I was horrified when during a recent yoga retreat the yogi Kakuji Maharaj informed me that I would have to stop….eating meat? No. Stop drinking wine? No. Meditate 3 hours daily? Flirt with sleep deprivation? Fast till I fall? Flagellate myself with a cat-o-nine-tails? No. Worse. I was asked to stop RUNNING.
This may not seem like such a tragedy to the couch-potato types among us, risible to the Real yogis out there who spend most of their time in challenging zen like immobility. Surely it's like asking a rabbit to stop eating steak? not a particularly demanding nor daunting task? Well… to me it wasn't just daunting but bordered on the devastating. I was ashamedly proud of my amateur running achievements, having started last winter I had managed to do the 10k StraMilano much to my amazement and joy, and was diligently working my way up to for the half marathon when an obstacle in the shape of a white bearded indian stood in my path to (fake) gold (medals).
Ok - he did not threaten to hang, draw and quarter me had I declined, (I think that would be against his religion) it was a free choice. It was also a battle with my ego of immense proportions (size indicative of both the battle and my ego) but luckily the latter lost and I started slowing down. I was told that for three months I should avoid whipping my heart rate up into a frenzy and on the contrary, should keep it as low as I could, so no running for the bus, no lifting of heavy weights, no aerobic sports, cycling ok but at a gentle pace.
A few questions come to mind including and above all;
1. According to Patanjali "if breathing is to live, breathing well is to live well" - hence gaining a certain amount of control of your breathing pattern cannot be a bad thing.
2. According to Maharaj and yogic tradition each one of us is born with a set amount of breaths - get to your last one (which ever number that may be) and
the lights go out. You may reach your allotted number of breaths aged 60 or with a little training and control one may be able to draw them out till death at 107. Or so. Large vehicles on icy roads, unforgiving diseases and stubborn fish bones (to name but a few) permitting.
3. Going against the grain. By challenging your ego to do that which ones ego would really rather not (in my case stop running) disentanglement from this tyrant's bonds begins to occur. Who wears the trousers around here? Me or the ever changing tide of my desires and dislikes? The idea is not to get rid of ones ego but come face to face with it close up, if necessary through constant challenge. For to know ones ego is to glimpse the other side of the coin; oneself (and therefore ananda) - the two are intrinsically and closely linked. Yoga is all about knowing oneself.
4. Why should I allow a yogi/guru to impose his will instead of making this decision myself? Because the idea is to take ones ego out of the equation. If my ego has no choice she has no power. Maharaj taking the decision for me was putting my ego in the back seat - allowing me to see close up how much this hurt, and just how petulant she is. What's wrong with my ego making decisions? They are often not the right ones for a start. We tend to base our decisions not on what is right, rational, or wise, but on our whims - the mood we happen to be in at the time. In this way our mind is constantly being thrown around like a beach ball on a windy day - there's no balance, poise, reflection, observation and direction is haphazard. Just mental and then physical bulldozing forward as we act on our appetites and aversions.
The good news is that my three months at snails pace are finally up so I can start running again. What has the experience taught me apart from the huge size of my ego and the easy deterioration of the body "sans" sport?
Well…on a practical level:
- that going slowly is actually very medicinal. I found myself planning my day so that I didn't have to rush anywhere. Detaching myself from my computer screen a little more than five minutes before it's time to leave for a class/work. So arriving at the yoga center and the journey towards it, is/was a pleasure. The same for picking the children up from school. Arriving not in a frenzy and a coat of sweat is actually quite nice. And for them too.
- Using my spare time to walk in the mountains rather than run gave my "Me Time" a meditative feel.I was able to discern detail and really enjoy it, the colour of the sky, the movement of the clouds, the stones under my feet, the noise of the trees, and best of all the wonderful smells of the woods.
- Having ones heart rate at a relatively low pace makes breathing slower and calmer - therefore my response to difficulties (screaming kids, hurt cats, tortured lizards, unwashed dishes, lost keys etc)were in terms of actions rather than reactions (well…most of the time). On the domestic front (or at work) running around like a headless chicken is a dangerous recipe for multitasking and therefore disaster on the focus front.
- Taking it slow I found myself strangely being more organized (I thought I was genetically immune) and getting more done. I felt more clear headed and even my memory seemed to improve. Breathing slower ones attention is redirected towards the inside rather than the out (DHARANA - the basis of yoga; fixing the mind on the body center) and this is the only way one can learn more about oneself.
It's been a very interesting (if frustrating: I was holidaying in the mountains and seeing many a runner sprint along pollution-free roads skirted by mountains, filled me with yearning for my trainers) and I wish to extend the period of slowness. But interspersed with times when my running shoes are once more attached to my feet.
Try it at home; For 24 hours try to take things down a gear or two. As you find yourself speeding up breathe slowly. Notice how this makes you feel. Create more windows of time between one activity and another so you can afford yourself the luxury of going at a pleasurable pace. As someone once said - it's not that we don't have enough time, but that we waste so much of it.
Notice your state of mind after a day of going slow. Did you do more? Less?
Ego exercise; notice what your ego clings onto most - what would you really rather not give up? Forget smoking (too difficult to start with)and sex (unreasonable and unnecessary)and start with small things , Early morning coffee? Afternoon nap? snack mid morning? checking email before breakfast? Early morning run? What habit is your ego hanging on to? Contemplate doing without and notice what you feel.