Still Moving: The Way It Is
by Cyndi Lee
I don’t think I’m the only yogini these days who, in a race against the clock, finds herself dashing to do Downward Dog, power walking to get to pranayama, or collapsing onto the cushion for a session of meditative stillness. A typical day finds me rushing around downtown Manhattan meeting with faculty, sharing meals and exchanging ideas until 5:15 when I arrive at my yoga studio with a swoosh, like a baseball player sliding into home base, just in time to teach my meditation class.
At 5:30 pm on a recent Tuesday, I lead the group in a mindfulness meditation practice. I borrow my favorite opening instruction from Enkyo Pat O’Hara, Abbott of the Village Zendo in New York City: “Begin with that part of your mind you call your body.” So we organize our physical set-up with the traditional points of posture. Grounded sitting bones, palms resting on thighs, dropping earthward. From that rooting, the spine grows tall. The chin is slightly tucked, the mouth is soft, and the eyes are halfway open. Reaching up to heaven and down to earth, joining these two opposites, creates a felt sense of genuine connection. Ahhhh
If you’re anything like me, you are very interested in the experience of stillness. My urban apartment in the “city that never sleeps” happens to be above a bar that hosts mostly terrible, always loud rock bands; next door to a car mechanic who starts gunning engines at 7:00 am; and one block away from the famous Bowery Avenue, which used to be quiet and funky but now is hip, crowded, noisy, and funky. This neighborhood is all about activity, nearly 24/7.
But you don’t have to be a big-city dweller to have a congested or overstimulated lifestyle. Agitated by the unreliability of our economy, volatility of worldwide politics, and general sense of unease about the future of our planet, many of us feel an urge for a balancing corrective, a mental salve.
Meditation seems like a good way to go, and my classes have been growing this year, fueled in part by ubiquitous images of people sitting on beaches, cross-legged, eyes closed, wearing a Buddha-like smile. These ads inspire us to say, “I’ll have what he’s having.” We have an idea that stillness can best be experienced in a peaceful place, and if we can’t get to that beach resort, we can at least try finding a spacious environment like a yoga studio to bring us some serenity.
So it is quite a surprise for many new meditators to discover that once they sit down on their cushion, quietly align their body posture, and finally let out a deep breath, there happens to be a marching band inside their head! A chat room! A back-and-forth conversation between the laundry list of what needs to be done and a detailed journal entry of “what I should have said when ” All that mind movement was not apparent before class when the body was moving, too. But now that the body is perfectly still, it turns out that the mind has, well, a mind of its own.
Just like a yin-yang circle that represents all that is, the black comma with a dot of white swirling around the white apostrophe with a dot of black, stillness and movement dance together in a fluid relationship that informs everything and everybody, everywhere.
It’s only when we try to capture one of these essences, isolate it, freeze it, and hold on to it, that we miss our intended target—because stillness cannot exist without movement. Movement cannot exist without stillness. Stillness is the birth of movement, and when movement dies it gives life to stillness. This is how all things work.
As we sit together in meditation, I remember a quote from Thoreau, “ like the lake, my serenity is rippled but not ruffled.” That seems to be the perfect description of stillness, of a meditative equanimity that is alive yet stable. I label that memory by saying to myself, “thinking,” and return my attention to my breath. Again and again, I practice strengthening my mind muscle by observing the natural movement of thoughts, letting them go and coming back to the breath. I don’t try to stifle the movement of my mind but I don’t let it run wild either.
Ding! The bell rings 30 minutes later and it’s time to start my yoga class.
In OM yoga, the vinyasa style of yoga that I practice and teach, we move not fast, not slow, but at a medium pace that allows us to fully experience one thing evolving into the next. We practice paying close attention to transitional movements as the path to finding the still point within activity. Yoga is often translated as the union of oppositional forces, but it’s really about the relationship between things. Down creates up. Front only exists with back. Inhale must be followed by exhale. With every breath and every pose, we start to embody the understanding that yoga practice is really an exploration of how all our actions create results, whether it is how we vote politically, what we eat, or what happens to our breath when we lift up our arms.
We begin our class with Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Standing up, feet are together, with equal weight on the inside and outside, front and back of each foot. Leg bones connecting downward as leg muscles draw snugly up the bones, like pulling on tight leggings. Side ribs are lifting up to enhance breathing potential. Broad back. Broad chest. Soft jaw. The crown of the head reaches up in response to the grounding of your feet. Eyes are closed. Mind is open. Breathing is natural.
I observe my class. Thirty people are standing still. They are energetically alert and spacious, physically stable. Yet after a moment I notice how their bodies are slightly swaying, side to side, in small circles, forward and back. Once again, the stillness reveals movement, and somehow this movement makes me feel as if I’m looking at a field of wheat, long grass blowing in a soft, silent breeze. The yoga room takes on the vibe of open countryside, even though the crowds on Broadway, six floors below, are just as busy as ever.
Sure, it’s not that big of a deal to feel peaceful while standing in one place (although that doesn’t always happen when we are waiting in line at the post office), so let’s see what happens when we start to really get moving! The dance of our asana practice soon progresses into a Surya Namaskar series, the tempo picks up, and sweat starts to fly. As we reach up to the sun and then bow all the way down, we get interested in how things relate to each other. Is the seed of that upward stretch informing the letting go of the forward bend? Is there a remnant of Tadasana in the transition between Warrior 1 and Warrior 2? When does Downward Dog turn into Plank turn into Chadarunga?
Surrendering to this unfolding process, our minds become quiet as our actions become more vigorous. In fact, it’s the very movement itself that fosters the stillness within, because if we start thinking about other things when we’re doing Tree Pose or Headstand, we’ll tip right over! This is how vinyasa yoga provides a meditative template for being stable within vibrant, even challenging activity.
Just as it can seem ironic that in the stillness we discover how active our mind is, we know that the opposite often happens, too. It is not uncommon for people to report that when they were in a pressured situation, they had a feeling of time standing still. From within that clarity bubble they were able to make the exactly right decisions that saved lives, such as US Airways pilot Chelsey Sullenberger, who maintained complete control of his falling aircraft, spoke to his crew and passengers with confidence, and guided his plane to a safe landing in the middle of the Hudson River, all in a matter of minutes. It was reported that he was able to do this because he had a lot of practice.
My teacher, Gelek Rimpoche, told me consistency in practice is key. Drip, drip, drip. Like drops in a bucket, over time daily practice adds up, the bucket fills. Just like a backwoods still that only delivers one drop of moonshine at a time, through our practice we are distilling our essence, too. Letting go of restless energy but opening to natural movement. Letting go of holding on but allowing stillness to enter. Drip, drip, drip.
At the end of the yoga session, we sit quietly together, feeling the effects of our mindful asana practice. Once again I ring the bell, and we spend a few moments in meditation.
I think to myself, “After all these years, I’m still here, still on the mat and cushion.” Then, with a little Buddha-like smile, I remember my favorite quote from Satchel Paige, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.” I label that thinking, too, and come back to the breath, moving in and out.
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM Yoga and the author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind. Her frequent appearances in the media include The Early Show, Good Morning America, the New York Times, Newsweek, and Vogue, and she has been a columnist for Yoga Journal and Shambhala Sun for many years. www.omyoga.com
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Winter 2009–2010 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.