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Retreat! Retreat! My psyche screamed at me as I saw the latest emails waiting to be opened. These were from a new source demanding my attention and time, something that was already in short supply. Just days before I’d realized that my life was out of balance. The daily routine of work and life had lulled me into a place of complacency such that I’d become so bogged down with responsibilities that I was no longer enjoying my life. I was not sure where my professional life ended and my personal life began or where those boundaries should be in order to be healthy. It’s only March and the goals and vision I’d set at the beginning of the year were completely off my radar screen, nowhere to be seen.
Right at that moment, the word retreat took on new meaning for me. I love retreats and have been on many. Some long, some short, but always with the focus being almost that of a vacation where you intentionally escape from the routines and demands of your daily life and focus instead on you and your dreams and goals–what you want in life. But this time it was a battle cry and all about survival.
I took a deep breath and stepped away from my computer. I had to ask myself two questions. What was all this about? And how did I let it get this far out of hand?
The irony was not lost on me though it was hard to appreciate at that moment. My intention as I started the year was to create my vision of the life I want to live and be moving along the path to making it a reality. Sounds simple enough, right? Yet here I was with only two months of the year behind me and I was operating in survival mode.
I do yoga, I teach yoga and I help manage a yoga studio. My life is yoga and yoga is union, union within the body, between the body, mind and spirit and in all aspects of life–work, play, family, community, etc. Union requires balance, awareness of the needs and desires of all the different parts so that each can thrive individually and as a part of the whole.
I made a mental note that as I had kept my focus on “my life is out of balance” as a subject matter, it only got worse until my psyche screamed “retreat!” at me. It had to come in the form of a battle cry and by then the message was clear, “don’t go any farther in this direction.” But the word retreat means more than just stop. It says stop, turn around and go the other way.
The purpose of a retreat is to step out of the fray and regroup, to rediscover and get focused on your true objective. What is it again? How far do we go in the other direction? Do we just keep moving towards the opposite of what we are running away from until we reach the opposite extreme and our psyche screams “retreat!” at us again? The greater the extremes of the swing of the pendulum the more out of balance our life will be so that’s obviously not the way.
Just as the Earth and all the planets and their moons move constantly and consistently, ever changing in their relationship to each other as they orbit around the Sun, it’s simply the nature of life itself to provide us with ever changing circumstances. Ups and downs, ebbs and flows are a natural part of life. But how do we minimize the fluctuations and stay in a range that is healthy?
As we search for balance in our lives, we can use balance in the body as a metaphor. For even the most grounded and centered person, the body can only stay completely still for as long as we can hold our breath. With the movement of the breath comes movement in the body. And with this ever present force keeping us alive and creating movement, to find balance requires the ability to maintain focus on one thing in order to minimize the swing of the pendulum.
To be balanced we need to first be centered, balancing the right and the left and the front and back hemispheres of our body along the centerline axis. Think of Tree Pose. We have you stand on one leg and lift the other foot up so that it rests against the top of the other leg. Notice as the instructions all call for centering step by step: Allow your knee to gently relax down, push your hips forward, suck in your stomach and stretch your spine up towards the ceiling, push the knee back to bring the knees into one line from the side; hips in one line, shoulders in one line, lift your left hand to the center of your chest, bring your right hand up to meet it in namaskar, standing knee locked, focus, breathe, meditate. Each instruction and movement is designed to draw the body parts and energy in to the center of the body.
Focal points, visual or mental, serve as anchors for the mind and the body. In virtually every balance posture, we teachers tell you what to look at as you begin the posture, often your knee in the mirror or one point on the floor four feet in front of you. We use that visual focal point as an anchor to hold our attention in place. The proper focal point will serve to still the mind and keep the head in a position so as to maximize the alignment and depth of the posture. Using a mantra, a single word or short phrase that gets repeated over and over either out loud or within the mind, is a form of meditation that serves as an anchor and to eliminate the mind chatter. Yogis often repeat a single word in their head as they perform the most difficult of balance postures with ease. Bikram gives us yet another tool when he tells us to hold a vision of doing the posture perfectly as we do the posture. With all of these methods, the goal is to create single pointed focus of mind and intention.
Through all of the asanas (postures) we teachers either give specific directions for your breath or simply remind you to breathe in and out through your nose. The breath is the connection between the body and the mind and, when normal, will quiet the mind. The more active your mind, the more your attention and the center of your energy will be up in your head at the top of your body. This top heavy state is far from ideal for balance in body or life.
The biggest gift from practicing yoga is quieting the mind. As we quiet the mind and allow our energy to move from our head to our heart center, peace, contentment and clarity take over. Stand in one spot and turn yourself around in two complete circles. When you stopped were you dizzy? Have you ever watched figure skaters as they spin and wondered how they do it without getting dizzy? Better yet, think of the Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi tradition. In their dancing meditation they will spin for hours and never get dizzy. The music and their intention to be focused purely in their heart center allow them to move about the room always spinning, with their skirt circling around them perpendicular to the floor, without ever touching or interrupting another. All dervishes, whether whirling or not, are on the path of love, of living a heart centered life, where they reside in true alignment with spirit. In this state, the mind is unable to interfere with its usual confusion or dizziness.
Staying balanced in life requires a regular review of all aspects of your life. Bikram speaks of how certain asanas create a “marriage” so to speak between parts of the body, i.e. the heart and the lungs in Triangle Pose, the kidneys and the pancreas, and the liver and the spleen in Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee. In the asana, they are in effect being forced to work together such that if one suffers the other will suffer.
When your life gets out of alignment, your emotions will be the first to signal a warning. Stresses will bring about negative emotions. If you are in the habit of tuning out or ignoring what your emotions are telling you, these ongoing stresses that don’t get addressed and resolved will eventually manifest as physical ailments or dis-ease in your body. It is only your ability to tolerate suffering that determines when you finally stop and shift your attention to something more in alignment with who you are as spirit.
We cannot help but recognize dramatic changes that come about suddenly, but the gradual ones often take us by surprise as well, moving in so slowly that we don’t sense the subtle shifts until suddenly the scales tip and we are forced to do something about it. Once things are out of balance, we need to take the time to retreat, even if momentarily by taking a deep breath or two, and get centered again in order to determine how best to move forward. When you allow yourself to tune out the mind chatter and get settled in your heart center, what is important will be clear, the priorities will be clear and your next step will be shown to you. Do not second guess yourself. That is only the mind interfering with your soul communication. Your soul’s voice comes from your heart and is the only one worth listening to.
I used to date an engineering professor. One day while we were in the car driving and listening to the news about the wars in the Middle East, he asked me how I thought peace could be brought to that region. I shook my head at the very sad state of affairs over there and with a swish of my hand said, “Make them all do yoga.” He guffawed at what I’m sure he considered my naïve and simpleton response and then quickly caught himself so as not to be rude. As a learned intellectual who’d never done yoga, this notion was simply beyond his comprehension. He had no idea what effect yoga can have on a person or how it feels to be truly at peace with one’s self. True peace is not an intellectual concept. Peace is a state of being that comes from deep within. No one can truly understand that until they have personally experienced it.
I have no doubt about the transformative power of yoga. I know that the more people who do yoga, the better a place the world will be. Years ago I devoted a great deal of my time and energy towards this end before realizing that it was not the right time and circumstances at that moment. I backed away and focused on other things.
Four or so years have passed and this opportunity was presenting itself again. I hadn’t even opened the emails and my gut reaction was telling me to stay far away. Was this reaction valid? I’d just completed the challenge of doing 60 Bikram Yoga classes in 66 days and had had to finish with eight doubles in the last two weeks in order to catch up. I was in a good, clear space of alignment. One way or the other I had to respond to these emails. With just a couple of questions I could easily determine if circumstances had changed and whether my time and energy would be well spent. I was confident in my value and vision and unwilling to let it be compromised. After receiving their response it was easy to politely decline the opportunity and wish them well with their endeavors expressing that perhaps in the future, if our mutual visions come into alignment, I may be able to be of service.
Deep down at the center of your heart you know your worth and the value and beauty of your dreams. The more you focus on and resonate with what’s at the core of your being, the more you allow it to come to the surface and radiate. Do not compromise your vision and self worth as this is the source of the joy and the good things you experience in life.
All of the struggle and suffering that we experience is the result of resisting or trying to hold back our truth, what naturally wants to flow forth from us. What we radiate out is what we will receive in return. The only real question worth asking yourself is whether you are allowing the goodness of your spirit and vision to flow from and to you or not. When the answer is yes, the doors will open and the path for your journey will be clear.