An essay by Magda, written as a part of Yoga Teacher Training during the COVID 19 pandemic, 2020.
Shanti Yoga – YTT Final Paper
The Journey by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.
I began my YTT journey in November, 2019. What I did not know then, that I know today, is what was to unfold as one of the most enormous global upsets in recent history. All of us were balancing on the precipice of an upcoming, massive pandemic (the Novel Coronavirus), and we could not have predicted what was to face us only mere months ahead of when we began our YTT. Those first few months that we gathered in class, now seem so far gone, like the faded images of a movie I watched a decade ago. Laughter and discussions, hugs offered with reckless abandon! The sudden loss of our physical relationships to others, as well as the sudden disconnection from our familiar environments has been radically transformative. It only makes sense to me to draw on my recent Yoga studies and practice to discuss what it means to me personally and what it will mean to move forward with a continued sense of loss and uncertainty arriving on my doorstep day to day. It has all got me thinking about my personal process of learning about yoga and its contribution to my life, and it is why I decided to write this paper as a reflective piece. I didn’t have a concrete outline upon beginning this paper, but as I have now come to the conclusion of it, I can ascertain that some hopefulness in what is and what may come has been nurtured through its composition. For this, I am thankful.
What we could not have known, now over a half year passed, is how abruptly we would be severed from not only our connections to our friends and loved ones, but also from our established norms of behaviour, and common understanding of the world. Our physical bodies became a vulnerable entity – either because we were susceptible to becoming infected with Coronovirus and also because our physical body could be a transmitters of the virus. Our bodies, and our embodied way of living in the world, became, to a degree, a threat to other people. This is a huge physical and mental disruption, and one that really got me thinking about our personal responses and actions, our embodied ways (2) of moving and responding to our environments- at home, out in our workplaces, places of worship, studios or stores that we frequent for our needs (etc.). So, I begin this paper with some thoughts on embodiment and cognition, and I will use the most general definition of this idea that I could find: “Embodied cognition, (is) the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body, but that the body influences the mind.”(1)
As yoga educators we might say, ‘But, of course! This is nothing to write home about!’ Why else might we practice yoga, if not because we understand that the wisdom of our body is so intricately influential on the functioning of our mind? When we practice, we experience yoga’s benefits almost immediately, and not just during and shortly after practice. We also bring our practice into the daily movements of our lives – be they physical, mental or spiritual or some combination thereof. We can say that yoga itself becomes an embodied way of knowing: the more we practice, the more its positive influence plays out in all aspects of our lives.
When we commit to learning and applying the principles of Yoga in our lives, we begin to live in a network of its influence – not a binary, good/bad, better/worse kind of life experience – but a more subtle and delicate unfolding of human experience, in general. An embodied yoga practice may mean that our external environment may change, but we can respond with our inner understanding accordingly. We might adapt in our thoughts and behaviours, which may lead to the creation of new environments (Zoom!) or of alternate social spaces (for example, more outdoor classes). It was absolutely fascinating to witness how quickly many of us moved toward creating new places to come together via a digital experience. Classes moved online, and even with some initial physical and mental discomfort, there was a growing acceptance of the novelty of the space. With some adjustments and fine tuning, a new kind of normal was nurtured. Yogis or not, we did not close shop. We did not bury our heads in the mud and call it a day. This was one of the first examples of resilience that was enacted by others and by myself. I began to allow the weirdness of it all into my body. The uncertainty of my movement in these kinds of spaces was at first unsettling and altogether very strange! But Yoga loves weird. Yoga is like: bring on the weird, because that is where I will move deeper into myself. But weird, strange and unfamiliar can also have a detrimental effect on the mind and body. Add to that being faced with a contagious virus, and we might begin to understand how the arrow of fear begins its course.
We now may know Patanjali’s sutra by heart, “Yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah”, translated by many as Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. And, as we also have come understand, Yoga is not just Asana. Asana is a small part of the philosophical paradigm that is Yoga. When we were suddenly faced with isolation of our physical bodies – a lot of what we were left with was the impact this had on our minds. I know that for me, it was a transition I was ill-prepared for. There was no way to prepare for having two young children at home full-time, the new necessity to teach them their school work, and the unsettling worry of COVID-19 and all the new rules hanging over us every single day! For all of my study of Yoga and mindfulness, this particular crisis left me unhinged, unhappy and exhausted. Not only this, I felt defeated by my own bodily systems – my hormones went haywire and my moods took their own journey, up, down and all around. What I knew I needed, desperately, was to move in the best way I knew how. I added yoga asanas, weights and cardiovascular exercise to my routine and saw great benefits in my overall wellbeing.
The only reason I knew to take this physical action was because I had now been studying Yoga for the better of 20 years and my knowledge of it had become embodied – Yoga had, over time, become a physical, mental and spiritual language in my understanding of the world. “What Merleau-Ponty described as ‘knowledge in our hands’ is a particular type of knowledge that is not a reflex but rather comes about through repeated bodily practice. It is not distinctly explicit or conscious, and hence we cannot articulate it as an objective designation.”(2) Although I do not have an in depth understanding of the philosophy behind embodied knowledge, the basics are clear. If we do something enough with our bodies, our bodies hold that knowledge so that it becomes what we might call intuitive, and we can and do access this knowledge at a subconscious level as we go about our lives. How cool is that?!
A very simple example of embodied cognition would be something like shaking a salt container. We’ve done it so often! We can turn the object upside down, shake it and reverse the process all with a moment and not actually bring or awareness to the movement of our body while doing so. We may barely be conscious of the process! I know I’ve salted things twice sometimes because I do not recall if I did it the first time. I only clue in when I taste the mess I made of it. In fact, the cognitive process of shaking a salt container is pretty complex, and the steps need to completed be accurately or else we have ruined our dinners. Now, bringing this back to Yoga!
I find it the concept of embodied knowledge incredibly fascinating, and I see the connection of embodied learning and how it relates to regular yoga practice. Of course, Yoga won’t be mentioned much in these older academic research papers (but this is changing!). Studying Yoga has helped me access and disrupt some of those embodied patterns that I have held on to for decades. Maybe since infancy! Yoga has brought my attention not only to negative patterns (Samskaras) of mind, but also those that have been stored in my body – my limbs, my face, my back, etc. The ironic thing is, that all of this began to open in my experience just as soon as the pandemic hit and we were forced to bring a much more conscious awareness to the movements we were making in our day to day lives.
So, here I was, ready to begin in a sharing and communal experience of Yoga with new friends and teachers, in a common space – growing more comfortable in my skin and in my yoga practice, opening, realizing, and recognizing myself on a deeper level… a subtle bodily level that I had not really allowed myself to access in the past. I felt more secure, and more joyful. It was deeper level of experiential joy that I had not felt in a long time, and it was a true blessing in my life. But, the beginning of my YTT experience was interrupted midway by an external event that was beyond anything I could imagine, control or change. My immediate response was an embodied one – retreat, protect, resist. While I held on to each online class like a touchstone, the truth was that I felt more anxious and alone than I would have liked. With that, it was much harder to feel part of a community from a distance, especially a distance that was of an incredibly unfamiliar nature. My happiness suffered, the joy waned. Life became a lot about getting through each day as peacefully as possible, and even that was a struggle (and continues to be, though it is easier now).
Brené Brown writes, “Happiness is attached to external situations and events and seems to ebb and flow as those circumstances come and go. Joy seems to be constantly tethered to our hearts by spirit and gratitude. But our actual experiences of joy – these intense feelings of deep spiritual connection and pleasure – seize us in a very vulnerable way.”(3) The idea that joy is a much deeper emotion than happiness, and thereby more elusive and, perhaps fragile, is a predicament that I understand. Yoga is a life philosophy that is not bound to the fickle experiences that bring us some brief happiness. Yoga, in my opinion draws us into a realm where Love is of most value, and that love is what roots us in the experience of joy. When I mention that my joy faltered, it was because I felt deeply vulnerable. My guess is that we all did. But what did that mean? I recognize now, that I (and many of my fellow human friends) was moving away from our connection to Love, and our trajectory was toward Fear.
Fear is the antidote to joy. The losses we all faced in the early days of shut down were, at the very least, inconvenient, and at the pinnacle, devastating and tragic. Our deepest desire for survival and the security of ourselves and loved ones, was threatened. Whether the threat we felt was real and present, the truth was that we were being taken to a place inside ourselves we may not have had to examine before. Where many of us might have felt anxiety of a certain level already (and as we know, current levels of anxiety in the general population are very high) we were now confronted with yet another reason to rouse the fear pathways in our minds and our bodies.
For many people the acute threat of catching COVID-19, a potentially life-threatening illness, has resulted in their withdrawal from the external world, into their homes. Quickly, however, the body and mind recalibrate. That is the amazing! However, perhaps a person becomes entrenched in constant fear and worry, and this results in a negative mental impact. Sadly, we have all by now heard that mental illness has increased during the time of the pandemic. Or, maybe someone moves toward acceptance and reconciliation of the uncertainty of this new way of living, and makes changes accordingly, adapts and quite possibly, thrives. We know of businesses that have started up, or people who have taken on the task of helping other people or animals in this time. Sometimes we can move past the fear reaction and be roused into positive action. Others might simply ignore the situation and aim to lead their lives as before the pandemic arose, kind of living in denial of it, and hoping the attention to it all blows over soon. No matter what, the world as we know it has changed, and I propose that many of us respond in an embodied manner to the events we face.
How we respond to the feeling of threat is a massive psychological and sociological question and beyond the scope of this paper. Yet, the situation we have found ourselves is so novel that in order to cope, we might connect to what we have learned and taken as part of ourselves (mind/body/spirit) and believe has worked for us in the past. So, if one person, for example, has retreated from others and become acutely more aware about germs in the environment, there is a likelihood that they will aim to control their environment, as best they can under these circumstances. What has been an embodied knowledge of biological threats in the past, reveals itself now in more pronounced way: Limiting physical contact with others, washing hands and surfaces more frequently, installing air purifiers, changing HVAC systems, etc. Such a response might be helpful, but it no way does it change the reality of the existing threat. If anything, there is a possibility such an approach may exacerbate other challenges – with relationships, or personal feelings of anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, if a person has been one to cast doubt on authoritative mearures in the past, there is a chance one’s behaviour will align with that belief, and they may not heed government recommendations about personal and public safety. Their embodied response may be to continue to move through the world as though nothing has changed, ignoring public health safety warnings. As we now witness, in many parts of the world, people have taken to protest mandatory mask wearing and feel compelled to fight for their freedom of “choice”. Individuals may even be more intentional about gathering together and snubbing health recommendations. They feel it is their rights that are being impinged upon.
All in all, it is an extremely messy, uncertain situation. And messy out there makes for a whole lot of anxiety inside of ourselves. What we might begin notice is what is truly at stake. Yes, we are indeed facing an unknown virus that brings with it very severe and potentially lethal consequences. We feel the alarm in our bodies and so, I ask, how does Yoga help us through this incredible challenge of uncertainty that faces each of us? And what does any of it have to do with restoring our rootedness in love and peace within ourselves?
Looking back over my studies, and reflecting on the 8 Limbs of Yoga that we have learned about, I find that the limb of yoga that I am need to tune into in the world of *now* is that which Yogic philosophy identifies as Pratyahara, or the 5th Limb. Pratyahara, as taken from Patanjali’s Sutras is, “Sutra 2.54: sva-visayâsamprayoge cittasya svarûpânukâra ivendriyânam pratyâhârah”(4), and may be translated as, “When your own senses and actions cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in your mental realm, and withdraw into the consciousness from which they arose, this is called Pratyahara, the fifth step.”(5) Today, our senses of the world around us are on total off-the-radar, high alert. Most prominently, our sense of sight and touch has been affected by the pandemic to a disproportionately heightened level. Our physical bodies are the conduits of a potentially deathly virus (though, that has never not been the case), and our freedoms to communicate and compassionately connect with other beings (like with hugs of reassurance) through the sense of touch, have become severely constrained or altogether eliminated. It’s a double decker of a suffering sandwich! It is no wonder some of us are in emotional and physical pain.
What I sense happening in the current atmosphere of the pandemic is that within the spaces of our Being where we have once found solace, centering, community and compassionate interaction, we are now encouraging the growth of fear, uncertainty, panic, anger, and even a complete abandon of the self. These responses are viral, in and of themselves because they move from one person to another, through our words and physical behaviour. We are conduits of more than a physical virus at this point. Now we are also shifting the entire way we move and think in the world in order to stymie its impact. And, my sense is, that this is having its own serious and negative impact on all of us – one that has consequences that have yet to be fully recognized. “‘For anyone feeling destabilized by fear’, (Brené Brown) cautioned against lashing out. ‘We tend to be our worst selves when we’re afraid.’”(6) Fear as a motivator, at the core of any shift, is not sustainable. Fear closes us off from deeper connection to ourselves and others, and throws our lives in to one of three identifiable modes: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and/or Fawn (12). If we rely only on fear to guide our decisions and actions, we may embody its effects which will take a negative toll on our lives, physically, mentally and spiritually. Yoga encourages us toward a discerning practice of compassionate understanding of ourselves and others. Unchecked fear and its partner, anxiety, leads us to Dukkha. Therefore, a different path is needed to nurture the growth (and antidote to fear) of peace and love in the current situation. This is no simple path!
Pratyahara encourages us to draw our senses inward and to release the engagement and constraints of the senses, which are always moving us outside of ourselves. “They tell the mind what to do… We are so accustomed to ongoing sensory activity that we don’t know how to keep our minds quiet—we have become hostages of the world of the senses and its allurements. We run after what is appealing to the senses and forget the higher goals of life. For this reason Pratyahara is probably the most important limb of yoga for us today.”(7) What I find most interesting about the teaching of Pratyahara under the auspice of the current pandemic, is that we continue to be drawn outward by our senses, all the while that we try to control them. It’s a like living our lives in double negative. How strange and conflicted!
As we go about our day, we may have a far harder time not touching things in the store, not embracing our friends and family members, not reacting to how the world looks very different and empty when we step outside. A friend of mine echoed my both my emotional and physical feelings when he said, “Isn’t it weird now to see huge groups of people on TV that aren’t social distancing?” On another occasion, I found it a difficult effort to stand far back from a good friend whom I would normally embrace upon seeing. My body was not used this kind of non-interaction. We sat for while in the midst of some unspoken fog of anxiety, which only lifted once we felt we could finally connect with our shared words and experiences. We have already begun to feel in our bodies the strangeness of this new way of living.
Our senses don’t cease their searching even when they are being told to “stop”. We continue to draw information, and thus knowledge, from all of them. Yet, in today’s circumstances, we are realizing how daunting it is to govern those sensual instincts, how, almost, unnatural the feeling to dissuade ourselves from their pull. There is a good chance that we have all, by this point, been faced with a surge of anxiety over touching something we would have never thought twice to handle in the past, or reaching for someone we love in a moment of human connection. When we consider the movement inward through Yoga, and bringing our senses to a quieter place, we certainly don’t mean cutting our senses off entirely. Ideally, through the practice of yoga, including meditation, we can perhaps begin to find stillness within ourselves in response to all the external inputs, and also find some peace in the day to day restrictions of our senses that this current pandemic has fostered.
Through our yoga practice, we can bring some attention to what is occurring in our bodies, especially in light of the new and uncomfortable experiences we are facing in our present day lives. By encouraging ourselves toward a consistent practice, we can benefit from the alleviation of our fear response and, in a way, repair some of those connections that are currently severing our feeling of security and hopefulness. This is maybe a lot to ask of a yoga practice, but as we all have heard on more than occasion – only a seed has to be planted for a new life to grow. I don’t want to be naïve, and suggest Yoga will save us from the tragic realities of a global pandemic. However, what I truly and fastidiously believe is that Yoga can help us access the places in ourselves that we so desperately need to connect with during this challenging time. If we continue to move outward with our bodies, minds and spirit, we will undoubtedly continue to be caught in a reactive and fear driven maelstrom, with little relief from its effects. This is what Yoga so clearly identifies as the state of Dukkha.
There is no better occasion to begin a practice of yoga that is dedicated to our inner well-being. As such, I would offer a general beginners a class that begins with asanas that encourage the calming of the nervous system. Granted, all yoga asanas would help with one’s overall state of mind and physical health. However, some poses are generally more conducive to engaging the parasympathetic nervous system: “Without the parasympathetic nervous system, the monitoring and regulation of everyday body processes would be impossible. Further, the parasympathetic nervous system plays a vital role in maintaining both mental and physical health by helping the body to calm down from stress reactions that elevate blood pressure, dilate the pupils, and divert energy from other body processes to fighting or fleeing.” (9) Some of these poses are (and all can be modified for comfort and deeper restoration) (10):
- Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani)
- Child’s Pose (Balasana)
- Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
- Staff Pose (Dandasana)
- Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
- Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Additionally, a visualization exercise might prove very helpful for individuals who may not be aware that they are storing emotions in their body. For example, I can ask students to try and identify where in their body they feel the experience of not allowing oneself to touch something or someone that they previously could. Where is it felt specifically? Does the feeling a have a colour? If so, what colour is it? Does the feeling have shape? If so, what shape is it? I could ask if the feeling moves or is static, and how “big” it feels. In a class dedicated to alleviation of anxiety, we can move toward a compassionate, accepting visualization where the feeling is then nurtured and held by the inner self – with love and sincere hope for its healing.
One aspect of healing is allowing oneself to be open to vulnerability. And so, if we wish to move into a place in our bodies and minds so that we may experience some calm and freedom from the external stimuli of today’s circumstances, we will need to learn to be OK with the unease that arrives first. There is a reason for our stress response which needs to be acknowledged. If we, instead of opening to acceptance and compassion of our inner tensions, resist the “messy” feelings, we may not be able to settle and relax. Asana and visualization can begin this process of acknowledgement, acceptance and release. After, we might feel ready to move in to a breath (Prana) focused meditation: “One of the most common practices for withdrawal of the senses is bringing the attention inwards towards the breath, observing it without trying to control it, as connection with the external senses and stimuli are all gradually severed. Another method is to concentrate on the point between the eyebrows, the Ajna chakra or third eye.”(7) Some practices we can incorporate into our lives include 3-Part Breath, or simply sitting for a period of time with mindful attention to the breath.
Recently, during a particularly stressful period of time, I came across of a simple meditation practice called “Centering Meditation” in the Christian contemplative context. Not unlike regular, silent meditation practice, its purpose to still the mind and focus inward. What some practitioners do is add a mantra, a specific word like “peace”, “love”, “god” or the like. I chose the word “peace”, and in my meditation, I was able to find the rest I needed to come back to place of equilibrium. I love this description of centering particularly: “This growing knowing is deep within you and always available to you. It is right there, always. It is a conscious breath away. We are never separate from our knowing. It is an infinite continuum of everlasting love and appreciation, ever available, ever knowing, ever loving. All we have to do is open to it. It’s right there. If ever we become disconnected, it is only because we have disconnected ourselves. And that’s all right.” (11)
When I reflect on these past months of upheaval and transition for our global community, I am all at once amazed by the human capacity to organize, adapt and even thrive despite the challenges that face us. And, while the outcome is nowhere near certain in the case of the current pandemic, there seems to be a current of hopefulness that is keeping all of us connected. This current of secure, embodied knowledge of our deepest connection to each other, if we allow ourselves to imagine it, flows through each of us and binds us at a level beyond the physical domain. With this in mind, we can move ourselves to a practice of Yoga that helps access that current of hope, that nerve of union which runs beyond the surface of our external experiences and illuminates our deepest kinship to one another and the universe. It is with this in mind and heart that I come to my own process of personal reckoning with what is next for myself, my family and the world. May we all be free of suffering, and allow hope and love into the midst of the challenges we face.
1) McNerney, Samuel. A Brief Guide to Embodied Cognition: Why You Are Not Your Brain. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/a-brief-guide-to-embodied-cognition-why-you-are-not-your-brain/
2) Tanaka, Shogo. (2013). The notion of embodied knowledge and its range. 37. 47-66. (pg 48)
3) Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection.
4) Stern, Ashely. 20 Particularly Relevant Yoga Sutras Translated and Explained. https://www.yogiapproved.com/om/20-yoga-sutras-translated-and-explained/
5) Devi, Nischala Joy. A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras/The Secret Power of Yoga. 241-242.
6) Ugwu, Reggie. Brené Brown Is Rooting for You, Especially Now. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/arts/brene-brown-podcast-virus.html?auth=login-google
7) Frawley, David. Pratyahara: Yoga’s Forgotten Limb. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/pratyahara-yogas-forgotten-limb
8) Pratyahara. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratyahara#:~:text=Pratyahara%20is%20derived%20from%20two,ahara%22%2C%20or%20simply%20ingestion./en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pratyahara#:~:text=Pratyahara%20is%20derived%20from%20two,ahara%22%2C%20or%20simply%20ingestion.
9) Parasympathetic Nervous System. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/parasympathetic-nervous-system.
10) (No author listed). 17 Best Yoga Poses for Anxiety (Depression and Stress). https://www.thegoodbody.com/yoga-poses-for-anxiety-and-depression/
11) Lang, Diana. A Deeply Relaxing and Centering Meditation Practice to Bring You Into Expanded Awareness. https://www.consciouslifestylemag.com/centering-meditation-relaxing/
12) Neo, Perpetua. Fawning: The Fourth Trauma Response After Fight, Flight, Freeze. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-fight-flight-freeze-fawn-trauma-responses