Yogi Assignment: Listen
Learning to truly listen is a skill that applies the core teaching of yoga to daily life. If you learn how to translate the lesson of deep inner listening through a cultivated state of mindfulness it can really change the quality of your relationships. But first, as always in yoga, you have to start with yourself.
Yoga asks you to redirect your mind to the inner world. Instead of looking outside of yourself, yoga asks you to look within. Deep in the inner realms of spiritual practice you cultivate a heightened sense of the inner world. There is an inner sound called nadam in Sanskrit that becomes evident when the waters of the mind still and your attention is directed inward. Inner listening could be considered an art form, something that requires both empathy, presence and spontaneity. Nadam is sometimes also called OM or the mystical sound of light. To truly hear at this deep level is to merge snd bear witness to the Divine presence under all things. This holy vibration is the sonic presence that the rishis of ancient India heard in deep states of meditative absorption. Nada Yoga is the yoga of sound, or it could be called, the yoga of inner listening.
Listening is intimately connected to feeling and therefore also to the heart. Pratyahara, the fifth limb of the Ashtanga Yoga method, is often translated as sense withdrawn. I like to think of this a little more pragmatically. Rather than turning the senses off, try understanding pratyahara are a redirection of the objects of the sense organs to the inner world. It is a choice to orient towards the sacred space within instead of the endlessly changing material world without. This shift in focus may seem subtle, but in fact it it a huge pivot away from all the traps of the samsara, the poison of conditioned existence. As long as you are defined by anything other than the truth of the spirit within yourself, your identity is build on shaky foundation. You will be rocked by a ceaseless barrage of external stimuli that manifest as pleasure and pain. The journey of life will be rocky and you will only hear what is outside of yourself. But if you turn your mind away from the chaos surrounding you and dive deeply into the primordial sound you will see yourself as the timeless, eternal being that you really are. Don’t expect this type of transformational experience to happen in your first few attempts of meditation and yoga practice. Expect to put in the work over many years of practice. Think of listening for the OM under all things as entering into a temple of the Most High. It is your humility, demonstrated by perseverant practice and the absence of pride and ego that permit your entry to these lofty realms.
While the highest goal of yoga may be far off for many of us, it’s important to remember that the path of yoga is a radical spiritual journey with the highest aim. On a practical level, most of us, myself included, spend the majority of time in the trenches of our minds. We sit down to meditate and our minds get lost in meaningless dialogue about the past or projecting in the future. The basic training of calling the mind back to presence is not easy. It requires patience, kindness and determination. When we practice yoga we get lost in the asanas themselves and conflate handstands with enlightenment. Understanding the true goal of yoga helps you learn how to listen to your body. I often say that the purpose of the practice is to learn how to feel your body and stop judging it. You could also say that the purpose of practice is to learn how to listen to your body. Listening and feelings are tied together. You cannot really listen to your body or anyone or anything else unless you’re willing to let it come into your heart and impact you.
Listening in yoga happens as a multi-senstory experiences akin to synesthesia. Think back to the last time you felt discomfort in a yoga pose. If you’re practicing deep backbends it might be useful to remember the last time you got pushed to your edge in a backbend. While I’m not encouraging anyone to push too hard in any pose, the reality is that backbends are often hard and trigger intense physical and emotional sensations. If you ever feel any pain in your joints while in any yoga pose I recommend that you calmly come out and back off. The last time I was pushed to my limits in a backbend was when my teacher, R. Sharath Jois, assisted me in Tiriyang Mukhottanasana, the deep backbend where you hold on to your ankles or your knees from the wheel pose. I will always go much further with help than on my own. Sometimes my body and mind enjoy the experience and sometimes not so much. Here I am, bent over backwards, my hands dangling in the air. I feel my breath constrict a little and tension in my body. This registers to my mind through shaking sensations which I “hear” and feel as tremors. Next I hear my teacher say “relax” and I soften. The tremors sound like an echo now and they seem to dissolve in the background. Then my hands are on my knees and I’m standing in one of the deepest backbends accessible to my body. My legs are burning which I am aware of both as a feeling like fire and as a sound that registers as a “zing”. Each of the joints in my spine opens as I get the feeling of a waterfall cascading downward and I “hear” the rushing of water (or could it be energy?). Then the breath deepens and slows, like the tide after a storm and I feel it’s movements in every cell of the body and hear the wind of the breath passing through the channels of my body. And there it is. The mind stills in the space between the breaths. There is a silence deep and rich, but also empty and infinite. I would describe it as a vibration more than a sound but it is also like a heartbeat. I’m lost for a moment until I hear Sharath say, “Come up.”
Experiences like this don’t have to happen in the deepest asana, but I do find that they more often happen at the limit of what your body and mind can tolerate. Without a commitment to inner listening, going to the edge of your range of mental or physical state is not possible. While certainly there are some sensations that should register as unhealthy pain and should not be tolerated, if you register every discomfort as pain, you may block yourself off from the wealth of the experience available in the inner world. Listening, to me, implies the ability to hear the pleasant and unpleasant with equal states of awareness. Sitting with your own pain, whether mental or physical, until you are really able to hear its message is perhaps one of the most advanced yoga practices. Only once you have developed the ability to listen to yourself will be able to really hear anyone or anything else. If you listen to the body intimately and without attachment to a particular result, magic happens in the yoga practice. Some days you will find yourself in exceedingly deep poses but other days you will yourself unable to enter even the basic poses. The gift that you will take away is a deep peace and an ability to be changed by what you hear.
Real listening implies the willingness to changed by what you hear. If you enter a situation with an agenda or feel the need to defend yourself then you won’t open your heart enough to allow yourself to be changed by what you hear. In fact, if you have an agenda when speaking with someone else it is highly likely that you will only listen for “evidence’ that supports your already established direction. But true listening is free from desire and, much like choiceness awareness, it remains open without a specified pre-planned course. Then there’s defense. If you feel attacked by what someone is saying it’s very easy to close down your heart and put up your emotional defenses. It requires deep self-confidence and self-awareness to listen openly while hearing the reality that your actions have hurt someone else, especially if that person is looking you in the eye and explaining in graphic detail all the ways that you have hurt them. And yet, this is what being a yoga in the world demands of you.
In any typical conversation between two people the amount of communication that happens often depends on the ability to listen. However, without a steady cultivation of true inner presence, very little listening happens between two people. I’ll leave you with a story that Buddhist teacher Tara Brach tells to illustrate the difficulty with applies the skill of listening in relationship with others.
Husband thinks his wife has a hearing problem so says from across the room, “Honey, can you hear me?”
He hears nothing so moves closer and repeats, “Honey, can you hear me?”
Finally, with no audible response registering, he moves directly behind her and says in her ear, “Honey, can you hear me?”
She replies, “For the third time, yes, I can hear you.”
Your Yogi Assignment this week is to Listen.
1. Listen to your body and mind—Spend at least five minutes a day in yoga or meditation with no judgement and no goal other than to listen to your body and mind. Take the inner world as your object of meditation and tune in with no agenda. If you feel yourself judging or looking for something specific, listen to that too. But see if you can listen under the judgement and hear their source.
2. Listen to something else—Sit with an animal, a plant, or an environment for five uninterrupted minutes and let it all in. Listen with your full attention. Suspend your preconceptions and just listen.
3. Listen to another human being—Switch your phone off, close your computer, drop your agenda and become a heart with ears. Direct your full focus on another person for at least five full uninterrupted minutes each day. If you feel yourself judging, fixing or tuning out, listen to that within yourself and then call your mind back to presence. Be willing to be changed by what you hear. This will be the hardest part of the assignment.