Retreat dispatch: A simple (though maybe not easy) way to ratchet down reactivity

The Stone Arch event space

The Stone Arch event space in Saline, Mich.

Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor‘s summer retreat was held this weekend inside the Stone Arch, a beautiful and expansively intimate church-turned-event-space located in a cute Michigan town called Saline. This was my third retreat with Angela Jamison of AY: A2, and, as with any good yoga workshop, each one of these seasonal confabs has offered me an array of inspirational, intellectual and practice-based nourishment. Some I digest right away (along with, I should mention, actual tasty nourishment in the form of fantastic lunches), and some I can’t until much later.

Something I digested in real time today had to do with an exploration of how to decrease your reactivity during potentially tension-filled situations — whether that’s at an academic talk, a corporate meeting or a personal conversation. There’s a one-word answer and then a longer answer. The one-word answer: Listen. (If you’ve already started judging this word, hold on — listen for a couple paragraphs longer.) The longer answer requires a look at a person’s five koshas, or sheaths. Koshas go from the outside in, starting with gross manifestations (the body) and move toward more subtle ones:

  • Annamaya kosha: Physical body
  • Pranamaya kosha: Energy body
  • Manomaya kosha: Mental body
  • Vijnanamaya kosha: Wisdom body
  • Anandamaya kosha: Blissful body

Rather than starting to build up your own wall of defenses — your feeling on the matter, your justifications, or whatever it may be — while someone else is talking, try really listening. Become very, very receptive to what is said, rather than work off a loop of assumptions and proactive counterarguments. The self-help industry is full of advice of listening, but in this yogic framework of koshas, what you’re doing is allowing a quick downshift from the mental body to the wisdom body, and allowing reactions to come from a more refined place. It’s not easy to let go this way, but the payoff can be tremendous.

I seriously love framing this shift in consciousness like this, because I do this. I. Do. This. I do this all the time, in fact. I don’t consider myself overly analytical, but probably starting with my time on the high school speech and debate team and on through my work in deadline-driven professionals, I’ve always seen arguments — even healthy ones — as an us versus them proposition with winners, losers and a ticking clock. Time is limited. Get your idea out there before a worse one gains popularity. (Working in corporate America has done nothing but reinforce my patterns.)

Speaking of digestion . . . in my ongoing efforts to start waking up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week to practice, Angela has suggested that I stop eating dinner at my usual 8, 9 or 10 p.m. and try to eat earlier. The retreat flew by today, and between that, the 75-minute drive home, and a quick errand on the way home, it’s getting awfully close to my usual dinnertime. I have lots of great vegetables from yesterday’s trip to Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Famers Market, so I better go.

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