"Stories are medicine." -Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I didn’t plan on becoming a yoga enthusiast. It happened to me. Seven years ago. I had just gone through a break-up. (Again.) With another guy named Peter. (Seriously.)
I felt like the ground had fallen out from under me. I couldn’t get my bearings. The scariest part is that I knew I wasn’t really suffering because of the guy. His main service had been to distract me from the truth that my life wasn't particularly joyful or meaningful, that it hadn't been for years.
My days were not centered in any core values or driven by any real purpose and, as I think anyone would, I fell into the most basic mode of existence: survive and seek pleasure. When the relationship fell apart, so did the illusion of cohesiveness. Like untying a ribbon around a bundle of twigs, I suddenly saw that there was nothing of substance holding together all of my parts.
I made myself go to yoga class--something that I had been doing off and on for years but hadn’t made a regular habit. The class was full. The teacher, a favorite who always made me feel safe and inspired, gave a talk about coming home to yourself. She said it’s never too late, no matter how far gone you feel. Toward the end a Krishna Das song came on. It’s like I was hearing with new ears as he sang of devotion toward his teacher: “I am the prisoner, you are release.”
Coming down out of wheel pose, something inside me broke open. As I came to rest on my back a sense of belonging, connection and hope flooded my chest and drained out of the corners of my eyes. This experience needed no translator. Some tender, easeful, honest self had been released from a years-long imprisonment.
This implied another self--a part of me that had judged the more tender sister as unfit, had built walls around her, and diligently paced the gates. But in this moment I felt no anger toward the judge, the prison-builder, the prision guard. That would come another day. For now, there was an inner reconciliation, a return to balance and wholeness. In this moment all of my parts sang one note: Gratitude.
I would need to do more yoga, to incite more prison-breaks, to invite more reunions. I would have to pay for all those yoga classes and I didn't have much money, so after class I signed up to do a work exchange at the studio. I became a servant of the students there, a devotee of the teachers.
Transformation came fierce and fast. Just a year later I would graduate from yoga teacher training and embark on my first purposeful career path. Oh, and not long after I would move in with a new guy. This one would become my best friend and fiance.
Those of you who know me well have heard some version of this story. I told it many times to myself and others over the years. I made it into my own personal myth.
Joseph Campbell defines myth as “a projection of the deep wisdom of the psyche.” A ritual or a spiritual practice is the acting out that myth. So when I get up and go to my meditation cusion in the morning, or when I roll out my yoga mat and step onto it, I am acting out this story. I come humble, human, flawed. I break down false walls and free what's been chained. I reunite my selves and raise them up in joyous chorus. When I walk away I am renewed, reconnected to my own wisdom. Again an able servant for all who might need me.
Campbell says it this way. "By participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow. Your consciousness is being re-minded of the wisdom of your own life."
I maintain my meditation and yoga rituals every day, lest I forget. But in moments when I still find myself too loose, too untethered, or too unbound, I need to double down on my myth and its rituals. Same when I find myself too sticky, rigid, squinty-visioned or constrained.
If I fail to do this I am especially vulnerable to be swept up in disempowering stories. We have spoken of stories as prisons in previous posts. Much of the work we have been doing is to free the chakras from stories that restrain them and prevent them from working in their full power. This brings us to the work of CHAKRA 5.
"Stories set the inner life in motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us a fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives." -Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Chakra Five is the center of language, song, story, symbol, communication, creativity, authenticity, personality, self-expression. Located in the throat, I think of the center as the BARD. Her voice is unique, one of a kind. But the stories she puts out into the air are human. They belong to all of us.
This center is damaged by participating in slander or perpetuating old stories that are no longer alive with truth. It is cleansed by sacred silence. This center is weakened when we don't trust ourselves enough to speak authentically. It is empowered by engaging in truthful talk and sincere song.
Gently caress your neck with your hands. Notice the shape of the neck, slender, spreading out toward the head at the top and spreading out toward the chest at the bottom. Feel the ridges that mark the outer boundaries of the important tubes that run down the length of the neck. Feel the passage of AIR flowing up and down through this tubing. AIR is the element of Chakra 5 and by honoring the breath and exploring the qualities of AIR and WIND, we begin to open an understanding of the Throat Chakra.
Just as the Throat is more of a passageway than it is a place, AIR is more of a medium than a solid thing. Things are getting more subtle, less obvious and visible, which is a tell-tale sign that we have entered the arena of the UPPER CHAKRAS. Air, in case you were wondering, is actually a mixture of gases that is maintained by the earth’s atmosphere. This atmosphere is, as far as we know, unique to this planet. It co-evolved with life here.
Us animals rely on air to live. It brings precious oxygen to our cells, and the cells use oxygen to produce energy. No wonder the word for breath and lifeforce are the same in Sanskrit--prana. When we exhale we release carbon dioxide which the plants use in photosynthesis. Plants, in turn, release more oxygen—the very part of the gas compound that we need most! It's a beautiful cycle and reminds us that "waste" is a human invention. Nature’s design is too tight to abide such a concept. Her ways are too exquisite, too wholistic; everything has value in her system and nothing is wasted.
You breathing right now is a gift to the whole atmosphere, to your environment and everyone else in it. By exhaling now you are giving your unique gift. And by inhaling you are receiving the gifts of the world. To be alive is to be in this constant cycle of giving and receiving. It’s perfect. You are made perfectly. And so is everybody else. We forget that too often.
The pure gases which make up the air are invisible to the human eye. So breath and air have always been related to the divine—that which is present but only visible in its results. The word SPIRIT is in the word respiration. Spiritu is latin for breath. The same is true in many languages. In classical systems, AIR is sometimes referred to as WIND—it is in the moving of more solid stuff that we see evidence of air.
Wind makes the leaves and branches dance before our eyes. It can bring a feeling of coolness or clarity to the skin. It can bring a scent to the nose, along with all the emotions or memories that scent triggers. And if course it brings sounds to our ear, it vibrates the little airs that allow us to hear. This month I urge you to study air and wind, vibration and movement. Notice what travels on the airwaves--the unseen medium that makes so much of our lives possible, especially in this digital age.
The color of the throat chakra is SKY BLUE. Bring your hands back to the space of the neck. Envision a ball of sky blue light there. Then pull your hands away so that they hover just a bit outside of the skin. Perhaps the ball of vibrant blue light expands as well. Perhaps you can feel into a heat or an energy there. Working with this color can be extremely healing. There is a Tibetan Buddhist exercise where you fill the entire body with a clear, blue light which I made a daily practice for a long time.
Now hum and feel the vibration of this area of the body. See if you can extend the vibration down into the heart, belly, pelvis and legs and feet. See if you can extend the vibration up into the ears, forehead, back of head and crown. Sound heals the throat chakra and, in turn, the throat chakra can heal the other chakras. See if you can feel that for yourself. Each chakra has a bija mantra--or a seed sound which you can work with.
Chakra 7: OM (silent)
Chakra 6: OM
Chakra 5: HUM
Chakra 4: YUM
Chakra 3: RUM
Chakra 2: VUM
Chakra 1: LUM
These are cool and I recommend that you try them out. I will put a recording up soon that you can sing along to. But, really, any mantra work is leveraging the healing power of sound. Experiment with making the sounds aloud and also with making them silently. Notice their effect.
The delicate contours of your throat are unique and the sound of your voice is one-of-a-kind. Your throat chakra creates a special auditory thumbprint, allowing your sounds to come out unlike any other creature, past, present or future. So it is not just the breath that you exhale which is a special gift to the world, but the sounds that you make. To honor Chakra Five requires that you truly honor your own uniqueness. That you come to appreciate your special gifts, that you learn to enjoy them on your own and share them for the benefit of others as well.
Doing any kind of creative work will bring us into better appreciation of our unique gifts. Unfortunately, much of our uniqueness, much of our joy in creativity is educated out of us. So it may take some de-programming to remember what it feels like to just create for creation's sake. It make take some un-education to get back to what true gifts your weird and wonderful self is here to share.
One great exercise for this is to call your inner child. Sit in a meditation posture and quiet the mind by feeling your breath for a couple of minutes. Imagine now that you are sitting in a beautiful place. Take a little time making the details of your environment rich, so that the imagination can begin to open doorways in your consciousness. When you feel immersed in your visualized setting, notice as a little human approaches. It is you as a child. Take in the presence of this child and greet him or her in whatever way feels authentic. Then sit down with this person and ask: what do I need to know right now in my life? You can ask any questions you like of course!
The Sanskrit for Chakra 5 is visuddha. This means “purification.” The first two reasons might feel intuitive, from what we have already covered. Firstly, because its element is AIR. We felt before how the process of breath moves through the throat, bringing in fresh, clear air on the in-breath. Releasing toxins on the out breath.
Secondly, because sound vibrations have a purifying effect. This is largely why we chant OM or other mantras at the beginning of yoga class and hymnals in church. Next time you sing, notice what parts of the body vibrate and envision the purification process happening. Think about how a washing machine agitates your clothes, freeing-up gunk stuck between the threads. It makes room for clean, soapy water to move into the tiny little spaces in the clothes. When you chant, something similar happens--on a physical level and on an energetic one.
The third reason this chakra is the purifier is because of the way that language works. And this brings us to our main focus of this installment. When our words are authentic and properly connected--to the world around us and to the energy within us--they filter out what's not helpful, what's not relevant, what's not loving, and most importantly, what's not true.
Every time that you participate in something that is distracting, destructive, inauthentic or false, it leaves a residue. Just like most things that travel on the air, we can't see this residue. But, much like air pollution, the results of living with this residue unattended can be disastrous. But don't worry! Just by getting clear again, aligning with healing again, and speaking truth again, we can clean up that residue. Positive speech purifies.
To become conscious of how this works you can consider talk therapy and Catholic confession, or how good it feels to finally say "I'm sorry," after you've been a jerk. Or just pay attention to what happens when you say something untrue. Here's an example. "I hate my dog." Just writing this feels shitty. When I say it out loud it's almost like a poison spreads through my throat and chest and belly. The untruth has created discord in the chakra system. It has made Chakra Five, the Bard, sing a song that is out of tune with the heart, the holder of what I value most dearly. What's extraordinary is how quickly things fall into alignment again when I say "I love my dog!"
Try it for yourself right now. Say something that your heart does not believe, that your body does not believe. Feel the effects. Next, sing the truth and feel the internal harmony. Ahhhh.
Uttering a lot of sweet truths gently and regularly brings us gradually back to our most authentic shine. Sometimes, I find, I want to shout a single tough truth. One radical truth can transform a huge amount in one tsunami of sincerity. A quick power blast of truth is often challenging to experience at first, but when it passes you will feel fantastic, suddenly unburdened by a stinky, sticky, false perspective. This is why they say that the truth will set you free.
Truth is a relative thing. Nothing that is "absolute" truth can be put into something as relative as human language. This is something that we'll get into deeply in our exploration of Chakra 7. In the context of our chakra work truth means, that which is aligned with the values of your heart. You can return to the previous post if you want to explore that more. It's really important that you get a sense for what Chakra 4 deeply values if you want to get the most out of working with Chakra 5. No one else can feel your heart or access your sense of care for you. That's your personal responsibility and privilege.
Chakra Five articulates the raw experiences of the lower chakras into something that the mind can understand. It translates that data into something that can be integrated into philosophies and worldviews--the stuff of Chakra 6. It sends that energy up to be transcended--the stuff of Chakra 7. Without the logic and clarity that comes from language, there would be no way to make sense of sensations, desires, actions and feelings of Chakras 1-4.
Going the other direction, the fifth chakra is responsible for sharing the visions, theories and systems of chakras 6, and the transcendent experiences of chakra 7 with the body and the world. The energies of the upper chakras are too subtle, cold and abstract to influence material reality without Chakra Five. It brings its creativity, its melody, its storehouse of song and story, it brings its unique personality and warmth to bear on the energy coming down from above. This enables us to integrate spiritual experience into daily life. This enables us to have an idea one day and have a blog post, a workshop, a child, a cathedral, a country, a spaceship, a cure for cancer some day in the future.
Language is how we connect the dots in our own understanding and how we connect with other speaking beings. But if there is not a freshness, playfulness and earnestness to our communication, then language can end up forging and fortifying unhealthy connections. If I have heard a story over and over again without questioning it or allowing a playful engagement with it, then it hardens into a solid "truth," aka a dogma, which stops revealing anything useful me. If I repeat the story to myself enough, the dogma creates a kind of prison.
As a baby, you learned your mother tongue by simply hearing and repeating the sounds around you. Even if your heart AND your logic totally disagree with an act of language, if you hear it, it makes its way into your psyche and wants to be addressed. Because we are hooked up this way, to absorb what we hear and repeat it, we need a strong visuddha to sort through it and re-organize it what we take in, to make sense of it, to decide if it aligns with the heart and the mind and to make a response.
What is the nature of the stories that you are soaking up all day long? How much time do you spend engaging with things that are trivial? Things that are negative? How much time do you spend engaging with language that is in alignment with the values of your heart?
Growing up as a child actor I heard again and again that talent was innate. When I got to my mid-twenties and hadn't made anything of my acting career yet I thought, "Welp. That ship has sailed! I guess I don't have talent." I didn't go get more training, I didn't seek the help of a mentor, I didn't double down on my networking. I just gave up. This one line story has some truth to it and is useful in some scenarios. But it is by no means the whole truth and, in this case, it was the wrong truth to be repeating. Every time I repeated it I reinforced the prison walls. Every time I spoke to myself in that demeaning and dismissive tone, I amplified the obstacle between me and achieving my dreams.
And, as you have probably noticed, language doesn't just happen "out there." Most of us are talking to ourselves all day long! And getting a handle on how you speak to yourself is a huge part of healing Chakra Five. We all have skin in this game. Not just artists or writers or professional singers or speakers. The stories we tell ourselves form our experience of reality, so if we don't take responsibility for them, we lose ownership over our experience of our lives.
What is the nature of your internal dialogue? With what tone do you tend to speak to yourself? Is it harsh or kind? Is the inner language creative and varied and colorful? Or does it tend to be black-and-white, cliche, predictable?
What are the stories that you tell yourself when things get rough? What are the stories you tell yourself when things are going well? Examine them. Be willing to play with them, rearrange them, modify them and invite in new ones.
Experiment with how address yourself and other beings, in your mind and out loud.
"The Indians addressed life as a “thou,” I mean, trees and stones, everything else. You can address anything as a “thou”, and you can feel the change in your psychology as you do it. The ego that sees a “thou” is not the same ego that sees an “it.” Your whole psychology changes when you address things as an “it.” And when you go to war with a people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into its, so that they’re not “thous.” - Joseph Campbell
"Thou" feels a bit awkward on my lips personally. But what if you started calling yourself, "sweetheart" when you were feeling rejected. What if you started calling yourself, "fierce goddess!" when you were low on courage. What if you took a walk in the park and said, "hello, holy tree!" to every tree you saw. What if you took a break from using harsh or demeaning words when speaking about other beings. In a Tibetan Buddhist tradition I was involved with for a while, everyone called everyone else, "hla" which means "dear one." You would put it at the end of a name, "Aaron'hla." It made us all more tender, more affectionate, more interconnected.
We all have much to lose if we cannot learn to be more creative and authentic with our language--not just artists or writers or professional singers or speakers. The stories we tell ourselves form our experience of reality, so if we don't take responsibility for them, who can we possibly blame when the world doesn't seem honest and empowering.
Dreaming is the unconscious, creative sorting of the impressions we take in all day. Making art of any kind is just the awake version of this--it is how awake/woke people process information and make sense of the world and ourselves. The byproduct is "art" something that can be shared with others to help them, in turn, process and make sense. We are all dreamers and therefore we are all artists.
I'll close this blog post with what I would call the ultimate 3-step process for honoring, exploring and healing your throat chakra.
1. REST: Spend a little time without taking in or putting out words. Silent retreat is the ultimate version of this. But for most of us, scheduling in some silent moments throughout the week will suffice! It can help to listen to a guided meditation (l have a few on the side bar of my blog), put on relaxing music, follow the sound of the breath or repeat a mantra. Those exercises tend to focus the mind away from the inner dialogue long enough to cleanse the mental palate and drop you into a quieter place. Don’t feel like you have to do some formal seated meditation practice either. A walk in the park without a podcast, a quiet cup of tea without reading the news, a jigsaw puzzle with the classical station on—that’ll do it!
2. PROCESS: Make a regular creative processing ritual for yourself. Do journaling practices. Talk!—To your therapist, your friend, or one I’ve been using a lot up here in the mountains, the voice recorder on your phone! Make art of all kinds. If you don't know where to begin, think about what you loved to do as a kid and start there.
3. REFRESH: Spend some time nourishing yourself with language and story that feels refreshing, honest, loving and wise. Find recordings of your favorite orators and listen to them in the car or while you wash the dishes. Whose words feel the most true and whole and resonant? Put their books by the bed and read a bit from them first thing in the morning and last thing at night so that your day begins and ends with truth instead of whatever the hell is on all of our newsfeeds. (Granted, there’s some really inspiring stuff on there too! But while I scroll and scroll and scroll to find it, my mind is already being invaded by fear.) Or revisit your favorite epic novels and adventure movies. You know the ones. They help you make sense of war and peace, dark and light, challenge and rest, little picture and big picture.