Week before last, I attended my teacher Sage Rountree‘s fantastic Sequencing Yoga Classes from Welcome to Namaste five-day teachers’ intensive at Carrboro Yoga Company, as part of one of my two 500-hour advanced yoga studies programs. (Yes, I am now enrolled in TWO 500-hour trainings. The other one is at Asheville Yoga Center. Yoga geek, much?) On Wednesday after our full nine-to-five day of training, I headed over to the Human Rights Center to teach yoga to the Sustain Foundation program participants and volunteers, a class I do for free as karma yoga, or selfless service. (It’s not totally selfless–I get back just as much as I give, possibly more, but that’s another post!) I stayed for a few minutes after the class, answering questions and chatting with students and others around the HRC. By the time I grabbed some tofu pad thai from Weaver Street Market and came home, it was nearly 9:00 p.m., and I had another full day starting just before 9:00 a.m. on Thursday. I took a hot shower, administered China Gel to sore areas, scarfed my pad thai, and settled into bed with my current yoga-related novel, Downward-Facing Death by Neal Pollack. (Hilarious! Do look for an in-depth piece from me on yoga-related memoir and fiction soon, published here or possibly elsewhere. And again, I digress…)
I got a few pages in and realized my skin was dry following that super hot shower, so I got up, located my lavender lotion, and slathered it on. Back into my snuggle spot. A few pages later I realized, “I still have a vanilla cupcake!” I had purchased two the day before and somehow managed not to eat both in one sitting (a feat of self-discipline for me, I assure you). I darted out of bed to fetch the precious cupcake. Oh yeah. I greatly and quickly enjoyed it, crumbs everywhere, and realized I had dropped a little icing on my shirt. Since I have no shame when it comes to sweets, I scraped it off my shirt and licked it off my finger in one motion. Then, “Yuck!” The white goo on my shirt had not been icing, but lavender lotion, which I now know smells good but does not taste good (you’re welcome). What my mind had perceived as icing was lotion. Misperception. You might be thinking, “Who cares? You ate some lotion. Get over it.” I am over it, but as another of my teachers (and Sutra scholar extraordinaire), Allison Dennis Collins, reminded us in class on Friday night, we’re surrounded by teachers. Everything and everyone can be our teacher if we give them our mindful attention. Misperception is my teacher in this situation. I am reminded to eat more slowly, with mindfulness, and that things are not always as they appear.
In chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali discusses five klesas, or obstacles, to the state of yoga (not asana or poses, but the state of freedom that results from practice on the path of Raja Yoga). The root klesa out of which all others arise is avidya, ignorance. The others are asmita (ego), raga (attachment, wanting), dvesha (aversion, not wanting), and abinivesha (fear of death or fear that things will change once we get our ducks in a row). On Wednesday night, I experienced misperception, a manifestation of avidya. I really believed that lotion was icing, until I discovered from my direct experience that it was not. (Geek note: Sutra 1.8 regarding “incorrect knowing” also comes to mind in this situation, and might be a more precise way to describe it, but is more difficult for me to articulate at this point.)
In The Wisdom of No Escape, Pema Chodron describes this situation a little differently, but still emphasizes our wanting/attachment and not wanting/aversion as causes of suffering:
“[The Buddha] taught that there is a kind of innocent misunderstanding that we all share, something that can be turned around, corrected, and seen through, as if we were in a dark room and someone showed us where the light switch was. It isn’t a sin that we are in the dark room. It’s just an innocent situation, but how fortunate that someone shows us where the light switch is. It brightens up our life considerably…The innocent mistake that keeps us caught up in our own particular style of ignorance, unkindness, and shut-downness is that we are never encouraged to see clearly what is, with gentleness. Instead, there’s a kind of basic misunderstanding that we should try to be better than we already are, that we should try to improve ourselves, that we should try to learn to get away from painful things, and that if we could just learn how to get away from the painful things, then we would be happy…The problem is that the desire to change is fundamentally a form of aggression toward yourself.”
So how do Patanjali and Pema Chodron tell us to handle misperception or “the innocent mistake”? Patanjali says kriya yoga is the way to go–tapas (disciplined effort), svadhyaya (Self-study, inquiry into the sacred texts and into our own hearts), and isvara pranidhana (surrender to something higher [e.g., God]). Pema Chodron offers the following suggestions, which are similar to Patanjali’s prescription: see clearly with precision, approach the situation with gentleness, then let go.
The fact that I ate some lotion doesn’t matter, but these mundane situations that arise in our lives every day give us the opportunity to train for the big ones. They are our teachers. They allow us to cultivate equanimity in the small things, so when we have an argument with a precious friend, we can act skillfully. Asana provides the same opportunity: we come to our mats to make shapes with our bodies, shapes that in and of themselves don’t matter. To quote Sage, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” So, although whether we achieve an “advanced” expression of hanumanasana (splits pose) or not is irrelevant in the big picture, how we approach the pose (or any other pose) is very important. Have we told ourselves a story about it before we’ve even started? (“I can’t do splits. My hamstrings are too tight. I hate this pose. I hate this teacher.”) One of the best uses of our time on our mats is took look, with honesty (satya) and precision at our mental and visceral reactions to the things we’re asked to do in class. Do you cringe every time a teacher suggests you find a partner for an exercise? Could you be avoiding connection with others, or just be feeling unwilling to try something new? There’s so much we can find out about ourselves on the mat if we can just set the intention to pay attention to reality, moment to moment, as it’s unfolding and try to keep letting go of the stories, the wanting/attachments, and the not wanting/aversions.
As always, I am open to discussion, comments, questions, and new ideas. Please post them freely.
The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun whose teachings are very influential in my life