How the Light Gets Through: Yoga and the Process of Transformation
Many of you know that I am headed to Kripalu this week to complete my mental health applications module in Integrative Yoga Therapy’s advanced yoga therapist training. (I am actually writing this in the Albany airport, awaiting my shuttle.) I am very much looking forward to immersing myself in my passions, being surrounded by fellow yoga geeks from all over the world and learning from amazing teachers who know so much more than I do.
Each time I take another step in this direction: of devoting my energy to this dharma, I have a catch that happens inside me. It sounds something like: “I’m not sure if I am enough. I should probably be doing something more practical. What am I doing with my life?”
Perhaps some of you have similar thoughts in times of risk. Our inner saboteurs are pretty crafty, aren’t they? They always know just which words will have the most dramatic effect. For me, this is a time to teach myself what I do my best to teach others: I lead myself to my mat. I practice in order to listen. And I gently begin to wind those threads that are frantically seeking outside of me for reassurance back in to my own center.
One big obstacle in holding center is the way we are taught to seek reassurance and self-worth outside of ourselves.
We are very much acclimated to seeking from others for what we perceive will meet our needs: approval for our work, money for security, substances for our anxiety, and other people to give us love.
Ultimately, none of things, though they may be pleasurable and even helpful, can give us what we are truly seeking: a connection to the self and the ability to center there.
The past few years have been a time of dramatic transformation in my life: I left my marriage nearly 3 years ago, re-entered teaching yoga full time, and stepped back from my life as a professional actress to pursue my training and work as a yoga teacher and yoga therapist with my full devotion and attention. It has been a time in which every aspect of what I thought I knew about myself has shape-shifted.
These are the steps of transformation as I see and experience them:
In yoga philosophy, these correspond to the 5 koshas, the symbolic layers of being, outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:
1. Annamaya kosha, the “food Body”- the physical body
2. Pranamaya kosha, energetic or physical body
3. Manomaya kosha, the sensual/ mental body
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha, the witness, or discerning body
5. Anandamaya Kosha, the body of bliss
Most importantly, what this viewpoint gives us are very practical tools to use in our processes of transformation, especially when facing the parts of the journey that show up in those inner and outer voices.
In practice, we use the 8 Limbs of Yoga, also outlined by Patanjali, to access these Bodies:
1. Yamas, ethical disciplines of using energy in our relationship with the world and others
2. Niyamas, inner disciplines of our relationships with ourselves
3. Asana, the physical poses and shapes that are templates for our exploration
4. Pranayama, the practice of breath awareness, exploration, and control
5. Pratyahara, Drawing the senses inward
6. Dhyana, Concentration
7. Dharana, meditation
8. Samadhi, Bliss
The Yamas and Niyamas- there are 5 of each- can be expounded on for pages. I will do that some time! (briefly, The Yamas are: Ahimsa, nonviolence and the cultivation of peace; Satya, the practice of truth; Asteya, nonstealing and the cultivation of appreciation and generosity; Bramacharya, the conscious use of energy and personal boundaries; Aparigrha, non-grasping, and the cultivation of letting go.
The Niyamas: Saucha, cultivating cleanliness; Santosha, the cultivation of contentment; Tapas, the cultivation of discipline and the harnessing of will; Santosha, the practice of self-study, self-observance, and self-knowing; and Ishvara Pranidhana, the practice of surrender.)
For now, we can consider them interwoven with each practice and each phase of transformation- you will notice echoes, and I invite you to reflect on those.
!. The first stage, acknowledgement, is the place where we come in to the space of noticing, receiving, and taking in what is present. We can use the sensing, moving, and practicing with the physical body as the template for this: what sensations are present? What does this body know and need to tell me?
If you have been in class with me, you have probably heard me say that this acknowledgement is the root of the whole asana practice, everything else simply rides on this taking in.
2. The second stage, acceptance, may sound like acknowledgement, but to me there are subtle differences. This stage rides the energy body, which comes to us through the breath. When we watch the breath without trying to change it, we see the way we are utilizing energy. Before we can make changes in way we are breathing or using energy, we need the shift into acceptance. After taking in what is present, we can actively accept it through the processes of breath: the exhalation moves us to our own center and releases us into gravity; the inhalation brings air into the body, creating space. When we practice pranayama, the breath practices, the first step is the acceptance of the breath into the body, and the acceptance of the letting go.
3. The third stage, Intention, arises out of acceptance. We often want to start here- or I do- but unfortunately, our will is not the whole story. However, once we have moved into the soft listening of acknowledgement and the gentle movement of acceptance, our energy will start to flow enough so that we can harness it. Manomaya kosha is the body that receives sensual and mental impressions. Our sensual bodies are easily distracted. They love to overload us with information and stimulus. In my experience, the key to channeling this energy is not in ignoring or discrediting it, but using the practice of pratyahara, drawing inward, to direct it. Sometimes pratyahara is described as “withdrawal of the senses.” It can be more accessible if we think, not of ignoring the world around us, but drawing the direction of our senses inward. This is the space in which I truly feel my center. I do not detach from the world, but I do unspool the threads draining my energy. This direction inward allows me to harness these threads in terms of choice. I start to notice: I have this much energy available. Where do I want it to go? If I choose to direct it outside of me, is it reciprocal? Does it return? Or is it a drain? From here I choose: I will put my energy here. It specifies and concentrates. What do I want from this direction of energy? How do I intend to direct my senses and thoughts? We have moved into Dhyana, concentration, as we take the energy harnessed in pratyahara and direct into connecting with action.
4. The fourth stage, Action, must arise from intention to be transformational. Action separate from intention tends to be reactive rather than proactive and leads to habituation rather than transformation. This is where we use the witness mind. After the clarity of intention arising from the inward moving of pratyahara, the energy we have harnessed becomes hungry for connection. This is a beautiful, life-giving impulse. We can take this energy and concentrate it in the Practice of Dhyana. The key here is the “witness body,” the part of us that can see clearly without reacting. Then we can harness this in meditation. Meditation is not a state. Meditation is an action. In mediation we unite the acknowledgment and awareness of body, breath, and sensual mind, harness the intention of where we want our energy to go, and open ourselves to a space in which we can finally choose to act.
The word “karma” means action; specifically, the energy of action.
5.Action is the fuel, but the place in which transformation occurs is not a place of effort, but surrender. Used here, surrender is not passive, but receptive. We are not submitting to an external force, we are receiving the gifts of our own nature. We come back full circle out of the action arising from intention, arising from acceptance, arising from acknowledgement, and begin to touch what the yoga Sutras call the “bliss body.” This is the part of us that knows we are already whole. This place holds the paradox of the acknowledgement of our very real human struggle and that wholeness as one. We may struggle, but we are not our struggle. That tension creates the energy of transformation, as we surrender to the movement of energy created by the consciousness of the journey.
In this place, we begin to have the experience of the obstacles and paths of our lives being one continuum rather than a series of conflicts without resolution. We find that transformation, however it may manifest externally, is also the state we have been born into: the continuum of change though life in a wonderfully physical body, and that our wholeness is an experience of our own nature that has always been available.
I have come to devote myself to this life path in ways that seemed accidental. Practice has been part of my life since I was small, and provided an anchor, though invisible for a long while, to this connection to my wholeness through a difficult childhood that while full of love, also brought me through the challenges of sexual abuse, eating disorders, and suicidal depression. I began teaching while pregnant with my first child, and so began my change of focus little by little from the professional acting world to teaching yoga, especially the therapeutic aspects. My own journey demanded this shift, with the calling of my own body’s disturbances. I have faced and worked through my own chronic illness resulting from a nervous system on high alert through most of my life and the depletions of long term eating disorders, and finally through the end of a marriage that had become a toxic place.
When I left my marriage, I was not working full time. I was doing some acting, and teaching two yoga classes a week. I wasn’t entirely functional, although this took me some time to recognize. I wasn’t sure what to do. I reached out to some studios and found myself teaching full time for the first time in many years. I started working with people privately, therapeutically, again. My personal situation remains externally challenging; there is still a lot of conflict, but I have been able to use my practice as I have outlined to keep myself moving through my challenges in ways that allow me to unfold at a deeper level each round.
Almost two years ago, I found myself having emergency surgery. I was terrified that everything I had created would come apart, and that I would lose the physical strength and stamina that allow me to do my work in the world.
I had no choice: I had to acknowledge my body’s cry for time to heal. I had to accept its needs.
And from there, I found an intention arising: I knew I could heal and that what I learned would once again evolve into something I could share. I created a recovery program that has me now stronger and more mobile than before surgery. I knew I needed to go back to school. As a single mother, I kept trying to talk myself into being more practical. But yoga had become wholeheartedly my work. I was led to pursue my full C-IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists) and found a program I could manage and that would challenge and enrich my already extensive training and experience. My action, entering this training, has led to my surrender to this path as one of those places in life that I can only describe as “everything in my life has brought me here.”
Since I began the program last year, I have begun working with MS patients at Swedish Medical Center; my private practice is growing quickly; and I am thrilled to be partnering with a wonderful trauma therapist to offer a monthly yoga program for people healing from trauma and PTSD. (more later!)
Gradually, I have learned to uncover the resources in myself, and the ways in which I can draw back the power I have given away to other people, to ghosts, to expectations, to false selves, and to traumatic experiences I have previously allowed to define me. I feel more and more that that sense of wholeness I know is inherent in me is woven enough into the surface of my life that even on difficult days I can touch on her with practice.
This wholeness is not granted to us by a person, or accolades, or approval or recognition. It is a gift wholly from ourselves to ourselves in the deep solitude that connects us to all living beings. It comes out of the parts of us that may appear to be broken, but which become our pathways.
To quote Leonard Cohen: “The cracks are where the light comes through."