When everything is uncertain, everything that is important becomes clear. Has anyone else experienced this phenomenon lately? To me this rings truer than ever before. As we sit here in the midst of a global pandemic with our collective health at risk and our collective financial future uncertain, it would be warranted to be holding your breath in wait…. At least I find myself doing as much. What will happen? How long can our interconnected and interdependent society endure?  And yet, here we sit, in our homes, leaving occasionally like an animal at the bottom of the food chain, scurrying around to accomplish our tasks to hurry home. Here we sit, watching, waiting, commiserating. 

Some people are predicting a long period of isolation and others are optimistically reporting that May or June may see the world begin to turn again. Some people were warning of the Corona Virus as early as December 2019, some people still don’t have any worries and consider this to be overblown by the media, some people are taking every precaution and are following the worst-case-scenario advice, some people… With so many different points of view, and different sources of information, each with a varying degree of legitimacy, how can we each weigh the evidence and proceed forward according to our own life? I would like to offer a suggestion: yoga. I know, I know, that was predictable, the yoga teacher preaching about yoga again. Please bear with me on this one, it’s not going where you think it might. In the practice of yoga, at its most fundamental level, we are using every single breath to find a middle ground, to negotiate between two opposing points of view: length vs, depth, the challenge vs. peace of mind, strength vs. stretch, discomfort vs. comfort. To find the validity of the opposing point of view in the pose is what we strive for, it’s what we practice for. We use the breath as the great mediator, the neutral and neutralizing force, to navigate our way through the maze of internal pandemics which may arise during a long and difficult practice, a practice that brings us right to the edge time and again, so that we may look over the edge, but hopefully not fall over the edge. At the edge is where we gain the most awareness. Like the pandemic which brings us to our edge we are afforded some clarity as to “what is important.” The art form is to peer over the edge, but not to fall over. 

If there is one thing I have learned through this experience that has been not to look too far ahead. We all have that need, that want, for security; but, aside from this single breath, what is secure about human life? Perhaps it’s this desire for security which has us wrapped in a blanket of fear rather than optimism. What is the silver lining? I’ll give you one observation: I have two highly social friends who have said that this time has been very peaceful as their days are usually filled with social obligations. These friends relayed to me the peace they feel being at home and working towards their goals free from distraction and free from the feeling of social obligation. Viola! The silver lining!

The past is regret, the future is anxiety, the present is freedom. Analogously, your last breath is regret, your next breath is anxiety, this breath is freedom! And so, I am encouraging each person reading thus far to take a moment to breathe deeply. Close your eyes for a moment, sit with your breath, follow your breath from the tip of your nose into your belly, and fill up your lungs into your upper chest and then repeat that five times. At the end of five of those breaths, blink your eyes open and tell me you don’t feel more calm and more centered. The storm around you didn’t change, but the storm inside you was quieted for a moment, allowing you to maybe, just maybe, find the sweet middle ground between all the opposing opinions swirling around you. If you’d like to deepen this breathing practice, I have a new meditation linked in my videos section (with a breathing exercise and a visualization) led by me. Namaste, have a great day!

Human beings are social beings. The now famous and resurgent philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, an unwitting co-founder of a body of philosophy now known as “stoicism” knew as much when he wrote:  “Now every rational being, by virtue of its rationality, is also a social being” (Meditations, 10.2) So, in this light, how can it be true that doing the opposite, isolating from social interactions, is also a “good thing”? This apparent contradiction is something I will delve deeper into, in the following paragraphs.

Firstly, let’s set some ground rules for this exploration. I understand everything in the context of me. I think we are all mainly able to understand only from our own perspective, which is determined by our perception. Some perceptions have been refined and honed through generations of right action which the wisest parents have managed to disseminate to their children and so on and so on. Other’s perceptions are honed by (and sometimes in addition to the aforementioned): adventure, failure, tragedy and loss. And still others, who have neither been refined over centuries, nor been tested, might maintain the most limited perspective. In the micro sense, the most limited perspective is that initial reaction, which is often negative. It’s the feeling in your gut when you receive honest feedback that doesn’t fit with your expectations or assaults your ego. In my experience, only people who truly love you will tell you something you don’t want to hear. Keep those people close, they are more valuable than gold. Two quotes come to mind, one by Anais Nin who wrote: “we don’t understand the world as it is, only as we are.” The other quotation is “How can we decide what comes from the inside and what come from the outside, the extra-sensory perceptions or hallucinatory projections?” – Gilles Deleuze (which I first saw at a Stanley Kubrick exhibit at LACMA). The first quotation speaks to the paragraph which I just wrote, is self-explanatory and is a quotation to meditate on. The latter quotation speaks to where this post is going once I end this tangent. Ok, tangent over!

Back to the topic at hand: How can man be a social being and yet social isolation is somehow also a good thing? Or more directly: can social isolation be both good and bad? I think that the labels of “good” and “bad” are too derivative for any discussion. Anything is everything, depending on the intention and the degree of application. Too much sun and you get burned, not enough and you get sick (vitamin D being essential to immune function.) So if the point of life is to be social, then isolation seems to be a practical necessity simply because the reservoir to be social must be refilled in isolation. Years ago I read Bill Clinton’s autobiography and I was astounded to learn that even as President of the United States, Mr. Clinton had the wisdom to set aside 2 hours everyday as free time, for himself. Can you imagine having the kind of schedule and pressure and to-do list as the leader of the free world and still carving out 2 hours a day for yourself? During that time he would follow his whim, if he felt like reading he would read, if he felt like napping he would nap, if he felt like playing the saxophone he would play the saxophone, if he felt like playing with Monica he would… Anyway… Impeachment aside, Bill Clinton’s schedule takes away any of our excuses doesn’t it? If the leader of the free world, with all of his obligations, all in addition to his obligations as a father and a husband can carve out 2 hours a day, then what is my excuse? What is your excuse?

In yogic philosophy the idea of isolation is certainly a foundation. In fact, the very act of arriving on your mat, even in a busy yoga class, should be a holy experience of entering isolation. The very activity of yoga, no matter the setting, is naturally an isolation. The intention being to elevate the internal conversation, to reduce the outside influences and the noise created through externalizations thereby releasing any attachments we seem to naturally accrue over time. Every single philosopher talks about the same ideas in different ways. If human nature is one that is social, and yet being social can be just as harmful as it can be good, then it is important to balance out social behavior, almost equally, with “antisocial” behavior, the degree of which is determined by the individual’s position on the scale of well-being. Might some people find it easier to transition from social to isolation, even from breath to breath? I’d say so, I’ve personally witnessed people who seemed strong enough to find their own space, amid a single breath. This seems to be a more rare trait, from my standpoint, and perhaps it is one that requires refinement over time. Ralph Waldo Emerson put the task best in his essay “Self-Reliance” when he wrote “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion, it is easy in solitude to live after our own, but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude…” The task of maintaining this essence of solitude is a tall task for me, I fail at it very regularly, but perhaps not all ideals are meant to be achieved, perhaps some are simply meant to aim us in the right direction?

The reason for this post is that I feel the necessity to introduce a bit of intention to this “social distancing” movement. That is, let us make the most of our current circumstances and embrace this time in a mindful way. Instead of reaching for the next distraction what if you simply did something to strengthen your individual resolve, something to fill your social cup? Who knows what that might be? Only you do. For me it’s practicing/teaching yoga and meditation. For you it might be a mindful walk in your breath or even a good book that offers you some insight into your own psychology. A mentor in yoga once said to me: “find your yoga.” I think he meant, find that which brings you into your meditative state, that which allows you to be the best version of yourself.

Namaste

John

A larger body of work doesnt exist on the planet. In my now 11 years exploring yoga I am amazed to always be learning some new wrinkle about “yoga” that I hadn’t before read about. When analyzing the practice of “yoga” it’s probably best to start with the word.

The word Yoga is a derivation from the sanskrit word Yuj which means to unite, to join or to yoke. In the Yogic scriptures the term leads to a union of the individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness. Ultimately what we are striving for is the ideal of a perfect harmony or balance between the mind and the body.

To achieve this “perfect” union ends up not being so straight forward; because, as it turns out, the human being is a multitudinous being full of duplicitous tendencies formed before our awareness set in. Our “job” in yoga thus becomes to try to unwind ourselves from that which was thrust upon our nature, by our environments, to experience our truest selves. For this we must employ all manner of physical and mental and emotional practices designed to aid the individual practitioner in his/her path towards the “truth.” And this brings me to the ultimate reason why I believe the yoga teachings are so many and are so varied: because us humans are so many and are so varied. What works for one person may not work for another. Some persons may only need 10% of the philosophy to unravel their “karmic debt” -debt being the unintentional actions and their physical and emotional and mental accumulation before truth was the ideal- while another person may need 90% or greater to unlock themselves.

While most people consider yoga to be the physical postures of the Yogi, who bends and twists, the next level of practitioner will recognize the importance of the breath in mediating the mind-body connection. The breath is truly the foundation of this exploration, every other exploration being a layer on top of that. The breath being the main tool we possess to affect the unconscious mind and to calm the body’s fight or flight response through a slowing of the heart rate, which in turn calms the nervous system which has many nerves wrapped around the heart. In fact the heart is wrapped inside both sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve fibers from both the autonomic and peripheral nervous systems.

Most people could stop with the exploration of the breath alone and find a lifetime’s worth of practice just to hone in on the interplay between the mind and the body and to use the breath to lasso one to the other. And yet, some will venture deeper into the abyss. For me, my constitution and perhaps my Karma indicate that I must dive deeper still into the many physical practices of the oldest and most complete philosophy to grace the planet earth.

Ultimately yoga can be described as “the truth” or rather your truth. I am reminded of the quotation: The truth is one paths are many. Perhaps this idea alone explains why yoga has persisted for so many years and why the practices are so many and are so varied: because when you set such a generic ideal as “the truth” the practice is able to evolve and change over time; and, also, is able to provide each individual with a path specific to them.

While I will not elucidate the many specific practices within yoga philosophy in this very generic post, meant to outline the very basics of the meaning of the word yoga, I will, in time, begin to highlight the different practices I have experimented with and describe each of their efficacy’s, as I see them.

Very Truly Yours,

John