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Reducing Reactivity

May 17, 2023
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Reduce reactivity through meditation Yin Yoga

On the mat, just like in life, we'll unavoidably find things we don’t prefer, such as stiffness, boredom, a limiting injury, some uncomfortable conditions, or stormy internal weather. Yin Yoga & Meditation is a supportive place to get good at working with conditions and situations that may or may not match our preferences. If we train ourselves to pause and not-do when the impulse to react is strong, we begin to break negative cycles and broaden our perspective. With this wider view, we’re able to receive our experience with a more constant kindness and respond from a place of clear sight, intention, and wisdom.

Reactivity is Like a Tripwire

Understanding and reducing our propensity toward reactivity is a primary theme of Pema Chödrön's teachings. She shares a Tibetan word for this tendency: shenpa. Shenpa is like a hook, snagging us into conflict, or the emotional charge that surges us into hastily doing something. We might experience it as the bristling sensation when someone cuts us off in traffic, we get criticized at work, or our child stomps his feet instead of cleaning his room like he promised he would. It's the tripwire trigger, the urge to get away, fight, or force something. Shenpa sweeps us right into reaction before we even realize it. This energy is like a wave cresting, and the earlier we catch it, the more effectively we’re able to work with it. The watchful stillness we inhabit in this practice provides an excellent training ground to slow that wave before it crests and crashes.

There’s a story about a mighty Samurai warrior who sought a wise old Zen Master to ask him about the nature of heaven and hell. The warrior approached him and knelt at his feet. "Great Master,” he said, “please tell me about the nature of hell."

In response, the Master scowled and scoffed, saying, "Why would I tell such a miserable one as you about anything? You are not worth even a breath." The Master carried on insulting the warrior until the warrior grew so angry that he leaped to his feet, sword lifted and ready to strike. Just then, the Master raised his hand as though it was a mirror and said, "That, my son, is the nature of Hell." His words went deep into the warrior's heart, and the warrior fell to his knees in tears. "And that, my son," the Master continued, "is the nature of Heaven."

Clearing the Pathway Home

In his encounter with the Zen Master, the Samurai realized he’d become carried away by shenpa. Like the warrior, we may at times feel the wave of shenpa accompanying strong physical and emotional stimuli on the mat and in the rest of life, too: challenging situations, frustrations, fears, anxieties, and disappointments. Also like the warrior, we have the capacity to equip ourselves with the ability to pull back from these eruptions, come home to ourselves, and more peacefully inhabit this moment. We can consciously strengthen this skill every time we come to the mat. In training ourselves to watch and welcome what arises, we clear the pathway home to the steady mind and soft heart within us.

This is adapted from my new book Yin Yoga & Meditation: A Mandala Map for Practice, Teaching, and Beyond.

Yin Yoga Book Cover - Practice and Teach Yin Yoga
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