Sunday, January 31, 2010

OP-ED: President Proposes Stress Reduction Plan

Yes, I firmly believe that the President's proposals will lead directly to stress reduction in America. Putting some of the bail-out money in the hands of community banks to encourage local enterprise and job creation is a direct way of reducing stress in local communities. Approaching big banks with rules that will protect people's invested pension funds and IRA's is another direct reduction in anxiety and fear for those closer and closer to retirement age. Taking our future heat, transportation, electricity, ability to move and store products, to do just about any kind of manufacturing in our own hands by developing new technologies that loosen the grip of OPEC managers on our future is a huge step towards reducing the stress reactions of our nation -- uncramping those tight muscles, stomach aches, headaches and knee-jerk defensive actions that are using up our human resources in this country.

I teach yoga and stress reduction in a hospital, a woman's shelter, an apartment building, a yoga studio, a private home. There is not one student who is not suffering from stress that will be directly relieved by the President's new plans and proposals... Oh, and did I mention HEALTH CARE REFORM? Well, to me that is critical to reducing stress in this nation, to see that our elected officials understand that human welfare and health, care and compassion are the core of our nation? Well, there is nothing more important than that in reducing stress.

Thank you Mr. President. Take a deep inhale, and exhale fully. Just feel how much better things are already.

Sent to various newspapers at the request of "Organizing America" at

Stress? What Stress?

Just this minute I notice my weight is not balanced in my sitting bones. My hunching, my feet slipping forward, my tense shoulders are all part of this imbalance. Taking a moment, I draw my hips back in my seat, establish my ribs and shoulders over them, readjust my feet under my knees, inhale fully and exhale deeply. Then I turn my attention back to the gnarly scheduling dilemma I have been trying to untangle. Already my body feels more relaxed as my weight shifts down into the chair, to the floor and the enormously strong beams and supports below me. They, themselves, rest their weight on the earth below me. It took literally a moment to reduce the effects of stress on my body, and this reduced physical expression actually releases my mind from some of its clenching and spiraling.

The source of stress for me sits firmly in the realm of fear and the unknown. Usually this is a combination of anxiety over not knowing how something will happen or what the results will be, and a mixture of judgmental fears about whether the results will be good or bad; whether I, or a situation, will be successful or effective. Sometimes the fear in uncertainty is a result of my life experiences that cast a certain dye on patterns or behaviors, risks or situations. What happened earlier in my life might have been unpleasant and my anticipation of similar results will stand in the way of my clarity and view of this moment. Disengaging from that becomes part of the process of learning to focus on the present. Readjusting my physical alignment in conjunction with my breath is a terrific, immediate, accessible, free measure I can take any time I remember it!

Potential for stress is a constant of any human life, even that of a yoga teacher. Consider medical conditions, financial situations, family and relational complexities, work environments, struggles of all kinds to provide food, shelter or any level of amenity or certainty. Raising children can raise anxiety levels over the unknown from the most tiny detail (did they find the other glove?) to the larger details (will the school accept their application?) to the global concept (how will our nation's involvement in waging war change our prospects and way of being?). For some, just trying to squeeze a moment for a yoga practice into a busy life can bring more stress! Missing a class leads to disappointment, skipping a day or missing a month might add layers of self judgment and develop hesitations about practice.

The most surprising experience I have had in teaching stress reduction is that my students are fundamentally and profoundly willing to let their stress go the minute they join me in practice. I do not take this personally, rather see that all it takes is my invitation to take a minute on their own behalf, and they are able to do just that. "Inhale looking up slightly," I say, "and exhale letting your chin drift towards your own heart. Breathe there a few cycles, allowing the back of your neck to feel your breath, to release with gravity, and as you are ready, on an inhale draw your head back to a neutral chin position." There ... see ... how willing you were to let go, to give yourself exactly what you need? Just imagine giving yourself this small thing every so often... not that the stress will stop, but you will come to recognize it as something separate from your self, something that you can release any time, any where.

This slight change in perspective can have vast implications. One student asked "how to prepare for reducing stress?" My answer, "just let your attention focus on your breath and you have prepared and reduced stress all in one inhale and exhale!" In fact, take a few breaths, find your foundation (standing, sitting, walking, lying down) and know that as your body undoes the straps of stress that tie you to fears and anxiety, you can live more fully in any moment. Why not this one? When you turn your attention back to the argument, the mistake, the pressure, the impossibility, the unknown, your attention will be clear and your emotions much less stacked against you.

Addressing stress starts with acknowledging that, in all probability, you are almost always operating under some stress conditions. Gradually, learning to release the tensions and stress will help you see your patterns that are creating this stress reaction. Do you really need to feel so possessive of the supplies at work? Must you take that person's suggestions as criticism? Can you offer this suggestion as an opinion without telling that child what to do? Can you use words to explain what felt good or not good rather than shut down and add to the resentments in a relationship? Can you imagine that whatever happens you will have the where-with-all to see the possibilities available? All these little moments add up to a very heavy load to carry around. Give yourself a moment to let it go and see how different you can be. Even though the difficult times might last a while, your awareness and the effects you feel can change.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Feeling the Connection

Many a day my practice is a solitary behavior in a specific place where I can find the physical space to lay myself out. Those whose idea of me is "the official yoga teacher" would laugh out loud to see me wedged between two beds in a handstand, or propped up against the cellar door exploring scorpion. My family might find me zoned out at the end of practice in a supine twist in the middle of the living room floor. There is no reason to resist warrior in the kitchen, where the floor is clear; where the view of my own heart is as good as it is anywhere. I lost my attachment to the mat early in my exploration of yoga, finding that waiting for the mat and the private quiet space would just leave me waiting rather than practicing.

Classes bring the body into a space with other bodies. There is a wonderful confluence of influence in this. Following the intention to do yoga brings you to the class, and the class structure provides you with the breath of others around you, as well as the guidance, encouragement and support of the teacher. There is a commitment to be present. Watching over all the varieties of student I see one yearning among them all, to be and to be fully. Even without knowing what that is, or how that might feel, there is this possibility palpable in the room. By the time we find savasana, the sense of being fills the space, however large, however small.

By myself, on a mat between this and that furniture with barely enough clearance to extend one leg fully sideways, I have this same connection to the breath of all living beings, to the open space of the moment. Making the connection is all it takes.

The first stage is exactly the same no matter where I am: allow myself to be present. I seek my foundation. Just noticing where my body touches the earth helps draw my attention inward and releases me -- surrenders my will -- to that which sustains me. (Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya) Perhaps it is my sitting bones below me and the gentle pressure I feel on my ankle bones that enables me to let go of my earthly weight into the earthly support in Sukhasana (Easy Pose - crossed legs on the floor). My tailbone melts a bit, muladhara (root chakra) drawing energy like roots from the earth itself. This loosens the lower back and my spine rises in a natural curve that has evolved over thousands of years to find full expression right here in my own body. (Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya)

This inhale draws the ocean up through me in a wave of oxygen and as I exhale my shoulders rest more lightly atop my ribcage, the weight of my arms gently moving out and away towards my hands resting on thighs (or perhaps fingers gently on either side of me on the floor -- or cupped in my lap), just as my knees gently drift away from my hips. By now I am in the room, I am on the mat, I am in the breath, I am in this moment fully. If the cat rubs against my knee, I smile or perhaps stroke the last inches of tail as it passes, and feel the lightness of being right here, right now. This is not a closed posture, one where the gates are all shut tight to protect the experience. This is a wide open space where everything can exist at the same moment. It has taken me years and barely a few moments to be here, now. (Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya)

I find this is the same if I am flat on the floor, or with elevated knees, or in Tadasana (standing mountain pose) waiting for a light to turn green on the street. This connection to the present, this awakening of awareness, this being present with the breath itself is not bound up in yoga mats and classes, nor even in "yoga practice" per se. You can find this connection in a crowded subway, feeling the essential quality of presence among others there, (Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya) or alone waiting for the bus by the side of the road. The breath and the being will connect you to all living beings, once you are here, there is no other moment, no other place. Just this. (Surrender to that which sustains me = Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya.)

When you feel you are lost or when you feel full of being, try inhaling "just" and exhaling "this." No pre-existing conditions are required to be present, just this - setting aside attachments and judgments, allowing yourself freedom. Oh sure, the yoga asanas make this easier in that they open awareness and energy channels, take the body into healthier and more supported ways of being, draw awareness to patterns that can then be more easily released... all good! Yet that connection to being is always there in this inhale, and this exhale. Just this.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Less is More - Make the Suggestion

It seems part of our human nature to push ourselves, to strive for things, to exert our energy and our influence in order to feel productive and even a little bit in control of the messy universe. I see my students over reaching, torquing joints in twists, yanking and pulling themselves inside and out. This is partly why they are in my class doing yoga, to have me reminding, cajoling, enticing, and surprising them as I gently suggest ways to let that go and find space of a different sort.

I have had some experiences with The Alexander Technique that had deep repercussions simply by suggesting that I think about something a different way. Just the suggestion evoked a new brain pattern, which in turn supported a new body pattern that brought ease where there had been tension, peace where there had been pain. Making the effort to put space in my painful shoulder did not work. There was no way I could muscularly pull that joint apart without tensing other muscles, and making more trouble for myself.

My yoga practice offers me the breath as the first tool, the first vehicle for change. Even though I practice often, teach often, and am living more and more in the framework of this practice, when I think of it I exhale and release my shoulders -- they are almost always carrying tension when I am not thinking about them. So I know that the vast majority of my students are also carrying their tensions, attitudes, anxieties in active ways throughout their bodies when they are not focused on releasing them.

Here is where the power of suggestion comes in. Doing less is certainly key when it comes to reducing the tendency to over-effort. But telling yourself to "do less" is like telling yourself "to relax" when you are tense. Yeah, sure, right, RELAX!! DO LESS!! (Can you tell I'm smiling?) We cannot effort our way into doing less or into relaxing, but we can make suggestions that often have quite wonderful effects.

Here are a few you can try with yourself.
Suggest that your skull is simply resting atop your spine. (It doesn't require any major effort to hold it there, it will not fall off!) Explore with tiny micro movements the way it can move by nodding ever so slightly, and turning as if saying no ever so subtly. Suggest that this connection can remain loose and spacious. (Just notice if this has any influence on the tension in your neck.)

Suggest that your shoulders, collar bones, and shoulder blades are floating above your ribcage. Let your inhale explore this feeling, rising throughout the ribs and allowing your shoulders to float like sticks atop the gentle waves of breath. Suggest that your exhale might leave bits of space between the bones of the shoulders, as the ribs gently rest on the receding breath. (See if your shoulders begin to relax as your heart opens, lungs filling the top of the rib cage, as the weight of the shoulders lightens.)

Suggest softness and space in your hip joints as you walk, imagining the bones of your thighs loosely wrapped by cushions of stretchy flexible bands. Allow this softness to permeate your movements, feeling the freedom of the swinging bones, the width of the motion, the range of your own stride. (Notice if your breath begins to follow your steps as you walk, taking pleasure in this new freedom!)

No one likes to be told what to do when they already know what to do. Perhaps we feel differently when we imagine that we do not know. I suggest that by opening an inquiry with suggestions rather than directions, you will discover all kinds of space and ease, and feel how much more there is in you when you do less! And of course, in every one of these suggestions you have shifted your focus, inward, to the breath, releasing the grip a little on the urge to control, to judge, to muscle. Through suggestion you offer yourself a moment -- this moment -- to be in the inquiry of who you are and how your body and mind work together in the present tense. That feeling is enough all by itself to help let go and breath a little easier!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

DE-STRESSSING: Let Yoga Be a Way Out & a Way In

Last evening I was teaching a de-stress chair yoga for medical professionals and supporting staff members and one participant asked "How many times and how long can I do this to help relieve my anger and frustration?" It was a wonderful question, one rarely asked. It pointed to the deeper questions, of choices and reactivity, of mechanisms developed to support a series of patterns that might not be doing that person any good in daily life contexts. Even the de-stress yoga techniques I was teaching could be fitted into those patterns in a destructive reactive way, used to reinforce formulaic and judgmental responses.

The physical practices of yoga are not really a gym class. The linking of the breath to the movements in the body and the focus that this requires bring awareness to the moment in a way that is not about counting breaths or holding asana or mudra for a specific amounts of time. It might make sense to build strength by gradually adding in a number of chin-ups or time on the rowing machine, but with a yoga asana those challenges often come simply in returning attention to the breath again and again. In this way, doing a relaxation technique or routine of spinal movements may start out as a response to a provocative moment at work or in a relationship, but will open into something quite different than simple endurance or muscle strength (those these are also side benefits of practice!).

Directing attention to the breath and allowing this focus to clarify where there is unnecessary effort is a way of learning to allow the breath to release that effort. Every inhale can bring energy, oxygen, sustaining nourishment. Every exhale can release undue effort, let go of muscle tension, open the mind and body to possibilities. In this way, repeating a simple sequence of hand motions - folding fingers in on the inhale and exhaling, then opening the hand on the inhale and exhaling - acts as a reminder to remember the breath. More than the physical action itself, this is a practice in single-pointed focus, developing new muscles of attention that brings the practitioner into the present moment and releases the person from attachment to the tensions and reactivity that are clutching them. Part of the effect is giving the body time to have its reaction and release it, similar to the technique of counting to ten before reacting in anger; part of the effect is to draw the attention inward to the inherent stability of the breath rather than dispersing energy in reactivity.

Of course the movements of the body open energy channels as well - and provide tremendous benefits in joint health, spinal flexibility, circulation, mobility, organ cleansing, even moderating existing conditions that are the results of habits and emotions, imbalances and chronic behaviors. These net physical benefits also help to reduce stress responses on a physical level, but the key is a fundamental and simple matter. Even in the first experience with yoga a beginner follows the physical directions for body and breath and as the body attempts to follow the directions, the breath begins to support everything that is going on. Whether a student willfully remembers to breathe or not, the body will take the cues and inhale and exhale, extending and releasing, undulating and cleansing, flooding the body with oxygen and supporting effort and relaxation. Letting this sustain you can feel like understanding plate tectonics, gaining trust and understanding of the basic structures that support in being alive.

Of course yoga can be fitted into a judgmental or competitive pattern; an admonition to "practice every day" or to do "this sequence this way" can turn yoga into the same routine as a series of push ups and sit ups, with the same limited effects. And there are times when a yoga practice might become a targeted practice towards a particular challenge or process, like a "goal." Yet the open spaces in the joints are made of breath not will power. And the reduction of anger and stress on the job will not come from adding another reactive response to the sequence. The yoga techniques that help reduce that anger and stress do so because they are more than a reactive response, they quietly transform the reactive moment into a vivid, focused moment of being -- in fact the only moment in which you are actually living... and breathing. You can use them like editing pencils, but their effects will spread like water colors.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Accepting Wholeness

I love the title of Mark Epstein's book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart. (1998: broadway books, ny) It speaks to my thoughts on wholeness, that we are already whole and somehow learn to segment, judge, discard, ignore and repress so that we feel ourselves (or others) to be incomplete.

If I accept my "faults" and "weaknesses" -- those attributes that are judged as less-than, and include them in the whole picture that represents me along with the open, loving, functional attributes, I see myself as an entirety. I make choices, I have had experiences, I have learned this and that -- including yogic ideas and practices -- and throughout these times that which is my being has been whole. Even in the worst of times or the best of times, that being is beyond the attributes.

Epstein reacts to the Dalai Lama's statement that "All beings are seeking happiness. It is the purpose of life." After a while he comes to see that, "Completion comes not from adding another piece to ourselves but from surrendering our ideas of perfection." He recognizes that this statement refers to the misplaced idea that we can seek completion and thus happiness through accumulation, either outside ourselves (from other people, relationships, or material goods) or inside ourselves (self-development, status).

A friend has been going through a great deal of trauma with her adolescent son. He is suffering as many teens do with self definitions; and the pressures to feel or look or act or accomplish in a specific way seem inextricable from "success" and thus "happiness." The happiness does not come, the judgments pile up, the soul retreats. I feel sad about this situation, and wonder if our society could shift away from what Epstein calls "psychological materialism."

Yoga practice really helps with bringing an open space in which to accept a self that includes the entirety of "strengths" and "weaknesses" and encourages a person to drop the judged quality there. What may seem "strong" may be a block to something else, what may seem "weak" may be where the deepest waters run.

Note: I also recommend Epstein's first book, thoughts without a thinker.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Path Between Ignorance and Certitude

Where I walk is a changing path.
Stones mix with roots,
sand with the dirt of decomposing leaves.
Imagining that I know where I'm going
I place one foot in front of the other,
finding purchase, or slipping until I do.
I seek the familiar in the landscape around me,
yet find no marks define that world.
Could it be that the shapes of leaves
are enough to comfort me with certitude?
The way my foot slips is proof enough
of what I do not know.
And I, on the path, one foot behind the other,
see that which finds my turning gaze.
The rustle of leaves draws my eyes
towards the underbrush,
yet the source I can not see.
The texture of the leaves cushions my footfalls.

My path is one that others have walked,
yet no visible footprints remain.
And perhaps I leave none.
So it is my being upon the path itself
that is my destiny,
my moment here is the whole story.
What I do not know is not ignorance,
what I think I know is not certainty.
Times are, when that is uncomfortable,
like a pebble in my shoe,
and yet I am never lost as I step one step,
and find that which turns my gaze.

Perhaps as I gain some ease with this way,
being between the known and unknown,
I will find my gaze dissolves into just being,
the way the leaf detritus disintegrates into earth.
And aren't I really the same as the leaf,
perhaps I am the rustling in the brush?
The path is one without boundaries
between the questions and the answers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Grateful for the Wet Wind

Do you find yourself rushing into your day, rushing in the cold, the rain, rushing through lunch, rushing to meetings, to classes, even to yoga? What is it that pushes you towards that which you cannot yet see, the next place, the next task, your expectations of yourself? It is the mind reacting. Once I hold still for a moment, I can see the uncertainties, fears, hopes and cravings, the anxieties and judgments in my rushing. What is the hurry? Getting somewhere or doing something before what happens? Finishing, leaving, arriving, going, doing all in the frenzy of preventing disasters that my mind presents to me.

In the moment itself, there is nothing amiss. I can walk in the wild wet wind of the day, relishing the way the water clouds my glasses, feeling the strangeness of my own skin and the merging of my watery eyes with the rain itself. The wind has its reasons for its rushing past me, the warm air hurrying to replace the cooler air, the shifting pressures encouraging the movement of energy. It is my will that moves me, the mind in action. I have presented myself with a task, or a commitment, a responsibility or a choice and I am acting upon that in space and time. Being right where I am, I will still get to the train to wait for the next one or catch the one that happens to be pulling right in as I arrive. My rushing will not change the train that is already ahead or behind of its schedule. My mind can entangle me in the urgency of the moment such that I cannot even enjoy running for the station, should I choose to run. Yet even the running can feel exuberant, full of grace and gratitude.

Where are you right now? Rushing pushes us out of this moment. What do you lose? Can you allow yourself to be right there in the wet and wind, on your way to whatever is next but existing in this moment, discovering your own grace? Encourage yourself to be glad of the legs that carry you, your eyes that water, that runny nose, even the cheeks that feel the edge of cold. Experience the moment your feet make contact with the sidewalk, walking or running! Notice how your legs move in your hip joints or how beautifully your body balances, spine rising even as it sits in a wheelchair. Enjoy the way the water droplets find you, and relish your own reactions. This is the path to gratitude and awareness that brings freedom from those very fears, anxieties, pressures, expectations and judgments that push me out of my own life into a whirlwind of suffering.

There are moments when we move faster, moments when we move slower, but the mind can remain open, mindful, and grateful. I can detach from the story of rushing (missing something, losing something, risking something), and bring myself gratefully right into that wild wet wind. I am on my way, and being right here, right now.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Ordering Onions & Setting Intentions

Here I am again, re-reading the descriptions of the onions as I try to figure out which ones to order for the garden this year. Even remembering which ones went to seed too fast, or kept well in the cellar, or taste hot raw, or carmelize beautifully, doesn't really help me predict this next year's crop. The weather makes so much difference. Watering or not in combination with the weather can change everything. Harvesting at the right time, cooking or eating in a timely fashion, all this is roiling in my head as I think about which onions to order. Desire, fear of failure, hope and wishful thinking are also with me as I read "days to harvest" and "storage potential."

Clarifying all this means setting my intentions, and that helps me make the decision. What am I willing to do and what do I want from this crop? Am I willing to pull and use the ones that mature fast and do not keep well, and to attend to watering needs if this is a dry summer? Last summer we had so much rain that it was a veritable slug festival! Can I plan out the garden to give the storage onions enough space to really develop fully? Am I willing to take on the responsibility for the onions I plant, or just accept the vagaries of nature should my attention lapse over the course of the season? Am I really putting my little north country raised bed garden in competition with the farm stands and grocery stores that get those huge magnificent onions from specialized farms in Texas?

Sometimes when I show up on the yoga mat I may think I have no plan to follow. Yet even giving myself over to the breath is my true underlying intention, just like allowing myself to be responsive to the rain or dryness of the natural weather cycles. Perhaps I will establish a physical intention, to move from my core, or to raise awareness of the breath in the back body, or to establish a foundation from which to release into twists. This is a bit like planning out the garden plots, to allow the space for each type of onion, enabling ease of watering, or weeding, and segregating one variety from another so that harvesting clears the way for another crop. Or I might set a more philosophical, spiritual or metaphorical intention for my practice to send heart energy beyond myself, or to open myself to questions of wholeness, tolerance or judgment. This promotes a less global way of choosing onions, more specifically drawing deeply into my own garden, what can I nurture, seeking the nature of sweet and hot, providing for my family. I know that common onions can be bought at local farm stands all around me, and this deeper view leads me towards ordering cippolinis and red tropeas, a long storage deep red zeppelin and a slightly pungent yellow globe onion for sandwiches and soups. I am ready to pull one onion and use it, or to harvest the whole crop at that particular moment when the greens fold and begin turning brown, regardless of original harvesting projections.

I cannot know if it will rain a lot this summer, any more than I can tell whether my judgment will release as I center myself on the mat, but I can choose to keep my intention to water the garden if it is dry, just as I can keep my breath as a reminder to release my judgmental mind with every exhale.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Finding Drishti - A Good Seat With Obstructed View

Lately at times it feels as though I'm in a theater but my view is obstructed and I just can't get or take in the whole scene from where I am. Meanings escape me, understanding comes haltingly and the scene shifts before I've been able to catch all the words. The direct antidote for this feeling is my practice. First, being open to what is there; second, acknowledging that what I perceive is subject to constantly changing conditions; third, not judging my responses and letting them come and go; and four, focusing my Drishti (gaze), my attention, whether it's an inner focus or an external one. The resulting clarity and calm helps maintain a willingness to stay in the theater, a good thing since, according to Shakespeare all the world is a stage, and we are merely players upon it.

I just returned from a visit with my elder family members during this period of particularly wild political, national and global news. This includes the on-going natural and human phenomenon in Haiti, the political story in Massachusetts, the rocking boat of national health insurance discussions, and the court's authorization for corporate money to jump with both feet on our political processes. Meanwhile I am absorbing the details of life among those living in the later part of life. The slower but in some ways radical events, feelings, meanings, and relationships are visible and invisible. Seeing through nonjudgmental eyes I feel a deepening in my ability to be connected and close to fundamental truths I share with them and all beings. This helps enormously in the wide world, and the very intimate one as well, where my reactivity can lead to sorrow, frustration and disquieting fears for the future.

There is no boundary that protects anything I know from what I might forget or re-imagine differently. There is no law that states this one set of positions or opinions is the only correct one. I can change my seat, but my view will remain obstructed as long as I am attached to the idea that "truth" is a particular story, or that "right" is a specific way of doing or being. This does not serve my being in the world. It seems obvious that memory issues change the way a conversation unfolds, the way a day winds through itself, the way feelings wrap and unwrap events, comments, relationships and decisions. In some very real ways all of history is subject to issues of memory, interpretation, point of view, and what a friend of mine calls "politics of location." I feel this quite personally, sitting at the table, or on the side of a bed, in front of a newscast, or on my yoga mat.

I find that focusing my drishti helps me recognize myself in each of my relatives no matter how different our situation or stage of life. I can find them in me. My openness to the whole stage allows me to see myself in shadows and in light. If I can know the shape of the obstruction, it helps improve my view. Meditation and yoga on a regular basis unfolds the eyelids and allows me to see the shapes more and more as I go along.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Standing the World on Its Head – Mine

When I first started yoga, I had no idea that I would be finding myself upside down.

Headstand. Salamba Shirshasana. By its nature this asana offers endless ways for me to compete with my view of myself. I have tried to muscle my way, I can use preparations and props, I can read all about it, but when it comes down to it, I am standing the world on its head. And that world is my world, and that head is my head.

Headstand presents me with a very different way of interpreting the idea of carrying my weight. In fact, if I can actually relax in headstand it becomes breath in a state of weightlessness. And it changes my perspectives all day long: reminding me that illusion can seem quite serious, but things can easily be turned on their heads.

I work my way towards headstand in stages. First by strengthening my understanding of my shoulders and how they relate to my neck. I have learned how to release tension there when I discover it taking hold. This can be in a cross-legged Sukhasana (easy pose), or a simple sun breath as I start practice. I might play with eagle arms or focusing conscious attention in these muscles throughout my practice. It can’t hurt my explorations of bridge, or wheel either.

Core body awareness is another discrete area of development in preparation for headstand. This begins with drawing energy up through the core in every seated and standing posture. I especially enjoy moving from the first two chakras even in cat cow stretching.

Carefully exploring hand placements in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), I use dolphin (hands interlaced, elbows bent, forearms on the floor while in Adho Mukha Svanasana) to strengthen my upper back and keep my shoulder relationship easy. Adho Mukha Svanasana is an inverted posture, and drawing attention to the alignment of my head, neck, shoulders and back and core in this asana will build strength and accessibility for the future… who knows, maybe handstand, Adho Mukha Vrksasana!!

Finding balance in Tadasana (mountain) brings awareness to the way my body aligns over the foundation. Like the old song, the knee bone is really connected to the hip bone, and so it goes, with the breath actually helping to draw energy up and down the line of the spine. Feeling this in Tadasana is a huge step towards feeling this in Headstand.

Understanding fear is an ongoing part of this practice. It can come while making too much effort in Ustrasana (camel), or when feeling that tightrope and imbalance in warrior (Virabhadraasna) or Trkonasana,(triangle). There is an exploration of the fear of failure in so many of the asanas, noticing the way the inner critic measures and impedes the exploration is an important part of being in the moment. Allowing myself to be playful in situations that call for the unknown or the “impossible” has led me to arm balances and extensions I could not have imagined. My laughter when falling out of a posture in class prompts a wave of release and rising energy.

It reduces my fear when I provide safety for myself. This might mean attempting to invert only so far as to extend my spine, (a bit like dolphin with my head down) and keep my legs out of it, or play with lifting one leg at a time feeling open to that moment of weightlessness, If I feel shaky or am worried about attempting to hold the asana for a longer time, I sometimes position myself a foot or two away from a wall, so even though I am inverting fully on my own balance, that wall is there for my psyche.

Oddly enough, the image of trees helps me with Headstand. The network of deep roots and the arch of the reaching branches give me a symmetry in both directions without any hierarchy of importance. My feet are no more important than my foundational arms and head. My head no less rooted than my feet are free. It seems to integrate my mind into my body as I take my stand in the sky.

Limitations = Stories We Tell Ourselves

Sometimes when I teach yoga in a new place, I tell my students a little about myself. First of all, I explain that my yoga practice started late in 2001, and that I was never a dancer or an athlete. Many of my students see me in my role as yoga teacher and have already told themselves a story that explains me and the physical person they see. Needless to say, many are also surprised to learn that I'm in my mid fifties, already having definitions in their heads about age. I am amused by that, since my new line of work is giving me a healthier aspect than I even had when I was much younger!

I've chosen to take on a deeply physical job as I approach 60 years old. The work I am doing is changing my body, changing my way of life, changing my concepts. If I use the word "transformation" it sounds so new age, but in fact, yoga practice is a transformation. As my body ages, it is gaining strength, flexibility and ease. I can notice the muscle aches, the joint creaks, the dry skin, whatever it is that is naturally happening as I age, and at the same time feel so integrated, balanced, healthy, and sound. It's great to have work that makes me feel so whole, inside and out. The actual effort I make while teaching, the reading and research, the personal practice, the constant ongoing investigation, seminars and experiences, and increasing hours of work are all benefiting me, directly. This is definitely a case of loving what I do and doing what I love, but it is also an eye opener into the assumptions about aging and the "decline" I expected in myself. Of course my body has its limitations, the way a joint moves, the particulars of flexibilities and structure, and I am discovering this as I go, rather than expecting and assuming what I can and cannot do.

My students and peers are every age, and I love the open space in which we relate and connect. Each of us knows that every body has its limitations and structures. It is up to us how we allow our perceptions to define us. Perhaps surgery has altered something, or genetics gave me a certain set of conditions. These are as easily my strengths as they are my weaknesses. How I feel about it makes so much difference, and how I feel comes directly from what I perceive about it. As long as I remain trapped in definitions and judgments based on stories rather than direct experience, I will not realize the fullness of my being. I can remain stuck with being "old" or "not like I used to be" or I can stick with the open inquiry "what is this? what is this now?" Even previous experience can steer me out of my inquiry in this moment. Investigating a cranky knee can unlock the secrets to supporting the knee in motion, can eliminate the worst of the pain or joint degradation, can bring clarity to years of continued successful motion.

Each of us is unique in our questions and answers, but we are all on the same path, and the path is open. Learning to stay present in the inquiry is the transformation. Who imagined that a girl who could not do a cartwheel would be a middle-aged woman who can stand on her head?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Accepting Not Knowing

So much tension builds up in me when I am attached to an outcome and understand that I cannot know how anything will actually come out. Elections and disasters, or risking relationships or having children are good large scale examples of this type of tense and uncertain state of mind. This can make any of us uncomfortable until we think we have defined results, though it can take a very long time to know much about these results, and understand their effects. Any kind of planning can lead to the same condition, whether it's a plane reservation, baking a cake, or teaching a yoga class. In the context of my teaching this might manifest in my desire to teach a "good class" or to "meet the needs" of a particular student. Now I know every class is itself a shape shifter, merging with the breath in the room and the shapes of the bodies, taking on a life of its own that exists only in the moment. This natural flow is the gift my students and my own energy give me, it is not something I can create out of the desire for it to be so.

I don't think it's possible, or even desirable, to give up caring what happens. What really helps me, though, is to detach from the outcome and let my energy flow more freely into the process whatever it is. If I forget something or do something unpredictable, the moment will go on. There are usually steps that can be taken, or my attention can be turned to something else if other forces are at work.

Experiencing the moment is empowering. It removes the weights and ties, anxieties and attachments that bind me to inaction or repetitive cycles, to remoteness or rigidity. Each moment holds the key to itself and opens into itself moment into moment, forever in the present.

Doing new things, teaching, in my own practice, taking care of the mundane, whatever I do, I seem to be swimming in the sea of not knowing. Much as I might want certain things to happen, I am learning more and more deeply that what happens is exactly that which is produced by the momentary combination of actions, level of awareness and conditions. Letting go of the outcome gives me freedom, to experiment and explore, to experience and cherish what is happening. Even if it is a matter of clarifying a paperwork tangle, staying in the present takes away the bitterness of frustration, and enables me to attend to the matter in that moment. I accept not knowing until the next moment. Look at the menu, pick something, enjoy the wait, and savor not knowing until something delicious comes!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Words, Meanings & Silence - Pause Mode/Talk Mode

I grew up in a place where there was a lot of masterful verbal jousting that was all tangled up with identity and self worth. Being smart meant being verbal, and proficient at defending a point of view. Sometimes it even seemed that defending a point of view meant more than the point of view itself. It was deemed of some value to interject a challenge point, just for the sake of argument. I recognize this now, after years of feeling inadequate to the task, and then slowly realizing that even my clumsy forays into this behavior were felt by others to be aggressive, or insensitive, even self-aggrandizing with a hurtful net result all around. Even in a court of law where stringent argument is the norm, it is intensely important to listen, to know the larger purpose of what you argue, and to register and monitor the impact of your words.

One of the first tactics to turn this behavior around might be to pause even a few seconds before responding to what someone else says, or, perhaps more importantly, before saying what occurs to you. Give yourself time to remember that every time you speak, you are asking someone else to turn their attention to you. This comes up a lot in my daily life now that everyone has laptops and ipods, whose ubiquitous qualities can make it seem that people are sitting around and available when in fact, they cannot hear you without specifically attending to you. It is a bit like being around people who are hard of hearing; it seems they are present but their attention is actually elsewhere. They must be focused on the interaction or they remain out of the communicating loop. Every comment can have the irritating impact of an interruption unless the receiver is already attentive. It is unrealistic to expect others to be in a constant state of readiness to listen to you.

There is a technique of listening that can help each of us be more sensitive to our own verbal behaviors and our own and the emotional needs of others. This is a form of what is known as "co-listening." It can be quite revealing to take turns listening between friends or lovers without constant reactions. Why do we say "uh hunh" or "word" or "hmmm" in response to another person? Do they need us agreeing, encouraging, sympathizing, corroborating? What if we simply listen reserving our opinion, our assurance, our involvement until we listen to the whole thing they want to say? What if we ask them to clarify if we didn't quite understand what they meant? What if we give our self the time to understand their meanings?

One way of making sure you are actually communicating is to agree that you will interrupt after a couple minutes and say, "Let me see if I am understanding you. I hear you saying...." and repeat to them what you have actually understood them to say. Let them agree that you got it, or correct your understanding, either because they did not say what they meant to say (helping them to clarify their own thoughts), or because you are not quite understanding what they meant (helping you hear them more fully). Then they can proceed. Set a limit, like 10 minutes each. And after listening and getting the message from one side, change roles. You may find that you subtly or dramatically begin to shift towards clarity, simplicity, and purposefulness, internally and externally!

Another amazing way to experience the meaning and value of words, and the emotional load we associate with verbal interaction, is to experiment with silence. It is important to understand that you are trying this in order to be more open and aware of your own inner voice, as well as deepen your understanding of how you use your external voice to communicate to others. In order to really experience silence, pick a day when you will able to choose not to do a lot of interacting rather than simply switching to writing notes or hand gestures as a way of playing at being a mime. Let the day be a quiet one. Let all your loved ones and apartment mates know ahead of time. Choose a day when you do not have to go to work. Preparing and eating breakfast in silence, experience and savor your food. Think your way through your choices in the day, allow yourself to hear the commentary your mind will forward. Watch the parade of feelings that arise, about being silent, about your experiences, about the beauty of the world. Notice what you want to communicate, where the impulses come from, and to whom you would direct your words. Set a time limit to do some journaling, but keep that, too, within strict limits, say half an hour or so. You may find that moving the car or walking the dog, picking up a child from school, listening to music or doing laundry present totally new information.

Keep the whole experience short the first time. You might make yourself a little badge to wear that identifies you with the words "Day of Silence" or some other phrase when you go out in the world, so that others will better understand why you are not responding verbally. I recommend no longer than a 24 hour period for the first time. Silence is a deep experience. Give yourself time to absorb and integrate this before plunging in again. You may well find you hear yourself differently, and that others hear you more clearly as well. You will definitely notice how much the world expects you to interact, and much about your own impulse to jump in.

This is part of who you already are. Paying attention to your way of being in the world can deepen in stages by listening without commentary, pausing before speaking, taking the time to be clear, and learning to hear and understand your own inner voice.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Everything Co-Arising In This Moment

Every single thing is inter-related. Accepting that is like entering a vast open space at once filled with all that exists at the same moment that it is eternally empty and pure. I remember feeling completely elated after watching an investigation on public television that traced the branching bloodlines of humans back to specific individuals and then further back to indeed one genetic place. One genetic human place at the core of all of us, and over all time, I'm convinced we could trace that back to one genetic living organism. It felt so validating! No wonder we can feel so connected to people anywhere, no matter what might seem different among us.

Explaining this idea that everything is co-arising, in other words, nothing is separate from anything else, may seem easier in more concrete terms.

I can look at the grocery list as a dream of the future -- what we need around here to eat and to clean up and to sustain ourselves and to entertain ourselves. The grocery list is also a commitment to future action, that I will go and I will get these things. The grocery list reflects my ideas about nutrition and my upcoming schedule and the time I will have to cook. It anticipates what I imagine about where my family members will be, in fact, where I will be, sharing food. The grocery list also reflects all my hard work over the past few days, cooking and using up all the edible resources around here. It also anticipates the combined work of my husband and me, having trading our time and energy for the cash resources I will use to buy the food for our future meals. The grocery list is a vast concept, containing all of this: what has been done and what is projected. It cannot exist in the present tense without all of these aspects embedded in its evolution.

Looking at ordinary circumstances or conditions in this way allows me to see the tip of the iceberg in the concept of co-arising. Perhaps you have read or heard about how everything is part of everything... People used to be fond of saying "you are what you eat" as a way of describing this to some degree. The paper you write upon can also lead you on this journey through the sun and the leaves, the rain and the paper pulp, among the hands of the people operating the machines and the machine itself that cut down the tree or re-cycled the cardboard that was again transformed that into the paper before you.

This can seem hard to follow, but just think about any one thing for a moment. Allow your mind to open and begin including all that you know about this one thing. Try it with the oatmeal in the bowl before you in the morning. How many hands have helped get this to you? Of course the cooking and such is part of that (what went into the cooking... gas from the earth that came to you through the pipes...stored where? pulled out how exactly? where? when? by whom? in what weather? stored deep since it was produced by what?...when?...). Okay, you can do this yourself until your head spins... the pot it cooked in, the utensils used, the packing of the oats and their transport, the harvesting, the birds plucking at bits of dry oat shells, the rain water, the plants breathing into the very air itself blown from where? And of course the people who did the planting and harvesting, plowing and weeding, investing their energy into your bowl of cereal with so many mornings of early rising, their feet on the earth, breath in the late afternoon, feeding the animals the dried oats that didn't make it to your bowl... Not to mention all that you are, your hand on the spoon.

Seeing the world as co-arising leads me directly to gratitude for everything, and can also help me when I feel that strange dualistic idea that I am separate and on my own.

All of this can exist in one moment as you feel the warmth of your oatmeal, smell that aroma, notice your stomach grumbling. Enjoy your decisions about brown sugar or walnuts, yogurt or wheat germ, maple syrup or blueberries, knowing that your existence and that of your oatmeal are intimately connected, so much so that one cannot exist without all the other conditions co-arising.

Watching the spinning mind, going over this material, I am amazed at how I can also feel the air on my skin in this moment. My inhale reminds me that my oatmeal and I exist. My exhale brings a smile, that I can release into being here, and eat.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Paying Attention to Suffering

Daily life is a balancing act of attention to the ordinary and the extraordinary. It seems to me that whether we take the attitude to suffer in ordinary life or to reject suffering even under the most extreme circumstances is a choice of awareness or consciousness. I look at how easy it can be to turn missing the bus into a disaster. In this crisis moment in Haiti, we see people who in the face of a natural and overwhelming disaster can turn open-heartedly towards one another with goodwill and compassionate effort. If death is seen as disaster, we must all face it. Knowing that, we can also observe that in dying one can attach to the suffering more or less. In letting go of the attachment to suffering, death might be transformative. People can go on living after great suffering and find joy and gratitude, even though they bear the scars of the pain they sustain.

Many of my students experience physical or emotional impediments in their daily lives. Some are obvious, some invisible. That metal plate in the body pretty much guarantees that the leg will not flex, or the mechanics of missing fingers changes the balance in a hand mudra not to mention in down dog. Yet this does not stop their yoga practice, nor necessarily predetermine suffering. Adjustments and letting go of the definitions of "wholeness" or "flexibility" can enable deep experiences, and the struggle to accept that which is present in the moment often seems to liberate people who make the adjustments. The release of judgment and letting go of the attachment to one's impediment as a deficit are keys to this freedom. So many times I have seen courage, openness, curiosity, and humor in reaction to this struggle. Frustration sometimes dominates, and watching that conflict, I see human nature in action. It seems that we are offered constant choices as to attachment, judgment, and awareness. That's actually the good part! In every moment we have the opportunity to choose.

I don't feel it is true that my situation is better because someone else is in a worse situation. It certainly doesn't make me feel better to think about someone else's suffering! Time and time again I have seen that it is whether I attach to my suffering that makes it hard on me. It is all about the level of awareness I bring to the moment that will color that moment.

Waiting for surgery is scary! Even imagining that I might require surgery brings up many emotions. I can feel the fear. I can review my many references from earlier experiences that compound my anxieties. I also know that I am here today after those experiences, and that I am living in this moment. If I run from this moment into the past or the future, my suffering increases enormously. Staying with my breath, I am fully present, already full of life energy and awake. In that condition, even being on the edge of fear is not a "bad" place to be. I can draw my attention to the suffering itself, my own attachment to my own conditioning. I am simply being, and in that way, with my ever present breath, I am in balance.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sending Metta to Haiti

The earth cannot help the way it shudders. The people cannot help the way they suffer. Yet we hope for the possible, do what we can, open our hearts to peace. May they who no longer breathe be at peace. May those who breathe in fear be at peace. May brothers and sisters around the world share their hearts with Haiti. This is a form of Metta meditation.

The practice of sending compassion (Metta) to others is a powerful way to open your heart and share your energy even from a distance. Begin with acknowledging that suffering is the human condition, and that the recognition of the causes of suffering (the fear caused by grasping and attachment... even to life itself but certainly to outcomes and conditions) is the fundamental path towards the cessation of suffering. In this way you can begin to approach the pain of the situation.

Sitting in stillness, walking with single-pointed focus, laying down with deeply alert consciousness are all ways in which you can allow your focus to open out and send compassion beyond your physical self. Start with yourself. Then open to others, beginning with those you love, then a neutral person about whom you have neither strong positive nor negative feelings, then someone about whom you have negative feelings. At this point in your practice the depth of your compassion and awareness will open to include all other beings. You can use words similar to the ones at the beginning of this blog, or a more traditional sequence such as the one here.

May I (you, all beings, people) be free from pain
May I (....) be free from fear
May I (....) be free from suffering
May I (....) be at peace
May I (you, all beings, people) be free

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Releasing My Aching Heart

I often turn to the natural world for information about myself. Watching the light shift among the naked branches in winter, I see my own fluctuations. There is nothing good or bad in the way leaves dance in the light, or the stark outlines of branches hold their form reaching into the sky. So too is there nothing good or bad in the way my mind moves. I can watch it in much the same way.

Irises have taught me so much about judgment as I observe their stages and know that each is in its own way exactly as it needs to be and there really is no comparison of one stage to another in beauty or grace. I say iris, but could just as easily say roses. Plants and animals generally all offer this in wildly different ways. The first growth - so intense and exciting poking through the recently frozen earth - promising what might come. The courageous stand of the tender leaves through all the vagaries of early spring weather, the beginnings of that growth that promises lushness, quiet elongation of what will be buds... well, the whole formation and opening of the amazing blooms, one and then another, the browning and curling of the petals, the remarkable remains of what will be the seed pod, and then that ultimately gorgeous pod hardening and protecting and then scattering the seed.

I cherish the brown and green grass, the flying twisting maple seed, the curled darkened leaves among the drooping blooms of peonies. How can the dry and brittle winter mode of a field of brush not zing my heart?

So when my heart is aching, for others who suffer, for my own fears about those I love, for an opportunity lost or an obvious painful set of conditions, I turn to those same natural stages to help me remain open to possibilities. The pain is still there, but gathers hope and options along with it. Roots still deep, air still providing oxygen, sunlight in abundance even on a cloudy day. And then with a deep sense of comfort, I realize that my troubles, my moments, my life itself is transitory like the leaf buds and flowering glories. I feel protected and infinite in that I, myself, am simply a part of the natural cycles as are the birds, lizards, roses, willows and ocean waves.

My bones, my breath, my steps and my aching heart are as natural as the way I smile at the puffed up bird bodies holding their own in the cold.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Retreats: "Wherever You Go There You Are"

I love the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn's book about mindfulness meditation in everyday life. As I consider various ideas about offering a yoga retreat, investigating retreats that are already out there, I keep coming back to this idea. "Wherever you go there you are."

Old world sites offer deep art and culture, vineyards and romantic literary references. Air fare is terribly expensive. Exotic tropical places are beautiful, exuberant and usually cheaper. Various resorts or conference centers in the US have the attractions of local cities, easier transport, familiar styles of accommodations.

What does all this have to do with my yoga practice and the sharing of practice? Wherever I go I am sharing that which I am. I've learned that over the course of a lifetime. My impulse is to invite people into my life and offer to guide their meditation and practice for a few days, providing light and fresh foods, opportunities for walks, weather-appropriate activities like biking or swimming, gardening or snowshoeing, community service or other choices (did I hear bowling?). I would like to give others a few days in a rhythm that more easily includes the mindfulness and physical practices that mean so much to me.

Yes, I can see that the vacation aspect is an important draw - the relief from the daily hassles. But working together to make meals, to garden and harvest the food, to watch the sun set as the vegetables cook on the grill, even hanging the laundry on the line in the breeze can be part of daily life that includes morning and evening meditation and journaling, energetic and restorative yoga practice, and many moments wide open to just being. Seems that this approach would much more easily translate into meaningful understandings as part of daily lives.

The exotic and cultured retreat sites attract me too, wishfully imagining life as others live it in places that have an aura different than my own quotidien existence. But does this separation from my normal illusion of reality encourage deeper insights or just shift the illusion to include the idea that if only I were somewhere else I would be more insightful?

Actually, in my "retreat" I think I would offer time set aside for cell phones and internet... so people could experience not being where they are too. Let's acknowledge who we really are, and see what might happen if we take that person on retreat.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Setting The Whirlwind Aside

At the start of every yoga class I teach, I take a few minutes to encourage my students to become present. How funny that sounds! As if we weren't present to begin with! Yet it is clear to every one of us that doing nothing but sitting with our attention focused on breath and physical alignment is an intense and real change from simply plopping down on the mat. There is certainly an illusion that we are in the room, as we fuss over the padding under us, listen to conversations of others, wonder about the class to come, go over the details of earlier activities or worry about what will come after class. Once the breathing settles, the rush of interpretations continue inside each of us. Feelings and judgments about even the smallest things can demand attention for a bit until we regain our awareness of the breath. How many times does the mind wander to analyze something, explain something, or make judgments or tell a story? We can learn to let all that go; not necessarily stop it, but stop feeling the urgency of it, and exist in a fuller sense that is not ruled by the whirlwind of the mind.

Meditation may seem strange at first. A friend of mine once expressed this as, "I really am supposed to just sit and do nothing, think nothing? And this is supposed to make me feel good?" One of the keys to freedom from suffering is basically to stop defining our self, and let go of the misunderstanding that constant input and output equates to being present. It can be startling how much concentration it takes at first to stay with a focus on the breath. One practice is to count ten inhales, and if the mind wanders at all, start over. You can feel the mind like a dog on a leash, trying to dash here and there, restrained by the leash, until it learns, like the dog, that it is okay to just be right there. At that point, you don't need the leash to hold the mind still through 10 breaths. If numbers don't work for you, just think "In" as you inhale, and "Out" as you exhale. You might try letting the dog off the leash and see if you can maintain your focus on the breath while also being aware of the mind dashing this way and that. A practice that can help here is that of naming or labeling the thoughts and feelings that come up. We can use our mind's powerful observational skills to help release the hold that mind's urgent activity has on our sense of self.

So long as our sense of self is attached to the way our mind runs, our concept of our self clings to this and that, and we are unable to feel authentic. Activities are not in and of themselves bad for us, it is the mindless quality with which we do them, and our inability to set them aside, their urgency that essentially denies us openness to our self. We block out, we fill up, we manipulate and we unconsciously turn our selves off, using ever more frantic and constant messaging, e-chat, emails, meetings, news outlets, gossip, earphones, cable stations and yes, even blogging. It may seem that this protects us from something. Perhaps these mechanisms help us stave off the risks of feelings or circumstances, yet keep us unaware and disengaged from directly experiencing our self.

This is a typical human trap. We can chase happiness by ignoring who we really are, imagine we avoid risks by ignoring our own patterns and behaviors, and continue to overwhelm our senses, stimulating a hollow feeling of self-importance and deep doubts about the reality of our self. Our certainties and self definitions can be undone in a half second, we can feel our very self is undermined, and spiral into despair.

When I wake up in the morning, I give myself a few minutes. The first thing I do is notice that I am breathing. My awareness simply finds my breath. I allow myself to notice the quality of air on my skin, the warmth of the blankets, anything at all. I encourage myself to be vivid, even if it means noticing that my eyes are glued shut with sleepiness and one hip is uncomfortable. I do not judge my condition, just take it in. I have learned that I do not need to have judgmental feelings about myself or the day or my condition. This has been liberating, regardless of whether I'm well or fighting a cold, sleeping late or getting up very early.

In meditation the same quality of noticing is my starting place. Allowing my mind to find its focus on the breath: its texture, depth, all the little effects on the rest of my body. In a way this is a profoundly comforting way of accepting who I actually am in that moment. I also allow my thoughts to come and go. Sometimes I get lost in a sequence of thinking, surprising myself as I return to awareness of the breath, and realize that I was gone for a while. It is this that offers the opportunity to see who I am, what distracts me, perhaps exposing my anxieties and interpretations, and really getting to know myself as the operator I am in the world. Sometimes insights arise that my thinking mind could not configure without this open space.

Being present in the moment is the first effect of meditation. This has a ripple effect of giving me the chance to find real balance, ease, and openness with the person I am, making choices about where I turn my attention and use my energies. It is a bit like being in the eye of the hurricane where there is great stillness and you can observe and even appreciate the whirling chaos and power of the winds around you, yet not be swept away.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Responsibility & Fragility

We are such amazing structures of skin and bone, so strong and yet so transitory. Yesterday I was remarking to my husband that I feel responsible for shepherding my elderly relatives safely through the ends of their lives. It is almost as if my hand is gently on the oar of the ferry boat taking them through their final transitions to the other side of existence. This sounded so strange as I said it, yet felt so true. I feel the responsibility to outlive them, in order to keep paying their bills, organize celebrations for their birthdays, keep them supplied with their favorite treats or experiences, sort out their catastrophes and health care debacles, and problem solve when their minds can no longer rationally cope. This is not a passive situation, as I am administratively responsible for two nearly 90's and in the heart responsible for two more of equal age.

In some ways, I approach this weight much the way I do in my asana practice when my knee feels fragile giving those warning twinges. All of this requires first and foremost the ability to see what is really there, be open to what might be so without judging, and not get swept away by conjectures, emotions, and the distortions that past experience might overlay. Clarity, compassion and action are at the core, allowing me to fully support the expression of fragile qualities.

Last night I got a call from my aunt that her name tag had been removed from the door of her assisted living apartment. She wanted to know if there was a change in her status, if she was being removed, if she should move out tomorrow morning. What did I know about it, and why would they do such a thing? She was hurt, furious, scared. To a stranger, this might seem obviously irrational, yet I know that her sense of self is fragile, her place on earth tenuous, her fear and anger justified by her deep family experience. The child of refugees, she hung on correct protocol to protect her, fashioning a professional career that was all about precedent and protocol, legalities and legislation.

I hold the oar lightly, but firmly, and ply it in the strange dark waters as I sense that boat below me, with this dear frightened person in it. Of course I reassure her that it is not personal, and I take the responsibility for facts, explanations and replacement. Just as I practice yoga with my complaining knee, I gently bend it, position the foot directly below it to transfer the weight, bring my awareness to the way my thigh lifts and my hip rotates, my pelvis carries the weight, my spine rises... in other words, the body in its entirety helps support the knee, not the other way around.

So often I think that fragility is frightening because I have forgotten to take responsibility for the support structure. Fear arises when I think something or someone dear to me is suffering or being taken from me, and yet as I grow older I find that although I may never be physically able to do certain poses, my abilities grow constantly in new ways I never imagined. Open to fragility, and responsible for supporting that, I am more and more available to myself and to others. Ah, once again, releasing judgment, letting emotion wash through with the understanding that the wave will come again, but the water goes way beyond the wave.

Dipping my oar, I continue to scan the waters around me, peering into the dark even as the light bounces on the crests of the waves.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Signing Up and Signing In

Willingness, interest, even commitment may not be enough to get you to follow through on something that you pledge to do. For many of my students, this is a resolution to get to the yoga mat (or get to the gym) every day. Many yoga studios offer encouragement for a steady practice with cheaper multiple class cards, big discounts if you come every day for a month, or make it to a set number of classes in a set number of days. This can be a good jump start to your own practice, and the inclusion of yoga in daily life, but it is not always possible to get to the studio routinely for classes at the appropriate level at accessible times. Family life, work routines, unexpected circumstances, travel, there are so many reasons why a one-directional commitment to the yoga mat can seem impossible to meet.

I love yoga and have no question at all that practicing yoga is good for me in just about every way I can imagine. Even so, there are days when I just cannot seem to make it to the mat for my own practice. I can manage to check my email, but not get to the yoga mat? I certainly cook and eat every day, but I don't get to my mat every day? Am I meeting my commitment? I say yes, and deepening my practice continuously as I go along by allowing my practice to be inclusive, and acknowledging honestly when I do, or don't, direct my attention to my practice.

I see my commitment as an interplay between intention and action. When I fail in my commitment I make excuses, offer explanations, and oftentimes weave complicated emotional tangles that can take a lot of energy to untangle. I can hold myself accountable and let myself off the hook at the same time. Very confusing!

Through my yoga practice, I've come to accept my commitment as my intention. I no longer see my yoga practice on the mat as a requirement or duty, or hard and fast rule related to meeting expectations or achieving a goal. I see it as a discipline based in intention, offering a wide range of possibility for practice and exploring it as an ever enriching and unpredictable experience. I hold myself accountable for acting upon my intention, allowing this action to follow its own path, even if it includes not getting to the yoga mat in a particular day. In yogic terms, Tapas, discipline, is a practice well worth exploring, delving in to the concepts of intention, commitment and practice.

One handy tactic I have used with real impact is a paper sign-in sheet. Sounds a bit simplistic, but all I have to do is sign in and I'm present with my intention. I sign in honestly, noting my practice that day. I use symbols that designate my yoga teaching, philosophy and asana study, meditation (both sitting and walking), mat practice, chair practice, and when I take classes taught by others. I have a symbol for no-practice that represents a day when I have not set aside time for a focus on practice in any of the above activities. The marking of these actions offers me direct connection to my commitment, encouraging me to rev up the engines of my practice if I feel strong resistance to saying "no-practice." I find I can make a little more space in my day and focus my attention. The days I write "no-practice" are very few, and are no condemnation of my intention. They reinforce my exploration of my own journey, that which distracts me, or requires my attention, the choices I make.

I don't judge myself when I sign in, I feel encouraged, and sometimes inspired.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Not Knowing: Its All About the Inquiry

Not knowing is another one of those concepts that can cause confusion in a practice. For me, the simplest way to explain it is by using the idea of releasing the goal or the hard and fast explanation. It doesn't mean that you don't know what you are doing or that you give up on understanding and knowledge, but rather that you are free to use what you know without binding it to outcome. In essence, I give up a bit more of my attachment to the story when I look back at events or see myself getting invested in controling the what-when-who-how-why of things.

Recently my husband mentioned to me that he is always closing drawers on my dresser that I leave slightly open. I found this entirely shocking. My memory, as I scanned it, was entirely of closing my drawers. My thoughts ran through the standard patterns, denial that it just wasn't so, explanations about his character and the way he generalizes, revulsion that I could be so sloppy and simply not know it! Yet why would he say this if it wasn't true? I opened myself to the entirety of the idea: what is this? What is this? Watching the film, so to speak, I see him closing the last quarter inch of my drawer, every so often. Of course, it is true that occasionally the drawer is not flush to the dresser. I can feel his need to clean up the lines around him, to make order where there is disorder. I can feel myself getting distracted at the last moment of putting away laundry and turning my attention elsewhere. I am flooded with compassion for him. I am laughing at the odd couple we have been for so many years. I am softened by the way he is looking after me. I no longer feel threatened by this imperfection in me, nor by a potential judgment he might make of me for my behavior or the difference in my standards. I continue to wonder and observe how he interacts with my patterns, and how my patterns interact with his reactions. The whole conversation is no longer loaded with judgment, hurtfulness or confusion. I remain safe in my open minded attitude towards myself and my partnership.

Not knowing represents an attitude of wanting to know. Letting my awareness follow my breathing I find out all kinds of things about my breath. This doesn't inform me of what my breath will be in ten minutes, nor how to instruct someone else in their breathing. The curiousity and intelligence applied to observing my breath does inform my ability to be present with my students and encourage them in specific ways to explore their own breath. The outcome is unknown, and I am not witnessing my breath in order to inform my students in such and such a way. I am simply inquiring into the nature of my own breath and breath itself.

Liberating myself from the need to know has been, and continues to be, a process. As with all the aspects of yoga, this process leads in all directions, so that I find I am releasing judgment in order to inquire without predetermining the answer or even the direction of the inquiry. I may also find that I reach for my foundation for stability in order to let go of the grasping in physical, emotional, intellectual or even spiritual realms. Being open to whatever is there can inform me of truth that surprises me and removes the layers from the stories I've told myself for many years.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Using Judgment Wisely

The state of non-judgment is such an open space in which to experience yourself and others. It seems, though, that we are designed to categorize people, events, signals, scenes, memories -- everything really -- and judge it all! We take a quick scope of whatever data seems relevant and stash it away in a category that helps us function. A good deal of the time we use judgment to make life and death decisions like crossing the road, health decisions like starting a juice fast or eating a third slice of pizza, relational decisions as to when and how to offer help or stay out of something, myriad intellectual decisions, financial decisions, career decisions. Honestly, is there any decision that doesn't involve judgment - even what to say and when to say it?

Yet as my yoga practice deepens, I find more and more often I urge my students to release judgment. How do we do this? It is sometimes so difficult to allow the mind to simply notice and accept, rather than judge and categorize. We can establish ourselves too firmly as having a particular problem, and perpetuate that problem by doing so, often shutting out alternate ways of understanding our situation. We so quickly estimate our abilities and then manage to function only within the parameters of what we estimate, rarely finding out what our true range might be.

As with nearly everything, the trick is in the balance: how do we use our ability to make judgments to help us remain open to the vastness of possibilities in a safe and conscious way.

Within the practice of any asana or sequence in a physical yoga practice, we can explore this balancing act. A big part of this is the process of developing witness consciousness, that aspect of your nature that observes you even as your mind chatters away and your body willfully places itself in a posture. Perhaps you have disappeared for a moment in resting Kapotasana, a prostrate pigeon pose; for a few seconds losing track of the acuteness of that one hip opening, even of the breath moving up and down the spine. It is as though you can see yourself folded on one side, extended on the other, your upper back releasing, belly soft against your opposite thigh, as the hips rest squarely, one leg lengthened infinitely behind you. Your mind may be speaking volumes about how you cannot stay in this one more minute, or about how different this side is from the other side, busy noticing, commenting, bringing feelings and experiences into the moment. Your breath may be shallow in your chest, or deeply soft in your belly, or perhaps awareness has brought the breath to your hip joints, encouraging their opening. The witness can let all of this go, just be there, watching how all this is happening, meanwhile simply being and resting in that open space that your own prana, life energy, can give you. It is in this space that you can observe the way you function: how you make choices, criticize, explain, act, feel.

Yet even as the witness develops, judgments are made. Should you use a folded blanket under that hip? Are you forcing too much stress into the lower back, or shoulders? Could you tuck your toes and extend that back leg a little more to increase the lift in the inner thigh? You can learn to make these choices, being the one who judges, using what the witness can see.

So it is as though there is a whole committee with you as you practice, some advising about the physicality of the pose, some clamoring for attention to the emotional matters brought up by the hip openings, some reacting to the way the teacher adjusted you. Let the witness help observe the committee, like a recording secretary, and let your true self determine the advice for that moment. Watch out for the competitor who wants to force you into going past what is safe for your joints! Watch out for the worrier who will caution you against trying something new that might be risky! Notice all the players at the table, all part of you, and allow the witness to help you use your judgment wisely.

Give yourself the entirety of experience without limiting it. Use your judgment to open the experience further. Try the prop, remove it if you don't find it squares your hips. Release into the teacher's adjustment and let go of the ego who wants to do everything for itself. Let the asana practice help you see how you make your choices on the mat, and you will find that you can understand yourself much better off the mat too!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Exploring Yoga by Video

I have friends in remote places who seem to have fast enough internet service to actually do yoga along with streaming videos. There are several wonderful sites for this, some, like, that charge a nominal monthly fee for access to a wide variety of levels, styles and lengths of yoga practice videos. Even YouTube has a nearly endless array of serious yoga videos - and joke ones too. Today I rediscovered a couple DVDs that a friend had passed along to me - one is from 1999 with Rodney Yee, Power Yoga: Strength & Flexibility, the other is from 2004, Yoga Shakti with shiva rea. So this morning I set aside my self-generated practice and took a sip from the common cup - yoga with computer open and the recorded sounds of someone else's directions.

When I take a yoga class in person I cherish the breath around me, the humor in the variety of experiences in one place at one time, the deep practice of each student being present on the mat. The teacher offers glimpses into themselves, their heart and understanding. Sometimes the teacher in me picks up a phrase or a sequence that is especially useful or apt. Mostly, I try to release into being the student, and leave my inner notebook at the door with my shoes.

Using a video to organize my yoga practice was oddly new to me! I bet many of my students have more practice with this than I! It took me a while to get over the total lack of eye contact, the vast difference between my situation on the mat in my bedroom and the incredible backdrops for the videos (Maui for Rodney Yee and the Maldive Islands for shiva rea). This slightly disconnected feeling seemed to keep my teaching mind much more alert. I was noting the transitions, observing the teachers' personal adjustments, sensing their structures embedded in their sequencing. It was particularly amazing to be able to stop the video and literally look at Rodney Yee in the midst of movement, seeing how his weight rests in his feet or the way the energy in his neck continued to pull the spinal movement in his arm balance. This obviously disrupted my own practice! It was much easier for me to move along with shiva rea, her languaging brought a presence into the sequence of events that made space for me, not just a logistical direction of where and how to physically do the asana, but in some ways directing inner drishti, and encompassing meditative aspects of the practice. I'm curious to see a video by Rodney Yee 10 years later, and experience how his teaching has developed.

Since this morning, I've investigated a few YouTube videos: of teachers David Vendetti and Todd Skoglund of South Boston Yoga Studio, and of Sadie Nardini generator of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga in NYC. Each offers a very different feeling - both styles are more intimate and less of a commodity as the whole video production number.

Frankly, if you don't have a home practice and it's hard to get to classes either because of cost or your schedule or location, don't despair! There is a huge array of encouraging teachers available through your computer! Older yoga videos are just as wonderful as new ones, so keep an eye out in second hand stores, at yard sales, in video lending libraries, or on shelves among friends whose loans could be a great way to keep you going. Some sessions will strike you as too athletic, some as not athletic enough. Some will be overly wordy, some not wordy enough. Some over simplify, others over explain! And the music varies totally. And so it goes. This is often the case even if you pay for a class in a studio. It's also a lovely feature that you can actually repeat the class to support your journey. Perhaps revisiting a video after a hiatus would offer an entirely new adventure!

Using videos is a good way to keep yourself moving, to continue your inquiry on a more regular basis and maintain a commitment to a practice. You can choose a 20 minute practice to fit your day. You can explore some new approach that is unavailable in a nearby studio. If you can take a class, fabulous. If you can close your eyes and remember a few parts or sequences or flow from a collection of class memories, that's a great way to generate your own practice. It is fun to mix things up, though, and keep your yoga from turning into an exercise routine.

Videos and DVDs can fit nicely into this encouraging niche! Experiment within the level that you can practice without a teacher to guide you personally. If there are aspects, asanas, or directions that go beyond what you know is safe or familiar, watch it first without doing it. This is a great advantage of the technology. It is what we call in teaching a "demonstration." Allowing the mind, eyes and spirit to input and process before asking the body to follow is a nice benefit of a recorded session. Let yourself take a restorative class whenever you need one, rather than be limited by the once-a-week restorative schedule at your local studio.

I don't know enough to recommend specific videos - the ones I explored this morning were so different from one another and in my possession for totally arbitrary reasons! If you have videos to recommend, please share that in your comments - identifying the level for which they would be appropriate, please.

The most important part of practice is to be present, notice where you are in the moment, and let that be just what it is. You, breathing, right there. You can be on a plateau overlooking the ocean in Maui, or in the sand and surf of the Maldive Islands all while doing sun salutations on the mat in your living room!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Letting Go of the To-Do List

I often see people I love and teach in spirals of activity, trying to accomplish something, to control something, to produce or avoid something, even to be something. This level of doing and going, busy and constant, effectively blocks off deeper sources of energy and fulfillment. It certainly is satisfying to have a long to-do list that gets checked off, but rarely are the items on that list ones that add to growth, lend themselves to internal healing, or develop new levels of awareness. By its nature a to-do list is just that, things to get done.

I've said before that the act of just noticing is a strategy for letting go. Sometimes it is hard to even notice the mind's frantic chasing around, as it goes so fast, is forgotten so soon. Sitting still and watching the sprinting mind, short bursts in this direction, and that direction, noticing the rising and falling of the feelings and judgments that accompany the running, you can come to find the one who is watching, the one who is sitting still. This is the person you actually are, full of promise and possibility, living in the inhale and exhale, experiencing the ebb and flow of the drama without being the player in it.

Some of my students interpret the idea of noticing as catching every detail, or feeling every feeling. This can be one stage of developing the ability to notice, and one that catches us and drives our engines even harder to run, to dash from this to that, to cope and cope and cope with the constant surging emotions. There are reasons we let ourselves get caught there. And there is strength and energy in us to let go of that, the resistance in us that prevents us from doing what means most to us, from finding ourselves giving up the definitions and rationales which hold us too tightly in a role that is not fulfilling our heart energy.

We may not all be able to let go of all earthly trappings like monks, but there is the Bodhisatva in all of us, the enlightened being who lives in the world rather than in retreat from it. Doing what is there in you does not require constant motion or action, rather it encourages that you acknowledge the resistance you may have to being who you are, watching the patterns, observing and labeling, and releasing. You can find your way through that to your larger self, the self who is witnessing the performance rather than all the busy ones in the constantly unfolding drama. This quiet breath may lead you to let go of the judgments that prevent you from being all you are, doing that which is in you, and knowing that this moment is why you are here, now.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Peace as a Practice of Non-Attachment

Self interest is a great motivator. The day we come to realize that the welfare of all beings is truly in our self interest is the day peace will arrive on earth.

This is not a superficial idea, nor does it require the denial of a sense of self, nor the eradication of conflicting conditions. There is an interesting merger of idealism and practicality in the concept. Often I hear the saying that "peace begins with the self." I agree with this. It is like the concept of love, we can often be more caring, compassionate and thoughtful of others than we actually are of ourselves. At least we think that is so, until we find that we can harbor all kinds of complicated negative feelings as a result of the "good" we are trying to do. Love must begin with the self as well.

The practice of non-attachment is one with many concentric circles and layers. Non-attachment - the idea of letting go of outcome and just giving yourself whole heartedly to the act itself - is a strong foundation of love and peace. To really experience non-attachment you must let go of judging what you are doing or how it is going or how it will turn out. This does not mean acting irresponsibly as though none of what you do has consequences! It is a matter of opening to the possibilities that by giving all you have to the situation, that which is possible will come into being whatever that might be. That, in and of itself, brings a peaceful and deep level of being in the moment. Feeling that way, full and in the moment, you can see the roller coaster but don't have to take the ride. It is not your mission to change what other people do - or to manipulate yourself or others in spite of differing points of view or conditions. Feelings of compassion come more easily if you are not judging and attempting to control other people's experiences or their own evaluations of their experiences. You might more easily see how they fall into traps, suffer, find their ways out of traps, help make the traps less seductive, and perhaps even turn away from the traps towards non-attachment themselves. This compassionate non-attachment is the beginning of peace.

Non-attachment is not disengaged. This is caring about everything rather than not caring about anything or caring only about one aspect. Quite fundamentally the opposite, caring fully and being open to relinquish qualifying criteria, offers the chance to see more openly, more entirely. Exist in your full potential and you can offer all that you are.

Late last fall I walked several times a week past a huge overhanging rose bush on my way to teaching. I was struck by the intensity of the beauty of the few remaining buds and blooms at that late time of year. Yet just as those classic symbols of beauty held their own against the cold and grayness of the late autumn, the spent blooms also shone with all the depth of perfection in their faded, exuberant layers of browning petals, the loosening of their hold, and the sheer abandonment of their former form. The leaves of the bush were in every stage - green, new, brown, curled, fallen. The sidewalk littered with petals and leaves, the detritus of organic matter that is the same essence of rose as the tightly held bud. There is deep joy in this combining of non-attachment with non-judgment. Openness to the fullness of what is, heart filled by the vastness of life in all its many aspects. Compassion brings joy and sorrow, as does love. Non-attachment brings compassion and possibility, as does peace.