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.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Guest House



The Guest House – Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

 http://nnyguesthouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/guesthouse-july-2009-020.jpg

My childhood home was basically a guest house.  Not officially of course, but my mother took in strays of all kinds.   My mom reads my blog so I’m sure she’s laughing already reading those words, and I’m sure she’ll forgive me for sharing the intimate details of my childhood!  While I was growing up we had Fresh Air Fund kids during the summer, a babysitter who lived with us for a while, moved out, got pregnant and moved back in and stayed until her daughter was around 9 months old, a stranded Israeli, exchange students who came through the school at first, and then came back just to hang out numerous times (and are still coming back, now with children of their own!), foster children both official and unofficial, and as we got older, friends who were on the outs with their parents or significant others. Often these people would show up uninvited, knowing that they would be welcomed by my family regardless of their circumstances or ours.  They would stay for varying lengths of time and some of those times were easy and fun and some were really challenging, but we all learned and grew as individuals and a family as a result of all those guests. 

What I took away from my upbringing was that when someone shows up needing something, you not only invite them in, but you welcome them.  Whether they have been invited or not, whether it’s convenient or not, whether you know they are going to violently sweep your house empty of it’s furniture or not (fortunately this never happened).  I think my parents recognized that these folks showing up at our door were in fact guides from beyond, and even though the relationships were sometimes challenging, these people came into our lives for a reason.   As children, my 3 siblings and I learned hospitality, and these experiences encouraged us to be open, accepting and flexible.

When you open yourself up with gratitude to who or what arrives, knowing that each has been sent into your life to teach you something about yourself or life in general, you open yourself up to deeper relationships with those around you and with yourself.  This is not always easy to do, I’m sure many of us can appreciate this even more during the summer months when vacations often send us into close and even cramped quarters with family and friends, and travel often bring unexpected guests in places we don’t expect them.  So this is really a perfect season to cultivate generosity of both home and spirit.  When you open your heart to even unwanted guests you cultivate tolerance, hospitality, and generosity, and your life becomes so much richer as a result of these relationships. 

Welcome each and every experience – every thought, injury, and setback, every friend, family member, acquaintance, and stranger, and meet them at the door laughing.  Invite them in and know that your life will only become richer, more varied and interesting if you can approach these guests with a smile and a namaste.  

http://pastorbecca.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/x-welcome-mat-2.jpg

Off the Mat:
Be aware of what “guests” are arriving on your doorstep – maybe it’s in the form of an actual family member or friend or even stranger.  Can you welcome them in with open arms, even if the timing is not convenient, and their presence might disrupt your day or week?  Perhaps your “guests” arriving are coming in the form of challenging situations, emotions or thought patterns. Welcome them, allow them to move in and sweep your house clean, making room for some new delight.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we are working on split leg poses (lunges, Warriors, Tree, kicking up to handstand, ultimately leading up to Hanumanasana, or full split) with the focus on the widening aspect of inner spiral of the back leg to make space for “guests” to move into, and outer spiral of the front leg to balance that action and be able to stretch more fully into the pose and into generosity of spirit.

Open To Grace: Stand with awareness in your guest house – inhabit it mindfully and completely.
Breathe deeply, and with each inhale welcome in all guests that are arriving in your life.
Soften and welcome all “guides from beyond”.
Breathe in and light up every room of your guest house, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the lived in, and the ones filled with cobwebs from neglect.

Muscular Energy: As you hug the midline, pull in every dark thought, every malice, every emotion and joy.
Draw from the outside into every part of yourself, from the basement to the attic.
(In standing poses) Draw in every emotion, every joy and every sorrow from your feet and your torso into your pelvis.

Inner Spiral: (In split leg poses) Expand your back leg inner thigh wide and back, and open to every joy, depression, meanness.
Widen your inner thighs back and apart, broadening your sacrum back to make space for new “guests” and experiences to arrive.
Broaden the sit bones back and apart, opening up to whatever lodger is arriving in your house.

Outer Spiral: Scoop your tailbone and let the visitor settle into the guest house.
(In split leg poses) Invite your front sit-bone forward and sit deeply into your front leg, like you would invite a guest to sit in your favorite armchair.

Organic Energy: Let your guest house sparkle like a home lit up at night for a summer party – shine light from the windows of the eyes.
Light up your guest house and let it shine brightly from within.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Breaking down barriers


Earlier this week my husband sent me a link to the commencement speech that Jim Carrey gave at Maharishi University a couple of weeks ago (yes, Jim Carrey of Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura fame).  I have not listened to the whole thing, but the clip that I was sent was so inspiring that I wanted to share it. (See it here)

He said: “Fear is going to be a player in life, but you get to decide how much.  You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all it will ever be is what’s happening here, the decisions in that we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.  So many of us choose our path based on fear disguised as practicality.  What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never ask the universe for it.  I'm saying I'm the proof that you can ask the Universe for it.  And if it doesn't happen for you right away it's because the Universe is too busy filling my order.”

Fear disguised as practicality – that hits home for me.  When I heard him say those words I literally burst into tears. Honestly, there have been so many things in my life that I have chosen not to do and blamed on being sensible, when really I was just afraid to fail and at age 38 I am just starting to realize it.  Better late than never I suppose! 


The great poet Rumi said: 
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” 
 
http://finkorswim.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/breaking_wall.jpg

Read “love” as happiness, success, fulfillment and this is just another way of saying what Mr. Carrey did.   My barrier is that I don’t think I am good enough or worthy enough to attain the deepest desires of my heart.  I am really good at making excuses, some of them are even valid. I have chosen to have a family and I have chosen to raise my family a certain way and that does present certain happily self-inflicted limitations. Yet when it really comes down to it, the real barrier to achieving my goals is my disbelief in my abilities, the sacrifices I am personally willing to make, and the amount of effort I have put into getting where I want to be…and all of that is based in fear and negative what-ifs. When we are afraid, we can build up our barriers pretty high, so high we can’t see over them to what the possibilities might be.  The thing is, many times we see those barriers as walls, when really they are doors.  And it might take some time and effort to figure out how to open them, but we need to recognize that that is a possibility.

Love is the nature of the universe.  Love is simply another name for God, Source, the Universe, and happiness....or vice versa.  We don’t have to look for it, it is there.  Just like all the possibilities and desires of our hearts.  But we do have to open up to it, to choose to open a door rather than to be afraid of what we might find behind it.  If we believe we are truly worthy of love, of success, of happiness the barriers disintegrate.  You are worthy.
Maybe you’ve heard this parable before – it’s one of my favorites. There is a poor man who prays to God every day to win the lottery – he goes to church and prays, then to a synagogue, then to a mosque, begging God to bless him.   After years of praying he passes away having never won once.  When he meets God in heaven he asks why God never answered his prayers.  God replied, “You should have bought a ticket!”  Life is a co-participation.  We have to have the courage to dream big and take wise chances and believe in ourselves.  When Darwin wrote the descent of man He mentioned survival of the fittest twice, but he mentioned the word love 95 times.  Love is what evolves us, but we have to be brave enough to open to it. This is where our yoga practice can serve us.  When we come to the mat and face fears in challenging poses, in letting go of self-limiting thought patterns and behaviors, in befriending our bodies, we are actively seeking out a barrier and bit by bit knocking it down.  Through our practice we cultivate courage, which gives us the strength to recognize our limitless potential and realize our deepest and most secret dreams, the ones we keep locked in the vault of security and practicality.  

Jim Carrey shared that “My father could have been a great comedian but he didn't believe that was possible for him so he made a conservative choice.  He took a safe job as an accountant and when I was 12 years old he was let go from that safe job. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at doing what you don't love, so might as well take a chance doing what you love.” What do you love?


http://www.chambersburgdentalnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Heart-Hands.jpg

Off the mat:
This is an exercise I have done at key pivotal times in my life that has helped me gain clarity, and move from fear to love.
Every morning (or evening if that is a better time for you) for at least a week, take out a journal and write at the top of a page:
What do I really, really want?
And then just write.  Don’t worry about grammar, handwriting, content, form or flow – just let your heart speak and put it on paper. From a new sweater to an ice cream cone to a career change or a baby – just look into your heart and get clear on what you love.  After you’ve done this for a while a pattern will emerge.  Begin to reflect on what the barriers are, either real or perceived, that are holding you back from having what you want?  Are those barriers walls or doors?  What are the self-limiting beliefs you have about yourself that keep you from opening up to love? 

On the Mat:
We warmed up with a heart chakra namaskar and worked towards Urdhva Dhanurasana (full backbend), Handstand, and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) in our asana practice.  We took time to visualize ourselves in these challenging poses, holding the vision with love and not fear, before coming into the variation appropriate for each person.  We ended with Viloma pranayama, which is a 3-part, interrupted breath with retention.  The word Viloma means to “go against the grain”, like petting a dog the wrong way.  Doing the work of breaking barriers often feels like going against the grain because we have to step out of our comfort zone.  This pranayama practice is calming and centering so we can more easily let go of our fears, and break through barriers into love!

Open to Grace: Jim Carrey said “Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head, and when the door opens in real life, just walk through it.”
Breathe in love, breathe out fear.
Spread your fingers and courageously spread out beyond the barriers you have built for yourself.
Breathe into your limitless potential for love and success and happiness and feel it break a wall open inside you.

Muscular Energy: Embrace limitless potential.
Tone your muscles to affirm your bravery.
Draw from (floor to Focal Point) to make your muscles strong enough to smash through the protective fortifications you have built around your heart and your dreams.
Engage your muscles to engage fully with the pose, like buying the lottery ticket.

“Side body long”: Make space between your hips and ribs, and ribs and shoulders for love to grow.
Let the sides of the torso lengthen upwards, making space between every rib and vertebrae for courage.
Expand the side body beyond any barriers you have erected against it.

Shoulder Loop: Draw the palate and the head of the arm bones back and move the bottom tips of your shoulder blades forward to push through any barricades that present themselves.
Press the palate and the tops of the shoulders back and the back of the heart forward into love for yourself.

Inner Spiral: Widen your inner thighs back and apart to open up to limitless potential.
Move your sit bones back and apart to open to love.

Outer Spiral: (In standing poses) Scoop (the front leg) sit bone under and push it forward to break through any obstacles in your path.
Sweep your tailbone down and tone your low belly with courage to live the life you desire.

Organic Extension: Let the pose be as big as the dreams you have for yourself.
Expand your pose beyond the barriers you have erected for yourself.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Connection and Unity


I have just returned from teaching at a retreat in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains in Connecticut.  My family and I spent 4 days in the woods at a retreat center, which is also a working organic farm, waking up to the birds, connected with the Earth through bare feet and food harvested next to where we were sleeping, invoking grace with prayers and song and mutual love of life.  We were surrounded by like-minded community, great teachers, family and friends. There was no television or radio and, because it was a Jewish holiday, cell phones were for the most part absent.  In the middle of one of the prayer services there was a huge thunderstorm and it literally felt like God and nature were participating in our prayers (yes, the G word!…if that description of the force of life that spins the planets and breathes life into all things doesn’t suit you, plug in any word or description that does!).  Needless to say, it was a time of deep spiritual connection for me and my family.  

When I got home, like it always does when I return from retreats and trainings, it was hard to land back in Bergen County.  I could feel the shift happen as the roads became wider and less windy, cows and bobcats were replaced by fast food drive-thrus and mini malls.  I felt the cord of my connection to sacred space and wise old souls grow more threadbare with each passing mile and I begin to sink into despair.  Why do I have to come home??  Why can’t I feel at home like I do in the mountains??  The day after I return from retreat I always have a day or two of contemplation about moving my family to the woods, to live off the land where I feel so connected…of course these thoughts only last a day or so, because when I’m honest with myself the thought of being so far away from a decent restaurant, museum, concert hall, and yes, if I’m REALLY honest, shopping mall, sends me into a different kind of despair!   But these thoughts do help me to put my life in perspective.  When it comes down to it, I do love and value my life here, yet I am so grateful for these opportunities to step out of it from time to time and travel to places that connect me so deeply to community and to Source.

Part of what brought me out of my return-to-reality-funk was to look up the poem of the week at Shree.  As always, it seemed to speak directly to me and my experience:

Just like a sunbeam can't separate itself from the sun
And a wave can't separate itself from the ocean
We can't separate ourselves from one another.
We are all part of a vast sea of love
One indivisible divine mind.
- Marianne Williamson

 

The truth of it is whether we are up on the mountain or in a business meeting, on our yoga mats or on a crowded airplane, in child's pose or caturanga, we cannot be cut off from each other or our Source.  No matter how distant or disconnected we might feel, how far away from loved ones or the Divine, the deepest essence of our being is one with all things. That energy is where we come from and where we return to, as much a part of us as our heart and brain and lungs.  Every yoga practice is a reminder of this – one of the reasons we come to the mat is that it helps us to feel that connection more palpably, and the more we practice, the more it stays with us as we move off the mat.  Yoga is the opportunity to come to a sacred space, surround ourselves with the kula (community of the heart), and to deeply connect to our bodies and our breath as vehicles for awakening.  But we can’t let our remembrance of that connection be dependent on where we happen to find ourselves in any given moment.  Our feeling of connection, or lack thereof, is a prison or a playground of our own creation.   Whether we feel it or not, we are all deeply connected to one another all the time. As I was reminded so beautifully by Chaya and the other beautiful souls who come to practice at Shree this morning, our yoga, or union, is the practice of reuniting ourselves with that connection, and bringing it forth into the world and into every interaction we have so we can celebrate our lives to our fullest capacity. I am so grateful for our sacred space and the amazing spirits who frequent it!

Off the mat:
Over the years as I have studied with many spiritual guides, Rabbis, yoga teachers, and in sadhana with friends and colleagues, one message has come to me over and over again:  In every person you meet, every interaction with every being you come into contact with, see divinity first.  Look into their eyes and see similarity before diversity, oneness before separation, recognize yourself staring back from the eyes you gaze into.  Offer every person you interact with a namaste (this can be done silently, with hands at the heart in namaskarasana or with a simple, gentle nod of the head) with the wish and blessing:

I honor the place in you
in which the whole Universe dwells.
I honor the place in you
which is of love, of peace, of beauty and of truth.
When you are in that place in you,
and I am in that place in me,
we are one.



On the mat:
We worked on bound-arm poses, forward bends, and arm balances in classes this week.  Often when we work into these poses the back becomes slightly rounded and a common misalignment is that the shoulder blades slide off the back and we disconnect, causing discomfort in the shoulder joint, and closing our hearts down.  We practiced remembering that even when the outer form of the pose seems to belie it, that we can still work the inner actions that keep us integrated and connected (i.e. Shoulder Loop, moving the palate back, the head of the arm bones back, and the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward).

Open to Grace:
Breathe into the place in you that is connected to all things - nature, the universe, and all living, breathing beings – and expand your awareness of that place with every breath.
Feel the presence of Shakti in every breath, breathing you, keeping your connection alive.
Breathe in the same breath as everyone in the room and know you are not alone or cut off.
Let the waves of your breath connect you back to the ocean it flows from.

Muscular Energy:
Engage with your Source, feel how your muscles are a container for the divine grace that flows through you and all things.
Hug from skin to muscle to bone to hug into the place in yourself that is connected to all things.

Inner Spiral:
Widen your sit bones to open yourself up to connection.  What it is you wish to connect to is up to you!

Outer Spiral:
Lengthen your tailbone down, anchoring yourself deeply into your connection to Source.

Organic Energy:
Shine your sunbeam to merge back to its source.
Let your eyes and your pose smile and sparkle with the electricity of connection.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shavuot - Offering of First Fruits


I am a little behind in my blog posts because I’ve been planning for and teaching at a retreat for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.  I will offer my thoughts about the Shree poem of the week soon, but wanted to share a little something from one of the classes I taught on retreat to tide you over until then!

Shavuot is an interesting holiday as we commemorate several events in Jewish history and the Jewish calendar, and we celebrate in a myriad of ways.  Although I taught about several of these customs, let’s focus for now on the original intent of the holiday.  Shavuot was originally known as the Ceremony of First Fruits, a celebration of the first harvest of spring.  During the ancient time of the Temple in Jerusalem, there were two offerings of Bikkurim, or First Fruits.  The first is that farmers would select and offer the first of their crops as an offering of gratitude for the bounty of the harvest.  There was no prescribed amount necessary or suggested - the invitation was to bring what you have.  So each farmer offers their unique bounty, according to their own means.   It was a highly personal offering, based entirely on what was sown and reaped, offering back a portion of the blessings of that year’s crops.  The very definition of gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” – inherent in gratitude is the desire to offer back.  This first offering is an offering of gratitude.
 
In yoga practice, we give at the level we can, we participate 100%, not 99%, not 101%.  I hear from students all the time that they aren’t “good” at yoga – they don’t know the language, the poses feel foreign, they are inflexible, etc. When we can let go of negative self-talk, and practice with the intention to offer our own personal “bikkurim”, we recognize the perfect fullness of what we’ve got right now.  I once saw a book (which I have not read so I can’t account for it’s content) called “Life Doesn’t Start 5 lbs. From Now”.   What you have to offer right now is your perfect offering, just as valid and beautiful as the person next to you, regardless of what your poses look like.  We have a word for this in Sanskrit: purnatva.  It means perfect fullness, or being in the state of perfect fullness.  Which doesn’t mean we have everything we want and everything is perfect.  It means we know that our offering, what we have to give, is enough.  When we recognize the purnatva of our lives, we step into the pulsation of giving and receiving that is the nature of the entire universe.  When we recognize the abundance of our own harvest every day we are inspired to offer our own gifts more easily and readily. (Side note - as I was reading through my notes and organizing my thoughts about teaching this theme the night before I had to teach, I received and email from my teacher Todd Norian about this very topic!   Here’s a link to his inspiring thoughts if you are interested in reading more about Purnatva.)

The second offering of bikkurim is 2 loaves of bread offered by the priests on behalf of all the Jewish people.  Bread represents our co-participation with the divine to deepen the gifts we’ve received: the sun, rain, and soil, which nourished the crop and brought us wheat, and our own using of that gift to create nourishment (I knew there was a profound reason I can’t give up carbs…!).  In yoga we do the same thing – we take the gift of our body, in whatever state or condition it is in, and through poses and breath participate with the Universe in creating something even more beautiful and meaningful.  Our bodies are the wheat and the yoga is the bread that we can offer back when we practice with intention. 

 http://img.timeinc.net/time/photoessays/2008/10_kwanzaa/harvest.jpg


At the retreat, which was hosted by a retreat center which is also a working organic farm, we commemorated this long-past tradition by each person taking either a stalk of wheat (to represent the seeds we wish to plant and grow something new), a leaf of spinach (to represent unfurling or expanding deeper into an already present offering), or a turnip (to represent rooting ourselves more deeply into an intention), all grown right there on the farm, and marched holding our offering in a symbolic parade through the camp to the “temple”, led by the goats that produce the farm’s milk.  When we arrived at the symbolic “temple”, we placed our offering on the Earth along with 2 beautiful loaves of bikkurim bread baked that morning, and we danced and sang around the heap of offerings, and celebrated all we had to give.  It was a beautiful, moving ceremony that I was so glad to be part of with my parents and my 3 children. 




Off the mat:
What are the First Fruits you have to offer this Spring?  Do you feel like they are “enough”?  What kind of ceremony can you create to commemorate bringing them forth, and offer back with gratitude?

On the mat:
We practiced during this class with great awareness of our breath, and ended with Viloma pranayama.  Our breath is the gateway to our connection with Source, and the way we participate with the force that breathes us in each and every moment in creating our world, like a dance. In our normal, day-to-day life, Shakti (Shechinah in Hebrew) breathes life force into us even as we are oblivious to her - she is the leader.  When we practice pranayama, we lead the dance.  It is a subtle shift, not to control the breath, but to participate with it more fully, directing the energy of the breath and the prana (life-force) that it brings in more clearly. 

Open to Grace/Inner Body Bright – Our poses start from a place of purnatva, fullness.  As you fill with breath, fill up with a feeling of “enough” in whatever you have to offer today.
Let your poses originate from a deep feeling of fullness and abundance from your soul.
Feel the perfect fullness of yourself today, right now.  Yet with each breath feel your capacity for that fullness to grow – your awareness, your mindfulness, your self- confidence and self-worth. 
Let each breath open you up more for the next breath to come.

Muscular Energy – Firm your muscles and embrace the fullness of your life.
Firm your muscles to feel the bounty of your own harvest.

Inner Spiral - From the place of fullness, open up to more and more as you widen your sit-bones apart.
Expand your inner thighs back and apart to expand beyond perceived limitations.

Outer Spiral – Anchor your tailbone and your awareness in your inherent purnatva.

Organic Energy - Let the pose keep expanding and expanding and expanding.
Flow out beyond the limits of where you've stopped before, allowing your harvest to keep growing and growing.