The Poise of the Soul
After a particularly long day in dot-com craziness, I was walking on a crowded street to catch a commuter train when I saw my old friend Daniel. Daniel was always a person I respected. He had a ready smile. He was self-contained, a loving husband and father and very accomplished professionally — at that time he was CEO of a public company, making all manner of kitchen gadgets.
That night, he was shining. It looked to me like he had shed layers of himself; he was carrying no burden.
“What happened to you? You look fantastic!” I exclaimed.
He responded in an instant. “Yoga happened, and you look terrible. You’re coming with me this Friday.”
That’s how my “way out” presented itself — as a way in.
Yoga is sometimes called “Poise of the Soul.” Poise is equilibrium, readiness, balance, steadiness, stability, suspension between states of motion. Poise does not freak out over laundry, or go 90 miles an hour to make it to a meeting, or accidentally break things due to inattention, or talk too much.
I went to Daniel’s yoga class. After a great struggling 75 minutes of a vigorous athletic, sequentially arranged yoga postures linked together and led by the breath (a style called Ashtanga, or eight-limbed yoga), the class arrived at Savasana, corpse pose. We lay on our backs, arms outstretched, palms up, legs extended, letting all of our muscles relax, allowing our bones to sink into the floor, in a sort of half state between sleeping and waking, a state of deep aware stillness. Through the breathing, the rhythm, the turning inward of yoga — through the not turning to an external thing like whacking a tennis ball or singing in harmony with other people in a soaring nave — I found my first peace in long memory.
I kept going back to class, just for Savasana. If I was lethargic or down and needed a jolt of caffeine, I learned that rapid inhaling through the top of the nose and fluttering of the solar plexus and abdominal muscles would hyper-oxygenate my brain. That released a set of chemicals that told my body that I was in need of alertness and attention, reminding me to wake up and focus. While doing long, slow, even breathing, I learned that my body felt safe. This breathing also sent my nervous system a message: “I am not in threat, and I will readjust the chemicals that are now being distributed through this body.”
Yoga, as it has been popularized in the west, is often practiced with pumping music; the instructors invite fast and sweaty movement, it’s good exercise, it can be fun. But that wasn’t the kind of yoga I encountered that Friday evening. When I joined Daniel for his practice, he invited me into a space that allowed me to take notice and ask questions in ways that had never before occurred to me. It was a practice that made me say, “Hmm…I can’t feel my feet. If I can’t feel my own feet, the connection from my brain to my feet isn’t working. If the connection between my feet and brain does not work, how am I going to connect to other people?”
Before I found yoga, I actually couldn’t feel my feet or even spread my toes — they were just down there somewhere. Nor did I know where my organs were in my belly. My insides were like a black hole between my ribcage and my knees. Can you feel where your liver is, unless it is in pain?
After a while practicing, I found that I could lift my arches and run an energetic current up my shins and thighs and ass and heart and right out the top of my head and back down again. The sense of power found in athletic release was something to be channeled and leveraged inside of the body, to heal it and balance it, and restore equilibrium and clarity to the whole organism.
I began to learn that the body has rising and falling energies, that when it gets certain inputs it releases certain chemicals, that there is a virtuous loop between the actions of the body and the chemicals that are released, and that this cycle is autonomic until we intervene and override it. We can start to use our breathing and our thoughts to restructure which chemicals are getting released from our minds and into our bodies. We can reprogram ourselves, literally. I didn’t know what this meant until I found yoga.
The practice given to me started with self-inquiry: Am I aware of my breath? Where am I looking? Where are my feet? Are all four corners of my feet on the ground? Are my arches lifted away? Where are my fingers? Are they evenly aligned or evenly spaced? Am I standing tall or leaning forward and back suddenly? Where am I in space? This is called proprioception: the receiving (receptoris) of one’s self (proprius). Am I aware of my own body’s parts in relationship to each other, to the floor, to the vertical line? Being hyperaware in this practice is critical.
Once I began, it was rapid-fire study. I went to my first class, and I knew I was going to return. Eventually, I found my source on that sweaty little mat, under the purple Om painted on the wall of that tiny wood-floored studio above a pizza parlor in the middle of Chicago, curtains blowing in, sirens and car horns below. I discovered a sense of having a permeable body: my skin was always interacting with the environment, and I was always connected. I was made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe.
I wanted to go deeper. In 2002, I went on a retreat led by power yoga founder Baron Baptiste, who is still a friend today. His easygoing introduction to philosophy, and long holds in deep postures (20 minutes of frog?!) brought on both breakdowns and wakeups. I then stumbled, or was led, into training with one of the best, most intense, academic and physical yoga teachers in the United States, Rod Stryker. I felt like I had discovered a philosophical mother lode.
It didn’t take long before I knew that this was the path along which to redirect my energy. No one explicitly told me; it was an instant insight: if all thoughts and actions are only energy, neither positive nor negative, I can transmute it. I can remove the negative element, and just use the energy. I would ask myself, what can I do other than sit here or numb out through work or busyness or sex or distraction? What can I do to not numb out, to really feel and then leverage the emotion? Can I channel it into awareness, creative force, or even just let it pass through me? From that time forward, most of the productivity and creativity in my life has been the result of having learned to transmute whatever intense emotion is coming up into an activity or action that is in touch with experience, rather than pushing it away.
Once, I was holding a yoga position called side plank for a long time. This position requires the body to form a long, firm, extended board, placing one hand on the floor, the other to the ceiling, and balancing between the side of the bottom foot and the palm of the hand, holding the belly snug and the hips high. It can be rigorous. My arms started shaking; my balance was challenged.
At that moment the teacher said, “People… you’ve held this position for a long time. I invite you to look at your reaction to that. Are you gritting your teeth and tensing your jaw and toughing it out, even though you’re beyond your capacity? Are you collapsing and quitting because your conditioned mind is telling you it’s too hard, even though you probably could stay longer if you wanted to? Are you feeling proud or inadequate?”
“However you are meeting this posture on the mat,” he continued, “I guarantee you: That’s how you are meeting your life off the mat. How can you be kind to yourself in this moment, play your edge, and take responsibility for your experience? How much are your own thoughts and reactions responsible for your own suffering?”
How much? Maybe one hundred percent, I realized.
If side plank was hard, the other big practice, seated meditation, was harder. Sitting still, harboring a quiet mind, initially felt impossible. Even two minutes of meditation felt interminable. Every part of me resisted. It felt unproductive, and wasn’t burning calories. To make it easier, all kinds of techniques were offered: Watch your breath right where it enters and exits the nostrils, imagine a flame, say a mantra. But it was all just practice to do one thing: to notice the workings of the mind, and to let thoughts just pass by. To become a watcher of my own thoughts.
But if I am watching my thoughts, who is thinking the thoughts? If I am witnessing them, they can’t be the essence of me. These thoughts must be separately constructed. HEY! I am not my thoughts. And if I am not my thoughts, I can un-identify and manipulate them to a better outcome. Lo and behold, this was true. By watching and stopping unhelpful patterns of thinking, I learned that I could change the day-to-day experience of life in my body. Meditation practice is a key tool for acquiring the emotional skills and intelligence to self-regulate if we didn’t learn it naturally in our early lives. The ability to control my own mind and manage the fluctuations of my emotions was key to making shifts in my life, and to optimizing problem-solving and creative insight.
I still haven’t met a single person who has been able to overcome really bad wiring without some sort of practice.
(Excerpt from the upcoming book, Indivisible).