Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mind-Body Contemplations with Cyndi Lee

Well, it turns out some of what I was feeling on Friday was just being sick. I've had a low grade fever and little bit of congestion all weekend. It's just enough to feel drained, but not really sick, if you know what I mean.

I do think the body and mind often mirror each other. They aren't separate and unrelated, no matter how we might think them to be.

One of my favorite yoga teachers is also a student of Buddhism. Cyndi Lee has written books combining teachings from both traditions, as well as done combination retreats, showing how the various practices can reinforce each other. A lot of people know that yoga and Buddhism are close cousins, but I often find the attempts to link them are superficial and fluffy. Cyndi Lee, I think, does a good job working with the two paths in a way that honors both. She also somehow manages to do some work in secular fields, like teaching yoga and meditation to business people, while still being about to maintain the spiritual depth of the teachings in her other work.

I found an old interview that Elephant Journal did with her in 2008. It covers a lot of ground,, including Lee's view that we need more people going out into the world to teach yoga, and less people starting up yoga studios. I like that idea a lot.

But I want to go back to the mind-body connection. Here's a great example from a yoga class Lee brings up.

Yoga is great because everything happens in yoga. It’s all in your body. All of your emotions are stuck in your cells, so a lot of stuff comes up. Type A people are going to go, “My knee hurts but I’m going to keep going, damn it!” I had a guy who was so desperate to touch his toes. I say: “Here’s a belt. Bend your knee…but I can touch my toes, and it’s not making me happier than you.” [Laughs] I did whatever I could to cut through his craving to touch his toes. I’m like, “Look, this isn’t that thrilling. Big deal!” And he didn’t believe me. Later, he got injured in a gym, and he couldn’t exercise at all.

So he decided to meditate, and the whole thing changed. Being able to watch your mind while you work with your body is practical, and you might not get injured! “What am I feeling in my body? In my mind?” Whatever it is, it’s interesting. It’s not good. It’s not bad.

I like to think of yoga and zazen as balancing each other for me. There are times when I am too stuck in my head, lost in thoughts, memories, misery - and this is exactly when I can do asana (poses) or pranayama (yogic breath control methods). Other times, maybe I'm exhausted, or too busily moving around, doing too much, and this is exactly when zazen might be called for.

Obviously, this isn't about being formulaic, or only doing these practices like this, but it's of great value, in my view, to be tuned in enough to choose the practice that the situation most calls for.

Remember the question: “Where does one end and the next one begin?” Can you draw a line between your body and your mind? Can you draw a line between your body and your breath? Can you draw a line between your breath and your mind? Not really. They’re fluid boundaries.

Your body is in decay if you’re over the age of 25—I’m sorry, it’s true. It’s sad, but it is what it is: all of life is a vinyasa [flow of movement]—arising, dissolving. You’re arising until you’re about 25, then you abide, then you dissolve and you’re dead. And then, if you believe in reincarnation, you arise again.

If your body is neglected, it will affect your mind. If your feet hurt, you won’t want to walk anywhere, which shrinks your possibilities. If you have bad posture, it’s going to affect your breathing capacity and the muscle of your heart, and you get depressed. It’s interactive. Everybody, across the board, cheers up when they exercise.

All of life is a vinyasa - how often do you fight against that? I know I do an awful lot.

I've been contemplating some of the discussions I have seen online lately. One of them being the one that's been going on around socially engaged Buddhism. There's a fair amount of disembodiment going on - and not just because it's happening online, although that's part of it. I've heard similar a disembodiment in "face to face" conversations, especially when people turn to big issues - speaking about politics, philosophy, religion, science. There's a lot of head banging together that occurs, but where is the rest of us?

I can't exactly explain what it is, but something is often missing. And it's not about medium always because I have read blog posts, articles, and discussions online that feel totally embodied, even though the participants might be spread half way around the world.

Meditation is asana practice for the mind. People think it should be easy? Nobody thinks that yoga is easy, at first. If they start to sweat and quiver, they go, “Well, yeah? Maybe it’s hard and I’m feeling resistance to it, I’m sweating and quivering, but that’s what I’m here for: I’m getting strong.”

But then in meditation, it’s “Oh, I thought this was supposed to be peaceful, chill!”

ele: You feel crazier!

Cyndi: A lot of yogis say, “I didn’t realize what my mind was like! I’m disturbed, I want to move, I’m not doing it right. I can’t do it. I can’t sit still. This is for other people.”

I say, “This is awesome for your mind.” It’s like push-ups: [when you notice a thought, you say] thinking, and come back [to the breath], thinking, and come back. It takes exertion. It takes commitment. And then it takes letting go.

Any worthwhile relationship takes exertion, commitment and letting go.

Exertion, commitment, and letting go. Yes. There's a teaching to hang on your bathroom wall. Perhaps to put on your blog as well, to remind you how to engage with others online.

Well, it's time for me to eat lunch. Both body and mind are pointing to it. Be well everyone.


Anonymous said...

"There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy."

So said Neitzsche. Anyway, this is a very current topic for me... You might also enjoy Forum: Start with Your Body: A panel discussion with Phillip Moffitt, Cyndi Lee, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Reggie Ray from the Fall 2009 Issue of Buddhadharma.

Other folks doing somatic practices include Reggie Ray, David Rome, Ruth Denison... (from teacher Charlotte Selver). Not sure about teachers in the Zen tradition.

Thanks for all your thoughtful reflections.


kevin said...

Thanks for sharing this. I've often wondered about your yoga practice.

I have only a very shallow knowledge of the spiritual practices of yoga so it's nice to get a taste from someone sharing it and not pushing it.

In some of my reading of Zen I've found an emphasis on what's usually referred to as practicing a "Zen art" as a way to keep the same mind off the cushion.

Practicing Aikido as mine, I've explored the martial traditions associated with Zen and finding that, while sometimes the metaphor may seem a little contrived, the zazen we all practice is a matter of life and death. Maybe not physically, but definitely the life of our potential as human beings is on the line.

Your first quote exemplifies my sensei's constant reminder that the foundation of self defense begins with defending ourselves from ourselves, not just physically but mentally, too.

Our egos are just as dangerous to us as any hooligan running around with a baseball bat.

Thanks again.