podcast ep. 2: the medicine of subtraction, thinking about what we need to take away

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My hope is that if you are a student or teacher of yoga, you are a lover of quiet. In the upcoming podcast on the importance of Music in a practice, I discuss the reasons yogis may want to practice to music. Even though I think a musical class can be the right balm for the soul, we do tend to hew toward what we are accustomed to unless encouraged toward other options. Silence is healing and beneficial. One study reported that for many people, just two minutes of silence a day can be more relaxing and helpful than listening to relaxing music. Another study found that increasing periods of silence helps the brain generate new brain cells that can positively support mental health. (Both of these are linked in today’s show notes.) In Sanskrit we call sensory depravation Pratyahara – by that, we mean closing of the eyes, silence for the ears, speechlessness for the voice.

Taking away stimulation helps us digest that which we’ve taken in. We tend to think of digestion as a dietary/nutritional process, but think of the information we take in al the time.

I appreciate the irony that I am talking about the benefits of silence. Silence between responses has been so helpful for me. In conversations, I used to be the person who was waiting for my turn – planning the words, getting excited about how phenomenal my anecdote was. It wasn’t active listening, it was active audience-seeking. In expanding the silent spaces and getting quiet, I have been more present because I am responding to what is happening, rather than forcing my preference and perspective by anticipating the future where I get to speak again. I also have come to appreciate that other people are naturally quiet and do not struggle with pregnant pauses in conversation. They may need some spaciousness to come forward with their words, and I want to hear them.

Winter is the right time to cultivate silence. It’s the right time for digestion, because we should honour in ourselves what we see in nature. Winter is a quiet, digestive time for nature – the leaves have fallen and are resting under the snow, a slow beginning to the digestion process that leads into spring. It is a reflective time, not an active time.

We tend to think of reduction and minimalism as a path to happiness when we think of our stuff. Being a fan of stuff, it was difficult for me when I graduated my first teacher training. I called my teacher in an existential crisis, telling her that I was struggling to reconcile my love of things with my yoga. It seemed to me that the accumulation of stuff was antithetical to a yogic life. Years before Marie Kondo wrote her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Mona said to me, “we live in the material plain, right? You have to be here. There are some things you need while you’re here. Why not be a master of the material? You show great skill with stuff.”

I am not one to rush out and get stuff. I prefer to wait for things to come to me, in a way. I rarely go out with the intention of certainly buying a particular item, and I’ve always loved recommendations, research and buying for longevity. The pots and pans I have now are the ones I used my birthday money to purchase when I was 18, because, as I told my mother, I only wanted to have to buy them once in my life. It’s looking like we’re on track.

Stuff needs to be accumulated in time. The side table we currently have near the couch does not bring me joy – Marie Kondo’s measure of a possession’s worth - but I will not throw it out. Because we need a table there, and wanton discarding and replacing is terrible for the planet and ignorant of our privilege to gain and discard. (Just check out a link in the show notes on the environmental impact of the clothing industry.)

I struggle more with things of sentimental value. My mother and I take forever to put up the Christmas tree, because we like to take out a bauble, discuss who gave it to us and ponder what they may be up to, have a cry if they’re no longer with us, and ultimately place it on the tree.

This practice is sustainable because it’s annual at most, but Ayurveda has a concept that is a core component of understanding our constitutions and formulating a wellness plan. Guna is a quality or a characteristic. You may recognize it from the Maha Gunas, but in this instance we’re referring to the qualities of embodiment. The gunas of Ayurveda are roughly divided into Brmhana – building or nourishing – and Langhana – or lightening and reducing.

The idea is that you apply the appropriate quality to cultivate balance. If I’m too hot, I should lean into cool practices. If I’m dry, I will add more oil for smoothness of skin, digestion and mental processing. So we only lighten and reduce if in doing so we are ultimately nourished and resilient as a result. We reduce if reduction brings us toward balance.

Sometimes the things we need to part with are not things. We often do not realize how taxing a relationship or job is until we have taken it away. Think of how often you have been in a heated or poignant conversation, only to think of the “best” response later on in your day. With a little time, you grow to appreciate that perhaps you were unprepared for the conversation, or that you’re happy you did not stoke the flames of a fiery exchange. When we are in something deep, perspective is tough to grasp – like standing at the bottom of a well and trying to understand what the well may look like from the outside. Denial plays a powerful role in getting us through these times.

We may not be ready to let go of the relationship or we may be unable to let go of the job until we have another one lined up. This is where we need to subtract the things we can – relationships that lead us away from the qualities we want to embody, like healthfulness and compassion, or behaviors that seem like they’re helpful in the short term, such as binge drinking coffee. When I left marketing and tumbled into going full time yoga, I realized that I had so mindlessly been consuming coffee that I was up to 7 – 8 cups a day. It was the only tiny joy in a time of my life that had little to no support at home, and no friends in a still new city. I was overly depleted in what was nourishing, and I was crazy addicted to caffeine.

These are the times so many of us drop our practice to make space for busyness, but it’s difficult times and relationships that need space around them to suss out if it is a season, or if through our presence we are sustaining an unsupportive space. We often cannot see how unsupportive a space is until we have parted ways. 

Four years later, I am happy to have the opposite challenges. Through meaningful work and connection-making, I know so many good people. Not a day goes by where I regret the decisions to break with the life I was building.

For the friends who have parted ways with me because I was not good for them, maybe they’ll eventually cycle back around. It may not happen in this lifetime, but if people are committed to change and evolution they may just change and evolve. I’m so pleased that a few friendships of mine have rekindled once we grew into being better for one another. For those that don’t, we cannot linger on what we did poorly in the past, we must practice compassion for ourselves and others and allow that information to inform how we act now.

How we want to show up in the world is strongly influenced by how well we are honing our skillfulness of perception and action. Various forms of yoga are premised on the need to sharpen our senses and grow skillful in what we choose to take in with them. The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of the Hindu Epic the Mahabharata, and it tells the story of a prince in the midst of familial war over rights of accession. The prince, Arjuna, feels so limited in his choices that they do not feel like choices at all. So despondent, he receives divine help from Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, to navigate his actions. In Chapter 2 verse 58, Krishna says, Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will. Aspirants abstain from sense pleasures, but they still crave for them. These cravings all disappear when they see the highest goal. Even of those who tread the path, the stormy senses can sweep off the mind. They live in wisdom who subdue their senses and keep their minds ever absorbed in me.

We can think of Krishna’s call to action – or purposeful inaction, if you will - as a call to dwell in love. Vishnu is the sustainer, also called love, and it is through our practices that we process our experiences, reconcile our emotional reactions and come back to dwelling in love.

Caring for ourselves through quietude is a healthful pursuit, necessary for us to digest what has happened so that we do not reflect on the past as a place of greater happiness or sorrow than it was. This present moment clarity also helps us move forward in a healthful way. It does not mean that dwelling in love means accepting all situations as they are. I love what Marianne Williamson has to say about forgiveness, if we choose not to forgive someone, remember that the jailer has to always police the jailed. In not forgiving, we punish ourselves as well.

By dwelling in equanimity of emotion and dwelling in love, we may choose to subtract someone or a situation from our lives, but we then find it so much easier to subtract the anger, sadness, or resentment that they brought.

There’s a story that helps us reconcile this simultaneous oneness of creation – the indivisibility of you and I – as well as the need for not being together. It’s the story of a student, his teacher, and an Elephant. The student had listened to the teacher espouse the unity of creation, that there was no separateness between all things, and so, like the phrase Namaste, we recognize that the light in one another is a part of the same light. The student was dwelling in a peaceful, Sattvic place, when an Elephant charged toward them up the path. The student though, “there is God, and I am God, too, so what does God have to fear of God?” He went toward the Elephant, even as the Elephant’s handler – atop the Elephant – said to “move out of the way! He’s out of control!” The student, confident in their oneness, continued forward and was trampled by the Elephant, tossed out of the way.

A little bruised and shaken, he dusted himself off and stood up. The teacher inquired as to his wellness, and he admitted perplexedly, “Why would God hurt me, when we are both the Elephant and myself?” The teacher smiled and said, “the Elephant’s Handler is God, too. Why did you not heed his warning to get out of the way, since the nature of the Elephant was to continue forward?”

People tell us all the time how they are going to be in particular circumstances. They may be different for others, and they may be different down the road, but when we get quiet with ourselves, we can grow to appreciate that some things are not in our control. What we do have power over is our willingness to be in proximity to someone whose qualities are harmful to us.

There are so many ideas and concepts we need to retire. The idea that we are separate from one another, the stories we tell ourselves that aren’t true, the cultural habits that pit us against one another and favour some people’s rights over others. I’ll end with critical questions for your wellness in the coming year.

Reach back to January 2017. What were your expectations for the year? What did you think would happen? Were you surprised by what did happen?

What did you do this year that digested well, that nourished you? What did you do this year that depleted you, or that you would not repeat? How will you cultivate a rhythm of taking in, processing and moving forward?

Links

Gregoire, Carolyn. Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain. Huffington Post. 2016.Vartan, Starr. Silence is Good for Your Brain and Lowers Stress. MNN. 2016.
Drew, Deborah and Genevieve Yehounme. The Apparel Industry’s Environmental Impact in 6 Graphics. World Resources Institute. 2017.