Every sane person recognizes the ridiculous contradiction involved with rushing to relax, and yet the contradiction can ensnare us all. We know the hazards of stress, and we have experienced great relief through practicing yoga, and so we often spend some portion of our day blitzing toward our hour and a half of tranquility on the safe haven of our yoga mat. We know stress is unhealthy and we know that yoga helps, but in today’s rat race how can we attune ourselves at work, or in the car, or when communicating with our family, so that we don’t end up rushing tired and anxious to the mat for relief?
I recently found myself caught in this contradiction while driving to the Wanderlust Festival for ten days of yoga bliss in Squaw Valley, Northern California. We left a day early in an attempt to reduce potential stressors– two tweens and an eighteen-month-old baby were sure to provide enough of that. In spite of our efforts, however, a drive that map-quested at 11.5 hours and started out as a conscious act of tranquility ended 38 blood-boiling hours later.
Somewhere between fixing a flat tire in 100 degrees on the I5 shoulder and breaking the bad news to the family that I’d driven us 2.5 hours in the wrong direction, I became acutely aware of my biggest folly yet. I had been rushing to relax! I started wondering: How did this happen? Why is it happening to me? When did I loose mindfulness? Although I had become aware of my contradiction, how could I pull myself out now? My body ached for the harmonious mat moments, which felt like they would never come.
Stress is a dense fog that clouds your head. It stuffs your brain with life’s dirty laundry; it fires your eyes with mirages like heat evaporating on a desert road; you contract and suffocate as if encoiled by a python. Your breath shortens, your blood pressure rises, your palms sweat, your vision fogs, your thoughts dull–the tension engulfs you, chokes you in its deadly grip. How can you ever escape? I credit my all my teachers of both yoga and life for honing my consciousness to a degree that lets me sometimes find my way to a pinhole of clarity in the haze of stress.
The asana practice is essential for attuning to a sense of self free from the drama of circumstances that life throws at us. Each of us is composed of layer upon layer of identity. On the surface, we are sensitive, vulnerable, and reactive to all that occurs around and inside us. This is good, as it allows us to engage fully in relationships. And although it’s often intense, it is always good to be alive.
Deeper into the core of our being there is an observer, a self that can even witness our own reactions. Times of stress offer a blessing in disguise–a potent moment of opportunity to experience a deep sense of self and a radical opening to the world. Imagine coming home to see your house empty of all your belongings–your T.V., stereo, couch, everything! Right before you freak out, there will be a sacred moment of tranquility. You will look around in absolute disbelief, in awe! This is the blessing. Hold to it, stay with it. Steady yourself for the rush. Observe your blood pressure and body temperature rising, listen to your ears ring, and watch your vision narrow. The emotion of stress floods your experience, and you can watch it all happen. What a wild ride!
Here’s another exercise: In meditation, you will have thoughts. If you want to acquaint yourself with these deeper layers of identity, try observing yourself having your thought. If you really want to venture deep into the nature of your consciousness, try observing the observer of your thought. This exercise of consciousness will expand your mind and help you become more aware amidst the whirlwind of life. The object is not to create an inner shelter for worldly withdrawal, but to learn to open fully into any given experience while holding steady to a deeper sense of identity; one that is actually free of the haze and pain that it brings. We don’t want to thicken our skin and we don’t want to lose our consciousness. We want to be sensitive and aware.
In a challenging yoga pose, the intensity will swell just as it does in life. We actually do this to ourselves on purpose! We create these moments of inflated stress on the yoga mat because they are pregnant with opportunity to rehearse our reactions. Each pose is a question: freak out and withdraw, or open fully into the experience? Say yes to life, or say no? We are so free that we even get this choice.
Usually, with stress, we feel we have good cause to give up and lose control. Look on the bright side. The essence of Tantra says ,”It’s good to be alive.” It’s literally out of goodness that we’re having this human experience even when it appears bad. To remember that we’re lucky to be alive, even when we’re going through a tough time, puts things in the proper context. The ego loves drama, and it will take something very small and turn it into an edge-of-your-seat emotional thrill ride if we allow it. Think of your death, and seriously weigh the gravity of this situation against the weight of that inevitable drama. Thus, you will give your ego a reality-check and help prepare yourself for a beautiful surrender in the end.
The mystery of life unfolding is too complex to understand from our limited individual perspective. Who knows what events the delay may have saved from. Had we arrived earlier, maybe an earthquake, a tsunami, a bomb… We may never know, and our fates are too interconnected ever to tease apart into us individual cause and effect. I will say this, however: with time comes a larger perspective on events unfolding. Our final breakdown occurred thirty minutes south of Truckee. Thankfully we had a couple of good friends there who came to our rescue. They gladly picked us up and, after some good conversation, delivered us to our destination one hour before our first class. Now, as I write this, it gives me chills to say that this meeting was the last time I will ever see one of these good friends. He drowned in a kayaking accident two days ago. My memories of his vibrant face smiling in the sun on the day he came to our rescue are vivid. I am grateful to the universe for the delay and for delivering us to this final moment and memory. I am grateful for the practice of yoga for delivering me from the fog of stress so that I could be present for it.
To open ourselves to whatever the universe is throwing at us in the way of circumstance, emotion, and even difficulty; this is the practice. Doing yoga is surrendering to spirit as it manifests itself in any given moment and skillfully merging our individual intentions with the larger intention of the universe. When we are in the flow of the larger energy of spirit, it pulls into places more magical and joyful than we could ever have imagined. It is frightening and requires an effort that is not commonly considered effort – an effort of surrender, an effort of opening. This is what is meant by Open to Grace.