“As we practice alone, but together, we explore potent practices that open the heart and mind to insight, intimacy, and interconnection with all life.”
I recently posted the quote above in a Yoga for Grief Support Participant Group,
followed by this:
How are you all doing this week? What have your practices looked like, and what
insights have you had?
Once it was posted, I felt a bit sheepish...because I have to admit that I haven’t been on
my yoga mat once. So, then I left the following comment:
"I haven’t been doing ANY yoga. I think about doing it a lot but haven’t got down on
the floor to do anything formal. I’ve been stretching in the shower and taking deep
breaths before I fall asleep. Lots of reasons for this: my brain is DONE at the end of the
day being one reason, and the second is we have a puppy at home and he is ALL
OVER me if I am on the floor (or the couch, or anywhere really)! Oh well- yoga will be
there when it feels more possible.”
I was trying to communicate that sometimes yoga takes a back seat to other things, and
that is OK. And it is, but...
I’ve realized that this rhetoric is a really narrow way of viewing yoga and it’s place
in my life.
Let me explain:
A few weeks ago, I was messaging with a friend of mine who practices yoga and
mindfulness. We were talking about people who were choosing to not physically
distance during the Covid pandemic and wondering why they weren’t, when the
risk of spread was so high.
“Is it our yoga that keeps us somewhat mindful?” my friend asked.
“I totally think that yoga and mindfulness makes people comfortable with discomfort," I replied, "I also think those practices keep us grounded and allow us to understand
interconnectedness and unity."
The restrictions that are placed on us right now, have the potential to make us more
“itchy.” We are itching for our favorite restaurant food. Itching to get campsites booked
and summer plans made. Itching to have a patio beer with our friends. Itching for all this
Covid stuff to be DONE.
“Everyone wants to scratch the itch," she said.
“Learning to recognize the itch and not scratch it is exactly it,” I said. “It’s all just mind-
stuff – craving, desire, habits – becoming aware of these and disengaging from their
power over us is what mindfulness and meditation are trying to teach."
*Mindfulness is an umbrella term for both formal practices (meditation and yoga are examples) and
informal practices (mindful awareness as you move through your day). Mindfulness is an intentional
quality of attention. You pay attention, on purpose, simply for the sake of non-judgmental noticing. You
notice the habits of the mind - the monkey mind, the habits, the cravings - but you create a gap between
their stimulus and your response. Mindfulness slows everything down so it can be captured in awareness,
and then asks, "What is the next right thing?"
Therefore, I must correct myself. I haven’t been doing yoga asana (the postures), but I’ve been very yogic and mindful in how I am living.
Most people think only of the physical poses when they think of yoga. In reality however, the poses (or asanas) are only a small part of a yoga practice. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refer to 8 limbs (or parts) of a yoga practice. You can read more about them here, but in this post I’ll give you examples about being yogic in Covid times.
Limbs 1 and 2 - the Yamas and Niyamas:
The first two limbs are about ethical and moral principles.
The Yamas reflect how you are in the world and include non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-hoarding and how we use and direct our energy.
Covid living requires sensitivity towards public health ethics, and makes us critically look
at how our actions affect others in the world. I’m aware of, and understand how my actions may hurt other people, and I am choosing to live in a way that significantly limits harm. more vulnerable people.
I am self-isolating, washing my hands, wearing a mask in public places. I'm truthful and honest with myself and others about my exposure risks, which is required in my vocation as I work in a hospital with vulnerable patients (immuno-compromised and end of life). I don’t steal personal protective equipment from work as I know that front line workers need it and there are limited quantities. I have yet to hoard toilet paper.
I’m no longer just thinking about getting groceries – I’m thinking of how we are all connected – I’m thinking of the people who are picking the fruit, transporting it, stocking the shelves, scanning the items through check out. I am aware of how we are mutually responsible to each other.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how to use my energy wisely and have come to the
conclusion that I can only do what I can do, and I've stopped fretting about what
others are doing.
This ethical and moral action in the world does not preclude the oath that I have to myself. The second limb, the Niyamas encompass individual observances to remain healthy and well. It includes: taking care of my body (using my neti pot, hand hygiene, rest, hydration), contentment (ie. not waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain), discipline (creating a routine and structure to my day), self-study and self-reflection (I’ve been reading, journaling, analyzing my dreams) and spiritual practices.
All of this has made me aware of my cravings and my habits. Slowing down has made me look more clearly at the choices I am making in all aspects of my life. I am more mindful by necessity, which by the way, is exhausting because I’m no longer living on autopilot and habit.
Limb 3, 4 and 5 - Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara:
The next 3 limbs encompass the yoga postures, breath work and turning your attention inward. I've already established that I haven't been consistent at all with doing the physical postures of yoga, but I have been moving my body on a regular basis. I’ve been breathing deeply before bed as I fall asleep. I’m aware of my inner state – my fatigue, my energy levels and my bandwidth. At work, I’m required to report to complete a health symptom screen which forces me to pay attention to my body.
The yogic art of this is knowing where the line is between awareness/assessment versus obsession/panic (some days it's a moving target), which brings me to the last few limbs of yoga...
The 6th Limb - Dharana:
Concentration: focusing the mind on ONE thing, not everything.
The potential for distraction into a slough of bad news is high right now. Mindfulness meditation and yoga have taught me that my mind, by it's very nature, tends towards distraction, problem solving, organizing and planning. Living in the reality of Covid reveals that we simply DO NOT KNOW the duration, path or outcome out of this. The mind does not like this uncertainty, and therefore tries even harder to figure it all out.
I'm aware of this. I'm also aware of the power and choice that I have to disengage from the merry-go-round of thinking that is so easy to spiral into. Basically, I try to think about one thing, not everything. I’m not multi-thinking, or multi-tasking and it's been quite lovely.
The 7th and 8th Limb - Dhyana and Samadhi:
These two limbs, meditative absorption (Dhyana) and bliss (Samadhi), arise spontaneously as a result of all of the other elements of yoga combined.
These limbs do not describe an escape to bliss, rather, realizing peace in your life, exactly as it is, without disturbance of your thoughts, judgments, habits, distractions, or distorted perceptions.
The literal meaning of the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj, which
means to join or unite. Covid has made me consider union on a broader scale, including all humans around the world but also extending beyond to plants, animals and the earth. We have all seen how our past actions have negatively affected the planet, and in recent weeks, how our current actions have created the space for the earth to regenerate and heal.
Having looked at Covid under the philosophy and framework of yoga, we can circle back to the quote that started this post, and read it again:
“As we practice alone, but together, we explore potent practices that open the heart
and mind to insight, intimacy, and interconnection with all life.”
―Mark Karly Coleman
For me, it takes on a whole new meaning.
As it turns out, I've been practicing yoga this whole time <3