Living Expansively in Challenging TimesFeb 22, 2023
A few weeks ago, as I sat on my couch reading about the immense scale of the devastation in Turkey and Syria, at one point it almost became too much. My chest constricted and my jaw tightened. I sensed myself viscerally wanting to pull my attention away from looking at the photos and reading the accounts of the unfathomable loss and horrific tragedies unfolding there. It felt as if a dark, heavy cloud of sadness was sitting in my chest.
I didn’t want to turn away, though. I wanted to stay with the news and bear witness to the suffering unfolding for my fellow humans.
I turned to my breath. I imagined that with each inhalation I was becoming fully conscious of the pain and suffering I was reading about, and with each exhalation I was releasing it out through my heart.*
With my breath streaming through my body in this way, I felt my energy shift after only a few rounds. The heaviness in my chest dissipated and the dark cloud of sadness started to clear. I felt lighter, freer, almost expanded from inside.
As I continued to breathe in this way, I became more open and present to what I was reading and seeing. I felt compassion and tenderness arising from within, as if my awareness and presence itself formed a subtle bond of love and support with those who are suffering. (I also donated to the relief efforts.)
This, I thought, is how I wish to respond to the pain of the world. I want to stay conscious of the suffering I perceive, and be able to metabolize the weight and intensity of it so I can respond with compassion and empathy.
To me, this is an example of how our practices can help us to live expansively even in challenging times. As the subtitle for my upcoming course with Bill Mahony, I’ve been thinking about what this means and what makes it possible to find freedom in that which feels so difficult and, therefore, limiting. It’s an intriguing notion, one that at first might seem paradoxical and counterintuitive.
Yet, that’s precisely what the body, breath and awareness-based practices of yoga are designed for - to help us access a genuine inner freedom amidst the limitations and challenges in our lives and our world.
This means that we don’t deny, bypass, or ignore the difficulties. Instead, we apply the practices and understanding of yoga to reframe our experience and reorient our perspective so we can fully face them. This allows us to find a pathway forward that feels affirming and supportive. We do this not only to make ourselves feel better, but in order to show up benevolently for others and for the world.
*This practice, known as Breathing Through, is adapted from a traditional Buddhist meditation practice by Joanna Macy for the Work That Reconnects.