Thursday, May 8, 2014

Prana + Ayama

(my father's last palette)

We embody that which reaches beyond the dualities into the sublime and that which grounds us and manifests in physical properties. To combine this is both an unconscious process and a process of becoming conscious.

The breath is there from the beginning. An infant doesn't have to think about how long a breath to take or whether to breathe into front and back, sides etc. you and I can simply draw inhale and release exhales until our bodies are done and we stop breathing. What is the point of noticing that we are breathing, of observing the nature, texture, impact and space of the breath? 

As soon as you pull your attention from the sky, your lunch, that construction noise, and focus on the subtleties of the breathing process, your mind begins cultivating a different level of attention. This, in and of itself is new territory on the existing map that is your experience of being. 

The quiet observing mind is unusual in daily life and affords the body a respite from the constant reactivity that characterizes our every other moment. The discovery of natural breath and the ability to cultivate the breath settles the mind into its concentrated form. Several seconds of this is enough to give a glimpse of how vibrant and alive we are when we are not cluttered and bombarded by conditional reactivity - our "normal" functional state of mind.

Is it worth slowing down and turning attention to this when it barely lasts seconds? I believe it is, because the mind becomes more and more adept at remaining in this state, with breath as reminder, we can even find ourselves lapsing into this state under totally normal daily circumstances.
Our ease in watching our breath, using disciplined attention, can unlock the door and bring us out into an authentic freedom of mind.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Beauty in Hidden Structures

We are so busy moving ourselves around in the world,  that, like buildings, we see mostly the facade in passing. One of the gifts of living in a transitional bustling neighborhood of a major city is that there is constant building and tearing down so that, along with facades, all the inner structures are revealed coming and going.

Walking to teach my morning vinyasa class, I was stopped in my tracks by this gorgeous metal support structure. Light pouring through parts of it, it's undulations, shapes, reflective nature and span was strikingly beautiful. Just half a block further on, there is another one of these -- so it isn't any one-of-a-kind marvel at all -- that is covered in all the next stages of building with no light in it, and few of its textures revealed. In a week's time, they will both be invisible above ceilings and below floors.

Class was all about this in a subtle way starting with slow rocking in the hip sockets to feel how the thigh bones seat and mindful rolling through the sitting bone supports, to reveal spinal support even as the weight shifts.  Eventually we moved into standing sequences, unfolding and refolding with the breath, and allowing the hidden structures to do their work deep in the interior of each asana (posture). Yet their presence could still be established, felt, and explored.

Walking to my next class I caught a glimpse of a building being demolished. It has stood for decades, though this demolition has been elongated over the last few years it is active once again. At the moment, the remaining structure is like a gem hiding in its case. I think of the breath, its textures, its stalwart nature, its foundational strength, its subtle delicacies.  How grateful I am to live in this moment in a human form that I can explore at so many levels, cultivating awareness of the details and technicalities and the grand scale of the overall plan!



Friday, April 18, 2014

Using what you have

Often I find myself making meals with leftovers or the ingredients that I find in my fridge. This can push me into typical patterns, or can spur all manner of creativity. There are people who see a recipe and go shop for the ingredients. Many will measure these with some care and expect results that resemble the description in the instructions. I see that I am not naturally inclined in that direction in my cooking or my yoga practice.

My explorations start with seeing what's obviously there, deepen into digging for complementary or supplementary ingredients and building the design from these. An overarching concept develops, balancing the intuitive growth of the design with my actual experience. The results are always unknowable, though not entirely unpredictable.

In my cooking this results in portobello-red cabbage-poblano tacos or millet-teff-rosemary-garlic-pepper sticks. There are plenty of examples of this in my eat2thrive blog. In yoga this can evolve into a practice focused on Virabhadrasana 3, evolving lunge into its dancing, flying forms, and ending up in supine one-legged poses and a sequence of Anuloma Krama (breathing in stages with retention of breath). Unlikely that I would take someone else's formula and follow or teach it. I see now that I had trouble as a child in my violin lessons for just this reason! I wanted to follow the sound and feeling as I experienced it. This seemed to flower in chamber music and chafe in the orchestra. I learn a lot from both contexts- especially that the path to discovery and joy goes in all directions. Makes sense to me now.

Admiration for effective methodology attracts me. This is where I learn from others. I can see or experience their ways and experiment while absorbing this into my own inquiry. Since taking yoga classes, I have been deeply moved by the unfolding of this kind of personally proven processing by teachers of various yogic stripes. The offering of what a teacher has experienced has a genuine ring to it -- like the sound of a crystal ringing. I am humbled to be among them now, masquerading as one of them while still stirring around in my own cabinet for this or that to shore up the hip here or the fearful mind there... Making sweetness in the posture while adding a bit of hot sauce in the mix.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ironing: Present but not Perfect

The season of ironing has returned. The school year has begun, the temperatures have dropped slightly and it is time for me to catch up with the ironing pile of my husband's shirts that has waited through the summer, growing slowly. He has always worn cotton shirts, and somehow over the past 25-30 years, I've taken on the task of keeping them somewhat free of wrinkles.

It was with some surprise that having started ironing the back of the fifth shirt, I could not remember if I had completely ironed the back of the previous shirt. Stunned for a moment, I stood, wracking my brain and then I actually went over and looked at it.  I had indeed ironed it. Where the heck was I when that happened that I couldn't remember doing it? Was I on automatic pilot?

No, not on automatic, but more present in the moment than in recording the results and committing my actions to memory. As I am ironing, I am acutely aware of the texture of the fabric under my hand and the weight of the iron, feeling the heat of the steam rising, the breeze from the window. My eyes, hands and mind are synchronized with my breath and my attention is fully on what I am doing. Or so I thought. In fact, my heart is also holding the person for whom I am smoothing out the wrinkles, in some ways encircling the shoulders upon which this placate will rest, envisioning the arms and hands that will emerge from this sleeve, once it is rolled up, as it always is when my husband is in action.

So how can it be that I am so present, yet I've finished one shirt and begun another without memory and certainty?  Perhaps it is not the goal of my action to remember ironing the back of each shirt. The goal of my action is to act in the moment, transmitting my love for my husband, and this is what engages me. My physical attention is fully in the present moment, observing the weave of the fabric beneath my hand and the implications of the back pleat for my task. Will the shirt be perfectly ironed because of my full attention? Perhaps not, especially since there is quite a pile and I have evolved a speedy treatment! If I wanted perfectly ironed shirts, I would ask my husband to do it as he is the one who attachs to the specificity of physical results. This is part of what makes his woodwork and sculpture so beautifully crafted. Yet even without attachment to perfection, the task is accomplished, and my goal satisfied.

In the moment of ironing, I am accomplishing a repetitive quotidien task, acting out of love, savoring textures and sensations of being and doing, and relaxing my grip on perfection and judgment.  For me this is yoga off the mat, and I am grateful that my attention was called into question by my thinking mind so that I could see my action for what it truly is. How many times in a seated meditation does the mind ask, "what are you doing? where are you?" and answers itself, "I've taken my seat and I am meditating."  This is harder to count than even counting the breath itself!


Monday, September 2, 2013

Finding Child's Pose Any Time


So many times in yoga classes I've heard teachers say, "feel free to take child's pose any time." In the first class I ever took at a yoga studio, the invitation to release and relax in child's pose actually brought up tears. Surprised to find myself sweaty, tired, folded on the floor and crying, I experienced the insight that yoga was a powerful, personal and subtle way in and out of some dark and lonely places I had tucked away. The space was held in safety by the teacher, and I knew I was not alone as I could hear the quiet breathing of other students also folded on the floor. Something about the individuality of my own mat gave me space too, at the same time the commonality of the floor and the breath was deeply comforting.

I had slipped right into that universal quality of "suffering" in my human structure, experiencing the results of the mind grasping and avoiding, the impact of my mind telling its stories and getting trapped in there.  Then, amazingly, in my first child's pose, I was able to see and acknowledge my unexpected emotional reaction, and actually let it go, allowing the specificity of my physical posture of being folded up on the floor to be a relief after the physical and mental struggles to follow the instructions of that first class. This is the magical quality of the practice, that the sequence of poses (the Asana), in the hands of a teacher will take you right into the present moment. In that moment, our vision can be clear and we can be present.  (Child's pose is a bit like prostrating oneself, both legs folded under the body, so that the shins and tops of the feet are against the ground, the knees are deeply bent, hips back towards heels, and the upper body is resting on the thighs, arms extended or folded next to legs.)

This week I was cutting the grass, about a half acre, which is a demanding and tiring physical challenge with our self-propelled push mower. I won't go into the details of the topography of slopes, the finicky areas that require a lot of pushing-pull to negotiate around plantings and objects, nor stories of my joints, suffice it to say that after a while, it is challenging and tiring! At a certain point, I am drenched in sweat, there is much left to do, and I am quite consciously organizing my body weight over my feet, using abdominal muscles to keep my ribs and pelvis aligned as I push up hill or drag back to reposition the machine. This total body consciousness is an indicator of how stressed I feel, no longer a mindless action, I've called in the mindfulness troops. This is when I hear that voice in my head saying, "feel free to take child's pose at any time during the practice."

Child's pose can be there for any situation where it isn't over and you most surely wish it was. It turns out that child's pose is a state of mind and breath awareness that can be brought to bear while waiting for a loved one having surgery, or stuck in a stopped subway car with an important meeting already starting at your destination, (or in the middle of an arduous task). Child's pose is a way of triggering an internal connection, aimed at letting go of tension and effort that is not required in order to provide the space for the mind to let go of its grip on the perception that you are suffering. That tightness of mind's clutch on the what-ifs and anxiety of not knowing, on the stress of over efforting, or fear of an outcome, can be loosened when I draw my focus to my breath.

This re-focused attention helps back me down from the cliff edge. In my case, I could offer myself a break and a glass of water if I want that, but even without taking that break, I can soften the tension in my body. I can bring my awareness to my feet walking on earth behind that lawn mower, re-adjust my bodyweight so that there is less effort, even slow it down and take the pressure of momentum off of myself.  This is removing the fight-or-flight aspect of pushing through discomfort and exhaustion, and leaves the calmness of steadiness and balanced effort to get me though. Child's pose does this in a yoga class context, allows the body to regroup, the mind to refocus on the breath, the bones to find support in their folded form and feel the support of the earth and the breath.

Whether you can fold on the floor or not, or perhaps wouldn't dream of trying that, you can offer yourself the nurturing quiet attention of child's pose when you need it. As for me, I finished my task of cutting the grass, knowing that in another week, I'll be at it again until the weather turns cold.  I'll be back at it in the Spring and glad of it, just like in yoga class when the teacher brings you out of child's pose with an invitation to reach your palms out on the mat and unfold.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Being: Day Lilies for One Day


All day long, from the very start, I consider the lilies and am filled with amazement and wonder. It's not just that they are incredibly beautiful, so many colors, interacting with the light as it changes all day long. No, it's not that really. It is this inevitable truth that they open these insanely perfect blooms for just this day and then, that's it. If it's a rainy day, well, that's their day. If it's burning hot or windy or full of bugs or deer eating lilies for lunch or whatever, that's their day. And they bloom their very best, regardless.

I've tried to capture them with my digital camera but the colors are not right. These lilies are alive and blooming, I mean specifically, these lilies are totally saturated in the very act of blooming all day long. How can any frozen second capture that? Like this breath, or this eye blinking? A living moment.

And in the twilight of their one day, they are luminous. Some of them are already closing their petals having had their full day of possibilities. Some of them are just beginning to peel open that first petal at dusk in preparation for full bloom at sunrise.  Some bloom into the night. When dead-heading lilies early in the morning (breaking off the spent blooms to make more space for the opening ones), one must be very attentive to those that close in the morning.  They can look so much as though they are just opening.

I can only imagine this feeling of being completely in fullness in every moment. That this is the day for me. Yet it is true that this IS the day for me, and for you, and this day and this day. It seems so wildly unbelievable that we can have a chance to really live in every moment, day after day, when these remarkable and unique lilies only get one. Just one day. Live the one you're in.

bud opening, bloom closing

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Inner Layers Align, Koshas of an Asymmetrical Body

I'm standing in my kitchen thrilled by the quintessential integrity and alignment in this little teapot by Hsin-Chuen Lin on my shelf. How can an object be so beautiful, proportioned perfectly, balanced in every way in form and function and not be symmetrical? In my own daily life, I see so many moments when my inner dialogue seems designed to keep me off balance. I think of how my mind offers me criticism, praise, observations, excuses, prompts, and shifting values in every moment, all of which push and pull me around. I'm learning that my sense of inner alignment comes from some where else, some where other than all that ongoing mental activity.  I think this little tea pot reflects inner alignment and more than just the physical skill of the potter who made it.

In my first yoga training, I was introduced to ideas about the Vedantic and yogic concept of Koshas, the layers, conceptualized as sheaths or "bodies," in which we function and experience awareness. There are said to be five of them, the physical body (Anamaya kosha), the breath body (Pranamaya kosha), the energy body (Manomaya kosha), the mental or wisdom body (Vijanamaya kosha), and the bliss body (Anandamaya kosha). Of course they have names in a number of ancient languages, but for my purposes they are layers of living awareness, each rooted in some aspect of my concept of self, and expansive in ways that are becoming more accessible to me through daily life by way of my yoga and meditation practices, and my growing mindfulness. I don't have to separate them, or define them by anyone else's terms, though sometimes what others say or experience does shed light in places where I'm not so clear. There is a delicate balance between allowing myself to let go of defining elements in order to experience reality without distortion or projection.

It is as simple as being fully present, a practice that takes everything I've got. I can allow this in anything I'm doing -- a level of cultivated awareness from which I slip in and out. In my yoga practice I take a standing pose of warrior one (Virabhadrasana I). This is similar to a standing lunge with the back leg at more of an angle and the back foot fully down on the floor so that each hip is rotating a little differently from the other. To start with, I am probably full of technical check points, sensing the difference when my left ankle is the rear support or my right ankle takes that role. My awareness scans my body - so much variation day to day, moment to moment, in this hip or those quadriceps or shoulder. First layer, Anamaya kosha indeed, full of recorded experience as well as sensations in this moment. I notice that my breath inhabits my form, operating on another level. I notice the slight twist in my ribs as I breathe, feel expansion inward and outward throughout my body, and feel that I am gaining access to my energy body, flowing inward from earth and air and outward into earth and air. I can sense dull places where there are less open channels, and vivid places that are like energy centers. In all of this my mind is awake (at least some of the time). This is not the judgmental, critical, assessing mind, but a spacious, curious mind. Beyond these sensory, physical, intellectual or emotional facets arises a inclusive connectivity, that in some inexplicable way accepts the space where I stand, the air I breathe, other living beings and myself in this without distinguishing hierarchies or values, offering a sense of total being.

All this happens with continuing messages from my stiff left ankle, knowing that my right shoulder is not level with my left, and listening for that wasp dive-buzzing the corners of the window nearby. I'm not driven towards perfection, not expecting my physical form to be symmetrical or to accomplish some kind of measurable feats in order to be worthy of my respect. My body is not unlike the little teapot, a graceful offering of internal alignment, within its functional range of motion.