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Art of Attention: Meditation

Nothing could make me sit still for more than a few minutes, and on the few occasions I did, I felt fake every time, as though I was missing something.
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It took me 13 years of teaching asana, and over 17 years of practicing it, to finally take a seat for meditation. Until recently, if I managed to sit down to meditate, I felt the irresistible magnetism of the dishes, the inbox, laundry and the cabinet to reorganize. Nothing could make me sit still for more than a few minutes, and on the few occasions I did, I felt fake every time, as though I was missing something. Turns out I'd needed a manual to help me crack the code.

Anodea Judith's "Eastern Body, Western Mind" is shifting my relationship to, and my navigation of, meditation practice. Given practical details about each energy center (chakra) in the body (note: the word is pronounced with "ch" like "choice," rather than "sh" like "shall"), I've learned to be more specific and purposeful in the meditation seat. I'm learning to locate, in my actual physical body, the places where unresolved confusions have been stored, which activates a ready focus for my breathing when I sit -- in my own time, in my own words: the ultimate empowerment. Most importantly, I'm learning to generate more listening and respect for the closest people in my life -- the ones who'd become accustomed to getting the worst of me, while my students, teachers and friends got the best.

The succinct "takeaway": a level of consistency in my sitting, and therefore my behavior. Now I can be as astute a listener with my mom as I am with a new student detailing an injury. That wasn't always the case. I was misappropriating my compassion away from my family and only toward my students. This made for a hilarious paradox -- lovely, compassionate, generous teacher with her students versus the inattentive, angry, punishing girl with her family. And when my son was turning four last fall, I saw him trying to take it on. He became like a skycap at the airport, old enough to start helping me with my proverbial baggage, and that was so scary to see. He was impatient, mad, screaming "me." I knew I either had to handle that weight myself, or pay dearly for the service he'd try to provide for the rest of my life, taking on the problems of parents as we've all done.

So if you're reading this and you don't currently have a meditation practice, I'll finally get to the point, and offer you an example of one of the more universal coping mechanisms I've encountered in myself. Then you can get a feeling for how this might map out an aspect of you, and get you sitting down with yourself for meditation.

Place one hand on your belly, just below your navel, breathe right there, and read on. If it's hard for you to hold space for others when they're getting emotional, stay with me. If you have the compulsion to fix and serve others (teachers and parents to your parents, that's you), this will help you bring healing to the cycle of having long been depleted emotionally, and you don't need to blame anyone. In fact, you might find yourself thanking them for placing you in that situation so you could come to this profound healing for yourself.

This region holds your needs as a child -- a child who had viable needs but was unable to ask for what was most needed. So instead, you either tuned out or started helping to avoid the feeling of not having your own needs met. Older siblings in big families, households wherein someone was ill, or a parent left abruptly or parents fought incessantly, this is you, too. This region holds the sensations of having been rejected, whether consciously or subconsciously, while others' needs were addressed. It's interesting to look at this because we do have a choice: We can blame and dramatize the situation (been there, done that), or sensitively bring balance to that situation by softening our own interior reactions to it.

On behalf of your family members, who in all cases did their best with what they had, you are here to evolve that feeling, that circumstance, or that cycle of behavior, in honour of them. And as awful as it may have been, you really did pick the right life.

Keep your hand on your belly, and breathe deeply there. Let it extend and really open when you breathe in, and soften back toward your spine as you breathe out. While the chakra just below this one (pelvic floor, root chakra) is about grounding, stability and focus, this second one is all about how we flow, feel and yield. It's related to the element of water, which constitutes 80 percent of your body. When I'm teaching or speaking, I can take cues from anything, seen or unseen, and am completely in the flow - that's my comfort zone, my hiding place. But when it comes to being alone with myself, I've avoided my own healing (and my meditation practice) by placing my focus literally anywhere else.

Your second chakra holds your guilt and your shame. This region also holds your right to feel. If someone was consistently volatile (or exceedingly incommunicative), your entire family had to create ways to handle that subconscious emotional tyranny, and everyone was constantly directed away from their own wellness into impending crisis mode. So you were all waiting for the next outburst or problem, and the flow in your house, your belly and your heart was re-routed in that direction. And you're all still sort of exhausted from it. We needed healthy examples of how to address our own selves with huge love, and how to nourish ourselves with great care, and we have a chance to be that example now, for everyone around us. It's never too late.

Here's where meditation begins to make sense to me, at long last. After learning about the second chakra, the next time I sat down, for the first time ever, I was there for myself, in the same attentive way I'd been for my students. I put my hand on my belly, and sat with my body, by myself, feeling the block and breathing it open. Super simple, really. I'm just gathering information and breathing it open all the time now, whether I'm sitting or standing.

So now I'm listening, with this opening, which is healing me and my relationships with my family. I have a much broader, gentler view of how I can slow down my reactions, in real time. I'm no longer cursing so much in my classes because I've seen that my own healing vibration is pinched when I go down that road, which means my students' healing is being similarly stifled. Misused words give birth to tiny contractions in our bodies. As funny, or inviting, or even comfortably familiar as it can be to hear your yoga teacher curse, I don't want to perpetuate that tension in the context of class anymore. For now I want to explore what it's like to just deliver the teachings, sans drama.

And now, when I'm having a really difficult conversation, or trying to get my kid's shoes on, I'm breathing more space into my belly, and into everyone nearby. When I remember this with my son, I let him dance around in my boots for one extra moment (his favorite pastime) instead of rushing him into his own shoes and out the door. (By the way, the irony of his wanting to wear my shoes isn't lost on me.) Every time I bring the work back into my body, I restore a bit of balance to myself, to him and to our relationship, thereby clearing the path for him to do this intuitively for himself going forward.

Take time to sit, unravel what resonates with you, ask for help if you need it and give yourself the gift of your own attention. Rather than finding some way to gain control over my animal instincts or take cover from the dictatorship of my mind or my past, I'm specifically bringing attention to the vortices in my body that been have been closed or too open, and I can just be still when I sit. That stillness helps everyone near me. When I bring awareness to those junctions via my simplest breathing in meditation, instead of feeling lazy, fraudulent or disconnected, I'm experiencing a reverent healing.

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