The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Peace Tools: Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha & Gratitude June 18, 2012

Filed under: Inspiration,Philosophy,Spirituality — Holly Meyers @ 6:54 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

For the final quarter of my 100-day exploration of Ahimsa (for a brief background, see “The Roots of ‘Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention’” at the bottom of this page), I am compiling my favorite Peace Tools – fail-safe practices for cultivating a reliable inner peace, which leads to a serene life and accountability to others.

* * *

Thank god for great teachers.

I got my butt kicked yesterday morning in an Intermediate Vinyasa class.  Well, admittedly, I often get my butt, hips and thighs kicked in this teacher’s classes!  (But it’s a sweet, Ahimsa-like kick.)

Today, however, the real smacker was when the teacher told a story about wanting something she didn’t have.  She was feeling stressed by being without this particular thing (a typical modern household convenience item); and she believed her stress would be relieved if she had this thing.  Life, in general, would be better.  Then, someone close to her pointed out that if she had that thing, she would inevitably be challenged by its related stresses and difficulties.  And, this someone added, there are places where they don’t even have access to such a luxury, and where they make out just fine.

Thank god for great teachers – in the form of those certain someones who bring perspective.

Perspective can bubble up from many sources.  If I am willing to hear it, I can use perspective to practice “Pratipaksha Bhavana” (replacement of negative thoughts with positive ones) and “Samtosha” (contentment).  And, if I really want to live the concept “Ahimsa” (non-harming) and cultivate inner peace, I can carry my positive thought and contentment a step further to practice “Gratitude” (gratitude).

Because by allowing myself to stew in negativity and malcontent, I am harming myself.  When I harm myself, I am far from peace.  And when I am far from peace, I am closer to harming others.

*  *  *

Sunday morning, when my yoga teacher told her story in class, I immediately thought about my long period without full-time employment, the related fear and stress (which has come to quite a head lately), and, my frequently repeated statement of: “If only I had a job, everything would be better.”

Would it?  I can attest to the harmful wear-and-tear of being in the wrong work situation – whether it’s being underpaid, overworked, over-ego-fed, physically strained, sexually harassed, verbally abused or mis-matched in any way – and how that discomfort can negatively affect everything in my life.  So the last thing I want is to desperately jump into any ol’ job.

In addition, having the “right” job can also add stress to life.  Less free time.  More suits.  New relationships.  Office politics.  And so on.  “Everything would be better” is inaccurate after all.

Still, being without a full-time job over the long-term is a seriously challenging state.  I don’t simply “want what I don’t have” – on a fundamental, life-sustaining level, I actually don’t have what I need.  So how do I nurture inner peace when the justifiable anxiety of  “If only I had a job…” pops into my mind?  What is the antidote?

Pratipaksha Bhavana.

In his book “Raja Yoga,” Swami Vivekananda explains, “When thoughts obstructive to yoga arise, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  In simpler terms, when my inner peace is rattled, I can restore serenity by replacing negative beliefs with positive thoughts.  This is Pratipaksha Bhavana, which is mentioned Book Two of the Yoga Sutras.

This doesn’t mean replacing “If only I had a job…” with “If only I had a financially sustaining job that enhances my emotional, physical and spiritual well-being and complements my lifestyle…”  Because the fact is, even if I had this supposedly ideal thing, there is still no guarantee that “everything would be better.”

The only true, guaranteed, peace-inducing contrary to “If only I had a job…” is “I have a job.”

Bingo!  I have a job!  In fact, I have many jobs – some with traditional paychecks; some with other types of “payment.”  I teach yoga part-time; I manage a yoga studio part-time; and each year I teach percussion and yoga full-time at a summer camp.  I was recently invited to guide Latin dancing lessons for a group of school kids because of my background in Hispanic culture.  I sometimes accompany great songwriters on tours and gigs.  And because of my music and yoga background, I am invited to play Kirtan.  I play volunteer roles in my community, and I play supportive roles in my family.  I could not ask for more wonderful jobs.  I get paid to pass on the beautiful teachings of yoga.  I get paid to contribute to a yoga business’s well-being.  I get paid to facilitate youth’s arts education.  I get paid to play music.  And I have the opportunity to be of service in many ways.  Through these “jobs,” I receive more than money.  I enjoy unlimited, much-needed, free yoga classes where I teach.  I feel the satisfaction of using my operational skills at the studio.  I get to hang around kids eight hours a day for the six weeks of summer camp.  I get to work alongside amazingly talented musicians.  My yoga and music communities are strong and the circles are widening.  I enjoy true friendships.  Overall, I receive immense “compensation” being involved with yoga, music and youth.

A life of this much purpose and passion certainly can sustain me through tough times…when I focus on the positive.

*  *  *

“If only…” in itself is a negative belief.   When I walk around thinking that everything would be better “if only this or that,” I am existing in illusion.  I am negating the worth of the present moment.  And I am living in complete malcontent.  What is the ultimate remedy for the “If only…” plague?

Samtosha.

Instead of thinking “If only…”, I aim to embrace whatever is directly in front of me as my path, my work, my opportunity.  Life is exactly as it should be, right now, with all its struggles and surprises and ups and downs.  Now is all I have.  So why not accept what currently exists and choose to be content?  And this is Samtosha – being at peace with whatever exists at this very moment.

Can I be content with my nearly jobless, penniless existence?  And if so, how do I get there?

For me, contentment requires a blend of footwork, surrender, acceptance and faith.  Footwork means I am proactive to my best ability.  Surrender means I acknowledge how much is beyond my control.  Acceptance means I embrace all outcomes.  And faith means I believe that I will be OK no matter what.  Inevitably, when I practice this combo, I feel content.

For example, in my work search, I must take appropriate action by applying for jobs that make sense for my long-term goals and sustainability.  After I make these efforts, I must remember that there are way too many factors that figure into these scenarios, and therefore completely let go of the results.  I must accept any news without getting stuck in pride, disappointment or resignation.  And when the news is bad, I must believe that there is something worth waiting for – and what helps most here is remembering exactly how big the “Big Picture” is.

“As a result of contentment, one gains supreme joy,” Swami Satchidananda says of Samtosha, in his exploration of the Yoga Sutras.  Who could ask for anything more?

*  *  *

Practicing Pratipaksha Bhavana and Samtosha, I can be positive and accepting instead of negative and wanting.  Usually.  But can I gain “supreme joy” and true serenity?

The truth is, most days I am still trying to shake off the nagging belief that I might never have what I need; that stability and security are impossible; that I am destined to die homeless, jobless and penniless in a gutter.  Those days, more than any others, it is imperative that I practice Pratipaksha Bhavana and Samtosha, and that I take the extra step of doing a Gratitude List.

Monday, 18 June, 2012 – I am grateful for…

  • Part-time work that I absolutely love.
  • Talents, education and experience to lend to new jobs.
  • The “umph” to keep on keepin’-on despite challenges.
  • Free yoga where I teach.
  • Living in a city with many free activities.
  • Friends who treat me to baseball games so I can relax.
  • A caring circle of family, friends and community.
  • My mom’s and dad’s inspirational work ethic.
  • My dad’s unending encouragement, confidence and support.
  • My sister’s love, understanding, advice and periodic butt-kickings.
  • Beautiful spring/summer weather.
  • Living near Rock Creek Park for hiking.
  • A lifetime of tools and resources for trudging this road – and the willingness to use them.
  • So, so much more.

I am truly lucky to have so much.  I may not have everything I need, but I do have a lot.  And when I reinforce appreciation, the self-pity dissolves, the worry of paying the bills decreases, the fear of becoming homeless disappears, the anxiety of the unknown dissipates.

When I practice Gratitude, I can actually forget what the problem is…I can relax…I can smile!

*  *  *

It’s a lot of work to manage and reduce stress.  Why do I do any of this?

The concepts of Pratipaksha Bhavana, Samtosha and Gratitude do not change the fact that, month-after-month, I wonder whether I’ll be able to pay my rent.  That stressful reality definitely exists.  But as practices, they can change my state of mind during these challenging times.  Instead of dwelling in worry, fear and anxiety – when I am willing to hear perspective and embrace these practices – I can dwell in presence, hope and joy.  Instead of harboring self-harming thoughts, I can enjoy inner peace.  And I can share that peace with all around me.

Ahimsa Now!

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

*  *  *

The Roots of “Ahimsa Now: 100 Days of Intention”

“Ahimsa” is a Sanskrit word meaning, “Avoidance of Violence.”  It is mentioned in many ancient texts, including the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms handed down by yogic sage Patanjali approximately 5- to 7-thousand years ago.  In the Sutras, Ahimsa is one of the “Yama” – five recommended abstentions, or rules of conduct rooted in abstinence.  The five Yama comprise the first limb of Patanjali’s prescribed Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Avoidance of something takes great effort.  And if violence were not naturally inherent in human beings, we wouldn’t have to try to avoid it.  So, dreaming of launching “Ahimsa Now” – a nonprofit whose mission is rooted in Ahimsa – my responsibility is to come to understand the human impulse toward violence, and, to explore every available practice that impedes that impulse.

So from April 5 through July 13, 2012, I am committing to a 100-day exploration of Ahimsa.  Thanks for coming along.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali March 8, 2011

“If I wasn’t making some people uncomfortable, I wouldn’t be doing anything important.” – Justine Siegel, 1st woman to throw batting practice for Major League Baseball and founder of “Baseball for All”

I didn’t plan to write this today.  I have cleaning to do, laundry to fold, breakfast to cook.  But I feel compelled.  Plus, I’m behind on my blogging and have to wrap up our February focus!  Here goes…

A yoga class is definitely NOT the place I go when I need to control things.

But it used to be.  When I was feeling icky, I went to class to feel held, comforted, fixed.  When I was feeling great, I went to class to celebrate, connect, thrive.  I needed to feel that I was in control of my feelings, my well-being, my state.  Therefore, I had expectations on the teacher, the students, the staff, the atmosphere.  I had expectations on yoga.  And guess what.  Surprise, surprise – my needs were not always met. I sometimes spent an entire class in resentment, disappointment and/or frustration.  I sometimes wanted to leave class.  For some reason, I never did (as far as I remember).

Something held me there.  And I kept coming back.

Over the years of attending many, many classes, I have come to realize that on a very tangible level, there are too many uncontrollable factors in a yoga class for me to predict any kind of outcome.  There is the teacher’s style, the teacher’s voice, the teacher’s class format, the teacher’s class theme, the teacher’s background, the teacher’s teachers.  There is the teacher’s music choices, lighting choices, air temperature choices.  And so on.  And then there are the students – sometimes hundreds of them if during a workshop – with their varying energies, moods, needs, backgrounds, strengths, challenges.

A yoga class is a room full of humanness.

Also over the years, on a spiritual level, I started to realize that a yoga class is exactly where I need to go IF I am feeling like controlling things – it is the best venue to practice surrender, willingness and acceptance.  It is a great place to practice self-inquiry, compassion, patience.  It offers the beautiful opportunity to respond to, learn from, and be shaped by whatever happens, whatever comes up, whatever is.

A yoga class is a place to grow.

And that, my friends, is why I so lovingly embrace The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – particularly the five aphorisms that we explored during our February class focus.  If I did not infuse my personal yoga practice with the philosophical, ideological and ethical ideas of the Sutras, I would still be stuck in resentment, still pissed off at whomever rattled me, still personally offended by whatever someone said or did – and I’m talking on AND off the mat.

A yoga class is my chance to develop spiritually.

I honor you, noble students, for so fearlessly taking on Patanjali’s wisdom; for writing to and confiding in me with comments and questions, frustrations and celebrations, concerns and realizations; and for sharing your teachings with me.  You are beautifully human.  We are beautifully human.

Over the past month, we looked at five Sutras as tools for experiencing yoga on and off the mat.  We began with Sutra 1.2, “Yogas Cittas Vritti Nrodhah” – yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.  I like to think of Sutra 1.2 as the 1st “promise” of many in this ancient text.  Here in book one, we learn that although yoga can open our hips and heal our asthma, its primary purpose is to cultivate a peaceful mind. During our classes we made decisions regarding Asana choices based on cultivating and sustaining this peace.  When faced with challenge, we weighed out the options and consequences of seizing that challenge or easing off.

Next we explored the practice of “Pratipaksha Bhavana,” described in Sutra 2.33 as the replacement of negative or obstructive thoughts with positive or opposite ideas.  Here we realized that we cannot replace reality with something opposite – we recognize that our practice (and life) might bring difficulty.  But by sustaining a positive mind through the challenge (i.e. dwelling on a pose’s benefits, concentrating on life-giving breath or focusing deeply on Sankalpa or intention), we can maintain our peace of mind and face troubles gracefully.

With this practical tool in hand, we backtracked to Sutra 1.33, which suggests that we cultivate certain attitudes toward certain types of people – or toward certain types of states within ourselves.  To summarize this complex aphorism (explored more deeply in the last most, “Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder), we are encouraged to befriend happy people (or states), have compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.  A tough order at times; but all for the sake of that ever-serene mind.

After all this hard work of self-witnessing and shaping the mind toward peace, we wrapped up the month with two of Patanjali’s most comforting statements (in my opinion).  Sutra 2.46, “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” (Asana is a steady, comfortable position.) and the promise of all promises, Sutra 2.16, “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” (Future pain will be prevented.)  If I practice yoga as prescribed by the Yoga Sutras, I learn that I have permission to express each pose with a balance of effort AND ease, steadiness AND comfort.  And one of the most relieving results of practicing in this way is the prevention of future pain – physical and otherwise.

Beyond the mat, how did this all pan out?  Did the Sutras inform your every day life? From some of your feedback, I know you sought to use the tools, but admitted they escaped you at the most important times.  I heard that they helped you respond compassionately to angry drivers.  I heard that coming to class gave you the tools to navigate tough interpersonal situations (I’m cleaning up the language, here!).  I heard appreciation for the Sutras’ promises and affects in general.

I know for me, as soon as I select a theme to teach, I start hitting all sorts of wonderful “trials” in daily life to test out my tools and learn some new lessons!  It’s been an intense – and intensely lesson-filled – few weeks.  In terms of the quote above from my new Karma Yogini heroine (who probably does not know what Karma Yoga is), Justine Siegel, if I weren’t feeling some kind of discomfort, probably nothing important is happening in my life.  And thanks to the Yoga Sutras and other spiritual practices and resources, discomfort yields growth.

Which to me, is important.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali February 9, 2011

At Yogaville, where all dorm rooms have a copy (or two) of Satchidananda's commentary on The Yoga Sutras.

From the title of this blog, one might think:

  • “Wow, Holly’s really going for it this time.”
  • “She’s taking on the ancient text of Yoga (with a capital “Y”)!”
  • “How in the world will we cover four books of aphorisms in one month?”
  • “Who does Holly think she is, teaching the Sutras?”

Hahahahaha!  Believe me, gang, I know better.

For February, our monthly focus is, indeed, the Yoga Sutras. Because without the Yoga Sutras, I wouldn’t be teaching yoga classes.  I wouldn’t have known how to guide you through the basics of Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa that we reviewed in January.  Heck, I wouldn’t even know what those things were without the Yoga Sutras.  In my estimate, without the Yoga Sutras, none of us would be enjoying yoga as we do today.

Then again, who knows?

I’m open to other POVs.  But I can only teach from mine!  I will admit (because my M.O. is “nothing to hide”) that my knowledge of the Sutras focuses on the practical portions we studied at my Integral Yoga Hatha Teacher Training in 2008.  Like any other studied text, there are parts of the Sutras that are ingrained in my brain – and I quote them the way some people quote one-liners from movies.

Specifically, five Sutras rocked my world when I first learned about them; and they continue to serve as essential tools for living yoga on and off the mat. This is our February focus.

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vritti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced this at the end of a luscious Asana and Pranayama class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  What I love most about this promise is – I don’t have to do it.  I don’t have to force my mind to be undisturbed; I don’t have to change uncomfortable thoughts; I don’t have to force positivity to replace negativity; I don’t have to effort anything.  Yoga will take care of all of this.  I do the footwork (practice yoga); and the rest will fall into place.

So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: through yoga, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana class to restrain disturbances of my mind.  If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy.  Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity.  I’ve told this story before; here it is again.  My dearly departed Uncle Bill (revered in my April 2010 “Oh Death” post) was the king of replacing negative with positive.  I remember one conversation in particular.  I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams.  I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while.  As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee accent and gentle churchgoer’s faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials.  Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!”  And you know what?  Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my smallest intentions and greater dreams have been realized!

Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!  Wondering where/when you can use this tool?  Read on.

3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS

To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One.  Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous.  To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.”  In his commentary on Patanjali’s Sutras, Swami Satchidananda advises: “These four keys should always be with you in your pocket.  If you use the right key with the right person you will retain your peace.  Nothing in the world can upset you then.”  Another lovely promise.

Life has offered me unique opportunities to test this Sutra.  To read my personal experience about using compassionate detachment to understand and find peace with the violence of murder, please see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post.

Yoga can offer relief beyond belief.  It has helped through horrible situations happening around me – as well as situations that I make horrible for myself.

4 – AHHH-SOME

I’ll admit it.  Sometimes I try too hard.  I overload my schedule; I forget to relax.  I feel disappointed that I haven’t mended every past mistake; I forget to forgive myself.  I give and give; I burn out.  And so on.  Mentors often suggest practicing Sutra 2.46 symbolically, as a remedy for this. “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”  Here in Book Two, Patanjali discusses the practicality of yoga, reminding us that our poses are a blend of effort and ease.  Holding and resting.  Flowing and pausing.  We find ourselves physically expressing yoga poses with this fusion of steadiness and comfort.  Ahhh…just like a nice, balanced, healthy, sustainable life.

The previous Sutras offer immense assurance.  If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results.  When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.

And then comes…

5 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES

Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world.  “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.”  By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering!  Yea!  Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies (steady AND comfortable), we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing the Sutras’ ideological guidance (“Yogas Cittas Vrittis Nrodhah”).

None of this means that we can avoid bad or intense experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But by embracing the above promises and tools, we can avoid misery and suffering – and above all, sustain an undisturbed mind – while going through any of life’s difficulties or sorrows, celebrations and joys.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

Resources that influence my POV on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda.
  • Raja – Yoga; by Swami Vivekananda.
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace; by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D.
  • “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010; with contributions from Michael Stone, Mukunda Stiles, Deborah Adele, Dr. M.A. Jayashree and more.
  • “Love in Full Bloom” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Frank Jude Boccio.
  • “Journey to the Light” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Kate Holcombe.

(I first wrote about these “promises” and tools last March and April, when our class focus was “Transition and Balance.”  That original, shorter post lives on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.)

 

Focus: Yoga In Action – Forgiveness October 14, 2010

I started writing this post during our 1st month of the Yoga In Action class theme.  During September, we explored self care as an avenue toward selfless service.

The anniversary of 9/11 was looming when I started this post.  On the 10th, I’d flown back to DC from Nashville, where I spent Rosh Hashanah with my dad.  Each year, observing the Jewish High Holy Days launches an earnest exploration of forgiveness and reconciliation.  So the visit to TN was good but intense.  Coming home from the airport, I drove past an outdoor Ramadan break-fast.  All women, seated at a super-long banquet table, eating and smiling and festive.  Beautiful.  10 days later, on Yom Kippur, I would be observing a similar ritual.

The next morning, 9/11, I drove past the Pentagon on the way to teach a class in Virginia.  I was unexpectedly shaken.  Although a friend died as a result of the New York attacks, I’m never sure how the anniversary will affect me from year to year.  This year I cried in front of my class while talking about Sutra 1.33 (the Four Locks & Keys) and how this practice can lead toward forgiveness.

The Sutras teach that the goal of yoga is to clear disturbances from the mind.  Sutra 1.33 suggests practicing compassion to the unhappy, friendliness toward the happy, delight toward the virtuous and compassionate detachment from the non-virtuous. Not just essential for our own peace of mind, these practices help us see all beings as fallible and worthy of love.

I’ve written and shared about the four locks and four keys before.  Almost always, I center my thoughts on how we can use these tools toward others who disturb us.  For the sake of our Yoga In Action focus – particularly in prioritizing self care – can we offer ourselves that compassion, friendliness, delight and compassionate detachment? Can we forgive ourselves when unhappiness grips the day, and/or when we have acted less than virtuous?  Can we delight in our virtues and befriend our happiness?  Can we see ourselves as worthy of love?

Let’s try.

During this year’s High Holy Day process, I meditated and reflected on both forgiveness and self-forgiveness.  The wisdom of aphorism 1.33 from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is helping me have compassion toward myself and detach from my honest human condition and mistakes – so that I may focus on the positive, and when necessary, make authentic, non-guilt-filled amends and work toward reconciliation.  This is Yoga In Action.

This timely juxtaposition of the Jewish New Year, Ramadan and 9/11 gave me the opportunity to consider yoga’s ideological wisdom as part of my High Holy Day reflections.  By including forgiveness and self-forgiveness in my New Year intentions, I am committed to self care and therefore able to offer my peace of mind outward, in service to others.

OM Shanti.