Friday, September 19, 2014

Bhakti Sutra #1


The Shree teachers decided to fill our Autumn with love by studying the Bhakti Sutras, 84 aphorisms attributed to the Sage Nerada of the 10th century, which we will be talking about in classes for the next few months.  The word Bhakti is used to describe many different things: religious devotion of a person of any spiritual faith, a practice of yoga including spiritual disciplines meant to connect one’s essence with the essence of the divine (such as praying, chanting, meditation), a trend within the history of Indian spirituality (the Bhakti Movement), and also the perfected state of consciousness – exclusive and continuous love of God (spirit, universe, oneness, etc.), leading to eternal, enlightened bliss.

In modern western yoga practice, this word is most often translated as “spiritual love” or “spiritual devotion”.  But what does that mean?  That it lies in the realm of the spirit rather than the physical. We first come to understand love in the human sense, the physical feelings of love that we experience in our everyday lives, and those feeling can (and hopefully do) lead to deeper and more abiding feelings of love which connect us to deeper aspects of our being than just our physical wants and pleasures. The word devotion itself connotes a surrender, a giving of yourself to something. So to me “spiritual devotion” is a surrendering of your spirit to its source.



Our study of this text will rely heavily on Bill Mahony’s beautiful book, Exquisite Love.  In it he says “We experience bhakti in our lives by entering into the delights, joys, poignancies and commitments of our human love.”  He lists many, many different types of bhakti or love – love for a lover, between 2 trusting friends, love that is characterized by peacefulness, that is calm quiet and strong, love between a parent and child, the yearning when separated from one’s love – all are expressions of love.  There is also love of food, the ocean, a pet, a new pair of shoes.  There are moments of love, like watching your child laughing on a swing, stepping out into sunshine, sinking into a hot tub, a hug from your partner or a friend.  As there are different types of love some might say one is “higher” than another, but just as mercury is the same in a thermometer at the bottom as at the top, they are all expressions of One Love, and that essence that we call love is the presence of the divine itself.

Bill Mahoney writes “It is through love that one knows God, for God is love.  Since God is love, God lives in the heart of one who loves.  Accordingly, when we feel love, we are actually experiencing God.” (I’m quoting his text verbatim, if the G-word doesn’t resonate with you plug in spirit, universe, or any other word that does.)  By simply opening yourself up to all the ways in your life that love presents itself we open ourselves to a “spiritual” experience, and a connection to something greater than just our physical beings with all it’s “delights, joys, poignancies and commitments.” 

Bhakti Sutra #1 says “Speaking of it makes it manifest.”  Speaking about or naming something has tremendous power, speaking is the primary creative force of human existence.   When we speak, we make manifest our desires.  What do you love?  What are you unconditionally devoted to?  Speak it to yourself.  Speak it to those around you.  When we give voice to something, anything, it makes it more real, brings it forth into existence.  Feel how love grows stronger as you acknowledge it, as you invite it more into the forefront of your life by noticing all the ways it appears for you. 


Off the Mat:
Expand your definition of love.  Notice throughout your day the things that bring your heart happiness, even if it’s just for a few moments.  After you’ve done this for a few days, practice letting go of whatever experience brought you the feeling of love, and allow yourself to just experience love without it being conditional on any outside influence.  The more you do this the easier it gets, and the more love grows.

On the Mat:
I once heard Desiree Rumbaugh say that love is always unconditional – it’s commitment that is conditional.  So in my classes this week we worked on embodying our love with full commitment and devotion by keeping the muscles toned and supportive of the bones and joints, and by working to straighten our arms as fully as we could in poses like Urdhva Dhanurasana and Handstand.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace:
Fill up with feelings of love for who or what you are devoted to.
Place your hands (or feet) and stand strong in your devotion.
Breathe in and Invite love into your experience of this pose, and let it fill you up on the inside. 

Muscular Energy:
Commit fully to what you love with every muscle of your being, embracing the divine with the physical.
Hug the bones with the muscles like you are hugging your beloved.

Inner Spiral:
Make space for your love to grow and evolve by widening your sit bones back and apart.

Outer Spiral:
Settle more deeply into commitment as you settle your tailbone down into the space you’ve created.

Organic Energy:
Offer your love and devotion back out through the vehicle of the breath and this pose.
Let every part of the pose and your being emanate love.
Radiate bhakti through every cell of your body, every aspect of your pose and your being awake and alive with devotion to what you love.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Cracked Pot and Crackpots





The Cracked Water Jug


A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot always arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house.  After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream.
"I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you." 
"Why?" asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?" 
For these past two years, I have only been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts." the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, "As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path."
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house."

Monday morning at breakfast I told this story to my children.  When I got to the end of the story I asked them what they thought it meant.  My 7 year old looks at me like I’m the town idiot and says “Mom, pots can’t talk.”  Ok, every creature with a bizarre name and even more bizarre appearance on Pokemon can talk, but not a pot.  Good to know where we draw the line with the suspension of disbelief.

He did get the story of course – that all of us are cracked pots (as one student said to me on Monday, “I’m going to take it as a compliment the next time someone calls me a crackpot!”).  Some of us physically, some emotionally, some spiritually - hopefully not all at once but usually one way or another from time to time.  We all have perceived imperfections that can drain us and seem to take away from who we are.  And yet, for many of us, these cracks are where we can open up and bestow grace on those around us in ways we aren't even aware of.  The great Leonard Cohen said it best in his song Anthem:




Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

 


 
Regular yoga practice can help heal the cracks.  Not by making them disappear necessarily (after that story, do you really want them to?), although often we find great healing from asana and breath work.  The healing comes more from practicing acceptance.   When you practice acceptance you soften around your broken places, and realize that even though you're not "perfect" that those things you wish to be different can (and probably already do) offer blessings to those around you.  

The pursuit of perfection seems to me to be the national pastime.  My son during his first week of school last week, exhibiting frustration about the many responsibilities required of him, said "Mom, you don't know how hard it is to be perfect at school, perfect at Hebrew School, perfect at soccer AND perfect at home!"  Ouch.  Well, sadly, I do know that pressure in fact, but I recognize now that it is self-inflicted (all he sees of course is that pursuit, not that it comes from the internal pressure we put on ourselves).  To quote another great poet, Danna Faulds:

Perfection isn't a prerequisite for anything but pain. Please,
oh please, don’t continue to believe in your disbelief. This
is the day of your awakening.

Meaning that the pursuit of "perfection" only makes us miserable, since really, the best we ever have are moments of perfection.  And those moments come more and more often when we accept ourselves as we are, cracks, fissures, leaks, broken places and all.  The awakening comes when we forget our perfect offering and know that whatever we have to offer authentically from our hearts is offering enough.  It comes when we recognize that there is a crack in everything and we embrace those cracks fully.  And when we both let in the light, and let the light shine forth from those openings as brilliantly as it can, whether we are aware of it or not.

Off the mat:
In the words of one last great poet, John Legend "(All of me) loves all of you - all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections."  What are your edges?  What are your perfect imperfections?  A good window into what these things are is to try to see yourself as a good friend or sibling or spouse sees you (like he does in this song).  What are the little things about you your family jokes about that you have tried to change but find difficult?  That may even seem to be complaints on the surface, but are really the things they would miss about you if they were gone. 

On the Mat:
In my classes this week I am focusing on hip openers and joking that in yoga practice not only do we embrace our cracks but we sometimes work to crack ourselves open even more.  But it's not really a joke.  With a healthy respect for the amount of cracking that allows opening and growth, not the kind that leads us to be broken permanently, we recognize that opening ourselves up to a deeper experience let's in more light.  The more cracks in the façade, the more light flows in and out.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace:
Take a breath and soften around your cracks.
Stand evenly on the 4 corners of your feet and spread your toes out into acceptance.
Breathe in and fill up with acceptance for your imperfections.
(In poses weight bearing on the hands) Claw your fingers into the mat and anchor your heart and your pose in acceptance of all your weaknesses

Muscular Energy:
Firm your muscles to your bones embracing your broken places.
Pull all your muscles and all your perceived shortcomings into the midline and feel your body strengthen from the hug.

Inner Spiral: (Ok, this one’s a little risqué…not sure how else to say it :-)
Widen inner thighs back and apart to broaden the low back, opening up the cracks even wider.

Outer Spiral:
Root your tailbone into acceptance of your perfect imperfections.

Organic Energy:
From all your broken places let light pour out like the water poured out to nurture the flowers. 
Forget your perfect offering and let the offering of this pose shine, cracks and all.

Foot awareness: (in preparation for Eka Pada Galavasana and other arm balances)
Spread your toes and make even more cracks to let even more light in.
Hook the pinky toe side of the foot back (into the floor, around your arm, etc.) to harness your cracks, knowing they are a part of who you are and what you have to offer. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rock Concerts and Wild Geese


 Wild Geese
- Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This is one of my all time favorite poems, and I think the reason it so speaks to me is that it is so universal.   All of us from time to time feel like we need to walk on our knees repenting, everyone feels despair, love, loneliness…..and the world goes on. When I read her words I feel like I am not alone in feeling those emotions, and it is a comfort to feel connected to others in this way.

Last weekend I was lucky enough to go see the band Train perform, and I forgot how much fun rock concerts are.  Anytime there is a gathering of people with a universal love of something – a concert with a great band, a sports event, a race, a yoga class or workshop – that universal love becomes an equalizer.  At the concert there was a wide demographic of ages, colors, shapes and sizes, and yet we were all there for a common purpose and it connected us to one another.  For those 90 minutes we were all related. Energetically everyone was aligned, and that energy lifted each of us up even higher. 

At one point the band was playing a popular song and everyone was singing along.  At the chorus they darkened the stage lights and stopped singing, and turned up the lights in the hall so the audience could take over.  There is something so amazing about singing with thousands of people. We all join our individual voices and create one big collective voice, full of joy.  I turned around and there were thousands of people behind me (we had good seats!) singing the same words – and I felt united with every person in that room.  I looked at all those faces and saw all the differences and all the similarities all at once, and that kind of awareness just fills up your heart.

Singing along to Drops of Jupiter
Singing is such a joyful offering in and of itself – St. Augustine said “He who sings, prays twice.” (For a really beautiful commentary on this quote, click here and read to the end.) When we join our voices together in song, we connect to each other on a deeper level – this is one of the reasons we chant at the start of every yoga class.  We connect to a joyful part of our hearts, we connect our voices with everyone in the room, and we connect to the divine through the words of our chant.  (If you are new to Anusara, find the words to the invocation here.)  Singing is just a deeper expression of breath. I heard the great yoga teacher Mary Dunn once say “You know you’re really practicing yoga if you can sing a song while (comfortably) holding a pose.  If you’re singing, you’re breathing.”  I highly recommend this practice, if nothing else, it’s super fun and adds a little levity to your practice.  I know there is widespread discussion on playing music in yoga classes, and there are pros and cons on both sides, but I never practice yoga without music on.  I just enjoy my practice more with a soundtrack.  As I write this, I am realizing that universal connection is one of the reasons for why I feel that way.  Whether it is an ancient chant or prayer that connects me to many generations of yogis, or a modern rock song enjoyed by millions on iTunes, either way it helps me feel part of something bigger than just myself.

Yoga practice is also a universal connector.  When we practice yoga we become aware of the ineffable part of ourselves that is interconnected to all things, the part that is beyond our body or age or income or race or job.  When we are aware of that place in ourselves, we recognize that it exists in every living being, and we see the unity of ourselves with all others.  Recognizing that unity brings a sense of love, friendship, and belonging.


Off the Mat:
A couple of simple practices:
Turn up your radio, find a great song and sing like you’re at a rock show and can’t even hear yourself.  Think of all the people that are singing along with you to the same station and let your heart fill up.  

As we slowly enter this fall season and the geese start flying more frequently overhead, each time you hear their call, harsh and exciting, let it call out to your heart and remind you of your unique, individual and irreplaceable place in the family of things.

On the Mat:
Open to Grace:
As you fill yourself with breath, fill up with your connection to the One who breathes life into everything.
As you place your feet mindfully into your pose, feel your connection to the Earth and all who walk upon it.

Muscular Energy:
Hug from your skin to muscles to bones, to the deepest part of your being that is one with all things.
Energetically pull from your fingers to your heart (in arm balancing poses) to invite in a sense of friendship and belonging.

Inner Spiral:
Widen the inner thighs to broaden your back body (which represents your connection to the Universal).

Outer Spiral:
Lengthen your tailbone down to root yourself in your union with all beings.

Kidney Loop:
Draw the front ribs down and back, feeling the connection of your individual spirit (the front body) to your universal spirit (the back body).
Lift the back of the floating ribs up and draw the front waistline down and back, opening up space in the back body to feel your connection to the oneness of all things.

Organic Energy:
Shine your pose like you are “announcing your place in the family of things.”
Let the soft animal of your body glow (with the love of this pose).

Meeting Train backstage at the Borgata

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All the Hemispheres


All the Hemispheres
By #Hafiz

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
And love.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
Chatting

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of You.

I often berate myself for being “scattered” or ungrounded. I frequently start a project, then read or hear something else that interests me and immediately absorb myself in a new task or endeavor.  I have a wide range of interests in both my personal and professional life, and I find myself drawn in different directions frequently, and just as often I beat myself up about it.  This aspect of my personality has led me to become more of a jack of many trades rather than a master of any one.  I am often envious of people who commit themselves unequivocally to one career or religion or even hobby and have really immersed themselves wholeheartedly in it.  Their lives seem simpler to me and I think there is a beautiful ease that comes with following a specific path with dedication and focus.  But that is not my life!



Recently I was reading Danny Arguetty’s fabulous book Nourishing the Teacher where he talks about doing the same thing, and points out that this “ungrounded-ness” actually works in his favor.  When I read his thoughts about this I realized that it works for me as well.  All of my interests and abilities, when combined, have the ability to create something unique, creative and interesting when I allow them to do that.  So the time I take beating myself up about getting “distracted”, and trying to force my awareness back to something that isn’t serving me right now detracts from who I have to potential to be if I just let all these facets of my life coalesce with less resistance.  It’s like 

“Greet(ing) Yourself
In your thousand other forms

As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.”

Yoga means union, but another translation is “integration”.  In our lives, when we can bring together all the pieces (hemispheres!) of ourselves with acceptance and grace we live a more authentic life.  When we foster integration on our mat of the physical with the spiritual, our  individual spirit with universal spirit, or even body part with body part we create a whole more beautiful and brilliant than simply the sum of its parts.  And when we can do that on our mats, when we move out into the rest of our lives we can integrate more seamlessly all the “hemispheres” of our existence, whether it be diverse interests, or career and family, or light and dark forces forever omnipresent, or any other seemingly opposing force.  We become more authentically who we are meant to be and our lives flow more easily.


I often think of the universe as a giant tapestry, each of us representing a unique and necessary thread.  And anyone who sews, or has even mended a loose button (which is about the extent of my sewing skills), knows that most thread is made up of smaller threads woven together.  When we live more authentically we weave our own thread tighter so its color becomes more brilliant and adds more to the universal tapestry.  Or another way to say it is:

“All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
Chatting

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of You.”

Off the mat:
What are the opposing forces working in your life right now?  In what ways are you resisting them?  In what ways can one of those forces inform the other to create a stronger, more vibrant whole?

On the mat:
On a physical level, healthy integration is one of the ultimate goals of our practice.  I was thinking about those charm necklaces that were popular when I was younger: a circle reading “Best Friends” was cut in half, creating a charm for each friend to wear.   The halves made up a pretty charm on their own, but only really made sense when they were put together and the words were completed.  (Sweet side note – when I graduated high school my dad had a giant one made for my whole family, cut into 6 pieces and each of us has a charm to wear – so our charms made up an even bigger more beautiful whole!)  But I digress – the point is, our bodies work in the same way – every part serves a function, whether it be life-sustaining or simply adding beauty to the world.   On their own they are unique and necessary, yet integrated together they form the distinctive and irreplaceable you.  So in my classes this week we worked on the physical principle of “hugging the midline”, drawing all the “hemispheres” of the body into integration with acceptance and grace, and in the process, creating stronger, more cohesive poses and bodies.
 

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace:
Breathe in and fill up with all the hemispheres of yourself.
Let your inner body be bright and full with the myriad aspects of all of your being.

Muscular Energy:
Hug the midline and feel your “thousand forms stitching themselves together as you”.
Hug all the parts of your body to the midline to feel all the parts of your being integrate themselves into a beautiful, cohesive whole.
Pull all the hemispheres of your being to the equator of your heart.
Draw to the midline to ”stitch together the great circle inside of you”.

Inner Spiral:
Widen your inner thighs to make space for all the rich characteristics of your life.
Widen sit bones back and apart like a blooming night flower.

Outer Spiral:
Sink your tailbone into your “thousand other forms” and stitch them together inside your low belly.

Organic Energy:
Shine in your pose like a “blooming night flower, bestowing your vital fragrance of happiness and giving.”

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Cosmic Bunny Ears



I just came back from week of teaching and studying with one of my beloved teachers and I am always so grateful to have the opportunity to study with those who have become masters in their chosen path.  More than what they say, I find that when I am with spiritual teachers, whether it be yoga or other paths, what I am most inspired by and what I learn the most from is simply watching them navigate the world.  There is a level of attunement that I aspire to have, and from many conversations and interactions with my teachers, I know that this attunement comes from being open and receptive, backed up by years of dedicated study and practice, practice, practice.

http://www.blogcdn.com/www.engadget.com/media/2011/12/rabbit-ears.jpg

Years ago I remember taking a class where the teacher compared yoga practice to television.  Remember those “bunny ear” antennae?  Someone would have to stand up and adjust as the people watching directed them – you had to know just the right way to turn them, just the right amount of tin foil to put around the end to get the best reception.  Sometimes you had to just stand and hold them in the right place to get any picture at all.  I remember standing in my grandmother’s living room in Brooklyn arguing with my sisters about who would have to hold them so we could watch the Smurfs.  My teacher pointed out that the broadcast didn’t start simply because we figured out how to position the antennae – the broadcast was out there all along, we just needed to figure out how to allow it to come through. 
 
Yoga practice helps us tune our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual antennae so we are in the optimal place to receive the broadcast.  This is why practicing with good alignment is key - when our bodies are aligned, the channels of receptivity and transmit become more open and the pathways clearer.  Bhakti Sutra #53 says: “It reveals itself wherever there is an able vessel.”  The “it” is love, knowledge, joy, truth – what is infinitely being sent out by the universe to us at all times.  And when we attune all our awareness to this “broadcast”, we become the able vessel and we reveal it. 

http://yogaakasha.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/files/2012/02/rainbowchakras2.jpg

It is also important to align the inner, energetic body with the outer physical form.  In our energetic body we have a main energy channel called the sushumna nadi that runs down the length of the torso, beginning at the sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head, passing through all the chakras below it, and ending at muladhara or root chakra at the pelvic floor. During times when I feel really “tuned in”, I feel as if there is a direct and open channel between me and my source.  It feels to me as if the sahasrara chakra is wide open and that knowledge, wisdom and love can just pour down into me.  During times when I am not feeling as connected, one of my practices is to awaken this chakra through poses like sirsasana (headstand), and other poses, including restoratives, in which we rest the head on the floor or a block (like Prasarita Padottanasana).  I think it’s interesting to note that babies are always innately in touch with the divine, having spent less time in apparent “separation” from their source as we adults have.  On a spiritual level, this is why the fontanel at the crown of the head is open at birth and stays open for up to a year and a half afterwards.  It is one of the reasons babies are so innately loving and trusting and wise. 
 
http://previewcf.turbosquid.com/Preview/2012/09/13__13_05_49/MaleSpine_signature.jpg066f473e-1f12-4d74-9101-d45906d8aff1Large.jpgOn a physical level, when we align our spine we “attune” our whole body, as the spine is the seat of the nervous system.  When we work in each pose to keep the natural curves of the spine the whole body moves towards a state of homeostasis. And when we practice poses where we cannot keep the curves (like deep forward or back bends), if we start those poses from the neutral position and work with lengthening before curving, we bring greater flexibility to the spine and the nervous system.

 

How can you better attune your antennae to pick up the cosmic broadcast?  What thoughts or ideas need to be let go of to be a more open channel for divine grace to flow into?  Through yoga or whatever other practices enable you to, shape yourself into the “able vessel”.

Off the Mat:
One of the easiest ways to keep the channel for grace open is to keep a sense of wonder about the world.  As you go through your day, be aware of nature’s beauty, the kindness of people around you, guidance that comes in obvious and subtle ways. 

On the Mat:
Practice poses that awaken the sahasrara or crown chakra.  The image of the sahasrara chakra is a thousand-petaled lotus, and as you practice you might hold the vision of this energy center becoming more and more open as each petal unfolds itself, until at the end of practice when we lay down in savasana for deep relaxation we are able to surrender completely, to move out of the thinking, processing, doing mind, and become an open channel for grace to flow down into. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Svadhyaya: The Yoga of Compassionate Self-Awareness


So I pooped out on the blog last week, but I wanted you to know I had a good reason.  I have spent the better part of the last 2 weeks completing my Anusara Certification Exam (yes, I am already a several-times certified teacher, and have been "Anusara-Inspired" for the last 8 years, but this is the FULL certification).  It took me about 30 hours to complete and in the end was 72 pages of simple, black and white answers to questions about anatomy, translations of Sanskrit words, and explaining alignment principles, as well as many long, interpretive answers to questions about yoga and Tantra philosophy, application of yoga therapeutics, and my own thoughts and ideas about all aspects of yoga practice, as well as other topics.

Although it was very intense and intensive, it was an amazing process - really, a culmination of the last 10 years of my life in many regards, and it was energizing and exhilarating!  I found that I was full of energy all week from immersing myself so deeply in spiritual study and thought.  In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras he lays out an eightfold path of yoga practice.  The first two steps on this path are practicing the yamas and niyamas, which some people call the "10 commandments" of yoga.  One of the niyamas is a practice called svadhyaya, which means self-study, or study of sacred texts, and that's exactly what this Certification process has been for me.  

Now let's be clear – the inner voice of svadhyaya is not the one that says, "Holy crap, you idiot why did you say THAT?" or "Man, that pose sucked!" or even "Hey, I had the best handstand in the class."  It is the open, non-judgmental witness that simply observes.  It is the voice of reflection that sees through the surface of things to what is really going on. Then the discerning mind can make choices based on what you’ve seen to move you more in the direction of shree - all that is life-enhancing and beautiful.   When we look at ourselves with svadhyaya, we look with compassionate awareness at the full picture of our lives and can lean into that life more deeply, and live more joyfully and fully.   

 http://www.spring.org.uk/images/self-compassion.jpg

Most of us spend our lives creating and maintaining an image of ourselves, actually probably more than one: a public self-image, an intimate self-image shared only with those closest to us, and a private self-image.  If we are willing to look at patterns, behaviors and strategies we habitually use to maintain that persona, we can use svadhyaya to pierce through the veil that this self-image creates, and we see through to the true nature of our own essential being. We see into the motivations that cause those patterns and behaviors.  We can use svadhayaya to skillfully step back, and with self-love and compassion examine those aspects of our lives that aren't serving us anymore.  

Another part of the Anusara Certification process is to make a video of a class I've taught and fill out an 8-page self-assessment form. This is the harder part of the process for me.  Having to watch yourself on video is so painful at first.  I was so intimidated by the process that I eased myself into it by just audio recording a few classes first and listening to them, just to get over the sound of my voice and to stop cringing at every other word out of my mouth.  I avoided watching my first video for almost 2 weeks before I could bring myself to do it.  But if you can come at it with compassion for yourself there is SO much to be learned.  Once you get over the initial self-conscious squinting through parted fingers, this process is nothing less than transformative.  When I was a performing musician I would tape record (remember tape recorders?!) all my practice sessions leading up to a performance.  Nine times out of ten I would listen and think, for better or for worse, "Wow, that is not what I thought was going on there!"   This experience was similar, and just as those tapes were invaluable additions to my performances, the practice of svadhyaya is an invaluable window into why we do what we do.  Often, we are not even aware of what we are doing.

So first, take time to become aware.  Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths so that the constant chattering voice of multi-tasking that we have all become immune to because of it's imminent presence in our minds quiets down.  And then invoke self-compassion.  It's so important to start from there or else the whole process can feel shaming and punitive and that definitely does not move us in the direction of shree.  Which is not to say it will be easy, but honesty rarely is.  See your self as your dog sees you....or your mom....or spouse, and then just be open to what is revealed.  Look with open, honest and loving eyes and allow yourself to be transformed.
 



Off the mat:  Other than practicing compassionate awareness in our yoga practice and in our lives, one of the ways we can move down the path of svadhyaya is to enlist the help of those close to us.  I’ve been reading Max Strom’s book A Life Worth Breathing, and in it he suggests this exercise. (I am giving a brief outline here – if this is of interest to you, I highly suggest you get the book and do the full exercise – or contact me at RDYogamama@gmail.com and I will send you the full version)
Choose four or five people you really trust and respect, and who trust and respect you (hint – those who you are in emotionally charged relationship with are not good candidates).  Make an appointment with each one separately to meet private with the goal of critiquing you.  

First, ask each person what your strengths are, your talents and gifts. It is important to start here! Then ask them to offer suggestions about what might be improved, where there are weaknesses or blind spots.  Listen to the answers without responding, reacting, interrupting, disagreeing, explaining, or becoming defensive, however challenging it might be.  If you can, record the conversation or at least bring a notebook to jot down some thoughts.  You will see some patterns emerge and this will help you to practice svadhyaya.  As Mr. Strom says “This exercise illuminates you, holds a lamp up to your face and says this is who you are, who you have been. With this new knowledge you can finally learn what direction to walk in – and when you walk forward with true knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, you will not fail.”

On the mat:  Start your practice by cultivating self-compassion and self-love – awaken your inner witness.  In my classes this week we are focusing on plugging the head of the arm bones back, integrating them into the shoulder sockets to plug into self-awareness.  Throughout your practice be mindfully aware and make alignment adjustments on a moment by moment basis, based on your observation of what is actually happening, not on what usually happens.

Open to Grace: Breathe in and open to the lessons you have to teach yourself.
Soften and open to the lessons from ancient traditions and holy scriptures.
As you breathe deeply, fill yourself up with self-knowledge and self-reflection.

Muscular Energy: Firm the muscles to the bones and embrace self-awareness and learning and growth.
Draw from the skin to the muscles to the bones and all the way into place inside yourself where the inner teacher resides.

Shoulder Loop: Draw the head of the arm bones back to plug into self-compassion.
As the head of the arm bone engages into the shoulder socket, engage with compassionate self-awareness.


Inner Spiral: Widen your sit-bones to widen your awareness of yourself.

Outer Spiral: Scoop your tailbone down into self-love and self-awareness.

Organic Energy: Shine the light of your truth out.
Let self-compassion and self- love radiate from the inside out.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mirrors and Spiders, Lessons in Mindful Awareness


My youngest son, Rakhi, is the age (almost 2) where he parrots back to me everything I say, almost always in exactly the tone of voice I say it in.  Needless to say, it is VERY revealing.  Since he is so little I am very aware of how I interact with him directly, but he is with me most of the time and so is hearing all my exchanges with my older children, my husband, on the phone with the cable company after the internet has gone down for the 2nd time this week and I’ve been on hold for ½ hour, slow waitresses, drivers of other cars, etc., etc.  And he is absorbing all of it into his little, impressionable brain - every action and word is being watched and recorded and repeated.  Although I think I am fairly calm and together most of the time, and try to speak and act respectfully to those around me, when he mirrors back behaviors or words that have come out of my mouth I often cringe (sometimes I laugh….but more often cringe). 
   
 http://cdn-ugc.mamaslatinas.com/gen/constrain/500/500/80/2012/08/22/17/5a/yi/poanx4gsso5ge.jpg

We all have innate tendencies, developed from our own genetic code, our upbringing, and the people and environment that we choose to surround ourselves with.  A beautiful part of spiritual practice is bringing these predispositions to light, becoming aware of our patterns without judgment, and then making changes to move more into alignment with the person we aspire to be.  What helps us with this practice is mindful awareness.  I know that when I am unaware or unmindful I slip into old reactionary patterns, patterns that I don’t love about myself, and that I would rather not pass down to my children by modeling less than ideal behavior or speech. 

I think the hardest thing about being a parent (or any loving relationship for that matter) is that it puts your life under a microscope.   When we really love someone it inspires us to be a better person.  In my life I try to be more kind, tolerant, empathetic and even tempered, because I love my family so dearly and I want to demonstrate that love through my actions.  I want to inspire my children to interact with others in a similar way.  I recognize that the periods of time when I am having a harder time holding things together, those around me seem to be having that same hard time, most especially my children. During those times I often read, chant or meditate on this prayer:

Prayer of St Francis of Assisi:

Divine One, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

Oh Universal Spirit,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive, and
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

This prayer inspires me to be, as Mahatma Ghandi said, the change I wish to see in the world. To align with my highest regardless of what I am facing.  When we practice yoga we cultivate awareness and mindfulness so we can respond rather than react.  We connect deeply to a calmer state of being, and we come to know the most elevated and divine aspects of ourselves and bring them forth into the world.  When we are mindful and aware we can feel the moment where we start to feel anxious, angry, or frustrated and instead of letting those feelings grow or knee-jerk reacting, we can take a breath and respond from a place of deep alignment with our highest self and choose the way we act in any given situation.

It’s always fascinating to me that Universal Spirit/Source/God always presents a lesson at exactly the right time.  I teach at Shree on Monday mornings, and this Monday, after thinking and meditating on this theme and the qualities of mindful awareness and equanimity, I arrived at Shree to see the biggest spider I have ever seen scurrying across the floor only to settle under my meditation blanket on my mat.  It sent me into a state of utter fear and aversion – honestly, I was freaking out.  I tried to formulate a plan to catch it but the sight of it paralyzed me and I ended up waiting for students to arrive and asking one of them to deal with it.  The first two students to arrived were as freaked out as I was, when finally a brave soul showed up to trap it and move it outside.  

I swear it was this big!!
When I was speaking about my theme, the beloved student who had caught the spider started laughing, as she had just witnessed me completely lose myself over an insect.  It was rather ironic…but I don’t believe in coincidences.  I was speaking with her after class and saying things like “I just can’t do spiders” and “I just panic and freeze when I see a huge spider like that”.  She looked at me and said, well, the first thing you have to do is stop saying those things and convincing yourself you “can’t”.  It is said that we always teach what we have to learn. I’m sharing this story because it was such a great lesson for me to deepen this teaching.  When we find ourselves in reactive patterns the first thing we often do is reinforce those patterns by continuing negative thought patterns about the behavior. Once again, mindful awareness can help us stop this cycle.

So whether it’s a huge spider, or any other trigger you might have, before reacting, before freaking out, take a breath and be aware of how you are feeling.  Ask yourself how you’d like to respond and then do just that.

Off the Mat:
My husband and I took a parenting class a couple of years ago and one of the best pieces of advice she gave us was to pretend that she was in the room when we were faced with some situation with our children we were about to fly off the handle over.  It totally works.  One way to practice mindful awareness is to pretend you have a 2 year old with you at all times, and be aware of the behavior you’d like to model in front of them.   If you’d like an actual 2 year old to practice with, Rakhi is available for babysitting.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we worked on hugging the midline to connect to our highest self, the one we wish to respond in any given situation.  This gives us strength to respond rather than react, and helps us into poses like Bakasana (crane) with straight arms, and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Upward Facing Tree, or Handstand) with awareness and equanimity.

Open to Grace: With each breath wake up to your innermost divine self.
Wake up to the person you aspire to be.
Be aware of even the subtlest of sensations, emotions, and feelings, then take a breath and soften before responding.

Muscular Energy: Hug the midline, the place of inner awareness.
Hug into a calmer state of being, your highest self.
Awaken and firm your inner thighs to awaken to your inner self.

Inner Spiral: Widen your inner thighs apart and make space between yourself and knee jerk reactions.
Spread your sit bones back and apart widening your awareness of yourself and the way you wish to respond

Outer Spiral: Sink your tailbone into mindfulness.

Organic Energy: Light up the pose with your highest intention to respond rather than react.
Let your pose shine with all the divine qualities of your heart, love, pardon, faith, hope.