Stealing from Yourself

During class this morning, Erik, the instructor, focused our attention on the yama of Asteya.  Asteya is the principle of non-stealing.  Now, there are obvious implications to this form of self-restraint.  We should not steal others’ belongings; we should not steal others’ ideas; we should not take more than we need.  But, my thoughts went to the less obvious forms of stealing that we engage in and should avoid.  We should not steal attention or admiration due to jealousy.  We should not steal the self-esteem of others by belittling or degrading them.  We should not steal the good name of others through libel or slander.  And, we should not steal from ourselves.

What do we steal from ourselves?  Well, I know that, in my case, sometimes I steal from myself the opportunity to change or grow.  W.E.B. Du Bois is quoted as saying:

The most important thing to remember is this: To be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.

But, do most of us do this?  I suspect we do not.  When we are very little, and the world of opportunity seems open before us, we allow ourselves to change and grow with every moment.  As we get older, we start to learn the expectations that others have of us (based on factors like gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, family role, etc.) and begin to let those expectations box us into a narrow range of possibility.

Over time, having learned to believe that our possibilities are limited, we begin to stop even trying anything new.  But, once we do this, we fall into a rut of being, where the self cannot grow.  Growth requires change, and risk taking. This stealing of opportunity and growth from ourselves may sometimes be about relatively minor things – we refuse to try new food, because we already “know” that we won’t like it – or major life choices – we don’t apply for a job that we desire, because we are certain that we will not be hired.  We may not acknowledge to ourselves why we aren’t taking these risks, and come up with excuses for remaining the same (“I don’t have time to take that art class,”  “yoga classes are too expensive,” “I don’t have enough patience to get a degree”), but often the underlying reason is a fear of failure, because we have learned to box ourselves and our opportunities in, and believe that we cannot succeed outside of that box.

After my yoga practice today, I reflected that I often steal from myself the opportunity to grow in my practice by assuming that I cannot succeed at a particular pose.  This was true of wheel pose when I first began yoga.  I wouldn’t even try it, because it seemed impossible.  Now, having prodded myself into taking the risk, I still feel remnants of the

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“I can’t” belief every time the pose comes up in class.    More recently, I struggled with forcing myself to give inversions a try.  I practiced yoga for a few years before I ever tried to get into handstand or headstand, even with the help of a wall.  While I’m still working on those poses, and still feel some degree of fear about them, I also have learned that I love inversions.  If I had continued to steal that opportunity from myself, I never would have realized this.  Now I need to work on arm balance… I have a tendency to immediately go mentally to a “I’m not strong enough” place when arm balance poses appear in the practice.  But, I know that I have to give myself this opportunity or I’ll never know what may happen, so I’m working on pushing those negative and constraining thoughts away.

What opportunities do you steal from yourself by assuming you cannot succeed?

You are Awareness

In my yoga class today, the wonderful Micki quoted from Ramana Maharishi to start and end the class.  I found the quote very moving and have been contemplating it (between some stressful work tasks) today.  So, I thought I would share…

You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is of the not-Self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains, and that is the Self. ~ From Be As You Are: The Teachings of  Ramana Maharishi

What does this quote mean?  Many people think that meditating or doing yoga is about attaining a state of awareness.   Awareness then becomes a goal, a state of being that we work and effort toward.  Ramana Maharishi tells us here that this is a faulty and limiting way of thinking about awareness.  Awareness is our natural state of being.  It is only because we have limited ourselves (through what we learn as we grow up) that we do not experience this awareness.  If we can let go of these limits, awareness is there.  We don’t have to “do” something to reach it; we have to stop “doing” something.

So, what is it that we need to let go of?  I think, and this seems correspondent with the teachings of R.M., that what we need to let go of is our tendency to evaluate/categorize/separate/individualize.  When we are tiny babies, we experience the self only in the sense of being the self.  As we grow and learn the expectations of the culture, we start to assign labels to the self.  We go beyond the “I am” to the “I am a woman,”  “I am smart,”  “I am fat,” and so on.  In doing this, we also create the false dichotomy between self and other, “I am not you.”  Now, here is where it gets fun.

One of my favorite communication theorists is Gregory Bateson.  Bateson (and others) make the argument that, in Westernized thought, we tend toward dichotomy in our understandings.  This means we think in terms of opposition (as a nice example, consider how few words we have for the states between too opposites – if it is not dark nor light, it is?  – if one is not tall nor short, one is?  – if one is not fat nor thin, one is? – if the food is not great nor horrible, it is?).  We do this in our understanding of self as well.  What is not self is other.  What is other is not self.  And, we tend to think of the skin as the boundary line for self and other (anything in is me… anything out is not).  Small children, before they learn this dichotomy, do not see the skin as the boundary of self.  A toddler is not disturbed at the notion of drooling into his cup and then drinking it, but an adult would be (you can think of all the other examples of this…. I won’t disgust you by writing them here).  This bifurcation of self and other causes us to see our own experiences as “my successes,” “my failures,” “my problems,” rather than understanding the fully systemic nature of being.

Ok, I’m going to depart from Ramana Maharishi here (because there is a lot to be said about his ideas – much of which I only loosely grasp – and I’m too “pragmatic” to be able to fully embrace the theoretical idea that reality and suffering only exist in the mind and that the only reality is the self… when I start to go there, I want to curl up in a ball in the corner)  and talk about what all of this means to me, rather than in terms of his particular teaching.

  • I need to stop continually evaluating myself – I am.  I am.  I do not need to label myself as good or bad or smart or stupid or thin or fat.  I need to just be as I am.  This is particularly good news and a difficult task for me, because I am a constant self-critic.  Even after hearing this beautiful quote and thinking how right it was, I found myself thinking (during yoga) – “boy, I am a crappy yogi… I am never going to do Pincha Mayurasana, I should give up now.”  How nice, very yogic of me, huh?  Let go… Let go. I am not the body. I am not the body. I am. But, this doesn’t mean that I get to just selfishly ignore everyone else to be whatever I want, because of the next point.
  • I am other, other is me, there is no division.  This is a way of thinking and not a physical state, because clearly the things that happen to the physical bodies of each of us do not happen to all of us (though RM would say they do not happen to any of us, really, but our experience of them is what it is, so let’s just go with that for now).  But, if I stop thinking about myself as something separate from others, individual, distinct, it pushes me to more carefully and fully appreciate and consider the world community, and to realize that what is good for others is good for me (because it’s not “someone else’s problem”).  When people all over the U.S. have adequate healthcare, this is good for me as part of the universal community.  So, why would I not want that?  If I treat others with disrespect, I disrespect myself.  Why would I want to do that?  When I help others, I should not do so as a way of being proud of myself (“Look at me, I donated money and I built a house for someone in poverty.”).  I should do so in the understanding that I am the other, and the other is me, and I act to help the self, which is both of us.  It is not something to feel egotistical and proud about; it is just a responsible part of being the universal self.

Whew. There is certainly much more that can be said about this, and I haven’t even been able to fully explain what I’m thinking here, but it’s a nice start.  I am. You are.


Turn that Frown Upside Down – Literally

I. Love. Inversions.

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If someone would have told me a few years ago that being upside down would be one of my favorite things, I would have thought that he/she was a few apples short of a bushel. Not only did I think that I couldn’t physically do it, I was scared to try. But, it’s true – I love inversions. Based on medical information and traditional yoga thought, there are many benefits to inversion that include:

  • Increase of Oxygen Flow to the Brain
  • Relief of Varicose Veins
  • Improvement in Circulation and Acceleration the Cleansing of Blood and Lymph Fluids
  • Reduction of Swelling in Legs
  • Strengthens the Core
  • Enhances Ability to Concentrate and Remain Focused
  • Repositions Internal Organs Displaced by Gravity
  • Relief of Stress

I find this list to be pretty accurate. When I’m upside down, I can feel the blood draining from my feet and legs; I can sense my circulation changing; I can feel my core muscles working; I can almost feel the stress and tension draining out of my head into the floor. And, even more pleasing for me, I feel happy. I don’t exactly know what it is about inversion, but it makes me so happy, practically giddy! I’m not even very good at most inversions, though I’m getting better from practice, but that doesn’t matter. Even if I’m wobbling all over the place…. Even if my silly spasming muscles are making my legs jerk around like a fish on the banks…. Even if I periodically fall right on my head…. They make me happy!

If all of the other benefits of inversion suddenly disappeared, I would still practice it, just because it makes me feel so good emotionally. If you don’t have inversion as a part of your yoga practice, or if you don’t do yoga on a regular basis, I highly recommend spending a little time upside down. You don’t have to start with a handstand or a headstand. Lay on your back and put your feet up the wall. Or, try a tripod pose (keeping your knees on your elbows). If fear is the issue, try an L shaped handstand.  It’s not much easier in terms of muscle strength, but less scary if you are relatively new to inversions (image from YogaJournal).

Go ahead!  Give it a try.  Grab a mat and head for a wall.  Or, go get your favorite elementary age child and have him/her teach you how to go upside down (kids can do it, because they aren’t so afraid and haven’t learned upside down is not “normal” yet).  If none of those things seem possible, just lay down on your bed and let your head and arms hang down over the side to the floor.  Ahhhh!  The world is so much more agreeable when we’ve viewed it from the “wrong” way for a little bit.

Yours in inversion,