1. False Alarms
The fire alarm went off in the Mysore room last week, three days out of six.
That was the climax of a month of hard practice, with weekends I didn’t take off. Firefighters storming the shala stairs under flashing lights and the shriek of indoor sirens, stopping short when there was no fire, just rows of humans calm-breathing and hearts moving slow. (Plus one less calm human, me, saying yes it oddly seems they’re not evacuating, so could I just get your keys to the basement control panel now, right now, because they’ve been down-regulating through this for 20 minutes already?)
The experts said there’s no way yoga can trip an old fire alarm, and luckily our landlords agree. But our building (which feels alive) is as old as the Civil War; she is steady and mischievious, with a hyper-sensistive nervous system. The last thing that happens before the alarm trips, every time, is the old floorboards swell and there’s this sudden slip under my heels. Maybe the same humidity spike pushes dust and spiderwebs into a sensor. In any case, by that time it’s too late to hit the A/C; just feel the slippery ground and deepen the breath.
The siren is SO LOUD. I shout to that the students that they are welcome to leave and to my shock each time they do no such thing. Later some say the alarm comes in waves that, with practice, seems to massage their cells. Others say the mind training clarifies their technique and gives more energy than coffee. Alarm days are their strongest and most beautiful days, full of clear action and (by contrast) so much silence. Magic.
Now summer has crested; we’re in that weightless moment before the rush of release. When I say practice this month was “hard,” that’s not a comment on physical exertion. It’s that reality has been sharp for better and for worse – terrible news has arrived for so many; old suffering has surfaced like shrapnel, the long days and the strength in the summer body enabled many including me to face down old bullshit. Weeks of saturated insight, magic, delusion, beauty, pain. Pressure, humidity, heat, light, memory, breath, death. Reading Macy and Jeffers in achingly peaceful firefly evenings full of horrible news, I’ve felt more than ever the truth of the end of things, how human violence is turning back on the planet in a massive wave, bringing our own destruction fully into view.
The whole learning process is brilliant under conditions where there is urgency, meaning, space and choice. I feel the practice evolving, as students talk to me about predictive perception, and exactly what psychological projection feels like in the mindbody. (For me, projection is a three alarm fire: adrenaline hit + flash conviction another is absolutely wrong + a drive to be 100% right.) With sharper awareness of the pain within, they group sharpens up new moral questions about the pain in the world: How am I using the practice to avoid thinking about how much I’m consuming all of the time? How can I piece together the historical reason that US dollars go so far in India, and what that means for my special access to this potent knowledge? What if my life purpose is based on fear of sharing the same fate as everyone else? Because of them I have this tiny faith that yoga practice could evolve for these times, rather than becoming the next opium of the masses. If that happens, it will take place through well supported, collective high-pressure self-study that brings hard things to the surface of consciousness, and chills you out enough to act on them decisively.
Beauty is what persists despite ugliness. It is pushing back so hard now, forcing the boundaries of selves to expand. Awe and wonderment have a saturation point; the sense of who we are swells into the future and past, and across space, and species. Shit! This is the self that includes groundwater at Hanford, Palestinean children, whales killed by plastic. All the beings and ecologies in the first wave of nation state collapse: Venezuela, Syria, South Sudan. There is more space in the self of wonderment, and good thing, because there is also way more pain.
Equanimity is like this: hurts more, bothers you less.
It’s not a tranquilizer.
There are so many ways for a yoga teacher to numb out, and teach others to do the same. But from a mystical standpoint it feels like the increased beauty I perceive has an acute intelligence, and a function of trying to wake me up. In makes the reward for presence – awe and wonderment and connection – slightly more reliable than the pain. Like there is an ethical drive within aesthetic experience. Wonderment wakes me up. And for now beauty has a lead on suffering. There is so much energy in awe.
We have maybe 20 seasons here between the Great Lakes, marked rhythms within the greater rhythm. From the Fourth of July until last weekend’s bonfires on Lake Michigan: that’s one long moment in culture and nature. Thunder and lightning are scheduled twice a week for midnight and 6 am, as predictable as the tornado sirens Tuesdays at 1. Salt on the skin, salad on the palate, honeysuckle and hydrangea as thickening agents in the air. Ladies in the shala pregnant out-to-there. Our pack of millennial students water-logged and skin-crisp from jumping in the Huron after practice, then sun-drying on the docks.
It’s against this backdrop that the pressure comes. The fire in the mind, the vritti storms, powerful waves of projection, crazy dreams lacing light sleeps, bad news, sudden endings, tearful outbursts… enough churn to bring very old poison to the surface of the mindbody. In high pressure times, the mindspace feels damp and opaque, like mirrors steamed over.
“Hard” practice is like this: pattern recognition under pressure.
A tool when there is doubt or freak-out or anger or sadness or crazy mind is to just say the words will and surrender.
Effort and letting go are not two different intentions. Effort and simultaneous letting go is the goddam practice. You perform your action impeccably and at that same moment you release the fruits of the action to a higher purpose. Doing and being. Will and surrender. Practice and non-damn-attachment.
Sometimes this mystical-practical aporia, which is always right there staring at me, steps in and smacks me in the face.
Paradox is not a problem. It’s an erotic union. It’s where the wonder comes from.
2. Resolution of apparent opposites
For a lot of us, we become conscious of the nervous system by swinging between its extremes. Experiencing the oppositions of
fight/flight/freeze and rest/digest/restore
a.k.a., sympathetic and parasympathetic
or, left and the right
exhale and inhale
down and up
lunar and solar
restorative and responsive
felt and seen
esoteric and exoteric
subjective and objective
allowing and intervention
gnostic and methodical.
The poles continuously create each other somehow. I guess this is how things go, here on a planet with only one moon and only one sun.
Still, the breath astonishes me. How it works. This two-part rhythm, which seems to be binary, and is somehow entwined with the other dualities of the nervous system. Phenomenal. That experience of pulling the breath across the veil of unconsciousness, then using it or being used, in a way, for consciousness and energy to expand. I marvel at the way breath begins and ends for an animal. How it is anchored by a deeper and prior respiration, literally the “primary respiration” of fluid up and down the spine.
The more conscious an autonomic nervous system becomes, the more the apparent dualities break down. Are inhale and exhale mutually exclusive? How about parasympathetic/ sympathetic?
In evolutionary time, a third branch emerged, the social nervous system, with cell nuclei in the brain stem nestled right in amidst the on-buttons for sympathetic and parasympathetic. Three years into biodynamic cranial-sacral training, we are now just beginning to feel the activities of these three autonomic circuits – the nadi junctions that enervate smooth muscle, facial and other subtle functions that tend to run automatically but can be migrated across the veil into consciousness with training and practice. My favorite of these nuclei is an a occipital nadi switching station that lights up your larynx, soft palate and vagus nerve. It is called the nucleus ambiguous.
Here is the thing. I live by a technique, tristhana, that integrates the apparently binary nervous system. Over time, if actually understood, tristhana has the power to resolve the the polarity of action/restoration and will/surrender for long moments of paradox in the nervous system… before a new polarity emerges and the small self takes shape once more.
This is rare, but it ain’t abstract. Check it out. What does a triggered nervous system do? First, it sees most everything as a threat enemy and reactivity runs the show. The breath moves into the ribs while the smooth muscle actions from the anus to the navel (reproduction, digestion) go offline and the tissues around them – the pelvic floor and low-abdominal armor – draw taut. The eyes sharpen. Breath, bandha, driste. You try to do all those techniques at once, too soon, in an unsafe environment, and your parasympathetic nervous system is going to become something from a hyper-reactive Hulk Hogan to a deer in the headlights. This is part of why it makes sense to learn the real stuff from a seasoned teacher, unless what your highest self really wants is to become an anal retentive adrenaline junkie. To pick up the paradox, you have to jump into a shared breath somewhere, be with other bodies in the present moment and channel the radical acceptance that underlies the so-called triggers.
Tristhana throws down a baseline of calm safety in the form of sense withdrawal, and then – incredibly – it lightly pushes the buttons of the fight-or-flight system. This is so delicate. Think Operation, the board game. If you do it right, what you get is the primal reactive energy that enables you to throw a punch to save your life, or mothers to throw cars of children and; but now it’s not an animal program. It’s nonreactive and it’s conscious and it’s put in to the service of blessing all beings in all worlds. Summon the animal nature, love and respect it, and systematically integrate it into a low blood pressure, low heart rate, low reactivity way of being.
From this point of view, the paradox of will/surrender isn’t theory. It’s describes direct experience that maybe should not be possible. Yoga made it possible. Brilliant.
Back to the third channel in the nervous system, the social. It’s time that this be popular knowledge – the place to start is Stephen Porges and the polyvagal theory. Of the many insights here is the way we are hard wired for constant social monitoring. We scan for safety in the facial expressions of others; we scan for status by monitoring their behavior. Social monitoring is full-on monkey mind, and it is structured into the nadis. Respect.
The tool for the monkey is driste. Driste gets your external monitoring off others’ faces (because you have established your safety), and out of their business (because you have made a conscious decision to set aside status anxiety). Take the physical driste and the meta-driste inside, reclaim the energy that by default spreads out into the social environment at all times, and all of a sudden you can feel so much inside. The levels of sensitivity to yourself multiply many times over, subtly, psychedelically, beautifully. Again this is easy to muck up. You don’t want to experience the whole inner world all at once. But it comes, magically, gradually, if you set your gaze right.
You learn to look through, not at, the world of form.
Not to space out, but to sense more clearly.
We are always giving birth to this reality, to some sense of a self. Along that line in lucky moments, there is no separation between (1) impeccable action, and (2) releasing the fruits of that action. The will, and the surrender, are not at odds. Both and.
That said, in this world, at this time, I feel my role is to give an edge to surrender. This is not a resignation of responsibility. Ever. It doesn’t make you a blob. It actually helps you use your power. If your intention is something bigger than meeting personal goals for achievement. Don’t be needy; act freely. The world responds.
This tristhana program, it’s not a conquest. What utter delusion to believe the monkey, and the internet, when they say yoga is about looking awesome. They will keep saying it. But practice is your breath. It is your death. Letting go is half the program.
The sirens and lights trip in to emergency mode and you ask your Jedi nervous system not to fixate just yet; stay calm until it’s your moment. Let the alarms add energy to a system relaxed and clear enough to take that in along with everything else.
For years, I taught Ashtanga yoga and made the closing benediction an option. This mantra is strong magic medicine, and unbelievably powerful if taken to heart. Out of respect, I thought it best to just let people know its literal meaning, and its function of surrendering the fruits of the practice. If they really believed in it, they could choose to say the sacred words. I reasoned that surrender is not real for everyone and it’s not something to force. Not everyone gives a shit about all beings in all worlds. Not everyone wants to have selfless feelings.
What profound delusion on my part. Yoga can be the opium that dulls the leisure people into pleasant mind states while shit goes down for other unseen beings in unconsciously adjacent contexts; or it can be a program for poking holes in the blinders of mass narcissism. Now that is a polarity worth sharpening up, rather than collapsing.
I have stopped pulling my punches on higher mind. These tools we’ve inherited and turned to selfish ends, they are to be understood and honored. Breath and death (agenda death, resentment death, neurosis death), sensitivity and expanding consciousness, and the wherewithal to just feel what is real. If we take posture and personal power as the goal, it is because we have not understood. Postures are little anchors to steady consciousness enough to feel the pain and experience the beauty. When you’ve integrated a posture, you stop grasping at it because your nervous system knows you can never pin it down.
Actually give up the drive to make yoga give you things, the drive that is somehow “normal” in these insane times, and you become some sort of devotee to impermanence and beauty. This is a predictable thing: I see it all over the place. Humans using true knowledge and the will to let go of their grasp.