Wis­dom

Th­ese seven core yo­gic teach­ings can sup­port you through rad­i­cal life shifts and times of un­cer­tainty.

Yoga Journal - - Contents - By Sally Kemp­ton

Sally Kemp­ton of­fers seven core yo­gic teach­ings to help you nav­i­gate change.

AL­THOUGH I HAVE NO STA­TIS­TI­CAL EV­I­DENCE,

I’m con­vinced that when you start prac­tic­ing yoga and med­i­ta­tion, you in­vite ma­jor changes into your life. Those changes start from within: Maybe your prac­tice al­ters the way you de­fine per­sonal in­tegrity; maybe it un­leashes a deep long­ing in your heart or shows you truths you’ve been hid­ing from your­self.

Soon, th­ese in­ner shifts seep into your ex­ter­nal life. They make you ques­tion the way you do things and nudge you to live life dif­fer­ently. You may no­tice that your prac­tice has trig­gered a mys­te­ri­ous process that I call “karmic ac­cel­er­a­tion.” In other words, hav­ing a yoga prac­tice tends to speed up the way your re­la­tion­ships and life sce­nar­ios play out. So in­stead of putting up with an un­happy re­la­tion­ship or an un­sat­is­fy­ing job for, say, 10 years, you may find your­self bull­doz­ing through it in two. And not be­cause you’re flaky.

Most of us who prac­tice yoga will, at some point, find our­selves fac­ing in­ter­nally mo­ti­vated choices that can rad­i­cally al­ter our lives. That’s when we need to learn how to bring our prac­tice off the mat so it can help us birth the emerg­ing self that change prom­ises to bring forth— and sup­port us as we work through the fear and con­fu­sion that change can bring.

I think of all this as I lis­ten to Rita, the 37-year-old owner of a yoga stu­dio in Penn­syl­va­nia, who has been con­tem­plat­ing di­vorce for nearly five years. Her 18-year mar­riage has long felt emo­tion­ally dead. She and her hus­band rarely spend time to­gether, and when they do, they tend to ar­gue over is­sues big and small. Part of the prob­lem is that their lives don’t match: She’s a ded­i­cated yogi and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist; he thinks spir­i­tual prac­tice is a big yawn and that cli­mate change is un­proven. It’s been years since

they’ve talked about any­thing other than house­hold mat­ters and their teenage daugh­ter. Yet to break up the mar­riage would be to end life as she knows it. Af­ter nearly 15 years out of the main­stream job mar­ket, Rita is not sure how she would cope fi­nan­cially, much less run her yoga stu­dio with­out her hus­band’s sup­port.

Then, of course, there is her daugh­ter’s well-be­ing to con­sider. So al­though her gut has been telling her she needs to create a dif­fer­ent life, Rita is seized with ter­ror when she thinks about what it would mean to get di­vorced. And so she puts it off.

I am a vet­eran of sev­eral rad­i­cal lifesce­nario changes, so it’s not hard for me to imag­ine how she feels. In my mid-20s, I ended an un­happy mar­riage; in my late 20s, I left a per­fectly sat­is­fac­tory jour­nal­ism ca­reer and my fam­ily and friends to live in a spir­i­tual com­mu­nity; 30 years later, I felt called to leave that com­mu­nity, move across the coun­try, and be­gin an en­tirely new life.

In two of those sit­u­a­tions, it took me sev­eral years to take the plunge. I wanted to be sure I was do­ing the right thing. And let’s face it, life change is scary, es­pe­cially when other peo­ple’s lives are in­volved and you don’t know what is wait­ing on the other side. Even con­tem­plat­ing a di­vorce, a ca­reer change, or a cross-coun­try move can bring up core sur­vival fears, which may sur­face in many ways: as health is­sues, night­mares, es­capist be­hav­iors such as overeat­ing, lin­ger­ing in­de­ci­sion, or a coun­ter­pho­bic ten­dency to leap out of the sit­u­a­tion with­out a plan—just to get the whole thing over with.

Be­lieve it or not, th­ese core sur­vival fears rise up even when the rad­i­cal life change is pos­i­tive. Stress stud­ies show that life-en­hanc­ing events, like get­ting mar­ried, start­ing a new job, or fi­nally get­ting a longed-for op­por­tu­nity, are of­ten just as stress­ful as neg­a­tive ones (think of a bride break­ing down in tears be­fore her wed­ding, or of the young man who dropped out of a pres­ti­gious grad­u­ate pro­gram at Columbia be­cause he missed his life in San Fran­cisco).

In other words, change can be scary, even when you’ve ini­ti­ated it your­self. What if peo­ple get hurt? How will you live with your­self if your choice turns out to be a disaster? Do you have the skills to deal with the con­fu­sion and chaos of the process? Th­ese ques­tions par­a­lyze Rita, and they’re the kinds of ques­tions that will some­times keep us lin­ger­ing in stag­nant or painful sit­u­a­tions un­til an out­side force makes the move for us.

Yoga—in its widest sense—can give us the strength and in­sight we need to nav­i­gate the most rad­i­cal forms of change. Equally as im­por­tant as the prac­tices of yoga are some of yoga’s ba­sic (and highly ap­pli­ca­ble) teach­ings—the recog­ni­tion that we af­fect the ex­te­rior by work­ing on the in­te­rior, that be­hind the di­ver­sity of life lies a fun­da­men­tal one­ness, that real strength is found in still­ness, and that our true Self is not the shift­ing, fear­ful, egoic per­son that it some­times seems to be.

One test of your yoga prac­tice is how well it serves you dur­ing a time of big change. Yo­gic teach­ings won’t nec­es­sar­ily keep you from feel­ing scared, over­whelmed, or con­fused. But they can rise up within you like a wise friend to guide you through those feel­ings so that you don’t get lost in them. They can even help you avoid get­ting mired in in­de­ci­sion or jump­ing im­pul­sively with­out think­ing things through.

Over the years, I’ve formed the habit of turn­ing in­ward dur­ing times of tran­si­tion and con­fu­sion and ask­ing for a help­ful teach­ing. Much of the time, the same teach­ings come up again and again. Below, I of­fer you seven core yo­gic in­struc­tions that will help you nav­i­gate rad­i­cal change.

1 Know that change is in­evitable

The Bud­dhist Doc­trine of Im­per­ma­nence, an­nica, tells us that change is in­evitable, con­tin­u­ous, and un­avoid­able. Ev­ery­thing changes. Just re­al­iz­ing that fact can pro­tect you from turn­ing to that most dis­em­pow­er­ing of re­ac­tions to change: “Why me?”

What the Bud­dhists call im­per­ma­nence, a Tantric yogi would as­cribe to the ever-chang­ing na­ture of shakti— the in­trin­sic, dy­namic power at the heart of life. Shakti is the cos­mic, divine fem­i­nine en­ergy that con­tin­u­ally brings things into man­i­fest be­ing, keeps them go­ing for a while, then dis­solves them. Ev­ery mo­ment, ev­ery en­ter­prise, ev­ery cell, is part of this flow of cre­ation, sus­te­nance, and dis­so­lu­tion. This flow is hap­pen­ing on a macro­cos­mic level—as the flow of sea­sons, tides, and cul­tures—and on a mi­cro­cos­mic level, through the var­i­ous shifts in your phys­i­cal states, the ups and downs of your life, and the flow of thoughts and emo­tions in your mind. If you un­der­stand the divine na­ture of the process of change, it be­comes eas­ier to greet change with honor, sur­ren­der to it, and even part­ner with it as you con­tinue on your path.

2 View the change as an ini­ti­a­tion

In tra­di­tional so­ci­eties, ev­ery phase of life was re­garded as an ini­ti­a­tion into a new way of be­ing and was marked with a cer­e­mony that of­ten asked the ini­ti­ates to step into the un­known in some way, whether it was ob­serv­ing a prayer vigil, spend­ing the night in dark-

ness, or an­swer­ing ques­tions that tested their skills. Nowa­days, we don’t al­ways do a cer­e­mony, but we still un­dergo ini­ti­a­tions. Chang­ing ca­reers, mov­ing to a new city, and de­cid­ing to go back to school are all ini­tia­tory ex­pe­ri­ences be­cause they ask you to step out­side your habits, test your skills, and, for a time, in­habit the un­known. Each of th­ese changes will sub­tly, or even dra­mat­i­cally, re­de­fine you. You won’t be quite the same per­son af­ter you step out of the old sit­u­a­tion and into the new. The change it­self, if you go through it con­sciously, is the door­way into the next stage of growth—one that pro­pels you into a deeper re­la­tion­ship with your­self and the world.

An ex­am­ple: Twenty-four-year-old Frances ac­cepted a job of­fer to teach English in Seoul, South Korea, then freaked out when she got there, over­whelmed by lone­li­ness and cul­ture shock. What per­suaded her to stay was rec­og­niz­ing the ways in which be­ing a for­eigner freed her from old self-de­scrip­tions and helped her find a new way of be­ing her­self. Sim­i­larly, when your life is chang­ing, con­sider the ways in which the change will ex­pand you, teach you about your­self, and show you both your lim­its and your ca­pac­ity to move beyond them. The more you can ac­cept this as an ini­ti­a­tion process, the eas­ier it will be to dis­cover the gifts of change.

3 Med­i­tate through un­cer­tainty

The deep un­cer­tainty that arises dur­ing pro­cesses of change is per­haps the most daunt­ing part of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Why? Be­cause a true process of change will in­volve sur­prises, re­ver­sals, false starts, and pe­ri­ods of com­ing to a dead halt. In th­ese mo­ments, you’re likely to ex­pe­ri­ence fear, anx­i­ety, anger, ir­ri­tabil­ity, sad­ness, grief, and the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­trac­tion that of­ten goes along with feel­ing un­cer­tain and un­clear. Your gut tight­ens, and your mind be­gins spin­ning one of your vic­tim sto­ries: your worst-case-sce­nario story, your “I just don’t have what it takes” story, or your “I’ll never get what I need” story. And your next move is nearly al­ways some form of es­cape. You turn on the TV, or eat some­thing, or call a friend to com­plain.

But the real an­ti­dote to the dis­com­fort of un­cer­tainty is to move into it rather than away from it. You con­nect to the way the dis­com­fort feels in your body. You let your­self feel it. You let go of the story that in­evitably ac­com­pa­nies feel­ings of dis­com­fort. And you just stay present with your­self and with your feel­ings, with­out re­sis­tance or ex­pec­ta­tion. The more you can be present with un­cer­tainty, the more you can let the change process take place nat­u­rally and ef­fec­tively.

It’s much eas­ier to stay steady through a life-chang­ing process when you have a med­i­ta­tion prac­tice, be­cause med­i­ta­tion teaches you how to keep go­ing back into your cen­ter—the core aware­ness that is your con­tact point with the Self and aligns your in­di­vid­ual con­scious­ness with the heart of the uni­verse. Your med­i­ta­tion prac­tice can be as sim­ple as at­tend­ing to the breath or re­peat­ing a mantra, or as sub­tle as tun­ing in to the aware­ness that knows what you’re think­ing, or as phys­i­cally cen­ter­ing as breath­ing into your heart. The im­por­tant thing is that it con­nects you to your in­nate sense of be­ing—to the Pres­ence in­side you.

4 Un­cover your truest de­sire

Self-in­quiry, or atma vichara, is the core yo­gic process for nav­i­gat­ing change. It’s a sim­ple but ef­fec­tive process of ask­ing your­self core ques­tions such as, “What is my true de­sire in this sit­u­a­tion?” or “What out­come would be the best for ev­ery­one?” As an­swers sur­face, write them down.

Next, sit for a mo­ment in med­i­ta­tion, fol­low­ing your breath, un­til you feel a sense of con­nec­tion to Pres­ence. Say to your­self, “May my deeper Self, the teacher in­side me, tell me what is the right thing to do.” Then ask your­self the self-in­quiry ques­tions again, and write down what­ever re­sponses come up, even if some of them seem ir­rel­e­vant.

Now, look at what you’ve writ­ten, and look for com­mon threads that give you a sense of what your deeper Self wants for you. Get­ting in touch with your deep­est, truest de­sires will help you or­ga­nize the en­tire change process.

5 Set a strong in­ten­tion

The next step is to make a sankalpa— a clearly ar­tic­u­lated, af­fir­ma­tive state­ment about what you in­tend to do. When you make a true sankalpa, you call on the power of your per­sonal will and align it with the cos­mic will. If you have gone through the self-in­quiry process and have a sense of what your true de­sire is, you should be able to make a sankalpa that is in line with your truest wish. The deeper the align­ment be­tween your core de­sire and your in­ten­tion, the more likely you are to suc­cess­fully ini­ti­ate a change that sup­ports that align­ment.

That said, it’s im­por­tant to rec­og­nize that your sankalpa will change ac­cord­ing to the time and cir­cum­stance. At one point, the sankalpa may be, “I have a job that I love and that al­lows me to spend time with my chil­dren.” At an­other time it may be, “I am skill­fully cre­at­ing step­ping­stones to find­ing a new home.” At an­other time it may be, “I am heal­ing my body and my spirit.”

No­tice that each of th­ese sankalpas is stated in the present tense. That’s be­cause a sankalpa is not merely a wish or even a state­ment of pur­pose. It’s an ar­tic­u­la­tion of di­rec­tion that brings your goal into the present mo­ment. What gives a sankalpa its strength is that it as­sumes that the out­come you in­tend to man­i­fest is not just cer­tain but has al­ready oc­curred.

6 Take ac­tion, one step at a time

The very heart of the prac­tice of yoga is ab­hyasa— steady ef­fort in the di­rec­tion you want to go. So when you are ini­ti­at­ing a life change, con­sider the steps you need

to take to make it hap­pen us­ing the tech­nique of self-in­quiry. Rita, for ex­am­ple, has to con­sider step­ping­stones to a dif­fer­ent life. She asks her­self, “Where will I live? Who will be my friends and sup­port group? How will we help our daugh­ter cope with the changes? What other sources of in­come do I have be­sides the stu­dio? How will I pay the stu­dio rent if my hus­band can’t or won’t?” Think­ing through her op­tions and the pos­si­bil­i­ties helps her set­tle her fears and de­vise a plan, even though she doesn’t have all the an­swers to her ques­tions yet.

Once you’ve thought things through, it’s cru­cial to take ac­tion. Ef­fec­tive ab­hyasa, in the yoga of life change, is to take things one step at a time so you avoid feel­ing over­whelmed. Con­sider Rita’s plan for gain­ing fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence from her hus­band. Her first step is to in­crease her work­load with pri­vate yoga clients. Her sec­ond step is to take a course in con­flict res­o­lu­tion, an area in which she has worked in the past. Th­ese ac­tions will give her the sense of fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity and the con­fi­dence to be­gin talk­ing to her hus­band about a di­vorce. Like Rita, as you take your first small steps, you’ll usu­ally find that each step leads to an­other and that op­por­tu­ni­ties be­gin to show up in re­sponse.

7 Prac­tice let­ting go

One of the pos­i­tive byprod­ucts of mak­ing a life change, from a yo­gic per­spec­tive, is the op­por­tu­nity that it gives you to prac­tice

vairagya, which is usu­ally trans­lated as “de­tach­ment,” or let­ting go. That means let­ting go of the past; let­ting go of the way that things used to be; let­ting go of your fear, your grief, your old re­la­tion­ship, your old job.

But you don’t want to let go in a “hard” way, forc­ing your­self to be a samu­rai of change. In­stead, let your­self grieve the losses or feel the anx­i­ety. Then breathe out and imag­ine that what­ever you’re hold­ing onto is flow­ing out with your breath. Of­fer it to the uni­verse with a prayer—some­thing sim­ple like, “I of­fer this change and ev­ery­thing as­so­ci­ated with it. May the re­sults be of ben­e­fit to all be­ings.” You do this again and again, un­til you ex­pe­ri­ence the feel­ing of free­dom that comes with real vairagya.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence, just re­mem­ber­ing to let go—mo­ment by mo­ment—can by it­self be the in­ner key to nav­i­gat­ing pos­i­tive and rad­i­cal change. In fact, if all you learn from your change process is a lit­tle bit of let­ting go, you’ll have re­ceived one of the great gifts of change—and you’ll be one gi­ant leap closer to liv­ing the life of your dreams.

Story orig­i­nally pub­lished in Oc­to­ber 2011.

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