Getting Comfortable Being an Original

I’ve fallen back in love with the Bhagavad Gita recently (specifically Eknath Easwaran’s translation). I remember crying the first time I read it over a decade ago. And then, for some reason, I put it down and aside from reading a passage here and there over the years, I didn’t really pick it up again until a few months back.

The Gita deals primarily with the notion of Dharma.  While the word dharma has a nearly infinite number of definitions and associations, when I use the word I'm referring to the idea that we each have intrinsic gifts and proclivities that, if embraced, cultivated and used, will help us contribute to the welfare of the world in an utterly unique way.  

I studied with my teacher for 10 years in Philadelphia and he would often joke that this style of teaching was the "broken record" style, where he would just repeat the same handful of teachings over and over and over.  Lucky for me, because of that, a lot of his words are imprinted pretty deep in my consciousness. 

One of his favorite ways to answer a question that had a "should I do this or should I do that" kind of tone was simply to say "you are unique."  In other words, there's no right answer, because you are the only person who has ever and will ever be you.  Sure, it sounds ridiculously simple.  And it is.  But when you stop and think about it - like REALLY think about it, it's also kind of mind-blowing.  

The fact that the universe has never seen an expression like me or like you before and that it never will again means that there's nobody who knows what's best for us except us.  And yet we spend an insane amount of time and energy doubting ourselves and questioning ourselves - looking at other people's lives and trying to figure out who's got the right answer.

Nobody does.  Because each and every one of us is unique.  So only you have your "right" answer and only I have mine.

Conceptually speaking that sounds pretty palatable.  Practically speaking, it's not always an easy space to live from.  I find myself consistently amazed at how much commitment is required to align and re-align with this fact and then to actually trust the path that my feet are on. 

Stephen Cope wrote a wonderful book about this process of self-trust called “The Great Work of your Life."  In it he relates the Gita’s message to different people’s journeys - some famous and some “ordinary.” Two of the people whose lives he examines are Jane Goodall and Henry David Thoreau.

He writes, “Unlike Goodall, young Thoreau was not a celebrity in his own day. Far from it. He was widely seen as an ‘irresponsible idler, a trial to his family, and no credit to his town.’ In short, Thoreau was seen as a loser. I fell in love with Thoreau is graduate school. I loved how this guy had apparently embraced his inner loser.”

I, too, have always had a bit of an intellectual and spiritual crush on Thoreau. As someone who loves to be quietly immersed in nature, I admired how far he’d followed that path, especially in light of it making him a total weirdo in the eyes of society.

Thoreau wrote, “A man tracks himself through life. One should be always on the trail of one’s deeper nature. For it is the fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the Divine.”

It's this tracking of ourselves that I believe is a huge part of the process of personal and spiritual evolution.  In moments of confusion and doubt, the most powerfully cutting question for me is always, "what can I give?"  And then the great challenge is to commit to that offering in the face of all the voices of doubt and criticism - those coming from inside and those coming from outside.  

This challenge isn't new.  It's not a modern problem.  It's an essential element of the human condition - one that the Bhagavad Gita speaks directly to, reminding us that "it's better to strive in one's own dharma than to succeed in the dharma of another.  Nothing is every lost in following one's own dharma but competition in another's dharma feeds fear and insecurity." (3.35).

In the end, perhaps it just takes a bit of time to get comfortable being an original. 

Mistaking the Posture for the Practice

The other night, leaving my waitressing job, my boss and I were joking about whether he would ever come to a yoga class and he asked me whether I could do a split.  It was Sunday night, which is our “Friday” at the restaurant so I gave him the short answer - “no.” Here’s the long answer: “if I’m really warm and misalign my hips a bit and push myself towards possibly throwing my sacrum a bit out, then yes, I can do a split.  But if I’m prioritizing my breath, orienting to sensation and respecting the boundaries of that sensation, then no, no splits for me right now.”

He responded, “well then I don’t know if I trust you as a yoga teacher.  Yoga teachers are supposed to be supple and flexible.”

Now, while I disagree with the oversimplification, I do understand what he was saying and where he was coming from. 

There’s no way around the fact that we live lives that are largely absorbed in images - images that sell ideas.  There are images that sell us the idea of happiness, health, achievement, courage, danger, fear, etc. As technology increases, the more images we absorb.  And the more images we absorb, the more consciousness is required to remember that the way something is represented is often not what that thing actually is.  In other words, the image of something is not necessarily the essence or truth of that same thing. Hence the difference between how things and people appear in social media feeds and how they appear in real life.

Along those same lines, the more popular yoga becomes, the more we are inundated with images intended to represent what yoga “is.”  We know these images. The people in them are beautiful, fit, flexible and often doing things with their bodies that seem other-wordly.  Now, let me be clear that I’m not against these images or these people. I'm for beauty, I'm for skill, I'm for the discipline and dedication that's required to get into those poses and I'm for people expressing themselves however they feel called to.  Even more than all of that though, what I'm for is the incredibly healing benefits of yoga being accessible to as many people as possible. And for that to happen, it’s important to take a moment to get really clear on the difference between the representation of yoga and the essence of yoga - or the images of yoga that flood our lives and the experience of yoga.

The images of yoga on our social media feeds and magazine covers are beautiful but they're also misleading.  Whether intentionally or not, they imply that there is a direct correlation between physical strength and flexibility and the depth of a yoga practice.  In other words, these images make it too easy to conclude that yoga is these poses and that these poses are yoga and that an advanced posture equals an advanced practice.  When in truth, the benefits of these poses come not from the way the pose looks on the outside but from how the pose is experienced from the inside. They're a means to become more conscious and purposeful in how we're relating to ourselves - to the sensations of our body, the depth of our breath, the flow of our thoughts and the presence of what exists within us, behind and beyond those thoughts.  This is the practice that the postures open up for us.  And this internal practice of awareness is as accessible to someone who can’t touch their toes as it is to someone doing a one-armed handstand.  

A handful of years ago, in a home studio crawling with cats, Joan White, a revered Philadelphia Iyengar teacher, summed this point up perfectly.  “An advanced yoga practice,” she said, “is not one that has become more flexible but one that has become more sensitive.”

The modern portrayal of yoga make this all too easy to forget.  It also makes it easy to forget that there is a deep lineage to this practice. That there are ancient texts with teachings that speak to human suffering and present a methodical approach to relieving that suffering.  And while the poses are an element of that methodology, they are not, by any means, the whole of it nor the goal of it.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with image and representation and there’s nothing wrong with loving yoga poses - I love them!  They’re fun, beautiful, challenging and physiologically beneficial. But it’s incredibly helpful - especially in this age of social media - to remember that if we get overly involved in the way yoga is represented, we can easily miss the essential truth of the practice and all it has to offer (to both the flexible and the inflexible).  We can miss the fact that the experience, power, beauty and benefits of yoga are equally available and accessible to anyone - anyone who's willing to breath, stretch and shift their attention inside of their felt experience. 

So here’s to remembrance, on all levels!