I love rituals. Just a little more than a week ago, I celebrated the solstice with a bike ride, a bourbon and some burning of things. The alchemy of fire is one of the most beautiful metaphors of hope, possibility and transformation to me. In ancient cultures where shamans and elders performed ceremonies and rituals involving fire, smoke was considered to be the vehicle which carried the intent and prayers of the community and the individuals to the world beyond our own. Plus it’s just damn fun to burn stuff. And fire is so deeply hypnotic. Who doesn’t like to stare into a camp fire, hypnotized for hours. I’ve been known to zone out on that terribly cheesy yule log video people play on their television at Christmas. But I’m no random pyromaniac; if I light something up it’s for good reason.
In classical yoga tapas—literally, to burn—is regarded as necessary for transformation. It’s not about the temperature of the room; it’s more about intent. The intent to transform one thing into another. Sure, physically, through the movements and exercises of yoga, we transform our stiff, achy, tired bodies into more youthful, flexible, resilient ones. But that’s just the beginning.
Beyond the superficial physical practice, yoga is—at its heart—the practice of being present with whatever is arising without judgment or analysis. This doesn’t mean one should not be discerning; it’s more that one learns to refrain from knee-jerk, habitual reactivity toward the ever changing, unfolding reality that is right before our eyes.
Through yoga, if one is willing to look at oneself bravely and with curiosity, all those frozen places in the mind and heart become available for transmutation as well. Grudges, prejudices, small thinking, addictions of all manner become more clear as we learn to be present with ourselves. Being present is simple, but it is not easy. It takes real courage to be able to look at oneself clearly and remain present, rather than running away or distracting oneself. It is not for the faint of heart.
How many of us have wanted to bolt or escape in some way when faced with our own insecurities, anger or frustration? How many times do we reach, either unconsciously or with some awareness, for the junk food, TV remote, alcohol, drugs, sexual affairs, or fill-in-the-blank to numb out, distract, or otherwise satisfy ourselves on the most superficial level. We all do these things to some extent, in our own ways.
For myself, I’ll admit to a an unhealthy facebook habit, which I decided to give up when I realized how harmful it was. On a purely pragmatic level I was wasting tremendous time and energy. But the bigger issue was what had once been a source of connection had become a sort of modern self-flagellation of constantly comparing myself to others and seeking validation as well. It had become a source of pain, and that’s way too much power to give away to inanimate technology.
I began yoga as a New Year’s Resolution in 1994. I was stressed out, messed up, and done in. I had been living with terrible pain from repetitive stress injuries and serious physical trauma. Yoga taught me that in order to heal my pain I needed to feel my pain. In other words, I had to be present.
Pain—whether psychological or physical—is something most of us would rather avoid, unless you’re a singlespeed mountain biker, in which case you love it in a twisted, transcendent sort of way, but that’s another story for another time… Yoga healed my physical pain, restored my love of life, and showed me how to take care of myself—physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Yoga was the gateway drug that got me into competitive and extreme sports such as bike racing and rock climbing. Hurtling down a mountain at top speed or defying gravity while hanging from a rope requires the utmost presence. One false move and you’ll pay, sometimes dearly. But this presence isn’t just available when you’re on the rivet. It can be found in even the most ordinary, everyday things. Cooking breakfast, having sex, writing a letter, or having a conversation, doing your work… these can all be meaningful moments of connection, if we are present, aware, and sort of curious.
Nothing happens outside of the here and now. Life happens in THIS moment. Be present. Pay attention. This is it.
For 20 years I have devoted a significant part of my life to the study and transmission of yoga. I’ve taught thousands of classes, probably tens of thousands of people, all over the U.S. I knew as soon as I felt the benefits of yoga that I wanted—no, I NEEDED—to share them with others. None of this would have happened had I not followed through on that New Year’s Resolution.
I’m not an expert in presence. It comes and goes for me, just as it does with most. I forget how to be present, moment by moment. That is why we call yoga a ‘practice’. It’s not that practice makes perfect; it’s more like “practice makes presence”.
The ritual lover in me is clamoring for a new New Year’s Resolution for 2014. But I’ve come to believe it’s these everyday moment-by-moment intentions, and our commitment to them, which are much more powerful than one grand future ideal to strive for. Having future goals is great—by all means—set your aim high and go for it! But don’t wait to become the change you wish to see. Do it now. RIGHT now. This moment. Do what you can with what you’ve got to become the best YOU you want to be.
Happy New Year, world. May you feel the fullness of your greatest presence in all your moments—large and small. And don’t be afraid to burn, baby. Burn.