The other day, I was overcome with a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, sadness, and hopelessness thinking about the challenges I face and we collectively face in these times. The destruction of nature, which which we are inextricably interwoven, in service of a capitalism turned instrument of exploitation and oppression. The erosion of our democratic institutions and values. The utter devaluing of the feminine and of deep, instinctual ways of knowing and being. And now, a global pandemic threatening to decimate the most vulnerable among us.
I was – like many people- also feeling a sense of isolation that compounded these emotions. Before social distancing, I had practiced and taught at a yoga school that had become my second home, and I felt the loss of that community profoundly when the pandemic hit and I was unable to find solace there. Also, being the mother of a young child who is at home with me and needs me most all the time- and whose care I need to balance with work – I have not been able to participate in most of the online forums being created that many people have been able to turn to for virtual connection and community. Fortunately, I have parents who are a constant source of support to me; a son who is filled with joy, compassion, and silliness; and good friends who reach out to me regularly. They have been a lifeline for me, and I hope I to them. But in these grave times, I have often found myself struggling to maintain my usual cheerful optimism.
I was thinking at one point, when I was especially low, about calling my yoga teacher for help, to ask for his advice about how I could avoid sinking into grief and despondency. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I already knew, without having to ask, exactly what he would tell me to do: Practice Yoga.
But what does it mean to practice yoga? And what does it mean to practice yoga in a time of crisis?
Certainly, moving the body through various postures in coordination with the breath, clearing the energy channels in the body and working thorough any blockages or stagnation of energy or emotion is one element of yoga, and an important one. In the type of yoga I practice, ashtanga yoga, one is meant to practice asana six days a week, ideally at the same time each day, doing the same postures in the same order. The constant repetition of a physical practice that cleanses and opens the physical and energetic body and that stills the fluctuations of the mind is most certainly a form of solace, especially at moments when things in the external world are constantly changing and seemingly out of our control. When practiced with correct intention- which is, as I understand it, is with a spirit of curiosity, love, humility, and a hope to be understand and be an instrument of grace- the physical practice allows us to be more mindful, present, and compassionately engaged with ourselves and others in our community.
But practicing yoga is not just asana practice. It is far more than that.
Yoga practice could also include any number of sadhanas, from kriyas that come from the Hatha yoga tradition to purify the body, to devotional Sanskrit chanting, to japa meditation, to pranayama, to reading and studying yogic texts. I have done all of these practices at various times, and they have helped to still my mind and to help me feel grounded and focused, less swayed by external circumstances.
But practicing yoga is more than that, even.
Once I was visiting a friend and her family and was going to teach an asana practice to her, and her parents were considering joining in. When we were about to start, her father, a scholar of yoga philosophy, came into the room wearing his work clothes, and my friend commented to him that he must not be planning to practice yoga since he was not wearing yoga clothes. And her father gestured to the suit he was wearing, smiled, and said, “Maybe these are my yoga clothes.”
The point was well-taken. Yoga practice is not just something that just happens in our solitary moments, when we are engaged in focused, dedicated spiritual practice, though being firmly established in a consistent practice of that nature is very important for most of us seeking to understand and reach a state of yoga. Yoga practice is something that we ideally do throughout our entire day, in all our interactions.
Yoga: Life as a Vinyasa
Yoga, to me, in the broader sense, is living life as an elaborate vinyasa, or mindful, ritualistic coordination of movement and breath, with every thought and action imbued with correct intention and sincere effort.
This is especially important at a time like this, a time of crisis, when we may feel untethered from the things we identify most closely with, swayed by circumstances beyond our control, powerless against forces much larger than we are.
When we make our every action a yoga sadhana, we can take refuge in the beauty of our constant effort, however fumbling or awkward it may be, to see divinity in ourselves and others, and to be at peace and harmony with – and eventually come to fully abide in – that divinity. And when we do this, it has a ripple effect; we begin to have a more yogic, or sattvic energy, which, when shared with others, can help them connect with and cultivate their own sattvic energy. And this energy can keep us experience some serenity and keep us afloat in times of crisis.
So where to we begin to learn to live a yogic life?
Be Here Now
It is important, especially at a time like this, when we might feel pulled to dwell in the memory of what our life was like before the crisis and feel frustrated that we can’t return there, or to wait anxiously for an imagined future when our lives will return to normal, to instead be fully present in the current moment and to its teachings and other gifts. To, as Ram Das said, “Be Here Now.”
Memory (smriti) and imagination (vikalpa) are two of the fluctuations of the mind, or vrittis, that we ultimately seek to still in order to achieve a state of yoga. That said, both memory and imagination can be useful in yoga practice. If we are remembering a state of calm or serenity we felt in the past, returning to that state can help us drop into it again more easily in the present. Remembering the early morning sadhana I used to do at my yoga school in the pre-dawn hours every day, not with a longing and sadness for times gone by, but with an intention to imbue my life in the present with the peace I felt then, can help me recall those feelings and act from a place of serenity that I learned to feel through that practice. And imagining myself interacting with myself and others in a yogic way can help me actually do that in my life, when I have the opportunity to chose between stress and tranquility, conflict and peace.
Yamas and Niyamas
Another way to begin to approach yoga is by practicing the first two limbs of the eight-limbed path of practices in the ashtanga yoga method, the yamas and niyamas. They are practices that are sometimes referred to as the ethical guidelines of yoga, and can also be thought of as the restraints and observances we can practice in our daily lives to help our mind remain still and to be at peace with ourselves, our environment, and our community. The yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, conservation of vital energy, and non-possessiveness/non-hoarding. The niyamas are cleanliness/purity, contentment, self-discipline, study of the Self, and surrender to the Divine. An excellent resource for people interested in living in accordance with the yamas and niyamas is The Sacred Tradition of Yoga by Shankanarayana Jois.
I have found it useful in moments of darkness to think of people who are experiencing hardship as well and to reach out to them to offer assistance. I am best able to do this when I am also grounding myself in my own spiritual practice and in other wellness practices that help me stay healthy and renew my energy, so I am not showing up depleted and hopeless, but as grounded and optimistic as I can be. Service can be a yogic sadhana, especially when coming from a place of empathy, a sense of connectedness to the people we are serving, a recognition of our shared divinity, and a remembrance of the times when others have helped us in our need.
My Yoga Sadhana
I am still in the process of figuring out what yoga sadhana looks like for me in a time of crisis, and specifically during this global pandemic.
One important element is making time for solitary spiritual practice. This often means, since I am also raising my son and trying to make a living, waking up hours before dawn, usually at three or four in the morning. But this is actually an ideal time for yogic practice anyway; the hours just before sunrise are known as Brahma Muhurta, the time of pure consciousness, when the energy is sattvic and conducive towards reaching a state of yoga. Somedays, though, at this time of day I need to work instead, because I have a project I need to finish before my son wakes up. And so I try to do that cheerfully, with a sense of gratitude for having the work- strategy and fundraising for a collective that supports grassroots organizing for social change through narrative transformation and healing practices- and for being able to contribute something to the people who are at the front lines of strengthening our movements for justice.
Another element is maintaining the cleanliness and sacredness of my home, where, since social distancing, I now spend most of my time. I have set up an altar and brought in flowers and other elements from the natural world. I light candles at sunrise and sunset and when I am doing my yoga practice, and I burn natural incense and essential oils. I sometimes also make steam with healing herbs. I clean my home every night before bed so I awake to a place that is uncluttered and serene. And I have brought in images that inspire me to be at one with the natural world and the divine feminine..
Another is to spend time in nature. I live within walking distance of a park that is big enough I can go there with my son while still practicing social distancing and teach him to climb trees and roll down hills, jump with him in mud puddles, and lie on the grass looking up a the sky. I also am fortunate to have a car, and so am able to go hiking or to the beach, to places where there are no other people, and remember that nature renews itself when allowed to, and that I am part of nature.
Another is making medicine. I am interested in home herbalism and love to make tinctures, syrups, and other medicines from plants. During this time, I have made lots of elderberry syrups to boost my immunity. I also have made steams and decoctions of bee balm and and mullein teas. Making my own medicine from the natural world helps me remember the interconnectedness of my health and the health of the planet, and also the practice of making it is a calming, healing process itself. I like to teach my son about it to, and have him smell and taste the plans and learn about their medicinal properties. I teach him to thank the plant and the earth, and to think about how he can use the health and vitality his food and other medicine imbue him with in order to help others.
Another is taking part in yoga classes being taught online by my teachers, staying connected to their teachings and being part of a virtual community. I also am exploring teaching online, since teaching yoga has become interconnected with my own yoga practice, one informing the other.Virtual instruction certainly feels different than learning and teaching in person- with less connection to each other’s energy and breath- but is the way we have right now to stay connected and keep learning from each other in a challenging time- and having a teacher to turn to for guidance and a community of fellow practitioners can be very reassuring.
And a last is remembering that every moment and every interaction can teach us something that helps us along the yogic path, if we can be open to its teachings. There are times when I have felt overwhelmed raising my son at this challenging moment in our collective life, and have wished I had more time to engage in the kind of serious and dedicated yoga practice I used to do in years past, when I could put yoga sadhana at the center of my life and organize other things around it. But the other day after I had finished teaching an asana class on Instagram Live, I found my son sitting on the mat I had used and playing my harmonium, singing along. He told me, ” I am teaching yoga.” I smiled and replied that I was sure he would be a great yoga teacher one day. And he insisted, ” No. I am a great yoga teacher RIGHT NOW.”
And he was right.