Balancing Act

Black/white. Hot/cold. In/out. On/off. We live in a bipolar world, much of it our own creation (though Nature herself has been known to pull some pretty extreme moves). At the most basic level, our technology from Morse code to computer programs encrypts the universe as dot/dash, zero/one.

We seem drawn to extremes, happy to swing from the end of the pendulum like monkeys from trees, passing through the middle ground with time for no more than a backward glance.

I don’t know why this is so. It does make the world a simpler place to live: if we can divide people, as a grad-school friend of mine did, into angels and devils, it’s easy to choose sides. If we are blue or red, we always know how to vote—we don’t have to ponder, to reconsider, to examine the many shades of purple. We know who is right and who is wrong.

But extremes also cause great suffering. Ask anybody who lives in the desert, where days are scorching hot and nights frigid. Watch a small child: giddy with joy one moment, wailing as though her whole small world were crashing down around her in the next. Remember what it feels like when you have a fever, the strenuous oscillation between overheated and chilled. Look what climate change has wrought: a world of dramatic tsunamis and earthquakes and floods, as our planet tries desperately to regain equilibrium.

And yet we persist—overworking, then collapsing; overeating, then fasting; frenetically socializing, then hiding out. Exhausting beyond all reason. And of course, we bring this same imbalance into our yoga. Many of us dip our toes into practice, then dive in, get hooked, get fanatical about a class/teacher/practice, and either injure ourselves or suck the joy out of it all with our sheer intensity. We practice when we are sick, tired, jetlagged or just plain old distracted. We push our bodies to do things they were not yet meant to do. We self-combust, we burn out. And then we lapse out.

Despite appearances, yoga is not about extremes—at least not the “householder” yoga practiced by those of us with kids, jobs, mortgages and other paraphernalia of earthly existence. The austerities of renunciate life (celibacy, restrictive diet, rigorous cleansing practices, standing all day on one foot or with one arm raised, onerous rituals) are reserved for swamis (monks or nuns) who devote their entire existence to the path.

Yoga for ordinary humans should restore us to balance, not throw us further off course. Anusara Yoga’s Universal Principles of Alignment make this possible throughout our material and energetic body-fields. Each principle has a counter-principle or complement: rolling the upper inner thighs in, back, and apart paired with scooping the tailbone; “puffing the kidneys” (filling out the back waist) with drawing the shoulder blades more onto the back to open the chest; drawing legs and arms into sockets while also extending back out.

The canon of postures also returns us to center. Backbends counteract our tendency to stoop and round forward, while forward bends stretch tight hamstrings and buttocks and relieve compression in the lower back. Twisting right and left ensures that we don’t indulge our personal inner-body rotations (tendency to turn one way and not the other). Inversions flip us upside-down, taking a load off our legs and feet and challenging our arms and upper back to join the game.

Yoga, essentially a solitary and inward-turning endeavor, also counteracts our overextended, extraverted, chronically plugged-in lifestyle. Disconnected from Ibook/pod/pad, from Facebook and Twitter and Googleplus, we confront ourselves. I often tell my students that they can learn everything they need to know about themselves within the confines of their sticky mats. Cheaper if not easier than therapy, this self-scrutiny separates us from the onslaught of images and opinions coming at us from outside and invites us to explore those that arise from within. (Take note: if you are new, or even newish, to practice, it’s going to take awhile for the true inner voices to be heard beneath the hubbub of recorded messages you’ve been absorbing from outside throughout your life. Twenty years into my practice, I’m still struggling to distinguish the two.)

And how much practice is “balanced” for any one person? I reached a point with my Ashtanga practice where I had bent my whole life around practice, going to bed at 9:00 so I could awaken predawn, plough through a two-and-a-half-hour practice that left me limp as a noodle by mid-afternoon. I lost touch with friends who kept more “normal” New York schedules. I practiced so hard I probably created more tension than I dispelled. On the other hand, too many hours/days away from my mat and, well, suffice it to say I’m not good company! Edgy, contracted, rigid, disconsolate are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind. These days I try to get some yoga in every day, but “some” can mean 15 minutes or four hours. I’m no longer rigid about when and where. I’ve come to trust my inner gauge of when I’m level, on beam, and when I’m off. And this balancing act has translated into my life off the mat. I’ve found happiness (yes!) in the middle ground. Come join me—there’s plenty of space! It’s only at the edges where things get crowded.

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