“Yoga gives us the ability to tolerate the intolerable.”
As my teacher spoke these words and unpacked Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras for us, I wrote it down and thought about my own struggle with really living that truth. I looked back at the trajectory of ten years of practice. I saw plenty of images that reflected both the ability to comfortably breathe into my life, and the tendency to avoid, avoid, avoid.
Two years ago when I first took this Sutras training with Rod Stryker, the idea of yoga increasing the ability to be present off the mat was a novel concept. You mean yoga isn’t a way to bliss out? It is a practice that can help me to truly be with whatever arises? You mean I can practice in a manner that leaves me feeling balanced, bright, and present rather than mentally spacey and physically wrung-out?
“These practices enable you to live in such a way that you are more present with your emotions. You gain the ability to have full range of your emotions without getting lost in emotion,” he continued.
I had recently noticed a split in myself: The ability to open fully to joy and bliss on the one hand (which in itself had happened only as a result of having a practice) and on the other, tensing and defending against those emotions that weren’t so positive. It was hard to admit that to myself. I wanted to feel I had come farther than that in my practice, but there it was. It felt dissonant (albeit human) for me to sit in my meditation room and feel like I was at the center of love, and then by the end of my day feel like a hunk of granite from having tightened up to deflect discomfort of the emotional or mental variety. Where was the “witness” as I held myself against this?
Didn’t I consider myself a student of Tantra, in which we view all that happens is simply waves rising and falling, neither inauspicious nor meaningful? Listening to my teacher, I wanted so badly to actually experience all of life as divine, not just the parts I’d cherry picked as being so.
The next day I practiced asana, and then sat on my cushion for my daily meditation. There I sat. Once I truly surrendered to my mantra, there was only light and love. I felt I was in the presence of the divine. This was it. This was Her. Then the energy shifted…I felt a wave of something that felt more like sadness. And yet, this was still it. This was Her also. Back and forth, waves of bliss, waves of sadness, crashing over and over against my shores. Through it all, the presence of the divine was clearly constant.
When the chimes rang to signal the end of practice, I didn’t get up immediately. An inner question lingered. Was that feeling of “coming home” (which I had experienced only in joyful states) inherent to non-joyful states?
It wasn’t hard to test this new understanding. You know that joke about when you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with family? I didn’t need a whole week. Try just a few hours at a family reunion. From happiness to irritation, love to embarrassment, the full spectrum was there to be experienced. I didn’t keep a scorecard, but I will say that there was more presence, more softening around those interactions that were not pleasant. There was still some tensing, but that’s why it is called practice.
A few days later while teaching a corporate yoga class, I asked, “Where do you feel the most resistance? Draw your awareness there. Breathe into the sensation.” One by one, bodies softened, and breath deepened.
I continued. “How can we use our time on the mat to be with what is? How do the sensations shift when we direct our attention to the very things our minds want to runaway from?” I thought, What a gift it is to teach, and to hold the space for them to go inward.
The room became still. Yoga begins in the stillness.
What about you? What role does your practice play in your ability to be present with it all, both on and off the mat?