My cat does yoga. Or maybe better said, my cat IS yoga.
In December of 2006, I found myself at the SPCA. Totally unclear on why I was there, I walked in thinking I needed to add some volunteering to my boring lawyerly life. I waited patiently in line until the woman in front of me asked if I was ahead of her. “No, you go ahead, I’m not sure why I’m here, ” I told her. “I’m just here to surrender these kittens.” She said. “I think I’m here for your kitten.”
She was tiny, no where near the size she should have been if the woman giving her up was right – a three month old Maine Coon kitten that wasn’t even a pound? And she was shaking, from the cold I thought, but as soon as I tried to set her down to fill out the paperwork to take her home she promptly fell over. Not shaking from the cold, and not just clumsy, little kitten had some serious neurological problems.
“Are you sure you still want her?” the SPCA volunteer asked me. “Of course, she’s my kitten.” I answered. Because I have the best vet in the entire world (The Cat Hospital of Media, PA), I have had an opportunity to learn what exactly is wrong with Hannah the kitten: she has a disorder that robbed her of balance, coordination, depth perception, control over her back legs, and left her shaking everytime she focuses on something. I learned how to teach her to walk, and by watching and thinking and trying a variety of games and activities, I learned some of what was going on in little Hannah’s brain.
In her world, the ground is constantly moving up and down, things that seem close could be as far away as 5 feet, like say, the ceiling fan, which was not, in fact, trying to attack her, or the stripes on the rug, which weren’t moving for the rest of us. Hannah’s determination to get where she wanted to go, to learn to walk, to figure out what the heck water was, inspired me to teach yoga to others who have chaotic inner worlds.
So how is it that Hannah does yoga? First, she applies one of the basic underlying principles of yoga: that direct experience is the most valuable knowledge. (Sutra 1.7 “The elements of sound intellection are: direct observation, inductive reason, and trustworthy testimony.”) The underlying principles of yoga can be found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and at first seem to be a brief, concise list of ideas. In reality, a yogi can study the sutras for lifetimes and still have much to learn. Hannah’s understanding that what she sees might not be “real” is a basic principle: what we see we filter through our preconceptions, our assumptions, that information that isn’t real, but attached to prejudices, negative thoughts and judgments. In yoga we seek nonattachment from assumptions, judgment and prejudices. Just as we learn in an asana class that achievement of a pose isn’t the goal of yoga, but that being present in the moment in a pose is the goal, to achieve a “seat” in a particular pose, a place of comfort, understanding, precision in mental clarity.
For Hannah to move from her seat on the couch to her dinner, she must negotiate what might seem to be a huge chasm of a drop from the couch to the floor (its really only 2 feet), negotiate around the moving wall, and topsy-turvey floor, through the dining room chairs and find her way to the bowls of food. Once she’s there, she has to figure out how far or close the food actually is, which she does by taking several attempts at it, from banging her face into the food to missing it entirely. All of this on back legs that don’t consistently respond to what she’s telling them to do, and losing her balance at least twice in the the 10 foot walk from couch to food. To say that this maneouver is exhausting is an understatement. It requires great concentration and faith. Just as holding a balancing pose requires great concentration and faith in oneself. It requires that you remove or detach your assumptions about yourself, the pose, the class, your teacher, the other students. It requires that you quiet the mind, so that you can concentrate on feeling your way into the pose.
This quieting of the mind is the heart of yoga. Sutra 1.2 states “Yoga chitta vritti nirodha” or Yoga is the Quieting of the Whirlpools of the Mind. Stilling the mind waves, quieting the monkey brain which swings from a limb of a thought to another limb of a thought, like monkeys do from tree to tree, is the premise of yoga. Those things that still the mind waves are yoga. The practice and disciplines of yoga curl inward around this goal like the petals of a lotus – each individually useful and beautiful but combine into an awe inspiring event.
Hannah’s most frequent mission is to land, somehow, often feet over head, into my lap. She’s my meditation partner and for good reason. I start by mindfully watching her make her way over to me. Whether I’m seated on her couch or on the floor, she will focus her attention on a single purpose: “LAP.” I dig deep and draw on love and compassion to prevent myself from scooping her up and just placing her in my lap, just as a yoga teacher draws deep on patience, love and compassion to provide an atmosphere where her students can learn ease of mind, ease of pose on their own. Once she has achieved her goal of landing in my lap, she melts into a warm, ridiculously furry ball of contentment. Many people, even not particularly cat people, love when she sits on them. She brings a sense of relaxation, of peace, to people when she sits on them because she completely and utterly lets go of all the crazy information bombarding her small cat brain. In this way, she stills the mindwaves, quiets the chaos and is able to be at once present and at the same time relaxed.
Yoga chitta vritti nirodha. Yoga is the stilling of the mind waves or the whirlpools of the mind. If my cat can do it, surely anyone can, right? If concentration on movement, with a one pointed mind, can quiet the unreal and false information flowing into her small, furry cat brain, then logically, it would work for humans who are bombarded with unreal and false information either about their bodies (those with eating disorders/disordered eating/body hate) or about events in time (those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “PTSD”). Research has shown that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction has a significant effect on reducing symptoms in those with PTSD. I’ve blogged before about PTSD, but a brief synopsis of the disorder goes something like this: some people who experience a traumatic event are unable to attach a place and time to that event, and thus it reoccurs into their daily lives, bouncing in like a puppy at inopportune times, times that recall something of that event, like a sound or a phrase, or even just the physical sensations of the traumatic event – elevated heart rate, sweating, restricted breathing, etc. I know of one woman who was held down and had her throat restricted when she was attacked. Any cardiovascular exercise brought back memories and fears and sensations from when she was attacked because once again, her breathing felt restricted. People with PTSD also must contend with hypervigilence, a state where they pay attention to every small sound, every small movement. Some books and scholars classify this as a high startle response. There are a host of other physical symptoms to survive when living with PTSD, but I think these seem like plenty, don’t you?
Relief from PTSD involves stilling these mind waves, learning not to detach completely from the material world to the inner world (that can be called dissociation, and is another symptom of PTSD), but rather, learning and acquiring the power to view the chaos of information about the material world as potentially unreal. Just as a friend who suffers from panic attacks learned to tell herself “This isn’t a real danger. This is just a test. Like a test of the emergency system on TV. This is just a test.” From repeating this to herself, she was able to quiet the mind and managed to move from several panic attacks a day to less than one a week. Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha. Yoga is the quieting of the whirlpools of the mind. Understanding that information coming in might seem to place you right back in the war zone, right back in the apartment of the attacker, but might also not be real, is a vital step in healing from PTSD. Yoga can provide this understanding. By working through asanas, those with PTSD learn how to constantly redirect the mind away from the constant flow of information (recall the hyperviligence) and sort through what information is actually vital. Staying in a pose where one can feel the muscles working, the ground under you, allows someone with PTSD to remain anchored in the present world. Focusing on breathing in each pose trains the mind to continue to breathe fully when uncomfortable, scared or tired. This can help short circuit panic attacks or other somatic responses to fear/flashbacks.
Yoga chitta vritti nirodha. Yoga is the quieting of the whirlpools of the mind. It is estimated that approximately 8% of the United States population has or will experience PTSD. Many of these individuals lack access to yoga, a possible treatment modality of great value, because of either access to a studio/gym or because of the cost. Yoga teachers can rectify this situation by providing free community based classes or by volunteering to teach people with PTSD individually. If y0u’d like to volunteer, contact Sprout Yoga by its Director at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to assist in this vital work, but don’t have the time to volunteer, please donate to Sprout Yoga by its webpage www.sproutyoga.org. For those living with PTSD or eating disorders who want yoga but are priced out of this possibility, please contact Sprout Yoga who may be able to connect you with a teacher in your area.