At Times Like This Yoga Works, But Maybe Not the Way You’re Practicing

Mara attempting to disrupt Siddhartha’s enlightenment. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath the Bodhi Tree to discover the secret to lasting happiness, the demon Mara sent everything he had to disrupt his effort. Mara tried physical violence, sensory temptations and even guilt, but Siddhartha sat steadfastly, deepening his concentration until eventually the veils of ignorance were lifted. Thus, he became the Buddha.

The parable of the Buddha’s enlightenment is one of courage and determination in the face of our very human desire to give in. Mara himself is said to be the personification of the unskillful ways in which we try to navigate a world that causes us to suffer endlessly. The tale of how Siddhartha continued to practice even when everything was going wrong is an inspiration for us all.

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My first yoga experiences are not what you’d expect. While I wouldn’t have described it this way at the time, I used to experience union of body and mind while rock climbing. I had a lot of trouble with negative mind chatter, and I used to joke that I liked rock climbing because nothing turned off my mind better than concentrating on not dying. I didn’t know anything about it at the time, but there was truth in my experience. I would find out later that climbing was helping me to achieve states of flow and giving my wandering mind a much needed break.

Eventually, the climbing gym started offering a weekly yoga class in the birthday party room. Situated just above the bouldering cave, we practiced on floors that may or may not have been mopped after the last event. With not infrequent f-bombs being hurled at us from below, we still managed to cultivate a little serenity.

My teacher’s approach was a bit unique. She studied with the innovative Don and Amba Stapleton of the Nosara Yoga Institute, whose interdisciplinary form of yoga blends traditional yoga postures with somatic methods, enclosed by dialog that encourages interoception and introspection. I didn’t know at the time, but it was mindfulness rooted in the body. I was learning to concentrate my mind without putting myself at risk.

Fifteen years later, these methods have proved very lasting and beneficial. I have developed techniques that quiet my self-judging, anxiety-ridden mind. I am less easily rattled, and am far more patient and forgiving. I really and truly appreciate many small pleasures that I would normally overlook. Yoga has helped me to be a more present and less reactive person.

At risk of comparing myself to the Buddha, every time I start to get comfortable it feels like Mara aims his demons right at me. Two events have really put my practice to the test. The first was shortly after my daughter was born. I am fiercely independent and it took me a while to make the transition to motherhood. I felt like I was losing my sense of self, my body felt weak and sore all the time, and my yoga seemed to be doing more harm than good. My moderately vigorous, mostly physical practice fell woefully short of what I needed, which was constructive rest.

I had to find new methods and reexamine what I thought yoga should look and feel like. Mindfulness, which was always an undercurrent of my practice, floated to the surface and became my central focus. While I still practice a slow form of vinyasa, I prioritize seated meditation and the quieter Yin Yoga. With the Buddhist methods, I have learned to pay more attention to my ever-changing inner states so that I can adapt my practice as needed. Overall, I’ve come to really appreciate stillness and not-doing.

The second challenge is now. As I publish this essay, we are two weeks into the Trump presidency. While I believe that my practice is taking some of the edge off the constant drip of apocalyptic news, it’s definitely not keeping up with demand. I can easily see that I’m not always responding skillfully, yet I seem to be unable to stop myself (I’m not the Buddha, after all).

Unlike the shock of motherhood when I very nearly gave up yoga in frustration, this time I recognize that a practice’s shortcomings are normal. A common refrain among yogi friends is “there is not enough yoga for this.” And there isn’t. This is an extraordinary situation that you can’t prepare for. But the answer isn’t necessarily to do more yoga. Maybe we need different yoga.

Until the proverbial sh** hits the fan, we practice in a kind of situational bubble that is fine-tuned to the level of stress that is normally heaped upon us. Our practice trains up the skills to adapt to our everyday, lived experience and can usually handle the occasional emergency. But this is different, and it looks like we‘ll be here for awhile. A practice can support us in times like this, but we need courage and strength of will. If it was easy, Mara would not have kept trying to derail Siddhartha’s meditation.

We find similar stories of Buddha’s determination not to give into hate and fear from master teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh who dedicated his early monastic life to helping those suffering the violence of the Vietnam War. The Dalai Lama has seemingly boundless compassion even for China, who forced him to flee Tibet and then terrorized the people that remained.

Regular people can also inspire us. I attended a meditation retreat just after the election when my sense of hopelessness was at a record high. On the last day, a Sri Lankan family brought the monks and retreatants dana, an offering of food as gratitude for our diligence and practice. Their faces radiated joy at the opportunity to support our effort. They had everything to lose from the outcome of the election, and yet there they were helping me. I think of this family and their smiles when I’m feeling especially low.

Your practice may feel hollow right now or like you’re putting a bandaid on a compound fracture. It might be time to change things up and find new sources of inspiration. Keep in mind that “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” outlines many methods for how to wake up and there isn’t one right way to do this kind of work. Give yourself a break for not knowing how to handle our new reality, but don’t give up. Take classes that you wouldn’t normally take with teachers that don’t normally appeal to you.

Perhaps most importantly, have faith that the wisdom methods work and that you will prevail. In Buddhism, to have faith (saddha) does not mean that we blindly believe that freedom from suffering is possible. Instead, look to the example of those who are just a little further along the path. Put one foot in front of the other, follow the people in front of you, and keep going.

One of the most salient aspects of Buddhism is that the Buddha was a living and breathing person. He wasn’t a god or someone with supernatural powers. He was a guy who stuck with it, even after mastering many promising methods that fell way short of expectation. He unlocked the door to genuine happiness by sitting down, closing his eyes and watching his breath.

We can do this.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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