“Relax, nothing is under control.” ~ Adi Da
Equanimity, Santosha, Contentment, Balance, Steadiness, Centeredness, Evenness, Ease, Composure, Adaptability, Agility, Awareness, Calmness, Coherence, Dependability, Grace, Dignity
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind: 10 planes, 2 canceled flights, 1 very expensive emergency rental car, a resulting stop at Dunkin’ Donuts, 5 states, 4 advanced teacher trainings, 2 days in a maximum security prison, 1 funeral, plus you know, life. So in the face of pandemonium, or just an unpredictable day, are you willing to practice the true meaning of yoga?
We all value steadiness because all human beings value feeling safe but, steadiness is not control over life, it is not a predictable future, and it is not to be abused or misused as guise for perfectionism. Life is beyond your control but you can learn to face the ever-changing flow of life with a peaceful heart. Imagine how you would feel when uncertainty takes ahold of your day and you respond with agility and dignity. Imagine the ripple effect you’d create across your friends, family, or co-workers when chaos arises and you gracefully refuse to get angry, flip out, freak out, or otherwise unhinge everyone with your manic, fear based thinking. Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist teacher, tells the story of his escape from Vietnam, “when the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” You too are capable of this. It takes diligent practice, the willingness to change habits and behaviors, and the courage to move away from addictive emotions, but I promise, it’s worth it and you can do it.
Your ability to navigate life with steadiness is not simply a core value, it is the definition of yoga itself. When you gracefully arrive in the present moment you reveal and know your true nature. This evenness empowers you to make clear decisions and move through life with wisdom, understanding, connection, and lightheartedness. But let me be clear, this is not to say that life is free of disruptions, emotions, or frustrations (see my last few weeks above). It is to say, you have a choice. You may not have a choice in how life unfolds, but you always have a choice in how you respond.
The first thread of the Yoga Sutras, a foundational yogic text more than two thousand years old, is oft quoted by teachers, “yogash chitta-vrtti-nirodha.” Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. From the outset Patanjali tells us that yoga is not a pose or series of postures. Yoga is not transcendent levitation or other superpowers. Yoga is quite simply a steady mind. If we do anything with a steady mind, be it a pose or a moment of life, we are practicing yoga. In western culture we hear “yoga” and think aspirational Instagram pictures or the cover of Yoga Journal. We have forgotten that you can practice asana, a yoga pose or posture, and not be practicing yoga at all.
If what you practice hijacks your steadiness, it is no longer yoga. You are responsible for taking care of yourself, knowing when to modify, giving yourself permission to take a rest, or otherwise adjust the tone of your practice to ensure steadiness is valued above all else. What you practice on your mat is a reflection of what you practice in your life. If you want greater centeredness in your days, you must prioritize steadiness in your physical practice. Put aside your agendas. Surrender the desired achievement of a certain pose as well as the habit of using yoga as yet another place to beat yourself into a body you will never have. None of this is yoga.
Look across every spiritual and religious tradition and you’ll find the core value of steadiness. Look across cultures and read the global tenants of peace and you’ll hear the value of dignity reflected back. If the value of steadiness is so engrained across humanity, why does it seem so distant and hard to achieve at this moment in time? I find brain science and human physiology have a way of revealing a possible answer.
Your brain is an artifact of the past, an artifact of past emotions you memorize, repeat, and practice again and again, day-in and day-out. You have 60 to 70 thousand thoughts per day. 90% of them are the same thoughts you had yesterday! Irritated today? You’ll probably be irritated again tomorrow. Stressed and easily exploding at everyone around you? You’ll probably repeat the same pattern tomorrow. Your brain and body have memorized particular emotions, habits, and ways of reacting to the world. These memorized emotions give off chemical signatures that feel familiar, safe, and comfortable. By the time you are 35 years old, 95% of who you are is a memorized set of attitudes, behaviors, and programmed ways of showing up in the world. If you want to change your behavior, you have to learn something new and make new synaptic connections in your brain to wire a new way of showing up in your life.
Dr. Joe Dispenza explains how this process evolves over time. You have an emotional experience. That emotional experience is charged and therefore your brain stores it as a memory. Your clearest memories are all connected to heightened emotions – falling in love, getting married, receiving a promotion, having a child. But this also happens with less positive experiences such as losing a job, getting sick, or ending a relationship. If you’re unable to shorten the recovery time between an event and a corresponding heightened emotion, the emotion eventually turns into a mood. If that mood is sustained over a period of time, say several days or weeks, it becomes a temperament. If that temperament sustains, say over a period of months, it becomes a personality trait. Now, over days, weeks, months, and possibly years, you’ve practiced and memorized a way of being in the world and in order to create a change in your behavior new learning must take place. But you have a challenge to face: your body has fallen in love with your predictable stress-based reaction. Your emotions have become a habit so every time you respond, even though you get angry, frustrated, or irritated, the emotion is familiar and therefore feels safe. Your brain and your body receive a payoff for responding in a habitual, comfortable, memorized way.
The next time you feel yourself about to erupt into an unsteady reaction, ask yourself, “does this emotion belong in my future?” Your body will crave your old self like an addiction. In that moment you have to recondition your body to a new mind and settle into the present moment again with balance and ease. From here, you get to choose whether you live from emergency mode or growth mode, survival mode or creative mode.
Let me give you an example. When I was returning from my grandfather’s funeral, which occurred in the midst of leading a 2-week training, my second plane back to Maine was wildly delayed and in all likelihood going to be canceled. I needed to be back by 9am to lead a 9-hour training the next day. I walked to the shuttle, arrived at the rental car center, and embarked on a journey to find a rental car for a oneway drive to a tiny city. Only one rental company could accommodate this and it was going to cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. The woman behind the counter was kind, fast, and understanding but that did nothing to ease the burden of the unexpected drive and cost. Was I frustrated? Yes. Did my body want to go crazy and get upset? Yes. Did I let my body’s craving for a hit of the feel good “get angry and stomp your foot” chemicals take over? No. The situation wasn’t ideal but, I had a feasible solution. It felt much better to be kind to the rental car agent and to thank her for the help. It felt much better to give gratitude for having the means to rent a car and to rest in the joy that I could still get to Maine before 10pm and enjoy a solid night’s sleep before a big day. I recognize that this is a serious “first-world problem” but after my years of travel I could regale you with stories of adults acting anything but steady in similar situations and causing utter disarray to themselves and everyone around them. Steadiness always feels better. Gratitude, joy, appreciation, and perceiving possibility always saves the day (yours and others).
If you’ve practiced being overwhelmed most of your life, it will take practice to cultivate steadiness. Studies demonstrate when you pair a new attitude, such as steadiness, with a heightened emotion, such as gratitude or joy, your brain hardwires new connections so that you memorize this behavioral shift and can repeat it again in the future. Practice and repeat. Fail and try again. Keep in mind the work we reviewed in Part II: The Core Value of Growth. Stability is not a suggestion for spiritual bypass. Equanimity is not to ignore the pain and sorrow of life. It is however the idea that you can increase awareness of your habitual emotional reactions and learn to observe your less useful thoughts without putting energy behind them. The only thing you have to lose is an old way of being the world. As the Dalai Lama says, “some of your thoughts do not have your best interest in mind” so ask yourself, “how would greatness live today?”
You can follow the outlined practice below or visit Inner Dimension Media and enjoy Day #5 of my program Journey to Yoga for a video of this practice.
Read this invocation as you begin. An invocation sets the tone for your practice and establishes intentionality.
The core value of Stability is an invitation to cultivate peace in your body and heart no matter what arises. As you navigate challenge, move through unexpected transitions, or confront change, you trust that stability is a skill you can strengthen, like any muscle in your body. Throughout this practice you have a choice: evenness of body, breath, mind, and emotion is always present if you are willing to see it. Your ability to be truly present to whatever arises in any given moment is the pathway to greater happiness and fulfillment. Knowing that like all things stability is a practice, you approach yourself and the journey ahead with both love and compassion.
Table Top Pose
Sunbird Flow: Lift Right Leg & Left Arm, Return to Table Top Pose, Lift Left Leg & Right Arm, Return to Table Top Pose (repeat 5 times)
Plank Pose (hold 5 breaths)
In Plank Pose, Lift Right Foot 1inch (hold 5 breaths)
In Plank Pose, Lift Left Foot 1inch (hold 5 breaths)
Lower to Mat
Lift Right Foot 1inch & Lengthen (hold 5 breaths)
Lift Left Foot 1inch & Lengthen (hold 5 breaths)
Cobra (3 times)
Downward Facing Dog
Tadasana Top of Mat
Reaffirm your Intention: How does it feel to live with a peaceful heart?
Sun Salutation A Variation: Skip Anjali Mudra, (repeat 4 cycles, 1 breath per movement, established in the intention to remain even, steady, and calm as you increase the pace)
Downdog (hold 5 breaths)
Awkward Airplane (hold 5 breaths)
Return to Sunbird
Step to Plank
Hop to Malasana (hold 5 breaths)
Bakasana / Crow Pose (hold 5 breaths)
Lift Right Leg, 3 Leg Downdog
Bring Right Knee to Right Elbow (repeat 3 times)
Optional Eka Pada Koundinyasana (hold 5 breaths)
Warrior I (hold 5 breaths)
Warrior II (hold 5 breaths)
Reverse Warrior (hold 5 breaths)
Prasarita A (1st round), Prasarita B (2nd round) / Standing Wide Leg Forward Fold
Tadasana (hold 5 breaths & return to your intention, cultivate a felt sense of Stability)
Floating Pigeon, Placing Right Ankle Above Left Knee (hold 5 breaths)
Hook Big Toe & Open to Utthita Hasta Padanguthasana II (hold 5 breaths)
Bring Leg to Center for Utthita Hasta Padanguthasana I (hold 5 breaths)
Repeat Sequence on 2nd Side
Marichyasana / Single Bent Knee Twist (hold 8-10 breaths)
Ardha Supta Virasana / Half Reclining Hero’s Pose (hold 8-10 breaths)
Bharadvajasana (hold 8-10 breaths)
Repeat all 3 postures on the 2nd side
Sukhasana / Easy Seated Position
Inhale, “I draw calm into my mind.” Exhale, “I breathe out with ease.” (repeat for several cycles)
You can read through the meditation instructions below or download my FREE audio meditation course, 7 Days of Meditation, and listen to the Day 4 meditation for a guided version.
This week’s meditation practice is a multi-fold journey. You’ll begin by establishing equanimity or a deep, inner steadiness, experienced in your body, breath, and mind. This internal balance allows you to be present and, in turn, your ability to be present leads to a widening experience of happiness and joy both on your cushion and in your life. In order to be content first we must be present and in order to be present, first we must be steady. But like all things, sometimes happiness too requires practice. Your brain has a natural tendency to focus on the challenges, failures, and hardships in life. This is part of our survival mechanism called the negativity bias. Because this bias exists, we can actually benefit from spending time cultivating happiness and allowing ourselves to remember moments and experiences in life that bring us joy while practicing absorbing those feelings both in our bodies and our minds… Begin by closing your eyes or softly resting your gaze….
Turn your awareness to your body. Become aware of the places where your body is currently in contact with your chair or the floor. Feel the support under your sitting bones, the contact of the soles of the feet or outer edges of the legs on the floor or chair, and any support that might be present along your spine. You can track sensations in your body – warmth, pressure, tension or ease. Awareness of your body is awareness of the present moment. Your body is happening right here, right now – not in the past or in the future. As you continue to anchor your awareness in your body, begin to sense that from these places of contact you feel present, grounded, and steady. Rest in this awareness for several minutes.
Begin to turn your attention to your breath. Simply notice your breath rising and falling.
Take a deep inhale through your nose and exhale out of your mouth. Then, counting your breath, inhale to the count of 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5. Pause. Exhale out of your nose for 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1. Again, inhale for 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5. Pause. Exhale 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1. Last time, inhale for 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5. Pause and see if you can soften anything. Exhale 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1. Continue this breath count on your own, not forcing anything, and simply resting your attention on your breath. If you lose count, simply begin again. Continue to repeat this cycle for several minutes knowing that an even, steady breath helps cultivate an even, steady mind.
Let the counting go…Take a few steady, easeful breaths…Notice an subtle shifts in your energetic state. Do feel more grounded, present, or peaceful?
As you stay with your breath ask yourself: When do I feel most peaceful? What brings my heart a deep sense of contentment?
You might see images of friends or loved ones, remember special experiences, or feel the equanimity in your body. Allow yourself to absorb the visceral experiences these memories bring forward, realizing that these specific memories are times when you have been truly present and therefore in some tangible way steady and content.
Like a sponge, continue absorbing the felt experiences of happiness, contentment, and ease these memories bring forward. For several minutes, sit with and absorb the experience of joy and happiness these memories bring forward in your mind and body.
As you prepare to bring your meditation to a close, remember, happiness and contentment are like any other skill and can be cultivated with practice. Throughout the day, give yourself permission to pause anytime you feel a sense of peacefulness flowing through you. Take time for the experience to make an imprint in your mind. As you practice noticing moments of pure presence, you will begin to experience more moments of well-being, pleasure, and enjoyment throughout your life.