Yoga is Free!

Yoga is Free

I went on my first yoga retreat in the 1990s, to a somewhat stoic place in the majestic Berkshire Mountains. At the time, I was a recent college graduate who earned little money working at a shelter for women experiencing homelessness. Yet, through yoga all things seemed possible — not just travel to not so far away places, but also a deeper sense of connection to my purpose and desires.

Today, about twenty years later, I have mixed feelings about the growth of yoga in American society. While its now commonplaceness makes it, in some respects, more accessible to people in multiple life spectra through proximity, it has also become a huge industry. Like its sister mindfulness practice meditation, yoga also has, to some extent, become an elitist practice that makes the uninitiated feel uncomfortable and excluded through profuse use of Sanskrit without adequate translation, expensive accessories, and the removal (disconnection) of spirituality or even personal transcendence for the less spiritually inclined from its teachings.

Because I have practiced yoga for more than 20 years, to one extent or another, I find myself on many mailing lists for products and services related to mindfulness practices. One such mailing list, which thankfully I have been removed from — probably because I was found to be an unwilling customer — was a meditation supplies catalog. Now, I understand that there are many specialty items that can be used to enhance meditation practice and that these items aren’t found in every corner store. Yet, seeing all of these things for sale in one non-renewable energy guzzling mail order place signified to me a shift in understanding yoga and meditation as a space for commerce in addition to a space for connection and transformation.

This shift is a divergence from the true meaning of mindfulness practice. Yoga is free. Meditation is free. They are practices that we perform do at any moment, not avenues to promote consumption. They are about connection — both inward and to all living beings, an integration of our minds, bodies, and spirits both individually and collectively. Yoga and meditation are immediately available to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Good yoga teachers are wise sages. Like artists, they inspire beauty, bring out the best in us, and build community. We should support them, including with our precious resources, because they add value to our lives. We should also support people who create safe spaces for us to practice yoga and meditation. And yes, we should support the companies that provide products and services to complement our practice. We can practice awareness by noticing when we use our mindfulness practices as opportunities to overconsume and the ways that we unintentionally exclude people, people who might so greatly benefit from this knowledge and participation, by how we talk about and present opportunities to practice yoga and meditation. The intent of yoga and meditation has traditionally been to unite, not to divide.

Like punk rock, all good things eventually become commoditized. Such was the argument made — not about punk rock specifically but about music in general — by political economist Jacques Attali in his awesome book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. We can resist this tendency by focusing on what is most important to our yoga and meditation practice – awareness, rootedness, connection, unity, and well-being.

Intentional Carelessness

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Intentional carelessness is the act of purposefully choosing not to attach ourselves to what happens or to what happens as a result of what happens. It is a stance that promotes curiosity and openness to experiencing life as it is lived without judgment or regret. It means that we do not take ourselves and our preconceived, rigid ideas about the world seriously; however, the fate of the world, and our actions or lack of action that contributes to its status, remain worthy of our reflection and commitment. We care about what happens but long to understand it through the hue of multiple, interchangeable lenses that together form a more comprehensive yet mysterious snapshot of reality. We effortlessly move on when we fail, and we are humbled by this experience. This is both our choice and our undeniable privilege because we choose to care about what matters most and to not care when caring becomes a hindrance to our humanity.

Mind = Action

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What happens in our minds and our actions are mutually influential. Our minds offer us the freedom to be open, continually metamorphic, and generative. What we think or feel is followed by what we do. We respond and react to what we do with our thoughts. Actions are more permanent than thoughts as they impact or are observed by other people, or, if they aren’t, involve objects if only the molecules in the air that we breathe — and therefore have a broader consequence than our thoughts. Our actions are often based on methodical, careful, purposeful deliberations that occur in our minds; however, they represent a closure to our thoughts — they are the result what occurs when what we have mulled over in our minds within the context of our environment and identity leads to some movement, some word, some formative engagement with the world. Our minds offer us the opportunity to explore without the constraints and finality of our actions. So mind itself is detached action that will, in some way and at some time, manifest in some type of expression that has transformative potential. To think is to take action, and to take action is to invest in our thinking.

Heartfulness

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The concept of mindfulness has become popularized in recent years as a result of the work of many teachers, writers, and practitioners. And I am very grateful! Being more aware of who we are and what we do, living in the moment, and being intentional about our thoughts and actions are all integral to leading a meaningful and purposeful life.

But it isn’t enough. Without a full and open heart to center and connect our mind to something greater than ourselves, whether it be communal or spiritual or both, the practice of mindfulness can become esoteric, and sometimes egocentric.

I don’t think many mindfulness practitioners would disagree with me. At least I hope not. Indeed, the way mindfulness is typically taught and practiced, at least in my experience, promotes the fluid integration of mind, body, and spirit.

But something about the term mindfulness seems deficient to me. It begs for a companion to demonstrate that the mind alone does not fully represent our human experience.

Heartfulness is a complementary concept that builds on the idea of mindfulness. It focuses not on the thinking and feeling of mindfulness, but on being and doing instead. It is a process through which we can create resilient hearts, leading to more peace and love in the world. Heartful means to be full of curiosity, acceptance, understanding, responsiveness, forgiveness, and hope. It is to be our most beautiful selves despite the challenges and turmoil we face. When we practice heartfulness, we don’t need to think about being intentional because we consistently connect with and express the pure love in our hearts. It is to be who we are meant to be, a continual expression of our deepest desires and dreams.

A Day in Bed

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I sometimes have days where I feel like I just don’t want to get out of bed. How nice it would be to have the time to just think and reflect, maybe read good books, write poetry, and drink tea, without any expectation of productivity. But I never do. While a day resting at the beach seems to be a perfectly acceptable means of relaxation, a day in bed comes across as somehow slovenly and pathetic.

Although I intellectually realize how important rest is to physical and emotional health, often leading to improved productivity in the end, I have a difficult time allowing myself this indulgence. So even on those days when the bed and the precious gift of time for me is calling my name, I wake up no later than 6:30 a.m. (weekends included) and pack my day with sensibly constructive activities—many of which I enjoy, and others which merely feel obligatory.

I do allow myself the occasional nap, though I find it difficult to wind down and relax. I’m always on edge, always thinking about what I ought to be doing, always considerate of the great need in the world and how I can in some small way be making a difference. Naps can be refreshing, but they can also provoke unnecessary anxiety when they detract from fulfillment of my purpose. Or so it seems.

A few years ago, I created a t-shirt that simply stated ‘my dharma is to breathe and to be.’ While I sincerely believe this mantra in my heart of hearts, I so often have a difficult time embodying this fundamental belief through my daily actions. My purpose is complex and intertwined with commitments to myself and others.

But if only I would focus on the breathing and the being, I believe I would be a better servant. A more fulfilled human being. I would contribute more in the end.

So while a day in bed may seem, at first, to be a totally unproductive waste of time, I think it can instead be a form of radical resistance to the chaotic monotony of always doing, striving, and pushing forward. It is a way to be still with myself, restore my spirit, enjoy life and the moment at hand, and appreciate connection to life through the simple beauty of my breath. Perhaps I will try it one day.

Unintentionally Insensitive

Not too long ago while at lunch with friends, one of them remarked about an insensitive comment made by a mutual acquaintance. Having committed similar infractions more times than I care to admit in my own life, I felt the need to defend her. “Sometimes we say things that we don’t mean,” I pleaded her, and my, case. Yes, but as I was reminded, some people say the wrong thing more often than others — and then don’t think twice about it afterward.

When I arrived home from work today, tired due to allergies or perhaps some as of yet unexplained medical condition, I noticed something odd on my front porch. I looked closer and noticed that it was covered with little tiny ants. Having just killed a huge ant that zipped from one end of my desk to the other earlier in the day, callous human that I am, perhaps I overreacted. I used my shoe to swish off what my gut told me was a piece of candy.

And just as I did that, I realized that I just kicked a robin’s egg that had fallen from the nest on the stoop above. The nest which seems to be doomed; the one from which I have buried baby birds the past two years. The fluid-filled shell and about 20 ants were carelessly tossed aside by my imperial foot. I immediately experienced a deep sense of regret, then remorse. Even though I am not one of those regularly insensitive people, I felt as through I had violated the sacred agreement between woman and the earth on which she roams.

I can’t offer you a pleasant resolution to this story, because I have not yet discovered that for myself. But I have been reminded to be more present, more intentional, and more caring at every moment. Especially when I am feeling tired.