Yoga for Unexpected Change



Change can really suck. 

Unexpected change can amplify an already uncomfortable experience to levels that seem impossible.

I know whereof I speak. 

Many of you can probably relate when I say my life has been a series of unanticipated changes. 

For many years, I thought I was special in this. That somehow, I, and perhaps my immediate family, had been earmarked by Fate to receive a lion's share of daunting challenges without sufficient preparation. 

Starting with cancer at 8 years old, I had all the proof I needed that life was not going to play predictable or nice--so I hunkered down to prepare for a lifetime of being the "one in a million chance" of having unwelcome discomfort, illness, or tragedy befall me without warning. 

Sound dismal? It kind of was. 

Being raised in a conservative Christian home, I had Satan and sin to blame for the struggles and pain of being human, but that did little to relieve me in the moment to moment experience of uncertainty, facing my own mortality, and physical unpleasantness. 

I wanted something that gave me a sense of direction, peace, and purpose in the midst of encountering suffering that exceeded my wildest expectations. 

Now, somehow, I was also born with an insatiably curious personality...and since I can remember, the question that always obsessed me was, "What is TRUE?" If I knew that, I figured I could handle whatever circumstances came my way. Even death itself would be alright if I had that mystery sorted.

Much as I wanted the Christian framework to provide those answers, I had to look beyond that singular lens to explore more perspectives on What The Fuck Is REALLY Going On Here. 

I explored subtle energy like Reiki and Qi Gong, the meridian system, and healing touch. Looking for that connecting thread that wove body and spirit together, that made sense of why and how change happens and how we can relate to that in bodies. 

As I continued to ask Why and How and What, people and modalities showed up on my path, each offering a perspective of the mystery that acted like a funnel which ultimately led me to yoga.

Now, I had a fairly typical introduction to yoga as we know it in the West. A friend of mine in college presented me with Sun Salutation A as a "new thing" he was trying out and I went along. I did yoga in fields at sunrise, I stood in tree pose with fellow students in the courtyard--I hauled my tired ass to hot yoga after a long day's work and sweat away my stress.

While I did appreciate the physical acrobatics and unique shapes asana offered, it always felt like there was something deeper I was only scratching the surface of. Sure, I felt calmer afterwards, but I didn’t know why and it didn’t feel replicable without the studio, music, and instructor.

Ten years after I started practicing yoga asana, I took a yoga teacher training course as the result of another unexpected life change. Lyme disease and Epstein-Barr left me completely drained of energy and an immune system so I looked to yoga to build strength and focus. Yoga philosophy presented the key to both.

I’m not going to say I had a complete “Aha!” moment as we delved into Sanskrit and endless lists that seemed to be pointing at something simple that was certainly not easy…but there was a recognition. Kind of like seeing an “X” on a map written in a foreign language.

So for the next four years, I stirred the proverbial pot, trying to distill the language of the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita into a gem that would unlock the secret to living well in a human form, regardless of what the winds of change blew in.

Here’s what I got:

Reality (that’s capital “R” reality-like EVERYTHING that Is. Black holes, deities, annoying habits, runny noses, winning lotto tickets, astrology) is made up of TWO ingredients. TWO.

There’s the stuff that changes and the stuff that doesn’t.

The change-y stuff is everything that isn’t Soul/Consciousness/Essence.

Of course these have fancy Sanskrit names, but you don’t need to know them to make the Cookies of Life. You just have to know that there are two pieces that make up the Big Puzzle.

Now, here’s where the part about navigating unexpected change well comes into play.

The cause of suffering comes from us thinking that Who We Are is made up of the stuff that changes. 

For example:
I am my body. Therefore, if it becomes ill, I am broken and if it passes away, I cease to be.

OR
I am my job. Therefore, if I lose my job or change my job, I no longer have worth or clear purpose.

In yoga philosophy, the unchanging part of us, that which is peaceful, unified, eternal, and loving, infuses the changeable world like electricity infuses the filament in a light bulb and causes it to glow. The electricity is not the light bulb and the light bulb is not the electricity…rather, the bulb is a vehicle for the current to manifest itself through.

Take a minute with that.
You HAVE a body, but you ARE NOT only the body.
You HAVE experiences that are pleasant and unpleasant, but you ARE NOT only these experiences.

You, the unchangeable ingredient, is peace, love and pure consciousness.

At its heart, yoga offers practitioners a path to that which is beyond suffering.

Yep. I want that. Sign me up. But how do I do it?

Here’s what I’ve discovered by trying a lot of stuff out.

You can’t downward dog your way out of suffering. You can’t feel your way out of suffering. Heck, you can’t even think your way out of suffering.

But, you can tumble your way to experiencing your changeless Self.
Let me explain.

Confession: I love rocks. Yes. I love the process of perusing rivers, fields, beaches, and hills looking for lovely pieces of stone. I bring them home, wash them off and then place them into rubber drums with water and grit. Then I set them on a rotating platform that turns the drum around and around, sloshing rock, grit, and water together for weeks on end. When I remove them, their rough edges are rounded, their surfaces polished and gleaming. I can see their inner light and each one is unique.

This is why we practice asana, pranayama, and meditation. It is Why we teach our bodies to move, our breath to even out, and our minds to focus.

It’s very logical, much like a baby learning to first move their hands and legs at will, then to crawl, then to walk.

So in modern, everyday life and language, here’s what we can do to ease the suffering caused by unexpected change, or really, life in a human body.

Stay with me. Life is stressful, yes? Even without major life events like birth, death, illness, or job loss, things in the West move at a rapid pace. We can access vast swaths of information at the swipe of a finger, most of which is scary or negative, we are pressured to buy, possess, achieve, and maintain highly unsustainable items and body shapes. We are told our planet is on the brink of destruction.

Enter chronic trauma and what that does to our bodies and minds.

Our limbic system is the portion of our brain that controls the fight, flight or freeze mechanism(FFFM), as well as being the gate keeper for the immune system, digestion, hormonal balance, higher cognitive function, and relationship building.

In an ideal world, the limbic system triggers the FFFM when there is actual danger, like a car is about to hit you as you cross an intersection. When you are out of danger, it turns off, you zonk out for a long rest and let your body repair itself.

The trick is, your brain doesn’t know the difference between a real car about to smack you and you freaking out about what you’re going to do if you get fired. It sends the same signals to the body. Suffice it to say, you don’t need an immune system, diplomatic skills or great digestion to get away from the Honda, you need to MOVE.

When our brain gets used to life in the fast lane, it programs the FFFM as its default setting. Which means we get sicker, less nourished, and dumber.

So, the number one order of business for easing suffering and navigating change well is to get the brain out of Fight, Flight or Freeze and into Rest and Digest.

This is where asana and pranayama come in, as well as retraining the limbic system specifically to calm down. The tumbling begins.

By remembering that we are more than the constant change in our bodies and world, we move into an experience of spaciousness and constancy. We know the forest as it is, instead of confusing it with a single tree.

It is these moments of space, when we are watching our bodies breathe or when we are breathless with wonder at the beauty of our beloved that we touch our infinite selves.

Life in bodies will always shift for the better or the worse. As yogis, we place our attention and efforts on that which is timeless and peaceful, on the Observer inside us who watches life.

Do we still experience emotion, upheaval, questions, and sensations? You bet. The golden ticket is, we know we are more than that. We hold pleasure and pain lightly, letting them pass through us without trying to make the good stay longer and the bad stay away.

And what about death itself?

The more we practice, the deeper our experience becomes of realizing that the body may pass back into earth, but consciousness is eternal. Eventually, the masters say, even the fear of death is removed.

Imagine that. 

For me, this not only answers the question of What is True, it also offers a path to live it. I don’t need life to be without change or suffering, but I intend to meet it with an open heart and an alchemist’s eye.















Comments

  1. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and Tobias. Hope all went well.

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