Sunday, April 20, 2014

Narrow Places

This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover, when Jews celebrate the liberation of the Israelites, led by Moses, from slavery in Egypt.  The root of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means to bind or tie up, or to be restricted. As a noun or adjective, it means distress, narrow or tight.  So from this we understand that mitzrayim is a narrow, constricted place, and this is not only a physical condition, but a spiritual one as well.  The Israelites in the story had forgotten who they were, they had forgotten their connection to their Source, and as a result had allowed themselves to be enslaved for hundreds of years.

I do not want to insinuate that slavery is a choice.  The mere fact that I am able to sit and write these words and publish them as I wish is indicative of the fact that I was blessed enough to be born into a life of freedom and I do not take that blessing for granted.  However, all of us have felt bound up and constricted from time to time.  We all have narrow places in our lives.  From a Tantric point of view, our humanness is not a constricted state that we need to transcend to find liberation, but an inherent state of unlimited freedom.  No matter how constricted we might feel, physically or otherwise, our true nature is unfettered and unbound by any aspect of our human experience – the essence of who we are is infinite freedom. But, like the Israelites in mitzrayim, we forget. 

On our yoga mat we are invited to expand into the narrow places in our bodies.  Even as I have that thought, my mind goes immediately to the places in my body that feel restricted – maybe yours did too.  But here’s the thing, we can know those narrow places without becoming enslaved to them.  The mental torment we layer on top of our physical limitations are what bind us up – our wanting of things to be different than they actually are.  As Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”

And the mind really is the vehicle of our spiritual contraction.  What are the thoughts and experiences that keep you from the full experience of your innate freedom?  What are the constricted, narrow–minded places in your life right now?  Just so you’re not feeling shy, I’ll share some of mine:

The image I have of, as a yoga teacher, what my body is supposed to look like

The standard I have of what success means

The ideas I have of what proper parenting is

…those are some big ones, but there are more of course. I find that many of mine come from outside influence and this is an aspect of mental slavery - allowing outer voices to dictate what is “right” and “wrong”.

One of the most striking parts of the Passover story to me is that when the slaves are finally told that they are free to go, they say no.  They don’t want to leave the only place they have ever called home.  At face value this seems crazy of course, but how often do we choose to stay in patterns that restrict us simply because it’s easier, or it is what we’ve always known or done?  Our narrow places are familiar and change is hard. We have to be ready to step into our freedom.  We have to choose to hear the voices that move us towards liberation, rather than the ones that keep us bound up and tied down to patterns that don’t serve us, or those around us, anymore.  

Although this story happened thousands of years ago, it is said that the Jewish people are still in a state of leaving mitzrayim.   It’s almost a relief for me to read those words every year, because in spite of all the practice, the study, the reading, the asana, pranayama and meditation, I am still unfortunately very aware of my narrow places, and most days they are of the mental or spiritual variety.  This is a holiday of remembering – we tell this same story year after year after year to remind us that our essence is freedom, but that it is a choice to align ourselves with it.  We need to choose to face our narrow places and soften our thoughts about them.  When there is a narrowing, like the constriction of the throat when we practice Ujayyi pranayama, the energy that passes through it becomes concentrated and so much more powerful.  So let your narrow places give you something to push out against, to expand into with the fullness of your inherent freedom.

Off the mat:

Become aware of your narrow places.  What are the thoughts you have about yourself that keep you “enslaved”?  What are the thoughts or actions you have about others that keep them in a state of constriction?  
I read that it takes 21 days to change a habit. What practice can you commit to that shifts you from restricted mind to expanded mind for the next 3 weeks?  As you become aware of these patterns in your mind, create a mantra for yourself to help redirect where you are sending your energy.  If you need help, don't ever hesitate to reach out to me: - let me be the mirror that reflects your freedom back to you!

On the mat:

We practiced binding this week, poses that physically constrict us like Garudasana (Eagle pose), Baddha Parsvakonasana (Bound extended angle) and Svarga Dvijasana (Bird of Paradise).  In our yoga practice when we mindfully put our bodies into narrow places, we can work to expand our awareness to make more space inside.   We consciously create constriction so we can practice being in a limited place, and yet connecting to our breath and our inner Self to remember our limitless nature.  And when we can do this successfully on the mat, then when life binds us up we have the tools to remember what to do.