Yogi Assignment: Presence
Have you ever felt caught in the midst of paralyzing fear or panic? I have and it’s not fun. Sometimes the world suddenly starts closing in on me and I lose the ability to breathe, think clearly or even move. I have been trapped on my kitchen floor for minutes (if not hours) in the grips of a full blown panic attack. No one can “save” me. Well no one really except myself.
The first time panic set in during my yoga practice I felt utterly hopeless. As the walls drew closer, my senses heightened to such a degree that I was flooded with supra-sensory stimulation. I could hear my heartbeat, the flow of liquid in my body, the cells of my lungs expanding and contracting and I could hear every sound in the world around with minute detail. Rather than feeling peaceful and connected I immediately wanted to scream. It was like the air pressure around my personal island dropped and I was thrown into my own private hurricane. I couldn’t tell what was up and what was down. I lost track of the difference between inhalation and exhalation in a sea of sensations. Each thought seemed to think itself in slow motion, so slow that I could not make sense of any of it. From the outside it may have simply looked like I was taking a break and lying on my back, when in reality I was slowly imploding.
Since it was during the practice I felt safe enough to explore. At least I knew what came next. Since I practice Ashtanga Yoga, the order of poses is always set. While there are many variables in the practice (as there are in life), the set routine of the practice can be a sanctuary if you’re spiraling out of control. I remember telling myself to just focus on taking one more breath and not worry about everything else. The first conscious inhale gave me enough of a respite to think that I might ask myself to do just one more pose. I began moving and breathing through the practice again and it’s momentum carried me through. When I finished the Closing Poses of the Ashtanga Yoga method that day there was no trace of the panic. I had picked myself up from the darkness and walked into the light.
One of the hardest steps down the sometimes long and winding road of awakening happens with the simultaneous realization of how remarkably far you have come and just how far away you actually have yet to go. Here I was more than ten years into my yoga journey and I was faced with debilitating panic attacks. A part of me had always been waiting for the next big thing to work out. I have worked hard at every turn of the corner of my life to make my dreams come true. But how could I continue to power through when I was frozen in time with panic?
One of the most important tools that helped me face my panic is the cultivation of presence in my daily yoga and meditation practice. Chances are that if you find yourself in the midst of paralyzing fear in yoga that same state of mind will also pop up somewhere else in your life. The format of yoga offers you a chance not to escape from it all but instead to face all that you fear and in no uncertain terms make peace with it all. The yoga practice demands that you remain awake and alert while feeling your body moment to moment. The ideal state of mind for the yogi is one that expects nothing from each breath and instead remains curious to explore the unique variations that arise with each new day of practice. You observe what is with no preference for what arises. If panic is present, you observe panic is present. If happiness is present, you observe happiness is present. But you don’t fight against the negative and you don’t hold onto the positive. You simply abide in the experience as it unfolds. You learn to be fully present.
This week’s Yogi Assignment is Presence. Presence in yoga means that practice is more about listening to how your body truly feels in the moment rather than dictating from above what you want your body to do. Yet at the same time we experience pain in our bodies all the time, sometimes as tightness or stiffness and other times as injury. Whenever you experience pain there is almost an automatic mental and emotional association that causes you to run from any experience that resembles the painful one in the future. This running from pain in itself is a source of misery. You cannot control life and no matter how much you want everything to be light, free and easy you cannot escape the truth that sometimes it will be hard, heavy and labored. If you run from the seemingly negative experiences based on memories from the past you are in a sense allowing the past to dictate the present and are caught by it. Yoga asks you to learn how to stop running away from painful experiences and instead accept that which you cannot change.
Injury most often comes when you demand that your body recreate results given in the past or when you tense your muscles out of fear or pain. When you expect painful experiences to happen in the future based on your memory of past experiences, you almost always get what you expect. The lesson that yoga asks you to learn is how to find freedom from the past by being fully in the present moment. While it is nearly impossible to forget the past and abandon desire for the future yoga asks you to accept the reality that no two practice sessions will ever feel totally the same. No matter how much you try to control the circumstance it will always vary a little and this variation is in fact your key to freedom. Once you learn first hand how things inevitability change within your own body you learn how to let go of the futile attempt to make things happen exactly as you think you want it. Rather than jumping into your yoga practice with a goal to accomplish everything in one session the humble task of yoga is to stay on the sensation of the breathe, posture and gazing point to help calm the mind. If you set your mind on a goal in the future, whether that is two postures away or two years away, when you do your daily practice you are in essence not really at peace wherever you are. The acceptance of your “now” does not mean that you cannot visualize your future and still be at peace. But if you let your attainment of a certain posture be the sole reason you turn up on your mat then in some sense you have missed one of the central teachings of yoga,that is to remain present in the moment.
What makes it so hard to stay fully in the present moment is that the past leaves its scars and traumas both on the body and the mind. It is almost impossible to be totally free from memories, both painful and pleasurable. But the demand of a daily yoga practice is at least to try to see each moment as fresh, alive and containing the seeds of awakening. Without your ability to remain present the possibility of true transformation evaporates as quickly as an exhalation. For all change happens only in the present moment. The past it is meant to teach us, but not meant to be as definitive as we sometimes make it. When we believe past experiences to be the always, only truth we literally recreate past experiences with our certainty about them. For example if you experience your hips as tight one day it does not mean that they will be tight the next day. That is easy to accept if you feel tightness one day and openness the next and harder to feel if all you have felt for the last five years is tightness. But yoga’s promise to bring about real change comes from its seemingly miraculous ability to transform years of tightness into openness with the magic of each practitioners’ own inner work, sometimes in a single moment.
A deep, profound personal faith and a good therapist also really helped me. But that’s a story for another day.