Monday, March 29, 2010

Ask Me About Bliss -It is Just This

This is the season of renewal and also of paying attention to the deepest darkest moments from which we emerge into the light. A friend spoke of Jesus wandering in the desert, of his offering of his own mortality and how, when suffering the ignorance of others he asks for their forgiveness. Perhaps his return, his rising from the grave, expresses the immortality of the compassionate soul. In seders around tables loaded with ceremonial foods, families gather to remember such a journey through hardship and ignorance. Perhaps their survival relied upon losing themselves and surrendering to divine will.

For me, every muddy rut, each leaf bud, the scuttling clouds in the sky as well as the crowds on the paused Q train represent the compassionate truth of being. Without judgment of value or worth, I feel deeply moved by the inhale of the person next to me. In each breath cycle I find that my students continue to reach beyond themselves as they seek their inner truths. Can there be more than this? The broken heart, the struggling body, the pain of loss, the fear of pain, the terror of injustice are all part of our human condition, yet we breathe in. And as we breathe out we find our feet, or perhaps our hands, maybe our knees or our sitting bones, or even our entire spine, supporting us upon an earth that revolves and spins. Our cells drink in the oxygen and hydrogen along with all the particles and poisons, our hearts beat within the arching cathedral of ribs, safe and protected.

We cannot separate out the dark from the light; we can open ourselves to an awareness that within the dark are the lustrous seeds that grow in the dark until they reach the light. Within that darkness are other nutrients that soften and expand the seed, encourage roots, promote the seeking energy that becomes visible above the surface of the earth as the tiniest green shoot pokes through.

The breath swaying the body from side to side in Ardha Chandrasana (standing half moon pose), hands held above the head in a loose Anjali Mudra, the body expresses the hope, the eternal possibilities, the blossoming of being. Inhaling - just, Exhaling - this. Just - This. Ask me about bliss and I say, "Just - This."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who's the Expert?

It doesn't take much for me to wish I could ask an expert about so many things. There must be someone who knows more than I do about this. Like a child taking a shortcut, I want to ask, "What's the answer?" and get the answer! Could it really be all right to accept not knowing? I also find myself thinking, "They know so much more than I about this, perhaps I should just give this up." This is a not so subtle way of disrespecting myself! Is it really okay to admire without turning the negative back my way, to make peace with a state of uncertainty? Ah, the structures are so familiar! Imagine feeling at ease with collaboration, trusting that each will do that which they can and be glad of the net result, just as it is. We can share the not knowing, and finding, playing with the puzzle pieces and allowing the shapes to shift and change.

My yoga practice has brought me to a state of awareness and compassion that allows me to smile at all this in myself. I accept my fear of relying upon myelf as a natural protective reflex against the judgment of failure, shame or stupidity that could be one step away whenever I am unsure. This reflex rarely bothers me anymore, especially if I see it coming. All my life most "answers" have brought along possibilities for more inquiry. I used to feel confused by this, since others seemed to be so much more sure of what they knew -- without needing to keep asking. Now I understand that it is my choice how deeply to pursue the inquiry, or to decide that I have enough of what I need to take action or to bring peace.

I'm not living in a snarled web of tangled threads that demands my attention in all directions at all times. I am like a spider using all the threads to continuously weave a web that holds the world in which I live. As my practice deepens I have come to see this layer of activity as one of gathering and placing, rather than mending and solidifying.

There are many beings who know a great deal more than I about a great many aspects of living and being. Through their own experiences, and the weavings they have made with the threads within their reach, others have much to show me. Perhaps it is my place in middle age that brings me this new comfort level with the idea that there are no experts who can just "give me the answer," but I am very willing to attribute this to my yoga practice. I can use what others teach and share, and weave this into my daily web making, seeing how things fit. My web can hold the drops of morning and evening dew and withstand the winds of my breath.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Its All There! Buds, Seeds, Falling Petals & Dust

Early Spring in all its incarnations has taken hold of Brooklyn, NY. We get the warm sun, the cold wind, the driving rain, the deep stillness. We get the bare hardscrabble earth in abandoned space, divinely pruned horticultural specimens delicately budded, and wildly profuse weeds in their vibrant green leafing. As I walk to teach yoga I am struck by the co-arising energy of everything around me. That bare ground will be weed-covered, that delicate specialty rose will be wilted and bare. I remember an exhibit of artifacts from ancient Egypt in which there were seeds resting in the bottom of a ceramic pot. Some of that seed resting unseen for thousands of years actually sprouted when given soil and water and light.

I see this idea that all the possibilities are present as another way of thinking about emptiness. The paradox delights me, that emptiness is everything at once, the world beyond the illusion of this-is-this, that-is-that. Okay, this way of thinking is not for everybody right this minute... perhaps eventually ... but my point is this: It is our human way to attach meanings to an object or set of conditions, to associate emotions with our perceptions and not something inherent in the object or condition itself. The rain is not good or bad. If we build houses in a flood plain then too much rain is hard on our expectations, perhaps washing away good growing soil from one place and rejuvenating soil elsewhere in the flood plain. If personal gain is the way we measure, then this is "bad" for some and "good" for others. Yet the rain itself seems to me to have no intrinsic goodness or badness.

We do this all the time with plants and animal life. This is a lot full of weeds, this is a flower bed. This is a beloved pet or endangered species, this is a pest or public health hazard. This is murder, this is food. Dualistic definitive thinking is in our nature, but must we let it rule our lives? I hope not. Yoga has opened the conduits for me and many of my students to see beyond the waves of the mind (Patanjali's Sutra I.2 yogas-citta-vritti-nirodhah), at least part of the time.

Lately I have been deeply investigating Anjali Mudra. To me this is not "prayer hands" as many of my early yoga teachers referred to it. Anjali Mudra is a hand asana that expresses many aspects of our potential awakening. Holding the base of the palms together and allowing the ends of all the fingers to gently meet by gently bending the first knuckles, we find stability and balance between right and left, a foundation in the base of the wrist and lightness and space between the palms. The slight natural cupping of the hands brings a feeling of grace, the contact of the finger tips is lively yet peaceful. There is a deep, gentle and profound sense of completeness. Such a simple thing to do, yet it brings us directly in contact with ourselves and with all the possibilities that open within us. Many speak of this as a symbol of the potential to open our hearts, as often the hands are held before the heart, the head naturally bowing slightly towards this form. There is no doubt for me there is reverence in it. There is also, for me, the availability of directing prana (life energy) through the mudra towards others. A.G. Mohan suggested using Anjali Mudra in many asanas, in order "to bring us humility rather than the ego boost from achieving the form of the asanas." I have been exploring this with great interest.

I like to take Anjali Mudra in its form of representing everything at once: perfection and imperfection, hardness and softness, dominance in balance with surrender. I could go on and on in this same vein. Essentially it represents emptiness and completeness and all the potential of the seed and bud, the soil and the sun, the rain, the breath, the space for the breath in all living things.

A dramatic moment stands out for me when I fully and instinctively understood that everything exists at the same time. Thirty years ago, in the midst of a calm and happy time together with a visiting friend from college days, I felt an enormous surge of what I felt as anger towards him, and out of the blue blurted out at him (suddenly weeping so copiously that he took me in his arms), "When you are a decrepit old man I want to be the one pushing your wheelchair!" There was so much pain and joy in the deep understanding of my love for him that I simply overflowed in all emotional directions at the same time! In that moment, I could see old age in his beautiful youthful form, and feel despair of his loss as I came to understand the depth of his presence in my life. It wasn't long before we both realized that we would spend the rest of our lives together.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Flexibility: Enabling Compassion & Change

We've all heard the sayings, trying to see a problem from both sides and looking at things from all angles. I just heard a short piece on NPR this morning about disabling painful muscle cramping in older people, for which treatments varied in their success. The doctor at the core of the story had a personal regime of bike riding to keep the leg muscles stretching and flexing and through that a reduction in the tendency to these dramatic painful cramps. The last word in the story was that flexible muscles seem to cramp less.

Earlier this morning I had glanced at a list of reactive phrases posted in the NY Times on-line related to the passage of the big health care & insurance legislation. What an array of positions were reflected there! Each seemed definitive, so sure of their point of view, many diametrically opposed to others' statements. A few offered conditional reasoning, that if this-then that, some with more or less flexibility in that equation. Most represented a formulated point of view, based on the perceptions from standing in a particular set of shoes, with a specific range of vision. The essential outcome of the bill in question seemed to me to be an aggregate of many different viewpoints in how to approach health care and insurance coverage in this country. So to me it is no surprise that every part of it could provoke a positive or a negative reaction.

It seemed natural how these two scenes fit together into the same story: that digging in our heels and holding so tightly to one point of view, muscling our way into non-movement, is more likely to cause pain. This seems true whether it is a political point or a physical one. A degree of movement, the possibilities of softening into a full range of motion, the way things look from all sides, just might be necessary for our conditional way of life. We cannot avoid the situations that cause pain -- stiffness in joints as we age, feeling helpless in the face of someone else's misfortune, even loss of loved ones or coping with a dramatic health issue. We can definitely keep our stance more fluid, enabling compassionate responses in ourselves, for ourselves, for others, and perhaps in others.

Learning to hear these multi-faceted responses and seeing the actions we can choose to take are deeply embedded in yoga practice. Opening to what actually is so, regardless of the judgment one may hold or may have held, reveals the spectrum rather than the definitive.

Only by seeing and understanding that heels-dug-in feeling can we see the possibilities and work our way out of it.

Celebrating Spring, my husband and I shared a fruit salad this morning. Each bite had many flavors and textures. Each bite was itself one experience and many aspects to experience. We savored each bite this morning, noting the pear, the apple, the not-quite-ripe melon, and that handful of last summer's blueberries thawed and thrown in for good measure.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Drawing deep from the well, melted snow
Warming from the inside out, earth's core
Softening on the outside, sun's heat

The engine of the world is eternal
Human stories woven like a lace doily
Feet gently printing in the sands of time
Indentations slowly erased by the wind

Plant the peas
Observe the details
Find the center of the world
in the unfurling of your own breath

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inviting Softness in the Fierce

Lots of people use yoga to tone and strengthen their bodies. It's a natural system of using the whole self, so it works pretty well for the purpose. I notice, though, how effortful this is when my students are pushing towards goals rather than being where they are. Just staying with a fairly simple asana, or posture, can be strenuous and fierce. Lately my instructions have been including this one, "soften your mind." Well, that's a strange thing to say, but I know that the mind clenches tightly when the body is muscling through something, and I see the results in the whole body when a student can release that hard grip. All the fundamentals of yoga asana come into play as I soften the mind: releasing into my foundation, finding the space in the body, relaxing effort that is not necessary to the pose, letting go of judgment about oneself, benefiting fully from the breath, and finding freedom in the moment itself.

For me Utkatasana, known also as chair pose or fierce pose, is a good asana in which to explore softening the mind, releasing resistance and enabling strength from that place of ease. Basically, this standing pose is folded as though sitting in a chair, without the chair. Weight rests in the way the feet connect to the earth, tailbone balancing lightly over the heels with knees bent, body extending through an elongated spine, energy flowing from the earth through the top of the head. We can do lots of different things with our arms in this posture -- shoulders remain easy, neck relaxed. That seems like a joke! Most people tighten everything - especially the shoulders and neck, but it's not necessary at all for the pose. The state of mind is often reflected in the state of the jaw -- clenched tightly! This is a total waste of energy.

I recommend drinking in the breath in Utkatasana. Drawing a full breath up from the deepest place brings a sense of buoyancy to the body, releasing tension on the exhale in the form of consciously letting go of the shoulder and jaw gripping. It is an exploration of keeping the belly soft enough to expand with breath, while drawing the core muscles up and into the energy center. This brings a wonderful feeling of the body hovering over the base rather than that crunching tight gripping in the thighs and lower back. Imagine that your breath is energy flowing through you, bringing ease throughout the body.

Yoga practice can redefine fierceness as well as softness. Warrior pose (Virabhadrasana) can be a light balance of core body over extended legs, and it is the drawing of energy through the whole being that creates that sense of fierceness as well as grace and ease. Relaxed muscles respond much faster than gripping ones, making ease in the warrior a vital trait. The same is true for Utkatasana, that ease will make this "fierce pose" one of lightness and joy. Allow the mind to let go of judgment and attachment to performance and the body can release the associated anxieties and fears. With much amazement, you may find Utkatasana a welcome space for your heart energy to expand!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thinking of Buds

The sun is out today, and after the cold early morning winds died down, the sense of a shift was definitely in the air. The heat and brilliance of the sun is so attention-getting after so many days of so much rain and clouds. I find myself thinking of buds as states of being. I am fascinated with the tightly held energy, the potential hidden from sight, that inner growth evident only in its time, and just the feeling of latent beauty, patient fruit. This is the lens through which the day unfolds. Even though the bud in some ways is the statement of "not yet" it is also the assurance "each in due time." The tenderness of the new growth softens everything in me. The hope of the bud is evidence of the possibilities long stored, already present even in the dark cold winter days.

Buddhist practice often references the cultivation of the seeds within us, drawing attention to the fact that without the dualistic nature, there is unity without judgment. No weed versus herb antagonism, the plant is that which it is and our purposes define us more than the plant. In fact, the plant is the seed, the root, the bud, the worm, the rain, the sun, the whole story of existence represented in one form one moment and in another form in the next.

As it is with the bud it is with us. We are not the fetus, the infant, the child, the teen, the adult, the aged, the dead, the living. We are the moment, ever changing, full of possibilities. Let the bud guide my gratitude today!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Discovering My Self One Day at a Time

I do not always know who I am. I wake up discovering that I am waking up. My awareness, a part of my brain, investigates my inhale and feels the slow inventory of body parts, the air on my face. Part of my brain disentangles from the dream state that I might or might not remember. My sensory self starts collecting information. My eyes explore whether to open or not, either way noticing the quality of light or darkness. My ears assemble the sounds and assign meanings, attaching understandings of birds and season, who else might be up and moving, and other conditions of the moment. Is the cat on my leg or is that a blanket?

Part of my brain keeps track of these sensations and part of my brain keeps track of my calendar of commitments. It acknowledges a pattern of chosen events, perhaps identifying the source of what woke me, clarifying that I am rising from the bed in order to satisfy basic needs and be available for specific tasks. My mind introduces my feelings. Based on all kinds of conditions, I interpret physical signals and mental images into a fluid emotional material from which I will react to greetings, or temperature, to physical sensations or the metaphysical message on the clock.

All of this assembles into a personality, a character, a task-oriented being. This is the person who walks into the kitchen, braids her hair, or heads down the sidewalk. This is the person others see teaching yoga, or choosing broccoli at the food coop. She is the one who writes this blog entry.

When I meditate a few moments, there are times when I can see this assemblage and observe it. Even a few minutes of yoga stretching and exploration can help me acknowledge and work with this construction in a more relaxed, tolerant even celebratory way. That, in turn, changes my reactions to others and to conditions and affords me more equanimity, gratitude and good humor in the face of all kinds of influences. When I am really awake, I continue to experience my self throughout the day. Of course some days I am more like a somnambulist - sleep walking!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Experience - Here we are

If we don't experience this moment right now, when will we? What we remember, or how something looked or felt in retrospect is a way of using this moment, a way of using this moment to push away being fully present now. Memory is wonderful in its capacity to tell a story, like a good director formulating and highlighting the point of view for the viewer. Memory and understanding are closely linked I think, yet there is room for separation given different circumstances. What we remember and how we understand are changing conditions of mind. There is stability and freedom in knowing that whatever came before and whatever comes after, we are here now. The now is continuous. It is just this. This. This. The moment we turn our attention internally to tell ourselves a story we are not quite here now, a bit like sleeping.

Yoga is a practice of tuning. I encouraged my students yesterday to allow their motion to be dominated by their breath. Move as the breath moves, stretching the palm as the inhale fills the body, release the effort as the exhale releases the breath. Pause when the breath pauses. Explore the continuous nature of the breath in the motion if it is seamless. Tuning the instrument of our own awareness. What do we notice? Watch the feelings come and go. Note any sensations. If not this moment, then when? If we are not here now, where are we? We are always here now, but so very often allow conditions of the mind to blunt our awareness, to absorb our energy in repetitive patterns and closed circuits.

When I teach, in some ways I have no idea what is going to happen next. My attention is alert to my being, alert to the energy and the physical and emotional signals among my students. I have trained my attention to be explorative and curious within the bounds of my own experience and from studying the experiences of others. I see anatomy drawings in a text book of body parts I cannot look at in myself, and can visualize them in action. My body can open to the understanding of its own mechanics, my teaching sequence can absorb this and integrate this exploration into the experiences my students are having. The energy and momentum of years of practice and study feeds the moment, but does not direct it. The moment has its own conditions and my students experience that in themselves.

Practicing yoga we are intensely present, experiencing ourselves as individuals and in a universal way. The conditions are different than doing push ups, even though I might use the same muscles as I draw my shoulders over my wrists. Entering in and out of plank, I have rotated my shoulders back, stretched my ribs to the breath, balanced on the balls of my feet, lifted the bones in my thighs, drawn up my deep abdominal core energy and made space in my spine and neck. So much of myself is in use in that moment, that the experience itself is rich in possibility. Of course I am using my muscles, but that is the least of it. I am being myself. This is what I offer to my students as an exploration: to experience this moment. This moment. This.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Shape Around the Breath

Last night I was teaching yoga in my sleep. My dream self said that yoga is simply understanding that I am a shape to contain the breath. It seemed so clear and simple! My sleeping mind explained, for example, how moving from the breath I won't hurt my shoulder, as opposed to muscling my arms out towards some external goal. I watched and felt myself stretch my arms out using my breath (ahhh), and then push my arms out into an extension (ouch!).

I love this way of learning about myself. Not only am I teaching yoga in my sleep, but I'm teaching myself yoga in my sleep!

The idea of moving from the breath is not new, but every time I remember this and keep it at the core of my awareness, everything changes. It isn't the words that change awareness, but they can help draw attention in such a way that experience does change. That is what I hope my words do for my students. Sometimes I feel like too many words can clog awareness, and at other times there is such a visible response to my words, that I know it has drawn attention just as I hoped. I also use my own body, just as I did in my dream, to share what I'm experiencing. Every time I suggest to my students that they can release their shoulders, I release my own. I think this example is useful in showing that teaching yoga doesn't put me or my practice on a pedestal where everything I do is perfect. I like sharing my imperfections and make space for everyone to be whole and empowered.

This ongoing exploration celebrates everything it reveals, and keeps me in that state of discovery where I really am teaching myself about being. I learn bits and pieces about teaching, about frustration, about appetite, about love, about hip joints, about imbalances and balances, and about incorporating all the defined things in to the undefined open spaces of consciousness. What is a hesitation made out of? What can joy illuminate in the dark? Where does sorrow inform action?

Living in the breath itself, I feel myself expand and contract all the time. All the time, when I remember that is. Moving with that, exploring within that range of undulation, I am unifying the layers of my physical, breath, energy, and witnessing self. That is where bliss seems to be, in that unified self. That is a self unbound by the constraints of definitions, inhabiting a body that is just a shape around the breath. That shape is my home, and one that I tend and nurture, encourage and decorate, but understand in some deep way that it is transitory, truly changing with every breath. This acceptance of impermanence has a profound effect, not releasing me from responsibility in this moment since everything is always changing, rather it highlights the moment as the ultimate responsibility. My breath sustains me no matter what else is going on in my head, or even my awareness. I am very grateful for that and to my inner teacher who keeps tenderly and enthusiastically drawing this to my attention even in my sleep.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Not Shopping for A Set of Rules

I am not shopping for a set of rules. When I discovered yoga, my experiences began to change in unpredictable and even indefinable ways. My feelings shifted around, my coping mechanisms came apart and deeply embedded patterns began to dissolve around something else. That something else was not a series of asana, a membership in a new a religion, or adherence to a specific yoga doctrine. That something else was openness to possibility and a lessening of attachment to judgment (or opinion), along with an ever increasing ability to be (and to function) in and from that place of openness and less attachment.

This has strengthened my ability to be aware without smearing that awareness with color coding. I can see the overlays and more easily the core substance without the overlays. I can choose to use an overlay or notice that it is an overlay that is causing my reactivity. There is new energy in me, from me, for me. There is a natural release of my emotional clenching or grasping, which has cleared doorways long blocked and made for new paths where I can choose to walk.

Structures support and restrict. My own bones provide me with plenty of experience with both these directions - support and restriction! My mind does too, with its dogged pursuit of meanings, its patterns of logic, and its apparent inability to process some information, even in its repetitive nature and its inquisitive nature. All handcrafts and industries, academic disciplines, and belief systems have their structures too. Social systems, financial systems, all human doings are constantly generating and chafing within the structures we knowingly and unknowingly accept. And yet, we seem to search endlessly for something that answers the big and the small questions, trying to satisfy the deep restlessness of our intellect or heart, to assuage our physical impulses, to temper or enthrall our passionate nature.

I find the ancient yogic texts interesting. I am fascinated by Patanjali's Yoga Sutras as they lay out the parts of human structure (the questions) that we all run into as we continue in our investigations. I don't see them as rules. It interests me that there are so many different ways of approaching yoga practice and teaching, evolved by individuals and groups. People from so many different cultures and time periods have been playing with these ideas, and that is very interesting to me as well. Yet reading the ancient texts, and the contemporary books on these subjects, is just what it is -- part of this search for understanding openness (emptiness). The search is ongoing, and the direction always uncertain, unknown. Every revelation opens into more inquiry. If there is any structure to this, it is that of being present again, and again, and again, in that moment of inquiry.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Yoga with Music or No Music

When I first started teaching yoga, one of the things that occupied my time and attention was the making of playlists for my classes. The music gave me a sense of time, and could change tempo and mood to help ease, loosen, encourage, soften, and relax. I worried about lyrics and whether the sanskrit would put people off, or if I could use the variety of genres that appeal to me. I had a few classes where the music making gizmo wasn't working, and even a few where the early questions and explanations simply expanded into the class itself without my ever turning the music on.

In my own practice I have used playlists to experience them before I use them in classes, or to provide my practice with exactly the same qualities that they do for a class: Indicating duration of practice, enhancing the level of energy and relaxation, and subtly signaling shifts in meanings.

Yet I thoroughly dissolve into silent practice. I have taken several kinds of classes that use no music, and I am beginning to sense that there is a greater depth of inner focus. The asana practice is a meditation on the breath. It is not simply an instructional pattern of physical postures for which we coordinate our breathing in order to get a greater physical result. The more deeply I investigate silent practice, the more my own practice is drawn in that direction.

When teaching those for whom a personal practice is not yet part of their experience, or for whom the taking of a class is for the purpose of introducing specific aspects of practice, I find the music adds valuable dimensions to the experience. There is another layer of communication taking place through the use of music and this can convey something nonverbal and deeper than the language I use. It also changes the very nature of the spaces in which we share practice, and in some of my classes this is really a magical and important aspect of the time we spend. In the homeless shelter, in all the clinical settings, and even in private spaces, the music in combination with a change in lighting helps students make an immediate and important inner shift towards that inner voice, towards releasing unnecessary effort, towards attention.

I guess this is something that I will keep investigating through my own experience and my students' experiences. I am grateful that my understanding of yoga is not some absolute set of rules, and leaves me deep in exploration of every aspect. It is a new place of self knowledge to find I do not have to have definitive positions on things, nor authority, nor routines in order to be effective and useful.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Pre-Dawn Yoga: Shoveling in Deep Snow

The outside world seems to present me with reflections of my inner self. Surrounded by a deeply snowy landscape in Upstate New York, I can feel the sequence of events, like a 3-part (Dirgha) breath. As with the breath, I can take it either way top to bottom, or bottom to top. I can move from the top surface light powder that overlays a heavy crust, below this is two-to-three feet of soft moist snow, resting on the underlayer of crusted ice that presses on the wet and yet solid surface of flattened greens holding tight with their roots in the semi-frozen ground. Or I can begin from underneath taking the reverse: the slushy greens softening under several feet of fluffy blue-white yet heavier-by-the-day snow, compressing at the top edge by the weight of a slick hardened crust and topped with a dusting of delicate bright white snowy filigree. As I shovel, I run into all of it.

Sometimes I penetrate from the top, cracking the crust before shoveling in stages through the deep snow, and finally ramming the shovel below the deepest crust into the softening mush in an effort to clear the surface. Sometimes I begin at the bottom, wedging my shovel's edge as deeply under the whole thing as I can and try to remove the support of the deep half-frozen slush so that the whole depth begins to loosen, crack and fall in chunks that are manageable to lift with my shovel.

Early morning yoga practice is sometimes so much like shoveling this nearly 4 feet of snow from the edges of the curving, sloping drive. I want to clear a wider path, make movement possible. I know there is more here than I can deal with all at one time. My perseverance, breath and lightness of heart will help me. There are layers that resist, sometimes crumbling in large chunks to reveal the deep softness within, only to find that there is another hardened layer made by hidden melts and freezes and solidified in the darkness. My back is already getting worn from the efforts. Yoga shines the light there. Turns out there is slush below that. And with careful, mindful breath, I just might find the effortless effort that loosens that deeper crust, reveals the vivid green lushness of grass and wild weeds long weighted down. What happens next? Savasana takes me deeper still where I rest, leaning on my shovel, reveling in my beating heart, eyes watering and blinking in the sun's light on the snow.

And lest anyone think that this has to be all about physical effort and endurance, I have found it even more challenging in my sitting meditation practice! That soft layer runs right into the crust of my open mind wandering mind in either direction, so my focused one-pointed shovel of attention must be steady in its work.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Doubt as a Motivation: Living with Self Confidence

Where do we get the idea that we are supposed to be certain about so many things all the time, anyway? Is that what makes us think we are valuable, smart, competent? Doubts often look like a lack of confidence, uncertainty or even a lack of will. I think doubt is a way of expressing a lack of certainty in a projected outcome or in an assigned meaning or interpretation. Doubt can simply reflect not knowing and get confused with a judgment that one "ought to know" and therefore is not competent or trustworthy or ready for whatever is called for in that moment. Translate "doubt" into "I do not know for certain" and doubt can become the source for the energy of inquiry into possibility.

Is it possible to let go of judgment and simply give ourselves the space to be open to the possibilities? I think that self confidence is possible without ego dominance and in that context, doubt can be an inspiration. It doesn't take much to notice that my legs are shaking in a revolved lunge. Without putting a negative spin on it, I can enjoy that resistance and even discover ways to release more of the tension. I can find out something about myself in that process: watching my mind, observing my body, continuing to trust in my breath to keep me opening to the sensations. This happens, I think, because I am accepting myself in that moment, giving myself freedom to act directly from a nonjudgmental source in myself rather than from my constructed and judging ego. I could load myself with judgments, "How can I be a real yoga teacher if my legs are shaking even in revolved lunge?" or "I have to hold this longer in order to prove that I am good at this" or "I must be doing something wrong since I'm not finding this easy." All of this judging is built on the idea that somehow perfection in performance is required to qualify me to be who I am, not the actual experience itself. This is what I mean by projected outcome and assigned meaning. If I continue working through such a judgmental mind, I will disable or truncate my possibilities and my experiences.

A friend posted on Facebook this quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "With the realization of one's own potential and self-confidence in one's ability, one can build a better world. According to my own experience, self-confidence is very important. That sort of confidence is not a blind one; it is an awareness of one's own potential. On that basis, human beings can transform themselves by increasing the good qualities and reducing the negative qualities."

An awareness of one's own potential is like opening all the shutters and curtains and letting the light flood into the room. The light falls equally and fully on everything it reaches. This level of awareness is where that self confidence draws from when in the face of uncertainty or struggle, and most especially of what we do not or can not know. Of course the light will shine on disturbing aspects too, equally brightly (those shaky legs or human cruelties or past sorrows). I think H.H. Dalai Lama is speaking to that as well, that this awareness accepts the entirety and that openness enables us to make choices between the negative and the positive.

Thinking of my garden buried under the snow, I imagine the longer hours of sunlight are affecting the bulbs in the ground, starting to generate the slightest bit of energy towards root growth for those tiny snowdrops, wild hyacinths, daffodils and jonquils. The dandelions are also finding this longer day stimulating. It is my choice to think of harvesting the new greens or of pulling out those deep roots. Sitting here next to the woodstove I do not know which action I will choose, and could easily doubt that I will take either action, simply allowing the beautiful bright yellow blooms to emerge and outshine the bulbs I planted until the first cutting of the grass.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Santosha In A Bit of Rolling Snow

Standing in my snowshoes, I watched transfixed as a small bit of snow detached from my pole and began rolling down the surface of the hill. The dancing bounce and roll of this little clump was both delicate and driven by enormous forces. Skipping down the surface, it left a beautiful chain of marks like a necklace impressed in the light snow topping. Honestly I do not know if I was breathing or holding my breath for the length of time it took for this little nodule of snow to come to a halt, but the moment it stopped, I looked all around for some way to exclaim the marvel of it.

All around me was the steady light of day upon snow and surfaces. Though I heard the chatter of nearby chickadees, silence enfolded me and my exuberance. In that moment I earnestly wished someone was right there to see and share this remarkable beauty, yet I also immediately felt connected to all beings who had ever stood transfixed by a natural occurrence. It was as though a vast space opened around me and inside me simultaneously. Alone and yet totally one without any regard for individuality, time or space. There was simply the air, my cold feet in snowshoes resting atop the temporary surface of the earth, chickadees and my own beating heart keeping me company.

I watched as my mind began to observe the impulse to imbue the moment with meaning, in a way reaching for ownership of the event, making inner arrangements to document and file the experience. It felt as though I was turning on an internal light and illuminating the inside of my own structure. I could feel this rolling snow as an indicator of danger - to a deer or rabbit, where another could stand in awe as I had done. How many of these small motions had taken off down the hill before I stopped to notice? The same miracle happening again and again without my observing eye.

It is exactly thus that I live in the world: entirely unexceptional and entirely unique, fully conscious and a somnambulator. I can appreciate the human desire to open my heart, to experience the world in tandem with another, and yet know that even my most solitary experiences are deeply universal beyond even my own species. Feeling this, experiencing this without grasping at it, allowing it to just come and go like the breath itself, fills me with gratitude. Santosha, contentment, opens my path.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Nowhere to Go When Avoiding the Path

There are many times when the going seems unclear. Sometimes the path seems to split, or to be obscured by fog or confusion. Sometimes it seems there are enormous roadblocks put right in the way, by others or of our own design. Sometimes we find that we are simply playing out a pattern that is becoming all too familiar, and just cannot seem to switch it off, or step out of it. My students bring me such dilemmas, hoping that I will turn on a stronger light, sweep aside the doubts and debris, or clearly mark the destinations for each fork in the road. Yet, in what may be an irritating way, I tend to play the mirror in those moments... reflecting back what is being shared, so that my students have a chance to take another look from another point of view.

Often the dilemma is related to avoidance. It's a familiar feeling. Sometimes we have a deep awareness but we just don't want to do it. Perhaps it's fear of the unknown, or distrust of what we know. Perhaps it is being unable to project the outcome, and not having enough confidence in our own flexibility to make the best of whatever the outcome might be. So we tend to put in place a whole host of counter measures. Maybe we put a roadblock or conflict in the middle of that path so that we are shunted from it, or stopped in our progress. Sometimes we obscure our understanding so that it no longer looks like the way to go, just too murky. We also invite others to stand in the way, maybe through emotional flares or just by pushing them in front of us so that our steps must go around rather than directly down that way. We cause ourselves pain, and sometimes even blame others for it.

A friend recently asked if I thought it was okay to give up practice for a few weeks since he was in such physical discomfort. He had been keeping a schedule of taking daily classes and pushing himself to the his "edge" in every one. I ask about this edge, letting him explain to himself (and me) how he is straining and grasping for some shape that meets the criteria of each asana, meanwhile he is tormenting and twisting his internal self. No peace there, and no space for the breath either. His physical flag is being thrown on the play to get his attention. The first step he took was to stop action. Perhaps learning to soften into the breath is much harder than muscling into the posture? A few quiet minutes of allowing himself space to breathe as he first gains awareness in the morning -- those moments when you realize you are waking up -- might be a good way to practice for the next few days. It is not a matter of giving up the practice, but allowing the practice to take its natural shape. He said rather sorrowfully, "but you go so deep, and I have only been practicing a year or two." I smiled and asked if he was breathing, to which he answered, "of course!" We can work way too hard to avoid what is already there. We don't accumulate frequent flyer miles for each time we show up on the mat, and when we truly show up, there is no one there.

Maybe we resist making the reservations, or putting on the gear, perhaps its struggling to stay quietly on the cushion, but whatever it is, best not to pretend there is a way around it. Sooner or later, one or another flag is thrown. My experience has been that staying with it is the way through it. Sometimes the thorny stuff can actually be left by the side of the path as you go along. Sometimes we make snakes out of the coiled rope just to scare us out of the room, only to find our hand is reaching for that very rope to free ourselves.