On Equanimity and Yoga in Detention

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Fixed in yoga do thy work, O Arjuna, abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga.”

These are the words of the Teacher of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna, to his pupil, the warrior, Arjuna, (2.48, English version: Radhakrishnan).

B.K.S. Iyengar wrote in Light on Life: “The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.”  He distinguishes between action and movement as follows: “Action is movement with intelligence.” (page 28).

Why is there so much movement in the world? Because of restlessness. Because of the illusion that if we move things will improve and difficulties we experience will vanish. When we feel uncomfortable or irritable we tend to move. It could be a physical or mental movement: wanting that something else will happen, a refusal to accept reality just as it is. It happens in life and also in our practice. In postures which require long stays, like inversions, forward extensions and Shavasana, we sometimes experience discomfort or restlessness and feel an urge to move.

(It’s not that movement is not needed at all, often we need to move in order to make necessary adjustments or corrections. But, often the cause of the movement is restlessness and inability to stay stably in one pose.) In everyday life there is perpetual movement, but there are occasions in which the ability to move is denied, and then we have no choice but to be with ourselves and with our feelings.

Such an extreme experience I had earlier this month when I arrived in the United States in order to teach yoga workshops. Upon arriving in the airport, I learned my visa was not the correct one, and shortly after I was forced into detention for 15 long hours, until the next flight home (to Israel). Needless to say, I was in a bad mental state, which was characterized by feelings of terrible frustration, extreme disappointment, self-judgment, self-reproach, worry for my wife who was separated from me, rage, bitterness, and anxiety about what will happen next. My cellphone was confiscated from me, and my freedom to move was absolutely denied. Once I got into the detention room, I took out a yoga mat which is always in my suitcase, and started to practice. I did mostly forward bends to help me calm down and slow down my heart rate and breath. But after I attempted Sirsasana, one of the airport’s policemen decided it was too much and forbade me from continuing to practice, or from speaking with those who shared the same bench (and fate) with me. He didn’t even allow me to read a book. I was left to myself with all these difficult emotions for many long hours. What a startling experience…the speed in which you turn from a respected guest, a yoga teacher who was invited to teach workshops, into a detained offender is mind boggling and you feel a complete sense of helplessness and lack of control. What an incredible Yoga lesson!

In life there are pleasant times, periods of success, joy and satisfaction; but life also summons other kinds of situations for us, difficult ones, which we do not choose and we don’t even agree to be in. The thing is…no one really asks us…we are conditioned to want the pleasant, the joyful and the delightful, but reality is not like that. It summons us with more or less equal amounts of pleasure and pain, success and failure, profit and loss, praise and infamy. Every human being experiences these upheavals. These changes are inevitable; they are a part of the experience of being alive.

 

The Bhagavad Gita defines Yoga as equanimity and notes that the Yogi should receive all experiences with the same level of acceptance, and remain unaffected by these dualities.

The Buddha said that these opposing pairs (pleasure / pain, joy / sorrow, etc.’) are like the winds that come and go and the yogi is like a sturdy tree that stands calmly in all upheavals. “You must accept and inspect pleasant as well as unpleasant situations. You want only pleasant experiences and do not want to experience even a small dose of unpleasant ones. Is that fair? Is that the way of the Buddha?” Is it indeed?

 

As I was sitting there in the detention, I remembered all these inspiring words of Krishna and the Buddha and tried to calm down, counting my breaths, observing my emotional turmoil, wondering about the deep meaning of equanimity and suffering. Why do I suffer? What went wrong? I couldn’t really calm down but I kept observing and inspecting myself. What is the source of my suffering? A teacher once told me that if you suffer there must be some clinging and attachment. Let go of the clinging, and the suffering will be gone. What am I clinging to? Why can’t I be poise and tranquil?

 

And then for some moments of grace I can look upon the whole situation from a bit of a distance. I realize that this has just happened. It happened not because of something wrong that I did, but because this is just the nature of reality, it tends to surprise us. Unexpected things can happen all the time. There is no point fighting it or blaming myself. It is what it is and that’s it. Life is very fragile and nothing lasts forever.

 

And indeed, we cannot change reality, we cannot change the constant flux of changes, but we can change the way we react to change.

We cannot declare that we are in a state of equanimity and pretend we are indifferent. This is not real equanimity. If we are upset, no show we put on will suffice. Real equanimity is a state of emotional balance, what Yoga refers to as Neutrality. To be in the midst of all things and keep a peaceful, balanced mind.

For evenness of mind is called yoga”  … in order to get there we need to create the inner space, the ability to contain, and this can be done only via practice with observation.

Yoga practice includes little movement and a great deal of intelligent action, conscious action. We stay in a posture and while we stay we have the opportunity to observe. When we observe ourselves and are mindful to our reactions, emotions and thoughts that arise, things become clearer. Movement does not allow for deep observation, as it creates a veil of distraction. But in staying, we learn to keep the grip necessary to maintain the pose and to confront discomfort. Such a practice expands our container, creates wider space inside. We can better understand our tendency to cling to pleasure and avoid pain. We can get some insight into the nature of impermanence.

 

When you pour a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water, the water in the glass turns salty, but if you pour a teaspoon of salt into a large lake, the saltiness of the lake will remain unaffected. We should be like a lake. Our practice should allow us to face extreme situations without getting totally out of balance. It’s not that we don’t care – we can’t be indifferent – but how much we care? Do we lose our balance in every passing wind? Can we remember that everything, even the hard moments are bound to change? Can we see that out of the frustration and the loss, some good things may sprout? Can we face situations that we did not choose or want, and know that we can endure and can still behave wisely and skillfully (“yoga is skill in action”, Bhagavad Gita, 2.50).

 

So instead of conducting workshops in the States, I got another deep lesson in yoga…

I didn’t succeed to remain calm, but… success and failure are just like winds that come and go… and the yogi stays calm in the midst of all that…

 

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now

From win and lose, and still somehow

It’s life’s illusions I recall

I really don’t know life at all”

Joni Mitchel, Both sides now

 

2 replies
  1. Cheong
    Cheong says:

    Lovely blog entry Mr Shifroni. Your words are both inspiring and a recognition that we all are human, on this incredible journey, and a reminder that there’s great teachings in sacred texts like the Bhagavad Gita. May your travels take you both overseas and at home to continue spreading the practice of steadiness and equanimity.

    Reply
  2. Ajay
    Ajay says:

    This is a very good blog entry and I enjoyed reading it.

    Equanimity of mind is yoga, and equanimity supports awareness, which otherwise is vacillating consciousness.

    It is cravings and aversions that upset equanimity and awareness. And every experience of suffering becomes an austerity to develop equanimity and awareness.

    Reply

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