One of the things I, along with my Colin Kirts and many others, are beginning to notice is that we, as humans living in civilization, are living in a way that is violating our own nature, creating excessive violence toward other humans and other life forms, and destroying ourselves and our home. What do we mean by violating? We violate ourselves by failing to comply with a truth about ourselves, denying our needs, failing to respect our boundaries, or acting as if we are separate and unrelated from all other forms of life. Violating ourselves has become so habitual that we no longer feel it--we are largely unaware that we are doing it. Another way to say this is that the way we live is not sustainable.
Myself and many others (and many who came before us) are engaged in a process of finding a new way to live and creating new cultures and paradigms. One of the crucial things that needs to happen for these new paradigms to work is for us to continuously engage in the process of unlearning. If we create new cultures without systematically investigating ourselves and our conditioning, we create a paradigm that may look quite different but has many of the same problems as this one.
What is the best tool I know for unlearning? Feldenkrais. Through Feldenkrais we learn to inhibit our habits. We learn to inhibit the compulsory excitation in the brain in a way that allows us to think and act in new ways rather than perpetuate our habits and conditioning. We see that we don't have to do things the way we've always done them. We start to be able to clearly see and question our underlying beliefs and assumptions. Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons give us a structure and framework to test reality, to experiment with our beliefs, and to find out what is objectively true for each of us as individuals (ontogenetic) and what is true for humans as a species (phylogenetic).
I've been struggling for a long time with understanding the distortion of yoga by our western culture, especially since I've begun teaching at a yoga studio and now begun my own Ashtanga practice.
One of the things I see most is people pushing themselves so hard that their yoga practice becomes a sort of masochistic pleasure. And then, of course, there are the other people who see this yoga culture and assume that they couldn't possibly do yoga--they're not fit enough, it's too hard, and they're horribly uncomfortable and exhausted when they try a class.
People tend to approach yoga in a goal-oriented way, because one of our cultural assumptions is that the only way to improve is through effort. Even if they understand the mindfulness aspect and focus on their breathing, they muscle their way through their practice using willpower.
What if you were to find genuine ease in your practice? Could yoga (and the rest of life) be about intentionally putting oneself into awkward, unfamiliar postures, and figuring out how to make that comfortable and enjoyable? When we're in difficult situations, how can we make those pleasurable?
I think a problem we have, though, is that we don't actually know what pleasure feels like. We spend so much of our time muscling through life--succeeding through sheer force of effort and willpower--that we don't trust that anything can come from awareness and attention alone. We act upon the assumption that we are not good enough as we are and that we must get somewhere else, be someone else, achieve a particular goal in order to be worthy of life.
What if we are good enough exactly how we are? What if we are exactly how and who we're "meant" to be? We improve organically by being aware, paying attention, and asking good questions--not because we have to improve or because we kill ourselves trying, but because we are wired for learning. Our nervous systems are wired to be constantly taking in new information, sorting through that, and adapting and improving based on that input. We only stop improving when we become complacent, stop asking questions, abandon our curiosity, and stop sensing and feeling ourselves.
We need to spend time cultivating this sense of ease though. We have learned to not sense or feel ourselves--it's an adaptation that we make to live in a world and in a way that's not congruent with our true selves. For example, when we're kids and we need to be outside playing but are made to sit at desks all day, we find that, from our powerless position, the solution to the problem is to stop feeling ourselves. But we're not powerless anymore--we're adults, and if we claim our power, we have the freedom to make our own choices. So we must begin to come back to ourselves and develop our sensitivity to we can know how we really feel, who we really are, and what we really need. And trust me, this is a lifetime of work in and of itself. There's a infinite amount of sensitivity to cultivate, and we have to keep coming back to it or we lose it. But this sensitivity--learning to sense and feel ourselves--is how we "restore each person to their human dignity" and begin to "live fully [our] unavowed dreams" (Moshe Feldenkrais).
So next time you're in a yoga pose--or an unfamiliar situation in life--can you sit with it, notice yourself, and ask good questions? Can you find a way to soften, to reduce the effort, and to genuinely enjoy it? Can you find ease and comfort and play? Because play, of course, is the real way we improve. Play and curiosity are how we're wired to learn. When something feels pleasurable and enjoyable, we want to come back to it, and it becomes effortless. When we make ourselves do something because we think we should, it takes a whole lot of effort, and we become stuck in an addictive cycle of self-denial and deprivation.
Also see "Illuminating Yoga" by Rebecca Roman, GCFP, ABM, E-RYT 500.
One thing I think many people misunderstand in Feldenkrais is the idea of doing the movements such that they're easy and comfortable. Our culture has a huge thing about pushing ourselves and never being good enough. If used in the right way, such as in environmental conditioning (e.g. Wim Hof Method), we can reach extraordinary human potential. But it's important to be clear what our intention is.
In Feldenkrais we do value becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable in the sense of becoming acquainted with the unfamiliar--finding places in ourselves we've never gone before. But our intention isn't conditioning, stretching, or exercise. Our intention is learning.
Rather than push through the pain, discomfort, dis-ease, and resistance, can we find away around it? Can we find a way to make things easier? Sure you could push through the resistance, but there's no improvement in that. How can we "make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant"? (Moshe Feldenkrais). Then when we come back to doing what it is we need to do, it becomes that much easier and we can do that much more.
It's important here, too, to make the distinction between what we do in the lesson and in real life. In lessons (and sometimes in life), the objective is learning, so we want to use as little effort as possible so we can sense ourselves and cultivate sensitivity (see Weber-Fechner law). We want to slow down and experiment with what we're doing and how we can improve the function. But if you're in a high-pressure situation and you have to do something now and it has to be done right, of course you're going to use effort! It might not be the most elegant, but it'll get done.
My best example of this is musicians performing. If you're on stage and you're nervous and there's no room for error, you're going to play exactly how you practiced. You're not going to experiment with that new fingering you just figured out, and you're not going to try a new interpretation you just thought of. But if in the practice room you spend your time experimenting, playing, and figuring out how to make things easier and use less effort, then when you get on stage, you're going to be that much more comfortable and have that much more freedom.
So in this way, we do want to become comfortable with the unfamiliar--to explore outside the narrow range of our habits and find new options. But pain or discomfort draws our attention away from the learning. Learning--the kind of neuroplastic change that results from having multiple options, experimenting, and sensing which one is more efficient and effective--happens best when we're curious and interested and when we feel safe.
So by all means, see what happens to you and how you react when you're really cold, hungry, tired, or in a position, situation, or configuration you've never been in before. That's a great place to learn. But be aware of what it is that you're doing. As Dr. Feldenkrais always said, "If you know what you're doing, you can do what you want."
Wim Hof: "How can we hone the skill of being comfortable with the uncomfortable and become more resilient?"
"Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure."
--Dean Karnazes (The UltramarathonMan and Author of ‘Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner’ in an interview with Outside Magazine