Awake and Alive
Sometimes, I look back on the years I spent asleep and silent. I think about the girl who felt small and unimportant, who thought that life was about following someone else’s trail, falling as little as possible, keeping her head down. What I find so tragic is that we have stopped teaching young people how to live resiliently and in doing so have created a culture of asleep and apathetic individuals. I’m interested in the people who speak their truth, who listen to the truth of others, who engage in a dialogue about the systemic changes that need to happen in the city/state/country, who aren’t afraid to have a conversation, who don’t feel like they have to make themselves small to keep everyone happy. So how do we wake up when we have been asleep for so long? How do we get up and live when we’ve spent most of our lives trying to merely survive? The yoga practice has a few ideas.
How does yoga wake us up?
The self has many layers, or koshas. Let’s start with the outermost, the physical body. Like any mindfulness practice, the asana practice asks us to very specifically look at the moment to moment shifts in the body, breath, and mind. As we move our bodies through space, we try to understand the detailed work of alignment. How am I using my legs, my toes, my fingertips, the space in between my ribs? Can I feel what it means to engage my core but relax my face? As this detailed work of engagement and release deepens in the static postures, we can start to understand the intricacies that appear in transitions. The entire practice becomes one of hyper focus on how and why the body moves the way it does. Why is this a form of waking up? Well, think about how many times a day the body is going through the motions of doing while the mind is somewhere else, maybe figuring out what to have for lunch or how to reply to that troubling text message from last night. Probably many many. Especially as the world on our devices becomes increasingly prioritized, the physical world and the world of our physical bodies tends to suffer. To be awake and alive in the body is to be where it is. Can we fully and presently walk down the street? Can we fully and presently engage with more of the daily tasks that make up our lives? Can we communicate with our bodies at all times, not just when something hurts or feels off? Waking up means feeling more of the small shifts that are constantly happening. We wake up the body first so that we can go deeper into the layers of the self.
Beneath the physical body, is the breath body. It contains our life force, or prana. Tradition says that prana is essential to living and many have devoted their lives to practices of healing the energetic life force, think acupuncture or homeopathic healers. One of the simplest ways to access this part of the self is through pranayama, or breath work. Ujjayi pranayama, the breath we traditionally practiced with the asana, is a great way to awaken the breath body. Other breathing techniques often encountered in a practice are alternate nostril breathing and breath of fire. For both traditional and science-based reasons, the breath is important. If you’ve practiced with me before, you’ve definitely heard me say, “if you are holding your breath, it’s because you are trying not to think or feel the big thing that is coming your way. Breathe and let yourself go there”. The breath is so important because as it moves through us, so does our life force, so do our thoughts, so do our feelings. When we take away our capacity to fully breathe, we shut down our capacity to fully think and feel; we shut down our awake and alive self.
I am a science kid at heart, and the breath is so exciting because it’s a part of the autonomic nervous system, it happens without conscious thought, but it can also be consciously controlled. The breath controls the hormonal responses we have. For example, the slow breath of ujjayi, takes the body our of sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight, and restores the body to parasympathetic nervous system, rest and digest. Breath of fire stimulates the sympathetic response, as seen by elevated heart rate. When in a constant state of stress, hyper-stimulated sympathetic response, we often go into a brain fog and are unable to see the world clearly and with a larger perspective. In people with anxiety and depression, the sympathetic nervous system is hyper-stimulated. If our breath can help us balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, the breath can effect how we feel and think and perceive the world.
How does this translate to being awake and alive? Alive doesn’t mean a numbing to what is happening in the internal and external world. It means being acutely aware of every shift, from the gross to the microscopic. Awake and alive is not a promise that everything will be easy or good or happy all of the time. It is a commitment to feel happiness as fully as sadness, to explore darkness and light. When we are awake, we understand the internal shifts that happen, from feelings changing to sensations coming and going to thoughts entering and leaving. The foundations of the yoga practice ask us to leave the brain fog and the dissociation and enter the world of fully seeing and feeling. We focus on seeing the self in its truth first so that we can look out at the rest of the world with greater understanding. Wake up to the challenges and triumphs of the self and we start to see and act with more compassion for the rest of the world. Yoga is the practice of being awake and alive. Many people spend their whole lives asleep, unable, maybe afraid, to feel or think too much or too deeply. Practicing yoga means a commitment to waking up. Like ripping off the comforter for a pre-6am wake up call in the dead of winter, waking up is not always comfortable. We can choose to stay under the covers or we can decide to be with the sun as it rises.
Is there a moment where you recognized that you were awake, alive, and an active participant in the larger world? Be on the look out later this week with some mindful flows to help you wake up!