How did you spend the end of 2023?
On the heels of exciting emotional and spiritual healing in the fall, I was gifted with one more chance to confront my biggest challenge: my own mind. They say that God doesn’t give you things you can’t handle, and while we can have a long conversation about that idea separately, I feel that, in this case, the physical and mental challenges that shaped the last two months were exactly that: tests not of my will, but of my willingness to let go of my will.
As most of you reading this are aware, I have a very strong mind (or manas in Sanskrit). My ability to learn new things quickly and thoroughly, to digest complex topics and articulate them to others, and even to imagine my own complex ideas, projects, and notions about the world and myself have enabled me to achieve a lot so far in life; these same qualities have also gotten me into situations where that strong, expansive mind received a harsh reality check when confronted with the limits of what I could actually do and take in as a mere human. Drawing on my favorite digestive metaphors, it was a case of having eyes bigger than my stomach—or, more accurately, eyes bigger than the digestive fire residing in my stomach.
Ayurveda is an integrated mind-body-spirit system, and so I was grateful to have this lens through which to understand and begin recuperating from the manasika jwara (psychological fever) I suffered from. Although it’s not my typical pattern, pitta began to overflow in my mind when stressors started building up over the summer; and combined with the heat of the season, and some less-than-healthy coping mechanisms, pitta was raging by the time fall came around, no doubt also kicked up by the winds of vata. Not only was this uncomfortable and exhausting, but the gunas (qualities) I was experiencing felt so not-me, that I struggled—even with all of my “knowledge”—to figure out what to do about it. Insecurity begat insecurity; like increases like.
I share this all with you not to indulge in a TMI, woe-is-me story (though maybe some of you can relate to the idea of psychological illness, and how frustrating it is to be told by doctors that there’s “nothing wrong with you” when clearly there is…). Rather, I wanted to answer my own question at the top of this message: I spent the end of 2023 horizontal. Knocked down and burned out by my own mind, I surrendered to my least favorite activity, rest. And I couldn’t be more grateful.
One of the positive things that came out of this fall was an invitation to redirect the source of, and resolution to, some of my chronic imbalances away from my body, and even my mind, toward spirit. It’s not very popular, or easy, to talk about spirit in our modern times, when we’re barely connected to the most gross aspects of our being that even considering going into the subtle layers seems impossible. And yet, spirit is what is left when, as I have done, you align everything in your material and psychological worlds and still things are not okay. As one of my teachers likes to say, we need to move away from “mindfulness” practices, which only give more power to the ego (case in point: me), and adapt more “soulfulness” practices. Because when the spirit, or soul, is okay, even the worst conditions of our physical world can be endured, and even transformed.
To be clear, I’m not talking about complacency or blind faith or even religious or spiritual practices, and all that that implies. What I’m talking about is a deep, unspeakable connection—an ability to trust in the integration of your own organism and the universe in which it exists such that there is no need, or even desire, to “control” or bodies or minds. It’s shocking how much we humans seek control—from our daily actions to well-intended values, we want to be certain about the causes and effects of everything we do. When effects seem to have no causes—like weeks of fever with no pathogen—we freak out; when causes have no effects—we work hard and still feel unsatisfied or unable to make ends meet—we seek blame (mostly of ourselves).
Spirit doesn’t nullify the real emotions and sensations we have from disappointments in our lives. But it does help orient these changes in our well-plotted narratives. I’ve spent the last ten-plus years shaping narratives, some imaginary and some real, with the intent of making stories seem “believable” and “cohesive.” But who do you know with a believable or cohesive life narrative? Our minds have the power of making connections between seemingly unrelated events, personalities, and desires; it’s human nature to do so. But spirit allows for another option when life doesn’t make sense: it’s okay to not make sense. To not understand, to not know, to not be in control.
As I lay on the couch last week, I thought back to all the moments when things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to—including how I spent my Christmas vacation. I wanted to bake cookies and watch movies and finish writing my research paper for my herbalism class; instead, I slept, ate, then slept some more. I couldn’t go for my daily walks or practice yoga—two things I rely on for physical and mental “balance.” Was it disappointing? Yes. I regretted missing out on that expected joy and hindering my family’s joy (and threatening their immune systems); I also worried what would happen when I didn’t engage in my normal health-giving routines.
But clearly, I needed to do something different to create health in this case. I needed to stop doing. And without this turn of events, I wouldn’t have been able to hear what my spirit started whispering to me years ago, but my mind drowned out with a soundtrack of more more more: less.
Back in October, just before the pitta-fest began, I had the insight of dedicating 2024 to spirit. I had a meaningful encounter with tulsi, who has become my herbal ally on this journey and whom I’ll continue to draw on in my ongoing healing (among other things, it’s a beloved adaptogen, so perfect for taming the ego-monkeys). I also planned to sharing my inquiries and experiences with spirit in a more embodied way, shaping my monthly yoga themes around different posture categories and the spiritual lesson each one can reveal (not that there is any one “true” lesson for these poses; it’s all made up by me based on my years of practice and life). Now that I’ve gotten this push from the universe, I’m even more excited about how this year will unfold. And I feel totally equipped to teach the first pose that I had planned in this spirit-journey: savasana.
Savasana usually comes at the end of a yoga practice, but in the same way that how well you sleep determines how you feel the next day, endings can sometimes be more like beginnings. In exploring savasana, we’ll practice what it feels like to let go of control—of the body, of the mind, of effort, of expectation. It’s a gradual process (I hated savasana for years when I started yoga), and comes easier on some days than others; just like we sometimes get those incredible, rainbow-beam downloads from the spirit realm, and other/most times it’s radio silence.
It’s also a great place to be in the depths of winter; between the hustle and bustle of the holidays, and the instinctual yearning for rest that our bodies have during this hibernatory season, lying down on the ground and doing nothing can actually give us more energy than adding things like caffeine and intense workouts. They call it “rest and digest” for a reason—by protecting our internal agni, which is already strong this time of year (though beginning to wane), it can sustain itself rather than be forced to “grow” by digesting more logs or fuel.
Whether you practice with me on the mat in Brooklyn, or if you’re immersed in your own savasana practice, I hope that this month provides the spark you need to move with and through the winter season with grace and hope. Another thing I love about spirit is that it can take so many elemental forms—the breath of prana, the flames of sacrifice and discipline, the earthly container that holds us all in life and death. However spirit visits you, I hope you allow yourself to trust-fall into your own courage to follow its guidance, and realign ourselves and our communities with that which unites us all.