When I was a young medical doctor, I would often roster myself to work in the ER over Christmas, allowing colleagues who celebrated the holiday to be with their families. We were prepared for a very busy time in the emergency room, and one of the most common symptoms we treated was depression, with its underlying sense of alienation and loneliness. People who have lost loved ones or who are financially impoverished suffer tremendously during the holiday season. For me, it was a time when I could test just how stable the light of yoga was in my heart.
The Holiday Season Provides Opportunity
For all of us, the holiday season exerts pressures at some level. It can be one of the least peaceful times of the year. Commercial interests have usurped most holidays, and advertisers spend millions of dollars to hypnotize a whole country into spending and celebrating. The economy depends on us, we hear from all sides. Holiday shopping, visiting with family, the hassles of planning and traveling, managing food and alcohol consumption, getting enough exercise, and maintaining our yoga routines can all be overwhelming.
As yoga teachers, this is an ideal time to encourage our students to apply what they have learned in class. We can tell our students that managing the holiday season is their exam, the real test of how much they have learned and embodied over the year.
What Do the Holidays Mean to You?
There are a number of ways we can teach students to maintain a calm center during the storm of the holidays. The first thing to do is to dedicate some quiet class time for contemplation and meditation. Students sit still, breathing quietly to practice any calming, grounding process. Once they have settled in, ask them to contemplate what a particular holiday means to them. They need to ask themselves what they really want to get out of this period, and what will best support them and others.
As they develop a sense of that meaning, suggest that they focus on disentangling commercial pressures from the essence of the holidays. This will help them plan strategies that will make this period meaningful and fulfilling.
Paradoxically, stress is the biggest issue for most students during the holidays. Stresses come in many forms, and students should contemplate what theirs are likely to be. During meditation, they should playfully visualize what lies ahead. Encourage them to look back at past holiday seasons and consider what they would like to do differently this time. Can they create a situation that supports the emergence of intuition and creativity? They probably can, if they can stay conscious, calm, and focused.
There are many techniques that help us stay grounded and centered. To do this effectively, however, we need to contemplate strategies that we can actually apply outside of the practice space. This meditation, then, is mental rehearsal for the actual event.
Remind students that yoga is more than technique; it is a way of being. Breath is the best tool we have to remain conscious and calm; any time is a good time to practice moving and breathing more slowly and consciously.
Tell your students to visualize one stressful situation and how they would normally deal with it. Then remind them to engage their breath or any appropriate yogic technique that helps them to stabilize and calm themselves. While doing this, they should imagine what could change in their situation if they were able to be more relaxed and creative—and, most importantly, what that would feel like.
Maintaining Yoga Practice
One thing that students really need to contemplate is how easy or difficult it will be for them to maintain some kind of yoga practice or discipline during the holidays. This could be something that is opened up for general class discussion, since peer support is extremely valuable.
Schedules often break down during the holidays, and we tend to eat and drink more. We need to become much more creative in how we apply yoga in our lives. We can be prepared to take opportunities that present themselves to apply a technique in appropriate ways. For example, we could stretch at the airport while waiting for a plane; we can practice breath awareness while we contemplate an object we wish to purchase; we can use some standing postures to relieve tensions while we are in the check-out line at the supermarket, bank, or post office.
At the same time, we need to remember how important it is to create time to calm and ground ourselves between events. During class discussion, ask your students to consider what an appropriate routine would be for them during this period. When can they best practice, when can they schedule a five- to ten-minute yoga or meditation break?
It is also important to remind students that asana, Pranayama, and meditation practice are not ends in themselves, but means to an end. That end is to develop a greater inner resilience and a more stable mind that can handle the difficulties of life with greater calm and poise.
In fact, it can often be a good thing to let go of our routines without guilt, and to notice what happens when we do so. We can practice a different type of yoga, perhaps the Yoga of Remaining Calm and Aware. Then when we do come back to our yoga practice, we bring a greater depth of experience and wisdom with us. We can get back into formal practice with renewed enthusiasm and a clearer direction of what we need to work toward in the New Year.
If students wish to practice some form of higher yoga to nourish their spirit during the holiday season, they should focus on how they can support others less fortunate than themselves. It is an excellent time to practice selfless service and giving. It is a time when we can learn from and support others, especially those going through difficult times.
Here are a few tips for practicing higher yoga so that you can fill your life with peace and joy:
1.Honor yourself, your relations, and the planet by choosing a noble and virtuous intention for the New Year. Practice ahimsa, a yama of Patanjali's Raja Yoga, which means nonviolence toward yourself and others.
2.Follow your own heart. Learn to listen to yourself, your own higher intuitive inner voice, through meditation practice.
3.Practice contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of Patanjali. Contemplate just how much you already have and what you really need. Is there something that you think you need in your life to make you happy, and/or do you already have plenty? Cultivate gratitude for all the things you have.
4.Before you indulge, bring consciousness into the moment. For example, before eating, be aware of what you are going to eat and perhaps say a simple prayer or thanks. Prepare to really enjoy what you are about to eat, to take it deep into your tissues so as to fully nourish yourself.
5.Be flexible in body, mind, and spirit. Learn not be constrained by plans but to go more with the flow. There is an old Indian saying: "Man proposes; God disposes."
Dr. Swami Shankardev is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for ten years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. Contact him at www.bigshakti.com.