embodied meditation: the practice of arriving

3jewels.hinduproverb

The Practice of Arriving

I’ve experienced the deep bone-weary tension of walking into a studio or temple after a full day of “doing” and feeling like I have to wrestle a boa constrictor before I can relax into my practice.

It took time for me to recognize the insidious pressures and misconceptions that arise with contemplative practices like meditation and yoga; especially, when we encounter hardcore folk — teachers and students alike — who translate noble silence and the noble postures into perfect control and transcendence of bodily realities (neglecting to acknowledge or offer accommodations for ability, injuries, illnesses). So grows the ill-formed notion that the moment our butts touch the cushion or we stretch into our first pose, we will instantly be filled with peace and relief…Oh! and be infused with the superpower of levitation.

As a teacher, I’ve witnessed the struggle in practitioners who then expressed frustration at not being able to get things “right.” After observing the cues of many students who would walk in early, immediately drop from exhaustion on their mats, close their eyes, and beg for restorative poses, I shifted my approach and started each class with deep relaxation. For my sake and theirs, it was essential to honor the fact that our brains and bodies need ample time to spin down and transition from one activity to the next. Reclaiming the space to transition  from the rhythm of striving to the rhythm of relaxing and finding refuge enabled us to bring our biological, emotional, psychological, and energetic layers into alignment. We gave ourselves time to catch up in body, mind and heart in the present moment.

I drew upon the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (the core of my personal practice) and began guiding practitioners through an embodied self-awareness sequence that supported our capacity to cross the threshold of any room and allow ourselves to fully arrive. Breath by breath, inch by inch, we learned to first unravel the tensions in body, heart, and mind in order to relax completely. Once we felt relaxed, we could awaken and inhabit our bodies with full awareness.

Listening deeply, seeing clearly, responding skillfully
to whatever showed up.
Greeting and acknowledging our sensations, thoughts, emotions and perceptions with compassion.

Taking refuge in the rhythm of our breath, we could gently align body, heart, and mind and then joyfully abide in this state when we transitioned from the privilege of an intuition-led practice back into the world around us (whether a casual gathering with friends, a family celebration, or an office meeting).

Arriving is the first of four guided meditations in my series, Embodied Self-Compassion: The Four Energies of Mindfulness.

I shared this practice during the healing session I taught at the Allied Media Conference in June and, afterward, had the honor of being interviewed about it for MIT’s CoLab Radio: How to Awaken Self-Compassion Through Meditation.

A 3 Jewels Yoga + Ari Chillman Production.
Recorded June 2016 at Sherwood Forest Live.

moving in the spirit of self-love

Health is not an optimal way to make physical activity relevant and compelling enough for most people to prioritize in their hectic lives…We should count any and every opportunity to move that exists in the space of our lives as valid movement worth doing.

~ Dr. Michelle Segar

I taught group fitness classes in an athletic center for 7 years and more or less squandered the “perk” of having a free membership. Much of it was due to the logistics of time and distance: managing a roster of classes taught at multiple locations, coordinating childcare, and being a single-car family with a staggered lineup of activities. The rest: my hard-to-shake sentiment that gyms suck!

But when the frenzy of a hectic period collided with the pressures of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, I knew that soothing myself with a 20-minute meditation practice wouldn’t be effective. So I decided to burn off the stress with some tension-busting cardio. However, instead of feeling relaxed and restored, I found myself getting increasingly disgruntled.

Creeping in was the crazy-making noise of negative self-talk! I replayed frustrations and common scenarios that had (or would) hijacked my self-care routine; imagined the endless hours and superhero dose of willpower it would take to reach my pre-pregnancy weight; and lamented how little I had appreciated my body in the past. Then a clear voice cut through the chatter. Enough! This is not healthy. I jumped off the elliptical and headed straight to the sanctuary of my favorite park where sunshine, open air, and quiet woods always nourished my sense of sanity and well-being.

trailblazing in the rain

As a practitioner and advocate of the principles of mindfulness, I recognized in that moment that exercising in a state of duress and dissatisfaction would only feed my discontent. I, like so many others, transformed what is intended to be an endeavor to improve health into an act of self-violence. Yes, even the seemingly noble goal of self-improvement can be fraught with violence. The struggling and striving to be better — to be or have enticingly “more than” in this area or “less than” in another — can lead us to unsavory places. Comparing, criticizing, loathing, harming. For me, the gym can be a hostile space where self-contempt breeds like staph bacteria on a locker room floor. Far too many people are hating themselves into exercising.

I vowed from then on to only move in the spirit of self-love: to saturate every cell and fiber with affirming thoughts and feelings; to strengthen and energize body, heart and mind with meaningful activities (like walking in nature) that made my muscles sing. I refused to participate in or propagate the “self-improvement hustle” (inescapable in the fitness industry and, well, our culture in general) and recommitted myself to cultivating self-understanding. A core tenet of my spiritual traditional, it is through diligently seeking to know ourselves that we can make skillful and compassionate choices. When I have a case of the blahs, I listen deeply to take the appropriate course of action: sometimes it means I rest and turn off my brain, at other times it signals that I must hit the trail for a run to unravel tensions and uplift my spirit.

Reframing exercise in this way enabled me to integrate it more consistently into each busy day. It no longer felt like an agonizing chore that generated guilt if I had to keep putting off (like the clean basket of laundry that takes days to fold, hang and stow). Other key factors in making exercise more sustainable for me:

1) Letting my partner know just how essential it was to my well-being (teaching classes did not count) and requesting extra support from him around scheduling adequate time for self-care. Bonus: It proved to be beneficial for both our endeavors to correct physical imbalances and rehab from long-standing injuries.

2) Turning exercise into a social event. Aside from being an ambassador of a running group, where organizing and leading weekly runs kept me accountable to my commitment to train several days a week, I began setting up walking dates with my girlfriends. Bonus: We share news, laugh, contemplate, problem-solve, air grievances, blow off steam and…save money we’d spend on food and beer!

The gym is still not my first choice — not when the park is closer and free — but I’m now fully inoculated against the toxicity I once experienced there. Running on the treadmill or lifting weights, I am fortifying myself with a deep care and respect for the vitality this body of mine possesses.

Read more about Dr. Segar’s research on reframing exercise:  NYT.com | Rethinking Exercise as a Source of Immediate Rewards
[updated on 30 March 2016]