Thursday, December 22, 2011

Applying the Practice

I look out the window and see the bare hills, the dark leafless trees, the bright gray cloudy sky. Birds are busy at the feeders, and though I am North now, I know that there are roses still budded and blooming in Brooklyn. Today the winter's day will shift into the longest winter night and from here on the daylight grows by tiny increments. Mild temperatures and moisture could fool me easily into imagining it is early April and Spring is around the corner.

But that is not so. Choosing an image for a season's greetings, my husband and I agreed on a deeply snowy image.

My elderly mother-in-law is no longer traveling and so, my closest clan of four will transport ourselves to spend this next weekend together with her and my sister-and-brother-in-law. This makes me feel happy and grateful even as I pack a bag and try to organize for departure. Convenience and ease are not the reasons I exist on earth. I am acutely aware that there is no knowing what comes next, and there is virtually no point in imagining what the next winter solstice will bring, snow or blooming roses.

Sadness washes through my system with regularity these days. I feel a turning of my gaze towards the faces that are no longer here with me, and the small actions of preparing for the ritualized holiday season bring up the softly dark spaces once occupied by people dear to me. Last year I did not know they would be gone now, and here in this moment, I can allow the feelings to arise, see them for what they are -- love and longing, appreciation and gratitude -- and go on about putting candles around the house. I do not try to push the feelings away, ignore them, or feel sorry for myself. I simply feel the feelings, as energy arising around my heart and filling my mind with memories that add a dimension to everything I am doing.

In meditation teaching I often say that we are not trying to erase or stop ourselves, correct or change ourselves. We are making the space to see ourselves, experience our self and begin to explore possibilities that are otherwise drowned out by the constant shifting and noisiness of mind and reactive nature. On the mat, the yoga asana flows from physical effort to an understanding of energy and attention.

At this time of year, it seems these practices come directly into my every day moments. I am not on the mat, I am in the kitchen preparing for a family meal, remembering turning my hands towards other meals. I am not quietly sitting on a cushion, I am sitting in a zooming crowded car on a busy interstate highway. It is even more amazing to open up my awareness and focus my attention in these contexts. I feel the sadness, nod at it and let it slide past like the blur of exposed tree limbs. I am glad to be on my way, and there are roads I no longer need to travel. It is complicated to understand this delicate balance of love and loss. The first aspect is to go ahead and feel it, notice it, see what it is. So I use my asana practice here too, to be present in body and energy, connected beyond the reactive state of mind and filling with joy.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Asana is not sport, yet leads to the dance of life

I really don't know what it is like to be an athlete who has a routine of training in order to ever more confidently master the ways and means of the body. I came to the physical practice of yoga at a stage of life when, truth be told, I thought my physical prime was clearly or at least obviously behind me. It was an emotional and foundational search that brought me to the mat in the first place, looking for the well upon which I could draw to assuage my deep thirst to be worthy of well being.

What happened was simple in a way, as I almost immediately came to understand that I was already whole and the sustenance I needed was within my own grasp, if I could pay attention to the patterns I already had, and learn to release my grip on giving meanings and stories to everything. Meanwhile, I tackled the athletic aspect of asana practice without really knowing what this was, or that I was entering an entirely new way of living in the body I had thought I knew.

My first experiences with yoga asana were inexplicable. I felt as though I was trying to follow instructions while someone spoke in languages I could never hope to understand. I was unfamiliar with my body as a mechanical entity, and knew nothing about sanskrit or prana, as such. It didn't take long for the practice to have its way with me, though, and before long I was taking classes with teachers of various "types" if the class fit into my schedule. So I experienced a little Kundalini yoga, and some Hatha, some Kripalu style yoga, Iyengar and vinyasa. There was a little meditation and a little chanting. And pranayama was taught as it fit into the mood or plan of the teacher, with little explanation of effects or properties. And so I grew in my own curiosities and explorations.

Years went by in which I practiced on my own, even gave up practicing, and then returned to classes in various studios. This is so far from the tradition of a student seeker finding a guru who nurtures and guides a practitioner to trust fully and surrender to the practice! And yet, my own research and experience led me to deepen my practice, take trainings and begin teaching. In this aspect my course has definitely been part of the tradition of inquiry at the source of experience, cultivating awareness and leading to study what other practitioners have also discovered.

Now I physically experience my every day, contemplating the meanings of muscles, the powers of the mind and the intricacies of support in the breath. There are definitely asana that physically elude me, and I admit that athleticism is not my goal in practice, yet I am curious about the mechanisms that enable and disable at each point along the way. I am investigating will and fear, ease and dis-ease, judgment and joy. I seek to help my students find a fuller experience of themselves, without needing to pre-judge or pre-qualify themselves. I ponder the drives within the physical practice, seeing in some students the addictive qualities of exertion and attainment, while others rely upon pattern and repetition to reduce their fear of the unknown. Seeing or experiencing what is true in the moment, and just letting that be so, is a transformative practice.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Back to Basics Again

There is a constant cascade of words, feelings, sensations, ideas, memories and sounds. I could be watching a student breathing, or riding on a subway, or drifting in and out of sleep and this would still be so. Somehow there are ways to narrow the focus of attention and at the same time open up levels of awareness. It turns out that it never works to try to shut all this down, turn it off, ignore it, block it out. The only thing that works is to open awareness even wider so that, in some way, all this billowing, thrashing, distracting material becomes just a very small bit in a much much more vast expanse.

Sounds unbelievable even to me, and yet, if the breath is the raft and my attention is floating on that, everything else is just part of the ocean.

So sometimes the swells are noticeable, or a wave crashes in and totally pulls me away from the breath. The funny thing is that it doesn't matter at all, because I can smile at this (or not even react beyond noticing that it happened) and turn my attention right back to my breath. Not getting sucked into judging the situation, or hanging on to the idea or the feeling that splashed onto my raft and caught my attention, I lose nothing.

Who is measuring how many times I climb back onto my breath-raft? Who is laughing at the object that managed to pull me off? Just me, all me, not me at all. There is a swirl of energy around my breath that contains everything -- that which will distract me and that which grounds me. The ability to focus my attention gradually gets stronger, more able, more adaptable to the movements of words, feelings, sensations, reactions in general and conditions in particular.

So I come back to the most basic practice again and again: simplify, experience, abide. And it is the breath that takes me, follows me, holds me, sends me, returns me and enables me to play this game at all of observing and being my self.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Relaxed Awareness

Right this moment, I see that the limbs of the trees are dark and bare against a bright gray morning sky, yet I can dwell among the jeweled leaves in this photograph. My heart can open to the beauty and sensation of the curving canopy arching over the street, and revel in a sense of wonder and gratitude. Yet I am actually sitting at a computer, typing, aren't I? Feeling the starkness now of damp tree limbs silhouetted against the clouds, I begin to crave a hot cup of tea. These feelings, reactions and observations are the product of mind, my own mind! Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, speaks of the constant fluctuations of mind and offers a systematic study of human experience through yogic practices that can see beyond these radiating fluctuating waves into the core substance of being.

I live in this contemporary world, that of alternate side parking and washing machines, store bought packaged products of every kind and instant messaging. Yet my goal in this moment, and in my life it seems, is to seek out this substance of being. Sounds completely impossible but in any given moment my own breath can make this available to me. I have to pay attention. The kind of attention is something that I am actively evolving, honing, enabling. Whether through physical yoga practice, or meditation, or deciding what will be dinner, or noticing my husband's breath in the middle of the night, this kind of attention can open the possibility of relaxed awareness and access to being fully present.

Relaxed awareness falls into place naturally when the grip of judgment is loosened, so I am not attaching to outcome or object, and my mind can observe the widest range of details and all my reactions to the details freely. I see the glorious canopy above me, and the stark limbs; I feel the rising spring sap and the cold chill of snow on the branches. Do I attach to meaning? Do I hold tight to a preference of one over another? Must I put values on the sentimental qualities of longing and loss, of joy and rejuvenation? I can feel anything and all of that, yet still be free. This freedom doesn't inhibit commitment, since even that is conditional and within the context arises naturally too. It seems that commitment relates to where I turn my attention (as in a yoga posture I can focus on my ribcage or my feet and change the whole experience). Does this make me dull and monotone, without intensity or specificity? I think not. The water of the self remains responsive to the wildest sea, the choppy whitecaps, the smallest waves, the subtlest ripples in the pond; and with all of this available my experience of life is enormous!