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.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Meditation: Hold the Railing in the Bottomless Pool

Right in the middle of dinner, a mood settles in, changing the textures of experience, tamping down on interactions and forming strange silences. There's a deep pool of possible feelings upon which to draw, yet like sipping through a straw, only one small part is sucked up, feeding the whole.  It wasn't like this just moments before, or perhaps yesterday was different. It feels as though a shift, like a tectonic plate, happened, and without knowing how it happened, or making up reasons why it happened, we feel as though standing in a place from which life looks different.  Right in the middle of life, someone we love  leaves us and we are lost in the bottomless pool.

It doesn't seem like a choice, since it is something we feel. Feelings surround us, like an immersion, and we cannot feel the bottom of the pool with our toes any more. Seems like either we drift with it, paddle in it, or drown in it. Is feeling really a matter of mind? a reaction to a condition? Does it help to know that the condition is impermanent, or is this feeling of the impermanence of everything like being in a bottomless pool, hopeless of finding our feet? Forever without the comfort of grounding? This is the wash of grief, the depth of loss, the fear of looking forward or letting go of what is past, unable to see the continuum of events as a constantly shifting mirage without feeling despair and agonizing incompleteness.

How do we live with equanimity if there is no bottom to the pool? Think of the shallow end of a swimming pool. There are stairs to give a gradual way into the water, where one can stay until more at ease with the depth and the shift from dry to wet. Even in the deepest end of the pool there are ladders for one to climb out, or to hold onto for a moment of rest. Understanding that the pool is bottomless does not mean giving up these supports, in fact it helps to see them as exactly that. There is little hope of understanding the sea simply from standing on the shore, we begin by wading in. We cannot know the deepest parts on our own, nor traverse the breadth of the sea as a fish might. Yet we can hold the concept of the mountain ridges beneath the surface, the universe of life and energy cycles playing out throughout. These are like the steps into the pool that we can use in approaching the ocean of our feelings and reactions, the seemingly boundary-less and overwhelming reactions we can have in a moment of loss, disappointment or fear.

Setting aside time from the viewing platform of meditation or a yoga practice can allow us to visualize the stairs, and the vastness of the bottomless pool, without reactivity. We can watch the whole scene play out without immersing ourselves in it. Notice the fear or grief arising, the avoidance or the urge to plunge beyond our depth. This moment of observation can be seen and even felt without being lost in it. We can learn to train our attention to hold the railing of the ladder while we let the mind follow the waves outward into the deep end. Let the breath itself be your railing.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Not Knowing What Matters: And It Doesn't

A state of mind can color everything it sees. The same is true for a yoga practice. When I study a particular sutra, or focus in on one of the eight limbs, let's say picking a Yama or Niyama, or work my way through time with a particular breathing practice, it changes so many other experiences. The value of doing this mindfully is just like any study, or evaluative process: it enables a deeper view that can reveal more than the superficial experience.

At the same time, my asana practice has its own trajectory that combines some unforeseeable physical imperative with whatever is in my mind. Even if I start out thinking that I am going to focus on a particular asana, as I did with triangle pose, Trkonasana, the practice takes me in and out of a folding and unfolding and turns out to be an insightful play of how the limbs support the spine. Oh sure, I did some Trkonasana too, and certainly found it integrated into this profound inquiry, but this was part of the unfolding line built on a foundation that revealed itself as I practiced. Perhaps the idea of Trkonasana was the spark that evoked the fire of this inquiry. The intention created the exploration and led into the unknown.  Perhaps if I had simply explored Trkonasana, I would have met all my foregone conclusions, confirming some settings that I had already put in place.

So here I am, looking at intention and the mind, watching experience and integration of meaning, and wondering why it would make any difference which comes first. Is this just another chicken and the egg question?

There is a formal quality to an inquiry premised on a particular aspect of mind. There is a deeply spiritual quality in an inquiry that is rooted in the unforeseen.  I make no pretense of knowing what matters here, and feel more and more strongly that it doesn't matter at all what anyone "thinks" is important.  It turns out to be just thinking after all.  The experience of being present, learning how to open awareness, accepting whatever is so, and letting go of the judging of every little thing only deepens.  But one moment it is the methodical and intellectual inquiry that draws us and another it is the movement of the beating heart that shifts the mind. Can I say definitively that it was my intention to investigate Trkonasana that provoked the inquiry that actually happened in my practice? I cannot, yet I also feel the sweet yoking of intention and inquiry, even if I have no way to substantiate it.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

No Contradiction: Routines, Patterns & Alertness

I remember the arguments with my kids about getting their homework done. It seemed so simple to me that if they would just routinize it, it would get done, leaving them free to do the other things they wanted to do. The more they resisted it, the longer it sat before them, denying them the possibility to move on.  Isn't it the same with all distraction, procrastination and anxiety? It blocks the way between what we think we have to get done, and what we'd rather be doing. In that case, I do think that creating a routine can help.  It is partly for this reason that many people support the idea of setting aside a specific time of day for a meditation practice, or signing up for a yoga class (or practicing at home) at the same time of day every week or every day.  Knowing that it is on the schedule, that a place has been made for it, can stream line the decision making. Make the decision once, and then just follow through again and again.

At the same time, one of the revelations of meditation and yogic practice is the awareness of patterns that we have formed and that guide our behaviors mostly without our knowing of them. Cultivating awareness allows us to run into them quite directly and by seeing them, we gain insight into ourselves, into the traps we set and the strengths we have.  Perhaps it is as simple as noticing that in a seated posture, we nearly always cross our right leg over the left. Simply seeing this can help us understand why our right inner hamstrings are so tight, or why we tend to pull our low back muscles on the left. Seeing this can help us remember to mindfully cross left over right, gradually undoing the habitual training of muscles and joints into a more symmetrical and supported condition.

All patterns do not require "undoing." Knowing that our digestive system works better on smaller amounts more frequently, or by starting the day with plain water before that cup of coffee or tea, can be very useful and can protect us from unnecessarily struggles. Knowing that we tend to blame external causes when we are late for something, or get anxious about things the night before, are patterns that can be addressed and in many cases assuaged just by acknowledging them as temporal behavior and not permanent. We may see that this doesn't help us deal with anything, and that other kinds of behavioral steps can be put in place to ease the way and change the pattern. A step can be as simple as setting a timer to get you off the computer in time to get your coat on and catch the train, rather than missing that train and arriving late. Routinize a few minutes of meditation (even 5- 10 minutes) in the evening before going to bed can begin to dissipate that night-before anxiety, allowing you to sleep better and see the next morning with more equanimity.

Everything is happening in this very moment. Nothing tomorrow is happening now, nor is anything from yesterday happening now. Sounds ridiculous, but our minds and our feelings can be quite attached to this way of thinking -- about what we thought happened or will/might happen. We can be consumed by our reactions to something that is not happening now, and literally wipe out all the possibilities in this moment. I'm not just talking about the mind drifting in the middle of a conversation when you stop hearing your companion and are startled back into the moment by their silent pause, waiting for your response to something you actually didn't hear.  I'm talking about right now -- not noticing the slump in your shoulders or the effort of your eyes as you read this. The actual condition of balance in your body, the sweetness of the light around you, appreciation of the speed with which your mind absorbs all this information and catalogs it, making meaning or discarding it.

Alertness can help you gain the power of mindfulness. You can cultivate awareness in this moment, and put routines in place that support you, for example using abdominal muscles to help stabilize your pelvis and support your low back when you sit at the computer, or committing to that 10-class card so you can just sign in and go to yoga every Monday morning to start your week. Awareness allows you to acknowledge the patterns that bind you to behaviors that cause distress, like turning out your right foot when you walk which slowly stresses your hip and knee over time, or speaking over someone who is speaking to you because you are anxious to be heard. Once you learn to be alert, you have options. Being present in this moment, you can use this moment, and establish routines and patterns that support you, rather than trap you.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Changes Moment to Moment, Practice & Life

coleus the day before freezing temperatures

Arms swinging softly from side to side as I strode down the street, I was thinking: "hips moving, shoulders moving, how lucky I am." I waited for the light to change, crossed the street, began up the next block and my feet went sliding on a sheet of black ice. My spine twisted one way and the other, my knees bent, and I straightened up to find myself standing solidly on the curb, one hand on a parked car. Wow. The other side of the street was bathed in sunlight, a dry, clear sidewalk waiting. I walked carefully across the street, taking stock of my formerly sprained ankle, scanning interior spaces for pinches, pulls or any other signs of distress.  All in one moment, an injury can change a busy life of teaching yoga into a deep practice in acceptance and letting go.  I had been grateful just a moment ago for the fluidity in my joints, the sweet synchronization of breath and body movements. A moment later, any part of me could have been significantly damaged.

I arrived 20 minutes later to teach a student who had herself had a near miss just before our session. She had been talking with a friend, crossing a street, turned and in a split second was actually hit by a cyclist. Being a cyclist herself, she was utterly astonished that she hadn't seen that coming, nor could the cyclist have predicted her hesitation and uncertainty mid-stream in crossing the street. Again, neither person was injured, though both were rattled by the turbulence in the steady pace of the day.

How many times do we take for granted the moment we are currently experiencing? I would guess most of the time. It doesn't have to be the small stuff, sometimes it is the enormity of life and death that shifts in a moment. From going off to work and handling the myriad aspects of daily family life, to signing one's life partner up for hospice after imagining that the endless uphill struggle would result in a view at the top of that hill, and a vista of an endless life of the quotidien. How on earth can we prepare for this roller coaster drama in which we all live?

In the practice of yoga or sitting for a moment to watch our mind in action in meditation, we can strengthen the muscle of mindfulness, becoming more aware of our way of operating, and more at ease with who we are. That strength of self knowledge helps focus our attention in that slippery moment, when the heart sinks below the horizon and the mind cannot close in around the ramifications.  Watching the moment, just as one watches the mind in meditation or observes the distribution of the breath in an asana, there is a real possibility to remain present, ready to accept and adapt to what is happening.  This is a baseline of practice, standing in a warrior pose (Virabhadrasana I, II or III), or twisted in a revolved triangle pose, or meeting the gaze of a grieving friend, we practice to bring the self fully present in that moment,  not fuzzy, nor lost in projection. It enables us to hold steady,  not confusing presence for control, or judgment for reality.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Making the offering, Being the offering

I've been enjoying poems from Gregory Orr's 2009 collection, "How Beautiful the Beloved." There is simplicity and deep resonance of losing oneself in the grace of love at the same time yearning to hold what will inevitably be lost. Everything is impermanent.

"All those years
I had only to say

    But I couldn't.

Finally, I said Maybe,
But even then 
I was filled with dread.

I wanted to step carefully.
I didn't want to leap.

What if the beloved
Didn't catch me?
What if the world
Disappeared beneath my feet?"

As a teenager I was put in the position of making the family meals, and I've held that role fairly continuously throughout my adult life. I don't remember thinking of food as a token of love, and in those early years it was a heavy load on top of my schoolwork, my awakening political awareness and the swirl of emotional troubles between my parents. As a wife and mother I came to feel the job of feeding as a deeply nurturing one.

"So many were given only
A dream of love,
So many given a glimpse,
And that from such a distance.

Who am I to be ungrateful
Who saw the beloved

One month ago my husband and I essentially became vegan, eating no meat, no dairy, no processed grains, sweeteners with the addition of eschewing all cooked and most uncooked oil. (For more on this, see my related blog

"Surrender everything. Give up
All that's precious --
That way you won't be tempted
To bicker with yourself
Over scraps you still control.

Besides, who knows the depth
Of her pity? Who knows
How far down
He can reach with his love?"

Food has become transformed into a vast array of beautiful blessings. Each fruit, vegetable, bag of grain, bowl of soup, pot with simmering leeks, plate with the stain of beets, crunch of jicama and scent of lime or garlic brings such gratitude and pleasure.

We spend way too much time imagining ourselves to be lacking something, avoiding something. This pretending to be incomplete and unworthy stands directly in the way of living our fullest life in this moment as we actually are.

Again from Greg Orr:
"How beautiful
The beloved.

Whether garbed
In mortal tatters,
Or in her dress
Of everlastingness --

Moon broken
On the water,
Or moon
Still whole
In the night sky."