Discipline = Healing

Prior to arriving in India, I had intentions of increasing my sense of discipline and I am happy to say that those intentions are certainly coming to fruition. I also intended to increase my ability to objectively observe my mind, which is another intention that is becoming more viable with each passing day. In addition, I assumed that my physical body would change significantly both internally and in terms of what others could observe externally. I found myself in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences ready to work hard and transform as much as humanly possible in the space of three months. I felt very privileged to be have 21% of a year to focus all of my energy on personal growth and healing. I desired inspiration and a reboot on every level of my being. I was facing pain, both present and past – cognitive, emotional and existential – some of which I had been choosing to avoid with food consumption. I simply could not imagine facing all of the pain – sometimes I felt that I only had sufficient power to face some of it. Such feelings were merely illusions; I discovered that I had the power and courage to conquer each and every obstacle all along.

Considering how much I had already been through up until that point, I now can see how my overwhelming fear of facing the pain was inherently irrational. I had already been through the worst of it – now my work was primarily purging and letting go of all the old residue. I had allowed myself to titrate some of the pain over the last decade – but was afraid of doing all the deep work necessary to cleanse myself of the remaining poison inside. I wondered prior to coming to Mysore: what if I break down completely and cannot put myself back together? Am I really strong enough? I have discovered that sometimes we must break the shackles of the past in order to find clarity in terms of self-perception. Childhood was a brutal time of my life and I often felt just the way that I have described above – afraid, always waiting, watching for more violence and uncertainty. As I continue to work through the fear that was etched into every cell of my body early in life – I am starting to know that I am stronger and more powerful than any of that fear, no matter how massive and insurmountable it may seem. Even a past containing memories of a violent, alcoholic father cannot harm me any longer. The more I practice with serious discipline, the easier it is to see the reality that I am strong beyond measure.

Although I practiced regularly at home, my consistency was imperfect. I have found this period of practicing non-attachment through consciously removing myself from my normal social environment and all my comforts has been very useful in terms of developing a deeper sense of discipline. I am still certainly far from perfect, despite my desire to be so, but now I am successfully releasing many years of pent up toxic emotion, along with physical residue from an imbalanced approach to food. Yoga Sutra 1:21 tells us with great logic that the more energy we put toward yoga practice, the faster our results will manifest. I have witnessed fascinating changes in my body, and mind over the last eight weeks. The biggest component of discipline I have appreciated (aside from learning about a different approach to food) is a consistently longer daily pranayama practice – before coming to Mysore I would do a seated practice for only 20-25 minutes, and only 5-6 days a week. I have found the benefits of a 30 minute daily pranayama practice for over two months to be epic and 100% worth my energy. Already, I am noticing much confidence and strength developing both physically, cognitively, and emotionally. I am grateful to have learned so much about cultivating additional discipline in my life and practice – the best part is that I can take all of my learning back home to integrate into my regular life.

When making drastic changes to one’s eating habits or daily physical and mental disciplines, it is amazing how dramatically the body can react. While I was planning my trip to Mysore to study with my teacher’s teachers, I did not anticipate how brutal the physical symptoms of an extreme change in eating habits might be when I started following the dietary restrictions suggested by the teachers at the Atmavikasa Centre of Yogic Sciences. Back at home, my omnivorous eating habits included healthy grains, vegetables and fruits of course, but it also included too many sugars and fats that I chose to eat in order to avoid emotional pain. I already enjoyed many bananas, which were highly recommended when I arrived in Mysore, however overall I simply consumed more food than needed. My eating habits had gotten progressively less healthy for my body over time and I suffered from the symptoms of severe anemia as well. The symptoms of anemia held me back in terms of asana practice in particular, causing extreme fatigue, frequent bruising and very slow muscle recovery. I assumed that once I arrived in India that my biggest struggle was going to be the emotions that I often avoided with food. However, my physical body decided to show me just how much it did not enjoy how I had been treating it instead.

I began following the strict food disciplines offered by the teachers at Atmavikasa almost nine weeks ago. They told us to consume no sugar, animal products, oils, bread, junk food in general, caffeine and so on. Luckily I do not enjoy consuming caffeine so I did not have any headaches. However, I experienced a variety of other symptoms as my body adjusted to the extreme change in eating habits, as I have been an omnivore or vegetarian for most of my life (never vegan). You can call what I have experienced a detox or more simply, my body’s reaction to such a huge change – either way my physical body, not to mention my mind fought tooth and nail through the process. I experienced fever, chills, nasal/chest congestion, diarrhea, and a very unpleasant day of vomiting. My teacher was concerned about the symptoms lasting for so long (ended up being over a 10 day process) and so asked me to go for blood tests. It is plausible that my system was vulnerable due to all the change and I contracted a stomach flu virus as well. Happily the test results all came back normal, despite the symptoms I had experienced, leaving me reassured that no serious tropical disease was present. Not to mention, the unbelievable amount of tears I shed served as an epic emotional catharsis – I felt as though I was releasing years of pent up rage, pain and grief in a matter of days.

Due to the full panel of blood tests, I became aware of an amazing result in terms of my blood iron levels – it turned out that I was no longer anemic! Last time I had been tested, the concentration of iron in my blood was very low (only 7.2) and now it is well within normal levels (66). The range for normal iron levels in a female is 28-150, so as you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised by such a dramatic change in my blood chemistry! I suspect that the spinach, banana and coconut water smoothies were the primary reason for this change. As suggested by my teachers, I also had been consuming a significant quantity of sprouted mung beans, dates and raw beets, which are all high in iron. I certainly made a huge alteration to my regular eating habits, including unusually large quantities of fresh fruits, primarily the fantastic banana. All of the natural sugars left me with absolutely no sugar cravings, which was another surprise for me. I was very happy with all the positive blood chemistry results and have much more energy than I did when I arrived here two months ago. I am pleased to have a great way to combate anemia with nutrition rather than iron supplements which are very rough on the digestive system. I feel inspired because anemia has been an issue for quite a while! It makes me happy that my levels are now high enough that I can be a blood donor again too.

Studying at Atmavikasa has had SO many layers that I struggle to know how to articulate all that has transpired. Now, even with almost nine weeks of study completed, I still feel as though I am at the beginning, only merely starting the work that has yet to come. We are never finished when it comes to studying our tendencies. After a given amount of time, it is necessary to see the past for what it is and we must choose to use our energy for transformation rather than rumination. Luckily, the more we choose to cultivate discipline in our lives, the easier it is to focus on our goals, follow through with our actions and attain the results we seek. A great example of how persistence has yielded incredible results is memorizing how to chant the Yoga Sutras. I have struggled to wrap my brain and tongue around these ancient Sanskrit words and yet I am endlessly grateful for the challenge. Not to mention that my memory in general has improved significantly as a result. Perhaps the most beautiful part of a consistent yoga practice is that we are always learning, whereas in many other fields of study, there is a finite amount of knowledge available to us. Within the context of yoga practice, we get to be the scientists, using our own bodies as laboratories where we can perform fascinating experiments until the end.

The doubts that arose during the process were powerful and at times nearly smothering. When we choose to cultivate additional disciplines in our lives, and push ourselves beyond perceived limits, the mind often throws a fit and freaks out – screaming for the safety and strength it does not yet know how to find. That part of my mind was rife with desperation, craving the safety it did experience as it was developing. Yet, I chose to stop myself when doubtful and negative thoughts replayed in my mind. I reminded myself that despite my habits lacking perfection, I had tried my best with where I was at any given time. I am working hard to recognize pitfalls and mistakes either as they are occurring or in the best case scenario, prior to falling into those old holes or habits. Over time, I am learning how to continue with what works and leave what doesn’t serve me. Accepting that sometimes I must do less in order to heal is a lesson that I have been confronted with many times and I believe that due to this epic experience, I will be much more able to discern when less is necessary and when it is not.

My teachers guided me through the challenging days and even insisted that I rest (meaning no asanas for 3 days, doing less in morning asana class for another week and no back bending for over a week) even when my mind was fighting to attend class despite the weak state of my physical body. At that time, it felt as though I had travelled half way across the world to do nothing – I was either lying in savasana, sleeping and or resting in stillness. In the process of being forced to physically rest, I became that much more aware of my mental patterns – my inherent desire to work hard and go to class even when I clearly needed to physically rest and practice in a different way. Being separated from the classes and my classmates for that time – especially when they enjoyed the privilege of spending a Saturday morning walking and talking about philosophy with our teachers was rattling for my mind. During that day, I had moments where I felt alone and despondent. However, I quickly came to realize just how crucial it is to maintain mental discipline when I am alone – those moments when we are isolated are often the most difficult and yet full of potential as well. I learned that sometimes practicing yoga means surrendering to rest.

Surrender is not something that comes easily to me. In fact, I would argue that surrendering to the practice and its transformative power has been a significant struggle for me in many phases of my life. No matter how far you go, no matter how much work you do in terms of yoga practice – there is always more to be done. I am learning that perfection is not a static state, rather it is a state of constant evolution. Perhaps what draws me most to the practice of yoga is that very fact: we never need to stop learning, we can choose to learn as if we will live forever. In the darkest moments of the period in question, I felt as though I was being swallowed by the depths of my old pain, fear, grief and rage. There are so many periods and experiences in life that leave us gasping for our proverbial breath – wondering if we can go on. I believe that the most powerful aspect of a consistent and disciplined yoga practice is knowing your own power, your own ability to be courageous even in the face of the worst possible memory or present circumstance. I am grateful to have been blessed with very experienced teachers who are able to share what they know as it applies to the other with great wisdom and clarity. They have been able to see that what I really needed most was to be reminded of my own inherent bravery and strength – my innate power and ability to handle absolutely whatever comes.

 

If you seek to cultivate serious discipline in your practice, you will find what you need in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences

Yoga Philosophy & Healing

All of us experience pain or trauma at various points in life; it simply depends on when, how much and for how long. I am no different. Suffering is a choice but pain is an unavoidable part of being human. I am grateful to have found Yoga practice and the tenancity necessary to follow through on the work necessary to create change. Examining yogic philosophy to better understand the obstacles I face in my practice has provided me with invaluable learning. How we choose to think about the challenges we face can be just as important if not even more important than an asana or pranayama practice. I was unaware when I started practicing yoga regularly that trauma could be stored in the bodily tissues and subsequently accessed and released through the process of practice. I assumed at the time that I would be stuck forever and little could be done to change the patterns that did not serve me. Let’s just say that my assumption could not have been more wrong.

I have studied primarily one translation of the Yoga Sutras since 2012 (Raja Yoga, translated by Swami Vivekananda) – it comes highly regarded by the expert teachers I am currently studying with in Mysore at the Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences (Yogacharya Venkatesha and Acharye Hema) as well as highly recommended by my teacher back in Canada (Michelle Rubin). I have read these sutras or philosophical aphorisms repeatedly, seeking to understand the tendencies of the mind in order to better control its fluctuations. It is easy to identify with the fluctuations of our minds, rather than to see that we are the observer of the fluctuation. Yoga philosophy has taught me that nothing lasts forever, whether it be pain or pleasure – all of these phenomenological experiences are fleeting. I think of pleasure and pain as two extreme ends of a spectrum of human mental fluctuation – either due to the patterns of one’s mind alone or driven by an external stimulus, experience or even memory thereof.

It has taken about 11 years to really come to terms with the past and its impact on me. I frequently avoid speaking about my childhood on a regular basis in order to not verbally dredge up the past. I faced an unpredictable, abusive environment when growing up – unfortunately my father did not have sufficient control over his mind or Chitta. The impressions left on my mind from such events earlier in life used to cause me much struggle, but the more I practice, the easier it is to let the past go and focus on the present. Cultivating indifference to the man who caused so much pain has been no easy task. It took me time to understand that love is a skill; respect and commitment must be practiced in order for love to be present. Cultivating a deep love for yoga and dedication to my practice has been invaluable in my life. I have been dealt a significant lesson in non-attachment (aparigraha) as I work to let go of the collection of memories that do not serve my practice or my present day life.

I choose now to be grateful because his choice to harm me in fact led me to yoga. If he had not demonstrated a significant lack of control over his mind – I might never have chosen to delve into studying my own mind to the extent that I have in this life. The impetus for change is often pain, suffering and whatever occupies the space between the two. The habit of being in a state of suffering, submission, fear and anger is still very familiar and often feels like the path of least resistance. Noticing my tendencies to trigger myself with stimuli that bring up memories of the past is a powerful observation that has had a great deal of utility in my life – and I attribute these observations to my consistent study of my mind. Once I became able to recognize my patterns, it became that much easier to change those habits to better serve both my loved ones and myself. In his explanation of Sutra 1:12, Swami Vivekananda tells us that no human is hopeless, our character or personality is formed through repeated habits, “a bundle of habits, which can be checked by new and better [habits].” In addition, he offers the consolation that we have the power to “make and unmake” our habits at any point in time.

Pain is a powerful catalyst, if you allow it to be a guide, a teacher, rather than a rock that pulls you down into the depths of suffering. I find it necessary to remain vigilant and continuously observe my mind, ready to walk towards the fear with courage, rather than allowing the fear to drown me in memories of the past. Here in Mysore I have deepened my understanding of the mind’s tendencies and its obstacles – along with strategies to avoid those pitfalls when they arise. Although I have consistently developed more courage and will power each year that I have studied yoga – in the last few weeks I have added to that proverbial toolbox more than I thought possible. In particular, I have become keenly aware of my habit of doubting myself without good reason, coupled with a tendency to rush in a careless manner when I feel overstimulated by my environment or my thoughts. There are so many obstacles that arise in the process of cultivating a consistent practice of observing the mind, including all the emotions and thoughts that tie me to that period of my life.

A crucial piece of learning that I have absorbed from philosophy classes with Acharye Hema has given me a method for approaching memories of the past and anyone who may try to harm me in the future: in order to prevent disturbance from outside causing us harm, we must not allow ourselves to be hurt when others try to hurt us. We must not express anger in the face of others choosing to harm us – this does not mean that we stand and take the abuse, rather it means we must not be easily crushed – we must be resilient when we face our dragons. If we can respond to all forms of violence with gentle strength and a calm mind, we can beat anything that we encounter in life, no matter how insurmountable the odds appear in that given moment.

Through study of the Yoga Sutras and Yogic philosophy in other contexts, I have grown more each year in terms of my ability to use the pain and emotion from the past as fuel to get stronger, rather than allowing it to weaken my mind. It has become clear that the more I avoid the unpleasantness of the painful aspects of life (past, present or future), I only do myself a disservice, dulling my mind and creating more obstacles that interfere with my practice. Not only does avoidance always exacerbate the whirlpools of my mind, often it leads to my identification with the mental disturbance I am currently experiencing (Sutra 1:4 tells us that this identification with our mental fluctuations occurs when we lack concentration or focus). For example thinking “I am sad” rather than “I am currently experiencing sadness”.

I have repeatedly come back to one sutra in particular: Chapter 1, Sutra 33. A few years ago, I took the time to memorize it and began to chant the words when I was in a state of struggle – when I was suffering with pain rather than observing the pain. My perception of traumatic experiences is that they leave impressions (residue, samskaras) on our mind that must be titrated over time, until the issues in our tissues have eventually been eliminated. Yoga Sutra 1:33 is the aphorism that has allowed me to find control over the negative fluctuations of my mind and corresponding emotional state in those times of struggle. The sutra encourages us to cultivate friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who are unhappy, delight in those who are virtuous, and indifference towards those who lack virtue (i.e. The wicked, those who cause pain to others). When I struggle and find myself distracted from my purpose, I read sutra 1:33 or I chant the words to myself. More often than not, I am now able to face my pain with courage, rather than running away in fearful avoidance. The residue that is left on the mind only has as much power as we allow – I am learning that it is possible to exert control over the movements of the mind, including those times that our thoughts travel into the past and the pain it once held. The practice continues to show me that it is possible to drain the poison of past trauma such that it no longer causes distraction.

Under the guidance of the teachers at Atmavikasa, I have begun to see even further potential to this expansive practice. Now I know that I have the ability to continue beyond where I previously thought plausible. As I apply myself to practice with dedication and respect, I am awed by the power of yoga. I now feel less anger and grief than ever before – which leaves me more cognitive space to concentrate on whatever I choose. I find more freedom each day I practice and control the habits of my mind. Although, I may not be able to change the past, I am now able to practice how to leave it behind, and not allow it to follow me into the future. I am confident that I am on the correct path necessary in order to no longer be haunted by my history.

If you are seeking to learn how to continuously evolve, you will surely find what you need most here in Mysore:

Atmavikasa Center of Yogic Sciences