Over the holidays, I got hit with a nasty ear infection that ended up perforating my eardrum. For two days I was more or less bedridden. When I finally emerged, my muscles ached from the inertia, but what could I do? With the damage to my inner ear, inversions were out; I couldn’t even manage a downward-facing dog. Balance? Standing in mountain was a challenge, so how could I do my regular sun salutations? With an east-facing deck and the balmy California mornings, how could I not do sun salutations?? Frustration followed me onto the mat. This stupid illness was wasting my vacation opportunity to enjoy some outdoor yoga!
There is a trapping of the mind referred to in Hindu philosophy as Vasana (often related to another Sanskrit term, samskara). Vasanas are impressions that come from our experience of the world that huddle in the subconscious. The impression is formed in response to our feelings of pleasure and pain. In some ways, these can serve us. We automatically avoid touching a heated stove because the association with pain of being burned (or nearly burned) resides there. We don’t need to use up mental resources to make the conscious decision whether or not to high-five a burner. Our intellect can also refer to these impressions when making decisions. The trouble comes–as it does in almost all things–when the intellect gets bypassed so the vasana determines behavior in more complex situations. Here is where repeating dysfunctional patterns arises, from childhood eating habits and default parenting strategies to the more extreme cases of abuse and addiction. When we fall into habits, the vasana takes the decision away from the intellect. We may trick ourselves into thinking we’re making the choice to indulge in a second piece of cake, but often we’re justifying the action already put into play by the vasana.
The tendency to behave along the vasana-set channels increases when we are tired or stressed or, yes, ill. The vasana in my brain was long established since I’d stared doing yoga outside, and it was wrapped up in pure pleasure: soaring into half-moon under a wide sky, warrior-ing under the sun, doing vinyasa as the birds flit from tree to tree–doing felt good (especially after coming from months of rain).
My ear felt full of water (it was blood). The ravages of the fever left me weak. I didn’t care. I was going to do my practice. So my mountain felt shaky, I could still make it work. I swan-dove into uttanasana and my ear throbbed with the pressure of blood spilling into my head. If the ear didn’t heal, I wouldn’t be able to fly home again. I stopped. (Fear can be of use sometimes.)
On that sunny patio, I sat on my mat and stewed. Then when dizziness made sitting too hard, I lie down on the mat and stewed.
Then, I breathed.
I allowed the frustration, but stepped aside mentally so that I could observe it the way I might observe my hip muscles in pigeon. Breathed and let the emotion simmer, recalled the earlier experiences that inspired it, consciously recognized the desire to swim along those same channels to get at the same pleasure. By separating the self from desire, we cease to be ruled by it. Then, what ideally follows is the settling into the present, appreciating current conditions, recognizing the completeness of right now (as discussed in the last post).
From there, I began to move. I spent the whole hour supine, gently testing the boundaries of the moment. The sun still warmed me, the birds still flit from aloe bush to bougainvillea. It was the perfect practice. I didn’t need to retread the territory of my vasana that insists I need to do a strenuous practice to end up in a place of peace.
Here is one of the many mellow sequences I nurtured myself with during my convalescence:
It can be used as part of a gentle practice or as a warm-up for a more vigorous one. Enjoy.