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2:36 pm

Mudita: The Counterpose to Jealousy and Ego

By Lisa Wells It’s Saturday morning. I wake up early so that I can make it to Angie’s Continuing Yoga class.  As much as I teach these days, it is a pleasure to be a student at least once a week. Angie knows my weaknesses, or what we lovingly refer to as ‘bathroom poses.’  For years, when teachers said ‘Pinca Mayurasana’ I took a bathroom break.  My shoulders were non-compliant with the pose.  Thus the nickname, ‘bathroom pose’. I was a little jealous of the other students who so easily seemed to float up into Pinca. To be honest, I was jealous of anyone who floated into any pose.  I love yoga, but it isn’t easy for me. I’ve had to work persistently for many years to gain a functional variation of Pinca Mayurasana, let alone a beautiful one. Jealousy was interfering with my practice. It was driving me into the bathroom in the middle of yoga class.  And ego was preventing me from working on the pose in class. I didn’t want to be seen failing again or, worse yet, falling out of the pose.  So I worked on my own. While I was eventually able to achieve the pose, I wasn’t achieving my greater purpose by fearfully clinging to jealousy and ego. Staying in class, struggling, and even failing has great benefits. I offer my vulnerable self to others. And I get to witness many beautiful versions of Pinca Mayurasana.  Through witnessing I’m learning a more important yoga practice: mudita, empathetic joy.  Mudita is the counterpose to jealousy and envy.  Practicing mudita is much more empowering than practicing Pinca Mayurasana.  Pinca is momentary rush, mudita is sustainance for the long haul.  Mudita, empathic joy: taking pleasure in the accomplishments of others.  It’s a novel concept: I can experience the joy of the pose by witnessing others practicing the pose.  Overcoming my jealousy and getting my ego out of the way, I am on my way to experiencing Samadhi, non-separateness. Psychologists tell us we are born without a sense of separateness.  At the beginning of our lives we do not experience a separation between ourselves, our mothers or the world.  Ego and a sense of self develop with maturity. Ego helps us establish our place in the world and gives us a way to work with both our strengths and our limitations. However, if the ego becomes entrenched our sense of ‘I-ness’ can become a straight jacket of limitations. ‘I’ cannot become enlightened while ‘I’ am clinging to my concept of self through ‘my’ achievements. Practicing the other 7 limbs of yoga along with Asana in yoga class, we can begin to experience moksha, freedom, from the straightjacket of the self.  As mudita awakens in us we discover we don’t have to be good at everything.  We are responsible for holding our place, for practicing all the limbs of yoga to the best of our ability, and then resting in joy of others as they do the same. It is the relaxing into this bigger awareness that is the pathway to Samadhi.

1:05 pm

Yoga in the Forest

Just a little journey, about a week ago (before the snow).  Stopped along the trail to do some yoga on a fallen oak tree.  Enjoy! Yoga in the Forest!

12:44 pm

Can Yoga Wreck Your Life?

“Lisa, it’s Mom.  Are you still teaching yoga?  I just read in the New York Times that yoga can kill you. Call me back.”  Okay, I’m exaggerating this phone message a little bit, but W.J. Broad’s recent article titled ‘Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ did document a number of ‘deaths by yoga’ and did generate a number of parental concern phone calls.  The article begs the question, are we endangering ourselves with our yoga practice? The article has some truth and wisdom in it, and the article doesn’t present the whole picture. Many of the examples are out-of-date and no data is given to compare yoga with other forms of exercise, or even the risks of normal daily activities.  I feel the need to respond to my students and to my Mom. I fully agree with the three primary points of the article:
  1. Life is dangerous.  Exercise can cause injury.  Asana (yoga poses) can cause injury.  Most yogis I know have injured themselves at one time or another.  I have hurt myself in yoga. I have also hurt myself running, walking the dog, riding a bicycle, dancing, walking down the stairs, cooking dinner...  I have a body and it occasionally gets injured.   Yoga has helped me heal from more injuries than it has caused.
  2. Life is fatal.  Yoga cannot prevent that. There are allusions to the possibility of immortality in some texts, even by modern authors, but I haven’t seen any proof to support this claim. The only cases of ‘death-by-yoga’ that I have heard of are ones mentioned in the article. I have seen plenty of evidence to suggest that yoga can increase overall health, radiance and longevity.  Yoga can make life in this body more pleasant and aging more graceful.
  3. Our egos can cause us to do stupid things.  If I spend my time in yoga class comparing myself to other yogis, I’m liable to hurt myself.  If my mind is trying to impose the pose on my body, I’m in danger.  If I push myself beyond my body’s limits, something is going to fail.  If I jump into poses that are beyond my capability, experience and wisdom, I will get hurt.
The article ignores the fact that more fundamental to yoga than Asana (the poses and exercise) are Yama and Niyama: the Yogic precepts, the ‘don’ts and dos’ if you will.  Focusing on just four of these precepts will help keep our Asana practice safe.
  1. The first Yama is ahimsa, nonviolence.  It is said that Gandhi spent his entire life practicing the first step of yoga nonviolence.
  2. The last Yama is aparigraha, nongrasping.  Non-grasping is living within the means of your body, your life, and the planet.
  3. The second Niyama is santosa, contentment. Contentment is seeking joy in what is.
  4. The third Niyama is tapas, impassioned discipline. Impassioned discipline is following the call of our hearts, bodies and minds.
If we can learn to practice nonviolence (peace) and non grasping (satisfaction) while practicing asana (exercise) we are unlikely to injure ourselves. We seek to manifest within the self what we also seek for the world.  On the journey we look for a balance between tapas (disciplined action) and santosa (contentment).  We push ourselves forward while being happy where we are. We do need to push ourselves to get stronger and extend our range of motion, to actualize in the world.  Increased strength and range of motion will also decrease the injuries we might suffer in yoga or the rest of our lives.  Achieving new poses is a benefit, but not the goal. We each have to explore this territory like Goldilocks did, personally discovering what is too little or too much, and what is just right. In my experience the most common physical injuries (both in yoga and in life) come from strong peripheral muscles relative to weak core muscles.  We need a firm foundation, strong deep abdominal muscles, a steady pelvic floor and good back muscles, to support the strength of our limbs. We need clarity and conviction to support our actions in the world.  We need to balance strength with flexibility, too little or too much of either leaves us vulnerable. Building a strong flexible core requires patience. It requires the willingness to study and to work subtly and slowly. This is difficult for those of us who clamor for the prize, be it a nicer bum, a sleeker physique, straight As or spiritual awakening. If we can learn to practice nonviolence, nongrasping, contentment and passion in the yoga studio, we can learn to practice nonviolence, nongrasping, contentment and passion in the rest of our lives; if we can learn to slow down and value the subtleness of the body, we can learn to slow down and value the subtleness of the moment; if we can place more value on a strong supple foundation than on a flashy exterior, then we can make better choices as individuals and as a nation.  Practicing asana in the yoga studio prepares us to practice yoga in our lives. There is no ‘pot-of-gold-yogic-enlightenment’ waiting for us when we master a difficult pose.   The ‘pot-of-gold-yogic-enlightenment’ is discovering contentment and passion, peace and satisfaction, in this moment and actualizing this in the day-to-day affairs of our lives.