Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Saying Yes

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
~ E.E. cummings
This simple and beautiful poem speaks to me so strongly because in the Tantric tradition we are taught to say yes to life - which means accepting the full spectrum of experience, of emotion, every seeming challenge and apparent failure. But why? Why should we "choose to be unhappy" as one friend asked me when we discussed this topic. 
This past week was particularly intense for me.  We lost my beloved cat of 15 years, my new niece-to-be was due to be born, Arjun's aunt from India who we see very rarely was here to visit, as well as my sister and her family who we also only see every 4 – 5 years.  It felt like I was on an emotional roller coaster, from deep grief and mourning for Desi, to excitement over the new baby's impending arrival, to the overwhelm of entertaining lots of house guests, to the joy of being with family and the sorrow of saying goodbye to those we don't see very often. 


Ananda is an often-used Sanskrit word in yoga. It is usually translated as bliss, but scholar Christopher Wallace in his essential text Tantra Illuminated reveals a deeper meaning of this word: “We must be careful to distinguish Bliss (ananda) from ordinary happiness or pleasurable feeling (sukha).  Ordinary happiness arises only when our needs are met, only when the circumstances are just so; otherwise we experience it's opposite, dissatisfaction or misery (dukha).  By contrast, ananda designates a way of experiencing and loving reality that is completely independent of circumstance. Therefore, it is difficult to translate into English - but we get close if we describe it as a state of contentment, acceptance, and quiet yet sublime joy: the peace that passeth all understanding.   This state, which is far more fulfilling than ordinary happiness, can exist in any circumstance.  For example, you could be feeling intense grief or pain and still experience ananda. We begin to tap into our Power of Bliss when we simply become fully aware of what we are feeling in this moment and accept it totally, resisting no part of it.  The more we practice this loving self-awareness, the more complete is the experience of ananda that arises through it.”
This understanding of ananda has helped me tremendously in trying times.  Times when I've wanted to escape the discomfort or intensity of a feeling by drowning my feelings in a glass of wine or a mindless TV show. There is nothing inherently wrong about either of these things, but when they are used as a distraction or to avoid a real experience that is happening they can cause a disconnect. 
One of the main goals of Anusara Yoga practice (and other schools of yoga based in Tantra) is to realize you are part of something bigger than yourself - to "align with the divine" as we used to say (and maybe still should...I think I still have that t-shirt from back in the day somewhere!). When we realize that the goal of yoga is not necessarily feeling "good", but deep connection with all aspects of the One (which includes all feelings, not just the “good” ones), we can stop beating ourselves up and feeling like we've failed at yoga during those trying times that don't feel particularly "happy", and to enjoy guilt-free those times where we are truly blissed-out.
Recognizing the Power of Bliss in your life gives the opportunity for you to experience that feeling of connection. Understanding that ananda is the feeling that arises when we allow ourselves to sink deeply into each moment, when we say yes to every feeling, challenge, and emotion and instead of seeing it as a failure of our human mind, seeing it as a portal that might lead us to divine awareness. This understanding has helped me to lean in to whatever is occurring in the present moment, to (try) not to avoid any emotion that arises and just be with what is, remembering that all there really is is Grace.
Off the Mat: (Inspired by Christopher Wallace) Be aware of all the moments that you feel “blissful”.  Notice that this feeling occurs whenever you give yourself over fully to the moment, when you’ve allowed yourself to be truly present and aware.  Now try to bring that level of awareness to all your experiences, even the challenging ones.

On the Mat: In my classes this week we worked towards Eka Pada Urdvha Dhanurasana, pressing our thighs back into full awareness of divine consciousness as we opened up in this deep backbend. 

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Breathe in and fill up with whatever is present for you right now.
Set your (foundation) to reflect yes.
Say yes to whatever is arising for you in this moment .
Muscular Energy: Stand strong in your Power of Bliss
Inner Spiral/Thigh Loop: Widen sitbones and widen your perspective to see all experience as an opportunity to say yes.
Press thighs back into full awareness of your every divine emotion.
Root the top of your thighbones down and ground yourself in ­ananda.
Outer Spiral: Sink your tailbone into ananda/connection
Organic Energy: With your whole pose say “Yes!”
Say “thank you God for this amazing day” by spreading your ananda from the heart out in all directions.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Finding the Still Point

 Hold the silence like
A mother holds her child.
Hold your ground while
All around you structures
Crumble into nothing.
Focus on the still point
In your center until you
Are filled with light, until
Spirit speaks to you in
Words you understand,
Until the love in your
Heart grows so strong
It must be shared.
- Danna Faulds

I found this poem so fitting to the current events in the world.  It is such a constant challenge for me to stay centered when life is so busy, when I feel bombarded with craziness in the media, hate in the world.  And yet the only way to combat that hate is to seek and find love at the center of my being, and then send it out in every way I can.  I have recommitted to sitting for meditation in the last few months and my practice has been largely focused on my connection with the in-dwelling presence of the Divine, and how that connection can help to facilitate kinder, gentler and more uplifting relationships with my loved ones.  Taking the time to connect to this inner presence, which is calming, peaceful and yes, loving, has been invaluable and has subtly shifted my everyday interactions in sweetly positive ways.

Last week a video kept popping up on my newsfeed of the Prime Minister of Israel speaking out against the killing of a 13-year-old girl in her bed by a terrorist. He said the way to fight back is to go into your children's bedrooms that night, hug them and kiss them and teach them acceptance, tolerance and love. I know he said other things too, but I was so proud of him for speaking out in that way. Yes, the path to peace is through love and it starts with connecting to a feeling of love in your own heart.  You have to stay connected to it all the have to feel it in all situations.  Love is a transcendent principle - it is the response to love and the response to hate.  The only response.  Moralizing, fighting, preaching doesn't work. Only love.  

This week was July 4th, when we collectively celebrated our independence and freedom.  Let's express our appreciation for that freedom by choosing to consciously spread love into the world. By sending our blessings to all those in the world who fight for freedom by teaching their children tolerance and acceptance, by choosing to see unity rather than diversity in each and every being, and with protective weapons when all else fails in the face of nihilism.  Let us celebrate by putting love 5 feet in front of us, behind us, and to all sides in all situations. 

Coming to the mat it is the opportunity to connect to that feeling of love inside yourself, to let it overcome reactionary, revengeful emotions so that our actions reflect our connection to our Divine essence.  To focus on the still point in your center until you are filled with light, and then share it with the world.  To sit and quiet for long enough that Spirit speaks to you in a way you can understand. 

Off the Mat:  Let love be your response in every situation.  Send love to all around you, as often as you can, in all possible ways.  For example, before responding to a request, sending an email, reacting to a post, initiating an interaction or conversation, visualize the person you are interacting with surrounded by light.  Conjure up love in your heart by bringing your awareness to that which makes you feel love, then let go of the stimulus and just feel the feeling.  Then proceed accordingly.  I promise, if you authentically take 30 seconds to do this it will shift your every communication.

On the Mat: In my classes this week we practiced back bending poses, the ultimate heart openers, culminating in Urdhva Dhanurasana and its variations.  Just like we need to have strong boundaries when interacting with those that challenge us, we need a strong boundary in the lumbar area of the body so the backbend can move into the upper back, facilitating a deeper and sounder opening, enabling us to offer our hearts as safely as possible.  So we worked on resisting the ribs and belly back (Kidney Loop) drawing back into our calm, steady center as we opened up our hearts (Shoulder Loop).   Practice meditation daily, even just a few minutes, where you focus on the still point at the top of the breath and the bottom of the breath, and let that stillness guide you a place where you can hold your ground.

Open to Grace: Fill up with breath and a silent presence of love that lives inside you.
Fill up with breath fill up with light until it spills over.
Ground (foundation of pose) and ground yourself in tolerance, acceptance and love.

Muscular Energy: Firm the muscles and create the boundary that allows you to offer love safely.
Draw your muscles and your awareness to the still point at your center.

Kidney Loop/Shoulder Loop: Hold your ground, ribs/belly resisting back so the love in your heart can be shared without injury, so we can offer our hearts more fully.
Hold your ground, steady in a still point inside so love can burst free from the heart without reservation.

Organic Energy: Share the huge love you hold inside yourself.
Let the outer pose reflect the fullness of the love in your heart.
From the safety of this space, offer your love freely and openly, even (especially) to those who hate.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lessons from my GPS

A couple of weeks ago I was driving somewhere I'd never been and I was following my GPS app which took me on a seemingly random detour.  A friend who was in the car with me kept saying "Are you sure you want to go that way?" And I kept insisting that Waze must know a shortcut, or that there was traffic ahead.  I was wrong. It was totally unnecessary. 

When GPS devices first came out there were all sorts of stories about people turning onto railroad tracks, into lakes, the wrong way down one way streets, blindly following the directions and letting go of common sense and reason.  I was always so critical of those folks, and yet here I was.  And then realized that only two weeks before that, on the same exact road on the way to a soccer game I had followed exactly the same useless detour, blindly following!  Well you know the saying: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

My blind following of my GPS was the reminder that we need to be attuned to an inner compass.  We are inundated with outside voices – advice from family, friends, doctors, teachers, media, etc., and in some of that outside listening we lose our connection to our own personal guidance system.   So how do we create an internal GPS? By listening to our hearts, tuning into a malleable inner awareness, one that keeps the destination in mind, but is willing to shift and adjust to get where it wants to go. By taking the time to be quiet, still, bored, and open to what the Universe might have to say. When we do that (for example, in yoga practice) we can begin to sketch out the map of our heart. 

It finally feels like summer is upon us.  The change of season is a great time to look at goals, reevaluate your map (the spiritual path is simply a map to a higher consciousness). Turn off the GPS awareness of outer listening, and get in touch with your own true purpose. So take this opportunity to begin to sketch out your map: it should have a point A (where you are now) and a point B (where you want to go).  What it doesn’t need are all the things that might possibly stand in your path and delay you or prevent you from getting there – leave those out of the picture!  As you envision your map, reflect on how it serves yourself and your needs, and how it intersects with the paths of those around you and helps them to get where they are going as well.

I actually have a lot of respect for my GPS (even though I am clearly too dependent on it).  It reminds me that there is not just one path to get us where we need to go – we can choose to take highways or avoid them, to take the shortest route or the most scenic.  And the answers to those questions really depend on what your personal trajectory looks like right now – there’s no right or wrong way, there is simply this question: ”what is my goal and what will get me there?”   My favorite feature is “recalculating” – made a wrong turn:  “recalculating”, hit some construction: “recalculating”, someone else’s car is blocking the road: “recalculating” – it doesn’t get upset, doesn’t get frustrated that something is in the way – it just knows where it needs to go, and figures out how to adjust to get there.  The destination is always there, the route can meander. 

I saw the movie Finding Dory this past weekend, and the story is she is trying to find her family that she lost years ago. Her motto is "just keep swimming". That's spiritual practice: Listen deeply. Draw out your map. Just keep swimming. Practice recalculating.  Have faith. Enjoy the journey.
Off the mat:  Keep your destination in mind, but turn off your GPS machine or app (remembering that sometimes we find the best adventures when we are “lost”).  Attune instead to an inner voice, one that you have to get really quiet to hear, but one that will guide you to where you need to be (which is not necessarily where you thought you wanted to be, and might not get you there as fast as you wanted to go).  Be adventurous, but use common sense.  Take a different route than you are used to. 

On the Mat: Take time at the start of practice to really quiet yourself.  To rid yourself of external distractions so you can be attuned to your inner guidance system.  In my classes this week we worked on arm balances, which require the balance of effort (working really hard, doing the prep, dedication to the practice) and surrender (letting go, releasing fear), of steadfastness (keeping the destination always in the forefront) and faith (which lets us meander on the path and find a different way of getting where we want to go).

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace: Open up to an inner voice of wisdom.
Open up to the wisdom of the Universe
Ground (foundation) and ground yourself in your own personal map.

Muscular Energy: dedication/steadfastness
Drawing into FP to connect to inner voice/compass/map
Draw from fingers, toes up arms legs into heart, all awareness settling there in the inner compass.
Pull (from fingers up arms to HFP for arm balances) into the power of your heart map.
Draw into HFP (for arm balances) and pull all your energy and awareness into your inner compass.
Engage muscles with total confidence in your path.

Inner Spiral: Widen sitbones and open up to recalculating to get where you want to go.

Outer Spiral: Sink tailbone into faith in your inner GPS

Organic Energy: faith
Radiate confidence in your chosen path.
Fill your pose with faith in your inner compass.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sages and Shoemakers

Astavakra was aware that he was a philosopher and a scholar from almost the moment of his conception.  When his mother was pregnant with him, he would listen to his father chant the Vedas, and he noticed that his father often misquoted the sacred text.  One day he could stand it no longer and from his mother's womb he called out to his father correcting a mistake.  His father became enraged and cursed him in the womb, causing his body to bend in 8 places, and Astavakra is hence born with a disfigured body (asta­ means “eight”, vakra means “bent” in Sanskrit).  When he was grown, still considering himself a scholar, he decided to go to the court of King Janaka to learn from the famed Vedic scholars who were rumored to study in his assembly.  Because of his disability it took him many days walking with a cane to get there.  When he arrived, he was greeted with laughter at his deformed body. At some point the King observes that the sage appeared to be laughing harder than anyone else – he approaches Astavakra to ask why and realizes that he is actually crying not laughing.  The king asks why he is crying and he replies that he is utterly disappointed.  He tells the King "I came in search of scholars and philosophers of great wisdom and found only shoemakers."  Janaka, offended, asks "Why do you think there are only shoemakers?"  Astavakra replies “because these men only see skin, not the atma (soul).  They only see the surface and base their evaluations only on the outer appearance. Coming here has been a waste of time.”  Recognizing the truth of his sentiments, King Janaka bowed down to Astavakra and became his loyal student in the science of the soul for many years following.

This story begs the question of each of us as to how much we identify with the outer form of our bodies.  The body is the temple of the soul and should be respected and treated with reverence and care, yet we are so much more than just our physical appearance.  Yoga is a tricky spiritual practice – the reason it is so transformative and powerful is that it incorporates the physical with the deeper levels of who we are as humans – the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects that make up the soul.  Yet because there is a physical practice involved we can get caught up in just the flesh and forget the spiritual piece that is the true goal of the practice – to unite us with our transcendental soul and the source of all creation. The upsurge in "yoga porn" on social media has in some ways exacerbated this problem.  It's so hard to draw the line of where inspiration crosses over to gratuitous self-indulgence or self-promotion.  The line of where sharing a pose or a practice you love with those around you simply because you love it (there is value in that - much like a musician performs a song) shifts from spiritual practice to bowing down to the goddess of youth, beauty and flexibility.  I have struggled with this question for years - I don't know exactly where that line is.  I try to only post photos that exemplify a teaching I want to share.  But if I'm being totally honest, some of those posts are entirely dependent on how I feel about the way I look in a pose and what the scale read that week.  Sigh.

What this story really says to me is that each time we put a label on someone or something we limit it and our own understanding of the true nature of whatever it might be. We fail to see the soul, the spirit, and the unique light of an individual. My 8-year-old son was diagnosed this year with ADHD and although it was not at all news to me, I still cringed that he would be put in the box that a diagnosis can build around and inside a person.  To my amazement, the opposite happened - instead of it limiting him, it opened countless doors and he has flourished under the guidance and care of amazing teachers.  (For more of Kiran's story, see this video.)  I am choosing to see his “diagnosis” as just another way of understanding my child, to meet him where he is and move him forward with the hand he has been dealt.  There is nothing “positive” or “negative” in it, it just is.  I think if we can see all our attributes this way, not allow them to box us in but rather to open new pathways of learning and experience, we break through that skin barrier and move closer to the ever-present light of being within ourselves. 

When Astavakra walked into that room, the scholars immediately put him in the “disabled” box – it is simply human nature to label and categorize because on some level it makes life easier, helps us deal with our own insecurities and discomfort around what is different than we are. We all do it. And it is possible, like my son's teachers did this year, to choose to use that label to help see deeper to the true nature of a person. In the non-dual tradition, we understand that all life flows from the same source, whether we view it on the outside as “beautiful” or “ugly” or “misshapen” or “broken” or any other label we can put on it.
Yoga practice is ultimately the practice of uncovering our true nature, hidden beneath the surface of our flesh and skin and bone.  What we do with our bodies does influence the inner experience and can be part of the bigger whole of who and what we are, but it’s not the whole picture.  What we do on the mat should be in service of a deeper connection to our Source .  When we make that connection within ourselves, we see beyond the costume of the skin to the true essence of each and every being.  How we see and experience the world is always a matter of perspective.  I like to think of it as a beautiful tapestry – looked at from the back it’s a muddled mess of strings, from the front a stunning picture. It’s the same tapestry, but which side are you looking at?

Off the Mat:
From your barista at Starbucks to your babysitter, your spouse, your child, your mailman, your tollbooth operator, try to see the beautiful picture rather than the mess of strings first, regardless of even how someone might be behaving.  Recognize the divine light present in every being you come in contact with, see beyond outer appearance, behavior, attitude to the inner soul.  In every interaction remember that we all flow from the same source. 

On the Mat:
Practice with eyes closed as much as possible.  Have the inner experience of the pose more than the outer.  Let the poses evolve from the inside out.
In my advanced classes we worked of course towards astavakrasana, a tricky arm balancing pose in honor of Astavakra and his 8 bent places. In beginner classes we worked towards astangpranam or knees-chest-chin pose. To prep for the arm balance, work on opening the hamstrings, upper body strength as in caturanga dandasana, and some core cultivation to help lift you up.  Above all, don’t judge the pose by what it looks like!  If it doesn’t seem possible to you right now, work all the prep poses and (if you want to) eventually you will get there.  Take yourself out of the “I’m too old, weak, big, small, inexperienced, scared, (fill in the blank)…” box and see what opens up for you.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace: Soften to the broken places inside yourself, the places that feel bent or even disabled.
Inhale and feel the inner body, the soul, fill the outer form of your body.
Claw your fingers to the mat, grounding in all your bent and twisted places.

Muscular Energy/Shins In: Embrace your bent and broken places.
Hug from the outer skin to the inner soul.
Feel the muscles tone beneath the skin, connecting to a deeper layer of your bein.
(In prep for astavakrasana) Hug knee to shoulder embracing all your twisted, kinked parts.
Hug elbows to midline (in caturanga & arm balances) celebrating the bent places that move you deeper into your pose and yourself.

Shoulder Loop: Move the HABB and open your heart to your crooked places. 

Organic Energy: Shine the light of your soul beyond the physical form of the pose.
Be radiant in your bent places.
Fill your physical form with the radiant light of your soul.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Kurmavatara - Lessons from a Tortoise

A Cliff Notes version of the story from the Mahabharata that explains Vishnu's appearance in his tortoise-like form as Kurmavatara, inspiring the yoga pose kurmasana:  During a war against the Asuras (demon-gods), many of the Devas (Demi-gods) perished.  As a result, the Devas sought out Vishnu's help in producing amrita (the nectar of immortality) by churning the cosmic ocean.  The Devas decide to use Mount Mandara in the center of the ocean as the churning rod and Vasuki, the king of the serpents on whom Vishnu rides, as the churning rope.  The giant snake wraps himself around the mountain and the Asuras hold the head and the Devas hold the tail and they pull back and forth.  As they begin to churn the mountain begins to sink into the ocean.  As always when things go awry Vishnu manifests into the world, this time in his tortoise form as Kurmavatar.  He climbs under the mountain and holds it up so the churning can continue. This process churns up a number of things from the depths - one was the lethal poison known as halahala, which Shiva swallows to save humanity from certain death and forever turns his throat blue.  The goddess Lakshmi also arises from the divine stirring, as well as jewels, nymphs, and a divine cow.  Eventually amrita is produced, and the Devas drink to immortality.  

A beautiful depiction of the Churning of the Milk Ocean at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bankok
Vishnu represents the sustaining force of the Universe, which is why he is the one to show up when life starts to fall apart, and there are many yogic practices associated with his mythical tortoise-form. The hard outer shell represents our practice-born ability to stand strong beneath the churning of life, to support the often-turbulent processes that we have to weather in search of a long and meaningful existence. It represents the strength and stability we need to stay steadfast on our spiritual path. 

Kurmavatar also epitomizes the fifth step on Patanjali's ashtanga (eight-limbed) path: pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.  Just as a turtle draws its head and limbs into its shell for safety and protection, we yogis develop the ability to draw into ourselves to protect our emotional and mental well-being.  In a world increasingly filled with sensory overload, being able to bring awareness inwards to a subtler, quieter, more refined state of being is essential to living with authenticity. I know for me, the more I allow myself to be bombarded with epithets, slogans, memes and hashtags, the more drawn out of myself I become.  I get sucked in by the pretty noise and lose my center, meaning the decisions I make are less a reflection of who I actually am than the person I’m being told I should be. 

Pratyahara gives us the ability to draw our senses away from outer distractions so we can begin to tap into what Sally Kempton calls “the meditation bandwidth” without interference. As we draw our senses inwards, like a tortoise retreating into its shell, we can access the more subtle layers of our awareness, and come closer to our divine essence.  Although is traditionally practiced as a beginning or lead in to meditation practice, it is related to mindfulness practice and helpful in many situations in our daily lives. For example, if we are watching TV or reading a book or surfing our phones when we are eating a meal we are not tuned in to our bellies and when they are actually full.  See any one of the numerous studies that have shown that people who eat in front of the television overeat and make less healthy food choices.  In relationships, if we can be aware of our inner voice we can respond in the present situation from a place of connection and calm. In asana practice, if we are tuned inwards to our own physical and energy bodies we can feel the subtle movements and alignments that will bring us deeper into our poses - the ones we miss when our minds wander off to how lovely a fellow practitioners pose looks, or the adorable baby geese walking by the windows.

The most obvious attribute of the tortoise that can inform our yoga
practice is to simply slow down.  Spiritual practice, meaningful living, learning and growing take time and practice.  The tortoise way is represented by our continual dedication to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, sometimes staring at the backs of the ones who we feel have pulled ahead of us, seemingly absent of the glory of the leader of the race, and yet the only way to get there.
Off the Mat:
Take time this week to practice drawing inwards.  Some ways to do this: designate a time each day where you can spend 5 minutes with your eyes closed, allowing the breath to draw you inside.  Really, just start with 5 minutes!  If it is working for you, gradually extend the time each week and let a meditation practice begin to flourish.  Or try eating a meal with minimal distractions - no radio, TV, newspaper, phone - and chew each bite 20 - 30 times.  

On the Mat:
Practice forward bending postures which allow us to turn inwards more easily. Do some good hamstring lengthening (like Adho Mukha Svanasana, supta Padangusthasana, and ardhahanumanasana or ardha gomukhasana) as well as shoulder openers (garudasana arms work particularly well) working on creating a long spine before a gentle turtle-shell curve in kurmasana.  If full kurmasana is too deep, upavista konasana or paschimottanasana sitting on a blanket with a strap are good alternatives.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Fill the inner body with life sustaining breath.
Breathe in and fill yourself with all that supports and holds you steady in practice and in life.

Muscular Energy: Draw from skin –muscle-bone and draw awareness from surface distractions to inner peace and tranquility.
Hug legs to the midline, into a still, calm, quiet place inside.

Organic Energy: Lengthen the spine by expanding away from the focal point, then create a gentle curve.
(In seated forward bends) Root from the PFP down to the earth, and rise up through the spine expanding your inner quiet state through the whole pose.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Waxing and Waning

For the next several months at Shree, we will be focusing one particular pose each week. We are using the book Myths of the Asanas, which is a sweet and lovely read if you are ever interested in how many of the yoga poses we practice regularly came to be and the stories they draw from.  This week we are practicing or working towards Ardha Chandrasana, or Half-Moon Pose. There is a story in Hindu Mythology about the phases of the moon came to be.  As usual, there are numerous variations of this story, but the basic gist is that Ganesha (the elephant-headed deity) was returning from a great feast at a palace where he overindulged his sweet tooth and was feeling quite full as he teetered atop the mouse he rides upon (kind of like me at Mother’s Day brunch on Sunday…). In the moonlight a snake slithered onto the path and startled the mouse, knocking Ganesh off his mount.  When he fell, the impact caused his belly to split open and all the sweets to spill out (“Like a piñata!” as one of my students said).  Dismayed that he lost his delicious meal, he crawled around picking up the delicacies and stuffing them back into his belly, tying the snake around his middle like a belt to keep them all inside for good.

The moon, known also as Chandra, watched this scene unfold beneath him to great amusement and was laughing quite raucously. Ganesha, like most people, did not like to be made fun of, so he cursed Chandra that his light would never shine again. The moon immediately realized how much he had hurt the sweet and normally quite jolly deity and became very contrite and apologetic, begging Ganesha’s forgiveness.  Ganesha of course accepts his forgiveness, but tells Chandra that unfortunately he is not able to rescind the curse.  The moon is distraught – his beautiful, auspicious light would never shine again!   Ganesha realizes that although he can't abolish the curse, he can modify his harsh judgment: for the first half of the month the moon’s light will get smaller and smaller until there is only one day with no light, then gradually get bigger and brighter for the second half of the month until he is returned to his full glory. Chandra is placated and slips easily into his new rhythm of life, and Ganesha goes home, happily full again.

Often in yoga we draw on the wisdom of nature to guide us, and the phases of the moon give us insight into the human condition.  The moon is the moon: a giant hunk of rock circling the Earth.  It doesn't change, it is always there, and no matter where we are on Earth, we see the same moon.  But our experience of it is different - sometimes we see it at night, sometimes during the day, sometimes huge and full and sometimes not at all. One of my favorite Sanskrit sayings is "Ya drishti sa srishti”, which means “As your vision is, so is creation.” or in other words "The world is as you see it.”    

Our “reality” is as we see it – just as our experience of the moon changes based on the position of the Earth and the Sun, our experience of the hidden beauty of the universe shifts and changes based on the circumstances of our lives. Some days are half moon days, some days are full moon days – some days we remember clearly our wholeness and freedom, and some days we can only access a sliver of it, or none at all.  As the moon phases remind us, although the light is smaller as the moon waxes and wanes, it is no less brilliant.  The moon reflects its radiant light no matter how big or small it appears in the sky, and even on a new moon day when we can’t see it at all, we can always remember that it is there and hopefully that is enough to get us through until the next phase.  And just as the moon is tethered to the Earth through the pull of gravity, our practice can help tether us to what keeps us in orbit in our own lives – the “giant hunk of rock” that is the core and truth of our true nature: radiant, illuminative grace.

Tantric philosophy tells us that the sun and moon, light and dark, are simply opposite sides of the same coin. Just as we can’t have an inhale without an exhale, they are inextricably linked and one is not “better” than another, they just “are" (like the sun and the moon).  Our yoga practice helps us to find as much joy in the shadows, the lunar side, as we do in the bright solar places in our lives.   No matter what cycle of life we find ourselves in, yoga helps us to connect to fullness and shine as bright as we can whatever phase we find ourselves in.  We always have the choice to be as radiant and full as the moment allows for. 

Off the Mat:  
Make it a point this week to notice the moon.  Observe its subtly shifting and changing form.  Each time you see it, remind yourself that it is the same moon, only your limited experience of it has changed.  

On the Mat:
Warm up with a Chandra Namaskar  or Moon Salutation - there many variations found online and work towards Ardha Chandrasana in your practice this week.  If this is a pose you have already mastered, try a more challenging caritation such as Ardha Chandra Chapasana, Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana, or Baddha Ardha Chandrasana.  The moon represents cool, quiet, calm energy, so even if you are doing a vigorous practice work to invite lunar qualities to all you do.  Finish with Chandra Bhedana pranayama to seal your practice.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace: Open to your breath and open whatever phase of your life you find yourself in with acceptance.

Muscular Energy: Drawing in (to FP) and connecting to that which is ever present and constant and holds you steady as a rock.
Draw muscles to bones like the moon is drawn to the Earth.
Standing strong and firm in whatever chapter of your story you are living today.
Like the pull of the moon on the oceans, draw into that which is heavy and strong in your life.

Organic Energy: Shine brightly in whatever phase of existence you are in.
Root (from FP to floor) and ground yourself in your true nature of freedom and joy.
Shine and radiate luminescent lunar light from the core of your being.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Beautiful Simplicity of Beginner's Mind

The blog is back!   As many of you know, I have taken the last month off teaching to recover from abdominal surgery.  I have been joking around that it feels like my 4th pregnancy because the recovery has been so similar, and (fortunately) because the only other times I have been limited physically were during my pregnancies.  As with after each of my pregnancies, physically it feels like a starting over.  My body was very different, as it will be now again, and the break from my intense regimen of running, yoga asana practice, climbing, boot camp, etc. that I usually put my body through on a regular basis has been jarring to my system.  It feels like starting from scratch and it is the best reminder of why to keep up a consistent practice – it is so hard to start over again!

But, as in everything we face, there are blessings to be had.  As before, the gift here is the fresh perspective that comes from a stepping back from routine.  The Zen Buddhist tradition calls this Shoshin, meaning "Beginner's Mind".  The curiosity, openness, and eagerness which is akin to a child’s viewpoint.  When my husband joined his company a few years ago the owners of the company told him they would be asking his opinion about virtually everything during the first year because although he had a lot to learn about the company, he had the unique perspective of fresh eyes.  New job perspective, new relationship perspective – these are all variations of Beginner’s Mind. 

When we are in the womb we are the closest we ever are, while alive and embodied, to our Source.  From the Non-dual Tantric perspective, everything in the Universe, material and beyond, flows from one absolute Source, and that Source is benevolent and graceful.  Our earliest experiences in our human form affirm all we know about the Universe, that we are loved, nurtured, cared for by an infinite and unconditional love, and we see the world from this viewpoint – oneness.  As our mothers wean us, we learn to crawl and walk, sleep and even go to the bathroom on our own, we begin to start separating and our experience follows, and at some point most of us start to identify more with the separation than the oneness and that is the true nature of human existence.  The goal of most spiritual practices, including yoga, is to return to the realization and experience of the oneness of the universe. 

Looking at our lives with Beginner’s Mind can help us with that lofty goal.  Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind says: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." When our minds are made up about how things “are”, we close the door on growth and change. Think about your favorite yoga pose for example, the one you are most “expert” at. I know for me, the poses that are the easiest for me are my favorites, and of course the ones I do the most often.  And yet they are often the hardest for me to teach because I haven’t had to wrestle with them in the way I have with poses that are harder for me. The poses that I am the least “expert” at are often the ones I have learned the most about because I’ve had to.  When I do a practice of only the poses I love without challenging myself to try something new (including something new in an old pose), my practice feels pretty stale and disconnected. 

When we think we have mastered something we stop thinking about it, and there is always something to be learned.  B.K.S. Iyengar famously continued to tell his students many decades into teaching and practicing that he hadn’t yet perfected Tadasana (Mountain pose). For a man who was doing headstands into his 80’s, surely this pose was not was not physically challenging. But Iyengar knew that proclaiming mastery meant closing the door on growth. There is a wisdom in asking, “What can I learn?” from a pose that one has practiced thousands of times.  There is wisdom in saying “I don’t know”. Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman writes about this “not knowing” in her lecture on Beginner’s Mind: “Not knowing" is often paired up with knowing. It's a dualistic pair—not knowing as opposed to knowing. Non-dualistic "not knowing" is just "I don't know, I'm going to go see. I'm just going to set out and trust what occurs."  It's not set up against knowing. It's just "I'm going to set out on pilgrimage and see what happens. Just this is it. Just each moment. Each moment I'll see what happens.”  Non-dualistic not knowing – I love that!

Yoga practice opens up the space to let go of our preconceptions and notions about our body and spirit and simply explore ourselves on every level of our beings and there is great freedom and growth that comes from that process. May we cultivate not-knowing.  May we be free from prejudices, opinions, self-limiting ideas.  May we see the world as my 3-year-old Rakhi looks at the 12-year-old, broken, defunct flip phone he currently carries with him wherever he goes to ”call” people, “send” photos and texts, and “Facetime” with friends – with utter wonder and delight.

When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
- Mary Oliver from "When Death Comes"

Off the mat: Start to notice this week how many fixed beliefs you have about yourself – your body, your yoga practice, your spouse, maybe even the presidential nomination race. How many preconceptions, prejudices, and static ideas you come at life with and that close you off from seeing or hearing what’s actually going on. It's not like we notice them and then they miraculously disappear.  No, chances are you'll start to see them more and more...but then, becoming aware of them, you can choose to see them for what they are, energy arising in the form of a thought, often having little to do with what is actually going on in any given moment.  And then you can just as easily let them go if they don’t serve your higher purpose.

On the mat: Practice a lot of Balasana (Child’s Pose), the asana equivalent of Beginner’s Mind.  It’s always a great pose to come to to reset, recharge, refresh your perspective even in the heat of an intense or strong practice.  Then see how the physical form of Balasana (i.e. gently rounded back) can help in your more advanced poses (like arm balances, where we need a lot of core strength).  Or pick a pose you’ve done 1000 times and look up an article or YouTube about it and learn something new!

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace: Breathe in and feel the inner body grow bright and full with the joy of the present moment, as if it was the first breath you’ve ever breathed.
Be present with the breath (in every pose) to be present to “what is”.
Breathe into your back body and into the mystery and wonder of life.

Muscular Energy: (In poses where Heart FP is active) Draw from the fingers up the arms into the Beginner’s heart, the pre-7th grade heart, the one that’s never been broken or hurt or stepped on.
Tone muscles and stand strong in your not-knowing.

Kidney Loop: Expand the kidney area to expand awareness of this pose as it is right now.
Draw front ribs together and down to open the back body and open to awareness of the beauty of the moment (ok, that’s a little wordy, but you get the idea…)

Inner Spiral: Widen your inner thighs back and apart and open to the awe and wonder of this pose.

Outer Spiral: Settle your tailbone down into the space between your sit-bones, settling your mind into a child-like perspective.

Organic Energy: Expand awareness of the wonder of this moment through the whole pose.