Change As A Privilege

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
– Alan Watts

icyclesI was on retreat in upstate New York this April, right when the pollen started to fall from the trees in Brooklyn.  Upstate, nothing had yet to bud at the tips of the branches. Winter takes longer to let go there – creating an additional season which feels like “Winter Letting Go Into Spring”. And for the four days I was there – things constantly changed. Pictures of the lake I took on the first day were impossible the next as it has risen a foot. Icicles that had clung to branches over the stream had melted when I woke up. The stream itself was much fuller than I see it at other times.

I might have thought the lake on the first day with less water, unblemished by the debris of the melting shoreline, was best. Or I might have liked it better with icicles raining down to the earth, or when they were still crisp and frozen. But it was all just change, and it wasn’t good or bad. It was just beautiful awesome change.

How can we be with our own changes in such a way?

Because we have this impetus, or maybe it’s just me, that change must be evolving, or at the very least for a purpose.  And if it’s not, then it’s feels like “what’s the point?”.  And I think we carry this through as a consolation in yoga – we see how everything is changing, and we think of it as evolving, or at the very least having a purpose. Generally it is, it does. But to regard change as just beautiful in its own right, without deciding about it, is a powerful practice.

How can we be with our own changes outside that need for evolution and purpose?

embersIf we feel absent of change – to know that the fire needs excellent embers in order not to extinguish easily – even if left untended for a time.

If we lean towards good or bad identification with change – can we let that go and rejoice in the change itself – the ability we have to change – the honor of it.

Doing so keeps things from being rote – you have to pay attention because at any time you can fall down or balance  in handstand.  Change allows for us to study, investigate, and work on ourselves. It keeps our beginners mind available to us, and keeps life from becoming rote.  Think how boring asana would be if there was never any change.

If change didn’t throw us into actively investigating our habits and cultivating curiosity – that would truly be an “otherwise what’s the point?”

In his On Being interview with Krista Tippett, Richard Feldman spoke of change as a privilege. Which is a perspective we could all work towards sharing.

“And Detroit is really not only the epicenter of the crisis and the pain, but also, as we’ll talk later on, the epicenter of a tremendous amount of hope and rejuvenation taking place.”  In speaking about Detroit, he speaks about so many corners of our lives. In those corners can we step back from the pain, step back from the rejuvenation, and just witness the change – the privilege of change?



Niyamas – the practices following the Yamas in the Ashtanga yoga system are often considered the internal practices.  In many ways, the yamas and niyamas interwine and augment each other, both encouraging work within and beyond the body mind of the practitioner.

The first Niyama is Saucha, which usually translates to Cleanliness.  clean

Unlike what generally springs to mind when we think of clean – spring clean, showers, laundry, dishes, etc – saucha in yoga practice refers to a cleansing approach targeted to various levels of the human experience.  Yogis back in the day created a whole series of bodily cleansing practicing collectively known as shatkarma kriyas (6 cleansing practices).  Some of which are reasonable additions to a modern day yogi’s home practice, some are not.  Adopting any of these kriyas should be done under the guidance of a seasoned teacher who themselves practices said kriya.

On a more everyday level, saucha does include personal hygiene. Most of us have the showering and housecleaning thing down. But the act of cleaning itself is performed by all humans.  Maybe we don’t specifically do the laundry, or the dishes, or the floors, but everyone cleans. Even if it’s just picking up after ourselves and bathing.  Practicing saucha on one level, would mean bringing more awareness into these acts – how do you clean your yoga mat? Your body? How do you approach spills or cleaning lettuce? How often would you be described as unconscious, ambivalent, or entirely somewhere else when performing these actions? There’s a Buddhist expression that to be fully present, you should do something with two hands. Not that you need to physically adopt that, but to be aware of where both your hands are, and what they’re doing, is one way to bring more awareness into cleaning. Another is to cultivate a thankful mindset while cleaning your yoga mat, or a loving one when cleaning the dishes of someone who just cooked you dinner, or chant a mantra while folding the laundry.

weedingOn another level, the idea of dirt and cleaning carries with it the idea of impermanence.  The analogy that I enjoy most is that of gardening and weeding.  No matter how thorough a gardener you may be, both in terms of your weeding skills and in what you choose to water and give sun, and what you do not, weeds will grow.  They will grow in creative and unexpected ways.  They will literally shift the ground beneath you, and challenge the way you react to them time and time again.

A large part of us does not like impermanence,  it prefers to believe things are or can be stable, secure, and unchanging. To the extent we identify with that we have frustration, anxiety, sadness, anger, and confusion when change occurs –or in this analogy, when another weed sprouts up.

Shifting our perspective to seeing things as they actually are (vidya), is a very high level function of saucha. To the extent we choose to identify with the understanding of impermanence, we have clarity, focus, and lightness in the face of change.

A pitfall, particular to the yogi, of identifying with the preference for stability is the idea that it is possible to achieve a final, lasting meditative state.  This has happened, to a handful of individuals in the history of humanity.  For most of us, we garden. Regular yoga (in all its forms) practice is required.

But don’t make it a chore, get the snazziest gardening gloves around, get cushy knee pads, make it a gardening party once in awhile and invite friends over. Embrace the entirety of the garden, even the weeds, even as you discard them.

Rejoice that you’ve found gardening after all this time! Something you enjoy doing, brings you peace of mind, and cultivates a clearer perspective!

nothing is permanent

My favorite impermanence exercise, when I feel like I’m getting a bit too attached to identifying with the permanent side, is to go outside and try to point to something that never changes. You quickly realize you can’t, but instead of letting that get you down, start to play with it. Imagine all the ways it will change, switch perspectives.  And there is a beauty and lightness that arrives.  And it’s good to practice that, so that when change comes to you that initially doesn’t look so beautiful or light, you can trust that, in time, it will.

For further investigation review Yoga Sutras I.30-I.39 – which list obstacles to yoga, and practices to overcome them.  Traditional commentators believe that these obstacles are the main weeds saucha should address.