Stress and Its Deconstruction through Simple Breath Control

You live in a suburban Canadian area. Today you’re driving along upon a clear road.

You feel stressed. So much to do! Can’t even visualize getting it all done. Wishing you hadn’t committed to that project, and barely able to contain your anticipation of that warm-weather holiday you have planned for a month or so out.

And then, you get stuck behind a pokey driver who gets through the intersection on a yellow and you are left having to stop at yet another red light. You start to tap, even pound, on your steering wheel. All kinds of thoughts rush through your brain, from blaming yourself for not getting an earlier start to criticizing the other people on the road for just being there. The thoughts don’t stop there, though. If you were paying attention, you would start to notice that you are blaming the traffic engineers and politicians for not better planning and funding the transportation system, and even feeling resentful of your clients and people with whom you work.

You remember, if you’re lucky, what your counselor told you, what you’ve read in “O” magazine, or what you’ve learned in yoga class: Get into your body, now! It will get you into the moment – – – the true, unadulterated moment in which your mind is not able to indiscriminately fabricate all sorts of nonsense that causes you to suffer unduly.

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Expectations Can Be CAPTIVating

You head to yoga class pumped to do a vigorous heating practice but discover that your teacher has planned a restorative session. You make your way through terrible traffic and crazy weather when you’d rather be at home only to find that your teacher isn’t quite himself that week.  You spend class building up to do an unassisted handstand, only to find that you are too tired to accomplish the final posture.

Sometimes our experience with yoga isn’t what we envision.

Erich Schiffmann, a yoga master, describes his arrival in India to practice with a famed teacher:

india-pollutionMy first reaction was repulsion.  If I could have, I would have turned around and left immediately.  The smells, the sounds, the noise, the people, the traffic, the smoke, the water, the pollution, every form of disease walking down the street . . . was all so strange.  My first thought was, “I came HERE to learn yoga?” This place was filthy.  I had always associated yoga with purity, cleanliness, Krishnamurti, the Buddha statue . . . and this is where it was born?

The common thread in all of these scenarios is expectation. In life, prudence tells us to manage our expectations and avoid disappointment. But I think it goes deeper than simply avoiding disappointment, and yoga practice is a good place to practice.

When we have a choice, we almost inevitably choose the pleasurable things and avoid the uncomfortable situations.  It is near impossible, though, to be able to fully anticipate what circumstance we might encounter.  Further, to try to do so likely would render us neurotic.

The truth is that most suffering comes from thinking things should be different than they are.  Expectation captivates us, holds us captive.  An alternative is to learn to comfortably meet whatever comes our way.

One of my teachers, Judith Hansen Lasater, wrote in a book that I asked her to sign, “May you live like the lotus:  at home in the muddy water.”  It was for a very good reason that famed mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, wrote a book entitled Full Catastrophe Living.   A Christian weekend workshop I recently attended was called “The Other Side of Chaos.”  What I found is that on the other side of chaos is MORE chaos.

There is a recognition amongst spiritual masters that disarray, lack of control, upheaval, having things different than we expect, is the natural way of things.  As a matter of fact, one of the major reasons to practice yoga postures, breath, and meditation is to learn to relax hold of expectation, of craving things to be a certain way and doing everything possible to avoid having them be something different from what is desired.

But that’s easier said than done.

As a yoga teacher, I discovered recently how reliant I had become on my body working in a certain way.  Even as I worked with uncomfortable body sensations and difficult emotions, my  dis-ease was sensed by those around me.

I thought I was being present to myself and honouring the fact that I had an injury.  After all, yoga is possible with injuries.  But I realized later that aversion can be a sneaky animal; I was not in the moment at all.  Had I stayed present, I wouldn’t have projected a diagnosis and prognosis onto my situation.  Worry and anxiety are signs that one is not present.  What’s really interesting is that I am embarrassed about having made such a big deal about an injury that resolved itself very quickly.    Further, I notice that the embarrassment prevents me from fully enjoying the ability to use a perfectly healthy body.

From what Erich Schiffmann said of his first impression of India, you can see that his expectation of what yoga should be resulted in disappointment that the atmosphere was not what he thought it should be.  Might I suggest that you look at your own expectations of what you think your yoga class should be, what “energy” you think you need to be present into order to feel nourished?

Erich Schiffman says, “It requires tremendous courage willingly to release all of our firmly held beliefs and face ourselves directly.  Courage is required because we don’t know what we’ll find.”

Part of the learning of yoga is to approach practice as an adventure, not a routine. Some of my biggest breakthroughs in yoga practice and in life have occurred when I got something I didn’t think I wanted. I am learning to trust that my wants and needs are not always the same.  I invite you to stay curious about the process, while relaxing any expectation about what “should” be happening.

Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving, dear friends!

Recently I heard from someone that, given the rough year through which she had just lived, she was going to rename Thanksgiving to “Pilgrims’ Day.” She just didn’t feel very thankful.

Her declaration caused me to reflect on a number of different levels. (I have a monkey mind, you see.)

First, how insightful for this person to be in touch with her feelings of lack and victimization. And then to be brave enough to share the emotion with someone else! Awareness and exposing our “shadow sides” to the light of day truly are foundations of personal transformation.

And then I thought about the sage advice of making lemons out of lemonade, which she had just done. She wasn’t giving up on the idea of a harvest celebration all together, but simply was depersonalizing it, allowing it to be someone else’s ritual in which she might take a secondary role.

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