Learning to Listen: a yoga story
Sometimes I envy animals. They flow through life, reacting spontaneously to whatever comes, unconcerned with such questions as “Should I eat meat? Is it organic, local, and well-educated enough? Does it work for my blood type?” A lion does not debate these questions. It is the gift and curse of our human neocortex that we have the self-awareness to consider different actions and choose what seems “best”. Moment after moment, we create our lives by choosing some things and not others. Our choices create habits, so in the future we are likely to keep choosing the way we did in the past. This is the teaching of karma in its most practical form.
I grew up in a family that honored the spiritual power of nature, but favored rationality as the criteria for making decisions. I developed a powerful intellect and excelled academically. I figured I’d go into physics, or some other scientific field. I vaguely imagined that my life would unfold as a series of logical decisions, and that I could apply my intelligence to “solve” my life like an equation.
Yet when I reflect on the path that I took to get where I am today - yoga teacher, yoga therapist, studio owner – I see that many key decisions arose through listening, inwardly and outwardly, to receive guidance. I have been discovering my life, not deducing it.
Yoga itself can be seen as a process of sharpening the inner ear so one can “hear” what is true and act accordingly. In this sense, I began practicing yoga long before I actually rolled out a sticky mat. But it was only through training to be a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (PRYT) practitioner that I began to consciously cultivate this listening.
In a one-on-one PRYT session, I place the client into supported yoga postures (akin to Thai massage) and use reflective dialogue to help him explore what comes up and how it relates to his life. I am the facilitator, rather than the prescriber. My presence helps the client learn to listen to the rich stream of information constantly flowing from his body, unconscious mind and higher knowing. The results of a session often include physical and emotional release, deep insight, and profound rest.
How do I choose the appropriate postures to use? I listen to the client’s words and movements and select stretches that will help him listen to his own experience more closely. For example, if a client says, “It feels like I just can’t let go,” and I see his shoulders are tight, I may traction his arms to bring more attention to the tension he’s holding there. I may ask, “What’s happening now?” as an invitation for him to notice and speak about his own experience. Or I might feel drawn to stretch his hamstrings. The session arises spontaneously. My intention is not to “fix” his tight shoulders according to a therapeutic plan, but to facilitate a process that arises in the present moment.
This non-planning was tough to swallow when I began my training. My rational, Computer-Science-major self wanted a formula: if client says X, do Y. My Honor Student self craved a guaranteed method to get an A+ in giving PRYT sessions. How could I take action without trying to control the outcome?
As I did the training, I realized this way of being was not so foreign after all. From 6-12th grade I studied improvisational theater at the Piven Theatre Workshop. We mostly played games, which trained us to relax our inhibitions and allow impulses to arise freely, flowing out as sound, movement, and eventually dialogue and character. We were encouraged “listen for the next beat” rather than try to plan it out. It was thrilling, transgressive and a little scary.
Or course, it’s one thing to make crazy animal noises with my peers; quite another to improvise a yoga therapy session with a paying client. It’s much harder to detach from the outcome when it’s part of your livelihood.
The majority of my PRYT training consisted of giving practice sessions and reflecting on the experience with a mentor. I became painfully aware of the many ways my own habits and beliefs condition my decisions. I discovered a strong desire to please the client and ensure they had a good session, which prevented me from doing anything that might challenge them. I started to question my choices, afraid they were tainted by my own agenda. I found myself declining to make any choices for fear of choosing the wrong postures or saying the wrong words.
My mentor encouraged me to reflect on the nature of this self-doubt. Among the many layers, I discovered another link to my past. When I was 14, I happened to pull the The Way of Zen by Alan Watts off my parents’ bookshelf. Something deep inside me recognized the truth of the Buddha’s teachings and the pursuit of enlightenment as a worthy goal. This was the beginning of my conscious spiritual quest.
I was particularly taken by the Zen view of words and concepts as inherently limited; the actual experience of seeing a tree is much different from the word “tree” or our mental image of a tree. Liberating truth is found in experiencing life in its raw state, rather than through the distorting lens of thought.
For this very reason, Zen warns against intellectual study without practice – yet through high school all I did was read about Zen. As predicted, I misunderstood the goal of spiritual practice to be “no thoughts” – that I must somehow eliminate thoughts, and if I was thinking, I must be doing something wrong.
Thus, when I began giving PRYT sessions and looked within for guidance as to which posture to choose, or what words to say, I was skeptical of any thoughts that came, even if they were good suggestions. I had the notion that intuition was exclusively wordless and magical. So I doubted every impulse that came along as a thought – which was most of them! The result was inaction.
Through my own personal work with the PRYT process, I realized that while many of my thoughts do indeed arise from the limited perspective of my ego, others are messengers from the wise part of me that knows just the right thing to do or say. I learned to tell the difference by listening to my body: an intuitive thought arrives with a whole-body feeling of clarity; a biased thought feels trapped in my skull, spinning and bouncing of the walls. When I’m grounded in my body, my thoughts become a tool I can use to help my client discover their own truth within the thicket of messy thoughts.
Following this reflection one step further, I owe that my ability to listen to my body comes primarily from my training in Kripalu Yoga. In this tradition, the student cultivates awareness of internal experience, rather than continually strive to improve the posture. Just as it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time, we can hear our body more clearly when we stop trying to “do” the posture and just allow it to happen. Often, spontaneous alignment, release and insight will arise when the body is given space without expectation. The same philosophy informs Phoenix Rising since Michael Lee, the founder of PRYT, also trained in Kripalu Yoga for many years.
Again and again, my PRYT training encouraged me to reflect on my life and see how my past informs who I am as a practitioner. I discovered that the inner wisdom I was learning to follow had been guiding my decisions all along: which college to attend, what major to pursue, who to date and marry, what work to do, when to open a studio. To be sure, each of these decisions brought moments of difficulty and doubting. Yet each arose with a whole-body knowing that gave me confidence to keep going, despite the second-guessing of my intellect.
It seems life has conspired to show me that things turn out well when I listen to myself, rather than seek external validation for my actions. Even so, when I consider the unknowable future, my mind still strains to figure out what will happen next. My shoulders tighten, and in my more conscious moments, I recognize this physical tension as a sign that my mind is wrestling with reality, trying to pin down an answer. I take a deep breath in and let it fall out of my mouth with a sigh. I stop what I’m doing, relax my body, and rest back into that deeper knowing. I remember once again that all the answers I need are available right here, in this moment. I just have to be still and quiet enough to hear them.
First posted on my prior blog, Inward Facing Dog. This essay was also published in Yoga Chicago, Jan/Feb 2011.