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“The Wise Motions of Life”: Where does your energy go?

October 1, 2013


I recently read the phrase “the wise motions of life” in the work of author Lorin Roche.  I am not sure yet what he means by term, but it sparked a reflection on the theme of how we apply what we learn on the mat to life.

I have said before that physical yoga is often taught as a “stand alone” practice, divorced from the other “limbs” of yoga which include meditation, ethics and spiritual practice, etc.  And maybe this is fine.  If we do nothing but use yoga to get in shape, to calm ourselves, to heal our bodies, that’s cool; but as a religious thinker (and someone who has been deeply influenced by the Hindu tradition from which yoga comes), I tend to want to go beyond that, to the metaphorical level, to not just “do” yoga but to think about what yoga means in our lives.

As the Zen Buddhist teacher Cheri Huber says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

One thing I have been thinking about since completing the 60 hot classes in 60 days carnival is a concept that arose often during the classes: where is it important to put energy?

In other words, in certain postures, it is important (for both proper practice and safety) to engage muscles with focus and intention, but at the same time it is not necessary to engage … oh, say, my aching jaw. In Tuladandasana (balancing stick), for example, it is vital to protect the knee of the standing leg by engaging the quadriceps muscles, but it is not vital (or helpful, or good for you) to grab the floor with your toes so hard that your put permanent wrinkles in your lovely mat.

In other words, every yoga posture teaches us something about where our energy goes and also where we might be holding unnecessarily.  For many of us, this can often involve clenched teeth, jaws, toes, shoulders – the places we put tension when we are in fight or flight mode.

So, as much as yoga teaches about how to engage postures, it also teaches us to notice where we are holding tightly or tensing in ways that are not necessary and that can actually sap energy, directing our vitality to places that are superfluous or even harmful.

One of the six sacred vows I have lived by for some time is to “have no enemies”; this year I added to that the idea of also having “no stories of enemies” by which I mean to address a problem I have with my whirring, worrying mind filling the blanks with fictional narratives that cause me great distress. Here’s how it works:

Once upon a time a man’s car broke down in the middle of the Nebraska wheat fields.  He remembered a farm house about a mile back up the road and so he set out to borrow a jack. As he walked, he thought, “What is the farmer won’t lend me jack?”
He walked further and thought, “What if the guy is a real son of a gun and charges me to use his jack?!”
On and on he went with these worst case scenarios about what would happen when he arrived at the farmer’s door, and when he finally got there, full of stories of everything terrible thing the farmer might do, he pounded on the door and when the farmer answered – ready to offer help – the driver said to him, “You can keep your damn jack!” and stomped away empty handed.

The inner narrative can create realities that do us great harm.  We put a lot of energy into what is not necessary.  On the mat this can mean holding energy into muscles that are not relevant to a posture.  In life, we waste precious energy on worries, fears, hatreds and other narratives that truly mislead us mentally and emotionally.

Lately as much as I have focused on alignment and strength in postures, I am also bringing consciousness to where I can let go within those postures.  This is an underlying idea of Yin-style yoga as well.   When offering classes in Yin style, my teacher Sandy would ask us over and over as we moved through the postures, “Where can you let go a little bit more?”

In the end it is life lesson: we need to put energy out, to be in the world, to grow in strength, but wise motion, on the mat and in our lives, also reminds us to be aware of where energy doesn’t need to go.

So as you move through your postures, especially if you are in a strongly “yang” practice like ashtanga, vinyasa or hot yoga, bring simultaneous awareness to places where you don’t need to hold, clench and tense moment by moment.   Over time this multidimensional consciousness, a term from Lama Anagarika Govinda’s Creative Meditation and Multidimensional Consciousness, will become part of thinking off the mat as well.  Lama Govinda writes,

Just as the archer concentrates on his aim and becomes one with it in order to hit the mark with certainty, so the meditator must first identify himself with the aim and feel one with it. This gives impetus and direction to his striving. … [She]  will neither get lost in the desert of discrimination and dissection, nor cling to the products of [her] imagination . . . [emphasis mine]

Knowing when to hold, when to let go, where it is necessary to engage and where we can step back, consciously choosing which narratives we want to allow to fill our heads and hearts, truly make for a wise of way of living both on the mat and in our lives.

-Rabbi Chava Bahle

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