The mind is a beautiful servant, but a dangerous master

Osho had it right on this topic. The mind, indeed, is a beautiful servant, but a dangerous master. This brings us back to our journey through the 8 limbs of yoga, today arriving at the 6th limb, dharana, or focused concentration. By way of a quick review, we’ve been through the 1st limb, the yamas, or the external observances or guidelines for how we interact with the world around us. The 2nd limb is the niyamas, or internal observances, guidelines for how we interact with and conduct ourselves. The 3rd limb is asana, or physical practices, the 4th is pranayama, or breathing practices, and the 5th is pratyahara, or withdrawal of focus from the external to the internal.

So now, in the 6th limb, or dharana, we learn to focus our awareness on one point, which can be our breath, a mantra, or any item of our choice. We learn to consciously direct our awareness to this single point, and then maintain it there for some period of time. As you know, this is not easy. Most of us are all too familiar with the monkey mind, or a mind that rapidly darts from one thought to the next, seemingly without any reason. In yoga these disturbances of consciousness are often referred to as the vrittis, or the fluctuations of the mind. One minute I’m thinking about my grocery list, and then all of a sudden I’m rehashing some grievance from 10 years, ago, and the next minute thinking about what I’m doing this week, maybe a doctor’s appointment, and then maybe back to the grocery list, or maybe onto something like the meaning of life or what is there beyond our universe. Our minds are naturally busy, and this is what they do if we don’t learn to direct them a little better. And this is where that “dangerous master” idea comes in. If we do not learn to direct our thought patterns in a way that is good for us and supports us on our chosen path (whether that is just happiness, or growth, self-realization, or enlightenment), this monkey mind can easily turn into a vicious cycle of negative thoughts which stir up negative emotions and then result in us behaving in ways that aren’t our best. For example, we’re all familiar with that rabbit hole of fear and negativity that we sometimes find ourselves in when we have some routine cancer follow up scheduled. I have bloodwork and a PET scan coming up, and I know from experience that one way I could allow my mind to go is this: what if the labs show my tumor marker is up, and the PET scan shows a recurrence, because I do have that weird pain sometimes, maybe that is a bone metastasis, if I have a recurrence can I really tolerate more treatment, shit I don’t know how I’ll tell my family, maybe it’d be better if I just didn’t treat it, I’ll just run away so nobody has to see me die…. and OMG, where did all of that come from?! Nothing is even wrong. I feel great, and that funny pain I mentioned is obviously just a soreness related to my exercise regimen, and I know that if I just think clearly and rationally. There is NO reason for me to be thinking any of this bad stuff. But our minds can be tricky, and get us into some really ugly places if we allow them to. I’ve mentioned before this phenomenon called negativity bias, where it is our brain’s natural tendency to focus on negative things, because evolutionarily that protected us from threats. But for most of us, we don’t really need that to be our predominant state. Obviously our minds are not a bad thing, and we need them to help us function in the world, but we must not let them become our master. We must learn to allow them to function as the beautiful servants that they are, without them taking over and wrecking our peace. We must train them to bring us back from these negative spirals, and instead remind us of all the good going on inside of us and around us.

Sooooooo, dharana, or one-pointed focused concentration, is training us to bring our awareness to one object, and to then maintain it there. Naturally, our minds will wander, and this is where the practice comes in. We just patiently practice, over and over again, gently bringing our awareness back to that point. And eventually, over time, we are able to stay focused, our minds learn to wander less, we are less fidgety, and more relaxed. Those fluctuations of the mind begin to settle, like the waves on a stormy sea settling down, until the mind becomes a vast body of tranquility and peace. Of course, those stormy seas with come again from time to time, but if we practice dharana, we will be able to calm them easily and return to our natural place of bliss and serenity.

So how do we do it? Well yoga asana is a great place to begin, as it takes much focus and concentration to be able to hold our bodies in certain positions for the prescribed time during our practice. Simple meditation practices, such as focusing on the sensations of the breath, or counting the breaths back from 10 are also great places to start. Just know that your mind will wander at first, and don’t get frustrated. Just as if you were training a frisky puppy, gently and lovingly redirect your awareness back to your point of focus each time it wanders. There are innumerable other meditation practices you can try as well, from candle gazing to mantra recitation, mindfulness practices, and more. There are even a number of phone apps these days that can get you started in your practice.

Yoga and all of the yogic practices are so good for us, in training our minds to work for us, not against us. Keep practicing friends. And I will too, so I can get through this upcoming testing without a meltdown. πŸ˜‰


Book Review: The Places That Scare You

Taking another short break from our journey through the 8 limbs of yoga, let’s look at another fantastic read.

When I saw this title, I just knew I needed to read this book. For breast cancer survivors, myself included, fear is one of the biggest hurdles we face in learning how to thrive after treatment. Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You; A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times is a must read for anyone looking to learn how to navigate the ups and downs of life with more equanimity, a more open mind, and a more peaceful heart. Whether your challenge is breast cancer or any other normal life hurdle, like divorce, financial struggles, loss of a loved one, or natural disaster, this book will help you learn to overcome the habitual thought patterns and behaviors that feed our fears, anxieties, and suffering.

Fear is one of the things I talk about a lot with my cancer thriver friends. No matter how good we feel, how far out we are from diagnosis, or how great our prognosis is, fear of recurrence is just something that is always there, lurking in the back of our minds. And fear of recurrence has so many facets: fear of more treatment and its attendant toxicities, fear of disability or loss of vitalilty, fear of having to tell our families, fear of death, fear of how that will affect our loved ones, and on and on. And these fears can crop up at any time, sometimes prompted by some new pain or other unrelated illness, sometimes prompted by annual imaging or bloodwork, sometimes when we see someone else experience a cancer recurrence, and sometimes for no reason at all. But then, for whatever reason, our brains descend into this vicious cycle of worst case scenarios, visualizing all the awful possibilities, until we make ourselves physically ill and overcome with fear and dread.

While this is a common, completely natural, and normal reaction to traversing cancer survivorship, we would all probably love to learn some tools that might help us reduce the suffering that this cycle of fear causes. And this is where this book comes in. Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun, and a prominent Buddhist teacher, known for her kind, humble, humorous, and gentle wisdom. Drawing from a number of different Buddhist teachings, she offers the reader a number of different tools meant to help us navigate life’s ups and downs with more grace and ease, and less suffering and angst.

Importantly, this teaching reminds us that it is not ideal to try to squelch or forcefully suppress our negative emotions, nor to be harsh with ourselves when we lapse again into patterns that we know are not in our best interest. We learn to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves, sometimes just learning to sit with whatever the situation is and let it be, whether that is anger or irritability or fear or sadness. When we learn to really be present with ourselves in times of difficulty (instead of trying to escape using our old habits, be they alcohol, over-exercising, busy-ness, consumerism, or what have you), we develop an openness to all of life’s experiences, an understanding of the reality of life as ever-changing, a loving-kindness toward ourselves and all of our imperfections, and a compassion for others going through similar experiences that makes us feel more connected. We learn to let go of our fixed opinions, our judgements, our attachments, and our aversions, in favor of a more open mind and heart. Instead of letting the difficulties of our lives harden us and make us jaded and closed off, we learn to lean in to the experiences and come out instead more peaceful and tender-hearted. In all of these ways, then, we begin to transform. Things that used to scare us or make us angry no longer hold that power over us, as we naturally learn to respond in healthier ways. And as we do so, our daily experience becomes more tranquil, more relaxed, and more joyful, even on the difficult days.

Going through cancer is a serious challenge. Literally life-threatening and life-changing. So it isn’t easy to just learn a trick or two and all of a sudden be fine and perfect. It takes practice. But we really can learn to overcome many of its challenges more easily if we put in the effort and the time and just believe in ourselves. We have that power.

If any of this sounds good to you, pick up this book. I just finished reading it for the second time, and I know it will be one I’ll want to read over and over again on my journey.


Going within

Continuing along in our discovery of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga (we’re having fun, right?!), let’s explore the 5th limb, pratyahara. Although the 8 limbs don’t need to be practiced in any certain order, and it isn’t like you have to graduate from one limb to move on to the next, I do believe that developing some practice in the first 4 limbs definitely helps us as we move further along in our journey. And that is definitely true as we move into pratyahara.

Pratyahara is sometimes described as a withdrawal of the senses, or a withdrawal of our awareness away from the senses, a turning inward, or a focusing of our awareness inward, away from the outside world, away from our thinking mind, and toward our inner space, that place of peace, our true self, our higher self. We’ve mentioned the idea of yoga as an inner journey, or a work-in, and pratyahara is key to that exploration. Importantly, it isn’t a forceful stomping out of our thinking mind or our sense perceptions, but a gentle shift away from them and toward our inner space. I like to think of pratyahara as turning a bright spotlight from one direction to another, and as we develop the ability to consciously shift that light of awareness, we not only proceed along that path of inner exploration, but we also master the ability to shift our awareness at will. So that when old habitual behaviors or thought patterns begin to arise, we are able to quickly and easily pivot away from them and toward the healthier habits we are developing.

So why do we need pratyahara? Well, because it is so common, in modern culture, for us to be constantly fixated on the outside world, on our outer experience, driven by what we see in the news or on tv, what we hear on the radio, the things that we taste or smell, what is going on in social media, what the advertisers tell us we need, whatever activities we have to do with work or the other responsibilities that keep us busy. We are trained to constantly be thinking of and striving for that next experience, that next dinner out, that next career milestone, that next photo for instagram, that next pair of yoga pants (#attacked). And we spend very little time just being. Just sitting still with ourselves, exploring how we truly feel deep inside, considering what we truly want (not what our bosses, friends, or the media tell us we should want), taking in a beautiful sunset or really relishing that delicious cup of coffee. As you know, staying focused always on the outside world keeps us feeling anxious, worried, and inadequate. While turning our awareness inward and focusing more on our inner space cultivates peace, contentment, and joy.

As cancer survivors, not only do we have all of the normal things to be distracted by and worried about (will we get that next promotion, who went on a better vacation and posted it all over social media, whose kid is better at soccer or got a better scholarship than ours, what is happening to the economy, etc), but we also have a whole host of other pretty heavy concerns that can overwhelm our minds (will I live to see my kid get married, will my husband still be attracted to me, will I be able to get through this round of chemo, will I still be able to do my job so I can keep my health insurance, will the cancer come back?). So it is completely natural and expected that our minds can get swept away in a whirlwind of anxieties. Pratyahara can be a huge help, teaching us to bring our focus and attention away from all of those worries, and instead tuning in to our inner space, our inner peace, that sanctuary inside of us where everything actually is ok (even if it isn’t on the outside).

So back to the idea of how the first 4 limbs help us cultivate pratayahara. Practicing the yamas and the niyamas helps us to be better able to re-orient our minds, to notice those unhealthy thought patterns, and to see when we are getting swept away, or when we are focusing outside on things that truly aren’t important. Asana practice is a perfect training ground for focusing our awareness inward, on our bodies, our breath, and our inner energy. This is why I’m always saying thing like “stop and breathe a moment and just feel your body”. This is practice and training to be able to turn our awareness inward at will. When we practice it over and over on our mats, we get good at doing it, so it will happen more easily out in life when we are challenged. Pranayama, similarly, almost automatically leads us out of our thinking mind, by triggering that relaxation response deep in our nervous systems, setting us up to be able to easily slip into pratyahara.

So these 8 limbs of yoga truly are a masterful and methodical path that will lead us to a healthier, happier, more peaceful, and more joyful life. IF we just take the time to practice them. Do yourself a favor and give yourself the gift of yoga.


Mastering our breath

Krishnamacharya (often referred to as the father of modern yoga) said “Master the breath, let the self be in bliss, and contemplate on the sublime within you”. Further, Dr Andrew Weil said “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe correctly”. These great teachers are just two who emphasize the importance of pranayama, or the 4th limb of Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga.

The sanskrit word “prana” means life force energy, or the very essence of the energy that animates us and the universe around us. “Prana” is also used to refer to the breath, through which we are believed to breathe that life force energy into and around our bodies. And so “pranayama” can be translated as breath control, or a way to master our breath, and thereby to master and optimize our life force energy. Pranayama is a key aspect of yoga, and the way by which many of the benefits of yoga are realized in the body and the mind.

We all know that the quality of our breath relates directly to the goings on inside of us. When we are anxious, stressed, or in pain, it is common for our breath to quicken and become shallow and irregular. On the other hand, when we are relaxed and at ease, the breath is slow, deep, and rhythmic. And importantly, this is a two way street, and can turn into a cycle. When we purposely slow and deepen our breath, our nervous system sends a signal to our brains that everything is ok, activating the relaxation response, and triggering a relaxing cascade of events in the body and in the mind, bringing us back from any stressor that might be occurring. Therefore you can see the massive benefits of learning to be able to control your breath.

Pranayama is an integral part of having an effective yoga asana practice, in that we must be able to maintain that calm, deep, diaphragmatic breath while we practice asana to translate all of the benefits into our bodies. We must maintain calm breath to balance, to hold postures for the prescribed time, to bring plenty of oxygen to our muscles and our brains, and to activate that relaxation response in the midst of effort, thereby training our bodies and minds in resilience and equanimity.

Pranayama is also a key aspect of meditation. We often use the breath as a tool to help us dive into meditation, to help maintain our focus and concentration, and to relax our bodies while we meditate. The breath can also help us be more effective in our practice of the yamas and niyamas, as taking a deep breath in the face of any stressor can give our minds the pause they need to stop habitual reactive patterns and instead engage with something healthier like non-attachment or contentment.

There are many different types of pranayama, from simple equal breathing (matching length of inhale and exhale, with focus on slow calm breath) to complex practices using alternate nostrils or forceful inhalations, or exhalations, or both, utilizing abdominal wall musculature. However, they are all easy to learn if you are interested and just take a little time. These practices increase lung capacity, improve gas exchange, strengthen your diaphragm and abdominal muscles, promote lymphatic fluid return, tone that parasympathetic nervous system, build focus and concentration, and so much more. If you want to learn more detail, check out my educational video on the topic.

I have used pranayama too many times to count in my dealings with breast cancer over the past 4 years. For example, when I am in panic mode awaiting scan results, I come back to my breath and practice any of the relaxing pranayamas, and the fear and anxiety melt away naturally. When I was in pain from mucositis related to chemotherapy, I used pranayama to minimize the sensation of pain. When I can’t sleep for whatever reason, I use pranayama to relax my body and mind. If I’m a little sluggish and need more energy before practice, I use an energizing pranayama and perk right up. When I am frustrated with insurance hassles, I come back to my breath and remember not to let these little things get me down. When I am working hard on my yoga mat, trying to continue to improve my post-mastectomy chest wall tightness, I breathe slowly and calmly to help me patiently stay in the positions. You can imagine endless scenarios in which having better mastery over your breath could come in handy and help you live a happier, more joyful, more stress-free life.

So I encourage you to pay some attention to your breath, recognize the true power it holds, and learn to make it work for you.