Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Roar


For most of my yoga life I've shied away from simhasana, or lion pose. Perhaps it has seemed a tad embarrassing, a little lost-in-the-seventies when adults were counseled to channel anger by punching and screaming at pillows. Or maybe the photos of those slightly frightening, scantily clad yogis practicing with their eyes wide open and their jaws ajar seemed too close to every skeptic's fear of what yoga might be like after all. (Don't believe me? Look here and here and here.)

Simhasana is a simple pose in which you sit quietly on the floor, drop your jaw, thrust out your tongue, peel open your eyes as if in the throes of delirium, and then let loose with a sound that ranges from a sigh of deep exasperation to a floor-rattling roar. Yoga masters tell us that this pose releases tension in the mouth and throat, gives voice to withheld emotions, and leaves the eyes and the heart shiny and bright.

Kids, of course, love simhasana, since it is loud, ferocious and impressively expressive. They enjoy the opportunity to alternate between the quiet prelude of stalking and the shocking surprise of the roar. Through it they learn to channel their unstoppable energy in safe - albeit noisy forms. And they are invited to practice managing and regulating their emotions constructively, rather than being ruled by them.

So perhaps I can thank my two young boys for helping me befriend my inner lioness. Like every child I've ever known, they never turn down an opportunity to practice simhasana, and will happily turn the pose into an afternoon's adventure of hunting and prowling across the African savannah.

They have also given me plenty of strong emotions to practice channeling through simhasana. Any mother of young children surely has a few stifled screams stuck inside somewhere, and these strong emotions do no good when left to hide out and wait for a vulnerable moment to set themselves free. Sometimes it just feels good to let loose with a howl (or at least a profound sigh) that releases pent up energy without necessarily pinning it upon a specific person or circumstance.

Are you ready to roar? I must admit, in class I teach this pose to adults gingerly, with a tinge of shyness. Always, I instruct my students to close their eyes. If you're like me, you may want to close your bedroom door when you take simhasana for a test drive. Or, better yet, recruit your favorite five-year-old to show you how it's really done. All you need are a few basic instructions, which you should feel free to refine to suit your body, emotions and needs of the moment:

Sit on the ground in any comfortable position. (Sitting with your hips on your heels in vajrasana is a good place to start, although experienced students are sometimes led into the pose from padmasana, or lotus pose.) Breathe quietly for a few moments, keeping your body soft and your awareness drawn inward. When you're ready to vocalize, inhale through your nose, and then as you exhale drop your jaw as far as possible, stick out your tongue as far as possible, and open your eyes as wide as possible. Accompany this action with a sound that suits the energy of the moment, ranging from a quiet "hahhh" to a window-shattering roar.

You may want to intensify the release by "pouncing," or shifting your weight forward and spreading the "claws" of your hands in front of you as you roar. And then when the exhalation is complete, retreat back to a quiet, internal posture, closing your mouth and eyes, relaxing your body and breathing easily through the nose. Observe the feeling and flow of energy within you as you rest quietly and breathe freely. Enjoy the calm that follows the energy's storm. If you feel the urge, repeat simhasana a few more times.

Over time, you'll even be able to refine the pose until you can practice it internally, letting out a secret, silent roar on the spot, whenever you need to release a little tension and regain a sense of balance. Try out your silent roar it in the line at the grocery store, when you're stuck at a red light, or perhaps when you're on the kitchen floor, cleaning up your third spilled milk of the morning.

Want to learn more about the grown up version of simhasana? Additional explorations can be found here and here.

With kids, this pose can be varied in interesting ways by altering the intensity of the sound (silent roar, whispering roar, fierce roar, happy roar, sad roar, lost-in-the-woods roar, I-like-you roar, etc). It's a wonderful way to help wiggly children release their energy with creativity and good humor. And as long as a few quiet breaths of stillness are included afterward (when the lion curls up and goes to sleep!), simhasana can help transition kids into a gentler activity. The exploration can be deepened even further by asking kids to reflect on their feelings before, during and after they roar. More about teaching lion pose to kids can be found here and here.

Come on, don't be shy. Give it a try. Each of us has a strong and beautiful lion inside, just waiting to be set free.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Blueberries of Happiness


I'm standing in the middle of a blueberry patch, the long arms of the bushes reaching out to me, practically begging me to relieve them of their berries. The sun is hot and the air is cool. The boys charge ahead of me, picking and eating and musing about the best way to nudge a blueberry off its stem.

I look up at the brilliant blue sky, and I sigh. I catch myself smiling. I realize that I'm happy, right here and right now in this moment.

The women the next row over chat about their morning coffee and their cell phone plans and whether to abandon Netflix. On the other side a family from Florida ponders whether to make muffins or pie first, and wonders whether their friends in Italy eat blueberries, and if they do what beautiful words they shout out when the berries touch their tongues.

A few bushes down an elderly man and woman, the sort who look like they hold hands when they're not reaching for berries, slowly and methodically work their way down the hill. They exude the quiet contentment that so many of us spend our lives seeking.

What to do with all this happiness, I wonder. This lightness and ease shines so brightly and yet it feels so shy, so ephemeral. I long to clutch at it, to hold it close, but I know that never works. I remind myself to simply enjoy this lovely moment and to savor it fully.

I continue massaging the branches and enjoying the plunk-plunk-plunk as the berries fall like raindrops into my bucket. And I try to remember what those wise old Buddhists have to teach us about happiness. They've never failed me in times of difficulty, they've always offered me comfort and hope. But what do they tell me about happiness? Enjoy it but don't cling, I suppose. Be present for it. Don't over-personalize it, and remember that this feeling, too, will pass.

I move on to the next abundant blueberry bush. The words of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye bubble up from the depths of my body. "It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness," she writes in one of my favorite poems. "With sadness there is something to rub against, a wound to tend with lotion and cloth..."

I pause as I struggle to recall the rest of the poem, where surely she has something to teach me. I recall her words "happiness floats" with a smile, since that is exactly how I feel right now. "It doesn't need you to hold it down. It doesn't need anything." Yes, she's right. I understand.

All this happiness wafts through me like fresh air, and for a few moments I almost feel like we're all floating, carried in a little bubble of happiness that slips into the sky like a helium balloon set free. I realize that in the hour we've been picking I haven't heard a single sour word from anyone. Everyone around me, in fact, seems seized by happiness. My sons have been chattering and plotting and discussing and (sometimes) picking, but miraculously they haven't bickered once. The families around me have been kind and generous to one another, as sweet and as smooth as the blueberries we pick.

Is it the weather, perhaps? The brilliant sun that lifts our moods? The gentle focus that's required when picking blueberries? The blueberries themselves? Or could it be the incredible sense of abundance we all feel right now? There are so many berries, in all directions, that no one need fight over a row or a bush or a berry. There's plenty for all and no need for anyone to feel territorial or threatened or greedy. For a few moments I contemplate what the world would feel like if we all lived with our hands held open like this, in total faith of the world's abundant generosity. How beautiful a world that would be.

"Happiness floats," indeed. I savor. I enjoy. I ask the boys if they're happy, too, and they are, they say they could stay here and pick all day. "If you're happy and you know it," I call out. And they respond in our family's typical refrain, "Then know it!"

Finally we can carry (and eat) no more, so we head back to the cashier to pay for our bounty. A woman is just heading out into the blueberry patch, with a baby on her chest and four smaller ones clucking about her like noisy chicks. Even she is smiling, I notice. It's just that kind of day.

We return home. The boys carry in the berries while I dash upstairs in search of Nye's poem. When I find it, I devour it hungrily, happily, with a sigh. "Since there is no place large enough to contain so much happiness," she writes, "you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you into everything you touch."

I float back downstairs and pull out all the plastic give-away bowls that I can find. I rinse our berries in cool water, and I ask the boys who might need a little happiness today, who might like an offering of fresh berries. We begin naming names, and sending out wishes for happiness, as we spoon shiny purple berries into bowl after beautiful bowl.

Because of course, when you find yourself surrounded by a bumper crop of blueberries - or perhaps with an abundance of happiness - the proper thing to do is to share it, to spread it, to give it all away.

***


The poem So Much Happiness by Naomi Shihab Nye can be found here.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Falling Forward

Originally published in Yoga International (August 2002)


I fall forward. My body folds into a yoga pose with an indecipherable name. I settle down into the earth and leave the busy world behind. My nose nestles toward my knees and my mind sinks into the dark of night, into unknown and mysterious lands. I begin to feel calm and still, cool and humble, wet and clear. And finally, fully breathable.

When I emerge from this forward bend, I feel refreshed. I am taller and more spacious. I am balanced and unruffled. My body feels anchored in a peaceful oasis of goodness and ease. And my brain feels rinsed clean, as it would on a quiet summer afternoon with no big plan ahead. I feel faithful and well nourished.

It’s no wonder we bow forward in devotion and thanksgiving.

And it's no wonder I've recently come to love the way I feel when falling into forward bends like paschimottanasana, settling my legs deep into the ground, challenging them to be alert yet at ease. I love the way my body briefly flies up when I move into the pose, as if wondering whether to arc backward before deciding to dive forward instead. I even love that first pull of resistance that always surprises me (I could go farther than this yesterday) and the brief flash of ambition that urges me to push hard, go far, bury my nose deeper than it’s ever gone before.

And then comes the whisper that less is more, that slow is sweet, that patience is well rewarded. Then that gentle give that lets the clingy parts inside release so I can melt a little farther. Most of all, I love disappearing altogether in this little nest of a pose, settling into that same oasis of calm and peace that must lie at the heart of the whole wide world.

I’ve fallen into forward bends through the back door. Generally I like mountaintops and thick coffee and electrifying sunrises full of possibility. Neither my body nor my brain stays still for long, and I thrive on challenge and effort.

It’s probably no surprise then, that I’m captivated by exotic and sky-shifting backbends. So entranced, in fact, that a few years ago I asked my fiercest yoga teacher if it was possible to do too many backbends. "For you," he proclaimed, "Four days of forward bends a week!"

I’m not one to follow instructions blindly – especially ones I don’t particularly like – so I didn’t exactly dive headlong into his forward bending prescription. But after mustering up the courage to try our his advice, I learned that his advice was wise and true.

If backbends are fireworks – big and expansive and attention grabbing – then forward bends are those clean and quiet moments when the spring rain has passed and freshness lingers on. They demand flexibility and freedom. They also require tremendous reserves of patience, perseverance and humility. They’re the antithesis of being active, bold, caffeinated and extroverted.

Forward bends are all about going back. Back inside. Back to the beginning. Back to the night, to our roots. And back to the oft-neglected lands inside that only make themselves known with calm and patient attention. There’s a quieter, more soulful presence that evolves from this way of being. A quietness that comes from being arced and rolled, softened and nurtured deep within the curl of a long and lovely forward bend. 

Lately I’ve found myself sprawled out on my sticky mat, pouring through yoga books like a world traveler plotting the next forward-bending expedition. Some poses call out for no apparent reason, even ones I’ve never seen before. Guided by a photo in a book, I find my way into akarna dhanurasana, which really does feel like its name: an arrow pulled back tautly in its bow and ready to be launched across the landscape.

I've also made friends with kurmasana, the turtle pose, which some texts say is sacred to a yogi for the feeling it evokes of having awakened from a deep and blissful sleep. And I’m drawn to the rather daunting pose chakorasana, just because it’s named after a mythical partridge that feeds on moonbeams. I see these amazing shapes and my body yearns to transmute itself into a spider, a cricket, a bird, a primordial creature oozing across the oceans of the world. 

Some days my forward bends are as quiet as a windless pond, as still as unmoved earth. I do nothing but settle in. As I do, I grow aware of the quiet throttle of my inner motor – like the little engine that could, never stopping, never resting. But after a few minutes, my energetic gears begin to shift and settle quietly into neutral. Thankfulness descends and I idle happily for a while. 

Other days my forward bends crave movement. I inhale and my belly rolls up, picking my back up with it. I exhale and my belly surges forward in a deeply satisfying pulse. This action continues, guided by my breath, until my spine becomes as fluid as the waves rolling down the beach. I bob and soar and sink and roll, as my torso sails unfathomably forward. Yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli once wrote, "There is such happiness in this undulation!" 

Here’s my recent favorite recipe for falling forward: Start out in the most supported child’s pose imaginable, with the whole torso – from hips to head – supported on a pile of blankets, arms and legs dangling toward the floor like Tarzan’s vines hanging from the trees. Rest here for several minutes, until you can tear yourself from the quiet safety of this pose. Then slide your hips off the bolster, rearrange the legs into upavista konasana and rest the upper body on the support before you. Nestle a few beanbags underneath your belly, heart and forehead, so these vital energetic centers can release completely. 

Then let go. Breathe, settle, surrender into that same deep peace you feel after a week at the beach with not a care in the world. Your front body relaxes in ways that seem unfathomable when holding your head up high. And the chain of armor inside your chest -- that part of me lifts and hardens and strains to say, "I am here!" – begins to quietly erode. 

After a moment or two, slip one blanket out from under you, slowly sliding the torso a little closer to the floor. Every few minutes repeat this, allowing your bolster to grow smaller as your body melts farther into the pose. At some point along the way, watch your breath begin to arise from a deeper and more primal place, giving way to long and gentle waves of exhalation. Stay and enjoy this quiet peace for as long as you are able.

As I’ve been falling forward, I’ve begun to see more clearly the relationship between will and surrender, between effort and release, between pose and repose, between change and acceptance. My body has found new and quieter ways of being in the world. I’ve gotten a little better at waiting, at letting go of the reins I sometimes cling to so fiercely, and letting things blossom in their own remarkable way. Lately I've been just a little more content to settle in and watch the passing show. 

And as I’ve been falling forward, I’ve begun to wonder whether enlightenment may just be the simplicity that comes with letting go of melodrama. When I'm deep within a forward fold I can sometimes see the wild fantasies swirling up inside of me, grasping and groping to pull me off my mark. When I’m patient and courageous I can outwait these deluded dramas until they drop away completely and I begin to see life as it really is, here and now, fresh and unimpeded. Breath by breath, falling forward returns me to that state of "bare attention" the Buddhists love so much -- simply attending to the raw and wonderful ingredients of the moment. Often we need less, not more.

Forward bends, I’ve learned, can be tenacious, for even when I run away they make their presence known. Some days I wake up and can't bear their quiet intensity, so I head off into an eager parade of backbends instead. There I’ll be, diving blissfully back, and from inside I’ll hear a whisper, "forward, falling forward." Suddenly I’ll remember that at the heart of the richest backbend lies the essence of a forward fold, just like the yin within the yang. And with this, my backbend takes on a more internal tone, one that keeps me grounded here on earth even as my heart soars high. 

So perhaps forward bends help us remember the middle way. They help us see that life moves forward as well as back, that endless running in one direction may be the easier solution, but it’s not often the wisest or most healthy. They help us see that sitting still, quiet and undisturbed, can be as interesting and rich as facing big-bang epiphanies, and that surrender sometimes tastes even sweeter than will. 

I love the idea that yoga is about equanimity, that we’re seeking not the extremes but the middle way. That yoga is about finding a calm and clear home inside and staying rooted there regardless of the passing outer weather. That yoga is about having the wisdom to see what we need and having the courage to seek it.

Sometimes we need just the opposite of what we think. And sometimes the path winds deep into unexplored territories in ways we never could imagine, merely to lead us happily back home.

~~~