Monday, November 18, 2013

Letting Go and Letting Come

I recently heard an interview with Arthur Zajonc, a physicist and contemplative. As part of the On Being episode, titled “Holding Life Consciously,” Zajonc took listeners through a short “singing bowl” bell meditation.
The purpose of this four-part, 10-minute meditation is simply, at least as he described it, “contemplative.” That is, using the sound of the bell as a single source of sensory input to create a locus for meditative attention. But it has proven to have a more robust purpose for me.

I have a large L-shaped desk in my home office that I haven't used in maybe the past two years. I prefer to wander with my laptop from big soft chair to big soft chair, or the kitchen table, or someplace outside when the weather is warm. So several months ago I decided that I might as well move the desk out and make more space for yoga practice and for, well, I wasn’t quite sure what else.

I cleaned out the desk (except for one small drawer), and then simply couldn’t get rid of it. I don’t use it, but somehow I can’t let go of it. I keep telling myself—and others—that I just need to be clearer about how I’ll use the space—and how to store some of what has been removed—and then I can let it go.
This is a reasonable facsimile of the "desk."
But the reality is, I’m not really sure why I can’t free myself of it. Perhaps it’s letting go of what the desk represents, my source of income and security.

So, the bell meditation has become a mini practice for me to learn to fully release, and then open to whatever might come to fill the space. Zajonc calls it “letting go and letting come,” allowing the flow of all things to move both ways.

Perhaps if you’re also afraid to part with something—your own “desk,” an unhappy job or relationship, or an idea of how something should be, this practice may help. Here’s the meditation: 

1.      Sound the bell. Give full attention to the vibration of the bell, imagining the sound fill the room. Zajonc suggests three strikes of the bell, but if you like, allow the bell to sound several times. He uses a Tibetan singing bowl, which has a wonderful echoing after effect, but you could use Tibetan cymbals, or any sound that lingers after being struck. Download a Tibetan singing bowl being struck in succession.

2.      Sound the bell in memory.  Repeat the memory of the bell sound so that you’re filled inwardly with the resonance and vibration of the bell. Move inside the body and saturate yourself from crown of head to tips of the toes and fingers--all parts of the body—with the sound.

3.      Let go completely of the bell sound. Here comes the hard part. Release any holding of the sound. Let go completely. Perhaps visually move through the body, emptying each space of the sound and its afterimage.

If you encounter struggle here, stay with it. I find using a systematic process helpful. For example, go into each “room” inside the body and conduct the equivalent of “cleaning out the closets.” Or, move from crown of head to limbs and toes as if gradually emptying a full container.  

4.     Open to receive. Finally, let come. Be present for whatever arises after releasing all sound of the bell. Be present in a way that can welcome all things. After the clearing out, this is a sweet space, and opens to a lovely, quiet flow of love, energy, and clarity. Receive with gratitude whatever gifts and insights come.

If you’d like Zajonc to guide you through this meditation, listen here. And, read more about how sound heals

Saturday, November 9, 2013

What’s Behind the Yoga Class Afterglow?

A common response when someone takes their first or second yoga class is, “Why do I feel so good afterwards?” It can often feel different than after Zumba, 30-minutes on the elliptical, or other similar exercise, and new practitioners notice.

I’ve been thinking about this because when I get this question, I often respond reflexively, mumble something about the breath, and then think to myself, “Well, it’s more than just that.” But what is it exactly?

I brought this inquiry to my own yoga asana practice and uncovered three things that make it distinct—at least for me—from other kinds of physical activity. It's also a starting place for me to respond to why we can feel calmed and renewed after practicing yoga asana, the third limb of yoga.
1.       Breath and Movement

First, yes, there is the breath, which acts as a bridge to reconnect the mind and body. Taking note of the qualities of the breath, its location in the body, its length, sound, and overall feel, is often used to get centered at the start of a yoga class. It then becomes a point of reference, or reminder, to return to the breath throughout the practice.
More importantly for me, however, is synching breath with movement. While this is most prominent with sun salutations (surya namaskar) or even simple dynamic asanas such as cat/cow, it can also be felt while holding a pose and making subtle shifts and adjustments in concert with the breath.

This synchrony alone is unique in its ability to focus the mind, draw attention to the breath, and often extend the exhale—or at least bring the inhale and exhale into more balance. A balanced, lengthened breath can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, or start to move in that direction, and initiate a sense of calm.
2.       Poses Contain Their Own Energy

In my own yoga practice, the perceptible movement of energy within the body during asana practice is what I enjoy most, and it plays a noticeable role in changing the way I feel.

Every yoga asana or pose contains its own particular energy, a “specific template” that has evolved over thousands of years for moving the life force through the body, according to Erich Schiffman. He describes the action of these lines of energy to “reconfigure your entire energy field,” and open blocked and tight areas in the body.

Unlocking the energy contained in a pose opens to the expanded space, power, and renewal that it offers. Each configuration has the potential to wake up one or more of the primary energy centers, or chakras, as well as the more subtle energy fields, the nadis. Finding our way in and out of these specific shapes helps to open stuck and stiff places in the body and experience that energy.

This is why I find it really helpful after a pose or a series of poses to take a pause and enjoy this new, open current of energy. It feels exhilarating, but also calm and steadying.

3.       Slowing Down the Mind

Finally, a balanced yoga practice helps to relax and counter agitation in the mind—a ratcheting down of the mind’s hub of activity.

When I first started practicing, I had no idea what I was doing and it took every bit of focus and attention I had to be in the practice. When I’m present for my practice now, it can still be that absorbing.

The laser-like focus required to be present, attend to the breath, and work with the body to create the particular shape of an asana all hone the mind into a quiet kind of stillness. There may even be a sense of flow or being in the “zone.”
Asana practice for me then becomes an ideal preparation to sit in meditation. The body has been strengthened, the spine lengthened, and the hips opened to be able to sit with more ease. Energy paths are cleared and the mind has moved toward stillness.

Coming home to the body in this way is what brings me back to yoga—returning to my deepest self, reconnecting with the present moment, and opening to being right where I am (well, trying to at least).

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