I'll Meet You in the Middle

Extreme points of view are generally the ones that get the most press. And in our culture, there's a really strong tendency to shout our views from the rooftop. Or rather, from the comfort of our computer screens via social media. But the idea is the same--everyone MUST know how I feel, because it defines me as a person. I have to set myself APART from the other people. My views are very strongly NOT theirs. Sound familiar?

Now believe me, I am prone to very strong feelings. I side politically distinctly on one side. I have a lifetime of religious guilt built up, which inhibits me from magnanimous feelings toward organized religion. I have a particular way of eating that I think is the right way. I have a certain way in which I present myself to the world that I think is correct. I think that the way I do asana practice is THE way to do asana practice. You get the idea.

I share my own experience of strong opinions to illustrate that yoga doesn't just make opinions go away;  I am also quite human. I am prone to my own particular views. But, I also recognize what happens when we insist on setting ourselves apart from groups of humanity. Viewpoints of "my way is the only way" can be really damaging to the people who we"re separating ourselves from and also to ourselves. The "my god is the one and only god" argument comes to mind. Why should we insist on a singular path for everyone? Does anything else in life work as a one-size-fits-all set-up? 

The definition of yoga is union. The root word of yoga is yuj which means to yoke, as in to yoke an oxen to a cart. So, generally in western modernity, we understand this union to be that of yoking the body to the mind. Or the breath to the body. I like to entertain defining yoga as the yoking of my individual consciousness to the cosmic consciousness. Or the unity of we as a people in the search for something greater than ourselves. For happiness and contentment and universal love. 

Now, I'm nothing if not a practical yogi. I don't posit that yoga will lead to everlasting bliss or automatic happiness. But what I do believe is that through the exploration of ourselves, as we TRULY are, opinions and all, we begin to understand our true natures. And when you get right down to the truth of the matter, everyone, no matter their opinions, is looking to be happy, content and offered unconditional love. So, if we could align even in just that small unifying thread, is it possible that we could meet somewhere in the middle? 

Yoga in Action: Your Inner Light of Awareness

Over the course of my recent study, I keep coming across a "buzz-phrase" that really pleases me. It is: your inner light of awareness. It refers to the you who you really are. At your core. Not your job or your life experience or how anyone else perceives you. It is simply and basically you. The you who you are now and have always been. Not who you strive to be, or who you have been.

It's beautiful, right? 

Your inner light of awareness.

like this, but on the inside!

like this, but on the inside!

Another way of thinking about this is as your dharma. My main sanskrit guy Nicholai Bachman defines dharma as "the underlying substance that does not fundamentally change but simply appears differently over time." (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg 56) In Indian culture, dharma is like the law or the fundamentals of the way things are. If you think of this in terms of yourself, your dharma is the fundamental structure of you that does not change.

I was pretty caught up in trying to understand dharma for awhile, because I was confusing it with dharmic purpose. This is a concept that my father hammered into our brains all throughout our childhoods/college/continuing today. Your dharmic purpose is the thing that you were put on this earth to do. The thing that you can provide to humankind that no one else can. Your dharma is more like your essence. It's what makes you, well, you!

For a couple of years recently, I was desperate to figure out what it was that I was put here to do. I thought it was something that if I meditated on it and thought about enough, that it would come to me in a big shocking epiphany!

I discussed it with my teachers, my friends and my partner. I thought about it in the car and on the cushion. I need answers, damnit!

I've given up the quest for a solid answer to the "what is my dharmic purpose" question. It's not that I don't want to know. I really really want to know. I still think about it a lot. It's just that I don't really think I need to know now.

 If I really needed to know now, wouldn't I know?

Over time, I have been able to loosen the hold that it has on me. Letting go of the thinking that "if I can just discover my dharmic purpose, then everything will fall into place!" My focus now is cultivating santosha (contentment) with what currently is.

Santosha with my very own inner light of awareness. To be content is something we could all strive for a little more. To be content with who we are, at our very essence.

Can you connect with your inner light of awareness? 

Finding Contentment in the Chaos

India can be an extremely frustrating place. It's hot. It's really chaotic. Indians swarm you to offer you rides in their rickshaw, necklaces, directional advice, etc. It's loud as can be—horns, music, traffic. It's dirty.

Last year, everything about being in India was novel for me. I drank it all in. I enjoyed every experience, even those that were loud, chaotic and dirty. I was just so happy to be here that I even found joy in the painful and frustrating times. This year, things feel different. I feel annoyed by Indians and chaos. I can't help it. I don't want to be annoyed. I want to live in the present and appreciate the fact that I'm in INDIA for crying out loud!! But something keeps rising up in me. And it doesn't feel like joy. It feels like suffering.

gabriellehopp-india1.jpg

It feels a lot like when I was a teenager. I don't know what you were like when you were teen-aged, but I was angry. All the time. Anything and everything could upset me. And did. And not only was I angry, I was anxious to be out of whatever situation I was currently in. I believe I could characterize it as a constant state of non-contentment. Unless something was a completely novel situation, I was instantly bored and looking to move on.

This approach to life has (luckily) abated with time. I think part of it is maturing and recognizing that not every situation has to be completely enriching and fabulous. And (I would like to think) that most of my new life approach is due to my work on the mat/cushion. I've slowed down. I've learned to appreciate small details and things that we generally perceive as "mundane." 

So much sweetness in the simplicity

So much sweetness in the simplicity

I think a lot of this appreciation has developed out of my asana practice. Coming to the mat daily and doing the same poses hundreds and then thousands of times can really put into perspective one's ability to find something new in a repeat situation. And no matter how many times I do trikonasana, I can still find some new sensation and some amount of joy to just "be in it." This is how I should approach every repeat situation. What about this can I find to appreciate? Even if my brain/body is telling me not to feel content?

So, this second trip to India has been one of lesson learning for me. It's fascinating to watch myself move through this incredible country for a second time. To see my reaction to India when it's no longer novel for me. It's amusing to be present with my anger, however silly it seems. It's great for me to have the insight to even realize that I'm experiencing non-contentment and then see what I can do about it.

There is nothing like taking yourself out of your comfort zone to put your work to the test. Looks like I better keep on getting back on the mat/cushion upon my return.

India Part 3 or Adventureland

Everything is India is an adventure. Truly everything. You are like "okay, now I'm going to walk across the street" so then you think, "alright, so, I have to avoid these cars, and they are definitely driving on different sides of the road then I'm used to, and oh wait! look out for those bikes, and where is that honking coming from and did I just step in shit?" and then somehow with some seriously deep breathing and incredible eye on the present situation you make it across the street. And then a new adventure starts.

Taking the train in India is the mother of all adventures. The equivalent of this adventure in the context of yoga would be something like...the teacher comes in and says, "okay, today we are going to start with one- handed handstand, and from there we'll be doing drop backs, then tick-tocks, and then we are going to do kapalabhati breath for 25 minutes in headstand and then everyone is going to stand as close together as possibly and we'll turn the heat up to 150 degrees and meditate on the word Om.

Yep.

So, we took the train from Madurai to Kanyakumari and it was the most incredible adventure.

For one, we are unfathomably interesting to Indians. So, we're sitting in the train station minding our own business and the next thing you know 50 Indians are talking to us in Tamil and telling us everything they know about the US (John F. Kennedy, Niagara Falls) and inviting us to their house for dinner. Then when the train comes, (we had already decided to ride in the ladies carriage) all the ladies run full speed to the door and start handing their bags in through the windows. There are no such things as lines in India, you just cram into a huddle and try to push your way to the front. And damn if those 14 year old Indians girls aren't strong as hell.
So then once you finally cram yourself on, and I mean cram, and you have to do so really fast or the train will most likely leave, you find yourself next to the bathroom (um) and again in a situation with a lot of cramming. And all the Indians are looking at you and still talking to you in Tamil and Indian grandmas are yelling at you because your bag came close to their face and Veronika's 3/4 length pants show her knees when she sits on the floor, which is utterly unthinkable.


In the middle of this complete pandemonium I had to step back and take a look. It was so wonderful. Here was this complete chaos, a big sweaty mess of ladies and babies all speaking (shouting) at once but everyone was smiling at us. And we were smiling at them. And several got up and insisted upon giving their seats to us. And we took pictures of the babies and watched to Indian countryside whizz by.
I was so pleased. It would have been a breeze for us to book a nice cool bus with a seat and a smooth ride, but we took the adventuresome path. And it turned out to be the most culturally relevant thing that we'd done so far. I have always been pretty good at "taking the leap" and trying adventurous things, but this was one of the best in my life.
With an open mind and heart I move bravely through the Indian lands.

Niyamas: Santosha

The second niyama or individual conduct is also the namesake of this blog--Santosha.
If you're curious as to why I chose this as its name, check out the very first post. If you're curious what a niyama could possibly be, check out the first posting on Yamas. Good? Good.

Okay, here we go.
Santosha can be summed up in a single word--contentment. Not happiness or joy, mind you. But straightforward contentment--not happy, not sad.
In my interpretation of santosha, when we practice the second niyama, we are striving for a sense of peace of mind in each moment. It is absolutely impossible to be happy and joyous at each moment in our lives--we are bound to experience pain and suffering on some level at some time. But through regular practice--daily asana, meditation and whatever other yogic practices move you, we begin to develop the tools to face each challenge of life and remain content in those moments.
This sense of contentment will not come easily. Through years and years of practice, you will begin to see the world with a discerning eye, enough to realize that to experience a moment fully, any moment, you must experience all the joy and pain available in it. And then to take the next step, you can have peace of mind within that moment.

Allow me to offer a daily life example.
Many people dislike their jobs, correct?  But also consider that the daily grind of going to work is a necessary evil to pay the bills, afford a family, etc.
I think that within this negative feeling toward your job, that there is the possibility for contentment, despite the suffering. There is the possibility to slightly shift your perspective to recognize that even though you have aspirations of being something bigger and better in your life, that this present moment experience of your job is a natural stepping stone. Can you try to find some sense of santosha there? Can you try to see the peace available through moment to moment awareness?

How do we practice santosha on the mat/meditation cushion?
I think we have to be content within each practice that we showed up to do the work. Not every asana practice will produce amazing results. At times you will be able to stay in headstand for 5 minutes and at other times, you will fall out on to your back. Sometimes in your meditation, you will easily find single-pointed awareness and sometimes your mind will be a gaggle of monkeys. Can you simultaneously practice non-attachment to the moments that are "good" and contentment with each experience no matter the outcome? This is the beginning of your santosha work.