How to practice when hell’s freezing over
Yesterday, a wave of sadness crushed me to the rocky ocean floor and held me under for an hour. You can read my personal thoughts about that, or just jump to the numbered list below for the practical stuff.
I came in from an appointment, closed the curtains, sat on the sofa and cried. When the chemical-emotional wave ended, some part of my nervous system refused to let it go. So, without realizing what was happening or why, I started thinking sad thoughts. My imagination went on search, landing on a succession of increasingly sad subjects: homeless people; then the hundreds of orphan children I grew up with; then on to wars in the middle east.
This is one way an unenlightened nervous system works under stress. It solidifies the exact experience it wishes it weren’t having. It seizes upon—and identifies with—the thoughts, images and emotions that hurt the most.
Some part of the system relishes the strong sensations of suffering, insists on suffering at all costs. Otherwise, how do I know who I am?
Strong sensation lets me know I’m alive. When that sensation is negative, and not accompanied by equanimity (radical freaking acceptance) it lets me experience myself as separate from everything else. It’s a setup. Suffering + “I’m special and different” = huge ego boost. Getting off on negativity is a version of this: self-loathing and self-congratulation are ego hangups of equal magnitude. They’re both just separateness trips.
It’s all ok. I don’t mind a little ego drama in myself. It is actually important to go to the crossroads and think, hard, about homelessness and war. It is interesting to have full experiences of the range of pleasure and pain. And it opens up space for love when I understand, and then stop getting off on, what it feels like to be radically alone.
But seriously. My seasonal affective jag does not equal homelessness and war. I am not my seasonal affective jag. Because I’m not it, there’s no shame in going through it. And maybe, it’s not just me who feels this. Which would mean this suffering (like all suffering) does not make me special. Instead, the suffering is exactly what makes me just like (almost) everyone else.
I wanted to open up about this in honor of anyone who sensed that an energetic, hormonal or emotional low was part of the territory the past three days. Some of you are stable enough in your yoga practices that you didn’t feel it. Thank you for that stability. If I were only doing my personal practice and not teaching so intensely, I’d likely be with you. This is because when practice stabilizes, the ups and downs become gentle. That’s kind of the point.
But back to the stormy sea. Anyone else cold and nauseous? Darn if this is not a cold, cold ocean. So. Are we going to practice with this situation or what?
YES. But now I’m just talking to those of you who want to do what you want to do. You who have already committed to showing up here, consistently, not for me but for yourself. You who are with me on valuing equanimity as a developmental skill, to using the resistance life throws you to make your practice so much more effective than it would be under “ideal” conditions. So, my job for you is to support that aspiration, to hold you accountable, and to share with you my unshakeable understanding that this is a very, very, very good idea.
I’m not going to try to work the push factors. It’s just not my way. The truth is that my experience of unbroken practice is sourced in love. Practice just really turns me on. I can’t teach you to practice from guilt or shame or self-punishment because I don’t know how. I know people fuel self-punishing neuroses to propel spiritual practice all the time, but it isn’t necessary. Pull factors are what I understand.
So here’s what I’ve got so far. Like all the lists here, it’s a living document open to revision. To improve it, I’d love to add your experiences. Please talk to me about what works for you, or leave your findings in the comments.
One easy way to stay in your practice when there is resistance is by deciding to be awesome. The dead of winter can be a kind of hero’s jourey. And you can use it to discover – and to decide – what you are made of.
The dark side of being a hero is that any stories about how hardcore it is to do what we do will just have to get dismantled later. If it gets you across the squalls of Februrary to think like a badass, ok. But leave the sleek fire-powered Batman wetsuit on the shore when you get to the other side. That thing will get hard to carry, especially when saturated with last season’s stories.
Take a hot shower in the morning. Let the water run on the crown of the head and down the spine. Feel your feet get very warm. Stay in the water just a little longer than you usually would. Same principle at practice: if you wear a long-sleeve layer, leave it on a little longer than you usually would.
Note that practice will give energy, not take it. The Mysore room is a resource for you. It has been created to give you energy, and to ease the everyday resistance that comes with having a body.
This fact might not come immediately to mind if you ask yourself whether you want to go to practice at the one moment you least want to move – in a warm soft bed in the. If you catch the thought “Practice will take too much energy,” please question it or subject it to an empirical test. I sumbit that practicing more + decreased resistance about practicing = waay more energy.
As always, it doesn’t matter what your practice looks like, or how many postures you do. Surya namaskara + savasana = practice. What gives energy is to move and breathe, in the morning, with a single-minded awareness, and with the support of the community, teacher and subtle energy that make the room what it is.
As Amy told me last year, the Mysore room is also a source of long-term internal heat. This is a place where you can heat up your core body temperature warmer than is possible anywhere else. As a result, you will be far more warm all day long.
This isn’t a time that one can afford the energy suck of emotional eating. It isn’t the time to fall back on sugar, excessive wheat or other drug-like foods that leave a hangover.
I assume folks aren’t that in to alcohol, since it is depressive, and toxic, and makes twisting painful. But my husband says that the winter weeknight wallow is such a part of Ann Arbor intellectual culture that I should talk about it for the academics. I don’t know. I always toasted my professors’ cognac with tea back at the UCLA faculty club; it was nice. If eating late, having a beer and staying up an extra hour right now feels like a good idea, ok, that is one coping strategy. It sabotages practice. Please don’t try to do both. Trying to do both is torture. Usually, torture leads to unhappiness.
Gear. Those who have lived here more than a year and aren’t too hip to wear NorthFace know how this works. (My gear is mostly from the thrift store.) If you moved here lately, ask anyone. It’s about a burly winter coat, actual boots, and all the layers you can find. The whole package costs less than a plane ticket to the islands. Please don’t just wait for winter to end: it won’t.
Carpool. A few people are doing this and say it helps tremendously. They say the main resistance to frequent practice is the work it takes to leave the house. Knowing someone is waiting for you cuts through that resistance. Simple.
Or walk. It’s a half mile from my house to the shala. Under all these thrift store layers with Jayashree in the headphones and fire in my belly at 4:30 in the morning, I am sweating by the time I get to the shala door. Even on the mornings it’s below zero. Try it. Could be awesome.
Choose your stories deliberately. They are part of the deep structure of the nervous system.
Here’s an example. I severely frost bit my right foot 15 years ago while sleeping in a snow cave for a month. Not a good scene. For years afterwards, I would lose sensation from the knee down as soon as temps dropped below about 40. This was experienced as a re-traumatization, bringing with it fear and anger. Restoring sensation to the foot was painful, requiring gradual soaking and self-massage. The layers of association of this history with my experience of cold are complex and subtle, and have offered an awesome opportunity to do nervous system surgery on myself this winter. Turns out there is no necessary connection between that older, much less mature, experience of cold and my new experiences of Ann Arbor winter.
But there are other associations I’ve actually revived for the sake of amusement. For example, way down deep, my body remembers ice skating for miles on bumpy frozen irrigation ditches across Montana cornfields when I was a kid. Calling forth that gleeful young ice-skater, and letting her reinhabit me makes skating down treacherous ice-covered streets outright joyous in the early morning hours. My whole body relaxes into the bizarreness of my situation, and adult-y complaints about dangerous street conditions fall away. Kids are smart: they love winter.
Drop your awareness into the belly and leave it there. Draw up your mula bandha, soften the front of the belly, and practice deep breathing into the abdomen. Really deep, even breathing. Imagine a little flame there in the belly, flickering brighter and brighter as you stoke it with breath. Turn the belly into a little crockpot, or as Rachel says, a portable heater. Feel the heat from this fire in the belly radiate up the body and out into the limbs. Get familiar with this technique while seated, and then learn to do it while walking around.
I wouldn’t say this if it didn’t work as well or better than this other practical stuff. If you practice ashtanga yoga, you can make contact with and use subtle body practices of this kind. Do not waste time: if you relentlessly keep drawing your awareness inside and feeling your inner experience very closely, you will learn to interact consciously with your own nervous system.
This too is the point of practice – getting focused and smart enough with your energy and your mind that you can just play with and be fully alive in whatever circumstances. Sadness, coldness, tiredness; vitality, warmth, joy. It is all here.