Taking Refuge by SarahJoy Marsh
I am sweating, breathing hard. My body feels heavy from the load I carry. I try to focus, but my mind wanders. I compare my-self to others. I think about the ways in which I fail myself (I'm out of shape; I'm in over my head!). Each step is heavier than the one before. It's all so difficult, yet delicious! I feel a mix of fear and awe. Will I make it? The next moment, I am exhilarated, struck by the expanse around and within me. I breathe in. I lift my eyes, as if for the first time, as the sweat on my face turns to a shine, reflecting the place where my inner efforts meet the outer invitation to simply stop: mentally, physically, spiritually.
This is either my first backpacking trip or my first yoga class. The common ground of these first experiences, beyond breathing and sweating, is me, and my relationship to life. I am clearly reflected in both: how I compare myself to others, the striving, getting in over my head led by enthusiasm and a desire to go beyond myself, and finally dropping into the original awe that led me to the experience in the first place.
When we are mindful, any endeavor can reflect us clearly back to ourselves. Such reflection, in turn, guides us to an even greater truth. It is this "reflecting pond" that is at the heart of my yoga practice. Yoga practice offers itself unconditionally to us, whether we're on the mat or off the mat, no matter what condition (or conditioning) we arrive in (or with), no matter how crazy the activities of the mind, nor sublime the poetic vaults of the heart. Like any great reflecting pond, yoga simply mirrors us back to ourselves. What gets reflected back to us depends, of course, on what we are looking for. For example, when "seeing" your reflection in a yoga pose you might first notice how stiff you are, or perhaps how strong those (stubborn?) hamstrings are! You might observe how busy the mind is with its endless chatter about nothing special. Later, you might observe your practice sneaking into the mainstream of your life. You could find yourself standing in "mountain pose" while waiting in line at the bank, with your uplifted heart and grounded legs. Better yet, you might find the courage to step out of yourself and make eye contact with the stranger in line next to you. Whatever the reflections are, yoga ultimately encourages us to be aware of how we respond to them—disappointment, judgement, engagement, disinterest... If you practice yoga long enough, no doubt you'll have an abundance of reflections, a full tapestry of the heart and mind!
Habits of mind and body run deep. Consider comparison (wasn't I more flexible yesterday? my handstand is better than his), overstacking the list of things to do (how many poses can I do in five minutes?), pushing on instead of enjoying the view (just one more pose and then I'll take a deep breath; just one more switchback and then I'll rest), self-criticism (why can't I concentrate?), and settling for less than our authentic expression (I'll just hold back in downward dog pose this time; I'll push to the top of the mountain because I have to prove something . . .). Though these habits be plenty & mighty, it's important to see them for what they are!
When I come to see that all these thoughts are just habits of my mind, the yoga reflections leap from the small and mundane to the sacred. Once I realize how endless the reflections of "me" can be (a form of narcissism, really), and how tenacious the habits, my interest in unraveling them all falls away. I start to gaze at the wider reflection in the pond—taking in the trees, the clouds, the changing light. It is a view that includes, but doesn't spotlight, ME. I fall into this wider view not to escape the small ones, but to enter into the mystery in which it is all occurring. My interest moves from the content to the context. I ask the crucial question: in what is all this arising and being reflected? Though I can not know with my mind, just turning to this question drops me into the current of grace!
Grace comes when I bow, when I release the habits of my mind and open to the flow of the mystery. The yoga mat (or the mountain trail) is a powerful canvas for reflections. And yet, underlying and infusing this is the simple and direct invitation to see the reflection of grace, to drop into the silence and quietude in every gesture, every breath, every heartbeat. When we abide in this expanse, whatever arises in the mind and body arises into a current of spaciousness, wisdom and forgiveness. And we begin, however slowly, to celebrate the expanse and to tenderly care for the reflections.
Sarahjoy Marsh is a founder of The Sanctuary, A Center for Yoga, Dharma and Healing Arts. She is dedicated to the heart's awakening through yoga and meditation. She can be reached at 503-552-9642 (552-YOGA).
cover art © Leo Wyman