Monday, January 25, 2010

Surrender

I began practicing yoga ten or eleven years ago when I lived in Flagstaff, Arizona. At that time, I thought of yoga as another type of exercise, a supplement to my running and other workouts. I probably took two yoga classes most weeks, but there were some weeks I didn't go at all.

Despite the lack of consistency in my practice back then, I distinctly remember one night when, stressed out from working full-time, waiting tables on top of my regular job, and taking graduate classes, I walked into my studio apartment, unrolled my purple mat, and literally fell into child's pose. I began focusing on my breathing and understood, however briefly, what true surrender felt like.

I like the way Swami Chetanananda describes surrender: "The ultimate attainment is already ours, but the experience of it comes to us only when we are in a state of complete surrender. In this case, 'surrender' means the surrender of everything--every effort, desire, thought of attainment or, indeed, anything that represents the thought of any other--as we become centered instead."

When we learn to let go--and I mean really let go--we find centeredness. And we find contentment and nonattachment. We begin to feel right in the world.

I practiced yoga for two or three years in Flagstaff, always at the same health club, always with the same instructor. When I moved to Denver, I couldn't afford the yoga studios I found. Had I investigated further, I would've realized that most health clubs offer yoga classes, as do many community centers and other organizations. And, because yoga continues to grow in the U.S., more classes are available every day. But I didn't investigate further; instead, for two years I practiced at home every so often, listening to an audio tape of my Flagstaff teacher's class. Yoga was not part of my average week anymore.

Then I temporarily went back to Arizona to help care for a seriously ill relative. There was a yoga studio located across the street from where I was staying, and I took a class. I went back again the next day, and the next. I convinced my sister to join me, and she began attending daily classes as well. Life is hard for all of us at least some of the time, and some days (or weeks, or years) are especially difficult. For me, it took a difficult time in my life to bring me back to my mat. I learned (or re-learned, or maybe just began to learn) how to surrender, to find peace. It's not always easy to do, but, the more consistently I practice and the more I study the philosophy of yoga, the easier it becomes.

For me, that centeredness--the ability to cultivate contentment, no matter what's going on around me, even if just for a few seconds--is one of the most amazing things about yoga. In some ways I can't get my head around how it works, while at the same time it makes absolute sense to me.

Once I returned to Denver, I tried every studio I could find and quickly found two I liked. I practiced, almost without fail, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Working full-time and attending school at night were easier once I let yoga back in. I've heard fellow yogis say that, if you make the time for yoga, you end up with more time for everything else. I'm sure this means different things to different people, but to me it means gaining the energy (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual) to keep perspective and maintain balance and contentment in my life.

In western culture, we often think of yoga primarily as a series of physical postures (asanas). This makes sense, as the asana practice is usually our focus these days. But yoga is actually much more. The philosophy of yoga is based on something called The Eight-Limbed Path, and the physical postures make up only step three of eight. Traditionally, the purpose of the asana practice was to prepare the body for meditation - the postures help us quiet the chatter of our thoughts.

For me, the postures do just that. My asana practice is a moving meditation; I can focus on my breath and the movement of my body and let go of the rest. My "monkey mind" slows down a bit. It's hard to focus on anything but the present when you're trying to balance on one foot while isometrically moving different muscles in different directions, bringing one hand toward the floor and reaching the other toward the ceiling, and flexing your lifted foot toward your face!

And, at the end of a 60 or 90 minute practice, when my mind has quieted and I'm resting in the final pose, savasana, I am more likely to know surrender. I will almost certainly leave more centered than when I arrived, and, the more consistent my practice, the more I find myself bringing that centeredness off the yoga mat and into the outside world.

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