Fearlessness

Fearlessness

Characteristics of a Yogi #1: Fearlessness

Overview: In the Bhagavad Gita, there is a comprehensive list of 26 traits that define a yogi, that are Divine Qualities. In a series of articles, I will take each of these as a topic for examination.

Fearlessness: does this mean, literally “to have no fear?” Or does it mean to behave in a way that others might interpret as appearing to have no fear? This is an important distinction. Fear is a very useful response—sometimes it serves to keep you alive, and from a very “basic instinct” perspective, this is a good thing.

Here’s a story to outline a distinction.

I was with a former boyfriend and we were visiting Florida. He arranged for us to have a tour of the Everglades, which are a marsh grass “forest” crisscrossed with tidal streams and rivers. One navigates them on a boat that has a big fan for a propeller. (An aside—Native Americans used to LIVE in the Everglades, which seems a feat of survival and peace with the natural world. O.K. back to the story.)

One of the main attractions of the Everglades is the wildlife, among which are crocodiles. I had never seen a crocodile up close. When we got near one of them, I knelt down near the edge of the boat to get a closer look. My boyfriend was horrified. The tour guide suggested perhaps I stay back. Crocodiles can behave unpredictably, you know.

Me? I was simply overcome with curiosity.

So I ask you, was I behaving “fearlessly” or was I just being plain old stupid?

A different former boyfriend used to say that something within him was “broken” because he didn’t have the good sense to be afraid in situations that might call for it.

Again, I ask you: fearless, or…lacking in good sense?

There is a huge distinction.

And this is why I would like to argue that in “fearlessness” never implies that you are somehow deficient in the instincts and tools that are sensibly trying to keep you alive.

In this instance, the main attribute of a yogi is that he or she faces their fears head on, stares down that barrel, and behaves in a way that appears to be without fear.

Viewed this way, we might name this attribute “courage” or “bravery.” When exercised repeatedly over time, courage and bravery vanquish the fear that we had in the first place, leaving behind a vacancy that we might name fearlessness.

Can you see the difference between having no fear in the first place, and learning to overcome your fears? They are very different things.

When I casually asked some of my students what they fear, they said:

  • Failure
  • Change
  • Uncertainty

What a succinct compilation of things that create great angst! Just one thing really is missing…can you name it? More on that later…

My next question to them was: are these things certain to happen?

There were slow nods around the room.

Does it not strike you as wildly un-strategic to spend time and energy worrying about things that are certain to happen? Why not do this instead:

  1. Accept that you’re going to fail. Accept that change is inevitable. Accept that uncertainty is certain (haha).
  2. Work on how you relate to these real life elements in a courageous way that stops WASTING your precious time and energy, and helps you stare down the barrel of your fears and become…fearless!

Well, that seems so…sensible! Right? The problem is, fear is not a thing that is easily reasoned with. It is visceral. It is somatic. It creates a powerful FEELING.

I asked my students what fear feels like. I got back some of these words.

  1. Confining
  2. Paralyzing
  3. Bad

Bottom line, fear is stressful! And where did they feel it? They gestured to these places. Primarily:

  • Heart
  • Belly

And these places secondarily:

  • Head
  • Throat

I actually supplied “throat”—sometimes when I’m super nervous about saying something to another person, I’ll get choked up, and it feels like I’m being strangled. Not nice. It’s like I’m DYING. Fear can make you fee like (maybe) you are dying. Think about that for a moment. Fear can be powerful stuff.

Now, think about the OPPOSITE feeling of fear. What is that for you? My students offered these words.

  • Peaceful
  • Joyful
  • Confident
  • Freeing

I just loved hearing all these words, and especially that last one. That very morning of teaching, I had woken up in the wee, crepuscular hours ruminating about this characteristic of fearlessness, and I had this realization that it was describing something that is super-important, which is a feeling of freedom. The opposite of fear is free.

Fear confines. Fear binds energy. Fear paralyzes. Fear robs your strength. Fear chokes your words. Fear keeps you stuck.

And when you learn to wrangle the things that you fear the most…? You become free. Liberated.

I am so very grateful for the somatic practices of yoga, because otherwise what I’m talking about here—freedom, liberation, peace, blah, blah, blah—all just remain in the domain of pretty, shiny concepts. Concepts just aren’t helpful unless a person learns how to apply them. That’s where a skillful teacher is an invaluable resource—he or she answers the question “how do I achieve the outcome described?”

I’m gonna tell you. Hang on!

When I asked my students where in their bodies they feel all the hallmarks of freedom, the indicated primarily the same places that they had gestured to for “fear.”

Heart. Belly. Throat. Head.

Your fears and your freedom are two sides of the same coin! You feel them in the same place. One feels confining. The other feels expansive. And, we have a terrific tool in yoga for generating from within, on your own a sense of spaciousness. It’s called “the breath.” TA-DA!

When you breathe and feel inside, and work to grow your breath you are creating for yourself a feeling of freedom. Interestingly enough, a physiological response the body has to fear is to shorten the breath. The body does all the WRONG things, in the moment that you MOST need the resources of the breath! Isn’t that wild?!?! The very moment you need more space, more oxygen, more freedom, the body shuts all that down, and we become our most primitive, least resourceful versions of ourselves.

This is why learning to breathe in yoga class is so very, very, VERY important. This is why learning to breathe in poses that are challenging or confronting, is so very, very very important. It trains us to cut through our physiological response to fear with a tool that creates, on its own, a self-generated feeling of calm, peace, and resourcefulness.

No one is going to save you from yourself. Only YOU can save you. This is why you MUST learn to breathe, with a fervency and passion for your own survival and will and desire to GROW as a human being.

The breath is the pathway to “tricking” yourself into feeling fearless, even at the very moment that you are not. The breath is the thing that will take you out of your paralysis, and give you back your body, mind, and spirit, so that you can act courageously.

“Fearlessness” describes a person who has trained to fight for his or her own freedom—of body, mind, and spirit.

And when you meet a person who appears fearless, what does it make you feel? When you meet a person who is self-possessed, confident, assured what is their impact upon you? Fear? Inspiration? Check out that word—inspire. It means both “to breathe in” and to “fill someone with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” WOW. NEAT. More on fearlessness inspiring fear in a moment…

The path of a yogi is one of a battle in this earthly plain to grow in spirit. In the journey from birth to death, this is our quest. And framed like this—on a spiritual plain—the thing that the yogi fears most is to die without fulfilling the contract of this lifetime. The thing that the human animal also fears above all is the termination of the body—its demise. And viewed this way, our human animal and our human spirit are in agreement: the top line fear is death.

And here’s a thought for consideration—the most dangerous person in the world is a person who has nothing to lose. The most realized individual is the person who has come to terms with their own most predominant fear, that of death. And when you no longer fear your own death, anything is possible. It fills you with a “no fucks to give” confidence of a turbo-charged fuel variety.

A friend of mine told me a story about warriors who were like this. It was World War I, and his family, who are Sikhs, were fighting with the British forces. It was trench warfare back then, and the way to stay alive was to stay in their trench. But not these soldiers—they REFUSED to get in the trench, and stood up on the ridge to display their fearlessness. Death was no obstacle to their victory! It is reported they said, “We want to show the enemy our contempt for death!” And their behavior—fearless, or plain crazy? What do you think now?—intimidated the Germans so deeply that the British Indian Army won their first two battles and advanced the line.

Then the British commanders showed up, and told the crazy Sikhs to get back in the trenches and stay alive. And then they lost ground…

Fearlessness is the attribute of a warrior. Do you think of yourself as a warrior? If you embrace this path, you are. Warriors fight for principles that they believe in—what principles do you believe in so strongly that you would go to battle within yourself to vanquish your fears?

Yogananda says, “Fear robs a man of the indomitability of his soul.” In other words, fear makes you easy to defeat or subdue. Fear ties you to the feeling of fear, which resides in the body, which constrains your ability to grow in spirit—through generating the practices of courage and bravery.

Yoganada also says, “Death is perhaps the ultimate challenge of faith in mortal man. Fear of this inevitability is foolish. It comes only once in a lifetime; and after it has come the experience is over, without having affected our true identity or diminished in any way our real being. (…)”

Ahhhhhh, yes. As I asked at the beginning, why do we waste our time and energy fearing things that are inevitable?

The answer—because they are painful. We don’t like pain.

How to handle? You already have the answer. Become adept at handling our discomfort, through practices like breathing deeply in uncomfortable postures in yoga. Or, through sitting meditation.

The Buddhists, close relatives of the yogis, also teach about “no fear” and “warrior practices.” Pema Chodron writes in The Places that Scare You, “To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to tat extent we dissolve our fear. The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment—wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world. Meanwhile we train patiently moving in that direction. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear” (pg. 103).

This is it, my loves. We are warriors, fighting our own demons, using the weapons of breath, asana, and meditation. These tools will free us from our own suffering and allow us to fight for the freedom of all beings.

And that is the way of the yogi.

Oh! WAIT. There is one bonus tool that I mentioned earlier and I MUST follow up on. It’s the energy of curiosity.

I learned from my yoga teacher Ana Forrest that this energy can be tremendously helpful in so very many situations. Curiosity has the potential to take you out of the messy experience of fear, in a constructive way. I say constructive, because a coping mechanism for fear we might reach for is dissociation, which might save you life in the worst of situations, but as a strategy over time hampers your chances of recovery from trauma and your potential growth into the best rendition of yourself.

Curiosity gives you back your power. When you have the great fortune to observe that you are experiencing fear, instead of feeling like you are stuck in its claws, then calling on curiosity will help you to disentangle yourself from fear’s grasp even more completely. Curiosity will help you to understand why this thing or person or experience has you experiencing fear in the first place. And once you’ve applied this energy to fear, the funniest thing happens—fear starts to shrink immediately. You may be able to tap into secondary emotions like sadness or anger, and MOVE them in a way that helps dredge out any backlog and access the fear itself, pulling at it from its tap root. Finally, curiosity will help you be creative and playful in finding ways to help yourself overcome whatever fear still hangs on, and when you start using fear’s antithesis emotions—joy, creativity, playfulness—fear will be cancelled out and in its place will be a space that you can name and claim. FEARLESSNESS. Fear—once it lived here. Now it does no more.

THIS is a triumph of human spirit.

Many blessings. May you end the suffering of all beings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Vinyasa?

What is Vinyasa?

Photo by Ray Tamarra
The beginning of a Sun Salutation.

I think that it might be prudent to begin with an orientation. My views and perspectives on vinyasa are in part tempered by an historical moment (2004-2017) and a region of the world: New York City. What vinyasa is here today, is probably different than it was 20 years ago, and is probably different than what it is in other regions and cities.

A brief history: Vinyasa was invented by Krishnamacharya. Among many things, he made two contributions to our understanding of “vinyasa” yoga: breath connected to movement, and “pose counter pose” theory. Pattabi Jois, who studied with Krishnamacharya went on to develop Ashtanga Yoga, which is formally named Ashtanga Vinaysa Yoga. Most modern practices generally called vinyasa have Ashtanga as a parent practice.

From The Heart of Yoga, Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar, writes:

“Developing a yoga practice according to the ideas expressed in the Yoga Sutra is an action referred to as vinyasa krama. Krama is the step or literally “stages,” nyasa means “to place,” and the prefix vi –translates as “in a special way.” The concept of vinyasa krama tells us that it is not enough to simply take a step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.” (The Heart of Yoga, pg. 25)

These days, this definition of vinyasa floats around and is commonly cited: to place in a special way. It is sourced from this book. “To place in a special way” is partially correct. If you read carefully, in the quote, Desikachar is also very clear about two things:

  1. The step must be in the right direction
  2. It must be made in the right way
Arms overhead

Consider this. You have a candy bar, a key, and a watch. You place these things in a special way upon your dresser. Have you done vinyasa?

I jest, of course, but I do so to point out the other crucial aspects of vinyasa. You gotta know where you’re going. You gotta go in that direction. The step you make needs to be done in the right way. If you’re headed towards advanced OCD, then maybe putting your candy bar, key, and watch in a special way on your dresser is exactly correct, and then yeah, you’re doing vinyasa. Have fun!

In the interview section of The Heart of Yoga Desikachar applies these two ideas—that you need to go in the right direction, and you must take the right action—to yoga more directly. He answers an open-ended request from the interviewer to say something about “structuring your yoga practice intelligently—the concept of vinyasa karma.” Quoting at length:

“First I must ask: what do you mean by “intelligently”? You are probably familiar with the argument that doing the headstand brings more blood into the head. Somebody who has the feeling that the blood supply to the head is not good enough then comes to the conclusion that the headstand is the best asana for them. But first we should think this through. Do we all suffer from a deficient supply of the blood to the head simply because we stand and walk upright? Suppose that someone is haunted by this idea so much that he begin to practice the headstand every day, if possible first thing in the morning, perhaps as the first and only asana. Our experience in working with all kinds of people has taught us that people who do this eventually suffer from enormous problems in the neck, that then result in great tension and stiffness in that area and a decreased supply of blood to the whole musculature of the neck—precisely the opposite of what they hoped they would achieve.

An intelligent approach to yoga practice means that, before you begin, you are clear about the various aspects of the asana you wish to practice, and know how to prepare for them in such a way that you reduce or negate any undesired effects. With regard to the headstand, for example, the questions are: is my neck prepared for this? Can I breathe well in the asana? Is my back strong enough to raise the entire weight of my legs? To approach your practice intelligently means that you know the implications of what you want to do, whether that be asana or pranayama, and to make appropriate preparations and adjustments. It is not enough to jump if you want to reach the sky. Taking an intelligent approach means working toward your goal step-by-step. If you want to travel overseas, the first thing you need is a passport. Then you need visas for the countries you intend to visit, and so forth. The simple fact that you want to go there does not make the trip possible. All learning follows this pattern.” (ibid, xx)

Forward fold. Sort of. Mostly.

In modern yoga, we may at any time be working with these four basic definitions of vinyasa (I’ve ranked them from most common understanding to least-known):

  1. A type of yoga class—now-a-days sometimes even assumed to be a “flow” class.
  2. A specific sequence of breath-synchronized movements to transition between sustained postures, a shorthand for: plank, chatturanga, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog
  3. The linking of body movement with breath
  4. Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal

“Vinyasa means a gradual progression or a step-by-step approach that systematically and appropriately takes a student from one point and safely lands them at the next point. It is sometimes described as the “breathing system,” or the union of breath and movement that make up the steps.” Maty Ezraty

Styles of yoga that a commonly considered to be vinyasa based on their relationship to Ashtanga yoga include Baptiste Yoga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, and Prana Flow. I also consider my home lineage, Forrest Yoga, to be a vinyasa practice for two main reasons:

  1. How strongly we link the breath to motions. Not always “big” movements, as are often expected, but smaller more internal actions as well.
  2. How we always set a strong intent for the practice with a specified asana goal, as well as a goal for internal work, and then set about creating an intelligent pathway towards success.

Often, in my classes, students find that they are able to accomplish things that they previously had never done before. These results are the effects of skillful vinyasa—it’s the responsibility of the teacher to help guide our students towards successful outcomes, in the form of asana accomplishments and internal breakthroughs.

Half Lift

Often in my classes, students have the experience of breathing more, and more deeply than they ever have. This is the result of vinyasa—the deep union of breath with actions small and large.

The aspect of vinyasa that intrigues me the most, is the potential for teaching people about how to reach their own goals in their lives. Step by step, intelligent action towards an asana goal feels a certain way. It contains elements of making a decision about where you want to go, studying the possible routes, deciding on a course, taking deliberate action, making course corrections on the way, cultivating patience and determination together, faith in the process, surrender to the mystery, and celebration upon arrival.

If we teach our people about these things in class, and dissuade them from the things that will impede their progress—impatience, ego, lack of a plan, use of undo force, giving up, just to name a few—then we will be giving them incredible life skills. This is part of why teaching yoga can be so powerful: you have an opportunity to model for your students decisions and actions that will lead them down a path to success, and then encourage them to find similar experiences on their own.

Vinyasa is so much more than it seems on the surface. Vinyasa is a way of living life. Vinyasa is a form of critical thinking that will help people move towards their successes. Vinyasa is a about skillful teaching, learning, and the process of living feeling empowered.

Make THIS definition of vinyasa the one that comes to the fore whenever you hear the word, and it will change your perspective forever:

Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal.

Downward Facing Dog

For those of you that don’t live in our fair city of New York, I hope that you’ll check out my Sound Cloud channel, where I have many, many “Forrest Inspired Vinyasa” classes up for you to take. On friendly online “stalker” made my day by writing this about me: You have teaching perfected. Seriously. Tone of voice and perfect blend of seriousness and humor. Like hanging out with a friend that will call you on your shit.  DANG GIRL! MY WORK HERE IS DONE: PERFECTION ATTAINED! haha. Click HERE to see of you agree with her! 

And, if you’re on the East Coast, I and my buddy Leslie Pearlman teach a weekend module about Forrest Yoga & Forrest Inspired Vinyasa. We’re available to teach it at your studio, or if you’re free the first weekend in March (2017), join us at her studio for what will be an incredible weekend of knowledge. Click HERE to read about the modular  300 hour training of which this weekend is a part. If you want a description of the module, just reach out in the comments, and I’ll email it to you.

Bye for now. Keep being awesome.

~E

 

31 Things I’ve Learned about Love in My Short Time Here on Earth

31 Things I’ve Learned about Love in My Short Time Here on Earth

 

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  1. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll get love from the people we’d like to feel it from
  2. It’s not guaranteed that we’ll get love the WAY we want from the people we wish would deliver in a specific way (even if we provide clear instructions)
  3. Love is a feeling AND a practice
  4. There is not always a direct corollary between being loved and feeling loved
  5. More people probably love you than you think
  6. Feeling love for someone, and making them FEEL loved are not the same thing
  7. The Golden Rule is a good place to start, but it doesn’t always work
  8. Not everyone wants to be loved the way YOU want to be loved
  9. Animals are great teachers in the practice of love
  10. The spontaneous love I feel for animals is something I quest for when I comes to humans
  11. Some people inspire love more spontaneously than others
  12. That doesn’t mean others are “less lovable”
  13. With our many flaws we all can benefit from the gracious allocation of love from people who have enough to give
  14. Love is a terrible catch-all term for many emotions that can come in a dizzying array of often-confusing composites…
  15. To love well, you must learn to love as many different ways as there are beings in your life
  16. Loving someone sometimes makes me bend my personal boundaries on their behalf…not always to everyone’s advantage
  17. Loving is a practice of looking deeply, understanding the suffering of another, and cultivating our capacity to remove their suffering
  18. I’m not a fan of the ooey-gooey teaching about love. It’s easy enough to say “love is the way” (#truth!), but without concrete teaching on HOW I’m left feeling incredibly unsatisfied
  19. Loving takes a strong heart. There will inevitably be pain involved
  20. A broken heart is a heart that is wide open to the world
  21. Heart practices are critical to the cultivation of a loving countenance and behaviors
  22. It’s helpful to others if we have an idea of how we would like to be loved. It begins to create a roadmap. Whether or not the people around us will use it is an entirely separate matter
  23. Love early and often. Better to speak our minds and hearts than to regret later that we didn’t
  24. A helpful question to guide our behavior is “what would love do?”
  25. Time spent loving is never time wasted
  26. I’d like to believe that everyone is born capable of loving
  27. I’d bet that the loving a human receives early on directly impacts their capacity to learn loving behaviors later
  28. “Deserving” is a loaded word when it comes to love
  29. Love can be transactional, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing
  30. I’m not sure unconditional love really exists, or if it does it is exceedingly rare
  31. “The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom” ~bell hooks

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