The Urban Yoga Den

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Gratitude, Pt. 1: Contentment, or, Samtosha November 8, 2011

I’ve gained 10 pounds over the past 3 months.

There are some very tangible reasons why.  My summer camp gig – during which, over a period of six weeks, I teach 90 Asana classes and 120 percussion lessons, and, run up and down the school’s stairs 100s of times – ended the first week in August.  The last week in August I gave up teaching three of my regular weekly classes – and although I don’t practice all the Asana during class, I do join in for the warm-up Sun Salutations and many of the poses.  And in September, I quit my part-time Florist job – for which I lifted dozens of buckets of water, chopped box after box of flower bunches, and climbed various steps with said buckets and flowers in-tow.  So my level of vigorous activity decreased immensely for most of September and all of October.

“Why,” you might ask, “didn’t you simply switch out your activities…attend more yoga classes…jog…take up fencing?”

Because there are less tangible but more important reasons why I gained 10 pounds.  I was busy getting comfortable with my Self.  Yup.  I was so busy climbing my way out of a major depression, re-gaining my emotional footing, digging deep to rebuild my inner strength and flying high with new truths, that I forgot to exercise my body.  And you know what?  I am OK with this.

In yoga, this might be called “Samtosha,” or, contentment.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer a design for living called the Eight Limbs.  According to this ancient text, the primary purpose of yoga is to still the mind’s disturbances.  So the eight-step process calms the mind and leads to discriminative discernment, wisdom, and/or, enlightenment.  The process includes the Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and other popular practices from contemporary yoga classes.  But the initial two limbs, seldom taught in our studios and gyms, present ethical or ideological considerations called Yama (Abstinence) and Niyama (Observance).

In his commentary on the Sutras, Swami Satchidananda says, “[The Yama and Niyama] are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting.”  To me this means that virtue comes before Asana, before Pranayama – before any of the widely familiar practices that I might know as “Yoga.”  It’s an inside job.  Or as my friend likes to tell her students, “Yoga is not a workout – it’s a work in.”

Samtosha/contentment is one of the Niyama.  If I am content, “It is what it is” becomes my mantra.  If I am content, I accept everything just as it is.  If I am content, I have no expectations.  If I am content, dissatisfaction, disappointment and discomfort fade to the background.  If I am content, I am certainly moving toward that inner peace promised in the eight limb.

Further, Swami Satchidananda claims, “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”  And Swami Vivekananda’s promises, “From contentment comes superlative happiness.”  So why beat myself up over 10 extra pounds?  It is what it is.  I’d rather feel supreme joy and superlative happiness than extreme self loathing.  My jeans feel too tight, my muffin-top runneth over, and, yoga classes are kicking my butt.  It’s humbling.  But it’s right where I want to be.  Because it’s the only place I can be.  Accepting the here and now.  Here.  And.  Now.

Y’know what else helps me accept where I am at this moment?  Remembering that I’ve gained much more than 10 pounds over the past three months.  I am grateful for every moment of that journey – from the darkness of despair to the celebration when light returned.  I’ve discovered and embraced new ideals that define me.  I’ve strengthened my purpose and priorities.  I’ve found deep faith and liberating surrender.  I’ve encircled myself with teachers of all guises.  I’ve rebuilt trust.  I’ve come to understand that the darkness itself can hold shining gems of enlightenment.

So basically…I gave up my 125-pound body for a weightless peace of mind.

Yoga teacher Max Strom recently wrote, “When gratitude fills the dark heart with love and humility, the heart becomes illuminated.”  He continues, reminding us to practice focusing on something that will inevitably bring a feeling of gratitude, “…to transform your state from a living hell, to a state of living contentment.”

Hell yeah.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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Monthly Focus: November – Gratitude November 23, 2010

Today I feel really, really lucky.

The amount of joy that I get to experience throughout the days is beyond what I might have imagined years ago, when I was stuck in shadows and pain. I dare say, life IS a bowl of cherries – sweet fruit, crunchy pits and all! And because of this intention toward accepting life’s sweetness and crunchiness (a form of Santosha, contentment), my potential for moving through challenges and toward celebrations is greater than ever. I don’t have to be stuck anywhere anymore.

Today I have choices.

This past weekend I tripped and fell and hurt myself – and I see the event as a parallel for my figurative stumbles along life’s path. I get to choose my attitude about that occurrence. I get to choose my reactions and actions. I get to choose whether I will be angry or self-pitying or embarrassed…or, whether I will be concerned and aware and ask for help. I get to choose solutions from a toolbox that has evolved from previous stumbles. And gratefully, I have the opportunity to grow along the journey.

Pratipaksha Bhavana! I resolve to focus on the positive!

I look forward to a true Thanksgiving this year. In the spirit of November trends, I’ve chosen “Gratitude” for our November class focus. It’s been great exploring the theme so far, with uplifting Vinyasa, heart openers and a celebratory energy. We’ve dedicated practices to our appreciation for beings, things and situations.

We’ve even asked ourselves: Can we be grateful for the sweet fruit and the crunchy pits? How about those beings, things and situations that challenge us and make us uncomfortable? What if we saw all as opportunities for growth?

I can easily be thankful for the obvious – health, a roof over my head, teachers, work opportunities, community and so on. When unexpected or even unwanted people or situations affect me negatively, I try (try) to remember that everything is just as it’s meant to be in that moment. There is so much beyond my immediate perception that has caused that interaction; and the range and expansiveness of chain reactions from that interaction will be way beyond my comprehension and knowledge.

In other words, more will be revealed.

This is why I feel so lucky! Yoga teaches me that in a challenging pose, on the mat, I can use breath, intention, alignment cues and more to enhance courage, acceptance and ease. I don’t have to run away from the pose; I don’t have to resent my teacher; I don’t have to suffer. If I stay present with the discomfort, more will be revealed – in some cases, quite literally, I will eventually feel the physical benefits of that particular pose. In other cases, figuratively, the psychological benefits of surrendering to and finding gratitude for the challenge will become obvious.

I am not perfect at this! Coming out of a pose at times simply shows my humanness – and I can practice Santosha toward that beauty, as well. Gratitude for and contentment with my perfectly human imperfection.

Now I’m rambling. As last year, I will end this monthly focus post with a gratitude list. I invite you to join me in the tradition and appreciate the sweet fruit and crunchy pits that grace your bowl of cherries!

OM Shanti.

GRATITUDE LIST – MONDAY, 22 NOVEMBER, 2010
1. Teachers in all guises – ankle-biters, button pushers, mirrors, opposites, soul mates, wise ones, allies and on.
2. Talented, generous and attentive healers and doctors.
3. All spiritual programs, traditions and resources.
4. Opportunities for growth in all forms. Really. Hindsight is 20-20.
5. The CDs that friends loan to introduce me to new music.
6. Music, yoga, baseball, natural health and cuisine. Having passions.
7. Fusing cultures and traditions of devotion, love and spirit – i.e. Bomba Kirtan!
8. Those that lead the way. Elders in age and/or years of experience.
9. Opportunities to teach, mentor and learn from children.
10. My family – of origin and of communities.
11. Second, third, hundredth chances.
12. Infinite beauty and generous gifts of nature.
13. Life, love, higher power.
14. So, so much more – i.e. bedtime. Good night!

(Bowl of Cherries painting by Midwest artist Penelope – http://penelope.mosaicglobe.com/)