Picture someone meditating. Is she sitting, spine upright and legs crossed? Did you automatically think of a man, or of someone of a particular race? Where is the student sitting? We so often carry an image of how meditation and spirituality should look, and try so hard to mirror it, even if it’s very different from our embodied experience. For some people, sitting in the same way, at the same time, for the same amount of time, first thing in the morning, every day – it works for them.
But for me, when my practice is strongest, it’s flexible. I’ve accepted that my meditation practice is more likely to end with a chime from an app on my phone while I’m sitting or reclining in my parked car at random times of the day than with me playing a singing bowl in my apartment. I sneak in yoga breaks in the gym below my classroom, and go for walks on the Capital Crescent trail between one-on-one clients. Forcing myself to adhere to a super strict practice schedule and only counting sitting meditation as the real deal doesn’t fit with the reality of my life and what I want from my practice. It doesn’t bring me into a deeper relationship with my self, it puts an external frame on what I have to do to hold myself in high esteem. It becomes an extension of old disordered behaviors, and I’m not bringing that extremism into my kind, loving, and accepting practice.
That’s why I love this 15th century life-size sculpture of Guanyin, which I saw recently at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Guanyin is a bodhisattva in the Chinese Buddhist tradition - her Indian counterpart is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, which translates to “Lord who looks down with compassion.” She has attained enlightenment and could enter nirvana, but chooses to stay on earth to help others and share the Buddha’s message. She has 33 different appearances, some human, some not, as different students learn best from different teachers. In this version, the Water-Moon Guayin, she is often shown perched on a rocky surface, watching the reflection of the full moon in a body of water. Her eyes are downcast but open, and she is not even trying to sit cross-legged! Her arm supports her sitting posture. You get the sense that she’s letting herself be comfortable, maybe even enjoying her practice, dangling her toes in the water and feeling a soft wave roll through them.
What if this became our standard image of a body in meditation? What if we saw our practice as not separate from communing with the elements around us, the water and the moon? What if we imagined ourselves in meditation atop messy piles of laundry, rather than in pristine surroundings? Would we do it more often if it seemed more accessible, and more joyful? Something that could happen on uneven rocks, not only in a silent, flat meditation hall?
Don’t get me wrong, this practice is not supposed to be easy. We can’t only meditate lakeside under the full moon. But it is supposed to be doable - so I can begin lying down on the floor asymmetrically and notice my breath if the idea of having to sit up makes me groan. I can practice restorative yoga while I listen to a dharma talk. Or move and flow to music. If it makes me more compassionate off the mat, it counts. We’re not just supposed to notice our own bodies in tadasana (mountain pose) and when seated and when in savasana. We’re to bring awareness to our relationships with each other and the environment – so why not practice in as many contexts as we can? Especially now when we are close to the winter solstice & are experiencing great asymmetry between darkness and light, our practice may need to change if it is to stay consistent.
The comic Ali Wong has a great joke – she says she doesn’t want to Lean In a la Sheryl Sandberg, she want to lie down. Do you feel this way about your yoga practice? I think that’s ok! As mindfulness practice in the West gets co-opted by business leaders, who seem to want to use these tools only for their own economic betterment and efficiency (with the emphasis on the Sit up taller! Focus better! parts of practice)….it’s important for me to not lose sight of images of Guanyin – who is out there trying to heal the world with her compassion and gentleness, and perhaps that starts with how she sits herself.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in that sculpture, Guanyin is coming out of a classic seated practice. Maybe her eyes are just beginning to open as she steps away. But my friends, that’s the important part – going back into the world. What kind of practice helps us do that?
may your 2017 end with grace and 2018 open with space,
p.s. there is another story about Guanyin getting overwhelmed by the endless needs of the world & her head exploding into 10 pieces. yet another reason to be gentle with ourselves…
p.p.s. for further reading on whether we overemphasize the aesthetics of symmetry, see Jenni Rawlings’ article on The Myth of Symmetry in Yoga in Yoga International; for more about how our experiences in practice relate to systems of oppression, see Ruth King’s Being Mindful of Race from BuddhaDharma Magazine.
- Christmas Day 10 – 11:30 am Flow and Restore at Simon Says Yoga in Bethesda. Stability, mobility and tranquility. Lovely movement and stillnes between your xmas morning / Chinese food and a movie afternoon (there are 2 Asian restaurants in the same shopping center as SSY)! Plus, subbing Friday’s level 2 morning class on the 29th.
- NEW weekly class alert! Wednesday evenings Level 2 at Circle Yoga @ Chevy Chase Circle (DC/Maryland border). I’m so glad to be back at this cooperative yoga studio. Scholarships available. If you’ve felt a plateau in your practice (not a bad thing, unless you’re bored and in danger of becoming inconsistent…), come learn some movement skills that may make more intermediate & advanced postures possible. I’ve learned new tricks in the last year that have dramatically increased my wrist and hamstring strength & I want to show them to you! Can’t make it or want to create a home practice that is more specific and personal to your needs? Reply to this email and let’s set up some one-on-one time :)
- NSFY holiday 2017 playlist - good for moving off of your mat. enjoy!