Tag Archive: self soothing


Liz in Revolved Side Angle pose

Liz in Revolved Side Angle pose

I really liked the way Stephen Cope explained the difference between yoga asana and meditation. If the goal is to settle the mind (more about the theory related to that in a later post) – yoga asana does that bottom-up while meditation does it top-down.

Meditation involves a concentrated effort to bring the mind back to a focus object (e.g. breath), whereas yoga, by facilitating the alignment of movement, breath, and attention, achieves that mind settling more effortlessly (even if with more sweat!).

That explains why I fell in love with yoga asana – and why I think I prefer it over meditation, even though I really hate to sweat.

My practice at Greenville Yoga lead me through beautiful states of mind and emotion that were achieved without me really trying to alter my emotional state. They were an unexpected side-effect of asana practice. They were powerful experiences of mood altering, that happened without much outside intervention (such as alcohol, or a conversation with a good friend). It was the first time ever for me that I discovered that I can do something relatively simple (move the body with the breath, pay attention to the body as I do so) and make myself feel 1000% better in 1 hour. I discovered self-soothing (better late than never). I used to tell dear Liz that she sells happiness at $10 a pop. That it’s so good it shouldn’t be legal. 🙂 I should not, however, underestimate the importance of the asana teacher. As I found later, even though practice is mine (my body, my breath, my attention), the beautiful, mood altering experience doesn’t happen every time, in every class. Liz has the gift of orchestrating a flow that takes you there, and, in my opinion, offering her energy as a ladder you can climb on to get to the floaty pink clouds easier, faster.

It is said that asana prepares the mind for meditation. It makes a lot more sense to me now, after comparing asana practice with a lot of time (for me) spent cross-legged on a meditation cushion this past weekend. The latter is so much harder. You have to expend much more volitional control, whereas asana kidnaps you and takes you to that beautiful place without you having to try that hard.

There is something about the effort of the body, having to pay attention in order to balance, or to integrate the opposing directions of many yoga postures (the sideways, length, and downward bending of triangle, for example – you can’t hold your body in all these seemingly opposing directions without paying attention. The same with a simple forward fold where your shoulders and upper back are open and not collapsing down. Everything goes down, but shoulders go up, away from the ears.) Asana really kidnaps attention, and a practice of continuous body scanning during asana (paying attention to every finger and toe, scanning the body to relax unnecessary tension, remembering to release the jaw) really helps focus the mind, and integrate it with breath and body movement.

While I want to further develop my meditation practice, it has become clearer to me than ever before how powerful asana is, and that, if I am ever to share any of these practices with other people, I would like to share yoga asana. I think it is an effective entry point in this beautiful realm of alleviating suffering – one that, in spite of its physical nature, is much more accessible to people in Western societies.

Practice, and good things do happen.

Oh, shit

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I’m at Kripalu on a weekend retreat with Stephen Cope. Stephen gave a (Dharma) talk tonight that combined beautifully, in his characteristic style, insights from Easter and Western psychology.

He quoted this psychiatrist from Harvard, whose last name I didn’t catch – Dan Boey (?), who, after a long career of practice, declared that humans need the following 5 self-maintenance functions:

The capacity to:
1) self-soothe
2) experience a stable sense of identity
3) feel the realness of experience
4) esteem the self
5) warmly love the self

Of these, the capacity to self soothe is the foundation upon which equanimity is built.

So, how does one self soothe? The obvious and popular answers are alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, Internet, etc. But, no, really, what are constructive, effective ways to self soothe?

Here Stephen cited another psychologist, Heinz Kohut (whose book, Self Psychology, I’d love to read).

According to Kohut, the capacity to self soothe arises from

being safely held and soothed by a non-abandoning love object.

This is similar to what Buddhist call “true refuge.” What can this “non-abandoning love object” be? Family, a parent, but also in Buddhism it is said that practice begins with refuge in Buddha (a teacher), Dharma (teachings), and Sangha (community).

Stephen talked about lineages as safe havens. They are long lasting webs of relationships and knowledge that one can take refuge in without relying on one teacher who might disappoint. So, one way to lay the foundation for self soothing is to take refuge in a lineage. Here, lineage means a religious or spiritual tradition. But Stephen explained one can (and should) also create one’s own lineage: an enduring web of relationships. In Kohut’s terms:

The self is created out of this ‘surround of relationships’ that are evoking, sustaining, and affirming.

We create our own surround of relationships which in turn creates us. This is not unlike Mead’s symbolic interactionism, a theory I’m familiar with.

This surround of relationships can be made of individuals (friends, family, animals) and institutions, or “churches.” Stephen pointed out how most institutions, wether lay or spiritual, usually display their lineage with photos on their walls.

One needs many churches.

Don’t hang out only with you and your mind; that’s a dangerous neighborhood to be.

This explains… Well, everything:
– why I didn’t develop early the capacity to self soothe (or lost it along the way from using it up too early in life)
– why I need my friends so much more than they need me
– why I sit in a room alone, thousands of miles away from family, on what actually is Easter night in my lineage (which I’m not sure I identify with, but maybe I should start somewhere).
– why I need more cats
– why I’ve been consumed with loneliness lately (and by lately I mean the past 6 years or so)
– why I need my students so badly (temporary surround of relationships that disintegrates abruptly at the end of each semester)

Stephen gave us homework: to draw our web of relationships. Start with a blank piece of paper, put a heart in the middle (yours). Then intuitively position people (and animals) on that map according to how close they are to your heart. Then work at the web of relationships. God knows, I do work at it. But I tell ya, this is bad news for a Romanian immigrant living in Indiana.

Happy Easter, y’all.