Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yoga on My Mind (Or, A Brief History of How I Unexpectedly Came to Find Myself Blogging About Yoga)

It’s a funny thing for someone who’s gotten so into yoga, but I’ve always loved to live in my head.

On second thought (ha ha - pun intended), let me amend that. After years and years of yoga, I’m actually no longer at all interested in living “in” my head – that is, using my brain in a way that feels cut off from my body.

I am, however, very interested in more consciously merging my mind and my body. Thinking and feeling. Meditating and moving. Harnessing the thinking part of my brain to its intuitive capacities. Using that integrated awareness to explore my being and the world around me.

To me, this absolutely does not mean “turning off” my brain. Instead, I want to learn to better fine-tune the frequencies of my mind just as I’ve learned adjust the position of my feet, legs, hips, spine, shoulders, arms, neck, and head in asana practice.

Right now, my interest in bringing my mind more fully and deliberately into yoga feels like coming full circle.

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Growing up, I loved losing myself in my imagination: reading, writing, drawing, daydreaming, making up complicated games with cards or stuffed animals. There were infinite worlds that could be explored in my head. And they were reliably fascinating, inviting, magical.

The “real” world was often much less welcoming. Growing up in a family that required emotional suppression turned my natural tendency to enjoy using my mind into an engine for building a brain-centered fortress, creating an internal realm that was rich, interesting, and safely distant from the much more disturbing one “outside.”

Growing up to pursue a Ph.D. and academic career was, on the whole, affirming. It allowed me to turn something that I was good at and felt comfortable with – studying, reading, writing, thinking – into a way to find a place in the adult world and make a living. While I certainly had my dissatisfactions, it was a job track that fit me better than most.

Soon after becoming an assistant professor, I started my first weekly yoga class. Despite having a solid routine of running and working out at the gym, I felt some deep internal voice calling me to yoga. I didn’t know why or think about it much. But once I started listening – even just a little bit – a seed was planted that would continue to grow.

Life went on, taking me through multiple moves, career changes, and children. In an on-again, off-again way, I kept coming back to yoga, taking whatever classes fit in to my working mom schedule. I studied Iyengar, learned the Ashtanga primary series, did lots of Vinyasa Flow classes, and eventually developed a home practice.

For me, it was Forrest Yoga that took my practice to the next level. Not too long after deciding to focus on that method (the first time I had ever made that sort of commitment), I started having what I could only think of as “weird experiences”: vivid emotional flashbacks in hip openers, psychological breakthroughs in inversions, exploring my inner being as if I were travelling through outer space in Savasana.

Although I had had profound experiences doing yoga before, this level of intensity was new. And I loved it. Talk about connecting to a rich, fascinating, mysterious, magical, internal world – Eureka. I had found it.

My brain-based fortress – which over time had become more and more narrowly concentrated on building up work-related analytic skills – started breaking down. Pretty quickly, I developed an entirely new receptivity to the language of “spirituality” – a terminology that I had previously found, to say the least, off-putting.

But I really couldn’t think of any other words other than those associated with spirituality that touched on the new levels of experience I was accessing through yoga.

This was a huge shift for me. In the academic world that I was a part of, religion is (with some exceptions) held in low esteem – and spirituality is not even worth mentioning. Because in a culture hyper-dedicated to science, rationality, and “the life of the mind,” it seems way, way too flaky and New Age-y.

Nonetheless, with the help of my yoga teachers and a radically ecumenical church I had become involved with, I opened up to letting this new dimension of experience become a more and more important part of my life.

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After a work trajectory that I had committed to unexpectedly imploded, I found myself wondering what to do next.

What I really wanted to do was to write a book on American yoga. I had written one book and really wanted do another. But it didn’t seem very practical. Nonetheless, after much angst-ridden soul searching, I decided to try it anyway.

The fact that yoga was so dramatically reorienting my understanding of myself – not to mention reality in general – made me want to understand it better. I decided to take a teacher training with Ana Forrest to deepen my practice, while at the same time moving forward with my own research and writing agenda.

Time went on. Shockingly (at least to me – no one else seemed to find it so), I found myself teaching yoga, writing a book proposal, and finding an agent. Which brings us more or less to the present moment, in which I find myself experimenting with writing this blog – yet another activity that I never, ever imagined that I would pursue.

So, coming full circle: while yoga broke me out of living in my head, it also inspired me to start using my mind in new ways.

One involves writing this book about American yoga, which blends my background as a professor who wrote and taught about American history and culture with my ongoing involvement with yoga. Another, and really much more important way is becoming more knowledgeable about how my mind works, and more skillful at shifting mental gears and states of consciousness both on and off the mat.

Both connect me once again to that infinite fascination and richness that can be accessed through my mind – but this time, I hope, in a way that’s newly integrated with the rest of my being, as well as the world around me.

1 comment:

  1. fascinating! while i've heard bits and pieces of this story, this is the first time i've read the whole narrative in succession. thanks for sharing.

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