This is a stressful time and despite a menu of mindfulness practices that I have continued to work with, I continue to become more aware each day of the tax and toll on my body and mind. The search for balance during a time of unrest, unease and uncertainty may seem counterintuitive. I have definitely made the feeling of personal balance conditional on the resolution of the issues facing our world. However it has become clearer now that the health pandemic and economic crisis will take years, not months, to come to a new balance.
Let the search for unconditional balance begin.
Perhaps, only once we each find balance within ourselves, will we learn how to restore a new balance for each other and for the future of humanity.
I Feel Nervous
My reflections on balance begin at a physiological level. Both Western science and Eastern philosophies explain our nervous system to be our internal command centre of operations, corporate head office or central processing unit, to use a few analogies. Our central nervous system includes our brain and spinal cord. Our peripheral nervous system includes our motor functions and sensory organs. Within our motor functions, they are either voluntary or involuntary. Within our involuntary motor functions are two systems that you may have heard of: our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system, also referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ or stress response system, controls the body’s response to a threat. When activated, the body’s heart rate increases, cortisol (the stress hormone) is produced, adrenaline increases, muscles contract, pupils dilate and digestion slows. This is the feeling of stress and a state I have undoubtedly felt more dominant over the past several weeks. The stresses of modern life Before Coronavirus (B.C.) were bad for most. Now we have the added stresses of staying safe in a health pandemic and navigating the impacts of an economic crisis. These have all led to our sympathetic nervous system being activated far more than our body is used to. This dramatically increases the long-term health risks of non-Coronavirus illnesses for all of us and hinders our present moment experience. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response system and controls the body’s ability to rest. When activated, the body is calm, heart rate slows, muscles relax, pupils constrict, saliva and digestion increases. When reading late at night, on a quiet walk outside, sitting in meditation, moving my body in several yoga asanas or even while writing this reflection, I feel calm and relaxed. These activities can help activate my parasympathetic nervous system. The search for unconditional balance for me includes a search to learn how to activate my parasympathetic nervous system more often now.
Yoga has come to mean exercise for most and is seen alongside any other type of fitness. During my yoga teacher training last year, it was illuminating to discover the depth of yoga, through the study of yoga philosophy.
Yoga has less to do with the body and more to do with the mind. It is a practice to support the search for balance.
The physical postures we have come to associate with a yoga practice, also referred to as ‘asanas’, are really only a preparatory exercise so that one can sit in meditation uninterrupted for a longer period of time, to go deeper within. To practice yoga postures without a meditation practice is the equivalent of cutting, chopping and cooking a meal and choosing not to eat it. Western medicine largely sees every human body as the same. This one-size-fits-all is seen from nutrition to fitness. The underlying assumption is that we are all similar, and as such, our bodies need similar solutions to stay healthy. Similar illnesses and diseases are treated with similar treatments. A sister science of yoga is Ayurveda. Although I have only begun to scratch the surface here, the philosophy is one that I resonate with deeply. The science looks at each individual as unique, with a constitution of qualities that is unique to the individual. These qualities are called ‘doshas’, of which there are three: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. We each have our own unique mixture of these three qualities. We are born with a certain constitution, influenced by that of our parents. There is normally a dominant quality and supporting quality. Now contrary to my initial assumption, to be in balance in Ayurveda does not mean an equal constitution of these three qualities. This part I find fascinating as it challenges my bias into believing that balance means equality. Ayurveda tells us that to be in balance is to be aligned with our own original constitution. This celebrates our individuality and recognizes that we are all different, and as such, will need different treatments. I love this. Our society and my education had led me to think of balance as a scale, with equal weights on both sides. Yoga philosophy, and Ayurveda in particular, has introduced me to a different perspective of balance, one that I appreciate and need. The search for unconditional balance for me includes the discovery and recognition of my unique and original nature.
Another illuminating discovery for me in yoga philosophy is a framework to describe our subtle bodies, referred to as the ‘Koshas’. The Koshas are the layers that surround our true self. If you imagine your true self as a bright light bulb, then think of the Koshas as the lampshades that cover your aura. I’ll explain each of the layers briefly, including some of the symptoms of when there may be an imbalance and common practices to bring balance to each layer, from a yogic perspective. Layer 1: Physical Body This one is easy to understand, and includes all of our senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell). Symptoms of an imbalance here may include tiredness, physical pain, hunger or fatigue. Balance of this layer can be restored with nourishing food, restful sleep, active exercise and for me, more time away from screens. Layer 2: Energy Body The energetic life force inside and outside of our body is often experienced through the flow of breadth. Symptoms of an imbalance here may include feeling anxious, restless or negative. Balance of this layer can be restored with breathing exercises and intentional movement-based practices, of which yoga asanas and mindful walking are what I gravitate towards these days. Layer 3: Mental Body This is where we experience our thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies, desires and so forth. All of our beliefs are in our mental body. Symptoms of an imbalance here may include stress, excessive mind wandering, dullness or laziness in the mind, trouble sleeping or even panic attacks. Balance of this layer can be restored with meditation, chanting, prayer, reading and other spiritual practices. I continue to host daily live meditations each weekday, you are welcome to join our global connected community of friends. Layer 4: Wisdom Body This is where “knowing” and our experiences with art, creativity, dancing and intuition are found. This is not about thinking or intellectualized wisdom, but felt wisdom. Symptoms of an imbalance may include feeling lost or confused, creativity blocks or tenseness in the body. Balance of this layer can be restored with creative practices, including reflection and my favourite, journaling. Layer 5: Bliss Body This is the most difficult to understand, as it is extremely subtle, and requires balance in the above four layers to begin to experience. It is still not our true self but connected to it by a thread. In the path of yoga, it is a deep feeling of love, happiness and joy. It is not felt or understood intellectually but through our true inner self. It is the experience of oneness and connectedness. This a framework that recognizes that we are more than our physical body and helps me diagnose where an imbalance is happening. It is only once I am aware of which layer is in need of balance that I can give it the appropriate treatment. As each of the layers of my subtle body come into and stay in balance, my true self shines through more brightly and warmly. The search for unconditional balance for me starts with a more acute awareness of where imbalances may be occurring within myself.
This topic of balance has clearly been on my mind lately and came up in conversation with a friend the other day. I asked, “how do you think about balance?”. It was a big question, to which my friend reflected back to me that within my question lies the answer.
Balance is not an intellectual concept. Balance is a feeling. I can’t “think balanced”. I can “feel balanced”.
I have not felt in balance during this time in lockdown and have made my perception of being ‘balanced’ conditional on the pandemic, recession and all the associated uncertainties as being clear and resolved. The search for unconditional balance has begun for me and I hope for you as well. As I shared above, perhaps only once we each find balance within ourselves, will we learn how to restore a new balance for each other and for the future of humanity.
A bit more to share:
Year Zero: recorded conversations between friends about the future of humanity
Meditation: join me for live meditation each weekday at 930am EST on Zoom
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