Saturday, December 3, 2011

More indulgence in yoga/meditation workshops

Sarah Powers was in town this past weekend. A friend told me she really loved Sarah's yin yoga classes. I'm not a big fan of yin yoga, not because I'm all about getting a work out, but because I'm paranoid about yin practice making my hyperflexiblity worse (risking injury). I am always worried about going into a stretch pose without also having my muscles engaged to protect my ligaments from being stretched as well. Bones shrink as we age, but ligaments, once stretched, do not shorten again. In the back of my mind, I'm always wondering if I should be practicing Tai Chi rather than yoga.....

Anyways, at first I didn't think her style of teaching would suit me. However, after hearing a podcast on her website, I immediately changed my mind and decided I really wanted to meet her in person, even if only for a day. Her Buddhist teaching really spoke to me over the Internet. So I signed up for her workshop. My friend warned me that Powers speaks really slowly (ie. could put you to sleep). I actually found her pace just right. Compared to Michael Stone, she could pass as a speed talker (still slower than average people, but shorter pauses between her sentences :-)  I know you're supposed to follow one teacher, but I found the two teachers complement each other very well in helping me understand the core teachings of Vipassana philosophies. Both of them are long term meditation practitioners, so Powers also gives off this uber-serene/contented vibe, and looks straight into your eyes while giving a public talk. She mentioned that people are normally energetically on the defensive side, to protect themselves from possible (psychological) harm from others, especially strangers. Meditation works to open up that block, making long term practitioners more emotionally/energetically open to people.

Forgive me for being vain, but she must be at lest 45 years old, maybe 50 (she said she's been in the same relationship for about 30 years) but she looks maybe 32 years old. Whatever she's eating/smoking/practicing, I'll have some of the same please :)

One of the things she talked was how humans minds naturally react to the external world:
1. We receive an external stimulus: a sight, a smell, a sound, someone says something bad to us, we step on a nail, etc.
2. When the stimulus is detected, our minds very quickly evaluate it and put a label on it: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral
3. We generate a reaction for this stimulus. If it's pleasant, then we are attracted to it. If it's unpleasant, then we're repulsed by it. If it's neutral, it's non-threatening but also non-interesting. The tendency is to ignore it.
4. Actions arise as a result of our emotional reaction to it.

For certain stimuli that we've encountered before, these four steps become automatic. An action happens (eg. we blurt out something hurtful when someone close to us pushes our buttons) before we even have a chance to think about it.

Powers said (and this was the most illuminating point for me) that pleasant stimuli don't necessarily mean happy pretty rainbows and puppies. Depending on an individual's upbringing, perhaps one has been raised in a way such that openly expressing happiness is threatening, so one is repulsed by that. Being cynical and depressed may feel safer. Perhaps in someone else's childhood, being judgmental, prejudiced, and competitive had always been encouraged, so that's what he/she is drawn to. Repulsion, disgust, and/or fear occurs when he or she encounters compassion, openness, and love.

So Powers refers to yoga and spiritual studies kind of a "re-parenting" process, which I thought is very interesting. I can't help but wonder what I'd be like today if I had come across this kind of teachings/philosophies, say, 10 or 15 years ago?

Luckily it's still possible to change our habits and patterns of thinking/reaction even in adulthood. As we learn to meditate, beginner meditators can delay the fourth step, meaning that instead of automatically acting out, we can pause, examine our emotional responses to the stimulus, and perhaps make our action not so habitual. This alone is difficult enough and achieving it, even if only occasionally, will make great improvements to our lives. More advanced meditators can influence the third step, meaning they get to a point where they no longer automatically generate intense emotions for the external stimuli. I'm not completely sure about this point. I thought it would be an ultimate achievement to catch an emotion as it just begins to blossom?  I guess people naturally try to fake this by suppressing an emotion that comes up when we encounter something dramatic, but suppressing is not quite the same as not having that reaction/emotion at all in the first place. The repressed negative feelings are actually what form the granthis (knots) in the subtle body in the first place.

She actually taught a lot more, but the main point is that meditation helps our minds get more focused, wakes us up from our habitual thinking/acting patterns, and aids us in gaining broader perspectives to life. So now I can't wait to do a Vipassana retreat. I'm currently on a wait list. If I don't get in, I'll have to do this a lot later, but otherwise, I'm set to go on one at the beginning of 2012. I must be one of the very few beings in the world looking forward to sitting around doing nothing except trying not to think for 10 days :) Just wait until I start to majorly regret my decision 2 hours into the sitting meditation :)


  1. I love that she call it a "re-parenting" process!...thanks for the post Yyogini. It is so timely for me to be reminded of this as the family-holiday-time approaches. :)

  2. The teacher(s) appears when the student is ready. 10 or 15 years ago maybe you would have been focused on some other thing and might have missed the chance to connect...

  3. @Christine, it's a re-parenting process not just at the level of re-learning some moral issues, but she mentioned that good spiritual teachers foster a psychologically safe environment in class, to allow students to let the guards down, to recognize their idiosyncrasies they've developed as a result of their family upbringings and childhood social scenes. These mannerisms may have served us when we were dealing with overpowering family, school teachers, and/or school bullies, but they might not be doing us good any more in adulthood, when there are no more overpowering figures in our lives. I found this realization immensely useful.

    @Sereneflavor, you're sort of right. 10 or 15 years ago I assumed all adults knew what the heck they were doing. I was preoccupied with trying to get myself plugged into society - get myself employed and make a genuine contribution to society at fair pay, as I assumed that was the case with everyone else with a job.

  4. Thanks for this really insightful review. Using meditation to change our habits/emotional reactions etc is a challenge - heck, even meditating can be a challeng! I don't follow any particular meditation style or teacher and find that different techniques work differently with me on different days. I've yet to go on a solely meditation retreat - I always tend to do yoga+meditation ones, possibily because I feel I ought to be 'doing' physical things. Hope you get to go on that retreat!

  5. Hi Alyson, definitely not saying it's easy. I'm pretty sure 10 days of sitting and not moving will SUCK, especially when I'm not an early riser and meditation practice starts at 4am. But I'm the type who likes to do dramatic things to shake up my life. We'll see how it goes if I get to do this!

  6. Way cool! Some very valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and the rest of the site is really good.