Sunday, December 26, 2010

treasuring the unknown

It is unfamiliar for me to walk in a Southwestern desert landscape. The forms and contortions that vegetation make to adapt in the severe and extreme climate astonishes me. I find the utter newness keeps me vibrating with joy and alertness. It is so natural to resist change or the unfamiliar, yet I have chosen to put myself in a context where I do not have the usual clues and continuity. What remains steady is my attention.

I know that one foot steps and the weight shifts. There is red rock dust and gravel beneath my feet, the air smells sweet and there is no wind. Everywhere my eye turns I am seeing the possible and the impossible. My own interpretations cease to carry much meaning. There is such grace even in the harshness. So much life even in these adverse conditions. It is easy to watch my own patterns here, in this wide earthly ocean. I see my attempts to categorize, to combine what I know with what I do not know. I feel the open spaces where the unknown beckons my mind even as it is easier to leave the mind resting, an observer.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bon Voyage

The journey varies in length. In all, it is but an instant. There are longer views, ways of looking at it, like counting days or years or hundreds of years. The meanings appear and disappear, changing in shapes and size.

Uncounted people were born and died in the past week, let's call it a week and imagine it as a certain number of days starting at a specific moment. Or let's not. Many hearts were squeezed in sorrow and pain, many exploded in unimaginable joy and love.

This is the journey and there is not a one living being who can successfully avoid it.

The wonder at the lunar eclipse, the deep seated joy at the seconds of light in each day, the profound peace of the night, all come and go, as does the sobbing and the disbelief, the intensity of silence in the absence of the loved one's breath.

Each moment we sit within our constellation of ideas, feelings, sensations, imaginings. Each moment our constellation moves ever so slightly around that core of being that is uniquely our own and yet not ours at all.

Honoring each and every one of you, in this moment, since it is all I have to give, "Bon Voyage."

Friday, December 17, 2010

FInding the Jewel in This Moment

Open the pomegranate.
Marvel at the deep color
And perfect imperfection
of geometry and succulence.
Now deal with the stain,
holding that appreciation
within yourself
succulent and
as you are.

This is the best moment of your life.
This is the best moment of your life.
This is the only moment of your life.
This is your moment.
This is your life.

Cold wind in your face,eyes watering,
Shove your hands into your pockets.
Meet the gaze of each passerby
and smile to the corners of your eyes
sharing the exhilaration, the confrontation.
Being alive and awake.
Watch yourself rush, or regret, pity or retreat.
And smile at your self
grateful for the cold
to the corners of your eyes,
cherishing the warmth of your heart
and your runny nose.

This is the best moment of your life.
This is the best moment of your life.
This is the only moment of your life.
This is your moment.
This is your life.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Knitting a Yoga Practice

Yoga can seem endlessly repetitious, or perhaps infinitely new, simple and complicated all at the same time. On our own, we fall into patterns, push and pull at them and sometimes get tangled so that we have to put the whole thing down for a while. Or daunted, puzzled, blocked or frightened by what we find, or what we cannot find, we seek a teacher or other resources. Sometimes we just walk away from practice for a while.

I have recently found myself to be knitting. It is many years since I made my last sweater. Since then, I have forgotten even how to start the yarn on the needle (called casting on) or how to read the directions of a pattern or to see from the yarn on the needle what stitch it is. In the beginning I had to scrounge for yarn and make up a project out of my head in order to get going. Then I searched for my stash of yarn from years ago, discovered two projects abandoned mid-stream, and both leftovers of yarn and new batches ready for a project.

Surrounded and encouraged by the help of friends (who are also my neighbors --one of the blessings of a cooperative way of life), I am relearning how to knit. It is as a true beginner I approach each aspect of the task, yet as my hands begin to move there is a deep familiarity. As one of my teachers put it, I already have experienced hands. Even so, each stitch requires real attention of a specific kind, while also keeping in mind a pattern within the row, and a pattern beyond the row to include a part of the project or the whole piece. Yet my hands and eyes must attend to this stitch being formed on the needles and must not wander too far into the realm of patterns and projects else I'll drop a stitch, split the yarn with my needle or do the wrong stitch all together. I have had to tear out and start again several times on the simplest of stitches simply because I could not keep my mind focused enough to count the stitches as required. With some humor and acceptance, even this superficially frustrating task was deeply satisfying. Not giving up, holding to a real standard, knowing that in some way my life is held and unfolding in each impermanent and purposeful stitch.

While making something for someone specific, suddenly I want to give it to several people. Ah, I can observe my way of operating... I would like one too, I would like each of these people to have one, I would like to be the person who can make something for everyone... all of that. Out it comes, quietly while I work on this stitch. My hands get tired, my fingers ache. I change my posture to make myself more comfortable. Just til the end of this row, I think, and then turn and start the next row. Well, I'll just do this last side. Watching myself strive to get more done, while at the same time enjoying the feeling of the yarn in my hand, noticing the ache in that finger, taking deep pleasure at the beauty of the methodically twisted yarn in its emerging form as something else. Knowing that even the end of this row is not the end, nor will the end of this scarf be the end. I feel connected to centuries of hands making warm things from spun fibers.

At this moment I truly can no longer see the difference between knitting and yoga. Staying here precisely with this stitch, profoundly understanding that the stitch is nothing and everything, just yarn yet already a scarf, part of a sheep yet wrapped around my aunt's neck, while really still moving in my fingers between the knitting needles. My yearning to be productive remains held stitch by stitch in reality, just as easily pulled back into a thin line of yarn or an elaborate design. This is like the singularity of the breath totally entwined in every cell of me, the movement and wear of the body with all my intentions and inattention, the tangle and deep peace of the mind and that which eludes the mind's grasp.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finding Compassion In Your Self Towards Your Self

The yoga mat is an invitation to stand right in the middle of your self, being fully present. So often we feel as though we are on the outside looking in, or somehow on the fringes of the circle where others seem to belong and we do not. Whether it is holidays or routines, we seem to easily separate ourselves from the core of our being, judging and dissecting instead of holding ourselves in compassionate acceptance.

Taking a few minutes on the mat to center yourself, you can sit or lie down. Closing your eyes, allow your breath to soften and deepen into a quiet belly breath for a few cycles. Crossing your arms across your chest, wrap your fingers around your upper ribs right under your arm pits, allowing your thumbs to rest pointing upwards like suspenders near your collar bones. Now breathe gently into your hands for a few minutes. Encourage your shoulder blades to soften into the mat if you are laying down or relax down your ribcage if you are sitting up. Gently release your hands to rest on your thighs or alongside your hips if reclining, palms up if that feels natural to you.

Bring to mind the feeling of gazing into the eyes of a being from whom you felt undemanding love. Perhaps you had a pet as a child, or have one now, or perhaps an infant or grandparent has looked into your eyes with full acceptance and non-judgment, simple wide open acceptance. If you have difficulty drawing up an image or feeling of this from another being, imagine you are the one staring at another being with this acceptance and openness, not measuring or qualifying, just fully willing to accept who they might be. Sometimes picturing a kitten or puppy, or small bird like a chickadee, can help bring up this feeling.

Once you have really focused your attention on this sensation, allow the warmth and fullness, softness and luminosity to flood you. Direct this open, accepting, compassion towards your own being, perhaps as though gently wrapping yourself in a warm blanket and flooding your inner core with lightness. Simply breathe and feel this non-demanding acceptance.

When your mind wanders bring it back to your breath gently expanding and contracting within your body. You can narrow your attention now to the coolness of the breath coming in through your nostrils, and the warmth of the air as it leaves your nostrils. Allow yourself to fully absorb that there is no judgment in the breath, there is nothing lacking in your being.

Gradually begin to move your wrists and ankles. If sitting, gently massage your thighs from hip to knee, and then your calves to your ankles. Pressing into your feet with your thumbs, smooth the energy from your heels to your big toes, from heels to the next toes, and then the next until you have gently massaged energy to flow into all the toes.

Encouraging your view in these wild windy days and crowded holidays, full of expectations and celebrations, from a deep core feeling of warmth and compassion for your self will help you understand that you are far from the outside looking in. Rather you are deeply rooted right in the center, just as you actually are, and breathing in and breathing out can remind you of this any time you remember to focus in on it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Acceptance: Friend Your Self

Irritable when your shoelace breaks as you prepare to leave?
Frustrated to discover you are short of lentils for your walnut lentil loaf?
Defeated to find they don't make that specific wallet anymore?
Angry that there are no seats left on that cheaper flight?
Upset that the frame doesn't come in that size unless special ordered?
Anxious that your right hip won't let you Ardha Chandrasana or Vrksasana?
Disappointed when you get home to find the 2nd delivery was attempted in your absence?

These are all normal situations that can escalate a feeling of helplessness and anger, especially when the pressure is on to squeeze things in to a tight schedule, or there are deadlines and holidays coming with their own special requirements.

Acceptance is a very deep and rewarding practice. It provides a base from which to observe the reactive self; and with an openness and kindness a bit like a friendly arm around your shoulder, it can allow the moment to pass without the clutch of despair to cloud your view or your action.

It seemed to me growing up that political activism and "fighting" for what seemed right was a noble interaction in the world. I took it as my personal mission to try to make other people happy in a strained family dynamic and thought it was normal for people to try to "fix" each other. This kind of well meaning but destructive idea assumes that there is a better way to see or do or be than that which comes naturally to each of us. I think the schools perpetuated this attitude of "fix it" rather than one of growing what was there already. I'm sure there was a striving for good purpose and intention in all this, but acceptance was not a foundational part of it. Reactive nature provoked more reactions, emotions could hijack intellectual understanding and pit each person against themselves and each other in a blink of an eye. Many a moment was saturated in defeat, self-rejection, blame of others, and helpless sadness. I see how this created an external and internal idea of who each of us could be. I came to understand that there is a common core to all of us, a strand that binds the heart in love, not judgment. Acceptance is part of the path to this understanding.

Everything that happens is transient - it comes and goes. If we can keep our response in the moment as well, we are liberated to react and to act in very different ways than if we allow every little bump in the road to be felt judgmentally, as part of a cumulative defeat, a negative judgment upon the self, an excuse to blame or distrust, and on and on with external and internal negativity. When we bind the moment to these rising emotions of judging ourselves and others in response to fleeting conditions, we trap ourselves further in the emotional cycles of blame and shame, anger and frustration. Of course, this limits our ability to see or experience the range of possibilities and make choices for non harming, non judgmental behaviors.

Imagine approaching the object of discontent as a friend, something like: Ahh, someone I recognize, know well, and though respectful of some distance between us, feel warmth and curiosity. At first it can take an active intention to feel this, to take this approach. Like training oneself to follow a procedure, it is assuming a particular pattern to shift away from other possible reactive patterns. In time, though, it becomes a natural response, to look with affection or at least kindness upon the person whose action or behavior might have disappointed in the past, or upon the shop clerk who informs you that what you seek is no longer available in that size, and even upon your desire to have that thing.

How we function in the world is much more a choice we make when we take this approach, rather than blowing around in the winds of reactive nature. We do not have to let reactivity define personality and character, and create so much negativity in the heart towards the self and others. This is a first step in the practice of acceptance, seeing through the reaction, cultivating the awareness in the moment of reactivity. Once we begin to see the layers and possibilities, we can choose to water a different seed, so to speak.

The practice deepens beyond the surface behaviors into a level of understanding that liberates the attachment to assigning meaning and value in all directions. And even with the occasional negative reaction, while still under the thumb of attachment to control and judgment, the way of being in the world is transformed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Constancy: the discipline of being

Every month I go visit my elderly relatives, parents and aunt, about 150 miles away from where I live. Every day I take a few minutes to meditate and practice even just a bit of yoga aside from my teaching. Every night that I am home, I share a meal with the one(s) I love who are living with me. These are not ritual patterns, they are mindful acts.

Being present is not a casual operation! With time and practice, mindfulness and awareness become more constant as a way of operating, of being. But to get there from here takes intention and action.

So just as with checking mail or washing dishes, there is a determination of value in it even when it has nothing to do with how the world will judge you or what others think of you. This is something that comes from inside, the urge to find your self or to shed layers of the self that no longer suit you, or that chafe or cause pain.

Meditation and yoga practices do not take you from yourself. It seems to reveal a more vivid quality in fact. I can see my wandering mind, I can notice that tight muscle buried deep in the hip socket. I can watch feelings rise and fall in myself. These are part of me, and I can adapt my functioning to accommodate in different ways once I am aware.

Choosing to travel every month, choosing to show up on the mat every day, these are ways of connecting. The energy, relationships, awareness and peace that come with being present are vast, seem larger and more inclusive than anything I've run into before. This state of being can accept sorrow, can include anger and pain, can hold joy and excitement, can be all the facets of emotional and physical self and still be intact. It is this undamaged quality to the energy, the being, that is the revelation. No matter what else has happened, or we think is happening, this inner energy is whole.

Curiosity and constancy are enough to get there, add a dose of intention and suffering to pull you deeper into the inquiry and all there is to do is let go of resistance and be.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Expectations & Plans

It's a set up, all this internal arranging around projections and assumptions. Could be a simple thing, like expecting my spouse to put the pot lid back where I think it belongs, or a complicated thing like expecting to find bliss in Savasana. In either case, it's a construction and prompts a sequence of conditions and reactions. Judgments, disappointment, anger, one-ups-man-ship, controlling behaviors and even affection can link to expectations. How many acidic comments towards self or others have originated in expectations that have not been met? So many awkward and painful moments taint the opening of gifts. Even deeply loving relationships can be poisoned by holding tightly to projected ideas of who someone is, by expecting specific actions, types of achievements or responses. This kind of expectation creates others as who we want (think) them to be, denying them the chance to fully express who they are. Many grown children feel this prison of expectations in relationships with their parents, until the relationships can shift to different ground. This trap is not one way but operates in all directions!

Plans are a different matter if they can be separated from expectations. One can plan a trip with thoughts of being open to the possibilities of choices, conditions, and requirements without attaching too solidly to the expectation that it will be this or that, go this way or that. Think of planning for weather when you travel and you can understand the conditional nature of a plan. Weather has an influence on activities and by accepting the possibilities, we can make a reasonable guess at the patterns based on time and place, and perhaps pack a sweater, or find an optional inside activity. When we are taken by surprise to find an unusually warm day, or windy day, we can make our accommodations on the spot without attachment to disappointment or other judgment. Enjoying this aspect of our ability to react to changing conditions is part of what makes life interesting and allows for a range of experiences.

We might look at relationships to other parts of our lives much as we do the weather, planning for a normal range and observing the reactions that arise when conditions change. This attitude of openness offers fluidity and possibility rather than the clutching of disappointed expectations. The more familiar we are with our own patterns of reactivity, the easier it is to let those patterns shift or even chose a different reaction before acting.

Planning might be setting an alarm clock so that you can wake up in a timely way, knowing even so that there is the possibility of a snooze alarm or a malfunctioning alarm clock. If you know your pattern of reactivity, you can get a clock without the snooze, or put a second alarm clock further from the bed so that you must get up to turn it off. It is the attitude that shifts when we release expectations. Accepting that missing the alarm changes the day, perhaps helps you to see your priorities more clearly. It can help you identify physical or emotional needs that were being ignored, such as resistance to the expectations of the day, a need for more rest, resentment of obligations, or even that you are fighting off an illness, or need more time to prepare yourself.

Shifting from expectations as a way of operating takes time and practice. We will still expect the sun to rise, and the night to fall! Letting go of expectations even just a little can ease stress during these next few demanding weeks. Maybe New Year's resolutions can be seen more as intentions rather than a straitjacket of expectations. Maybe gifts can be felt as intentions too, and the judgment of objects, expense, choices etc. can be softened. It can be the greatest gift to free the people around you from judgments about them and their actions.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Taking that next breath

Befriending yourself is like a book of short stories, each step of the way there are characters and subplots. Though all by the same author, they may have very different tempos or flavors or impact. Some are short, some endless. One thing ties them all together and that's the breath itself. Without that, all the stories dissolve. So on the journey to radical self acceptance the breath is a deep well from which we can draw, and the more we cultivate awareness of the breath, the deeper the well will seem.

So often yoga practice takes us in its arms when we are tied in knots or desperate for a solution. Many times it welcomes us even when we arrive with negativity and resistance, or uncertainty. Self judgment is a constant companion for some of the practice, and sometimes this even turns outward towards others in the class or the teacher or the world at large.

The path to unconditional love of that embarrassing, messy, inept, awkward, shameful, angry self can begin with the next inhale. Just the simple act of recognizing how the breath flows in, stretching the diaphragm down into the belly and spreading the ribs just a little, lifting the collar bones at the fullest, can redirect this energy and begin to dissipate all that judgment. When you can allow the exhale to soften the inside of your ribs, slipping your shoulders into restful lightness atop that structure, feeling the deep pull of the low abdomen to empty out that last bit of carbon dioxide at the base of the breath, a little ease will begin to seep into the body. This is a direct signal to the mind that it does not have to fight off the moment. There is nothing in this moment that is threatening or destructive. Nothing in the moment that deserves all that vitriol pouring towards it as though the self was the enemy.

Truthfulness (Satya) will show you that there is a tenderness and compassion, an openness towards that struggling self, the one that made the mistake or said that thing or dropped the ball or acquiesced to something now regretted. The breath can help take you, one inhale and exhale at a time, into that space where there is a steady equanimity with which you can see your fears and embarrassments, anger and shame without having to hold on to those feelings and wallow in negativity that prevents your ability to be in this moment. If you are not present now, you are not living your life fully. Walking in one direction with your face turned to see behind you will not help you see where you are going nor where you have been.

Each time you bring that breath in, you offer an open hand to your inner being, a hand you can always reach, one that never waivers in its steadfastness at your best or worst moments. Whether you are on the yoga mat or off, you can let your own breath remind you. That open hand will be there, offering unconditional friendship to you right where you actually are.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ego & Nirvana: Getting There By Being Who We Are

In my opinion, ego is the human structure that distinguishes one's self from the constant barrage of ongoing energies all around us. It is a critical part of the filtering and sorting of what comes in, and to some degree controls and influences what comes out. With our physical senses taking in all kinds of data about touching and texture, color, light, tastes, sounds and fragrances, we physically experience and shape our memory and understanding of experience. The body has myriad mechanisms to code and appreciate this, attach meanings and values, and place most of it in hierarchies of influence and importance. Our own unique ways of doing this make us the wonderfully diverse and peculiar individuals that we all are. The contexts for this and the company we have throughout this experience influence the things we file and where we file them too.

The less physical yogic principles of sensory withdrawal (Pratyahara), deep concentration (Dharana), and meditation (Dhyana) are not goal oriented nor do they aim to obliterate the ego or the senses. It seems to me that these three of the 8 limbs of Patanjali are parts of the process we experience as we separate out the essential-eternal witness consciousness from the individual ego. Or, I could say these principles illuminate the underlying vibration, rather than the ego, that which serves as the recording device for the variety of harmonic possibilities representing our experiences.

On the yoga mat we discover a little bit of this structure when we use the breath to neutralize the recording device (ego) and train our concentration on the more universal aspects of being. We can use the mind, the ego being, to visualize the structures of the body, to place intentions in the form of colors or sensations in a particular chakra or imagine the inner form of an asana without taking the body into it. Another example might be when we cultivate an awareness of energy beyond the body, as in feeling support from the earth and gravity. With the breath we can learn to pinpoint our attention and remain focused so that the flow of constant ego-linked observations and reactions can be seen as the foreground (or self with a small "s"), rather than the entirety of being (or the universal self with a large "S"). This is the path of Dharana, which begins to stretch beyond the physical body, giving a glimpse of where ego resides and opens to more of the authentic state of being.

I suppose this is why meditation is sometimes sought as a way of getting away from the self, or approached with the hope of quieting the mind into silence. Both of these attitudes are just that, attitudes that make the path itself a little more gritty. It seems to me that approaching the practices with a curiosity to know more about thus self, about this powerful and chattering mind, can start with the physical practices, the first of the 8 limbs, Asana practice and Pranayama, and open into glimpses, even for fleeting moments, of the space beyond the physical being. The opinionated recording and organizing device of ego is a bit like the shapes of a face or sound of a voice in its specificity. We all have this, and it seems we all have that which is beyond it as well.

Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam - 1.3 sutra of Patanjali
Then consciousness abides in its true nature

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Song of The Open Field

photo: jesse r meredith

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn't make any sense. -- Rumi

The analytic mind has its place. The fullness of sensory lushness has its place too. Experience, that instant recording of sense and intellect, combines in giving us a history, a sense of our self, a place to stand from which we can define and evaluate all that constantly shifts around us. Yet even deeper below these aspects there is an ancient urge to inhale and exhale, to shield oneself from harm, to test the truth as perceived. Much in our human experience rests in the responses of this ancient center of the brain and neurology. Call it fight or flight, or anything you want, if not ruled by it, we must consciously recognize it and work beyond its impulses.

I love this poem of Rumi's (Sufi mystic poet) that so simply steps beyond these limitations of mind's self-absorption. Recently I acquired a Tibetan singing bowl, and even with my totally rudimentary skills, the song it sings goes so deep. This vibrational quality resides in music of all times and places, and can be held in the simple tone poem of "OM." In my classes I sometimes say that it is present in all things and we hear it when it rises to the surface, but it works the other way too. Even without vocalizing, just being present, this vibration can reach deep into the being quality without getting stuck on words, meanings, separations of self or other.

Devotional chanting is not something that makes everyone comfortable, kind of like singing in a church choir is not for everyone. There is an uncanny feeling of self awareness when sound emits from your own throat and joins almost indistinguishably from ambient sound. Self begins to separate and merge along with the sound itself. This can happen even without vocalizing. Silent "OM" is often more wide open than even that which we speak.

Meditation can be an invitation to be in that place, that field Rumi refers to, where the dualistic right/wrong, me/you cease to exist. Even being there for one second as you read Rumi's words, even one second in that field can change everything else.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gratitude without Measure

No need to pile up the gifts or the blessings, marking the gains.
No need to sort the losses, the wounds, the sorrows, noting the missing.
No need to reach beyond the moment into memory or projections of what might come.
No need to fight despair, or grasp for happiness.

Here I am.
Letting go when the time comes.
Cradling with love when the time comes.
Sinking into the earth, or rising to meet the sun.

Here I am.
Or perhaps no longer here.

Not stacking the logs of what has come my way.
Not picking through the ashes of what is gone.

Perhaps there is no difference between that which makes me happy
and that which makes me sad... except the way I respond, attaching
to the idea, my body circuits reacting and flooding me with the chemicals of the moment.

A carrot from our dirt comes,
a walnut from a tree far away,
an apple from the yard, dropped,
a raisin dried from grapes of another season,
bread baked in someone else's oven,
herbs saved from the side yard,
squash found grown in a friend's compost,
cranberries from a New Jersey bog,
oranges from a hill in California,
potatoes from the nearby Middleburgh Valley,
and faces around the kitchen table
made of hope and willingness.

Do we measure this, on which yardstick?
The category of gift or loss? The levels of love or tolerance?
The measuring cup of last year's meal?

I am here, and the greatest joy for me
is the gratitude of this moment.
That I am in this exploration,
human and conflicted,
humble and proud,
loved and loving,
and not knowing
the next moment
until now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ahimsa & Judgments

There was a children's book my kids loved when they were little that was set up so that each page offered a “that’s bad” or a “that’s good” set of conditions. Each set of pages illustrated the same situation from a different point of view. Sometimes it was hard for my children to figure out at first why it was good, or why it was bad… and they delighted in turning the page to discover the instant reversal of fortune. There are many jokes and riddles like this as well. The biggest is the one we present to ourselves daily, reacting constantly to the conditions around us.

Seasonal change, holidays, markers like New Year’s or birthdays often seem to bring out the “that’s good – that’s bad” in us as we project and remember. We look ahead and say, “Oh no, this is going to be …” or perhaps “Phew, now we will be able to ….,” as if the mere fact that there is a next moment offers us a “good” or “bad” set of conditions. Of course some of the conditions we project or remember are related to economic hardships and climate, to physical conditions and types of community in which we live. Yet even with these conditions there are those whose basic approach is “now I can change everything from what it was,” while there are those whose attitude is “look how this will limit me.” We do not control conditions of the sun and seasons, the wind or the age of our bones, yet we do live with those conditions and have choices how and whether we react.

Here, where I live in the Northern Hemisphere, East Coast of the not-quite-New England United States, we leave behind the summer warmth, as we watch the vegetation lose its green vitality, drying through the phases of colors and textures until all becomes more starkly browns and russets against evergreens and stone. Days shorten, nights lengthen and the air cools, beginning to require layers of protection on our subtle, fragile flesh. Animals living outside in this changing world grow thicker coats of fur, fluff their feathers for insulation, bed down in nests and burrows, sometimes even turning down their own biological thermostats to better match the outside world. They do not judge the harshness or the coldness, the darkness or the lack of fresh greens. The adaptation to the physical world is as natural as the breath itself, and some do not survive the shifting seasons, either by design or by circumstance. We humans uniquely assign values.

It is deer hunting season in upstate New York, suddenly as of yesterday morning. The sounds of gunshots reverberate in the hills. I associate this sonorous punctuation with death and destruction. By late afternoon, driving to or from anywhere there are carcasses hanging from trees. It is a horrifying time for me from one point of view, yet the deer laying dead by the side of the road is also done with this life due to human behaviors, and the deer bones found in the field after the coyotes have finished with it is done with this life as well. It is my own mind, my own judgment that attaches the sense of horror, assigns attributes to the people who roam the hills with their powerful rifles aimed at another species. It seems different if they aim at our own species yet we, humans, do that too and assign a different value to that based on context and intention. We make rules about shooting deer, which some hunters keep and some do not, just as in the context of armed conflicts among ourselves. Some feel the rules are arbitrary, restrict their freedoms to act as they choose, or pin them down in situations where there is ambiguity of choice.

So as I approach Thanksgiving, I turn my own pages, “this is good” and “this is bad.” I watch my own predisposition to say “This is harm” and “This is natural,” and I find myself exploring the world of human intentions.

Do no harm, Ahimsa, is a basic fundamental part of yoga awareness and practice. It begins towards the self, towards other living beings, and in the way we offer our teachings, making all efforts to leave space for others to find themselves. How to apply Ahimsa to the porcupine chewing on my front porch, to the hunter from next door shooting off into the woods, to the broken hearted driver who realizes they have run over a darting squirrel? How to offer Ahimsa in a room full of older people who suffer from attachment to the memories of what they used to be able to do in bodies that no longer do those things? How to practice Ahimsa towards myself as I see my judgmental nature turning and twisting at the toll booth, the body of a dead deer strapped to the SUV roof next to my car?

The hunter from the hungry family who will hunt and shoot the deer, bringing home meat for the freezer to feed them all winter is not killing any differently than the sporting hunter seeking the 5th set of antlers to adorn the wall in their home. The death of the deer is not different. The intention is different. Why does this matter to me? Who am I to sit in judgment of the one or the other?

We make choices about what we do or we fall into patterns of habitual action. We can make choices about whether we judge something or not, and recognize the values we assign to our judgment. I do not foresee a time when I cease judging others or myself. Yet I come closer and closer to practicing Ahimsa in my judgments, leaving just a little more space for myself to choose right action, right speech. Perhaps this also makes a little more space for others to do that too.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Not an Escape Hatch

Right in the middle of a hard time, I throw myself on the mat. Oh to clean out this mess in me, oh to just erase the hard stuff and feel peaceful. Why can't I just step outside this snarl by meditating and doing yoga?

Even though the practice is not an escape, my practice brings me closer in to what is going on, if I choose to allow that to happen. Meditation and yoga-on-the-mat practice does heal some of my internal wounds, and perhaps these inflammations and old gashes support the current mess. It can lead to the illusion that the practice helps me escape... because I feel so much more equanimity and space for my own breath in the practice. I can let my body unclench from its reactivity and that brings more energy to every situation, even the hard ones. Giving myself space can also change my entire view of what's going on.

So the impulse to throw myself into practice in order to escape and erase is also reactive nature, and though the result is not escape or erasure, the practice itself can help me step back and observe my own clenched hand, my own part in the story from whence the trapped feeling comes.

There are moments when my mind shuts down with the overload of information, when I cannot figure out what to do. There is a misconception that I must solve the problem. Practice helps me notice the specificity of my own posture. Where am I tightened up, where can I lean into the earth for support, how can I let go and make more space? This is the same approach that works best in the middle of a snarl. In its nature a relationship reaches beyond the individual components into a shared energy, an interaction. If I can find my own breath, feel my own foundation, free my own clenching, then there is a much better chance I can actually see and accept the conditions and reactivity around me with more than just tolerance.

My attachment to the outcome of the situation exacerbates the snarling, and my practice helps me see the source of my attachment. That, in and of itself, can set me free from the entrenched place where I was stuck, defending, attacking or drowning in confusion.

Practice, in its nature, helps me see that there is nothing "wrong" and nothing "right." This way of seeing what is, without judgment, eliminates the idea that "problem solving" is relevant or useful. By addressing my own attachments and judgments, I free myself to be more open to all the aspects of whatever the current brings in.

Practice, not to erase, not to escape, but with the possibility of seeing more and more clearly, being present even more fully. Using meditation and yoga will help, not to slip away and disappear, but step into more space for your awareness, for your compassion, for your intellect as well.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Inhabit the body, Focus the Mind & Find This Moment

Within a few breaths, the room full of office workers feel their shoulders melt, let their attention rest lightly on the breath drawing into their bodies and begin to let go. We had lifted each leg and felt its weight, then released that weight into the floor, into the structure, into the earth itself. Lightness had already begun to seep into the faces in the room. I cannot imagine they had ever sat together in a room with their eyes closed, breathing gently and feeling so complete.

The purpose of my time with them, all the countable minutes of one hour, was simple: to offer a release from stress. Basically help them relax into a genuine experience beyond analysis and words, goals and priorities, to live in their bodies without criticism and learn a little more about who they really are. Just get them out of the dualities of thinking. Just offer them a view of their own personal roller coaster. Just let them be free. That's all. Oh, and do it sitting in standard issue office armchairs, under fluorescent lights, surrounded by tables and chairs.

That evening, I gently tucked a blanket under the head of a 60-something year old woman in Savasana who was experiencing her first yoga practice. She had her knees propped on blocks, and her shoulders open beneath her ribcage. Her palms were softly open, her mind focused on the glow of her energy pooling there. Her breath was so light, her body weightless. If I had the right kind of camera, I bet I could have captured an image of her energy body along with the other 15 glowing beings on the floor around her at the medical center. Practice began with them spreading mats and distributing blankets to each other, commenting and taking care of each other while waiting for everyone to arrive. Just settling on the mats took time, tending to the truth in their bodies, accepting those findings, and encouraging the breath to discover them too.

This morning, as the sun rose, I watched seven beautiful young faces, eyes closed, breathing in and breathing out, each envisioning a pool of luminous energy in their pelvis as they sat on the mat. With every breath I could feel the energy radiating from them, deeply concentrating as they lifted a blind face towards the ceiling on the inhale, then releasing the chin towards their heart with the exhale. It took a few minutes to get them here, inhabiting the body using the mechanism of the breath, cultivating a focus of attention in the mind on this inhale, this exhale. For just a few minutes, they could let go of the outside shapes of the asana and gave up on competing with themselves, not needing to be more than this, accepting right now.

It only lasts a moment. But that is all we ever have, isn't it? This is why I practice and teach yoga. So far beyond the rush of exercise, so deeply moving in the cells, so full of open space and endless possibilities, regardless of time, place, props, age, body weight or condition. I mean what I say: the only pre-requisite is if you are breathing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Let's Not Talk About It

A vital part of teaching yoga is allowing students to hear their inner voices, to rest in the awareness of being, to find their reactive natures and witness themselves in action. Verbal cues can make a huge difference in directing attention and cultivating awareness, and they can also blur into a sound wall that blocks all those inner levels of investigation.

In conversation the same thing can happen, and I know that I, specifically, can be totally the perpetrator of a wall of talk. I grew up in a family where there was competitive talking -- and had to learn as the youngest in the gang, how to enter this, or even whether to enter in. Then, out of that context, I had to learn how to hear myself stomping all over the possibility of an exchange. Part of it is probably defense. Okay, I am a passionate type to begin with, but believing in what you say is not an excuse for not listening.

Believing in what you say is not an excuse for not listening.

Listening. Believing.

Believing in what you say can also mean not listening to what is inside your self. Taking a position, holding a position, knowing something so firmly, so elaborately, that it can, all of its own massiveness, block out the possibilities inside your own head, body, awareness as well as anything coming from any where else.

Silence is not a negative quality. Not talking offers a possibility, rather than a negation of speech. The mind is always full of chat, and if we let the chat fill in all the spaces, well, where's the space for awareness?

So, yes, meditation is a way of observing all of this, but yoga practice is that too, and attending yoga classes, and teaching yoga classes, and having breakfast with your lover, and walking your dog or without your dog. Even engaging in casual conversation with someone on the subway is an opportunity to observe, to listen, to find the spaces that surround the piles of words and ideas, yours and theirs.

Sometimes it is infinitely richer to listen more fully than to talk more about it. Not saying that keeping things to yourself is the deal; there are plenty of times when it is essential to share and words are one mechanism.

Words are one mechanism.

Exploring the others is a marvelous journey. So for just a minute, let's not talk about it! As Jacques Pepin says at the end of every TV kitchen episode, "Happy Cooking!" Do the doing, be the being, listen to the fullness and emptiness of whatever you come across, inside or out.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Most Important Thing

It struck me recently that as soon as I assign a most important thing, my opportunity for freedom from attachment begins to seep away.

Sometimes while teaching I will say, "just notice what you notice, then let it go." So I am trying to encourage awareness without elevating any particular sensory data or any of the meanings we like to attach to that information to "most important thing" status.

When taking classes I am curious about the ways in which teachers draw attention to a wide variety of possibilities for the mind, directing and encouraging, hoping to bring focus and awareness where there was blur and oblivion. Some speak of alignment points, I know I sometimes do (knees over ankles). Sometimes its energy flow patterns, as in "allow your spine to rise with the inhale," or maybe "radiate from your heart through your fingertips." Then there are the emotional/psychological instructions "open your throat chakra and allow your true voice to sound," or spiritual encouragements like "feel the universal self in your back body."

But what's the most important thing? Attentiveness? Non-judgment? Focus? Alignment? Dedication? Perseverance? Faith? Putting in the time? I really think that as soon as I allow a "most important thing" to take hold, I close off possibilities and become attached to outcome. It's that simple.

In almost any context, if I ask myself "what is the most important thing?" what I really mean is, "Can I focus in on this a little better?" or it might mean "Can I get this situation under control?" The first is cultivating awareness and drawing my attention more to whatever it is, the second is grasping and attaching and hanging on more tightly to what I think. The first definitely makes it easier to maintain my equilibrium, the second tends to lead to willfulness and letting reactivity run the show. Either way, my practice at this point goes back to "noticing what I notice, and letting it go."

Being is such an interesting way to live a life! I am deeply grateful to spend less and less time in that state where I am a puppet and my reactive nature holds the controls.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Sugar Candy: A Beautiful Practice

When someone compliments me, I know they are making judgments, but it is deeply sweet. Just like sugar candy, we so easily learn to crave that sweetness. Beauty is in the mind, a way of appreciating or noticing some thing or attribute, and that has this sweetness too. Like watching a dancer move through a choreography suited to their nature or the musical score, or when the light at 4pm strikes the tree tops just so, or when the breath carries me through Surya Namasakar (sun salutation) from the inside. It is grace made visible.

When I go to different studios, sometimes teachers come up and actually say to me, "You have a beautiful practice."

The first time it happened it was like the candy, a little shock at the sweetness, and that warm melting feeling that comes with pride and ego growing. Then, like steam dissipating, the little sweet droplets began separating on my tongue and I wondered what does this mean?

It happened again today. Not saying it happens all the time, but I am beginning to find that it is not unusual. And I am finding that I can see the candy as the confection it is, without having to eat it.

My practice is simply me, connecting to the energy that the breath brings me, and trying to hear what the teacher is offering me. I can feel clumsy, funny, and smooth. I can find all kinds of things interesting along the path that another teacher is offering me. Sometimes I rebel against a tone or a sequence or an attitude, but when that happens it becomes my practice too. The practice of watching myself judge myself as somehow mismatched to the moment. That is, of course, impossible, since there is nothing else but that moment and obviously I'm right in it! So it is me chafing at being... which more often than not makes me laugh when I see that it is happening.

Actually, now, today, when it happened again, I saw that it was simply the grace of the breath made visible.

So I looked around and wondered if the teacher also saw beauty in the man standing there fighting with himself about balancing, rather than taking an accommodation for his hamstring situation and letting his body rest in balance. Maybe seeing it in that woman folded in child's pose instead of taking a twisted Ardha Chandrasana balance (standing half moon, with opposite hand down). Or could it be seen in the practice of that dancer in the corner with the incredible lines from fingertips to toes, or that young man who was finding new space in his spine while he tried to relax his forehead. Every one of them was beautiful to me, as they searched their souls for freedom in that moment to let the body twist, rise, extend, stretch, deepen, breathe, and be in a most specific way! Willingly, and with concentration, each one of them was expressing grace as it was in that moment, for them, in that body, on that day.

So next time I see a piece of dark chocolate and crave that sweetness melting in my mouth, I will think of grace, and simply take a piece. There is no need to reject the compliment, nor to make any more of it than its intention of appreciation. I'm learning to leave ego out of it, and just be grateful for the flow of grace.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Not So Special, Just Being Authentic

There is such a temptation to build ego! Even as the yoga practice works to dissolve the dualities, drawing attention to the energy rather than the definitions within which the energy moves... Meditation is walking in the wind, watching the world move in response, feeling it, and even while feeling it, letting the feeling slip out of the sensory realm.

Okay, so meditation can take a person beyond that ego, but the ego still wants in on it. You can feel it, hovering, wanting to get its sticky fingers back into the deliciousness. There's nothing wrong with ego. We need it, definitely, to function properly in the world. But it is not the same as being, it is the separate "self" rather than the universally connected "Self."

Taking a yoga class is a wonderful exercise for me. It is like the way your core feels when you first try to invert into headstand... all wobbly and strangely new. There's a sense of identity, yet an observing identity, and yet still another body of energy that is simple and clear. I have to laugh at the teacher person on the mat who is laughing at the student person on the mat who is laughing at the blissful energy person on the mat who is hovering over the aching knees and softened heart person. All of them are me and yet this does not make me into any thing, or any one in any hierarchy. Each body in the room has this fullness of knowing, not knowing, feeling, perceiving, and witnessing. How wonderful is that?

The fact is that nothing I do on the mat, or off the mat turns me into a pot of gold. I remain a breathing entity wobbling through the moments I get, sometimes lifted off the earth in a blissful state by a gust of wind in the leaves, sometimes slogging in the mud with a shovel made of the heaviest steel. And so it is for everyone, I suspect. We have our separate faces so we can tell better stories, otherwise we might be like bees and all there would be would be a sound of communal buzzing. Actually, some of the most marvelous moments are those when we listen for that very sound among us.

The big part of practice in this regard is to let go of my attachments to putting values on "me." It is not that I am worthless, but that there is no measurable entity when it comes to "being me." It doesn't matter if I can do a particular asana or not, or if it looks just so or not. This way of being without judgment means that I don't feel "special" in any way that elevates me beyond the other human beings (or frogs for that matter) around me in the mud of yoga practice. This helps me really be compassionate towards myself and others. We are all just riding this particular wave, even if we cannot distinguish this wave from any other. The riders who fall into it sooner are no less riders than those who are riding it still.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Judging the Falling Leaf

Walking in the detritus of Autumn. Traversing a landscape with piles of leaves, leaves blowing across the streets, swirled in corners against buildings, damp, dry, brilliant and crushed to brown soggy pulp. What a beautiful reminder of this constant cycle in which we all exist, that of our budding beginnings, coming into full leaf, pulsing with chlorophyll and the means of production to sustain life. Then at a certain moment, draining of that functional ability, turning into something of a different color, a flare marking our existence before detaching, letting loose from the juices of breath and voice, and drying, crackling, falling, drifting, rejoining the substance from which we came in the first place.

So what is beauty? What has value here? What is the meaning? Where is the kernel of justification for everything? Do these definitions and categories change anything about the bud, the green leaf, the tinged yellow, falling brown or decomposed leaf? It is natural for the mind to see the details and acknowledge attraction or repulsion -- does a rotting tomato appeal to you the way a red ripe one does? I don't think so, usually. But if you look without the judging as to whether you want to eat it or not, or touch it or not, perhaps you will see it within the confines of its own beauty.

Some practices put forth the contemplation of the dead as a way of understanding ourselves. To watch the decay of the body is a reminder that we are all one with the dust, one with the microbes and bacteria, one with the water flowing, the leaves falling, the next breath taken by someone else. It is a tough lesson to learn that way, and yet there is much beauty in it. The decay process is not ugly or beautiful, just as the brown leaf or the red leaf is not ugly or beautiful. It is the mind that makes it so. This judging mind is so often turned up to a high setting, aimed at ourselves or others, at each corner of the world in which we spend our days.

The yoga mat, or the site of any meditation, offers a place where for even a few moments you can contemplate letting go of the judgmental mind. Pick up a few leaves -- green, fall colors, brown -- and use them as a focal point for your practice. Let them suggest to you that judging them is a mindless inquiry. Seeing them is an awareness practice, can lead to single-pointed focus, and help you let go of pre-conceived ideas even of your body, your possibilities, your self. Allow yourself to feel the leaves as part of your own cycle, to feel your own beating heart as part of theirs.

I often feel the leaf in me as I drift to the earth for Savasana, not judging where I fall, noticing the support wherever I touch the earth, and feeling the lightness of my curling parts in the air, never minding the next gust of wind that takes me flying.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Making Peace With The Body

Just completed a training session based on research into the measurable effects of yoga on the quality of life for people living with arthritis. A totally wonderful period of focus on softening, acceptance, open heartedness and the strength that mind-body-and spirit can bring towards healing.

It seems so clear that the beginning and the ending of healing is learning that one can turn the compassionate heart towards oneself, accepting that the body is ours as a gift, in spite of the issues that arise and perhaps in particular because of the issues that arise. These joints and aches are reminders that awareness and acceptance will open the way, towards peace, towards joy, towards the true self. We could go blithely along never noticing our self, simply running on reactivity and conditions, setting goals and reaching, grasping for that next brass ring. The ache in the knee, and the understanding that this moment is truly all that you have, go together in a most amazing way to bring a person into the present, vividly.

Not saying pain is good or bad, not saying deformity in the joints is a goal or to be avoided... just being. More on this when I have more time.

There are so many people walking on earth now who have come to understand the gift that each moment brings.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Defending An Open Heart

So much of my practice and teaching, daily life for that matter, is related to right action and an open heart. This way of being has long been a part of my basic character, or nature, but I have had a bumpy ride with it. There has been a lot of suffering, let's just say, and misplaced trust, disappointed hopes, and tremendous energy expended in ways that seemed to dissipate into nothingness.

I also grew up feeling that other people's happiness was somehow my responsibility, though I have long since come to understand that it is only through a person's own awareness and being that the freedom of joy can emerge. That joy can be shared, which is something I definitely do. Somewhere along the way I have learned that I can live with my compassionate heart available to share joy and sorrow, yet feel safer, and can even at times offer a safe space for others to experience themselves more fully too. It is my yoga practice that seems to have shifted me here.

It boils down in some ways to releasing attachment to outcome, making the offering without the goal of making the offering, rather by simply being available to be offering. In this framework we cannot give away anything, nor lose nor gain. Oh that doesn't sound easy, does it?

It is not impossible to practice strengthening this sense of safety in openness. Just as we might practice sending compassion in a meditation towards someone for whom we have not always felt positive feelings, or we might now see others' behavior in terms of conditions of pain and suffering rather than letting it jerk our reactive nature around; we can learn to see and label dangers, and get more familiar with recognizing and using the strengths within us.

It all begins with the breath and cultivating awareness. That really is a simple exploration that can last your whole life! The physical yoga practice helps enormously with this, in my opinion. Breathing is a mechanism of balance, and balance offers the equanimity of a much wider range of motion whether it is the heart or the feet in motion. Through a sequence of Asana, tensions can be released that allow access to muscular strength and flexibility. The movement of the muscles and deeper support they can offer the bones, the greater a sense of foundation to every posture, every action. The process of gaining awareness, of stretching and strengthening, of focusing on moving within the movements of the inhale and exhale, produces a most amazing increase in the body's ability to feel ease with what is actually so. This enables movement in the emotional world as well as the physical one. Access to strength while remaining relaxed is a beautiful way to describe how the heart can be open, yet not be subject to changing conditions or harmed from operating without foundational support.

There are spiritual and other energetic practices that strengthen the heart and its ability to let go of the attachments that cause so much pain. Something as simple as a Mudra (hand posture in this case) of balance and grace as with Anjali Mudra (fingers gently resting upon each other, base of palms touching loosely resembling "Prayer" hands), of protection, as with Vaikhara, the shield (thumbs tucked into fists, forearms crossed in front of chest with hands held against the body), can help marshal the energy body's resources. I also find Garuda Mudra, (Eagle) of hooked thumbs, crossed wrists held with palms facing the heart to be particularly healing for feelings of being trapped in conditional nature. This is just one more tool to help balance energies, balance out the mind-body authority struggles, and give heart energy a little more support!

Locking up the movements of the heart will not hold them, just like holding one's breath will not stop the moment. As awareness grows, attention becomes more focused, breath becomes more available to the energetic needs of the body, and the body can develop in its ways of supporting alignment and finding balance. In this way the heart can also begin to feel more freedom. It is not something a person makes happen, it will happen on its own as the practice supports that opening.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Begin Practice with Awareness

Pratapana - Sanskrit for warm up practices - are part of yoga practice for me. There is nothing formulaic about it, yet there is a logical physiological sequence to follow. Yoga practice for some begins with sun salutations and this movement and sequence is designed to move the joints, stretch the spine, stir up circulation and allows lots of possibilities for adding variations. There are many days when Surya Namaskar (sun salutations) are too vigorous to begin my own practice, or my classes.

People with athletic or dance backgrounds know a good deal about how warming up the body leads into a safer and more productive practice. The body is only one part of yoga practice, and it does benefit hugely from sensitivity to the joints, circulation of energy and natural tightness of specific muscle groups. I recommend moving from the subtle and to more progressively dramatic movements of the spine, the rib cage, the hips, toes, neck, shoulders, well, the whole variety of body parts. The special aspect of this for me is that it is not with a focus on the hip that I would move the hip, but with a focus on the breath.

Breathing in expands the body, naturally moving and stretching more muscles and joints than I can name. Breathing out reduces the inner pressures, relaxing all those muscles and joints into a natural contraction. Yet the breath does much more than that. On a physiological level, the breath brings oxygenated blood into every cell and eliminates carbon dioxide and other "waste" products of the bodies functioning. On a psychological level, the breath draws energy and awakens a sense of fullness, openness, energy, sufficiency, expansion, and possibility with one conscious inhale; and releases, nurtures, calms, relaxes, opens and cleanses on the exhale. With a focus on the breath, all the Pratapana of spinal movements, opening and lubricating the shoulder joints, stretching of hamstrings and discovering mobility in the toe joints become a challenging and deeply moving practice of awareness.

With this level of engagement, your practice begins from the moment you put your attention in "yoga mode." Bringing attention to the breath will change your seat and your sun salutations. These are not exercises solely for the body, but experiences that offer the possibility of being fully present from the very moment that you breathe in and breathe out. The practice then can move in and out of Asana, and on and off the mat.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Deep or Shallow, It's All Good

Some days we go through the motions until that last moment, in Savasana (Corpse Pose, relaxation), when something specific and unnamed loosens. We curl onto one side in the quiet breathing of that precise moment, and nothing else matters. Sitting up, drunk on the softness of our own breath, we realize slowly that this is all we are, and it is everything, the paradox of emptiness. An open space has opened up inside us and is reflected for that moment holds everything we see, hear, feel, think, and wonder.

Some days from the very first moment the day begins there is something open, inviting a looser grip, a willingness to see from all sides and be content with what actually is so.

Must we make this into something else, call it by some Sanskrit name or attribute it to a god or goddess? Do we feel the beginning glimmer of understanding that the deepest part of ourselves is, in fact, as sacred, divine, spirited and open ended as any belief we might adopt?

What makes yoga so potent is how it quietly opens up the mysteries in moment after moment of inquiry. There is no right answer and no pre-requisite. Each of the principles leads to all the other principles. Each of the practices leads into all the other practices. Take meditation, for example. One person can practice for years or for 10 minutes a day and either way find a kaleidoscope of effects, insights, open moments. Is one deep and another shallow, or can we simply accept that there are endless possibilities if we are open to them?

Expectations will change your time on the mat, giving you something to resist, something to judge, an aim that will cloud your experience. It is a marvelous gift to allow the practice to take you to the depth that suits the moment without expectation or judgement -- perhaps floating on the surface, or sinking deeper than you have words to express into a non-dualistic world where the name of this and that no longer hold the key to being.

"People say that what we're seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."-Joseph Campbell

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Illusion is not the Self

Rem Koolhaas building at IIT, Chicago, IL

It seems to take a very long time to let go of the basic framework that every little thing I think or feel is real and important. Yet I can sense that this shift is happening. It comes forward when I can laugh at the way I feel aggravated in my interactions with the guy from the garage when he disrespects my schedule and commitments. It appears as I kneel in happy confusion in the midst of a challenging yoga class when the teacher has called for an asana that is totally incomprehensible to my tired brain-body connection. It slips up to the surface listening to my sister on the phone creating analogies for herself to explain my experiences. No hard feelings, no reruns, no regrets or disappointment, no shame attaches to the moment.

Why is it so hard to let this aspect of self-importance go? Perhaps my "Western" cultural orientation is part of the gripping on this, that deeply embedded concept that the defining structures of intelligence and self respect require assigning importance to the fleeting and impermanent. Several people have expressed to me that they do not want to live into an old age when they can no longer "be themselves." I see this as gripping at the control mechanisms that are probably operating in them all the time to "be themselves" as a construction defined by these same ideas, judging themselves as to their worthiness. Letting go of that grip will not change who they are, if they can accept who they are in the first place. The question of worthiness of self is a puzzle of endless pieces that will never be complete as long as we keep any piece clutched in our tight grip.

The yogic path has no guarantees, no warranty, no hierarchies of grace or benefit. Each moment offers the entirety of being present, and demands the entirety of being, a self that is not separated into bits. This is not some super-high-concentrated-focus-entirely-on-something state of being. In some quite absurd way, really anyone can accomplish this way of being if they can let go of the self-importance and criticisms, allow themselves to be open to the truth, and accept the impermanence of all the mental constructs. This sounds huge and maybe even scary. The fear is a part of the construct material that we can really just leave on the bench and simply walk a distance away. It isn't gone, it just doesn't have to be the puppeteer holding our strings. It can become another one of these lovely objects we can observe and appreciate. Fear helps us identify our attachments, among other things. It serves as a warning that there is something on the path to observe as we take our next steps.

No one has the blueprint that shows who I am supposed to be, or how this particular life of mine is meant to go. There is nothing I can do that is untrue to my self. I may feel preferences, even have strong opinions, and act with passion and conviction, but all of that can be turned in any direction and none of it is good or bad. Without the judgments, criticism, gripping of attachment, there is ease, some open spaces of freedom, even as I do something silly and give that mechanic more fodder for his attitudes. Perhaps my humor on the mat as I fail to pretzel into a "yoga pose" is supportive to someone else in the room, and I've long since learned not to tell my sister how to interpret her own thoughts! So I am "being myself" all the time, learning how this works, and living with a kind of spaciousness in everything.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Staring Down Fear & Its Partners

Claude Monet, Haystacks, Art Institute of Chicago
Every twinge in my shoulder starts a little fear reaction that I can see coming. I feel the twinge and I see the fear right there. Then I stretch out the shoulder and know that even if some day I can no longer stretch away the pain, I do not need to succumb to the fear. The changes we go through can teach us a lot about our attitudes of attachment, judgement and fear.

Loss is a very distressing aspect of caring about other people, or about objects, or about systematic ways of doing things. Loss enters into a deep partnership with fear. It can be as simple as mourning that glove, now abandoned in the gutter having fallen out of the pocket, once treasured as a souvenir of a wonderful trip to a beautiful place. It might be the sorrow and denial while sitting at the bedside of a dying loved one, knowing that even these moments of tortured breathing are marks of a presence that will be taken and gone. Perhaps it is just that lapse in memory of how to make that origami figure so familiar and easy from childhood, but now beyond memory's reach.

So here we all are, surrounded by our desires for things, our craving to have the next moment go the way we want it to go, to control the level of pain for our loved ones, and to avoid pain ourselves. We live in a web of our attachments to people, patterns, behaviors, and preferences. Every part of our existence has potential to threaten us with something we fear to lose, or make us feel we must defend against loss. Sometimes it boils down to fearing change in those persons, things, systems. The relationship is not what it used to be. This hip is not how it once was. Vision and memory, endurance and strength, digestion, clothing size, the very voice with which we sing, all these aspects can and do change. It is our attachment to them as though they were or ought to be permanently a certain way that causes so much suffering and fear of loss. We measure and judge, hold tight and lose.

We can practice being okay just as we are. We can practice accepting that we are okay just this moment. Maybe we are not the same as we "used to be" and perhaps we can not hang on to that which we once treasured, but in this very moment, yoga can help to return our focus again and again to the conditions in this moment. We can let go of comparisons to past and stop threatening ourselves with diminished conditions of the future. We can release the attachments that corner our loved ones or erase the genuine moment for the sake of the role being played in a context set just so. There is enormous freedom from the ordinary pain of fear, when we can take things as they are, and let curiosity open the possibilities available now. Perhaps they are not the same possibilities of a few years or months, days, or moments ago. Who is the judge of what is loss and what is gain? In visiting my family recently I was struck by how very much everyone still has in the way of possibilities, regardless of what might seem like limitations. The biggest impediment to those possibilities seems to me to be the fear of loss and its partners, attachment, judgment and grasping. When those lose their grip, there is so much more time for happiness and joy.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Constancy of a Shape Shifter: Taking In the Truth

Yoga is not really a religion, but there are definite principles that underlie all the various families of practice we call "yoga." There are some deep connections between Yoga and Buddhism, Yoga and the Hindu practices, and actually with most of the major spiritual belief systems. This is clearly because all of these structures have to do with how we conduct ourselves, how we treat each other, and how we approach the hardest parts about being human in the world and understanding what can only be seen as the mysteries around us.

photo by j.r.meredith

Truth is one of those underlying principles that seems relevant in every belief structure. This idea of truth sometimes seems like a shape shifter. In any given moment we can know something to be true that is simply no longer true in the next moment. This is not falsifying the truth, but requires that we live in the present moment. Memories are notoriously slippery in terms of what they hold and what they shift around. If we color the moment with interpretations, then the memory we hold of it will also slide around as our view changes with time and distance. If we can actually take in the truth of that moment, it is complete in and of itself and does not require us to add or change elements. We can take it in just as it is. Eventually we can learn to see that everything is subject to conditions, and that conditions by their nature are impermanent.

This is a very hard thing to do. It is like telling someone to let go of something without moving... but in fact we can do that too.

In a yoga practice it is probable that you will run into yourself at every turn. Much as the practice may promise you a release from the definitions and constraints that bring you discomfort and suffering, it will open all the possibilities, not just the ones that feel like letting go and floating in a sea of beautiful colors. There are very specific physical things that happen through a physical yoga practice. Of course, muscles strengthen, lengthen, loosen, tighten; breath changes, opens, shortens, lengthens, and quiets. The mind, meanwhile, attaches, detaches, interprets, tells stories. The mind is busy noticing, taking notes, questioning, smothering feelings and highlighting feelings, and so forth. The yoga mat is a great place for noticing how you, very specifically you, deal with all kinds of circumstances and expressions of yourself. It helps to start with what is actually happening, and notice the intricate weaving that the mind does all around that. Just notice it, and let it go.

So what is actually happening? Is that the truth? It is a good start. In any Asana or posture there is potential to notice changes and shifts, whether you are sustaining the pose for several breaths, or moving in and out of the pose again and again. It is not like a law of averages or finding a median where the way it feels more often or most of the time is the truth... the truth is in each moment of the Asana. It can take time in a practice to accept that which is in any moment as true. The fear, hostility or desperation that arises as you twist for the sixth or tenth time in Utkatasana (Chair Pose), and the relief, determination or urgency that arises as you release back from that twist into plain Utkatasana, the flood of gratitude, blame, or shaky surrender as you fold into Uttanasana (forward fold) or rise into Tadasana (mountain pose) are all true. We don't have to keep a catalog of all of these truths. The hip will hold on to some of it, the heart to some, the mind to some. Next time you take on the twisting either that day or in another day's practice, you will hear the echos and feel the stories rise. This is you in action and is the seat of your explorations about yourself and truth. Yet the twists will have their own shapes that next time, and learning to accept that which is now, that which is this moment, is truly the path of truth, the conditional nature of our experiences and the deepest understanding of impermanence.

What my left hip felt yesterday made me laugh at myself. How hard I was willing to work to close off from that truth, and to tell a different story. The hip kept prompting me to see the moment and I could watch my mind work to wind and unwind its attachments and interpretations. Today, this moment, is simply today, this moment. The more space I can give the truth, the clearer my practice is too. And when that attitude comes off the mat, well, try it and you will see why it is an underlying principle in all deep spiritual practices! By the way, there really is no getting around it, either. It is there whether we take it in or not. The amazing revelation in all this is that taking in the truth brings authenticity into everything. Imagine that! No wonder so many seekers give their lives to the search.

Monday, October 18, 2010

We are not all monks

Yoga class feels so wonderful, and adds new dimensions to life. The body and mind begin to awaken to possibilities that seemed unavailable before. Someone suggests a book and through reading and taking classes a new way of understanding begins to develop. Breathing comes more consciously, maybe even time is starting to organize around getting to yoga class. But we are not all monks.

Can a person who has children, a job or two, health issues, an erratic schedule, or any other kind of routine actually develop a regular practice or even begin to include a truly deep inquiry into their life without feeling always there is not enough time and they never know enough? How does yoga fit into a regular life?

The basic principles underlying yoga are the Eight Limbs spelled out in Patanjali's Sutras, but even if you have never seen that, or heard of that before, they will help you integrate yoga into your life. They are simple, like doing no harm, or releasing judgmental mind and attachment through not grasping at that which is not yours. Perhaps when you see things as they truly are you will understand that your practice accepts you just as you are too.

Here's what I mean. You can only get to yoga class once a week. Is that a yoga practice? Yes. You carve out fifteen minutes a day to do some stretching you remember from class, and before you go to bed you spend five minutes in quiet sitting, to still yourself and refresh yourself for the night. Is that a yoga practice? Yes. Maybe you try to get to class two or three times a week and then don't go for a month and half. Is that a yoga practice? Well, you tell me. Do you bring your awareness to your breath while you wait for the subway in the morning? Do you center your weight over your feet and release your spine to rise, relaxing your shoulders, your jaw, your eyeballs while you wait for the elevator? Do you look at your neighbor and their children with open minded compassion as they try to resolve conflicts, without thinking judgmentally about them? Then yes, that is a yoga practice.

Yoga is not a mat-based activity. The yoga mat and the asana practices are one part, one way in. The practice offers insights and ways of being present that have no boundaries about bodies and mats, about inversions or even pranayama (breathing practices). All of that helps cultivate your awareness so that you can have a yoga practice throughout your days and hours, with or without a yoga mat handy. Does that mean that you can quit setting aside time for classes and asana, for meditation and a direct focus on the inquiry? No, I don't think so. But it helps deepen your understanding of the practice if you can let it slip off the mat and still recognize it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Repetition & Layers

In my own practice and teaching I allow myself freedom to explore the moment itself. This might mean that I do not follow a set routine, or series of movements or set up with preparatory thoughts, chants, or breathing patterns. Maybe this seems to be a lack of discipline, and perhaps it is. Maybe this is learning to listen and hear the deep teachings that are embodied in my physical self, and perhaps that is so too. There were periods of time when my practice was similar, day to day. Same pattern of warming up the joints, same pattern of following the Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) series of Asana, and adding in a this and a that of twist, or hip opener, of working towards inversions, then a similar series of forward bends and cooling down towards Savasana.

Recently in preparation for a training program through the Arthritis Foundation, I began following a DVD of the most basic Tai Chi foundational movements. Each little movement is preceded by the very same warm ups and followed by the very same cool down exercises. Once again I am in that phase of doing the same movements in sequence, adding in a little this or that of the previously learned lesson plus the new form, and then doing the same closing sequences.

As in all my yoga experiences, there are many levels in the moment. In the breath itself, there are textural changes. There is deep cultivation of awareness as balance shifts from side to side; the arm motion balances the leg shift, and the one hand posture stabilizes the movement in the other hand. It is so beautiful to find once again my attention drawn to feeling the energy in the core of my body in response or as the starting point of the movements.

The role of a good teacher definitely includes bringing the student back from the edge of their effort to the deeper principles. Dr. Paul Lam, who originated this series of Tai Chi for Arthritis, encourages the student to focus on one principle at a time for a period of their practice --for example a few days or a week with focus on balance, gentleness, fluid motion, soft inner energy, or breath in the core -- and then return again to focus on one principle at a time. Repeating the same warm ups, practicing the new forms, closing with the same cool down movements as I focus my attention on my shifting balance, or the spaciousness in my joints becomes a new experience each time I revisit the deep principle.

Try sitting in Sukhasana - a comfortable cross legged position. Imagine you have never done this before and just notice how it feels to be sitting just like that. Breathe into it for a few breaths. Now let your body make the adjustments that offer the support to free your spine, add the props, and bring in the subtle shifts that soften your foundation. Allow your breath to relax your jaw, your heart, your eyeballs. Now simply sit, with your attention on letting your body release and be open to the possibilities. How many times have you brought your body to the mat and sat it down without noticing that it was you, there, on the mat, being yourself? You can now bring all your awareness to any aspect of being, perhaps an intention is forming in your heart, perhaps the breath is now reaching into the back body, perhaps you can feel the flow of energy along your spine.

Doing "the same thing" is a brilliant light to shine into every aspect of your being. Repetition is never "the same thing." Is every inhale the same? Opening like the unfolding petals of a flower, your ability to be present in the moment will bloom with your focus and awareness.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

At the Beginning, Give It a Minute

Vinyasa is great fun and good to get energy circulating. You can work through the breath, move in the flow of energy, stretch and build muscles, surprise yourself and find yourself moved by the sequence of events. Vinyasa in sanskrit, means "to place in a special way." It combines movement, energy flow, and placement. Lots of yoga studios offer Vinyasa flow as a way to release from the constraints of the judging mind and the stagnation of personal patterns, as well as to unblock the lines of energy so that the final cool down and relaxation are that much deeper.

Vinyasa is hard on a body with physical constraints (think Carpal Tunnel issues, tight hamstrings, back trouble or knee replacements), and especially for people who are new to a yoga practice. It can be a struggle to keep up, to find your way, even to get the breath going in and out as instructed. Not knowing what is coming next or how to align oneself can make it impossible to use the prop that protects or enables. That initial scramble can sort out quickly for some, and be a source of serious injury for others. It can feel 'hard" in a way that is not inherently part of yoga. "Hard" in a learning curve kind of way. "Hard" in the "I am not good at doing this" kind of way. The newness of the postures and the constant movement can make modifications tough to figure out, adjustments hard to fit in between the instructions, and understanding of the basic principles a little vague. Of course a good teacher helps with all of this to some degree. For more experienced practitioners, Vinyasa can ratchet up into more and more physical challenges integrated into the flow, pressure to keep up, try the "harder" variations and, occasionally, emphasizes personal expression in the flow that can be more involved with ego than with cultivating nonjudgmental awareness and the foundational breath. Again, good teaching can help draw a student's attention back to the practice and out of the performance of Asana.

Figuring out a posture from the inside takes time. It is very different than learning a series of dance steps. One doesn't always need to be negotiating all the details, yet there are depths of understanding that only come with time, time in the pose. Take a simple pose, like Balasana (Child's Pose). This is very often offered as a "resting" pose, yet is difficult for many people and as with so many Asana, offers a very deep practice. The hip creases are drawing back, pelvis lifting, spine curving; knees are deeply bent, tops of feet press into the floor, while the shoulders are spreading open, the heart widens as it sinks, the ribs center pulling back towards the spine, and the third eye rests on the earth. Breath is into oneself. What's so simple about this? For some, the bend is beyond their capacity in the knee or spine. For others it is the internal quality of breath in the ribs against the thighs, the leaning of the heart inward that brings the emotions forward. Perhaps it is the openness in the back ribs, the breath ballooning over the kidneys that shifts the attention, or it could be simply feeling the earth below you, supporting your shins that lets the tension release from the back of your neck. Where does the mind go? Perhaps it begins with making all the little tweaky adjustments of ankles or shoulders, but if you stay there a minute other experiences begin, and perhaps your attention will shift.

Passing through Balansana for a moment to catch your breath is a wonderful thing too, like that moment when you take your shoes off after being in them all day. But in every Asana there are hidden treasures, secrets about yourself, illuminations about existence itself that come with time, time in the pose. So if you feel you are struggling and thrashing about in Vinyasa classes, give yourself a minute in your own practice or find a class that can slow it down for you. Spend a few breaths -- perhaps starting with 3 -- in each aspect of exploring Asana and your strength, flexibility, awareness and inner sense of alignment will catch up to you. Take that sense of balance back to Vinyasa class and see what a different experience it can be.

As a student once said to me, "There is just so much to think about all at once, including wondering what I am thinking about!" Letting this go, allowing the experience to get beyond thinking into experiencing the moment itself, is possible in one Asana or flowing through a Vinyasa. Try different approaches until you find the one that gives you the time you need to integrate and align yourself safely.