A Suffering Animal & the Navy Seals: The Journey from Weakness into the Brave Heart of a Yogi.
The sound of a whimpering dog always breaks my heart.
If there is anything I can do to alleviate the suffering of an animal, I will do it. So when I heard a little puppy’s desperate screams while teaching yoga I felt obliged to go and see what kind of animal abuse was being done. When I walked outside to find out, the receptionist told me that it was a small dog being trained to sit and stay.
The animal was being shown a doggie treat and asked to hold a position in order to get the treat. Being young and untrained the animal cried out in pain from not being granted the freedom to eat the treat. The trainers were not being mean, they were not beating the animal or hurting it, they were simply asking it to delay gratification and learn a basic dog training exercise.
The cruel and unusual punishment was just a notion created by my lack of perspective.
The ‘suffering’ I wanted to save the little animal from was the very the basis of the training that would allow it to function well as a pet. Since I was teaching Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga when all of this happened, I could not help but to see a good teaching story coming together.
The desperate state of mind that we fall into when we do not get immediately what we want or when things are difficult is the sound of the suffering animal within us being trained. Actually in the class that I was leading there was one student who made a small whimper every time a posture or movement was difficult. When I asked her if she was in pain she would invariably say no, just that she felt it was really hard. This sound came out of her in a subliminal manner without her even realizing it. This little whimper also came directly before she would quit and give up on the challenging movement.
Since I was helping her in almost all of these postures within our weeklong course, I had this sense that if she could gain control of this part of her nervous system then she would gain strength and clarity in her practice and perhaps also in her life. When we talked about the relationship between her “suffering animal” sound and quitting when postures were difficult she said that the sound must be subconscious because she wasn’t even aware of it.
When we returned to the practice and worked on one of the hardest movements for her, a deep backbend from the Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series, she was steady and calm, quiet and focused and actually able to go through the whole movement with strength. By concentrating the mind with the power of yoga she was able to rein in the involuntary urge to give up, give in, whimper and quit when things were difficult.
We all have our sounds of suffering: a grunt, a whimper, an exhale through the mouth or just a slouchy posture.
When these arise as a knee-jerk reaction to what you are experiencing and you allow that reaction to guide your actions, this pattern has a dangerous hold over you. To a larger degree the lesson of yoga is about gaining control over the nervous system when you stand in the face of panic, pain, stress and challenge. In this way yoga is actually meant as a training of the mind to prepare it to face adversity with a balanced emotional state.
If you have the energy to make a noise and grunt, you have energy to give to the posture or movement. Instead of just releasing the potency of the moment in a sound, try to direct your energy inward to the inner body and utilize the urgency of the moment to delve deeper within.
What you do when faced with these feelings will largely determine how you are able to adapt and move forward in your life.
If you collapse, quit, give up and give in to the suffering animal inside of yourself rather than train the mind to be steady and calm in the face of pain or danger than you are setting yourself up for failure. In order to work through painful and difficult circumstances the mind must learn how to be strong and balanced, clear and compassionate.
I am not above all of this, in fact, as a student of yoga I am right in the middle of it. As I am learning the Ashtanga Yoga Fourth Series there is a posture called Parivrttasana A & B that pushes me to the point of doubt, panic, confusion and pain. The suffering animal inside of me cries out. To be honest when I practice alone sometimes I just let myself grunt and whine. But after practicing it for a little while I can see the benefits of this posture on many levels. This intensive movement has strengthened my back and evened out my slight scoliosis.
Learning this movement has brought up deep emotions that have at times, frightened me, but I kept going and now feel much more clarity. Yoga is the process of training the mind to remain steady through whatever arises and through that freedom gain control over the direction and the flow of consciousness.
Here’s a clip so you can see the first part of the posture that I’m talking about. The second one, Parivrttasana B, which is the same thing as A except from handstand, is still too horrible and noisy to share. I’ll post a clip once I get better at it.
A student asked me once if there was a posture that “broke” me. If so, this is it. Parivttasana A & B broke my conception of spatial orientation, challenged what I believed possible for my body, disturbed my breathing and destroyed my boundaries for what I thought the practice is. I would never have done it without being guided by Sharath in Mysore.
When I first did these two postures in the middle of shala in Mysore for the first time I remember literally not knowing up from down, right from left, inhale from exhale and feeling only fear, panic and uncertainty. It was my Hell week. For those of who don’t know what that is, in the rigorous training to become a Navy Seal there is a period called Hell week that breaks most potential candidates. There is one particular point in the training where the most Navy Seal trainees are disqualified—the practiced assault on the air supply in a diving pool.
This moment is critical because it trains potential Navy Seals in the distinguished skill of combat diving. When people are faced with lack of oxygen and the inability to breathe most of the training given falls away and sheer panic takes over. When the breath is compromised the panic response is triggered in the brain, fear sets in and a whole host of other biochemical reactions are set in to play that undermine the mind’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand.
While yoga is not a Navy Seal training and the people who give their lives to the Armed Forces for our safety deserve our full respect, their training can teach us how to work with our mind when faced with difficult postures that restrict the breath. In a posture like backbends many students feel a shortening of breath, tightening of the air tube, an inability to breath and the ensuing panic that brings them out of the posture. Some people might say that in that case the student should not do the posture.
But yoga is about learning to balance the mind so that it meets pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion with the same steadiness.
If you run from the difficult places, especially those that are related to difficulty with breathing, there will essentially always be something you will need to run from. But if you can maintain the balance of your mind and steadily walk through the inner work that trains the consciousness to be singular and focused you will feel the power of the yoga practice at work. You will develop the courage of a Navy Seal.
The U.S. government studied the effects of Hell week and scientists found that there are four tools that prospective candidates can use in order to help them pass this grueling test. The first tool is self-talk.
If you are able to maintain both careful and clear directions to yourself throughout the exercise and your inner dialogue is positive this will help you. In other words you need to be your own coach. Second, if you mentally rehearse or practice the activity while maintaining a positive emotional outlook this will prepare your nervous system to be calm when you experience it. Third, set small attainable goals in order for you to measure your success and pace yourself through the movement. And fourth, gain control over your state of arousal through breath control.
There is great wisdom in this four-step guide to training the mind to stay focused when faced with difficulty. Whenever you feel lost within your own body or on the verge of panic you have to talk to yourself. It is a way of training the mind to be present. Find a small, effective anatomical or technical pointer to set your mind on and repeat it mentally while going into the movement you are most challenged by. This will help steady your mind and increase your body’s ability to move through the posture. Following the second step visualize the posture that is your greatest obstacle. Play it like a movie in your mind’s eye, analyze each step and feel your way through it.
The Ashtanga Yoga practice already gives you a small, attainable goal for each posture. All you have to do is hold the posture for five breaths and then move on. Finally, breath control is a crucial component of the Ashtanga Yoga method. Equalize length of inhalation and exhalation by applying the Ashtanga Yoga breathing, based in the Ujjayi Pranayama and your mind will remain calm.
The physical yoga practice is actually designed to create scenarios where you experience panic, stress and other strong emotions so that you can build the brave heart of a yogi to go directly into those scary places and remain calm and steady. Shortness of breath does not always arise in difficult postures. It can take over your experience of a relatively easy posture one day for no apparent reason. When it does the yoga is actually just beginning.
Think of your practice like diving to the depths of your own consciousness with the courageous heart of a Navy Seal. When the posture is difficult it is your training working to uncover hidden weakness and destructive patterns. Don’t just release the sound of a suffering animal and quit. Imagine yourself with all the strength of a Navy Seal and follow the directive through the four steps to train the mind. Talk to yourself, visualize a positive outcome, set the goal for five breaths and regain control of inhalation and exhalation. Soon you will experience the real benefit of the practice and have a calm clear mind that can meet all experiences with grace and strength.
Before the yoga practice we are all just small suffering animals, but with consistent effort we can all develop the power of a trained mind and a courageous heart.