Zen and the Art of Being a Bridge

Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life. -Omar Khayyam

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When I was in middle school, my cross country coach took each of the team members aside one afternoon and gave us individualized advice in preparation for the upcoming weekend meet. “Priya,” he said to me, “You are the bridge. You’re not back with the slow pack, but you’re not up there with the faster runners either. I want you to push yourself and catch up with them. Keep pushing, even if you can’t catch up.” I hadn’t known it before he said it to me, but I really, really liked being the bridge. Unfortunately, I wasn’t serious enough to take his advice, because I remember eating almost a whole bag of pretzels before the meet with my friend and staying in my usual comfortable spot, running mostly alone, my stomach roiling up and down hills. I was way more interested in the moment to moment aspect of the journey than in my result. Or maybe I was just a naive middle schooler.

When I am in places of infinite perspective, I am infinitely comfortable with myself. Hiking in the depths of the mountains and walking through the underbellies of their canyons, I find peace beyond measure. I never feel lonely on the trails. In the beginning of his book Eat and Run, Scott Jurek includes a quote that goes something like this: Deep within ourselves, we contain powers to accomplish far more than we thought possible, abilities that we may never know exist because we do not push through the suffering. I am very secure in that reserve of mental strength, and in that way being a bridge is useful. It allows me to do things like completing the NYC Marathon, which I did not fully train for, because I understand that doing a marathon on little training lies well within the realm of my mental willpower (and anyone’s, for that matter). There is more potential in the indomitable human spirit than we realize (this can be a bad thing, too…many people would rather die than be humbled sometimes). I am encouraged in my endeavors because I believe in everyone, not only in myself.

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I am a bridge between divorced continents and patchwork histories. Being in your early twenties and moving away from where you’ve grown up is, I imagine, something like diaspora. Is partially the reason that when I finish a Jhumpa Lahiri book I have to pick up something “lighter” for a while (think Sophie Kinsella). Because the idea of traversing oceans in order to start a new life sits tucked away in a box in the back of my head while I am wandering around new cities scuffing footprints into the earth. Silhouetted against buzzing lights I think this is what immigration must have felt like. As a bridge I’ve been able to grow like a mangrove, send out my tendril roots in water and adapt.

But one thing that I have not found with this state of mind is the ability to address my shallow and deep insecurities, or the ability to tap into humility. It’s a great way to ignore them, staying with a confident status quo. That’s where yoga and meditation come in for me. I have been practicing Ashtanga yoga consistently (meaning 5-6 days per week) for about 1 1/2 months now and have been learning the primary series through Mysore classes. I was raised with a rich understanding of Hindu traditions and Vedanta philosophy, but I did not fully embrace consistent yoga asana practice, or begin studying in a particular tradition (Ashtanga) until very recently.

When I first began learning the primary series, I felt as though my body was a piece of technology that I didn’t know how to control (how those from older generations must feel every time another iPad or iPhone or iWatch comes out), the epitome of unfamiliar. Here was a piece of equipment that I nourished, clothed, and rested every day, an equipment of self-expression, and yet moving in space felt foreign to me. I have spoken to many others about how, especially throughout high school and college, I finally found the means to reclaim my body through spoken word poetry. To stand tall in the face of Western ideals of beauty and sexualized distortions of Indian culture, which overwhelmingly predominated in the yoga world that I was experiencing at the time. In my senior year of college, I wrote this final paper for a seminar entitled “Philosophy and Practice of Yoga” – it was recently published in Elephant Journal and you can read it here, or below as a blog post: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/10/cultivating-a-more-feminist-yoga-practice/

After writing this paper, I decided to take my own advice and become an active advocate for inclusive yoga spaces. I was recently named a Yoga and Body Image Coalition Community Partner (www.ybicoalition.com). Going through the same sequence of poses several times a week, I am learning to live more fully in my body. In traditional Mysore classes, each student practices at their own pace, and the teacher offers adjustments and new poses when the student is ready. Up until now, it has been difficult for me to gauge my limits, but now, moving fluidly through the poses that I do know, with the benefit of muscle memory, I have established a “baseline.” I appreciate Ashtanga’s tradition of self-inquiry, since it has helped me gain a somatic awareness. Through this awareness I am able to assess why I act a certain way in a certain situation. I am able to respond rather than react. I am able to listen more carefully, and for the sake of listening rather than responding.

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The best part is that I enjoy my bridge experiences more fully. I am able to experience profound emotions without having to identify with those emotions (or at least this is what I am working towards). I am able to celebrate successes and lament failures but with less residual impact, if that makes sense. I feel that when I practice, I am able to move through the world more freely and responsibly at the same time. Yoga helped me work through the death of my dog recently, an especially tough experience because I couldn’t physically say goodbye to him. I was able to see the circumstances for what they were and look back on the fullness of his life with us while acknowledging the emptiness his death left in my family. And more importantly, I was able to understand that feeling these things was OK and transient. Since I’m on the topic of Buddy, I want to give credit for him to being one of my first yoga supporters. We hung out almost every day during the summer and he was always close by while I was practicing. When he was feeling especially excited, he would even lie on my mat so that I would be encouraged to finish whatever pose I was doing and do the important thing, which was pet him.photo 1Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it is so rare in this day and age for people to just sit with themselves and observe their emotions. What are we so afraid of? Every time I am in the car, I scramble to turn on some music, anything to get rid of the silence. I began attending Zen sittings a few weeks ago as well, and our sitting leader talked about self-love, best described as “compassionate awareness.” This awareness helps us express ourselves most beneficially for the good of other people. Just as in Mysore a pose may not be performed “perfectly” on a certain day, that pose invites the doer to observe the physicality of their existence, and how though the nature of their physicality may fluctuate, the fundamental unchanging nature of their existence does not. During the two 20 minute sitting periods of zazen meditation, I often find myself thinking about my feet falling asleep and focusing on what I should cook for dinner. But instead of berating myself, I let the thoughts arrive, coming to that fabric of total compassion that underlies all chatter of the monkey mind.

According to Kino MacGregor, Guruji/Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (https://kpjayi.org/biographies/k-pattabhi-jois/) used to say “pain good” to students. I sincerely doubt that he meant students should actively pursue pain, but I do think that there is something to be said for sitting with discomfort. Regaining that somatic awareness and coupling it with my practiced reserve of mental strength, I next hope to devote more intention to my practice daily. This could be as simple as moving through the Sun salutations at a brisk pace or maintaining form in chaturanga, a pose I struggle with daily. Or even not looking around the room at the impossibly complicated poses that other practitioners are doing. After all, ashtanga’s tristana (threefold) method gives equal importance to prana (breath), asana (posture), and drishti (gazing point). The more attention I devote to all three, the more I come to experience my practice as an unbroken flow.

In the Ashtanga tradition, as in the Zen tradition (from what I understand), any merits of one’s practice are dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings. I was lucky enough recently to receive a yearlong scholarship for a year of unlimited yoga study from amazing nonprofit organization Yogi’s Heart. One of Yogi’s Heart’s hallmark sayings is “hard core, soft heart,” which I feel sums up so much of what I have written about in this post. By rooting ourselves in yogic philosophy and practice, we can contribute more positive energy to the well-being of our inner circles, our broader communities, and the whole world.

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