Finding the calm in the storm

My husband handed me a section of his Wall Street Journal one morning. “You should read this.”

I took it, bemused at the chaotic sketch at the top of the article; a mob of yoga practitioners dodging each others’ headstands and downward facing dog-ing onto each others’ heads.   The article catalogued the trials and tribulations that many larger yoga studios are facing; crowded classes, small spaces, and a very un-zen-like atmosphere overall.  (for the full article, see here.)

I think we can all agree that our lives tend towards the chaotic.  We have insanely demanding jobs (sometimes more than one), we have family and social obligations; it can seem like there's a never-ending pile of things that demand our time.   I know that a lot of practitioners take yoga to unplug from their demanding lives, to take a little “me” time in the whirlwind of their obligations to other things.   This is a great way to approach yoga, and there’s nothing wrong with it at all.   We habitually escape our stressful lives through vacations or day trips or even an hour-long massage or workout at the gym. Physically separating yourself from what stresses you out can be a quick way to relieve the symptoms of overload.

From a yogic perspective, the goal of finding of “zen” or “inner-peace” is less about creating a set of external circumstances that result in peace (say, a perfect yoga class where you have plenty of space to move) and more about connecting to an internal peace that is always accessible to you, regardless of external circumstances.    One of the many modern and more simplified interpretations that is often discussed today is mindfulness, or non-judgement.  It not only applies to not judging people or things, as we so often do, but it applies to our environment, our state of mind, and our selves.  We can see our environment, become upset by it because it violates an expectation we have (i.e. “I came here to relax and this environment does not relax me!”).  This results in elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels, not to mention a disappointing practice that does not give us the desired results, but only adds to the stress cocktail we've already been brewing in. 

It can be difficult to realize that it's not always possible to change your external circumstances.    When we feel anxious over our lack of control over our situation, these moments are an opportunity to experience what's occurring without expectation or judgement, either positive or negative.  Attaching value judgements on experiences removes us from the actual experience of the thing; when we decide an experience is "good", we lump it in with other "good" experiences and create assumptions about it that remove us from living in that moment, feeling what's happening now and learning from it.  When we label something as "bad", we want to avoid it, to run from it, and again; we miss out on the real experience and what we can learn, and possibly an opportunity to gain a deeper connection to ourselves in the process.   

Our brains like to label and compartmentalize everything, so this mindset takes practice, but a crowded yoga classroom where things aren’t “perfectly relaxing” is an excellent place to practice it.  And once you get to that point, it’s easy to feel compassion. This is where indignation becomes a willingness to make space for others and share union, share yoga, with other human beings.    Someone accidentally stepping on your mat doesn’t ruin your day.  Accidentally brushing your neighbor's foot in a half moon pose gets you a smile and instant forgiveness, instead of irritation and shame.  We’re all here, imperfect, in a wholly imperfect world; would we rather have to escape our lives for brief moments to only feel scraps of peace and calm, or would we rather walk through the maelstorm, carrying that peace and calm inside of us regardless of what we have to face each day?

Inner peace is not a journey or a search; it’s not always escaping your life to find a calm beach somewhere under blue skies, where your worries are far away.  It truly can be an experience in the middle of the chaos; the calm center in the midst of the hurricane.