Tuesday, August 31, 2010

You Are Just Where You Are

What is it that makes us want to be out of our own life; are we really thinking that it is better somewhere else? Lately I've been seeing people inhabiting their bodies around town as if for a period of time. It feels as though we really do simply find ourselves inside this particular shape or shell, and move around reacting to everything, sometimes blocking out the incoming information to escape the present moment. I was riding on the subway today with a bunch of people who were actively doing something other than riding on the train. The cacophony of multiple headphones going full blast vied for airspace. So many people disconnected from the people around them, not listening to the sounds of the train moving or making contact with each other. For me, the train car was a delicious floating space full of interesting people, aspects of each other, all of us between one place and another, spending time together in that one moving place. We were truly fellow travelers in a place and time. Watching the flashing illusions of a passing train, feeling the movement of the train on its tracks. swaying, stopping and starting, sweating, and drying.

Yoga can help so much with being where you are. Living in the body you have, accepting that the journey is one of getting to know that body, becoming familiar and continuing to explore the world through the means available in the body and the mind. What else is there for us to use? Of course our senses can be developed in different ways, our skills and abilities take us in different directions, but fundamentally we live in the body and make the choice to be present or work to absent ourselves.

Again tonight in class I was struck that just being present is the whole point of practice. It's not about losing oneself, but actually finding and being oneself. It is useful to draw attention to the continuous expanding and contracting that is the breath in every movement. It reflects our energy and release. It helps to focus the mind when we draw our gaze back to the undulations of breath in motion, to laugh at the forgetting and remember again. It was like standing on the train, open and loose, flowing with the train on the tracks, breathing with the car full of people, even wearing earphones and reading e-books, playing electronic games and ignoring their own presence. The difference that was enormous though was that the students were glowing blooms in the fading light of dusk, each breathing, taking the time to be, finding the way to open to that sweetness in the moment. Even when the going got demanding, or they were stumbling into the unknown, they were finding themselves. What a beautiful way to discover that even though we take the chattering mind wherever we go, we can stop and set that down, let that go, and breathe right where we are - wherever that is.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Container for the Breath

It is difficult at times to really understand mortality, the temporary nature of the life in which I am so totally immersed. At the very moment that I am coming to fathom interdependence and the conditional nature of everything, I am challenged to understand myself as eternal. Okay, I do get that conceptually, and even the laws of physics encourage me to think about matter forever transforming in its particular shapes or definitions but not disappearing in its most essential aspects.

My strongest help in all of this is the breath itself. I can so completely understand myself as a container for the breath. The air, the particles and the movements of the air, are part of me. What I breathe in, I become. What I breathe out, I release. Today I was sanding ancient paint off a century old door that will open one of these days into my small upstate yoga studio. I wore a significant mask, not just the flimsy filter type. The idea was that I was not going to breath in the little particles sent flying by my sandpaper. I took this action because we now know that what we breathe in, we absorb into our cells, with varying effects and I wanted to avoid the effects of breathing lead paint chips.

So now I watch the wind blow through the leaves; I feel it cooling me as I work in the yard. I know in a profound way that it will blow through me too. My substance in this format is here now. My lungs drawing and expelling the air define me as a living creature. When that stops, I will not be this living creature any more. Yet the air will continue to bellow in and out of all the other living beings in any given moment in time. Sometimes I find small fossils in the rocks around me here in Gilboa, NY. They were also breathing in their day. Their essential qualities still exist in some format, not just the imprint they left here when all was under the sea so many years ago. And so I understand that my own aspects will remain, not just the ash I may become, or the particles of earth and dust, not just in the effects I may have had on others who live beyond my own years here.

Breathing helps me be present in this moment fully. That is fundamentally why I begin every yoga practice and every class I teach by drawing attention to the breath itself. In every moment the breath informs me of my mortality and my immortality; allowing me to understand the conditional world, and the eternal as well.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Stones Teaching Me Today

The stones arrange themselves, not because their shapes are right, or their weight, or their color, or their texture or even their chemical composition is "right." There is no value at all in any of them, yet each is all that it can be at this moment. And they belong where they are, wherever they are. Small, smaller, smallest. Hard, harder, hardest. And so it is with us. Can we simply accept that we are as we are and allow ourselves to fit into the world, into each other's hearts, arranging ourselves?

We arrange the stones too. Feeling their heft, absorbing their subtle surfaces, seeking their fragmented shapes. We layer them and organize them, rely upon them, and leave them long after our own breath is gone and done. We turn natural parts of the earth towards our own purposes. This is part of our exploration of our own existence.

Stones are a path that we cannot see, just as the practice is such a path. Until you step upon it, you may think the path is a garden of sedum and strawberries. Your feet will find the pebbles supporting them even when your mind is unaware. This points to the entryway that the body provides us for experiencing our own lives. Thank goodness for that!

Even that which seems dead and inert is simply a form in which energy is stored, or used. Maybe we see the lushness of the sedum and think "oh that's living and beautiful," and enjoy the juxtaposition with the inert stone. Yet the lichen grows on the warmth of the stone, not in the dirt. This reminds me that the sensory world is totally subject to my mind's construction of the moment. I can observe without having to assign "living" and "inert" and yet understand the concept of "living" and "inert." And I can practice accepting that this doesn't limit my awareness, or devalue my sensory input. Accepting that I am standing still on the earth and that it is turning on its axis, and that it is revolving around the sun, while at the same time I am breathing and every cell is open space.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


"Acceptance does not mean that you have to like everything or that you have to take a passive attitude toward everything and abandon your principles and values. It does not mean that you are satisfied with things as they are or that you are resigned to tolerating things as they "have to be." It does not mean that you should stop trying to break free of your own self-destructive habits or to give up on your desire to change and grow or that you should tolerate injustice, for instance, or avoid getting involved in changing the world around you because it is the way it is and therefore hopeless. Acceptance as we are speaking of it simply means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are. This attitude sets the stage for acting appropriately in your life no matter what is happening. You are much more likely to know what to do and have the inner conviction to act when you have a clear picture of what is actually happening than when your vision is clouded by your mind's self-serving judgments and desires or its fears and prejudice." Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness

Cultivating an open mind doesn't have to mean having no opinions, but it does mean being ready to set that opinion aside long enough to hear something else, or notice the effects holding that opinion might have. Today I watched my students make such a variety of efforts related to our yoga practice. One student continuously took each movement beyond her comfort zone, another simply closed her eyes and moved from within. Each one was living within the constraints of what she knew to be so, as well as within the parameters set by her opinions about what she thought she knew. When Jon Kabat-Zinn describes acceptance, he lists many of the aspects of ourselves that we fear we will have to give up or lose if we "accept" what we know to be true. He goes on to explain that acceptance "means that you have come around to a willingness to see things as they are." From this vantage point the one student can see the source of pain in her shoulder, and also the source of pain in her pushing herself into that posture AND the possibility that she gains more from staying within her pain-free range. The other student can accept that her inner voice will take her where she needs to be, and she can see that this inner direction may be steering her towards or away from fully experiencing the movement. Acceptance is an important step towards the truth and towards awareness of the range of possibilities. The part that limits us the most is that clouding of the mind by its "self-serving judgments and desires or its fears and prejudice."

I like to think about acceptance as I watch the season change. Accepting all the stages and phases of these transformative times is such a deep experience. There is more joy in it for me than clinging to the idea that summer is the time when I can relax or when the world is more beautiful. It insures disappointment to imagine that only the height of the season represents that season. Taking in the subtle beginnings, watching the process of the changes, cherishing each part of this warming and cooling, blooming and storing, procreating and dying gives me a much wider sense of my own options too. Acceptance helps me to see myself interacting, reacting, and in stillness without needing to attach judgment to each of these. I can tolerate stressful situations by adapting to the conditional nature of the moment, and accept that there is a deeper level where other possibilities exist too. This can bring a sense of hope, a sense of potential for solutions that might otherwise be invisible or inaccessible. In practice this might mean discovering movements and energy that would otherwise be blocked by attachment to associations, prejudices, judgments and patterns from the past. For me acceptance, hope and possibility are each held within one another.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Big and The Little Things

There is such a succulent quality in the opening up of a pose in yoga. It is the same deeply aware and blossoming feeling when you take a bite of something totally delicious, or feel your child's heart beating next to your own. Getting there is a series of steps and stages, no matter what condition your body or your mind might be in at the moment. Of course there are those incredible suddenly-you-are-totally-there moments in life, but mostly life is spent in the steps and stages. These are precious to me, and each one is like a strong light beam on the moment, on the truth, and is embedded in trust that this is, in and of itself, the practice.

For each and every person there are poses that seem totally out of reach at first. It might be that forward bending is always a struggle, or that back bends are frightening and painful, or that even lifting an arm a certain height seems to be the boundary layer of what you will ever be able to do. To each and every person I say, let it be what it is, and keep exploring what it is. If we can let go of the definitions that make this "the limit" or "the unattainable" or the "problem with me" then the possibilities will open. Perhaps that forward bend just needs something to stand on that elevates your heels... and liberates your lower back or your hamstrings. Perhaps seated hip and shoulder opening sequences will help release the tension that has historically prevented back bends from reaching out of your core and put all the stress on your back. Perhaps relaxing your neck and opening your heart will allow grace to rotate your shoulders at a lower level and the gradual strengthening that will find your arm moving with your breath. In each case, you need not aim for the most advanced posture first, which is what many people seem to do.

When I begin going to yoga classes, I used to present myself with the idea that Ustrasana (Camel pose) was what I had to do to be "doing a backbend." In the beginning of my practice I couldn't do them at all and who knows but that I may end up not "doing" them as time goes by. Thank you to all my teachers who helped me understand all the little things about opening the spaces, and lifting from the root, and relaxing the unnecessary effort, and taking the small stages that make the "big thing" appear like just another small step in a process of exploration. Ustrasana has led me into other places that I didn't think I would ever go. And even in the course of my exploring, I've had injuries from other things that brought me new layers and stages of awareness. These also open into the "big things" about the body and its strengths and weaknesses, about the mind and its judgments and expectations.

Each part of the path is the path. Understanding this is one of the most marvelous ways of learning how to let go of the hierarchies I impose on seemingly everything. It is obvious to me now that this level of awareness continues to open not only in spite of all the particulars of my specific body and mind, but because of those particulars -- and that is true for each person and all their "big" and "little" things.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Aging is the Path Deepening

So many people around me seem to use their age as a measure of themselves, useful to their critic and judge. Age also seems to play a big role in the way we all pity ourselves or worry about "the future." Our view of the past is totally washed by the waters of age bracketing.

My parents are old. Their children are old too. My children are young yet, but they are old compared to how I can remember them.

My body does not function exactly the same way as it did yesterday, or three years ago, or 40 years ago for that matter.

In my practice I teach people of all ages, with bodies that have lived through many different experiences and registered them in various ways. Their minds took all that in as well. My own practice began as an exploration of who I might actually be, an effort to discover whatever I could about living this life in this body as this person, and searching for a way to at least limit the pain involved in that process. I've learned about all these matters, and opened doors and windows that I did not know were there before my practice of yoga, and some that I could see vaguely in the distance have become more familiar to me.

Age is for me now a natural reminder to deepen the practice. Continuously letting go, finding new layers and ways of understanding acceptance, gratitude, and joy. Each creaky joint, each little bit of energy opening up, the requirement that I check in with reality and not make up anything about what is, these are just a few gifts of my aging.

I observe my parents, one in a wheelchair with dementia, one fully in charge of a dependent household, and contemplate the number 90. Imagine living ninety years? Imagine memories of being my own age of 56 as so very much younger than the present moment. Nearly half a life ago. What difference does it make that I was more or less flexible a decade ago? How is that knee right now? What can I do to relax that shoulder a little more and draw my energy through my core instead? Can I listen to this conversation in this moment without laying judgment upon every one and every word? Have I seen this before, been here before, heard this before, felt this before? Really? I take a step back to see, think, feel, breathe, observe myself in my patterns and shepherd my feelings like a little flock, safely into the gated pasture where they can be free, and I can be free of them enough to be here now.

The gift of openness, of letting go, gives freedom and truth the chance to take hold in this moment. Just being is the only being there can be, at whatever age. And adding years in and of itself means little. For me, the moment now is the only opportunity offered.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Simplifying Even the Moon

I woke up this morning to a thick fog all around the house in upstate New York. Water droplets on the screens and windows full of white glare. The view held no trees, no hills, no valley, and gave no sense of what else might be out there. What is transformation if not new understanding? As in the discovery of sub-atomic and nuclear physics, the old ideas of Newtonian principles no longer applied to everything, yet had their sway over the mechanical world we can see. Beyond that, with high power microscopes and telescopes, the view of the world became so much larger and new "rules" seemed to make things work. And there is so much we cannot see if we must take everything as it appears. As with the clearing of the fog this morning, gradually the stone wall emerged, and a height of tree beyond, and eventually the valley with streaks of hill behind it. Now the sun shines bright and I can pretend that all is revealed to me. Let's not even begin to consider the insect life, or the microbes in the soil that are nurturing and attacking the roots of everything in the garden. Just that I know this is all going on out there is like the discovery of the atom!

It helps to simplify to the core of being. I watch my blind cat function in the world with remarkable stability and happiness, or what passes for that on the scale of human emotions. He doesn't see but can hunt, he doesn't see but can jump into the chair. He will run to the sound of my voice across an ocean of not knowing, and seems secure, purring and finding my leg to rub against. He is functioning in the deepest sense. It is this that I seek on my yoga mat as well. Can I approach the moon itself, or take in the energy of a star? Can I place my weight in my foot, feeling the energy align up through my leg into my pelvis, forces of gravity holding me securely while I extend in a most natural way through my spine, letting go of the weight of my head, and supporting a lifted arm and lifted leg for Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)? It doesn't work if I start by taking my body in parts, aim for a shape, or present myself with the struggle of "balancing on one leg." I will not get there by pushing my leg into the air and reaching for an external shape. Yet by finding the root of my soft foot resting on the earth - deeply connected to the balance in my pelvis as the foundation - and then release the energy from in the core of my body - of my being - I feel the flying moon taking form in me. The moon does not balance in the sky, nor hang. Remember, it's visible presence is a reflection of light from the sun. Perhaps I'll use a block under my hand or place my hand on a wall to enable a natural extension in my spine, with energy connecting my heel to my fingers along both flying halves. Reducing fear helps my breath and my breathing helps reduce fear. Maybe I will elongate into this flying feeling on my way in and out of Trkonasana (Triangle Pose), playful, and without goals. Like the fog, the efforting and judging can easily obscure this shining moon from sight.

I think of the people around me with their heads full of ideas, goals, and desires. I love them and wish them well. May they find ways to release these desires and find joy in what they are actually doing (not wishing for summer when it is winter and wanting the sun when there is fog)! May they allow themselves the freedom from the external goals long enough to discover what they love to do (letting the passage or ride be as much for them as the getting where they are going)! May they see in the swirl of ideas an ocean of possibility in which they breathe each breath and explore their authentic self, coming, as they eventually will, into the brilliant light of the sun once the fog clears (just being their self). I cannot make this happen, nor will all my words or yogic teachings make this available to them. Only in their own explorations will their path emerge. As their foot steps in the fog the earth rises to meet it. I see my little cat leap onto the front step, my voice being the open door. People can also find that their breath and their foundation on the earth support their wildest adventures and the softest of moments. I would invite you all to fly as the moon itself.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Be Curious, Not Critical

When my right shoulder does not rotate the way my left shoulder does, my reaction used to be "what's wrong with my shoulder?" Now I find it is curiosity that leads me to discover all manner of things, and not just physical aspects either. Acceptance is a fundamental concept for whatever I find in my practice. Acceptance is not complacent, nor is it settling for less. The only way to discover what is actually happening is to explore what is actually happening, rather than compare it or judge it or set some unrelated goal. Each moment of my practice is precious to me. Each moment offers the opportunity to be fully alive, to see myself unedited. This will definitely have to include asymmetries in my body and patterns in my mind. Without attaching to my reactions, I can free myself to explore and discover myself and insights into practical and spiritual matters.

I often tell my students that "pain is not part of a yoga practice," but sometimes pain is very much part of practice in a more obscure way. Avoidance of pain is a major operating principle that needs to be explored, and sometimes pushing into or "past" pain is a pattern that demands attention. Fear of pain is such a natural tendency, and whether it is the mind that is conditioned or the body that has had experiences it wishes to avoid, these emotions can be investigated compassionately. A common strategy is to take the posture in stages, gradually approaching the fullest expression, rather than aiming for a particular external shape. Using props is another way to soften the stresses of a posture. Taking care of the body, this thoughtful supportive way of exploring yoga can go a long way towards easing the anxieties and triggers that can grip a person who is afraid, or who pushes too hard.

It is not really that surprising to discover that yoga does not benefit from competing with oneself or with any one else. Criticizing yourself doesn't help you do something that is hurting you, or that you are not able to do at this time. Part of the joy of a yoga practice is being able to accommodate any and all conditions of the body and mind, by accepting that which is so and letting go of judgment about that. There is nothing to prove in yoga, and no one to prove it to. Experiencing the moment itself is the practice, and the practice is the path to being present in your own experiences. It is very rewarding to take on the challenges that the body and mind offer, rather than finding fault with what doesn't come easily. Teachers can play a wonderful supporting role in this inquiry, and bring their knowledge and offer suggestions that clarify and illuminate. The exploration, however, is our own though the questions may turn out to be universal.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bring it to the mat, and let it go

There are so many reasons why there isn't enough time to practice, or to get to even that 15 minute meditation practice or maybe even to cook your own vegetables rather than just order out or make that phone call. But all these reasons can be brought right along with you to the mat or the cushion, that's right, just bring 'em along. Left hip feeling cranky? Didn't sleep well? Have to be somewhere else later? Spent a little too much time on the computer? Feel low energy now? Didn't finish something for work that needs doing? Hungry? Can't seem to think clearly about what's next, even what to eat or what to do?

Whatever it is, plop it down with you in a comfortable cross-legged position -- or some other posture that allows you to breathe fully and relax your spine in a fairly effortless spacious alignment. This won't take long, and if you allow yourself to fully participate in the moment, you may find it clarifies you, energizes you, relaxes you, and may even help you get something done that you hadn't thought would fit into this day.

Cushion and perhaps elevate your sitting bones, and let yourself arrive on the mat/cushion. Let go of your knees, they won't slide away, prop them up if your inner groin flexors are feeling too tight. Just relax your tailbone slightly and feel your deep abdominal muscles gently pull inward and up towards your spine. Let go of the idea that you need to use a lot of muscular effort here, and give yourself a chance to feel that natural cycle of energy, that inner balance that keeps you able to sit up. Allow yourself to notice your inhale, just notice where it is and any texture to it. Exhaling, let go a bit of that tension in your shoulders. Maybe let your jaw hang a little looser. Notice this inhale, and see if it is responding to your attention. Perhaps softening your belly and letting the breath fill in, gradually pulling in those deep muscles at the base of the exhale to really empty out any stale breath. Feel your spine in your neck elongate as your shoulders relax. No need to rush. Let the inhales and exhales take their time. If you find you naturally pause at the beginnings or ends of breathing in and out, well, allow that to be interesting.

You are already well on your way to resolving your conflicts, cultivating your attentiveness, focusing your energy, and lifting your spirits. You can move your body along with the breath and take a little Asana practice - warming up your spine, moving your shoulder and hip joints, loosening and re-connecting the energy channels all the way to your toes, and wrapping around your skull. Or, you can continue to sit, letting the breath quiet, allowing the mind to focus on a single point, perhaps the sound of Om, or turn your inner gaze to a particular point like the part of your forehead between your eyebrows, or hold another object in mind like a blooming lotus flower. Another strategy is to simply clear the mind by labeling whatever arises in it -- calling a thought "thinking," labeling any emotions that arise "feeling," etc. without attaching. Even 15 minutes of moving through a short Asana practice or a sitting meditation will do so much to bring you into this moment, reducing all the layers of reaction and emotion attached to your excuses for not going to the mat.

Any one can be convinced that they are too busy to give themselves what they need. It need not be you. Come on, bring your excuses along and do a little yoga.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Beginning, and Beginning and Beginning

Like this very moment, each moment is simply this. As you read these words your eyes and mind follow along with whatever is evoked. That was the moment of that idea. This is the moment of this idea. In yoga practice on the mat, it is possible to experience each moment with more and more awareness. Becoming fully engaged in the moment does not require giving over entirely to purely sensory stimula nor to blocking out thoughts. Being present is an opening to what exists in the moment, and that experience is what it is, without any particular meaning or value.

Each step we take, we are standing on one foot for a moment.
Each breath we take, we are engaging our bodies in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Each moment we are fully aware, we are living our authentic lives.

So when we approach the yoga mat, letting go of all the clutter that gets in our way, or that attaches us to memory or projection, to assigning meanings and clinging to definitions, is really the first process. Following the breath is a good beginning. Settling the body so that you can be aware of your foundation, of transferring your weight to the earth, is a good beginning. Allowing your motion to be inspired by your breath, like a tree whose limbs do not move without the wind, is a good beginning.

In the midst of a twisted, balancing extension like revolved Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) you can still begin with following the breath. You can layer in Ujjayi (ocean sounding) breath to help draw your attention. You can be in the middle of holding Utkatasana (chair or fierce pose) and begin softening your toes and the soles of your feet and feel the earth cupping your heels... yes, finding your foundation. Perhaps you are throwing yourself through a Surya Namaskar series (sun salutations) discovering your strength or lack thereof as you lower and lift, as you curve and rise, and can still simply begin by allowing the breath to be the engine that moves you rather than pushing your muscular energy without support.

In every part of practice we can begin. As with the breath itself, we forget and remember, each time remembering to begin with the breath.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Setting fear aside as "feeling fear," or walking towards it with curiosity

Yoga practice offers the opportunity to step out of the doubts, out of the patterns, out of the feelings that trap us and keep us from fully being present. There is excitement, risk, and sometimes fear of what might happen if we let down our guard, stop protecting ourselves with the stories, excuses, and strategies that help us avoid seeing our own truths. In a physical sense, it may be true that at this point in my practice I cannot touch the back of my head with my foot, but it has no bearing on whether I can breathe into my spine, release my hips, and open my heart. Telling myself "I can't do that" is simply a strategy of avoiding discovering myself as I really am, preferring to substitute an image or icon of myself for the truth. Last spring I participated in a workshop where an assistant working with me was exhilarated as my head came quite close to my foot. He asked if he could help me "get there." I declined. I had no goal to achieve with the touch of foot to head or head to foot. My goal was accomplished by simply being right where I was, walking towards my fear with deep curiosity only to discover it was not rooted in my body but in my mind. This was a joyful moment.

Yoga is not always full of joy. Sometimes the revelation, or insight that comes through practice and meditation, loosens something painful and dark. Buried and ignored aspects of earlier suffering or patterns can be opened and spilled into the light of day. Sometimes I can watch myself grasping, negotiating and manipulating myself in order to rationalize my fear or the pain of the truth. The fact is that time and again, I can let go of the protective reaction, I can see the reaction for what it is and label it as a reaction. What I find is that the truth has always been there, and is a welcome part of me. There is enormous freedom in seeing what is actually there. Rather than imagining that the coiled rope is a snake, I can approach it with diligence, openness and curiosity. Regardless of what I fear, that shape in the darkness is already a rope or a snake, or perhaps simply a shadow of something else.

I don't expect to learn everything there is about existing in the world through yoga practice, but I have found these revelations to be a consistent part of the yoga journey. Learning myself as I am in this moment, holding myself with compassion rather than as an illusion that disappoints, exploring without judging in my physical practice has led quite directly to a similar experience with my other layers and ways of defining myself.

The photo here represents this journey to me - simple flip-flops left at the door of my yoga studio as my students bare their feet to walk upon the stones, warm or cold, to enter the studio. This is a metaphor for the simple baring of the self through practice. Not knowing what we might find, ready to hold whatever it is with compassionate curiosity, we enter the domain where we can see or feel without letting reactive human nature drown out the rest of the self. And this is where the opening begins to reveal so much more about the physical self, about the emotional and intellectual self, and nurtures a sense of being that reaches beyond "the self" into the eternal and infinite. I have no label for this, cherishing the spacious quality, the safety offered, the depth of being present.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Time to Absorb - "BRFWA"

Every practice has its rhythms, and for me, part of every practice is taking time to allow the body to absorb its experiences, for the mind to discover and recognize itself, and for the breath to carry awareness throughout my being. This is a continuous process, and sometimes I can practice within a rhythm where this is ongoing. Sometimes, though, my attention is drawn to an aspect of the practice, and I need to pause periodically to allow this process to become the foreground, rather than the background.

When I teach, I rely upon my own understandings of this while I watch my students carefully to absorb the layers of their experiences. Some of my students will break ranks with the flow of yoga asana to give themselves this time when they feel they need it, but the vast majority of students will only take time when they are physically overwhelmed. This is not the same thing, and I make every effort to provide a spacing of opportunities for students to integrate and internalize this pattern of allowing their awareness to catch up with them. Just like remaining in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) a few breaths after a flowing series of warrior postures, in order to allow the breath to catch up with the whole body, or practicing pranayama (breathing techniques) to bring awareness deeper into the breath itself, these moments of focusing upon integration can be quite intense and at the same time offer a profound release. For me these moments are often the gems of my yoga practice.

My students guide me with their breath, with their body attitudes, with their facial expressions. I try to give them the time they need to awaken the prana (life force), absorb the sensations and let go of the attachments of meanings and judgments that clutter the surface of their experience. Without these pauses, I believe the body stores stress and confusion along with the movement of the breath and the energy. In some classes I've taken there is no conscious integration until Savasana (corpse pose, relaxation) which is left to the student as an escape hatch from the exertion of the practice. This is not my interpretation of Savasana either. I feel Savasana is truly a practice of release, that death itself will feel familiar in its qualities of transformation when I arrive at that part of the path.

I suppose this explains why I feel consonance with the Kripalu yogic concept known as "BRFWA" signifying breath, relaxation, feeling, watching and awareness. This has really always been deeply embedded in my practice and my teaching practice and I feel honored to offer this experience to others.

Just a note: This weekend I led an intimate yoga retreat, hosting 4 remarkable students in my house in upstate New York, and sharing practice in a small former granary building. I gratefully acknowledge the courage, joy, open hearts, and depth of inquiry these four women brought to every moment of our shared experience. May the sweetness and peace of these moments rise in them whenever their hearts call them to it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sacred Spaces - Inside & Out

I remember my first experiences of taking yoga classes at the local Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center in my Brooklyn, NY neighborhood and feeling that just walking in to the small empty space was a special and personal act. There was a sense of safety there, where feelings could come and go, and where, for the most part, whatever might happen would be all to the good. Okay, occasionally a muscle pull might hamper the experience, but not with any harmful intention. Safety and openness to the possibilities, attentiveness and care on the part of teachers, and the non-judgment of fellow classmates definitely gave the space a sense of sacredness for our inquiry and our breath. Without the presence of "a god" and minus the requirements of religious dogma, the practice seemed to unify me with my understandings of spirit, self and connection to everything else. In some ways, any space in which living beings exist is a sacred space, including the manmade and natural world and the flora and fauna (yes even insects!) within it.

As a yoga teacher I am aware of my responsibility to continue this tradition of making a safe space in which yoga can be practiced. Respecting the commonalities of breath and suffering, the innate beauty of being alive in the world as we know it, of all the inner adjustments that my students and I go through, I feel the practice as an invitation to discover the sacred, the divine, the open space in ourselves and in everything around us. This helps us feel the inner peace, develops the ability to accept that which actually is so within us, and builds strength and resilience too.

I am in the process of constructing a small practice space in a former granary structure in upstate New York. The building was once up on stilts with heavy wooden bins built into it to house the grain off the ground. Long ago it sank into the earth, half the roof vanished and two sides of the building peeled away. Yet even in that form it had a magical quality of the hands that built it, and its story of once holding precious resources. It looked wonderful in the snow. The first part of the process was raising the structure onto a dry stone foundation, using salvaged materials to rebuild the shattered roof, and placing a new floor, hand sanded for the bare feet that will walk upon it. The current stage is to place the simple framed windows my husband salvaged from our house, hang a sliding door once on a neighbor's barn, and replace the remaining original ribboned and rotted siding with new locally cut wood. I feel a tug at my heart from the original structure, and am glad that the building will stand so straight as it once did long ago. The transformation of this little structure is a reminder of the experiences offered within it.

It has deep meaning to clear a space dedicated to the practice, yet, I also find that any place can be transformed into a sacred space if the intentions of practice are brought to bear. I might practice in a hotel room on the floor next to the bed. There are many times when I have practiced on the kitchen floor in my apartment, or on the bedroom floor. I've meditated while waiting at airports, and practiced sitting in a chair while waiting for a meeting to begin. Yoga studios might pack students in like sardines, with barely 3 inches between mats, or when only 4 students show up the room remains open and empty. Perhaps your yoga class is held in the basement of a church or in a meeting room at the office or in a medical center. Any of these places can offer the space necessary to "perform" the Asanas, and they also offer the opportunity to open that inner space where the self is accepted and the moment is fully experienced. That is where the sensation of the sacred is to be found, I think. We can find ourselves in the woods or on a front porch, in the kitchen, a magnificent temple or my new rustic granary studio space. It is the finding of the self, and doing all we can do that brings our hearts and our energy into the moment and open to "yoga" - the union or yoking - transforming even the seat on the bus into a sacred space for experiencing this life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Even The Sun Rises in Stages

Early morning practices are a wonderful experience of greeting the day with a deeper acceptance of one's self and awareness of a greater landscape of possibilities. As with starting any practice, I also see sun salutations (Surya Namaskar sequences) as offering a wide variety of opportunities. Some practitioners take a specific sequence, some count breaths, some add standing Asanas like Virabhadrasana I or II, (Warrior) or Trkonasana (Triangle), or variations of lunges and twists in Ajanyasana (knee-down lunge) or Utkatasana (chair/fierce pose). Are any of these "right" or "wrong" in a sun salutation? I believe it is only really important if you are practicing a specific style of yoga that requires repetitions of specific alignments through particular Asanas. In either situation - a set flow or with additions - Surya Namaskar is a gradual process that will change your sense of being as you go along.

Beginning a yoga practice starts with the breath, and waking up the awareness. There are so many ways to do this, and all of them are reminders to be fresh to the moment, not leaning on expectations or memories, not judging or causing pain. I teach variations of physical warm ups that draw attention to different parts of being. In my own practice I do much the same, whether I start by sitting or standing, or even flat out on the floor, slowly through Pratapana (warm ups) or jumping in to Vinyasa (Asana flow) like Surya Namaskar.

I take personal practice as a true exploration and believe that sequences are built through understanding of the breath and curiosity about the body as a vehicle for experience of Prana (life energy) and grace. Some mornings I will repeat a series of Asana in a flow many times, sometimes I hold each Asana for many breaths. It may include variations or be the classical sequence. I've read that Surya Namaskar is a fairly recent addition to the pantheon of yoga practices, and that the ancient yogis had no requirement for this particular series. It evolved as a wonderful integration of movements with the breath that serve to open energy channels throughout the body, generate inner heat, strengthen limbs and core, release joint tightness, offer an inversion, and bring the mind into a more devotional state. Whatever my practice, I am building upon who I am, and how I approach, observe and release my own reactiveness. I learn to hear the deeper impulses of energy and fear, and I gain integration of my body and mind to the point when I can sit (or stand, walk, or lay down) in a natural meditational state. The practice helps me open the spaces inside me that encourage a less judgmental way of life, a more generous heart, and even a better humor in the face of darkening clouds on the horizon or right in my face!

I think many people cut short this last meditational phase of personal practice -- seeking physical integration and moving quickly on to other daily tasks, as if the practice is a warm up for the day. In some very real ways, I think practice IS a warm up for the day. Just like the sun rising, the light begins with subtle aspects, gradually spreading and brightening, as more and more of the world around us comes into view, and absorbs the heat. A yoga practice is really the same, and even on a morning thick with clouds, I can still salute the sun, finding its light illuminates the shades of gray above me. So, too, does the sun salutation series open spaces in which to see more clearly which way the practice may lead. One day it could be shoulder openings, another into twists, or strengthening standing postures. Perhaps the breath is crying out for Kapalabhati (Skull Shining Breath) breathing in Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose) or deeply meditative Nadi Shoduna (Alternate Nostril Breath) in Virasana (Hero's pose).

Attending classes can help with the internal absorption of sequences, and introduce a combination that effectively raises energy, strengthens, calms, or opens awareness of fears or healing effects. Yet again I think of the sun, only by rising does the sun light the world. You will only find your personal practice by taking time to see what turns up in it on any particular day. You can begin with following what you remember from classes, or working with a tape or DVD, but the sooner you can turn off the external directive voices and begin to work from that internal voice, the brighter and more illuminating your practice will be.