Saturday, March 21, 2015

Downward Old Dog: Aging as Yoga

During counseling sessions, I often hear, “I tried yoga once.” It normally occurs during a conversation about attempts to manage stress and is normally followed by some form of, "I couldn't get my downward dog to stay down." This has led me to the conclusion that when most people talk about yoga they have in mind the same particular experience. As a matter of fact, let's try it right now. I’m going to say the word and I want you to see what the first image is that pops into your mind. Ready? “Yoga.”

If what appeared was the image of someone twisting and turning themselves into shapes, heretofore, unknown to the human body, then my point is made. I have found that in every case, when someone shares their yogic experiences with me this is what they're talking about. This is due, largely, to the fact that Hatha yoga, the practice of body postures and movement called asanas, is the most popular form known in the West. The system which was introduced by Yogi Swatmarama, a yogic sage in the 15th century in India, has been aided by a marketing campaign that kicks butt. (The kick-butt being a lesser known body posture.)

Millions of people have reaped the benefits from throwing themselves headfirst (an even lesser known yoga move) into some modern version of this ancient practice. Unknown to even some who regularly attend yoga classes, is that asanas make up only one of, what is known as, the 8 limbs of Yoga. These were was laid down around the year 200 A.D. in the sacred text of
Patanjali, the Yoga Sutras. In summary they are:

1. Yama :  Universal morality
2. Niyama :  Personal observances
3. Asanas :  Body postures
4. Pranayama :  Breathing exercises, and control of prana
5. Pratyahara :  Control of the senses
6. Dharana :  Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana :  Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi :  Union with the Divine
While a well-trained yoga instructor, my sister-in-law, and personal yogi during times of crisis, for example, can blend several of these limbs into one, most people's experience is associated with asanas, with, perhaps, a side-helping of pranayama.

The word yoga comes from the root word yuj which literally means “to join,” or, "union." There are, even within yogic circles, varying descriptions of what it is that is being united. Some say it’s the higher self with the lower self, others the body with the mind, and still to others it means joining a fitness club and giving their karma a good workout. For the purposes of understand what I'm calling Aging Yoga, or AY, (I'm still working on a more marketable name, but here's the tag line: Don't be an old fogey; be an old Yogi.) I prefer the following insight from Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj:

All that lives, works for protecting, perpetuating and expanding consciousness. This is the world's sole meaning and purpose. It is the very essence of Yoga - ever raising the level of consciousness, discovery of new dimensions, with their properties, qualities and powers. In that sense, the entire universe becomes a school of Yoga.
The goal of Aging Yoga is for one’s current level of consciousness, wrapped up in mind-stuff, filled with fears and desires, to give way to higher levels. Once reached, even the act of unification is seen a false. All is already one; it is the mind that dismembered the truth and it's the new dimension of consciousness that will re-member.

What all the various limbs and schools of yoga offer is a way to break free from habitual forms of living that serve to strengthen the mind-made self. This habit is so strong that even the most earnest yoga practitioner can still suffer from a huge ego, as in, "Check out this downward facing dog, dawg!” Breaking free of the egoic self does not require wrestling it to the ground until it cries "Om." As a matter of fact, there is nothing that the ego loves more than a good fight. All that's required is to see it for the illusion that it is; at that moment it melts like the Wicked Witch in a hot yoga class.

Which leads us back to growing older as a yogic practice, where we lay bare (Yogi bare - you had to see that coming) and openly expose the workings of the mind to reveal that it is not that we have a life, but that we are Life. With this practice, it is not what we do that matters, but what we stop doing.

The underlying theory of AY is that it is in the natural order of things to move through a cycle from birth/death, integration/disintegration, inhalation/exhalation. What is unnatural is to try to thwart or even stop this process. In reality, we are all yogis in hiding. There behind the curtain of the mind, obscured by the constant movement of, and fascination with, objects in consciousness, is the silence of consciousness itself. We are that.

It seems that nature has provided us with path to reach this unified whole, only we have missed the point and taken it as enemy, an intruder whose sole purpose it to rob us of our youth. But what if it’s not a nemesis? What if aging itself was a movement toward the soul's purpose; the realization of oneness? How cool would that be?

To get you started on the Aging Yoga path here are a few pointers:

1. Stop talking about growing older as if it were a disease: The dis-ease is in the mind that resists the natural rhythm.
2. Stop the mental time travel back to the "good old days": Your past is the story of who you were. Even if it's a good story, it's still make-believe.
3. Stop treating your aging body as if it still belonged to someone in their 20s: Respect and honor this wonderful marvel that has carried your hopes, dreams, aspirations and inspirations around for so long.
4. Stop trying to put feet on a snake: This is an old Zen saying that I threw in to make sure you’re still with me.
5. Stop thinking that it’s time that heals all wounds: It's not time that heals, it's your perspective and attitude which you can change in an instant.
6. Stop spending time around those who reinforce your notion that “hell is other people.”: Ultimately there is no such thing as "other," but in the meantime, protect yourself by not being the sponge to someone's Super-Soaker.
7. Stop searching for answers to your questions: Instead try questioning your answers.
8. Stop starting things that you know full well are only going to complicate your life: Learn to say "yes" to "no."
9. Stop seeing existence as puzzle to figure out: Try seeing it as a mystery to be lived.
10. Stop struggling with practices that purport to end all struggles: Enjoy (in-joy) whatever your doing by being fully present.
Now that you’re on your way with AY (Whoa, another tag line!) to a life lived, rather than a life thought about, meditate on this: One of the frequently used poses in Hatha yoga is called corpse pose. (I prefer the Sanskrit name of savasana as it's less . . . well . . . you know.) It’s powerful to think that even when our current state as a breathing manifestation of the one Life ends, we will still be doing yoga. Namaste!

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