the art of bodies in motion

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yoga: The Laundry - Part I (Choice)

Sthira, Sukha, Dukha
Stability, Ease, Dis-ease

My mother made sure that my brothers and I did our fair share of the housework when we were growing up. I think this was as much to ensure that we would be able to take care of ourselves when we set out into the world, as it was to ensure that the house ran properly since she worked fulltime! Even with lots of practice and excellent training, I remember feeling slightly stunned when I was out on my own by how much time I had to spend doing things like the laundry. Clearly I had been living under a delusion that 'independence' would allow plenty of time to do whatever I wanted.

The Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai. Photo © Scott Zetlan

The structure of life itself demands certain things to be sustained. On simply a physical level we need air, water and food cycling smoothly through the body on a regular basis, and we need an environment in which the body can maintain a temperature of approximately 98.5°F. These basic needs bring with them other requirements, like breathable air, clean water, the hunting, gathering or purchase of food and, in most regions of the world, shelter for at least certain times of the year. This all, in turn, requires... more than I had realized when I was 19!

The Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai. Photo © Scott Zetlan

Sthira sukham asana. Yoga asana, the physical practice of yoga through its postures, is defined as a steady (sthira), easeful (sukham) position. This relationship between steadiness and ease, strength and flexibility, stability and mobility, is constantly at work in the structure of our bodies and our physical activities. (The relationship between our skeletal system and our muscular and cardio-vascular systems, are obvious and tangible examples of this.) When we are aware of this relationship between form and flow, we may also become aware of how the body can guide us in any physical practice: where we can release tension or resistance, where we can direct more energy, when we need to ease up a little, when can we push more...

In asana practice (as in dance, sports, the martial arts...) it is not unheard of for injury to occur, especially when we are directing the body to do what the mind wants without tapping into the body's storehouse of information. Dukha (pain, discomfort, dis-ease) serves as a guide, teaching us to pay attention to the body's knowledge and creativity. It tells us not only what is comfortable or uncomfortable, but also what is constructive or destructive, inviting us to open to new possibility. The desires and fears of our ego-mind (ahamkara) are strong, persistant, and often very loud, like children clamouring for attention or wheedling for their way, and the body-mind (manas) speaks in a language we may have forgotten how to hear or understand. By allowing space within oneself for this conversation between mind and body, where we can hear, observe and measure, a space is created in which we can develop balance, steadiness and ease. With a certain amount of awareness, a great deal of rigor, and a deep breath of compassion we can usually find this place of sthira-sukham in even the most intense of postures or practices.

Yoga asana are designed to work deep within the body, not only on a muscular and skeletal level, but deep within the connective tissue and in the cells themselves. This 'inner universe' holds within it not only immediate feedback, but also the residue of memories and emotions that lodge within the body. Maybe this a way to store information that the mind is not ready to handle on a conscious level. Maybe it is simply the trace life leaves – its imprint or mark. By listening to this inner universe we can discover what we need for our stability, strength and wholeness, what we can release, what we must release and where we can invest and direct our energy and attention. We can discover not only ease and strength in the body, but also clarity and calm in the mind. Like the body, it too experiences sukha, dukha and sthira.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the human organism is that body and mind tend to reflect one another, so we can approach the relationship between sthira and sukha both through the body and through the mind. Mental tension, fears and blocks are very often reflected in the body in the form of muscular tension, energetic blockage, injury and disease. A mind clear of its clutter and fears can affect the overall health and well-being of the body, its alignment, efficiency and ease. At the same time, creating patterns of ease and strength in our physical practice influences and is part of that same balancing process that can carry us toward not only wholeness in our entire being, but also deeper understanding and greater awareness. This includes not only the clearing and balancing of the body's energy channels (nadis) but also the sheaths (koshas) of the body, breath, mind, intellect, and what is referred to in yoga tradition as the 'supraconscious.'

'Pointing a Finger at Star Formation.' Photo © 2011.NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

This relationship between sthira and sukham is reflected throughout our lives, on every level. Not only in our physical practice and personal lives, but also in larger organizational structures, like families, businesses, communities, governments and nations. The relationship between sthira and sukha is constantly at work, guided by dukha. Life itself presents the ongoing challenge and opportunity to find a balance between work and play, effort and release, strength and flexibility, stability and mobility, between responsibility and freedom. Between survival and annihilation.

The unspoken and often forgotten element in this relationship is that of choice. What do we do when confronted with dukha, with sukha, or sthira? Do we respond and adjust, sacrifice, ignore, cling, reject, deny, justify, blame, suffer, sleep? Marvelous, all the different choices we make. I like taking the issue of road maintenance as a simple example.

Pothole in the New York/New Jersey Metropolitan area. Photo © 2010. Stefano Giovannini.

New York, where I lived for many years, is full of potholes – deep dips or actual holes in the roads where ankles are twisted, cars are tossed off track, and entire body parts have been known to disappear, at least temporarily. The people who live here vote on how much and in what ways they choose to maintain their common roadways. For the most part, they prefer the discomfort and occasional risk to life, limb and wheel to the discomfort of paying the additional taxes to better maintain their roads. So, potholes abound! This is the choice these people have made, consistently, for many years.

In Paris, on the other hand, people have a different response to the same question of how to maintain their roads. For these people, apparently, the discomfort, embarassment and risks caused by poorly maintained roads outweights the discomfort that might be caused by higher taxes. So, their roads are beautifully maintained and new systems are sometimes established to address future problems before they have become actualities. It costs. And this is their choice.

This example is simplified, of course. There are many things at work, including a different relationship between the individual and the community, a different definition and sense of responsibility for the 'common good.' The two cultures are intrinsically different on many levels, but I hope you get the basic idea. Essentially, we find our rhythm and make our choices within the constraints we are confronted with, and our perception of them. And hopefully we find within the parameters we set at least fleeting moments of satisfaction – time outside the loads of laundry and maintenance to play a little. Better still (if anyone is feeling ambitious), if we can find sweetness and pleasure in doing the laundry!

I wonder if we can't assess our progress, our development, by how we respond in a crisis. Who are we and how do we choose to respond not only each day – and certainly each day – but also on our worst day, in the midst of our most fearsome challenge? How does a warrior meet weakness? How does a dancer respond to a broken body? How does a scientist manage the madness of his mind? How does a monk who has spent his entire life dedicated to non-attachment fight for his life? How do we choose to respond to the challenges we meet? Not only is choice an important element, it is a critical one in which we take part in shaping our lives and the world around us.

The Dhobi Ghats, Mumbai. Photo © Scott Zetlan