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Hope for what’s Coming

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Happiness is said to have three ingredients: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.

This is the fourth note in this series on Happiness, and today we are to explore hope. Check out Happiness, Doing & Love, if you missed the earlier editions.

Merriam-Webster defines hope as a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen. According to Wikipedia, Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.

A quick Google search pops up Ranker Music a list of song titles and lyrics that include hope. Have you ever thought about how many songs with hope in the title have been written? This list allows participants to rank the best songs with hope in the name, regardless of their genre. The list includes songs like “High Hopes” by Pink Floyd, and “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack.

Where does hope live for you? In a song, in a particular dream future, in a leader or cause? Many of my students, friends and colleagues have confessed that hope is elusive with so much suffering occurring in all facets of life, from economic hardship to natural disasters and social unrest. How can our practice of yoga help clarify hope and how can we nurture hope even if the face of so many challenges to the idea of a blissful world?

For me the challenge is, when I don’t know what to HOPE for or what it looks like on the other side of my challenge? Can you relate? Optimistic but blind. Sounds like hope with a side of faith. Sounds a bit like a pot-luck.

As we have discussed, yoga has a number of philosophies and practices to help cope, manage and make sense of our human experience. The ancient sage Patanjali is credited with synthesizing much of the yoga teachings into 196 aphorisms or sutras. Within this collection derive the eight limbs (ashtanga) which include the yamas and niyamas or 10 ethical principles that guide the practice of yoga. Within these foundation principles, we can explore hope through the lens of aparigraha, or non-attachment.

Aparigraha is the virtue of non-possessiveness, non-grasping or non-greed. Simply stated some would say it is the practice of contentment or satisfaction.

How then can we reframe optimism and forward thinking with the yoga principle of APARIGRAHA? How do we maintain a hope for something better while expressing contentment with what is?

Although aparigraha refers to contentment, perhaps we can understand it not so much as a blind acceptance or tolerance of the way things are, but rather frame it in the context with the other yamas and niyamas. Contentment must grow from compassion (ahimsa) and truth (satya), which require that we pursue social justice and right living. Furthermore, aparigraha teaches us to keep desire for possessions to what is necessary or important, depending on our life stage and context. In addition to the primary practice of ahimsa and satya, the precept of aparigraha is self-restraint from the type of greed and avarice where one’s own material gain or happiness comes by hurting, killing or destroying other human beings, life forms or nature.

Philosophy is great for having enriching conversations, but can be difficult to translate into regular life. Let’s give it a go…

When applied specifically to the asana practice, we can understand aparigraha as the acceptance of the current state of flexibility, strength, etc. of our body so that when we execute our yoga poses, we work from a place that can be comfortably managed. However being comfortable is not the same as taking it easy. Being comfortable in your yoga pose and moving to the edge as far as possible at the same time is the balance we so often seek but fail to practice.

I’ve seen three common mistakes students make when practicing yoga. These mistakes make hope and happiness out of reach. Sometimes the mistakes are obvious and can even result in injury. However, more often they are sneaky, subconscious habits of our egos in an attempt to keep us safe, but really just keep us stuck.

1. Trying too hard to do it RIGHT (emulate the teacher/others, master a pose, or be Instagram worthy). When we turn our practice into a performance or a competition, even just with ourselves, we run the risk of over-extending and injuring our muscles and joints. Likewise, creating a competition in our practice agitates the mind and creates the dissonance we come to yoga to release. Often students who fall prey to this mindset become quickly unhappy with their yoga practice and abandon it before they have had a chance to see any real, lasting benefits. Applied to real life, this is “Rule” #1 at Life’sWork Yoga: The only requirement for practice is to breathe. Everything else is optional.

2. Ignore feedback from your body. Movement is the language of the body. We are native speakers of this language, but many of us have lost our fluency. Yoga can remind us not only how to listen, but how to understand even the most subtle whisperings of our body. If we do not pay attention to the feedback from our body, we risk stress, pain or injury to our muscles, joints and connective tissues. Listen to your breath. If it is difficult to breathe, back off the pose. If the breath is readily available, consider deepening the challenge. When we can pay attention to what the body has to say, our practice will be an opportunity for transformation, growth, and enlightenment. This is “Rule” #2 at Life’sWork Yoga: Practice self-care. Listen to the whisperings of your body, mind, heart and spirit. These whisperings are the voice of your inner guru and it will teach you the boundaries of keeping yourself safe and healthy. If the voice is critical of judgmental, this is not your Guru center. Talk to your yoga teacher to help hone your ability to recognize the difference.

3. Stop trying to improve. This third mistake usually happens after you have gotten comfortable in the practice and in your body. Now the caution is to resist not trying at all. At first look, this sounds to directly contradict #1. But stick with me for a minute. It’s a little like finding the middle way.

Improvement and RIGHTNESS are not the same thing. Pursuing perfection for the sake of being right leaves no room for inspiration.

Simply going through the motions defeats the intention and power of the yoga practice.  If your practice consists of simply entering a yoga pose and remaining in a very relaxed, low-effort state, you may be missing the point. Without attention to witness the balance of effort and ease, there is no opportunity to deepen intimacy and authenticity of the body-mind connection. This is not to say that every practice should be a vigorous, sweaty challenge of body, mind and spirit, but rather every practice is an opportunity to show up at the edge of your comfort zone and tickle the unknown. If you are too far from the challenging-but-comfortable edge, you just might miss the bliss. This is “Rule” #3 at Life’sWork Yoga: Ask questions and learn to live in the inquiry.

Beyond the mat, these practices have the same power. Don’t for a minute think that I have this all mastered. I am in the practice every day!

In fact, I realize that I often get caught up in making things RIGHT, rather than accepting when it’s time to let them go. I feel I am getting better at listening to my body, but distinguishing a broken heart of disappointment from acceptance as a stage of greed is still a challenge. I know from experience that these practices work, which fuels my trust and hope. When we learn to listen to the body we can hear truth outside our ego and social constructs which is absolutely essential to staying in the question and being open to possibilities, solutions, healing, and HOPE… For me cultivating hope means living through loving actions and learning to live in the questions, the possibilities, the unknown spaces between asking the “right” questions!
How do you practice hope?