It always does my heart good when I hear a student talk about how yoga has helped them in their life. Most of the realizations I’ve heard are more about the non-physical than the physical, things on a deeper level than achieving an arm balance or handstand. I sit back and say to myself (or sometimes out loud), yes, they get it, someone has been paying attention!
I’ve always said that yoga is about life so what better teaching than a pile of dog doo-doo in the middle of a bike path.
A few weeks ago I had told my students that at Will Kabat-Zinn’s retreat he had talked about how one little thought can create our reality in a second. For example, we’re walking down the street and we pass someone, we assign the word “creepy”, and our mind instantly creates an entire story about that person, we create an entire world around that person. Will said, “you never know what someone else’s story is.” In other words, just as the Buddha taught, be on the lookout as to how your thoughts create your reality.
Then on Saturday morning during the yin part of our practice I read excerpts from Sarah Powers’ chapter in Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga & Buddhism.
Sarah wrote about how embroiled she became in her emotions as she laid in bed bathed in sweat from the heat. She said she became “utterly intolerant of my experience and before I knew it, I was defiantly standing, almost expecting I would encounter an enemy lurking.” Sarah said that as she simply watched her intense emotions she became aware of how her angst effortlessly slipped away and how she began to feel calm and present. She was astonished at how a strong emotion can decompose as she mindfully turned her attention inward to her direct experience in the moment. Her next moment was no less fiery, but her inner attitude had shifted. Her experience of the sweltering heat had changed simply because her attention had shifted from resistance to mindful observation.
As my students were in sphinx post one of them told the story of how she was walking her favorite path and she experienced what Sarah experienced: the shift from rage to mindful observation of her fiery emotions:
“On my first lap I just missed stepping in some dog poop in the middle of the paved walking path that circled my neighborhood park. I was enraged that someone would let their dog defecate on the walkway without cleaning it up and assumed it came from the large dog being walked by a woman I had just passed going in the opposite direction a few minutes earlier. I spent the rest of my first lap feeling irritated and blaming this woman for not cleaning up after her dog.
When I got to that same spot during my second lap, I still felt irritated and decided dogs should not be allowed in the park.
On my third lap I began to wonder whether or not the poop had perhaps been there for several hours, which would then exonerate the dog currently in the park as well as his owner. My irritation began to dissipate.
On the fourth lap I realized I had no way of knowing if it was this woman’s dog that had made the mess, so I really couldn’t blame her. I didn’t think anymore about it as I finished the lap.
On the fifth lap, I reminded myself there was poop on the walk but it no longer upset me. An oncoming jogger and I smiled at each other was we both sidestepped the mess.”
After my student told her story I clapped and thanked her for sharing this marvelous teaching. “You get it!,” I told her, “You’ve no idea how this does my heart good, thank you for listening all these years!” I asked if she felt these emotions in her body — Buddha’s First Foundation of Mindfulness. Yes, she said. I told her that ultimately on the fifth lap she experienced Buddha’s Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, mindfulness of the dharma, i.e., the nature of reality which is impermanence — all things change. Her feelings of rage at the dog poop in the middle of the bike path during the first lap had changed to feelings of neutrality by the fifth lap. My student’s thoughts on first seeing the dog poop and then a woman and her dog had created her reality and her own suffering. If we are paying attention we notice how all things are temporary. That’s awakening, and it comes slowly but surely.
I said, “See how our thoughts create our reality? You created your own suffering all because of a pile in the middle of the path.” I asked whether she would have noticed these subtle shifts of consciousness if this had happened before she started a yoga and mindfulness practice. Her answer was no.
Yoga is Life. All things are a training. Even a hot steaming mess in the middle of your Path.