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It is impossible to know hope until one has experienced hopelessness — that feeling of suffocating permanence, as if you will be forever trapped in your present situation. In a place of hopelessness, all feels irrevocably lost. We harden and brace ourselves for permanent pain in the same way that we gather and store reserves in preparation for a long, hard winter. It’s as if the shutters have been closed and all the lights turned off. Lost in the darkness, we succumb to avidya (ignorance), the belief that our finite experience is all-pervasive and interminable. Helpless, hapless and hopeless, it is impossible to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel, and we start to lose sight of the big picture.
But in these times, hope can be a light in the darkness, filtering through the slats in the shutters, shifting the shadows in our dark room from ominous to promising. Suddenly and against all odds, we can find compassion for ourselves in the face of suffering. Rabindranath Tagore — poet, philosopher and author of the timeless book Sadhana — writes, “It [hope] gives us an ideal of perfection that always carries us beyond our present limitations. Within us we have a hope that always walks in front of our present narrow experience.” In the bleakest periods of my own life, hope took my hand like a true friend, holding a lantern out in front of me when all I could see was darkness.
In yoga, hope can create the space for compassion and even comfort in a place of unbearable intensity. So often in our asana practice we come face-to-face with postures that feel impossible. For me, it’s Padmasana (Lotus Pose). For a long period of time I just stopped trying, because I was convinced it would never come. In fact, it still hasn’t come, but I have witnessed glimmers of hope in the moments when I opened myself up to a different way of seeing. Approaching the pose from an unexpected angle, using a new technique, or calling upon the assistance of a prop always creates the space for possibility by challenging what I think I know. I start to see how maybe one day, with practice and patience, Padmasana might be a possibility.
Yoga for hope: How to open up your hope chakra
Anahata chakra, our compassion center, resides in the center of our chakra system and is a place of union, with the Self and beyond. It is here that we access tenderness, sensitivity, acceptance and, yes, hope in the midst of pain. The element associated with Anahata chakra is air, so pranayama (breathing practices), specifically inhale-based pranayama, can uplift us when we feel heavy or lost.
A gentle vinyasa practice — inspired, initiated and enveloped by the breath — can connect us back to the infinite source of compassion in our hearts.
- Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), placing one hand on your heart and one hand on your abdomen. Drop your chin towards your lifted chest. As you inhale, feel your breath rise into your top hand. Exhale and empty your breath completely, drawing the abdomen in towards the spine. Breathe and repeat, focusing on the depth of your exhale in order to promote a fuller, freer inhalation.
- Now add movement to your breath. Wait to hear the sound of your inhale and raise your arms above your head, continuing to sip in your breath even after the palms have touched. Wait for your exhale and slowly lower your arms to your sides. Focus your attention on the breath as the motivator of your movement.
- If and when you’re ready, you can add Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) or Utkatasana (Fierce/Chair Pose) to the vinyasa. You may even feel inspired to move through a more traditional Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation) using these principles as your guide. Follow your practice wherever it takes you. The possibilities are endless.
What we reveal in a breath-based asana practice is that the inhalation happens in spite of us. Rather than forcing the air into our lungs, the breath is received. This reminds us that hope is always there, as Tagore wrote, walking right in front of us.
- When your practice comes to a natural end, rest in a supported Savasana (Corpse Pose). Fold two blankets so they’re long and narrow and place them lengthwise on your yoga mat. Rest the bottom of your back ribs on the front edge of the blankets and initiate your inhalation from this place. Notice how the back ribs press softly down into the blankets with each inhale, and start to feel how the inhale can spread from the center of your back out to the sides, even up into your armpits. Finally, allow the inhale to bubble up underneath your collarbone and rest quietly in this three-dimensional spaciousness. The bija mantra (intrinsic syllable) for Anahata chakra is “YAM,” which can be repeated silently on your exhalation. Its vibration balances our compassion center and creates space for possibility.
We asked experts, authors and readers like you to share their stories of Hope. Every day for the next month, you’ll find new tips for optimism on Gaiam Life, the Stream of Consciousness blog and our social media sites: Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. And don’t miss the GaiamTV.com Hope Film Festival, with FREE films all month long.