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Yoga balances orienting response and goal attention in the brain
Composure is the physical intelligence of integrating your responses to strong stimuli while moderating long term plans.
Do not let yourself be tainted with a barren skepticism. -Louis Pasteur
Asana is the practice of discerning the forces that are acting on us from our fantasies and fears about those forces. We get up close and in our bodies with the difference between what’s real and what we believe, where we draw the boundary between ourselves and the world. In posture practice we develop composure, that is, skill with balance and orientation, the basis of all movement, interaction, and self awareness.
Composure is physical intelligence. Balance and orientation keep the way we see the world and the things we choose to do synced up with what’s really going on. For example, maybe it’s happened to you that you’ve been sitting in traffic and suddenly feel like your car is rolling backward. It takes a second to realize the cars in the next lane have begun to move forward, and you’re sitting still. For a moment it’s an uncanny sensation, then it’s gone. This is the effect of two separate but innate kinds of attention on our perceptions.
Our internal ‘orienting response’ causes us to pay attention to sensory novelty – a bright light, a loud sound, a feeling of being in motion. Pavlov called this kind of attention the “what is it?” reflex.
Orienting response is a heads up! feeling
It interrupts our smoother flowing “goal directed” attention – the kind of attention involved in activities like reading a book or having a conversation.
We develop both kinds of attention in yoga because both kinds are central to our perception, our ideas about the world and our sense of self. When we get over-focused on the big picture we miss what matters now, and when we’re over-focused on now, we don’t see the long term implications of anything. Cycling between these two kinds of attention keeps us apprised of potentially significant immediate stuff while we focus on potentially significant longer term stuff. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the advantage of having both.
Our two kinds of attention are functionally similar in that what we’re doing when we’re paying attention is evaluating what’s possible and what’s significant, both in the context of time. Because the two ways we take time into consideration are different, out two attentions complement each other.
In other words, both ways that we naturally pay attention are meant to keep us synced up with change. There’s always something happening; it may or may not matter to us directly; it may be in our best interest to get involved or not to; we may need to keep an eye on it because it has the potential to matter later. Because everything is in constant motion and in constant development or deterioration.
Change is the most salient aspect of reality.
Our bodies are evolved to engage, relate, and respond to change.
Composure, then, is an ability which gives us survival advantages and a skill which can be developed. When strong emotions like anger or disappointment are triggered, we’re faced with sorting out precisely the same confusion we had sitting in stalled traffic: figuring out which sensations are the best description of what’s really going on. If we develop our innate ability to shift how we’re paying attention, what we think of as possible and meaningful, we’re less likely to respond to fears or fantasies instead of reality. We’re less likely to shut down. Composure is literally self-possession.
A better strategy than never becoming disoriented is just plain recognizing when we are. The reality of a feeling and it’s meaning are two different things. Instead of repressing or denying anger, disappointment or other forms of disorientation, we can accept that we just do feel those things at times. This is precisely what we practice in asana.
In slow-rolling lanes of traffic, we shake off our misperception easily. We elegantly shift our weight from visual cues to proprioceptive ones, from the eyes to the inner ear and stretch receptors throughout our bodies, allowing what’s “real” to reassert itself. The key to composure lies in not trying to convince ourselves that we don’t feel what we do feel.
Crazy-making ourselves, treating our own feelings as though they aren’t real is the shortest path to disorientation, i.e., getting lost. When that happens it’s time to sit down and allow ourselves to know what’s going on. That’s where yoga’s deliberate attunement to shifts of attention and inner states is an advantage.
An advantage over habitual denial, blame, and fear.
We know that we felt like the car was rolling. Even if it startled us momentarily we just laugh at the strangeness and correct our misperception without assigning any meaning to it or feeling any shame about it. Unless something unusual is in play, we don’t tell ourselves it shouldn’t be that way or that we’ll try to change and do better in the future.
It’s too bad we can’t say the same for all our misperceptions. The definition of being overstimulated is that we don’t shrug things off so easily. We’re at the mercy of our failure to understand what time frame we’re operating in, our inability to distinguish between rigidity and balance, caught between our own evasiveness and knowing what we believe.
Retreating into cynicism is only fear of powerlessness. Our ability to initiate change begins in the meaning we create and give life to, so we should develop our meanings thoughtfully, not reactively. Our feelings are worth our belief in them; the meaning we attach to our feelings often is not. This is no cause for mistrust toward ourselves. In fact, it’s the beginning of an authentic compassion for the reality everyone has to deal with as it arises and commitment to the better world we want to make real in the long run.
Composure is knowing how to bring our two kinds of attention back into relationship with reality; composure is focus. It’s poise and presence. The liberating characteristic of composure is knowing ourselves in motion rather than being bound to a need for control in a fantasy and fear driven world. It’s a basic sanity that means we can confidently keep track of who we are in relationship to change.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.