Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Opening the Heart

Lately I've been a little closer to the yearning of young hearts, and it has seeped into my yoga teaching. How do we open our hearts? In asana practice there are ways to relax the shoulders, loosen the rib cage, stretch the core and gradually release the physical self so that the heart literally has more space and feels more vibrant. Pranayama, too, can bring energy into the heart center. But the mind can remain clenched around what we fear and what we wish for, leaving us yearning for a certainty we cannot have, and a completeness with another being that does not exist. Call it romantic or idealistic or any other word, it is the ache of the heart for safety and for love.

It seems clear to me that we must also release our expectations if we are to remove the blockage between us and our heart's desire. The mind requires the same kind of methodical loosening and stretching as the body, in order to release its grip and actually allow us to be present, to see what is, to feel what is true, and share ourselves without fear of pain. What we expect will block our ability to perceive what is happening. How we categorize and assign definitions, rules of order and requirements, all shape that which we can take in or give.

Just as in any session of yoga practice, we can identify our patterns, we can loosen the tendency to clench or to pre-set reactivity. A session on the mat will help open up pathways for energy and perception that have no vested interest in any particular outcome. One of the tenets of yoga philosophy is that of non-attachment to outcome, the fact that one is fully present in the action itself is enough. The outcome may be one thing or another depending upon how you perceive that set of conditions, and as with so many jokes and children's storybooks, it may look one way and turn out another.

One of the most intrinsically important pieces of yoga is that of the individual inquiry. No one else can take you on that journey, simply help you along the path. Once you are willing to let go of the judgment, the expectation, the goal, and simply experience what is actually happening, there is no predicting the possibilities. And so it is with the heart.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Losing Resistance: Loosen the Set Up

It has been hot here these past few days and I've enjoyed listening to people's opinions and positions about it. For some, the heat totally colors their reactions to everything, and for some the heat rises in themselves, too, causing waves of standing their ground, or melting down. This heat is right on time for me since in some real ways I've been investigating resistance in myself. I am coming to the conclusion that my excuses can be endless, and it is my choice whether I accept them or not, or use them as conditions to change my decisions or actions. It feels a little bit like I'm listening to a child explain why they didn't or won't, or couldn't or can't do something, and deciding, as "the grown up," whether to gently manipulate them out of that position, or simply say, "okay, I accept that, let's move on." With a child it is not so productive to say, "that's just an excuse," but with myself it helps to see them so clearly. So now I am seeing "excuse" is another word for using conditions for a particular purpose, usually in my case to resist!

My style of yoga is exploratory, a yoga of inquiry, endlessly discovering the openness of possibilities in the breath. I am in awe a bit when I read blogs of others who are dedicated to a particular practice, as with the Ashtanga yoga, or Bikram or Iyengar etc. I definitely appreciate the discipline and dedication, the depth of understanding that comes from working within a defined framework. The depth is in the details.
Often for me to imagine that yoga is a particular specific sequence of physical events is a set up for judgment. What I can or cannot do, what I am feeling in that moment might present an urge to move in a different direction. Learning to listen to this urge or inner guide has been a major part of my practice. That is one of the principles of Kripalu yoga, letting the breath, or prana, move me.

Even so, it is easy enough to resist the yoga mat! It's better to keep it very simple and not front load my expectations or requirements: be present, be alert, breathe and be ready to experience what actually happens. Perhaps watching my mind run circles around is half the fun of a practice, or perhaps allowing the dog to run off the leash will leave me in the stillness beyond the undulation of my breath. It has taken me a while to learn how to let go of the sequences, the "this-before-that" thinking and listen to the inner voice of prana = conscious breath + living energy.

Last night I was breathing quietly in my hot humid room, with a fan blowing and an idea that I was supposed to be going to sleep. Ahh, another set up. Obviously I was not going to sleep. I was resting there, aware of drifting in a sea of light sweat and wondering about the tension in my shoulders. Exactly who set the rules that I was supposed to lay in bed until I fell asleep? And who is going to enforce that rule? What if I just slip out of bed and unroll my yoga mat? Already warm and sweaty, breathing in the dark, I hovered over my mat in Adho Mukha Svanasana, finding the breath taking me through a sequence of Trkonasana (triangle) and Ardha Chandrasana (half moon) where the length of my breath spread into the night air as my body elongated, in effortless effort. I did my final hip twists in bed, Supta Padangusthasana, and let Savasana take me to the stars.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Inner Wisdom: Trust Me It's In There!

When I began taking yoga classes, I was craning my neck to see what the teacher was doing and tried to put myself in that shape. It felt like it took all my attention just to follow directions for breathing and half the time I was exhaling when she was saying to inhale. I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, and I was using muscles to push and pull myself into and out of each posture. Every time the teacher would say to relax a body part, it seemed that part of me was tense as could be. How did she know? I felt as though the teacher must have had some incredibly deep knowledge about everything going on, that she had some mystical understanding to guide us into a land of the unknown and that somehow she could even see right through my body to sense all the places between my ribs and each part of my leg muscles! The vast majority of my schooling had been what I now see as top down teaching, in other words the teachers knows and the students just absorb what the teacher says and then they will know too. There was nothing in there about what I might have already discovered, or that there was an innate and essential interest in inquiry embedded in me.

Inner wisdom, what inner wisdom? In the beginning, nearly every aspect of the practice feels externalized. The directions translate into the physical efforts of moving arms and legs, turning one's head this way or that, trying to locate oneself while listening for the next direction to step here or release that part. Yet very quickly the body begins adapting to parts of this. Perhaps it is lifting the heart, or releasing the shoulders that still require a reminder, but the ball of the foot starts to seek the fullness of the floor, and the hip begins to relish that opening and closing and opening feeling as one moves through Virabhadrasana I (warrior I) into Virabhadrasana II (warrior II). Oh sure, the hamstrings stay tight for a while, and the legs shake, and the body gulps for air or holds its breath in Utkatasana (chair pose), but even that relationship gradually shifts to an internal communication that can be self absorbed and eventually self directed, or should I say self-encouraged?

It is through this process that we learn to listen to that inner understanding. Yes, there it is, that inner wisdom. We can come to discern the difference between fear of the unknown or of injury, and tightness in the muscles. When I am exploring asana that challenge the structure in its present condition, I fully understand that I am about to ask my body to do things it probably hasn't done before. I rely on what I do know and the breath is the first support. Breathing I do all the time, though often unconsciously, my yoga practice has me more accustomed to bringing using breath to help me focus. A small change in breath can facilitate so much.

Today I experimented with my Sirsasana (headstand). You can take any pose and find out more about it through simple shifts of awareness, changes in breathing, or taking alternate variations. Maybe you have loose hamstrings and forward bends are easy for you, so you can use a twist to help you extend your spine and your awareness. There are many possibilities that will build on what is natural in you. Then there are the places that fear and unfamiliarity will block off from you, unless you take the time to listen deeply to what is in you. Working towards openness in the tight places, allowing time to breathe into the extension or the twist or the silence, and following what the body begins to ask. What happens if I ...? Could I actually try to ...? Once the body is open, or stretched, or strengthened, it may say "Follow me, follow this energy, follow this breath..." and take you somewhere else.

So, as a teacher, I explore these possibilities to better understand what my students are up against. Oh, yes, I feel fear too about falling on my head or overdoing what my shoulder can take painfree. I doubt and question, I fear and hesitate. If I didn't, I wouldn't be myself. What may be quite different is that I watch that response, that feeling, and breathe into it. What do I mean? That fear and clenching that can grab at me in Urdva Dhanurasana (Wheel - Upward Facing Bow) is best dealt with by breathing up my back body, releasing my heart and shoulders with the breath, and relaxing my spine on the exhales. Sometimes I can even relax my feet and get a playful feeling as I breathe this way. Or even walk my hands around as my shoulders let go of the clench.

When I learned to invert into Sirsasana (headstand), I started against the wall. I do not teach this to beginners. I think the wall is better later on in the experience, otherwise all there is to it is to throw one's body up against the wall and wobble on the shoulders-neck-wrists-head. There was no way I was learning to rise in the middle of the room when I was next to the wall. I was too scared, and thought I was too weak. "Thought" was the real block. I remember a teacher telling me that I had more than enough core strength for something, and I was terrified to try it. Fear was stopping me from discovering something that was already mine. So now I try rising into Sirsana with my knees quite bent, letting my heels dangle behind me, and I try rising into Sirsana with my legs straight. What I am discovering is that core and breath are, not surprisingly, the source of the lift -- not the legs, nor the arms. I gaze at a photograph of Dharma Mitra standing on his head without his arms at all, and I begin to understand, from inside me, how that could happen.

It seems that all I do is continue to take away the blockages to that which is already there, I've just been learning to listen with a little more attention! Wonderful how my body took me into such a place of inversion and balance on this day of the summer solstice, when light outweighs the dark.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How Do I Change?

Working through the amazing experiences of shoulder stand with my legs in lotus. How did this happen? Not as though I set the goal, but somehow after many things led up to Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimatanasana (half lotus legs forward fold, bound to folded toe), which is a place I have not gone before, I sat in lotus feeling the stability of the world above and below me. So I rocked back and hung there, breathing, gently holding my legs just as though I was sitting on the sky, and then stretching my core and and opening the groin muscles just enough to begin straightening my lotus knees to the sky too. I rolled back down to sit. Crossed my lotus the other way and went back up. Breathing up and down my spine. Gentle flexing of thighs and hips, no where I had to go, just breathing. Hard to say... right side up, up side down...sitting or what exactly? It just didn't matter.

I've been humming spontaneously all morning since then. Came in off my mat and wrote this, thinking about 21.5.800 and all the people blogging and writing and doing yoga in search of some transformation.

Change is simply
taking on the challenges of being
without the barriers of attachment
to the story I have told myself.
Gradually I become more aware,
and in that awareness there is
more of me.
Have I changed,
or found myself
as I have always been,
full of possibilities,
continuous, without end?

In this way
loss becomes a part
of gain,
sorrow becomes a part
of joy,
and the dualities
begin to dissolve
that make this now
and that then.
Or to put it another way,
there is nothing else
but this.

Resistance only works for a while,
and if I am patient,
I can breathe into that
to the place that lets go
into everything.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Two Strands - Two Sources

There are some things I can only understand if I get there myself. When I look back at my life I can see that in so many moments when I wish I had chosen differently, I chose the way I did because that is where I had to go to learn who I am. Usually pain was the result. I see that now as something that I also chose because I was still learning all about what being might involve. My personal yoga practice comes largely from this same source of choices and inner direction. That is what takes me into shoulder stand without my hands, a core body discovering herself no matter which way gravity is going. The results of this inner inquiry are much more joyful nowadays.

Then there are some things I would never discover at all unless I learn to see or feel what someone else is sharing with me. This could be the way the tree limbs move in the wind, the way a young man gently holds his girlfriend's hand as she removes a stone from her sandal, or the way a yoga teacher encourages me to breathe into a forward bend over a one-sided lotus foot as my ankle bone digs into my thigh muscle and my hip begins speaking to me in our own private language. My personal practice grows from this source of understandings too. In fact, each of these examples has saturated my practice lately and brought me joy.

It is not unusual for me to be surprised by what is actually happening in my yoga practice, and in the classes I teach, for that matter. There was a time in my life when I thought I was supposed to know everything before it happened or at least have a plan that would have fixed outcomes. Wow, has that ever changed! The surprise is part of the open space where the two strands meet: what I have discovered from within my own experience and that which I can absorb from outside my own little operating system. It is where my best teaching comes from, and my most expansive sessions on my own mat, or in the kitchen or anywhere else for that matter. I accept surprise with gratitude. I am learning that even when I don't "think" I am prepared for the outcomes that actually appear, really being present is enough. In fact that is all there is.

The larger operating system is so vast and inclusive that I can only pick up little bits at a time, except for those moments when I can no longer find a separate self and seem to be using that vast operating system as my own. An example of this might be losing the separation between bodies when sharing my breath with a student, or those moments in playing quartets when there is no need to think at all about the making of the music, our breathing and heartbeats seem to take care of it. It can happen even when hanging the laundry out on the line.

Yoga is helping me; allowing me to integrate these two strands, or ways of exploring the world of my own experience. Letting others bring their ideas into my explorations is a little like taking the shades out of the windows. The windows are there, but of little use to me until I clear away the blinds, the blockages (resistance, fear, craving, attachment, anger, story, fill-in-the-blank!). Sometimes I will pull those shades and cover a particular window, choosing to imagine the wall without it. Pain is usually the result of that kind of choice, and I suppose I will continue to make those choices until I learn enough to either open the shade myself, or make the space for some other energy to pull that shade. So my yoga practice develops both strands, and makes each of them more accessible to me. It sure has made it easier to look back at those painful choices and stop judging so.

I'm reading (slowly) a book called The Love Of Impermanent Things: A Threshold Ecology by Mary Rose O'Reilley, an author I savor. I recommend her earlier book, The Barn at the End of the World too. Early on in the first chapter she writes, "To grow in compassion for one's own life is the great task of the middle years, and it requires that, first, one must embrace with love and pity a whole reception line of relatives, then move on to the politicians. It helps to have a comic vision." Maybe that helps explain why it is so much easier for me to laugh these days.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Patterns & Reactivity: Can I See My Self

Relationships are complex and intangible. I can stand next to someone and some sort of a relationship forms. We arrange ourselves spatially, use eye contact cues and follow rules of engagement that change constantly.

In one class I was teaching recently, I suddenly proposed: “What if you simply stopped judging the people you love? What if a person who loves you could look you in the eye and say, I completely accept you? What if that person was a co-worker, or a person next to you on the subway, or in this class?” It was shocking to imagine anyone, even a person who loves me, gazing at anyone else, even me, without judgment. In that moment my students’ eyes were fixed on me and their minds were full of reactions to me and my words. Maybe they picked up on the fact that even I, “the teacher,” was shaken awake to imagine this.

Our very nature is a reactive one. Stilling the waves of the mind, as Patanjali states in the second verse of his yoga sutras, means watching that reactive nature with awareness but not being subjected to its every wave. Can we actually function among others, doing our daily tasks without falling victim to our own stories and in essence blinding ourselves to reality? Reality is, in this case, that understanding that we are connected rather than separate in the realm of all living beings. Of course as long as we continue to think of ourselves as separate entities, our functioning will remain judgmental and attached.

I find it very hard not to drop into various definitions, or characters, or roles and react again and again from there. The process seems to form layers of story, and each has its point at the time, but they get heavy to carry around after a while. It is a long-term project to put them down, or perhaps it is very quick but has to happen again and again – maybe for each layer. If I have trouble giving this habit up when living in my own body as my own self, imagine how much harder it is for me to give it up when I have just a moment to consider someone else? The tendency to name, buttonhole, identify, define, attach meanings and judge is a very strong tendency!

I begin with the concept of patterns in my mental attitudes, behaviors, and judgments. Pausing to pay attention is my first line of inquiry; I can start with noticing whether I am inhaling or exhaling and that slows me down before my thoughts get hijacked by their attachment to a pattern. It is only with a pause long enough in which I can see the pattern that I can recognize it and make choices. In conversation I might literally press the tip of my tongue on the roof of my mouth before I speak in order to give myself time to notice what’s going on in my judgmental mind. The action doesn’t stop, but I can stop my reaction, and that makes it possible to imagine/see/choose a different course.

Buddhist teacher and author Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche speaks to seeing authentic emotions in a June 4, 2010 essay in the Huffington Post ( “If we're going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state. When we're stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it's like going through the day half awake, barely conscious of the world's brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright, too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what's on the other side of the mountain.”

One of the results of my yoga is that I can no longer see myself as a finite object. It is as though I have been transformed into something much more fluid. I can find old patterns, like the marks left by floods on the walls. There is plenty of evidence there of my past behaviors and reactions. Sometimes I repeat the same knee-jerk behavior, but much more often I see it like that faint stain mark and can let the waters out before they rise to that point again. Every now and then I totally surprise myself with something so wide open that I can hardly find any self there at all, just a sense of space and being. Staying in that essential state takes practice. Usually as soon as I notice it, I am out of it. In fact the separation it takes to see it happening, requires that I return to the witness chair. Asana and meditation, slow walks, silences, all help me with that work of staying comfortable while unattached.

So in starting out to think about seeing myself in order to catch my patterns and see others without judgment, I’ve come to find that I can learn to see the patterns but not that they are not me. Sure there are stringy attachments to the stories I’ve created about my life and the memories and the dreams and the forms of others who were around me, but they are my stories, not me either. Maybe consciousness is even more vast than self-consciousness. It seems the inquiry will require my intense, focused attention and for me to get out of the picture at the same time.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Words & Wordless

In Savasana today there was a pool of light in the back of my ribcage, at least those are the words that might describe what felt like a shape shifting coagulation of energy and peace, pooling below my floating heart. My shoulder blades finally melted away and allowed my breath to soften my brain. There were no words. None.

Funny that when I teach yoga I seem to embody my language and words come out for my students to use. These words often drift out of my own muscles or from deep behind someplace where they rise up in my breath. Sometimes when I take class as a student, the words are nearly inaudible to me, as though they represent an energy transfer that is taking place through the sequence of events and my own breath in the space with the breath of others. When my teacher mind is present, I might think “oh that was a lovely word,” but by the time I release into the asana, that mind is gone and so is that word.

And then there are times when my mind is full of language. Words are not objects, not the thoughts themselves, not the feelings. Symbols, icons, scratchings on the stones, my words sometimes are drool, sometimes are the momentary fragrance of a ripe strawberry, sometimes just mud on my shovel.

I suppose I will live my whole life in a tug-of-war between words and wordlessness. I am grateful that I continue to find myself on all sides of that. Each part of the tug has its possibilities.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Practice, Practice, Practice

At what point can I release attachment and simply accept without judgment? I try to begin with myself. Maybe that's the hardest place to start, maybe it's the only place to start. The rising sun doesn't have meaning in its relationships to everything it reaches. It tinges this building or illuminates that quadrant of the sky without adding significance. It is the mind that bestows the myriad stories of soul and heart, of life giving force or cruel burning heat to that rising sun. Infinite beauties and poetic forms inhabit the mind, right alongside the darkest most destructive forms. Attachment to conditions gives meaning, and can turn quickly into a death trap, literally or figuratively. I think conflict is as easily about being wrong as about being right. Either way, the attachment cuts me off from being alive.

Letting go is frightening, so I practice it. I need time to get used to it. I take it a little at a time. Maybe it begins with just letting my belly soften as I breathe. Let that gripping go. From there, I can remember, again, to release my shoulder blades down my back, allow my sitting bones to settle into the earth's gravity, and something softens just a little at the edge of my brain as I do this. There are lots of ways to practice yoga, and the asana sequences and conditions under which the practice takes place. Even there, I shy away from attachment to a particular way or act or sequence.

Of course structure is helpful when I let go. It helps assuage the fear of letting go to have a container that feels that it will hold me... the body perhaps, or the floor, or a larger concept of being that is outside these physical boundaries. Yoga practice offers this container. Meditation is all in my head, yet what happens is that I work my way into a space that is beyond my thinking. In the abstract that sounds cool, but sometimes the way there is really scary. That moment when you realize you have let go and there is nothing holding you, just like a physical letting go and free falling, has its exhilaration and terror all mixed together. It is at that moment that I remember I am breathing, breathing.

Many years ago, when I was not quite five years old, I died on an operating table and chose to turn back. As I mentioned in my last post, my dad's voice called me back. He used to come into the operating room with me, to be there as they put me under. And almost without fail, he would start to pass out as I went down. Now I can feel how he was being my container as I let go, though I think he didn't know it then, nor now that we will celebrate his 89th birthday together next week. So I practice letting go still, and discover again and again that love is that container beyond all physical boundaries, whether I am breathing or eventually choose to return to light.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Unforeseen: Water Rising Fast

The story of the rising river in Arkansas is deeply moving. Campers sleeping in the woods woke to the fierce imperative of the water, washing away concrete pads, tents, trucks, people and trees. Some survived with ingenuity, some with sheer physical feats, some inexplicably through letting go into the moving world. Many did not survive.

I react as I hear the reporting on NPR. Park personnel and meteorologists knew there was potential for bad weather but no one “saw this coming.”

The ongoing unfolding of events and effects in the Gulf Coastal region from the sudden outpouring of oil and gases from deep in the earth has evoked a lot of pain and suffering. No one saw this one coming either, though the actions of the humans involved would seemed to include some perfunctory projections and measures to handle the unforeseen. The unforeseen includes a continuous change in the composition of the ocean affecting all the life in it, as oxygen is reduced throughout the sea with dispersal of gas by microbial action that releases CO2. How do I accept this awareness without it sending me plummeting into despair?

September 11, 2001 was “unforeseen.” I watched the deep dark plume cross the bluest of blue skies over my head, chanting for peace in the souls traveling there, unconsciously as a way of finding out whether I was still breathing. The effects of human choices and actions are often unforeseen. I think of all the news that streams at me from all over the world. A flood in Nashville, economic collapse in Greece, daily terror in Palestine and Afghanistan, struggles below the surface everywhere, and signs above ground.

Unforeseen. We cannot know enough to see how everything will play out or to be ready for any and all consequences. Maybe I can open my mind beyond the dualistic, understanding that the flood and the gases, the campers and the oil-coated pelicans are all part of one world. This is part of the flow of events and our actions and reactions will continue as the flow. We have choices about that.

Krishna says to Arjuna:
You have a right to your actions.
But never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.
And do not be attached to inaction. [Gita 2.47]

Self-possessed, resolute, act
Without any thought of results,
Open to success or failure.
This equanimity is yoga. [Gita 2.48]

The teenage girl who chose to hang on to a tree in the rushing waters, in spite of the severe pain and injury she suffered chafing against the bark, saved her own life. She will recover and carry the scars of her survival and her losses. The ocean has many mechanisms with which “to hang on to the tree,” so to speak, but there will be losses, and scars. The people living on the shores have choices too, how to use their resources, where to put their energies. W cannot know what is coming, nor the full effects of resultant and changing conditions.

Must I remain attached to my reactivity? Will sorrow and attachment to the idea of a right answer weigh me down and sink me like a stone in the rushing water? Can I detach and cultivate consciousness so that all the possibilities remain, including that the water may throw me onto shore? This too is unforeseen.

I lean into my yoga. Saying “Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya,” I breathe the ache in my wrist and my heart. Saying “May I release in to that which sustains me,” I sense the open space where possibilities spread like the rising water. Perhaps sinking, floating, hanging on, or tossed on shore, the way will open if I inhale and I exhale.

Recognizing grace in the unforeseen. The wind in my ears, I am reminded that the human voice is but a natural and impermanent part of the world. Let go and find myself here. Now.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fear - I, Me, Mine?

Living with one kidney I would imagine, if I was making this up, that I would fear kidney failure more than anything else. I know, though, that other things scare me more.

Struggling with caring for my mother has brought me so many layers of awareness of what being is about. I don’t have to love her. I do love her. I don’t love her. She always judged me, she never judged me; she still can’t see me, she can no longer see herself. Dementia will do that to a person’s mind. Her heart is still very engaged, full of some sense of self and open in new ways, oddly enough.

I used to joke that if I could no longer cut my own toenails I would jump off a bridge and that would make a clean ending. It doesn’t. My kids wouldn’t think that was a clean ending. My husband wouldn’t either. My husband losing his mind, or his willingness to live in his body, is truly frightening. Am I a caretaker or can I open my heart and accept a transformation into simple wholeness? My mother says frightening things when I visit her, like “Thank you for coming. When you are with me is the only time I can find myself.” Oh, yes that is terrifying. Is this a new responsibility I have to take on? Is being me really enough?

So sometimes I think death doesn’t really frighten me. I have a very clear sense memory of moving towards the light until it was me and I was no longer separate during one of my surgeries. I could hear my dad calling me back, and I came. Thanks Dad for the next 50 years.

It is living inside a place that is no longer mine to claim or control that frightens me. What if my children have to see me as I now see my mother? She was only living the life that came moment by moment and she ended up here. Isn’t that what I am doing? Must we really let go of everything? Diapers and all?

Now I have been practicing yoga for nearly 9 years, and teach yoga in order to share the open space that is all of us. I am in better physical shape than I ever have been in my whole life, even with the arthritis, bone spurs, one kidney, whatever else there is… watery eyes and all. Every time I practice I feel my inhibitions and the total freedom that resides in me.

I guess that is why I started a blog in the first place. And certainly why I joined the 215800 project . I am coming to understand layer by layer what it is to be a human being who is not separate from any other living being. Our pain is differentiated into some level of separateness by our definitions and our ideas … our beautiful waves of mind will rock us. But deeper than the light reflecting off the waves on the surface, we are the water itself and we are the light too. All these atoms and tiny bits in space make an illusion of a separate entity.

I just put my sitting bones down on the earth and take a deep drink of air into my entire body. I no longer have to judge myself as separate from others. It is okay with me to let my projections go now that I see them, and my fear goes with them. I take a breath upside down, as a white haired one-kidneyed woman, and feel the way lightness enters my spine. I don’t think about what I look like, it is all possibility on the inside.

Courage Is This

One more breath, before releasing my feet back to earth from Tripod Headstand.
Clicking "Publish Post."
Writing commitments in my calendar.
Looking my mother in the eye and holding my gaze steady.
Softening my tongue against the roof of my mouth instead of speaking.
These are small and enormous acts of courage in my daily life. Each require that I release my grip on outcome, on judgment, on attachment generally, and begin to let go of fear.

There is a wonderful experience like this taking place through the internet, quietly since June 8th (which by coincidence happened to be my birthday). Started by a writer who currently lives in Brooklyn, the project 21.5.800 began with this brave invitation: for 21 days, do yoga 5 days a week and write 800 words a day (see There are flexibilities in the assignment. Participants can choose different writing goals, and can even choose to do savasana (corpse pose/relaxation) rather than a full yoga class. People began signing on to join in, their blogs or web pages showing up on a list that now, on day 4, has 460 participants. I am not among them, officially, though I have written and done yoga every day. Each day I have visited one or two of the blogs in the list, as well as checked in with Bindu's posts.

It is true that we are not alone, but rarely is there so much evidence. Every blog or website I have visited represents a wonderful, rare, lovely, earnest, open, yearning heart seeking trustworthy company and the deep encouragement that comes from knowing they are in such company. All of this emanates from the woman who started the project. In a wild burst of courage, Bindu Wiles has opened a conduit of energy to any and all who happen upon it. And all through the internet, an invisible, ethereal connection opening communication and understanding in a community beyond physical boundaries.

How did I find out about it? A fellow yoga teacher in Switzerland posted her excitement about it on Facebook. Imagine that.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Authentic Connection

Fear is mostly what holds us back from most things. Letting ourselves share the places that are uninhibited, unprotected, perhaps even unknown, requires that we set that fear aside or see through it.

This morning I chanted Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya (may I surrender to that which sustains me) at the close of my practice and meditation and found myself letting go into that space where edges vanish. When I checked in later on the computer, there was a deeply moving entry by a friend who is exploring anatomy using a human cadaver. She has been profoundly changed to realize that the body is the mechanism given us in order that we might experience the breath and energy that surrounds us at all times. Her poetic exploration and her need to expose her experience to the light and breath of her sadhana (yogic community) touch me beyond words.

We do not live alone. Our individual bodies are but our way of experiencing that which is truly universal. Sea turtles share cellular structures, cats and halibut share nuclear proteins, and the intricate branching of my own arteries and veins are alive in you too. Whoever you are on the outside, your heart functions to the same purpose as that of the hummingbird, at a different speed.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Clearing Clutter

There are lots of jokes about solving how hard it is to live with our family or with conditions around us by adding in so much more hardship that when we take that away, the original mess feels easier. This is the "bang your head and it feels good when you stop" idea. This is a little backwards, in my view. Of course the weight is lighter after you put on more weight and then take that weight off. I think it's important to acknowledge both what it is that we are carrying around and the particular set of conditions or reflexes that chafe or grind. When we can see these objects and patterns that have evolved because of our own existing structures, we can begin to unpack the real load, and clear the true space ... not just try to trick ourselves into feeling differently about it.

In his notes to his introduction for his 1988 translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Stephen Mitchell quotes Maharshi Sri Ramanasramam. The simplicity of this thrills me:

"Peace is our real nature. We spoil it. What is required is that
we stop spoiling it. We are not going to create peace anew. For
instance, originally there is nothing but space in a room. We fill
it up with various objects. If we want space, all we need to do
is to remove all those objects, and we get space. In the same way,
if we remove all the rubbish, all the thoughts, from our minds,
peace will appear. What is obstructing the peace has to be removed.
Peace is the only reality."

That original space is already there, waiting for me to clear out the clutter. I watch my mind filling up like a floor with everything dropping upon it. With my attention focused, I can slowly clear away the stuff, filing it where it might be of use, putting it away as "stuff," or recycling it as material for some other time. The surface becomes clear and once again I'm able to walk, or stand, or even lie down upon that floor.

I feel this very directly in my asana practice. In order to reach my shoulder and release it from whatever is clenching it, I apply this idea of clearing out the clutter and focus on my breath, dropping the tension away from my shoulder joints. This focused attention and reliance upon the breath are key to everything for me. It is through this that I can separate the clenched jaw from the tight back muscles. Using the natural expansion of my breathing ribcage, I can release the shoulder to float on the existing structure, and let go of the holding and judging. Just acknowledging the fear I feel about moving the tight shoulder helps me to let it go . Seeing what is going on there (the piles on the floor), nodding at the worry about it (labeling the "fear"), discovering the way the elbow can shift the movement away from the shoulder joint (recycling what might be useful), exploring the possibility of doing less (putting things away to save for later) and allowing the deeper muscles of the breath to help.

Where my attention goes, so goes my energy. If I can focus on the breath and take apart the pile of junk clobbering my shoulder, I can find so much more space in which to be who I am, taking care of my shoulder and exploring all it can make possible.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Those Blooming Beings!

In Brooklyn walking to teach, I pass the rose bushes that inhabit the small garden spaces, overhang the wrought iron fences, and scatter their petals across the sidewalks. I feel waves of joy and gratitude as I observe the blooms, half open, full blown, and wilted, browning petals and the infinite potential of the buds. Just like remembering my own breathing, I nod in recognition of this continuous cycle of creative energy. Without a judgment of what is beautiful or what is not beautiful, or, acknowledging the human tendency to make such judgments, I feel intensely present.

In my upstate world it is earlier than that. It is the crowning moment of the iris bloom. Only the hardiest of shrub roses are open -- it is a rare one of the flamboyant sisters in Brooklyn that could survive the winters here. Yet the irises have outdone themselves as they must with variations and each as wonderful as the next, they stand folded and unfolding their treasures. Tall, short, single, multiple, every hue, fragrant or not, shade or sun, there they are. In the sun the petals are sometimes like the wavering wings of insects, translucent and veined. In the shade they are sparkling glowing and luminescent. A sudden pouring rain and they are drenched, sodden, leaning, and in some cases broken. In every aspect theirs is a direct expression of energy. Each moment is a marvel. When there were only three open blooms, they were an amazement. Now there are hundreds and they are still an amazement. Slug eaten, wind torn, or delicately perfuming the world, this year's bloom will come and go.

When the blooms are done, their leaves will spread open to the sun, their tubers will sink roots more fully into the soil and in time their seasonal death will come. Each moment fully present, just like those Brooklyn roses, rotting on the sidewalk or cascading over the fence. Thank you for sharing the path with me.

Friday, June 4, 2010

No separation, the energy of the path

The small individual self can so easily feel overwhelmed. In an instant, the moment itself can be consumed with a feeling or thought, a judgment, and be lost there. Plenty of times in my life I have thought, "does what I do make any difference?," or "how can I change this for the better?" Both of these questions lead to ego and come from ego, require judgment and force a dualistic structure of good-bad, now-then, me-you, etc. It seems to me now that separation cut me off from the life I was actually living, created a false sense of self that left me separated from the energy within me. My yoga practice as united me in such a profound way, that I can operate from that source more and more directly and trust my self, my actions and my non actions. Of course I am still studying this -- learning how to shape my mind within this energy space.

Revisiting Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred poems of the divine from perhaps the 5th Century BCE and the underlying breath of yogic philosophy, I am thoroughly stunned by how the inconsequential and momentous are one, how the "self" is a saturation of divine energy that cannot be divided into parts at all. I have not sought to erase ego, or to be somehow "egoless." I don't know what that would be in the here and now. I do not see myself as a guru or ascetic type who will forgo the world for the life of pure energy. Yet I know that in any moment I am already that. It is present in every one of us to love unconditionally, to give up the definitions of self and other, to be the object and the observer, to release into effort, to breathe without the baggage carried by mind.

Each part of life I have felt the embedded measuring and separating of the dualistic mind. I have chafed yet accepted ideas like "childhood" or "woman" or "mother" or "fat" or "writer" or "young" or "sexy" or "middle aged" or any of the this-and-that ways of defining a momentary entity by my self, or by others. Yoga practice erases this in a way that is not erasing ego, or self, but expanding it beyond all limitations in a way. Imagine letting oneself understand that everything is in fact one, and that is beyond "being" and "non being." That no defining element need be imagined to separate us from the food we eat, from the air we breathe, from the feelings or the cravings, from the judgments and the joys. We exist, coming and going in this and that format, energy from a source that does not require a particular form of devotion or set of robes.

So it is with wonder that I approach the open space I find is already present as my "self." This can be confusing if I try to hold on to it like an instruction manual, but is not at all if I can let that go. I can follow the patterns of this individual life, the way I cut my vegetables, wear my hair, or take on responsibilities. These, too, do not require categories and judgments. I have wondered, and see my students wonder, what does it all mean, this idea of freedom from suffering... when there is so much obvious suffering? Living as authentic a life as one can -- honing awareness into a way of being -- is exactly how we solve the problems we have with craving, desire, fear, anger, death, appetites and grasping, attachments and sorrows. The eight limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, are guides as offered from one point of light. Light is a constant stream from many points - and whether it is the Tao or physics or stories of Christ, Mohammed or Buddha, these guides offer the path we make as we walk.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Three Ideas+One: Let Go, Observe, Breathe -- Then Soften

I think we often work too hard at the things we are focused on, enough so that we are unproductive and our senses dulled. When I begin teaching, I start with awareness. Even with the first breaths I can feel how some of my students zoom into this muscling and posturing all around even the inhale, for example, making it into something rather than experiencing what it is. Big, serious, straining, forced inhales get stuck in people's throats and under their ribs. Even the exhales can choke off the ability to notice the subtleties of the moment, or observe what the breath is in the body.

It struck me recently that leading students in each aspect of something is like leaving them abandoned in a boat where they would be floating helplessly the next day. I asked a few of my beginning students how they would start their own practice on the mat, and found them frightened and puzzled -- "I don't know what to do!!" I remember feeling this way too. Of course I can direct them, but that is not my way of teaching beginners. How to help them take on that internal communication - the dialogue of inquiry, with directions that come from outside of them? Sometimes, I rely on my own integrated experiences to lead my "languaging" as it is called in the yoga training. (I scoffed and laughed out loud when I first saw that word, but I really get it now.) I scan my breath sensors under my own ribs to see where the catch might be, suggesting to my students "notice what you notice, perhaps the back of your rib cage, perhaps a texture in your throat..." etc. Not trying to tell them what to feel or what to notice... but aren't I really doing just that by leading with suggestive language?

So I isolated three primary questions my students can ask themselves at any time in a practice: What can I let go -- or where can I release; What do I notice; and Where is my breath? This worked well for beginning students, and I've tried it now with my more intermediate group and my more mature students too. I can remind them of variants of these questions throughout the course of events in our practice, and I feel them beginning to internalize it, discovering a path of their own no matter what is going on.

The next stage I ask is for softness. Taking on the working-too-hard-at-this, I have begun exaggerating fierceness of energy flow in a movement and then say, "Now softly" or "Soften" and repeat whatever it is ... it is so much easier for students to find a sense of relaxing into the breath, asana or effort, rather than pushing further and further. This is remarkable in utkatasana, especially for beginners to discover that they can continuously find more to release even as they are making such an effort.

"Finding one's edge," or "practicing at one's edge" seems misleading terminology for my students. I don't use it. I would rather speak of finding more space, exploring with the breath, softening within the form, and observing. We can witness the deep desire we have to go farther, as if there was a way to measure where we are, and realize that we can release that judgmental attitude, that attachment to the external.

After a deep forward bend at the pinnacle of my chair session this afternoon, I quietly asked, "Shall we do that again?" and a soft chorus of voices said, "yes, yes." The exploration had begun, though this asana was complex and challenging for each individual in the room, they had found the breath in it, had discovered freedoms in themselves, had softened into the support of the earth and were ready to release into the uniqueness of their own body experiences. At the end of our session, we turned our radiant open hearts towards each other. There is no energy more fierce, nor faces any softer, than that.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Living in the Real World

The paperwork tangles of my daily life, the constant grocery lists, the long-distance problem solving, the weeding, weeding, weeding, all this exists in the same breath as a deep well of peace and possibility. I only know this if I feel the foundation of the earth that holds me, or the air slipping in and out through my nostrils. Working my shift at the food co-op, figuring out how to wash the hallway stairs in my apartment co-op, thinking about music choices for the classes I teach today, wishing an ease of pain to someone I love -- these are fragments of reflections of who I might be. I can choose to step with softness and joy even on a hard sidewalk, I can make this exhale just a little longer and find rest even as I prepare to take on a bureaucratic project.

That is the gift my yoga practice gives to me, and I know that there is nothing extraordinary about me that makes this available. It is there for any one who comes with willing spirit to this place of acceptance and non-judgment. You don't have to kneel to any icon, nor chant in any specific language to find the water in this well. And so I have stumbled upon it, after nearly half a century of life already lived in the panics and ecstasies of the human roller coaster experience. And now all I have to do is let my commitment make the space in my days to let go more and more as I go along. As I get closer to the edge, I hope my fingers let the earth slip away with grace, but, being human, I know anything can happen.