Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, babe ~ Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, Bob Dylan
I started practicing yoga for my body, but I think it’s also been helping my brain.
I wish I had the kind of brain that didn’t think so much, but that’s a thought that’s hard to fathom. I’m jealous of the people who don’t know how to dwell.
At yoga there is no time to dwell, and that’s a good thing. On the mat there just is no room in my head for anything other than what the instructor has said. We are always moving, even when we are still, and if I'm not paying close attention, then I’ll find myself moving in the wrong direction.
At the beginning of the practice we’re told to set an intention. And for all the thinking I usually do, it’s often hard for me to think of one. I think the reason for this is that once I've stepped to the top of the mat I’ve already handed over the keys to the car.
“Let’s come to Samasthiti,” the instructor says as she opens the class. “Stand tall and set an intention.”
I step to the top of my mat and stand in Samasthiti, or Mountain pose. It’s a stance of stillness where we collect our thoughts before turning on the ignition.
“Surya Namaskar A!” the instructor calls. “Reach up. Press palms. Look up!”
And so begins the 75-minute ride. The music starts, and I lift my arms to the sky and look to my palms pressed over my head.
“Uttanasana. Ardha Uttanasana. Chaturanga Dandasana!”
I fold on an exhale and lift on an inhale. With another long exhale, I press my palms to the mat and jump back to a low push-up. The music keeps playing and the instructions keep coming.
“Urdva Mukha!” I move into Upward Facing Dog.
“Adho Mukha!” I roll over my toes and press back into Downward Facing Dog.
We hold here for five breaths, and by this time whatever my day has been is gone. I’m here on my mat and moving along, and my mind is clearing with each passing song.
It’s said that a person has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. That’s almost 40 thoughts per minute! That’s a lot of thinking! Maybe that explains the buzz in the air after the holidays when the studios get so crowded. With all the yogis coming and going, the number of thoughts in the space is multiplied, and the surrounding energy gets amplified.
We move into the Surya Namaskar B’s, which take a lot more energy than the A’s. And in between each we’re instructed to work on our Fire Jumps.
I tend to land these mostly by accident. I press into my hands and crouch back, trying not to think. Springing forward, I tuck my body into a ball. Without too much thought, I float up on my hands, stacking my hips over my shoulders and extending my legs up high.
I try this several times. It might make sense that each attempt would be easier, but for me it’s actually the opposite. It doesn’t take long before my thoughts get in the way, and I stop trying after a few floats. I think that my arms won’t hold me. I think that I’ll go overboard with too much momentum. By the time we’re called again to Downward Facing Dog, I am already there, suffering my fears!
There is a Buddhist theory on suffering, and it has to do with our thoughts. It defines suffering as the mental attachments we create regarding the pain we’ve experienced. If we’re hurt, mentally or physically, less pain is experienced if we don’t mind so much, and more pain is experienced if we do.
This theory is actually supported by modern science. Today the experience of pain is measured by several regions in the brain, as opposed to what had previously been thought of as one particular pain center. There’s the part of the brain that lets us know that we are hurt, another that lets us know where we’re hurt, and a complex region that determines how we’ll actually react to that hurt.
Surprisingly, there’s also a part of the brain that makes up our minds as to whether or not we will suffer over our hurts. It’s the conscious part. When we experience emotional or physical trauma, the conscious part of our brain gets to think about it, and we actually get to decide whether or not we will suffer!
The instructor takes us through the rest of our Sun B’s, with another chance at the Fire Jumps in between. And each time I set up to jump, I say to myself, “Don’t think! Don’t think! Don’t think!”
We flow from one pose and into the next, moving on from the Fire Jumps to Warrior IIs, Reverse Warriors, Half Moons and more. And when we land in our forward folds, there’s still no time to think. There’s always more to do and always more to listen to. The instructions keep coming.
“Press your big toe mounds into the floor and fold yourself over. Grab opposite elbows and lift your toes to your nose. Lean forward and pull in your belly.”
When I started writing this, my intention was to write about pain. I wanted to do what Ernest Hemingway once said: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”
But writing for me is like practicing. I set an intention when I can, and then I gather my thoughts, and I listen. Next I wait for my mind to clear, so that I can hear whatever it is inside that brings forth the words. And the words might not always be what I thought, but at the end when I read them I get to see what I've learned.
And here in my effort to write about pain, I’ve wound up with an essay on the brain! And what I’ve learned is that there is an intricate link between what hurts and how we think, and between the power of thought and whether we suffer for naught.
The practice ends and we are asked to come to a seat with our eyes closed and our hands in prayer. I am in the middle row, in the middle of the room, and I sit with my hands at my heart.
It’s quiet and I sneak a peek around the room.
The lights are low, and I can see the silhouettes of all the yogis in front of me framed against the room’s front windows. And I know that if I turned around and looked behind me, I'd see many more of the same.
I am surrounded by dozens of quiet minds, safely tucked in the center of silence.
“Bring your thumb knuckles to your Third Eye center,” the instructor says, “and honor the intention that you set at the beginning of your practice.”
I raise my prayer palms to my forehead and realize that I never set an intention! But my body feels strong and my mind is clear and I'm so grateful that I’m here. And so with a heart as full as the room, I close my eyes and bow my head and bask in the absence of thought instead.