* * *
There’s some drilling or sanding or sawing going on in one of the apartments beneath me; and it’s piercing enough to make my skull feel like there’s a dentist office in its core.
I’m using all of my yoga tools to navigate this minor annoyance. Slowing my breathing into three parts through the nostrils; listening to the whisper of each inhale and exhale; releasing the tension in my jaw with each breath out. I’m also tapping into the Somatic Experiencing Therapy practices I’ve learned in my PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) treatment. Softly focusing my eyes on the room around me, feeling the contact of both feet on the floor, observing sensations in my body.
PTSD exercises to address some bothersome construction noise? Well, yes – because before this morning’s noise came last week’s bad news. And I’ve been in and out of my body ever since. Trauma includes experiencing, witnessing and/or absorbing violation or shock. Responses to trauma vary, and can include physical pain and dissociation. So last week, when I was blindsided by some tough news about a loved one’s hardship, my body tightened to the point of deep pain. And I checked out. I checked out of my body. (This response, BTW, can happen to anyone, not just trauma survivors.)
Since last week, I’ve jumped into action to respond to the situation, and, I’ve committed to a healthy amount of self-care for stress relief. Still, there are times when small annoyances – such as unexpected and seemingly endless piercing noises – can increase stress and consequently trigger the physical check out.
Hence the yoga and Somatic practices in response to this morning’s noise. Because I need to feel my fingers in order to type.
* * *
“Murdha jyotishi siddha darsanam.”
Aphorism III.33 in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of yoga’s primary ancient guides) describes a light at the crown of the skull, which – after steady practice of concentration and meditation, and, a consequent liberation of the mind – illuminates great knowledge, lessons, teachers, masters.
I’d prefer to have a light in my skull than the sensation of a dentist’s drilling! Thus the importance, for me, of practicing yoga’s Eight Limbs, and, including Chakra-based Hatha Yoga exercises. Beyond the instant gratification of simply getting on a mat and moving my body, Chakra work and the Limbs offer me long-term solutions for life off the mat.
As described above, through the practices of Dharana (the 6th limb, concentration) and Dhyana (7, meditation), we can reach Samadhi (8, liberation). Clearly, though, there are five limbs before these final three. I believe that when the Eight Limbs are practiced in order – either within one session of yoga practice, or, as applied to specific life situations – they become a journey from the basic human condition of challenge, distraction and frustration to the liberated state of enjoying an easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.
The first two limbs have nothing to do with the physical exercise that most consider as “yoga.” The Yama (1, things to abstain from) and Niyama (2, things to practice more of) invite us to consider values-based or ethical intentions. Only then, after setting intentions for how we want to behave toward ourselves and others, do we step into Asana (3, poses). Once the foundational bodily systems – the digestion; the organs; the nerves; the joints and muscles; and everything in between – are stimulated, balanced and strengthened through physical exercise, the body presents fewer obstacles to mental focus. In addition, after Asana, our lungs are primed for Pranayama (4, breath regulation), which connects our physical attunement to our ability to concentrate. There are many forms of Pranayama, and they are all designed to decrease distractions such as emotional imbalance (anxiety, anger, etc.), environmental discomfort (heat, cold), and even fatigue.
Through Asana and Pranayama – or, Hatha Yoga – the Chakras can be activated. Chakra work is part of Ayurveda, India’s traditional medical system. Loosely described, Chakras are energy centers throughout the body, which affect our physical and psychological functions and well being. In yoga, we primarily explore seven Chakras along the top half of the body, from the tailbone to the peak of the skull. As with the Limbs, I believe that our Chakra work is progressive – through poses and breath work, we initially activate the energy at the base of the spine, and then make efforts to raise that vibration to the crown of the head. In the first three Chakras, we visit our basic foundations of origins (tailbone), connections (sacrum) and identity (belly). In the next three Chakras, we ascend through our higher centers of passion (heart), expression (throat) and intuition (forehead). The crown Chakra represents an energy of great clarity and illumination.
This is an extremely simplified description of the Chakras. Chakra work also includes Ayurvedic diet, “Kriyas” and many related practices, and, would take an entirely separate blog (and much additional study) to describe. I highly recommend attending Chakra-focused classes and workshops to learn more and feel the profound affects of using poses and breath work to become physically and emotionally balanced.
Getting back to the Eight Limbs – Pratyahara (5, senses regulation) comes prior to the aforementioned trifecta of Dharana/Dhyana/Samadhi (6, 7 & 8), takes many forms of practice and addresses sensitivity to external distraction. So, by the time we reach Dharana, we have deliberately pointed the mind, awakened the body and shaped the breath toward intention; the senses have softened; and concentration can deepen. When our single-pointed focus deepens to the point where we no longer concentrate on something, but actually experience it, we have crossed the line to Dhyana. For example, when silently repeating a word or mantra, such as “Peace” or “Shanti,” at some point, the meditator may actually begin to feel peaceful.
Ahhh, the 8th Limb…Samadhi. My favorite way for describing Samadhi, or, liberation, is to compare it to “The Zone.” When an athlete is “in The Zone,” she has finely-tuned her practice with such resolute intention and action that she no longer has to think about her feet, her arms, her technique, her pace, the goal post, the plate, etc. When in The Zone, she becomes one with her purpose and easily flows toward it.
The Patanjali’s Sutras prescribe practicing yoga much like a disciplined athlete prepares to perform – consistently, over a long period of time and with total earnestness. As we say in addiction recovery programs, the steps are in order for a reason – and so are the limbs and the Chakras. We grow through each; we take two steps forward and one step back; and if we have an issue with one limb/Chakra, we can retreat to the previous for its wisdom and strength.
* * *
I just spent the month of May digging into our class focus on “Light,” and exploring Sutra III.33 and the Chakras. The timing was perfect. Because when I got punched in the gut by bad news last week, although initially rocketed into anxiety and worry, I was able to navigate toward solution and action. I posted a vague update on Facebook and then stayed off for a day. I drew upon all of my healthiest resources (which, due to my history of trauma, extend way beyond yoga alone) and was able to – despite extreme stress – show up for life.
The evening after receiving the news, I jumped onto Facebook to check in…
“Hello out there. I am hopping onto FB to thank everyone for responding to last night’s post with messages, texts, comments and calls. I feel your support, care and love.
Last night I received blindsiding news about a serious situation in a dear one’s life. It is not a health situation; it is, however, a very private situation. And it will demand a lot of my energy, immediately and over the coming months.
“Yoga, Judaism, addiction recovery, spirituality, mindfulness, intentional living…thankfully, all of these wonderful influences fuel me with everything I need to get through any situation. And I feel comforted to know that, if I run out of fuel, the community that has emerged from my life circles will lend me some of theirs. I am so, so grateful.
“You are probably familiar with the airlines’ brilliant philosophy to ‘put your own mask on before attempting to help those around you.’ I am taking action toward simplification, fortification and self-care. For example, a visit to the chiropractor and a heart-opening practice with my teacher got me back into my body this morning. Plus, I ditched my current Ayurvedic cleanse/New Moon fast plans and am diving into healthy sustenance…ok…and some comfort food…! And sadly, I had to cancel/postpone some of my volunteer projects; but I am still hoping to serve in simple ways. Because being of service not only supports others – when I am struggling, it truly strengthens me.
“I am neck-deep in calls and e-mails and action about this situation; so please forgive me if I haven’t responded to your messages. Again, thank you for reaching out. I will reach back as soon as I can, because I treasure you and want to connect. Sending so much love. OM Shanti.”
* * *
Approaching yoga through the Eight-Limbed journey – particularly when we reach Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi – we are promised an “everyday enlightenment.” Through consistent focus on, attention to and respect for the Eight Limbs and constant awareness of Chakra energy, I’ve enjoyed longer and longer periods of union with my highest values, therefore supporting sustained ease, peace and service.
I aim to access that light at the crown of my skull, not for the sake of being higher or better or separate from other yogis or beings, rather, in order to find my teachers, discover my lessons, deepen my knowledge and work toward mastering my craft of living life on life’s terms. For me, the teachers have appeared in many different forms – including tough experiences. Phew! Thank goodness, after a long life of hardships, I became willing to learn; and I have discovered a valuable lesson from every challenge. Over time, I have learned how to apply yoga, related resources and an eclectic toolbox to address all of life’s annoyances, traumas and tough news.
Today, I can walk lightly despite very heavy realities. And may you, as well. OM Shanti.
* * *
“Lead me from that which is false, dark and temporary to that which is true, light and everlasting.” ~ Hindu Prayer
“I stood in the sunlight at last.” ~ Bill Wilson, Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” ~ John 1:5
“Blessed are You, LORD, Who creates the lights of the fire.” ~ Jewish Prayer
“May the light of truth overcome all the darkness.” ~ Integral Yoga Prayer