and soul are one. When I forget that, I’m learning to be gentle with myself and begin again.

Pratyahara: the Fifth Limb

Pratyahara is defined as withdrawal from the senses, and literally means “To wean or abstain oneself from that which one takes in.”

As an overcaffeinated, overworked, overpartied, sleep-deprived, ADHD having, overstimulated westerner, this limb reads as both my worst nightmare and exactly the vacation I desperately crave.


Goodness and pleasure are not the same thing, did you know?

It’s impossible to escape stimulus. There is no place one can go in the world to experience 0 sensations. If you close your eyes and sit perfectly still, you can still hear and smell; the muscles of your body can still cramp and cause pain; your breath can grow choppy with fatigue. The trouble, then, is not so much that our senses encounter the world, but how our monkey-brains jump when they smell bananas.

On the most basic level, we’re inclined to move away from pain and towards pleasure. (There was a study with dogs and steaks, ringing any bells?) This was one of the primary areas of interest for the Greek philosophers; that is, the difference between the good and the pleasant, and what makes the good more profitable than the pleasant. The conclusion that they came to was more or less a question of instant gratification being the opponent of long-standing happiness.

So, while I’m working in my sensory-deprivation-chamber, the grey cube of white-collar hell, I am effectively trading this moment’s pleasure for my long-term happiness, because I’m cultivating discipline (Tapas) and simultaneously trading away my life in little nuggets for the means to feed and shelter myself. Delayed gratification for long term happiness. I do what I must now so that I can do what I want later. Are we all cool with this idea?

I certainly hope not. This idea is pretty much exactly why I don’t practice Christianity anymore.

This is the point in the post where I reiterate that I’m not a scholar, what I know about Pratyahara I learned on the Google.

For me, when I think of Pratyahara, it’s not so much about denying the pleasant for the sake of the good. Rather, Pratyahara seems to be about treating both the pleasant and the unpleasant with the same indifference, rather than running away from the unpleasant and towards the pleasant, as every living thing is inclined to do.

I’m as inclined towards the pleasant as anyone,  I eat so much chocolate. So. Much. Chocolate. One of the things that a yoga practice has made me more aware of is the way that instant-gratification-pleasant things often lead nearly immediately to highly-unpleasant-things, like the post an entire half-gallon of chocolate gellato stomach-ache and the associated headache. Another thing that I’ve become more aware of is what I tend to avoid.

We all avoid the same stuff. Vulnerability, challenge, the possibility of failure, the unpleasantness of a seemingly fruitless labor. The particular phobias look different to different people. I tend to drag my feet about playing party games and reading my email, because they both infringe on the false stoicism that I try to project. Some people would say that a Pratyahara practice means that you don’t have to play “ships and sailors” or respond to your emails, because both of those things would ~engage your senses~. I frankly think that’s a cop out. Don’t use your Yoga practice as an excuse to be a flake.

Do you know why James Bond always orders his martinis “shaken, not stirred”? When he does that, he’s telling the audience that though he’s been something wildly traumatic and is physically shaken, the drama has not touched his heart. He remains indifferent, he’s not stirred. This is what I think Pratyahara asks of us.

We must participate in our lives. There will be music and good food and love and fights and car crashes. The choice is in the distance between the things that happen to us and how we choose to react to them.

Again, back to the self-help talk. This seems to come up over and over again, almost as though the secret to being a happy and fulfilled person is not letting the events of your life dictate your feelings. The trick is that this also doesn’t mean that we become cyborgs. Human beings have feelings, and in order for them to not become warped, we have to be able to sit with them. Stoicly.

Most of us over-identify with our thoughts and feelings. The ideas we have, our reasoning, our feelings, we think they are us. And that’s not true. The thing that we are has different names in different faiths, but whatever you call that thing, it’s untouchable by the currents of your life.

My practice of Pratyahara is something I’m still working on, but I’m learning to examine my emotions and reactions as though they belong to someone else, however deeply I may be feeling them. I’m hoping that by learning to identify less with the small self, I’m getting closer to identifying with the larger Self.

“(2.54) When the mental organs of senses and actions cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step. (2.55) Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.” -the Yoga Sutras
(tatah parama vashyata indriyanam)(sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah)