Yoga and Sky Gazing
by Sarahjoy Marsh
“Mom, what would happen if I didn’t have any thoughts?”
When I was nine years old, I was standing in the kitchen with my mother harboring some perplexing questions about life. I’d been troubled by these questions and finally decided to ask her. “Mom, what would happen if I didn’t have any thoughts?” (The age old dialogue, unbeknownst to me, about No Mind, Empty Mind, Sky Mind.) As if that wasn’t enough for a 29 year old woman with three small children, I asked her “And where would I be if there was no planet Earth? What would I stand on?” At nine, I didn’t know about global warming or world wars or the destructibility of our planet. My mother, in all her wisdom, sent me out into the backyard to lay in the grass and look at the sky. She suggested I ponder these questions and see what happened.
As a 29 year old woman myself, I am still pondering those questions. I still enjoy laying in the grass watching the sky.
It was this pondering mind that brought me to my first yoga experience. Well, actually, it took me on a solo backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And there, plenty a sore muscle brought out the yoga in me. I was initiated into yoga by the wilderness, the space around me, and my desire to be as free, quiet, and uplifted as I felt atop those mountains. Atop a great mountain I had a wider sense of myself—not this personality so much, but of the vastness within a heart, the awesome potential, expansion and space; and yet a sense of deeply personal connection to all the small and large, seen and unseen things in the universe. My mind was put into perspective, and though my body was sore and tight, my heart was not. The practice of yoga on a mountain ridge eased my body into balance with what my mind and heart were experiencing. I felt alive, renewed, creative, joyful.
In the next several years I would seek refuge in yoga again and again—to bring my body, mind and heart into balance. There were times when it was my heart that was sore and tight, or my mind that needed the yoga more than my body. And there were times when an ache in one aspect of my being would create an aching somewhere in my body. As I have grown through this practice called yoga, “union,” or coming into balance, I notice that the biggest ache I have is a deep yearning to be free, to be unbound by thoughts, ideas, craving, attachment, etc. It is this craving for truth, freedom and simplicity that leads me on. Each time I get close to this body, this breath, this yoga, the world “within” me softens, softening the world around me. As Layman Pang says: “When the mind is at peace, the world too is at peace.” When the heart is open, the world too is open. When the mind is relaxed, the world too is relaxed. Then the deep yearning or craving is softened as some recognition —”I” am already free, unbound, vast and simple.
I still enjoy hiking to a mountaintop. I also like the daily trek inward through the many paths of yoga, tasting that freedom, that ease of beingness, that hopeful spaciousness that leads me on. When tension and suffering arise in forgetfulness, yoga is my remedy for remembering.
Back in 1991, I was working as a mental health counselor in a residential facility for adults diagnosed with mental illness. The daily exercise class leader was gone for the day, and I was asked to lead some exercises. It was our first in a series of yoga classes that would come together as a request from them. I suppose they craved freedom and refuge as much as I did. We practiced simple yoga stretches, breathing and guided meditations. They looked radiant after class. Seeing them get a taste of their own radiance was enough for me to be more committed to sharing yoga. I started to ponder the nature of mental illness and the state of the culture I saw around me.
If this small group of adults with mental illness responded to yoga, how would our cultural mania, depression, paranoia, delusions and violence benefit from a more yogic lifestyle? If yoga makes me feel more loving, generous, humble, grateful; if it balances the central nervous system and quiets the mind, imagine a world that felt more loving, generous, humble, grateful, reverent; imagine balancing the cultural nervous system and quieting the collective anxiety, fear and grief.
The journey begins with each one of us. My yoga practices reflect on and teach me about my daily life, and this pondering mind. When I practice yoga, I am asking myself—where can I surrender more deeply, where do I need more strength, more restfulness? Can I receive openly, can I participate more fully? Am I being aggressive, greedy, sloppy . . . or am I compassionate, accepting, wakeful?
I’ve been in many different kinds of yoga classes—sweating, twisting, breathing, lying over blankets, chanting, etc.—and what I continue to discover is that yoga is about coming home to myself, getting back to balance. Sometimes on the journey home I encounter my ego, my shame or arrogance, my sorrow or joy; and traveling deeper yet, I meet the stillness and spaciousness that has been keeping the light on while I travel through my distractions. I discover that while I may experience all these phenomena—laughter, love, anger, fear—I am not limited to these. My nine year old arises then; “who will I be if there is no Earth, no body, no ego; if I am not this unhappiness or happiness, what am I?” Can I learn to rest in spacious beingness? Can I lay down and look at the sky—and be the sky? As Rumi says “out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.”
I tell myself then, don’t make a move toward or away from this ego, this phenomena—gravitate toward truth and wholeness. Let this craving to be free guide and move me. Let it move me.
It’s been said in yoga that this body is an instrument being played by the wind, the breath, prana (life force). Can I exist as this stillness and movement, as this emerging song, in awe, gratitude, humility and surrender—letting this life unfold in the mystery?
In the practice of asana, of stretching in yoga poses, we seek balance—between strength and softness, between intention and acceptance, between embracing this body/heart/mind as unique and profound, and releasing into a larger sense of belonging in Oneness and Union. When this translates in my life, my mind is neither too strong nor too soft, my heart is balanced between longing and acceptance, and I find I am participating with the universe rather than against it. There is caring for this me, caring for the whole, expanding into wider and wider circles of beingness, yet being connected to a deep sense of inner stability and centeredness.
How might this expansive love and centeredness benefit my life, my community? How can this journey that begins with one, remind us all of the power of Oneness? Aligning with this Oneness is not a loss of self, but rather a release into an unbounded strength, wisdom and love.
Whether we can hold our feet behind our head or not, we can still hold our hearts with mercy and hold onto the truth in our beings to guide us in this unfolding mystery.
May all beings be held with mercy, live their truth, and come home to wisdom and love. Om Sat Nam.
Sarahjoy is an explorer on the path of yoga and other mystical traditions. She is passionate about yoga, community, poetry and the awakening of our collective consciousness. A teacher for several years, she has recently relocated to Portland, Oregon. She can be reached at 503-230-YOGA (230-9642) for class schedules, private yoga lessons or yoga therapy. She is leading a retreat Awakening into the Sacred, at Breitenbush Retreat Center, August 9-13.