It’s that time of year where we start making grand proclamations about how we’re going to start exercising more regularly, eating better, calling home more often. We may even get much more specific: “50 crunches in the morning!” or “Just say no to cheese!” But it is often the case that when we start making lists and resolutions we still have a load of lingering nonsense from the year prior to deal with. Be it physical or mental, there is most likely some bit of suffering we’re still hooked on, unknowingly or not. This suffering and unfinished business gets in the way of any new good habits we want to implement.
Suffering can be a scary word, but one that appears often in the type of eastern thought that yoga and posture practice gets wrapped up in. However, it’s a good thing to face head on, tempered with the knowledge that one needs to use a practice to transform it and make room for joy. The early 18th century English writer Joseph Addison put it in perspective.
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable – Joseph Addison
Posture practice is a good start to breaking through any residual stress or suffering that has manifested as tightness or congestion within the physical body. As you go through the poses, think of sending breath and energy evenly through the body, paying particular attention to areas that are ‘stuck’ or on some spectrum of overworking or underworking. Try to create a balanced experience within your practice of strength tempering flexibility and equal parts stability and fluid movement. A rushed practice or one focused on extremes can often miss out on the junk lingering in the shadows or negatively encourage you to work within the areas that are the strongest or the most bendy, not the ones that need your love.
Dealing with the world of thoughts and emotions is a bit trickier. Using the posture practice to create a happy home for the breath is a good start as it will calm the nervous system, bring you to the present moment, and create an environment more conducive to loving and rational behaviour. This may not always be the case, especially if you go to yoga class to achieve or nourish your dreams to be in Cirque du Soleil. But if you use the posture practice therapeutically, you’re off to a great start to being able to address the suffering of the mind and heart.
I think one of the most beautiful practices for transforming suffering into lovingkindness is the tonglen practice offered by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Through this practice I find that my suffering is not unique and in fact binds me deeper to the world, and most importantly it has an inverse of deep love and compassion if you open to it. I have been offering it this week in some classes, but instead of explaining, I think you should just hear it from her.
Finally, with all this suffering talk, once we clear some space I want to make sure we begin this new year focused on love and joy. That can cue the inevitable eye-rolling, especially if you read the news. So, here are a few words, posted on this blog before, to send us all off in the right direction:
So people begin to doubt the existence of happiness. “Is there any happiness in this world?” When they hear the scriptures talking about joy, love, delight, happiness, bliss, ecstasy, and peace, they react cynically. And, more often than not, they tell you about all the suffering in this world.
Years ago when Baba was in Boston, some Carmelite monks came to meet him. They were having a very nice conversation until the monks got around to the subject of suffering. Baba responded by talking about bliss and ecstasy. The monks thought Baba had not understood them, so they talked more and more about suffering. They got deeper into the subject as if they were trying to convince Baba of the rightness of their view of the world. And of course, the more they talked about suffering, the more Baba talked about bliss.
Finally, they said, “Baba, it seems to us that you are callous about people’s pain. You simply don’t pay enough attention to it.”
Without any hesitation, Baba said, “It seems to me that you are callous about God’s joy, and you don’t pay enough attention to that.”
The monks were speechless, which allowed Baba to go on and get his message across. He said, “Suffering is ordinary; it is samanya. What we have to do is tell people about bliss. Just because suffering exists, you don’t have to elevate it by putting on a robe of suffering. Put on a robe of joy so you can uplift others.”
The Yoga of Discipline, Swami Chidvilasananda