In my last post I wrote about the concept of acceptance — acknowledging reality as it is, not as we want it to be. In my experience, acceptance begins with the practice of mindfulness. In his book, Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind, Frank Jude Boccio defines mindfulness as:
“observing of things as they are, without choosing, without comparing and judging, without evaluating, and without laying or adding any of our projections or expectations onto what is happening.”
He goes on to provide the following visual aid:
“One image used to describe this quality of mind is to imagine awareness to be like the sky. All the thoughts, feelings, and sensations — indeed all our experiences, both physical and psychological — are like clouds passing through the sky. We tend to identify with the clouds of thought, projection, craving and aversion and ignore the sky. Our practice is to cultivate ‘big sky mind’ and to allow all the changing phenomena to pass through awareness, without being swept away or entangled in any of it.”
The way we respond to things on our yoga mat is a reflection of how we respond in life: Do we rise to the challenge or run away? Do we push beyond our limits and pay a price later or do we work within boundaries that will keep us healthy? How concerned are we with what others think of us? Can we enjoy the moment or are we already regretting that it will soon be over? This makes the mat a great laboratory for practicing mindful acceptance.
Imagine you have tight hamstrings. As you bend into a standing forward fold, do you strain to reach the floor or do you make an adjustment such as bending your knees until you can reach the floor or stopping when you feel the beginning of a pulling sensation in your hamstring, resting your hands on your legs/a block? If you allow yourself to make an adjustment that keeps your hamstrings safe, what happens in your mind? Do you criticize yourself for “giving in” or “wimping out”? Can you remain focused on the sensations in your body or are you envious of the person on the mat next to you with their hands flat on the floor? And if you realize that you are in envy of the person next to you, do you beat yourself up for doing so? Or can you laugh at being human and refocus your thoughts on what is happening with you?
As a teacher I have watched time and time again as students who need to use a prop or make a physical adjustment to safely experience a pose refuse to do so. Instead they struggle, adding unneeded stress and sometimes getting injured. I can empathize because one of my own challenges to acceptance comes on days when my hands, wrists and forearms are in too much pain to practice the traditional version of Downward Facing Dog. It is one of my favorite asanas (poses) and there are days when I find myself beginning to grumble as I move onto my hands and knees and feel the pain that says “No Down Dog today.” I know its variations and I know they are just as beneficial. Still, I sometimes find myself resistant to using them or even angry that I can’t do the “regular” pose. This coming from a yoga teacher who encourages EVERYONE to do the version of an asana that is right for them in that moment.
I don’t analyze why this is happening while I’m on the mat. That’s an activity for later. On the mat is where I practice making choices that can lead to acceptance or away from it. In that moment of resistance I can choose to continue resisting and do the regular version — the consequences of which will be even more pain now and later — or I can accept that whether I like it or not, its a variation or nothing. Mindfulness is what helps me recognize that I’m in the midst of resistance sooner rather than later (noticing the tightening in my jaw or chest; the feelings of resentment; the urge to just skip my practice like the petulant child who would rather take their ball and go home than play by another’s rules). It keeps me from moving without thinking into more pain.
Just like on the mat, the addition of mindfulness in our life gives us the option to make a choice between working with reality (through acceptance) or continued resistance, which eventually leads to unnecessary pain/struggle/irritation, etc.
The meditation cushion is another place to practice mindful acceptance. The simple act of watching your breath and the flow of your thoughts without trying to change anything is often extremely challenging for beginning meditators. Friends have told me, “I can’t meditate. My mind won’t slow down.” That’s the first lesson: recognizing that our minds are like monkeys or happy puppies. They are all over the place. Dashing from one thought to another as they arise. It is a sensation we don’t like so we decide we can’t do meditation. Until we accept that our minds are like a toddler on a sugar high (or Dori from Finding Nemo), we will always feel that we are failing at meditation.
Don’t think that this is all easy for me. There is a reason we say yoga ‘practice’ and meditation ‘practice’ — even acceptance ‘practice.’ Yoga and meditation don’t lead to a life of roses. But they are handy tools to know how to use when you are faced with the reality of a stem filled with thorns.
Whatever your current reality, may you hold it with a compassionate heart of acceptance.