Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Spring Cleaning

We are in the week leading up to Passover and Easter, and hopefully more spring-like weather, so to me this indicates a good time to think about spring cleaning.  In many Jewish households, this week (and usually the several leading up to it as well) is spent scouring the house for any and every crumb of bread.  We actually search for anything made from the 5 leavenable grains, anything capable of rising or “puffing up”. The Hebrew word for these grains and their products is chametz. The word chametz comes from l'chmotz, which means to sour or ferment (fermentation is the process by which bread rises). In the physical world, this means sweeping under every couch cushion, vacuuming in crevices between furniture we usually ignore, and scouring your oven until it shines like the day you got it in order to rid your entire home of any last morsel of anything even remotely resembling bread (which, when you live in a house with 3 young boys, means it could be literally anything!). 

In the world of the spirit, we can also do a spring cleaning. This is a perfect time to examine what we have left to sour in our own hearts, to notice what we have left to ferment. I recently had to opportunity to make my own fermented elixir and the process included putting lots of strong, spicy veggies into vinegar, sealing it all with an airtight lid, and hiding it away in a closet for a few months. It was pretty stinky when I reopened it.  This happens with thoughts and feelings we allow to fester as well - and the longer they sit in the dark un-examined, the more murky and foul they become.

What injustice, hurt, or angry feelings have been left to embitter your heart? One of my favorite reminders is the saying “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” This is the time to let go of the poison. It’s hard to let go of old patterns, forgive someone who has hurt us, or even forgive ourselves for a mistake or misstep. Jewish tradition holds that even after all the cleaning, on the night before Passover we ritually take a candle and a feather and search out every last crumb that might be hiding. To me this is emblematic of 2 things – the first is really taking a look into our own dark spaces, the nooks and crannies in our hearts we are usually too ashamed or afraid to look at, and bringing light to them. We can be a little softer with ourselves in the dark, and it makes the seeking somewhat less scary. The other part is the feather. Our old patterns and stories feel so real, so concrete, and often we can see no other way of being.  The thing is, most of the time they are just thoughts, ideas, or fabrications of our own human minds.  They aren’t reality, or at least all of reality, and they can be swept away with the brush of a feather if we are willing to let them go and see who we really are underneath the layers of everyday life. 

This spring cleaning of the heart is a particularly helpful practice to do before coming together with family where our old habits and behaviors have dug deep grooves in relationships. Ram Das famously said “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Doing a spiritual purge before engaging in intense family holiday time is important, not because it will make us a “better” or more “enlightened” people, but because when we look at our own sour places with compassion and self-love, we are that much more likely to look at others’ that way, and it opens up avenues of empathy and compassion and makes our interactions that much sweeter.

The way this has manifested for me this week (well, at least the one way I’m willing to share openly!) is with my leg. For the past few months I’ve been dealing with an old hamstring tear that I re-injured. Because of the injury, I’ve been in a lot of pain for what seems like a really long time. I’ve had to seriously modify my yoga practice and take some time off running and I am realizing this week as I seek out my soured places that I’ve been holding onto resentment and anger towards my leg for being the source of so much pain, and for not “allowing” me to do the things I love to do the way I love to do them, and towards myself for “stupidly” causing the injury in the first place. I recognize that I need to let go of my intense feelings about it, let go of my frustrations, and make space for the slow process of healing.  This is easy for me to acknowledge and write about, but each time I work on my PT routine, or try to jog a couple of miles and find myself hurting so much that I have to stop, or go to a yoga class where seemingly EVERYONE else in the room can do EVERYTHING it feels near impossible. I mean, I’m just trying to touch my toes for God’s sake, is that asking so much?! And yet I know this mindset is not conducive to healing, so my prayer right now is to forgive myself for hurting myself, to hold patient space for recovery and restoration, and to look at my injured leg with love and compassion. 

If you’re not feeling particularly sour towards anything in your life right now but are still interested in doing some spring cleaning of the heart, another way to do a Passover/spring cleanse is to look at all the ways you “puff yourself up”. On the physical level during Passover we forgo any food that has risen (puffed up by way of fermentation), but on the spiritual level we can look at all the thoughts and behaviors that make us feel self-important, self-righteous, entitled, or justified in thinking of anyone else as “less than”.  Notice in what situations the puffery of ego and pride rear their ugly heads in your spirit.  (Side note about ego: the Tantra doesn’t teach us that we should be free of the ego. Your ego is important, it is what makes you who you are! But we do want to have a healthy ego - to take up just the right amount of space, not too much and not too little.) 

The word Yoga means to yoke, or more simply said, union.  The goal of our practice should be to bring us into deeper connection with our loved ones, our community, nature, and ultimately the Divine. What sour, rotten story or pattern is clogging up your mind and heart and keeping you from seeing the beauty in each moment?  How are you puffing yourself up and disconnecting to those around you? As we throw the windows open to welcome the spring air into our stale and musty homes, throw open the windows of your heart, let the breeze enter and blow the crumbs and dust from the dark corners. Let the fresh air clear out the sour and festering sources of worry and despair and welcome the liberation that comes with letting go.

Off the mat: To really make change you need to be willing to let go of the old to make space for the new. Incorporate a pranayama practice into your day as often as you can which is focused on a longer exhale. Imagine with each breath out that you can let go of anything inside that needs letting go of. It’s helpful to notice where in your body you experience a tightening or grasping, and imagine that you are bringing softness, openness and light to those areas as you release your exhale and with it all that needs releasing from your mind or heart. We did Viloma B in my classes this week, using a 3-part strategy for completely emptying out every bit of stale air from our lungs. Kapalabhati works well too, or Bhastrika for seasoned practitioners.

On the mat: In my classes and in my own practice I focused on deep twisting.  Twists are self-regulating and detoxifying poses.  They squeeze and wring us out, helping to release toxins from all the internal organs. It can be as basic as a seated or supine spinal twist, or as challenging and complex as Eka Pada Koundinyasana I or Baddha Parivritta Parsvakonasana.

Baddha Parivritta Parsvakonasana
Eka Pada Koundinyasana I

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