Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ironing: Present but not Perfect

The season of ironing has returned. The school year has begun, the temperatures have dropped slightly and it is time for me to catch up with the ironing pile of my husband's shirts that has waited through the summer, growing slowly. He has always worn cotton shirts, and somehow over the past 25-30 years, I've taken on the task of keeping them somewhat free of wrinkles.

It was with some surprise that having started ironing the back of the fifth shirt, I could not remember if I had completely ironed the back of the previous shirt. Stunned for a moment, I stood, wracking my brain and then I actually went over and looked at it.  I had indeed ironed it. Where the heck was I when that happened that I couldn't remember doing it? Was I on automatic pilot?

No, not on automatic, but more present in the moment than in recording the results and committing my actions to memory. As I am ironing, I am acutely aware of the texture of the fabric under my hand and the weight of the iron, feeling the heat of the steam rising, the breeze from the window. My eyes, hands and mind are synchronized with my breath and my attention is fully on what I am doing. Or so I thought. In fact, my heart is also holding the person for whom I am smoothing out the wrinkles, in some ways encircling the shoulders upon which this placate will rest, envisioning the arms and hands that will emerge from this sleeve, once it is rolled up, as it always is when my husband is in action.

So how can it be that I am so present, yet I've finished one shirt and begun another without memory and certainty?  Perhaps it is not the goal of my action to remember ironing the back of each shirt. The goal of my action is to act in the moment, transmitting my love for my husband, and this is what engages me. My physical attention is fully in the present moment, observing the weave of the fabric beneath my hand and the implications of the back pleat for my task. Will the shirt be perfectly ironed because of my full attention? Perhaps not, especially since there is quite a pile and I have evolved a speedy treatment! If I wanted perfectly ironed shirts, I would ask my husband to do it as he is the one who attachs to the specificity of physical results. This is part of what makes his woodwork and sculpture so beautifully crafted. Yet even without attachment to perfection, the task is accomplished, and my goal satisfied.

In the moment of ironing, I am accomplishing a repetitive quotidien task, acting out of love, savoring textures and sensations of being and doing, and relaxing my grip on perfection and judgment.  For me this is yoga off the mat, and I am grateful that my attention was called into question by my thinking mind so that I could see my action for what it truly is. How many times in a seated meditation does the mind ask, "what are you doing? where are you?" and answers itself, "I've taken my seat and I am meditating."  This is harder to count than even counting the breath itself!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Finding Child's Pose Any Time

So many times in yoga classes I've heard teachers say, "feel free to take child's pose any time." In the first class I ever took at a yoga studio, the invitation to release and relax in child's pose actually brought up tears. Surprised to find myself sweaty, tired, folded on the floor and crying, I experienced the insight that yoga was a powerful, personal and subtle way in and out of some dark and lonely places I had tucked away. The space was held in safety by the teacher, and I knew I was not alone as I could hear the quiet breathing of other students also folded on the floor. Something about the individuality of my own mat gave me space too, at the same time the commonality of the floor and the breath was deeply comforting.

I had slipped right into that universal quality of "suffering" in my human structure, experiencing the results of the mind grasping and avoiding, the impact of my mind telling its stories and getting trapped in there.  Then, amazingly, in my first child's pose, I was able to see and acknowledge my unexpected emotional reaction, and actually let it go, allowing the specificity of my physical posture of being folded up on the floor to be a relief after the physical and mental struggles to follow the instructions of that first class. This is the magical quality of the practice, that the sequence of poses (the Asana), in the hands of a teacher will take you right into the present moment. In that moment, our vision can be clear and we can be present.  (Child's pose is a bit like prostrating oneself, both legs folded under the body, so that the shins and tops of the feet are against the ground, the knees are deeply bent, hips back towards heels, and the upper body is resting on the thighs, arms extended or folded next to legs.)

This week I was cutting the grass, about a half acre, which is a demanding and tiring physical challenge with our self-propelled push mower. I won't go into the details of the topography of slopes, the finicky areas that require a lot of pushing-pull to negotiate around plantings and objects, nor stories of my joints, suffice it to say that after a while, it is challenging and tiring! At a certain point, I am drenched in sweat, there is much left to do, and I am quite consciously organizing my body weight over my feet, using abdominal muscles to keep my ribs and pelvis aligned as I push up hill or drag back to reposition the machine. This total body consciousness is an indicator of how stressed I feel, no longer a mindless action, I've called in the mindfulness troops. This is when I hear that voice in my head saying, "feel free to take child's pose at any time during the practice."

Child's pose can be there for any situation where it isn't over and you most surely wish it was. It turns out that child's pose is a state of mind and breath awareness that can be brought to bear while waiting for a loved one having surgery, or stuck in a stopped subway car with an important meeting already starting at your destination, (or in the middle of an arduous task). Child's pose is a way of triggering an internal connection, aimed at letting go of tension and effort that is not required in order to provide the space for the mind to let go of its grip on the perception that you are suffering. That tightness of mind's clutch on the what-ifs and anxiety of not knowing, on the stress of over efforting, or fear of an outcome, can be loosened when I draw my focus to my breath.

This re-focused attention helps back me down from the cliff edge. In my case, I could offer myself a break and a glass of water if I want that, but even without taking that break, I can soften the tension in my body. I can bring my awareness to my feet walking on earth behind that lawn mower, re-adjust my bodyweight so that there is less effort, even slow it down and take the pressure of momentum off of myself.  This is removing the fight-or-flight aspect of pushing through discomfort and exhaustion, and leaves the calmness of steadiness and balanced effort to get me though. Child's pose does this in a yoga class context, allows the body to regroup, the mind to refocus on the breath, the bones to find support in their folded form and feel the support of the earth and the breath.

Whether you can fold on the floor or not, or perhaps wouldn't dream of trying that, you can offer yourself the nurturing quiet attention of child's pose when you need it. As for me, I finished my task of cutting the grass, knowing that in another week, I'll be at it again until the weather turns cold.  I'll be back at it in the Spring and glad of it, just like in yoga class when the teacher brings you out of child's pose with an invitation to reach your palms out on the mat and unfold.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Being: Day Lilies for One Day

All day long, from the very start, I consider the lilies and am filled with amazement and wonder. It's not just that they are incredibly beautiful, so many colors, interacting with the light as it changes all day long. No, it's not that really. It is this inevitable truth that they open these insanely perfect blooms for just this day and then, that's it. If it's a rainy day, well, that's their day. If it's burning hot or windy or full of bugs or deer eating lilies for lunch or whatever, that's their day. And they bloom their very best, regardless.

I've tried to capture them with my digital camera but the colors are not right. These lilies are alive and blooming, I mean specifically, these lilies are totally saturated in the very act of blooming all day long. How can any frozen second capture that? Like this breath, or this eye blinking? A living moment.

And in the twilight of their one day, they are luminous. Some of them are already closing their petals having had their full day of possibilities. Some of them are just beginning to peel open that first petal at dusk in preparation for full bloom at sunrise.  Some bloom into the night. When dead-heading lilies early in the morning (breaking off the spent blooms to make more space for the opening ones), one must be very attentive to those that close in the morning.  They can look so much as though they are just opening.

I can only imagine this feeling of being completely in fullness in every moment. That this is the day for me. Yet it is true that this IS the day for me, and for you, and this day and this day. It seems so wildly unbelievable that we can have a chance to really live in every moment, day after day, when these remarkable and unique lilies only get one. Just one day. Live the one you're in.

bud opening, bloom closing

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Inner Layers Align, Koshas of an Asymmetrical Body

I'm standing in my kitchen thrilled by the quintessential integrity and alignment in this little teapot by Hsin-Chuen Lin on my shelf. How can an object be so beautiful, proportioned perfectly, balanced in every way in form and function and not be symmetrical? In my own daily life, I see so many moments when my inner dialogue seems designed to keep me off balance. I think of how my mind offers me criticism, praise, observations, excuses, prompts, and shifting values in every moment, all of which push and pull me around. I'm learning that my sense of inner alignment comes from some where else, some where other than all that ongoing mental activity.  I think this little tea pot reflects inner alignment and more than just the physical skill of the potter who made it.

In my first yoga training, I was introduced to ideas about the Vedantic and yogic concept of Koshas, the layers, conceptualized as sheaths or "bodies," in which we function and experience awareness. There are said to be five of them, the physical body (Anamaya kosha), the breath body (Pranamaya kosha), the energy body (Manomaya kosha), the mental or wisdom body (Vijanamaya kosha), and the bliss body (Anandamaya kosha). Of course they have names in a number of ancient languages, but for my purposes they are layers of living awareness, each rooted in some aspect of my concept of self, and expansive in ways that are becoming more accessible to me through daily life by way of my yoga and meditation practices, and my growing mindfulness. I don't have to separate them, or define them by anyone else's terms, though sometimes what others say or experience does shed light in places where I'm not so clear. There is a delicate balance between allowing myself to let go of defining elements in order to experience reality without distortion or projection.

It is as simple as being fully present, a practice that takes everything I've got. I can allow this in anything I'm doing -- a level of cultivated awareness from which I slip in and out. In my yoga practice I take a standing pose of warrior one (Virabhadrasana I). This is similar to a standing lunge with the back leg at more of an angle and the back foot fully down on the floor so that each hip is rotating a little differently from the other. To start with, I am probably full of technical check points, sensing the difference when my left ankle is the rear support or my right ankle takes that role. My awareness scans my body - so much variation day to day, moment to moment, in this hip or those quadriceps or shoulder. First layer, Anamaya kosha indeed, full of recorded experience as well as sensations in this moment. I notice that my breath inhabits my form, operating on another level. I notice the slight twist in my ribs as I breathe, feel expansion inward and outward throughout my body, and feel that I am gaining access to my energy body, flowing inward from earth and air and outward into earth and air. I can sense dull places where there are less open channels, and vivid places that are like energy centers. In all of this my mind is awake (at least some of the time). This is not the judgmental, critical, assessing mind, but a spacious, curious mind. Beyond these sensory, physical, intellectual or emotional facets arises a inclusive connectivity, that in some inexplicable way accepts the space where I stand, the air I breathe, other living beings and myself in this without distinguishing hierarchies or values, offering a sense of total being.

All this happens with continuing messages from my stiff left ankle, knowing that my right shoulder is not level with my left, and listening for that wasp dive-buzzing the corners of the window nearby. I'm not driven towards perfection, not expecting my physical form to be symmetrical or to accomplish some kind of measurable feats in order to be worthy of my respect. My body is not unlike the little teapot, a graceful offering of internal alignment, within its functional range of motion.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Joy rising from the dirt

There is a point in March when looking around the garden and yard feels overwhelming to me. Cleaning up from the winter, re-establishing garden in the midst of the wild fields, raking the driveway gravel out of the grass, starting all over with the process of nurturing plants and watching them become food for other wildlife, tackling the ever shifting vagaries of vegetables that thrive and succumb to the myriad issues of weather, soil, attention and bacteria... Well, it feels like more than I can stand. Alone I cannot prune all the trees, dig out those rocks, re-form the raised beds or even haul all the brush. So there are relationship matters to accommodate in my spousal partnership, allowing the priorities of both parties and energy levels of each of us to be thoughtfully and non-judgmentally considered.

And then there is that moment in early April when we can watch the dry brown grasses greening up over the course of three days of sun and slightly warmer nights. All this and the compost pile is still frozen.

Still, in January I begin to contemplate the vegetable plots and their rotations and by February and early March the seeds arrive. They sit and wait patiently in their envelopes, just as I go through this churning of helplessness and interpersonal negotiations. Then, as trees bloom in warmer climates and all the yards in New York City begin popping with color and fragrance, the little corner of upstate New York begins to awaken too. Where my garden lies is in the shadow of a north facing hill, and once all the snow and ice is gone, the cold soggy earth starts sorting itself out. The birds return and start house hunting. Just putting out the bird houses is an act of faith in the dark days of March.

Though I have not yet been able to turn the soil, I must pile all the earth to the middle of the beds because the wooden forms around my raised plots have rotted after so many years. By the next week, there is new wooden framing, the plots have been turned, and yesterday the onions were planted alongside the now 8" tall garlic greens.  My pants are filthy, hanging over the laundry basket waiting for me to put them back on for this morning's plunder of the thawed section of the compost pile.  My garden maps have been redrawn to make room for the arugula, spinach, lettuce mixtures, radishes, snow peas, sugar snaps, little shell peas, carrots, chard and beets. Packets of seeds sit in my basket, still waiting for my clumsy gloved fingers to open them in the bright sun and cold wind.

For the last two nights I have woken as the waxing full moon set across from the rising sun glowing behind the hill.  My tired muscles slightly regrouped after the night's rest, I am filled with joy at the prospect of another few hours laboring to welcome the seeds into the dirt we have prepared for them.

This is the practice. Seeing what is so and accepting that all of it is connected. Developing the ability to abide: patiently acknowledging while not judging the tough times, diligently putting in the effort as one must, but softening as one can; welcoming the joy that arises from the dirt with full knowledge that not all the seeds will thrive and some will produce splendor to share even with unwelcome guests. We are not separate from this ever-shifting inner and external see saw. It is the practice that gives me balance and equanimity. Now to put on those mud-shoes and get the morning job done.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Transition is a State of Mind

So much emphasis is placed on college applications that the whole last half of high school is colored by this. Once accepted, there is another phase of accommodating all the changes taking place in moving to a new way of operating, often in an entirely different location. Once there's a rhythm established, many people start taking semesters abroad or as interns, getting part time jobs and turn their face towards what happens after graduation. Even semesters starting and ending, summer sessions and work study jobs coming and going, all of this seems like an enormous sequence of change upon change upon change.

It is much the same as a child learns to move in the world from sitting, crawling, standing, that hand-over-hand cruising, to walking, running, climbing (not always in that order!). To children, adults seem complete and finished as though all the pieces are set and the patterns established. To some degree this is a way of operating that many people try to adopt, sticking to their patterns, hanging on tight to who they think they are, or want to be.

But life is entirely transitional. Right down to the cells in the body, we are an ever shifting, changing organization of bits and systems. We live only in this moment, and whether we call it transitional or not, this is that moment.

When we tell ourselves we are in transition, or classify someone else as in a "transitional stage," we are emphasizing our idea that they are developing something and will not remain the way they are now.  This reflects our opinion or impression that perhaps that what is happening now is not sustainable, or that it is only a temporary way of operating or feeling. Certainly we comfort ourselves by saying that the deepest moments of intense grief are temporary, and we warn each other to enjoy the early days of childrearing as they "go so fast." What happens in the mind when we accept that every moment is such a moment, that we are constantly developing and can not remain the way we are now?

I stopped my class in mid stream in their sun salutations (Surya Namaskar), a series of yoga asana that are strung together in a fairly routinized way, though in my class you can never figure what I'm going to suggest. Each student realized that they had not placed their body as carefully as they would have if they had known they would have to stay there ... they had defined this sequence of postures as a flow of transitional movements, and discovered that this had occurred without much intelligence, relying predominantly on pattern and habit.  Yoga is a practice fundamentally of unifying, "yoking," awareness with the actions of being.

Waking up awareness is one of the darts that I throw at the balloon of habit in the mind. Cultivating conscious attention to include even the most mundane, momentary bits of life is where the vibrancy and depth of being resides. The yoga asana practice is a mechanism that can awaken an alert body and  mind, and help develop and train this level of consciousness and awareness without efforting. It takes focused attention to see that "transition" includes every moment, and that in every moment we can be completely present in the experience. We may never visit this place again, or be 19 years old, or feel confused about this particular thing, or be as broken hearted, or as proud and happy, or whatever it is. Those living with cancer know this feeling of uncertainty as a constant, rejecting or accepting the moment in all its fullness, again and again.  Being fully present in this moment is a state of mind, and thinking that this moment is just on its way to some other moment is also a state of mind, that leaches some of the potential from "now" and projects it onto "then."

Convenient to explain uncertainty and the unknown as a transition if we are not sure of what is happening and want to grasp at the next moment (or the remembered moment) as more settled or resolved or successful, etc.  This, too, is the mind setting a scene for the story we tell ourselves. It is still only in this moment that we are here, living. Impermanence is  the way of all living beings. Just look around you.

Monday, April 22, 2013

We are the fruits of the Earth too: just one, all one

Reading several different descriptions of the eight limbs of yoga, I am struck again and again by how they are inseparable. It is a strange function of our human way of using language that separates words and concepts, creates constructions for us. The moments when the mind can see this, yet not attach to it, are the openings pervaded by the essential qualities of life. For some this translates to a flow state, for others into nirvana, orgasm, or transcendence. Basically it is a unified condition, not separating into any of the this-and-that usually running our daily activities.

People are not separate either, though it sure feels as though we are if we stick with our mental configurations.  A friend passed along an article about our intrinsic mirroring neurology, that which gives us joy when we see joy in another, and sorrow when we see sorrow in another. This is built in to us, a depth of compassionate connection that can be traced to specific chemicals in the body released in specific reactive moments.  We can cultivate these in our yoga and meditation practices by opening to the flow of compassion, and allowing our feelings to rise and dissolve the barriers. We will not disappear into pain and suffering, quite the contrary, we begin to see that there is so much else that supports and nurtures us.

We are all fruits of the earth.

I brought a handful of grapes to class one day, inviting each student to take one. Some ate them right away, so I instructed everyone to eat that one, and offered a second one to observe. With the flavor and textures of that first grape in the mouth, we looked at the little dark globe in our hands. Each just a grape. Outer skin a little tough and bitter, inside juicy and sweet, and beyond that, buried in the interior, the crunchy seeds that could be seen as the purpose of the grape itself. None of these grapes looked outstanding in the bunch, yet each was so delicious. None of them, eaten by us, would come to fruition through the seed within forming a grape plant, yet each fully served a purpose, perhaps several purposes actually.

Are we not as the grapes in the bunch, each just a grape, yet perfect in our multiple possibilities and purposes? Do we not all have a bit of the toughness of that outer skin, the sweetness of that inner flesh, the potential of that crunchy seed we are designed by our very nature to nurture?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Body as Home, Breath as Being

Sometimes when you've been out on your feet for many hours, getting into the car feels like home. I've seen  people pick their noses in their cars as though there were curtains through which no one could see. The car is a vehicle, a vehicle that moves through space giving a sense of enclosure and perhaps even a sense of security. Out in the world it is our own body that provides us with that home (complete with a fabricated sense of security) but on the body we actually do place curtains in a way: our clothing, styles, habits, the stuff of appearances. We dress ourselves as we hope to be seen, within the limitations of our ideas about our self and our willingness to put time and resources into the project. This physical vehicle in which we experience life does not really have an external life of its own. We can surely be judged by others based upon it, but if you judge me by my shoes, I become invisible as a living being. It is our breath that animates us. Awareness of  our self as a living being can shift us away from this false sense of privacy or security into the truth of being fully alive in the world. The breath can help us feel and fill that space where we are authentic, alive and at home. No curtains needed. 

So often it is the metaphorical curtains that seem to fascinate us, about ourselves and on others. We use the outer shapes and decoration to tell one story after another. Our mala beads,  turban,  yarmulkas,  or veil all speak of the culture of our spiritual practices,  reveal a bit about our desires and self concept. Our fashions show our grasping at affinity groups, and hint at our philosophy to avert the worst of our fears.  We imagine physical condition as a reflection of character. All of this, like a silk wrap, falls away when we cultivate our focus on the breath itself.  There is no strategy about being who we are when we are simply being a living being. There is no style or design to it, other than the human form that uses this continuous influx and outflow. Stories we have been told, and the ones we tell ourselves or another, can also be seen as shifting reflections in the windows.

The human form has a shape and that shape has its effects. Like any point of origin, it's influence is both subtle and deep. If we find ourselves living in a female or male body, or with chronic illness, or with acute  sensitivities, it can shape us invisibly and visibly. Seems to me, though, that even these attributes are window dressing  rather than the core of the living self.  We can continue to see each other as these external forms, and ourselves as well, or we can begin to cherish these forms as expressions, and see beyond the curtains. 

The mind is like a vast loom, constantly weaving all available strands into patterns. Each strand, if pulled,  unravels only one part of this constantly shifting design. It is being, the presence of mind without attaching to the distractions of the curtains or the shifting designs, that unifies all of our life experiences into this life we live.  It unifies this life into a much larger fabric comprised of all the lives around us, known or unknown to us, and in fact to those who came before us and will follow us. We do not make that happen by fingering our prayer beads, or covering our faces, but by breathing in and breathing out. It is part of the yogic path to draw awareness within, to cultivate a single-pointed focus, and to observe the workings of the mind itself. The breath is the constant, regardless of the strands, the patterns, or the curtains we use to cover to the changing reflections.

When a thread is pulled and parts begin unraveling, we are willing to take that which remains as though it were whole. This distortion is what we think we know. Operating from this is like imagining that the window is  in fact the self,  with or without curtains. It is easy then to ignore the space within the vehicle, shaped by the breath, that offers authentic wholeness, regardless of  curtains  open, closed, threadbare or missing.  Standing on the subway underneath NYC, it is not my shoes, or my hair or skin color, or my language that define my life. I am using all of that to decorate, and perhaps convey that I am a person in a community with a task and appetites. it is my breath that defines me as a living being, something I share inarguably and intimately with every other living being on the train. It is the awareness and acceptance of this energy exchange that keeps my heart open, my mind alert, and gives me a place in which to be truly home anywhere.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

When Hauling the Heavy Stuff, Give Yourself a Breather

Here I am, hauling pain, anger, disappointment, sorrow, worry ... so I seek out that space where there's love. I can turn away from the bitter taste, or savor it; wash it away with a sweet Manhattan (cherry at the bottom of the cup), or paint it on both sides of the tee-shirt I'm wearing, my anguish doesn't stop. My mind is a generator that keeps on going but I have a way to unplug it.  There's only one thing I can count on for that space in which I can tolerate myself and even love being alive, no matter what crushing weight I am hauling.  I take my focus to my breath for several minutes. One or five minutes aren't enough in bad times, but 20 minutes gives me a literal breather.

Taking the load away from the center of my focus offers me a real rest that impacts on my whole body and shifts my mind too. I can see the bigger scene, and can find my place in that scene without the same piercing pain of it.

So much of the anger, agony, sorrow comes from wishful thinking. We rerun or grab for all the scenarios we want to change, or want to banish, or where we wish we could change the script. Even physical discomfort gets worse when all we can think about is getting rid of it.  Sometimes finding a way to live with it, accommodating the situation, actually lessens or even alleviates the stress around it, and just through that mechanism, the pain itself lessens.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Life is not a Rehearsal: Each Moment is the Performance

Practicing, whether a musical instrument, painting, asana or other activity of mind and body, is a process of building stamina, skill, pattern, awareness, and technique. Yoga is not different in many ways from any of these other pursuits. A spiritual practice or a modality of scientific inquiry both benefit from repeating the walk along the pathways of the mind, in some ways codifying these movements into a chosen range of adaptations. We shape the way we think, our thoughts shape the way we react, act, feel. It is in this inquiry that we discover our selves and the world again and again.

Even in the practicing, though there are imperfections and sometimes struggles, it is not a rehearsal in order to get it right. The practicing is in itself the performance, but with a different audience or outcome. It is the self that performs, and the self who is transformed by the performance.

There is no moment when you are not your self. Even in moments when you might say, "I am not myself today," you are present only in that moment as the self you actually are, feeling off kilter. Our idea can shift about who we think we are, and we construct the ways in which we imagine we are seen by others.  As with playing music, it sounds beautiful to one person, boring to another, intriguing to someone and intolerable to someone else.  It exists only in the moment that you create it, and though you might record it, it lives then as a recording, played in a moment, reacted to in that moment. It is no longer your life, but a product of your life.

So with this in mind, it doesn't take much to see that what you say, the face you make, the food you put in your mouth, the way you touch another, the place you rest your eyes, all make up the life you actually live. There is no moment out-of-mind, even in the flow of ecstatic creativity that might bring out the music or the art, the breath or the dance, this is your moment. It is in this context that I contemplate the principles of right action and right speech.

Once I was in my dad's painting studio looking at some new work and he said, "Oil painting is like a rehearsal where you can keep going back and redo, or undo, or rethink, and remake; where watercolor is a performance with every stroke of the brush, this is it."

Being present in each moment is like living a watercolor, where each movement of the breath is the performance of life.  Is there pressure in this? I don't feel it that way. I see this spreads out any pressure into a general sense of upholding personal responsibility in all things, including sharing responsibilities with everyone else for the world we are making together, and accepting responsibility for the range of feelings that arise. This is not about perfection, or blocking out the "bad," but rather giving up the idea of "good" and "bad" and being here, in it right now as it is.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Asana & Mind: Twisting as a State not an Action

Don't we imagine that the goal is to twist as far as we possibly can? Of course we all begin with striving and measuring how we think we do in relation to images in our mind or presented by the bodies next to us. The next stage is our effort to identify what is happening and how it happens  and in doing that we get attached to the specifics like pressing into the thumb and index finger in downward facing dog or focusing on drawing the left ribs towards the back body or towards the ceiling in a spinal twist. But these are not the goals nor are they really the pivotal mechanisms in that down dog or spinal twist, warrior or headstand. We can only find our way once we see where it is in our self that yearns and overworks, where our energy disconnects or pools, and how our judging mind blocks our path and builds our habitual patterns. Yes, there is a building of familiarity with how the body works, and our own body in particular, but the twist is more about opening the mind, than seeing the room behind you.

Beginning,  we open our attention to new places in the body and experience our own efforts with both wariness and awareness. Once we feel the outer edge of that foot in a standing pose and discover the internal shift it takes to feel the inner heel at the same time, we can stop focusing on that and begin to follow the line up the body, balancing the pelvis between the legs, then drawing the energy up the legs and in towards the pelvis and then moving our awareness from place to place, adjusting the fulcrum of our attention and effort. In  beginning we must activate an acuity of attention and forge a balance in our awareness and effort.

Then we let that go. We are not perfecting a particular pressure of foot or angle of hip. We are not drawing the ribs around the body to create torque in the spine and a sore ribcage. More effort is not the goal nor does it produce bliss. Even worse than our habitual patterns might be replacing them with over efforting and rigid assumptions. In this process we can learn about inquiry, about our actions, our urgencies, and our minds.

Effort is required of the mind to observe and attend to the body in any moment.  Effort is also required in the body to bring the mind into an alert and informed state. It is at this point that spaciousness and ease can enter the practice. The equation shifts when we allow the body to relax into a posture of supported effort and the mind to release judging and adjusting that effort and begin to explore being in a pose. It is this quality of being that opens the box of possibilities.

It is this moment that may be missed  if our practice requires constant  motion and use of effort to keep going. though we may burn through resistance of one kind we may be catering to habitual patterns of resistance too. We can build muscular and cardiovascular strength and cultivate intimacy when we let go of the constant physical negotiation for deeper, harder, or really just more.  In the silence of being in a pose, we find our breath, we can use the mind to soften the fierceness of the body. By opening ease in the midst of all the effort we begin a new adventure of adeptly holding a posture without continuing to "work" on it. Then the work is in the energy, breath, and awareness, supported by mindful conscious alignment of bone and muscle.

At a certain point in the twist it is important to let go of the act of twisting and experience the support and clarity of being twisted.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Body as Vehicle for Experiencing Life in the Mind

Looking at this image of a pie is a way in to the way my mind works. Even if I didn't have associations with the experience in time and space of being served this pie (which I do), I react with admiration, appetite, and curiosity. This image sparks my body into hungry messages, and my feelings about diet, body image, flavors, my own pie making, and on and on.  This image of a pie is a way of triggering all kinds of information about how my body and mind work.

The physical practices of yoga are just like this pie, offering unlimited ways of revealing our selves to our selves through the experiences we remember, project or have in the moment, including feelings and all kinds of associations. The body postures (asana) and breath practices (pranayama) are available to us now in so many ways, styles, places, and tempos.  Each time we approach the yoga mat, no matter where or with whom, there is an invitation to combine the mind's attention with the body's experiences.  Teachers ask students to direct their attention to this through instructions about dropping shoulders down the back, or feeling the weight in the outer edge of the foot, or lifting the Mula Bandha to engage the deep abdominal muscles.  This is mind seeking out the communication channels in the body, literally making the connections. So many of us confuse our right arm with our left as we process verbal instructions, but that is not a problem really.  Some of us can't lift and lower only our big toe, but that is not a problem either. Yoga opens these lines of communication and invites us to let go of the judging of what happens or doesn't.

It is not for the physical experience alone that we come to the practice, and the practice will not leave us alone at that level of engagement.  Finding that we don't know how to lift those deep muscles of the Mula Bandha from the base of the perineum, we wonder how to activate this area? Or perhaps we do know how to lift the Mula Bandha but only in association with moments of sexual involvement and find ourselves embarrassed and inept at making that deeply personal connection in the context of a yoga class. This is invisible, as is the sensation of weight in different parts of our feet -- or so we think.

The physical practice of yoga is deeply personal. It allows an intimacy with oneself physically that draws out the mind, engages the emotions, and may trigger many unexpected experiences. In the classic yoga structure, Asana and Pranayama are but two of the eight limbs of yogic practice, the rest are philosophical and relate to energies and attention,  dealing directly with mind in all its aspects and attributes.  It is the physical practices that reveal to us that the body is the vehicle for experience that the mind can use to discover itself.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walk the Dog, Even if the Dog is You (Subtitle: Making Time for Asana and Meditation)

My father died as an old man, a month shy of 90 years old. Right up until the event that hospitalized him, he was responsible for walking the dog morning and evening. This assignment got him up and out into the world, among neighbors, into the forested walkways and power line cut throughs near his suburban home, where he observed the changing seasons and configurations of wildlife, erosion and wildflowers. This established a routine which was accepted by his wife, who was cognitively impaired, because she knew that he would walk the dog and return. This open space in his morning was not part of the plan on his own behalf, but it was critical to his well being.  The evening walk was usually shorter, and depending upon how heavily dinner sat in his belly, he would take on a small uphill under the streetlights. He would notice the moon phases, the silhouettes of trees, the other passing dog walkers and again have a moment to himself. His mind relaxed and contemplated all manner of things when he was out with the dog and he might take time to relax the constant vigilance his wife's care required.  Without the dog, there would have been none of that in his days or nights.

How much we are willing to do for the wellbeing of another varies from person to person, but many of us will take on tasks of cooking meals, walking dogs, running errands, taking on jobs and all manner of responsibilities to benefit those we care about.  Can we program each day with the time to take care of our self?

A personal practice, whether yoga or meditation, requires the same approach as walking the dog. It doesn't matter what the weather is, or how late you were up last night, that wet nose is there in your face to say, "Aren't we going now?" Imagine that in your practice you are both the dog and the dog-walker. Giving yourself the time, the open space, the exercise of those internal muscles of awareness, and most of all, the care you deserve for experiencing well being and connecting to the world around and within you. And as with a simple walk, it can be a half hour in the morning, or evening, enough to separate yourself from the patterns of the day and place yourself squarely in the center of your own attention. Neither the dog nor the dog walker requires a two hour commitment that pushes into your other obligations and activities. Nor can this unspoken contract of care and attention between you and yourself be skipped without consequence. One simply cannot say to the dog, "not today."  Imagine that your health and well being relies upon that half hour, and see your self staring at you with that query of "Are we going now?"

Spring Buds - The Mind and Its Unfolding

How do we know when we see a bud whether it will open into a bloom or into leaves? Some plants go straight to the bloom, drawing in the energy and starting the fertilization process that the leaves will feed throughout the warm season.  Other plants uncurl leaf clusters that draw in the energy the plant needs to produce the buds that later produce the seeds to continue propagation of the plant.  Each species in its own way puts forth the possibilities and brings out what it needs. But there are unforeseen circumstances! Too much rain, too cold temperatures, and the vagaries of wind and location can challenge any individual bud, whether bloom or leaf.

And there are so many all of a sudden! One day of warm sunny weather and the world around us begins reflecting a burst of energy. It almost seems that the sun transfers this energy directly through its heat! Yet we might walk by the most exquisitely blooming purple plum tree without noticing any of the thousands of blooms. Our thoughts can keep us worrying about how long it will take to get where we are going, or planning out our errands, or replaying the scene we just left.  Perhaps one magnolia bloom catches the eye and for one instant we stop to admire this moment of blossoming.

Isn't the mind just like this? Some thoughts catch our attention, so many others flow past while our focus is on something else?  Each of us budding and blooming again and again, whether seen or unnoticed, we add to the world around us.  How do we know if this bud will be bloom or leaf? Must we attach so much importance and meaning, judgment and expectation upon that uncurled object?

Closing your eyes, imagine a bud. As your mind drifts away from this, just bring your attention back to the bud. As with softening the focus of your eyes, allow your mind to focus on this bud softly. Feel the presence of possibility in the bud along with accepting the idea that whether leaf or bloom, the bud is intact and complete.  Allow the bud to connect to all its sources ... water, rain, sun, twig, branch, trunk, roots.  Allow the bud to connect to all its processes ... opening, losing petals, dropping leaves, crushed on the sidewalk, washing into the street drains, composting into the earth. Keep your attention on the bud as you allow this broad view of interconnectedness to hover around the bud. It might feel a bit like staying focused on the breath while you are still aware of the sounds of the street, and the general sensations of the body.

Not closing off from the widest experiences of being, continue to bring your attention to the bud.  Releasing this focus after a few minutes (5-20), soften your eyelids, and allow them to part.

Perhaps you will continue to see the bud in yourself, and others around you. Full of potential, unattached to judgment and goal, yet fully connected to sources of energy and possibility.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

fake it til you make it: pretending to meditate

Not knowing how, or knowing that you don't know how, are common reasons to avoid a meditation practice. Thinking that meditation will solve something, cure something, liberate something is all still just thinking about your own judgments of yourself and your life and really not approaching the practice. But of course, if you don't know how to meditate, you wouldn't know that the beginning of meditation is to see that no matter what else you are doing, you are thinking all the time.

You can fake it as long as you don't lie about it.

In other words,  you just set a timer for 15 minutes, sit yourself down, align your body so that it takes the least amount of effort to stack your bones and release your muscles, and then pretend you are meditating by allowing your mind to wander all over the place while you keep bringing your focus back to one place (maybe the part of your body where you sense the breath the most). Do this every day for a while, pretending that you are taking your seat and meditating.

That timer will shock you, and you may have to start setting it for half an hour.

No matter what happens, no lying, okay?  But it's fine to fake it until you can accept that you are allowing your mind to think all it wants, while you focus on your breath for a while. You will gain the muscles of mindfulness that help you turn your attention again and again to one point. And you may begin to see the patterns of thoughts and feelings, distractions and roadblocks that your mind has been making for you.

Take a minute to turn some kind, friendly feelings towards yourself as though you were an old friend.

Be curious about what all is going on with that friend, without judging any particulars in the stories you tell yourself.

Just set the timer and take your seat. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were meditating...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

If you crave certainty let death be that, for now.

If you crave certainty let death be that for now, for once you achieve that you will see that it is not the goal you imagined but just another moment passing.

Finding the middle path is not a grip on everything. It is like walking with open palms while you feel the gentle swinging of your hips. Pile up desires like clean laundry, used and cleaned for reuse. Then hang them on the line in the sun. Feel the wood of the clothespin. The tree roots, the hand on the machine spitting out little springs, the pleasure of the grip of pin to line that will hold desire as it flaps in the wind, changing colors.

How does it feel to see them there? Beautiful as they hang and flap. Separate from you. All lined up for you to continue in the endless cycle of craving.

Where are your feet, your hands, your hips now? Undressed from the layers of desire. Weightlessness of the middle path poses a paradox. How can you clutch at your foundation and reach outwardly when there is only this shimmering self, naked and aglow?

I like to use the words "find" and "allow" when I teach yoga.   I invite students to come with curiosity and acceptance. I know how hard this is and that we would rather wrap ourselves in the beautiful desires that mark us and make us resemble our expectations.  Freedom doesn't wear such specificity nor can it. As I see my outer self flapping in the sun, making its own shadows, I can feel the sweetness of being without all that.

Death can be seen as the ultimate degradation or the sublime elevation, the cause of suffering or the release from suffering. Perhaps it is a mirage we can use to teach us about the nature of impermanence and the clutching for certainty that so often run our emotional and psychological programs. Steve Jobs spoke eloquently about his own mortality as the predominant inspiration to make the most of his life.

What good does it do to accept impermanence? Well as long as we resist this idea that the moment is the truth of our life, we clutch at something else. We look back, we worry about what is to come, we contort ourselves and others with judgments based on what we think of this or that. 

Accepting impermanence softens the fear of loss, the fear of illness and eventual death. This is fundamentally where suffering comes from, according to yogic and Buddhist philosophies. If I need to be certain of something, let it be death for now. This will give me enough desire and craving to pin on the line and I will not care much whether the pins come loose in the wind.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Doing What You Are Doing, Step Into Being Who You Are

Acting with clarity and without judgment reflects a constancy of self, an acceptance of best intention, an ability to engage with what is right there to be done with good will. Even unpleasant tasks or what might seem insignificant situations are sustaining if we are not jamming our own switchboards the whole time with judgments and confusion.

When turning clear energy toward a task, there is a sense of flow to it. This could be organizing a meeting, in a cooking or writing project, teaching or taking a yoga class, working through a tax filing, accompanying someone on a task they must do, anything really. This attribute of engagement is not judgmental, this is not a conflicted state.

If I am not resisting what I am doing, there is very little separation between what I am doing and who I am. Quite a difference when there is resistance. The mind chatters about all that is not as it should be, makes constant recommendations about this task, other tasks, other people's actions or choices, what else I could be doing, should be doing, cannot be doing, and generally gets in the way of feeling satisfied with how the time was spent or with the task itself. This takes energy too, and just like physical friction from resistance, it burns up some of the energy turned toward the task itself. Wastes energy. Pulls the action in other directions, and in a very real way separates you from who you are by spinning a web of illusion around your action.

"I did the best I could," is a statement that reflects whatever judgment is in your mind about the task. It can be said with derision, with humility, with sorrow, with pride, with any kind of emotion, really.  The statement is infused with judgment. There could be an unspoken sense of "under the circumstances" that holds a form of apology, or excuse, or blame, or self-judgment. There might be a subtext that describes a wish to have accomplished more, or the idea that someone else would have done more or better.

When you put your undivided attention into a task it isn't about "best" of anything, it is what it is. It can be a big shift to be comfortable with doing what you are doing, and not ranking what you are doing.
This is authentic action, what could be called, "right action." Full on engagement with an open mind, not a judging mind. The way this feels is not compromised by mixed internal messages and scattered judgments of the self or others now or in the past tense. This is being present in the moment, as Thich Nhat Hahn says so simply, "wash the dishes to wash the dishes."

Doing what you are doing without internal conflict releases energy towards the task that otherwise gets subverted into judgments and resistance. Doing what you are doing builds the muscles of mindfulness that keep you present in the moment in which you are actually living. Doing what you are doing literally turns everyday life into a moving meditation, of focused attention and open possibilities of being who you are.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Trouble In Paradise: Separate Will or Best Intention?

One of the first challenges in opening the mind is releasing the grip on "I, me, mine." Once this begins to take hold, it seems to me that clinging to tit-for-tat and ego-based judgments loses the light and leaves us in darkness when we act and choose our actions. Seeking out the center from which all beings move and breathe gives support to the wide variety of choices and decisions that conditions in the moment allow. There is something troublesome to me emerging from three of the most basic tenants of the Western moral codes. Take the following admonitions and chew on them a while.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Is your behavior always to be based upon your own expectations? Subject to the push and pull of what you have experienced (the past) and wishes for (the future)? Must I remain separate from "the other" with judgments of what I expect from you and what I am willing to do? Must "I" be at the center of every thought and act? Can we not act to improve the conditions of others beyond our expectations for our self?

An eye for an eye.
Where is compassion in exacting the same price upon others that has been exacted upon us? How can we avoid mutual destruction in this scenario?  Cause, condition, and fatalism play all the cards here. Where is basic goodness, or integrity of intention? Is justice a process of administering equal harm? This is not urging that we offer our eyes for the sake of seeing clearly on behalf of the self or anyone else. Can we see that what is an eye for one is an ear for another?

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Here the power rests in conditioning, circumstance, conceptual teachings, and institutional structure. Who is describing this divine decision-maker and the realities of the exemplary setting? How does one see the context of shared human experience and the ongoing connections among living beings if subject to an unnamed authority in a place set aside? Is this a surrendering of the grasping, clutching, suffering individual will to what sustains their freedom of choice and their well-being? Doesn't abdication from our decision for right action leave us estranged from our own intention? Cannot our intention create the complete range of possibilities here on earth, without withholding our responsibility for that intention?

These axioms all seem to separate the action of an individual from the wellbeing of others, including the individual self. Underlying them all  is a power struggle of ego against the range of possible choices. They all seem set to limit options. Where is the integration of a communal framework for trust, choice, emotional safety or common purpose? Where is the development of intention without the grip of judgment?

I believe that we are not separate from one another as living beings.
We cannot thrive as separate entities. We can feel our suffering and our self interest are not in isolation. We experience life as part of a common human experience, shared in some real (and vast) ways by all living beings. Think of us all breathing in and breathing out: single celled organisms, plant life and all life forms in the oceans exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. We all come into our present format and leave that format. If we each act on our best intention in the moment, we can move within our strengths, from our deepest sources of meanings, and take a simpler course. Our action becomes a compassionate act, taking others and  basic goodness as part of who we are. When conditions change, our best intention accommodates that, without denigrating the self or "the other."

Given that momentary circumstance and reactivity are always part of our decision making, our intentions and choices, this moment has an effect on those decisions and choices. What benefit is there to separating ourselves to measure and judge whether what I do or say to you is what I want you to do or say to me? (Is this a way of intimating fundamental respect?) How does exacting a conditioned causal behavior on another who is already in a different causal condition, improve my own or our mutual state? What purpose is there in my prostrating myself before another's will (especially a will that is a creation of massive hierarchies in other times and conditions), rather than working to see my own nature as part of common strand where my compassionate act might support mutuality?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fearing the unknown Self

I remember years ago wondering what would happen to me, to my life, to the people around me, if I acted on the deepest impulses of my heart. I felt a yearning and the impossibility of giving it all up. I was presenting myself with a false choice at that point, that I would have to renounce all my ongoing connections and commitments in order to meet my heart's urge to be of service. This was a perversion of a romantic ideal of giving up everything to offer oneself to the greater good.

Meditation can feel like this too in the beginning. There is an idea that we must somehow give up our thoughts, our patterns of mind and habits in order to open this other mode that will be pure and somehow better. If that were the case no one could meditate. It is actually through quieting the reactive mind that we can see our mind work, find the patterns that support us and the ones that thwart us. Finding the self already operating and being curious about that is one of the richest parts of meditation or asana practice.

Meditation and yoga can offer an open hearted approach to oneself. These are not fundamentally problem solving strategies, not memory aids. There are possibilities for seeing personality in its ongoing negotiations. When we avoid a few minutes of putting the self at the center of our own attention we might be reflecting our fear- what will happen if what I experience changes the way I see myself? What if I am revealed as a fake? What if I can no longer rely on the patterns that have held me together?

Well, it's just like that idea that you have to leave everything behind in order to be true and good. Your experiences in yoga and meditation will add to the toolbox you can use to do what matters to you, and allow you to see the patterns that support you as well as the ones that subvert your energy.

You are not a fake. Even if you feel mixed feelings or conflicts, even if you don't always tell the truth or know what you actually feel, you are not fake. All this is the surface where winds stir the water with mud, or build up momentum with wave action. What is beneath all of that is basic goodness. Nothing fake about it. Experiences have taught you this and that, circumstances confront you and you respond, based on reactive patterns of mind and emotional histories. Doesn't it add more to life to see this, accept it, and go on with a greater awareness of your choices?

In meditation and yoga practice we have a chance to see this as a built structure. we can keep building, remodel, admire, and understand. We don't tear it all down, nor do we judge what we find. It is scary to imagine that we don't really know ourself, or that what we do know will turn out to be terrible. What happens is quite different than that. There is a basic strength in your good heart from which internal shame, fear or pain,  physical ineptitude or habits can be held with grace and possibly even good humor.

If one leg is shorter than the other, perhaps investigation can reveal how to stabilize the pelvis and spine given that truth. This is not "correcting" oneself but supporting and nurturing the self as it actually is. See what is so right now, and use that to offer freedom from struggle, increase possibility rather than define your limitations.

We can fear our self as an unknown, as the undiscovered fake, or a fragile construction ready to fall apart. The first most remarkable experiment in the practice is to stay with this moment, this one moment, and in that monent experience that you are intact with everything you need.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Experiments Fail, This Moment Never Does

Since January 2013 I've been vegan minus oils and wheat gluten. This has enlivened my creativity in the kitchen, since I love to eat and the possibilities with these ingredients seem endless. The hard part is trying to make something that I used to eat full of things I no longer eat. This seems to encapsulate so many of the problems we make for ourselves.

This may sound like a kitchen story but it is a yoga story. Everything I do is an experiment, if an experiment is an action within the context of the known and the unknown. In any given moment, all I have is what my mind tells me. Like walking in a maze, the more familiar  I can be with the false turns and the dead ends, the more quickly and smoothly I can adjust my path to keep the path opening up ahead. Otherwise I can spend half the day, or the whole day, stuck in a cul-de-sac of judgment and that feeling of unworthiness will color all else. Without willingness to see the truth, there will be no growth or improvement next time, no way to duplicate a success, or avoid the same cause of a disappointment.  The easiest way to do this is to know my own tendencies and understand the conditional nature of my own reactions.

This really came in to focus with my blueberry muffin project one morning, which led directly to a blueberry scone project to change things for the better, both of which failed to produce anything resembling a baked blueberry treat I would have made in the past. Not only did the project not satisfy that goal, but eating the results gave me a stomach ache. On top of that, it was the first time I put together a blog post for my eat2thrive blog and literally deleted it after posting it. The muffins, my breakfast, and the blog post were all failures. It was no surprise that this put a damper on my mood, yet that's just where the surprise came. I could see the mood happen and let it come, and then let it go, without taking it personally.

In a yoga practice there are times when what went fine yesterday does not go well today. Our mind sets us up with hopes and expectations, with fears and roadblocks. It helps when we see this and acknowledge it. It's not enough to say, "I don't know how it will come out." It is important to fully see that it is fine to try and not know, and that this not knowing might mean something delicious or something disappointing on the road to figuring out how to make something delicious. It is the steps and stages necessary in an experiment to see what results are produced by which actions. In this way the moment is always fulfilling its best potential. Engrossed in the choices, awaiting the outcome, tasting the results, and revising the plans, all of these are complete, each in their own moment. The cloud of disappointment may come and go as the first muffin is eaten. The choice to let the inner critic have a field day, that's another matter. To see how we twist that outcome into more than the sum of its parts, is to see how we subject ourselves to our own patterns of judgment and expectation.

That turned out to be the most rewarding result of the whole blueberry muffin project. This ability to observe the mind, the mood, the pattern, and the escape from the traps, gave me a lovely day even with a triple strike out to start.  I am already scheming on the next variations to try in the puzzle of an oil-less, egg-less, gluten-free blueberry muffin.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thoughts of Snakes & Heart Breaks

I've thought before about the way a broken heart feels as though it just isn't working properly anymore, as though the shell around the form has broken open and everything is tender and at risk. Oddly enough I began thinking about this in terms of growth rather than destruction or disrepair. This morning I had the deepest feeling about snakes and the way they literally lose their skins in order to allow for growth. They do not mourn the old skin, truly a sense of non-attachment! Nor do they worry about the size or shape of the new -- no grasping!  This happens several times in their lifespan, as it does, seemingly in our own human life span whether we see it that way or not.

It is amazing to see a snake swallow its nutrition in the form of whole animals. I think of the long slow sustaining absorption process that takes place along the enormous length of its digestive track.  Could it be helpful to think of ourselves in this way, that these huge inputs require a long slow digestive fire to take in the full meanings and sustain our growth? It seems we far too often think we ought to know in an instant, or learn over night, or get the message that first time. I know from my own teenage journals that I really did experience much that led to insights only to go on and repeat the lesson until I was able to actually absorb the insight.  What if we give ourselves the benefits of time without judgment, using  the kernels of understanding as they break free from the mass?

And then there's that wild way that snakes move, always with strength and grace, yet more often than not, resting quietly absorbing the heat of the day, or breathing slowly in the coolness of shade. They spend much more time just being than being busy. Wouldn't this help us too?

I'm not saying that we are snakes, or that snakes are we (at least I don't think that's what I'm saying), but I do think we suffer far too much heartache without associating that ache with the growth it so often makes possible. No matter what kind of day I'm having, if someone near me allows me to see they are struggling, I feel the ache. Years after a loss, or a painful scene, the heart can revisit its old shapes and replay the cracking of what felt like the safety of the shell.  We do this in our sleep through dreams, we do this in a split second when the air smells a certain way, or the light hits the edge of a leaf. You know what I'm talking about. Our hearts are very open to being broken, to feeling soft and exposed. Perhaps this belies a suppleness we have overlooked.

We go to a movie and weep for the characters. We hear a voice singing of heartache and ours responds. (I think of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah.") If we are not grasping at the past, are we yearning for the future?  Can we re-visit our snake ancestry and allow the cracking to open us to the self that is already there growing into who we already are?

I come back again and again to this kernel that broke clear:  I am not waiting for anything. I am already right here. If that is so, then nothing is broken and I have what I need to make of this moment all it can be. I can allow myself to let go of the cracking shards and truly break open.  Is this a frightening idea? It is so only if being more fully oneself is frightening. Isn't that where life expands? Filling in the new skin, growing into the new shape, and going on until the next cracks let the light in to see the soft, supple and unfettered heart?

Seeing Your Inner Gesture: Asking, Offering, Accepting

Reaching an arm outward is a physical action. If feelings are allowed to arise, they will. It is a trick of the mind to attach meaning to everything, meaning that triggers feelings, and feelings that in their responsive nature give us the next wave of action and reaction.

Just sitting in a chair and gently reaching a hand outward, extending your arm in front of you ... to the side ... above your head ... You can turn on the switch of being present with how you feel in the action. Are you holding a soft handful of air? Are you striving to extend back muscles and lengthen finger joints? What are you doing?

Each time you open your awareness to this, you will find something new. You, in this moment, and how you feel, can become more familiar and visible in your conscious view of yourself. That outstretched arm can introduce you to yourself. This is how the physical practice of yoga opens into a deeper understanding of the self, a path to acceptance of the range of feelings that are already there in you, a way to tolerate and release even painful emotions stored from past events, or to acknowledge and adapt in spite of fears of future events.

That elegant arm reaching out, the incredible hand extended... are you asking? are you offering? are you accepting?

If you drop your wrist and relax your fingers, your arm will still express your deeper feelings. You can release your hand to be the simple extension of this, allowing the unfolding from your heart. With the eyes of a warrior, soft, open, and ready for anything that might appear, let your yoga practice allow you to begin cultivating your view, your drishti, to accept what is already before you.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nowhere To Go But Here: Building the Mindfulness Muscle

Waiting for the light to change, I stand at a busy intersection. My eyes take in the moving vehicles, but not with any great detail. The wind blows and I notice my right eye waters as I see a person crossing the other street. My backpack is empty on my back and my grocery list is tucked in my wallet. I am on my way to get fresh vegetables and walk a little.  Where am I? Nowhere. My attention drifts to whatever caught it, my mind runs a disjoint movie without even bothering with subtitles. My body sends messages like, "wind on spot of neck by left ear" and "right eye running," provoking little habitual behaviors of scarf tucking and cheek wiping.   Is this the way I am to live my life?

Can I be fully present in the world without adding more stress and assignments, more to-do lists and self recriminations? Can I shift my way of operating out of automatic without wearing myself out? Can I cultivate awareness even in the middle of  the patterns and routines that naturally fill a good bit of my time? Can I be here without being swept away in mindless flow of reactivity?

Definitely. I may be nowhere, but I can still exist fully.  This includes finding that level equality in my hips, or allowing the weight to fall on the outer and inner heel more evenly. This may mean returning again and again to the sensation of my breath to remind me that I am exchanging energy with a much larger universe every second of my life. It involves building the muscles in my mind as well as enabling the body to find its balance. Emotional equilibrium can grow naturally out of accepting the ever present continuous support for being who we actually are, once we let go of judging and manipulating our ideas of who we are supposed to be, based on some fixed experience in the past or anxiety over some potential hypothetical outcome.

How much of my time I will spend in this suspended reactive condition is directly related to how much attention I give to cultivating my awareness.  It can so easily begin with noticing my breath as I wake up, even before I open my eyes, allowing the breath to shape the inner spaces of my rib cage, and sensing that this energy moves into my hips and legs, before I begin moving. I can savor the resistant texture of the strawberry as I cut it into bits that drop into my morning oatmeal.

What purpose is there in losing this moment and the next moment until I stumble on something and wake up to the fact that I've walked half a block without seeing anything or being anywhere? I'm not seeking a hyper-vigilance, or high intensity. Gradually, over time, this cultivating of awareness brings more and more of life into the normal routine, so that I can accommodate loss and exhilaration with the same foundation under me,  landmarks to orient me, and an attitude of acceptance and openness.

This is where the practice takes us when we commit to building the muscles of mindfulness. Just like in  a physical asana practice, the stronger we become, the deeper we can go -- holding an asana longer and allowing the strength and stretch, the energy movement to flow more openly and inner spaces to accommodate more freedom with less effort.  If we set the goal to get to a certain shape or heal a certain wounded place, we can work up to that and then get stuck all over again in judgment and mindlessness.  We have no choice but to deal with the moment. This one. There is nothing to wait for, nowhere to go but here. Getting here is the journey, being here is the deepest benefit.

It's fairly easy to feel the shaking of the soles of your feet as you struggle to resist falling out of balance and be filled with anxiety about falling, judging yourself, clenching the breath, tightening myriad muscles of neck, shoulder, and throat in fear. It is just as easy to feel that same shaking as finding your balance, liberating your breath, softening your shoulders, stacking your bones to more efficiently transfer weight and explore how to let go of judgment in order to lessen your load and feel weightless and free. Whether making the routine motions of daily life, crossing streets, making oatmeal, sitting at work, interacting with others, or sitting on a meditation cushion or shaking in a balancing pose on a yoga mat, you can gently encourage your mindfulness muscle, when you remember it. That's why the breath is so useful... it is always there to remind you that you are right here, already.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Teaching Yoga: Opening a Path for Everybody

There is a responsibility in teaching yoga that goes beyond my own practice. It all boils down to creating a space where seekers seek, athletes work out, the ill heal, the lost find company and a shape is given to that for all of them. People respond to different types of stimulation, are attracted to varying degrees of intensity, and definitely have vastly different amounts of time to give to a yoga practice. For some, it must fit into that one hour slot in a work day, or that open time on a weekend or evening, and for others everything shapes itself around practice. Some can commit to a weekly practice, others to daily and others barely commit, using yoga as an occasional activity. Some come looking for their physical limits, others bring their physically limited bodies in search of an ethereal self.

I've been to such a range of classes as a student that I cannot help but wonder about communicating the essentials, giving the raw ingredients that can be used in so many ways. Surely discipline and physical prowess were a part of the ancient practices when men of contortionist skill displayed their asana ability to spur a desire for the practice and a healthy dose of amazement at what that practice could make of a human body.  But there was reverence also for the aesthetes, who suffered in silent isolation in the mountains waiting for the divine insights, and the ecstatics who cried out for the beloved in all things. Through all these avenues, the ego was seen and the mind's grip loosened from the attachments that limit perception, allowing escape from the I-me-mine framework that ruins so much of life. Possibilities opened on all these paths, and the suffering of grasping and aversion could be understood and reduced.

It is no surprise that there are students who must be pushed to their physical limits in order to feel their deepest awareness of self judgment and attachment. I'm not sure that there is enough encouragement to cultivate that level of awareness in some of those classes where the body is used to create the endorphin high that takes one out on the trip of bliss in Savasana.  Certainly there are those who can use their bodies to build strength and skill, learn trust in the breath, and push their practice into the unknown through these challenging asana classes. There are also those whose seeking will not take their physical practice to that level, perhaps living in bodies that can improve in health and integration, but will not transform into that level of athleticism. The practice does not require an able body, nor even a brilliantly trained mind. The practice only demands willingness and at a certain point, commitment. Yoga is not a weight loss program nor a reversal of aging elixir. Yoga is not a cure-all, nor a religion. But my goodness yoga is definitely an opportunity to broaden perspectives and live a fuller life as the person you actually are, encouraging each person to more fully inhabit the body they have and develop the mind they brought with them.

So as a yoga teacher I feel it is my responsibility to offer from the heart of the principles as I have come to know them. My own practice being one of open inquiry, rather than a structured sequence of asana, within which the subtleties are explored, that is what I tend to teach. I started yoga in my late 40s, without an athlete's or dancer's training. My first experiences brought me to my knees (child's pose, actually) because of the insights that arose during those early practices, the profound support I felt for being myself that saturated the practice, and the absence of dictates that pushed me into corners from which I could not see or experience for myself. There was no authority other than my own intelligences: my mind, my heart, my sensations, the space between my inhale and my exhale.

In this way I think that the path remains open to everybody: those who must sweat it out with fast paced and demanding physical asana sequences, those for whom it is the ancient texts that beckon with pearls and stars of insight, those for whom the seeking of the quiet place on the cushion, the mat and in the mind are the glimmers of truth between the asana, and those for whom the sound of breath around them is the deepest comfort, having a place to go where someone will see them with compassionate care, and hold them equal to the task of being who they are.

The classes that I teach are not all things to all students. I've been subbing classes lately and I know that I am offering a practice, but that it is not the same tempo or temperament as those of the absent teacher. For the students, I believe this is a good thing. The experience of yoga comes in so many forms and running into a substitute teacher can offer a glimmer of that. It is also a beautiful mirror to use to see their own practice, get a sense of the expectations they may have brought with them, find a new view of their self judgment, and cultivate awareness in myriad parts of their life experience.  It is exactly the same opportunity for me, as the teacher. Seeing my offering in new ways, sensing my own constraints and expectations, observing the view of my teaching from a new perspective, and growing my own practice as their teacher.

The range of people I teach, from young athletes to centenarians, is my sharpest tool for keeping the path open for everybody. I see my task is just that, stretching my own mental structures, asana practices, and understandings in order to assist others to find the opening to their own path.