Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Wisdom of Durga: Asking for Help

The myth of the goddess Durga begins with 2 brothers, Shumbha and Nishumbha.  These brothers want to maximize their spiritual power and to do so undertake a host of intense yogic austerities - standing on one leg in a ring of fire, holding their breath for 1000 years w/arms raised overhead, etc. When Brahma sees their intense practice of tapas (discipline, dedication), he rewards their efforts by granting them the boon they had been seeking: that no man or god can defeat them in battle.   (One of the lessons of this myth is that everyone is offered gifts - it is up to the receiver what they do with the gifts they are given.  Not the lesson I want to talk about today, but worth a mention. Back to the story....)

With their new found power the brothers (known as asuras or demon-gods) become invincible and set about wreaking havoc on the world – they amass enormous armies and conquer everything worth conquering, including land, prisoners, art and women.   When it gets too much to bear, the gods come together to discuss what to do and realize there is a loophole to this boon:  the one thing the brothers can be defeated by is a woman.  Unfortunately there were no female warriors on Earth.  The Great Goddess, up until this point, has been hidden, happy to channel her skills in the form of consorts to the male gods and has ruled from “behind the curtain”.  But the gods realize she alone can solve their problem, so they go to her and for 20,000 years entreaty her to come to earth and set things right.

This is the central teaching of the Durga myth - the Goddess is waiting to be asked.  Sally Kempton in Awakening Shakti says, "Because she is hidden, in order to act in the world the Goddess needs us to ask for help."  To access her transformative power we need to call it out, ask for it, pray for it.  "The power is there, but we have to summon the courage or desperation to ask for it, and it is only in doing so that we bring it forth."

So the Great Goddess descends to Earth in the form of Durga, riding on a lion and bearing an impressive array of weaponry.   In the midst of the epic battle that ensues many other goddesses are born from Durga’s body to fight the onslaught of the huge army the brothers had amassed: first Kali emerges from her 3rd eye (ajna chakra), then Indrani, Saraswati, Vaisnavi, Chinnamasta, and Bhairavi all emanate forth.  The goddesses of course defeat the brothers and their armies, and as Durga lays the killing blow, the asuras realize who she is, and smile with the ecstasy of the goddess filling their being as they dissolve back into her body.

Durga manifesting Kali from her 3rd eye during the fight.

This battle represents the inner battle that happens in us when we undertake any transformative spiritual practice.   For most of us, it is harder to ask for help or to say we don’t understand or we don’t know how to move forward, than to just keep doing what we’re doing and on the surface muddle through.  Yet when we do this, no shift or change in the underlying pattern occurs and so it repeats itself and we stay stuck where we are. It’s like that old saying “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.”  The times in my life when I have been strong and courageous enough to admit what I couldn’t handle, given voice to my stuck-ness, and either asked for exactly what I needed or admitted I didn’t even know what to ask for are the times when I have had huge breakthroughs, when my life has changed direction and charted a new course.  Even the Great Goddess couldn't do it alone, so why do we think we have to?  I was just reading an article about some of the most successful CEOs in the world, and one of the traits they universally share is the ability to choose a good team and to delegate.  They know who and how to ask for help and this is not a weakness but a testament to their wisdom and strength.

In Awakening Shakti we learn that “The grace of the goddess is a 2 way stream.  There’s the movement from the subtle - the movement of grace descending into the human world.  But it can’t land unless there is a calling from below.  It can take different forms – mantra repetition, meditation, prayer – but the calling has to be there."  Help is often hidden and yet always there.  The great work of yoga is to soften out of your own self-consciousness and self-effort and open to help from beyond. 

Off the Mat:
Where are the places in your life where you feel stuck, in a rut, stagnant?  Durga summons the other goddesses into the world to help her fight the battle of her life – who do you need to summon?  What do you need to ask for to get you where you need to go?  If you don’t know, just giving voice to the not-knowing often leads to the answer.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we are working on backbends. Asking for help requires a certain degree of humility, of finding the balance of self-love (individual) and Self-love (universal).   In the body this can be felt through the actions moving the shoulders back to open up the upper back which is chronically stiff from both biomechanics and held stress, while simultaneously resisting the low ribs and belly back which for most of us is much more mobile and flexible.  Drawing the belly back mimics a posture of humility, helping us to more easily admit to what we need.  And once we are ok with that, then the work of opening up the heart happens, moving the back bend to the subtle upper back, which is so hard but so radically transformative.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace:
Use your breath to create a fullness of the inner body and open the back body, softening out of any tough guy persona, and examine what needs to be asked for.
Open to the possibility that you don’t have to do it all alone, that you can ask for what you need to get you there and invite it in with the breath

Muscular Energy:
With the ferocity of Durga firm your leg muscles.
With the fierce desire to transform yourself, fire up every muscle.

Kidney Loop:
(Durga is known as the protector – when we draw the front ribs back before opening the heart we protect the low back during backbends.)
Draw the front ribs back, softening the self into the Self.
Resist the low belly up and back, creating a new pattern of self-discovery and transformation.

Organic Energy:
Let the brilliant light of the Goddess come to you and enliven and brighten your inner fire.
Let the fiery shakti of Durga radiate through you and take the form of your pose.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cosmic Hide and Seek

My two-year-old, Rakhi, is just starting to get into hide and seek.  There are parameters to this new game: he won’t hide alone, he has to have a brother with him while the other one searches.  He only wants to be found, he doesn’t want to be the seeker.  And he hides in the same place, every time.

Hide and seek mimics a “game” the Absolute “plays” with us.  The One, in choosing to become the diverse world of all beings, conceals or disguises Itself in the form of everything in creation – this is called tirodhana.  Unity is disguised as multiplicity.  We, as embodied beings, have forgotten that the “stuff” that we are created from is the same “stuff” that has pulsed in and out of being since the dawn of creation.  And hence our experience on this physical plane is one of separation.

Why does the Absolute need to conceal Itself at all?   For the same reason Rakhi hides – for the utter anticipation, joy and connection of being found (or so the resounding shrieks through my house when this game is being played would suggest).  Why does he do it again and again?  Because it’s fun!  This is essentially the nature of life itself.  The Divine conceals itself merely for the pleasure of finding Itself again and again through the power of anugraha, meaning revelation or grace.  It’s like that old maxim, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.   When we have been separated from our beloved the union is so much sweeter afterwards. This is the innate nature of our entire existence, why we come into being at all - simply for the joy of remembering who we really are.

Yoga is the practice of experiencing the formless through form.  It is one of the ways we remember.  This is why embodied practices are so important - if we are not remembering, we are unhappy because we continue to feel separate and disconnected.   It is through this embodied and therefore limited form that we are able to see beyond limitation and form to our essential nature: unity, pure awareness, and unbroken joy. We use our embodiment as a vehicle for discovering and rediscovering the divine essence that is at the core of our being.  

The reason yoga is called a practice is because we do it again and again.  The Divine act of tirodhana makes us forget.  Yoga brings us to anugraha, to a state of remembering.   

Just like Rakhi's game, there really isn't a mystery - grace is hiding in the same place she always is, but we have to actively seek.  Each time we find her, we remember a little more clearly how to get there the next time. 
In her book Awakening Shakti, Sally Kempton quotes the eco-cosmologist (I’m actually not even sure what that is, but read on!) Brian Swimme: “The universe story is our story, our bodies are made up of split-off particles of star-stuff, the breath we breathe has been breathed by every being that has ever lived.”  She goes on to say “A Tantrika takes it even further.  Our awareness is not only connected to the power of awareness in other creatures, but it is also a miniature version of the great awareness that is the Source of all that is.  The subtle worlds that lie between the transcendent vastness and the physical universe are also inside our own subtle bodies, ready to be experienced by anyone who has the stamina and grace to enter into the inner world of the heart.”

Are you ready to enter the inner world of the heart??   I am listening deeply for those shrieks of delight.

Off the Mat:
This week was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and it is a good reminder of the ways that humanity concealed the unity shining through the diversity, and how far we’ve come as a people in allowing that light to be revealed through all beings.  It’s not that way in all the world yet though, so every time you come to your mat, offer the yogic light you create to shine out beyond the studio or room you are practicing in, beyond the towns and cities in our country, to all the places in the world where the light is even more concealed.  Whatever moment of grace or wonder or peace you are able to connect with during your practice, let that moment awaken you to the power of anugraha so that you may help shine the light of consciousness wherever it might be needed.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we worked on finding the balance between waking up to our inner essence through Muscular Energy and engagement, especially the inner thighs which tend to be weak and "asleep".  Once we feel that inner connection, we can let the light of awareness shine through the pose in the form of Organic Energy.  It is the balance of these two essential energies of the body that creates strength, radiance and beauty in our bodies and our poses. 

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace:
Breathe in and let the subtle inner body fill with all the aspects of yourself you cannot see yet you know are there.
(As you step into poses) Place sacred feet on sacred earth - aligning the feet to align with Source within and without, that takes the form of all of creation including you. 

Muscular Energy: 
(this energy is a co-participating w/divinity – engaging muscles to engage with Source)
Wake up your inner thighs to wake up to your inner essence of unity, pure awareness, and unbroken joy.
Firm your muscles to affirm your own unique embodiment of the Divine Source.
When we engage skin to muscle to bone we engage with what is concealed to our eyes (from what we can see to what we can’t) and remember that we are much more than just skin, muscle and bone.

Organic Energy:
Shine the light of the Absolute through the vehicle of your body.
Let the pose reveal the Grace that is your highest bliss.
Let Grace reveal itself through you, in the form of the pose you are in.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What are you worrying about?

Bhakti sutra #79: “Bhagavan alone is to be worshipped without worry, all the time, with all the heart."

First question – who or what is Bhagavan? The word Bhaga means share, or portion.  It also means benevolence or graciousness.  So Bhagavan is the one who possesses “bhaga”: as Bill Mahony says, "The one who shares divine care, affection and love for the human soul."  So basically it is another name for Love, God, the or Consciousness that portions itself out with benevolent grace to pervade the entire universe. 

What struck me about this sutra was that it doesn't say "Bhagavan alone is to be worshipped all the time, with all the heart." It makes the distinction of "without worry".   To someone who struggles with anxiety (otherwise known as "worry"), this is a striking distinction.  I am a worrier.  It is, unfortunately, how I react in many situations – I’m usually not aware in the moment that I am “imagining the worst”.  It is only later when I’ve had time to step back and bring my rational mind to whatever happened that I realize I've been anxious about something.  When I take the time to  reflect on how I'm feeling and engage my mind and my heart in the in that reflection, what I know is a deep faith in the workings of the Universe.  I remember that there is a greater plan to which I am not totally privy to or in charge of and that my life has proven to me that that plan is intelligent, benevolent and gracious, and not just about me.  My life has proven to me that everything will be okay in the end, that things will work out the way they were meant to (even if not necessarily how I want them to be), and that if things are not okay, it just means it's not the end yet. 

So what am I worrying about?

I think often worry is equated with love.  If someone is worrying about you it must mean they care about you, right?  And if you're not worrying, you must not care  about something or someone enough.  This couldn't be farther from the truth.   When we fall into a paradigm of worry it takes away from our own enjoyment of life, and the enjoyment of life of those we are worrying about, by bringing more stress into what is probably already a stressful situation.  One of our wonderful Shree teachers, Valerie, says it this way: “Worrying is like praying for something you don’t want to happen.”  Because wherever we direct our energy towards is what expands in our lives.  It clouds our vision from seeing what might be possible in terms of where we WANT to go, and instead directs our energy and carves a path towards where we DON”T want to go. 

On paper this makes perfect sense.  In practice, of course, not as easy to implement.   How can we not worry when we or our loved ones are sick, or out of work, or facing other hardship or challenge?  Like all things in a yogic life, we need to find balance.  We need to learn how to engage concern which spurs us to action, rather than leading us into anxiety which can be paralyzing.  The action it should inspire should keep us moving in the direction we wish to go, towards whatever will help alleviate the situation we find ourselves in.  Which might mean a goal or treatment that will move us out of a challenging situation, or moving into acceptance of a situation that is not going to change and we will have to live with.

Yoga practice helps to connect us to all the aspects of our being - those we can see and those we can't, which inspires faith.  Faith helps us to feel certain of realities we can't see, and in doing so dissolves worry.   Every time we focus on the breath we invoke faith by connecting our awareness to the force that breathes us.  Faith allows us to soften, to accept that we are not ultimately in control, and in that knowing, let go of anxious or worrisome thoughts and feelings. When we can let go of those thoughts we live with more ease and joy, and we inspire the same in those we love.
Bill Mahony says: “Faith in divine Love is based in the experience of human love in all of its delightful, poignant, touching, transforming ways, even in a world that does not always seem to express such love.  When there is faith, there is the possibility of movement forward in life within its uncertainties.  The world will always present us with complexities, contradictions and vicissitudes.  Yet, when there is love for God, that love will remain steady and trusting and, in this sense, without worry.”

Off the Mat:
Become aware of anxious or worrisome thoughts.  When they come up, see if you can direct your thoughts to what you want the outcome of a situation to be rather than what you are nervous that it might become.  Sometimes this is just a feeling of acceptance when we know it is something we don’t have control over.  Either way this moves us from the paradigm of worry to an environment of moving forward.

On the Mat:
In asana practice in my classes we worked on opening up the back body, which is our connection to the unknown and to our faith.  We practiced going upside down with the awareness of engaging our abdominals to broaden and stay full in the back waistline (which often collapses in poses like pinca mayurasana or forearm balance, and handstand) and to keep us connected to faith as we turn our world upside down. 

Open to Grace:
Breathe in and fill with faith in the benevolence, gracious goodness that is Bhagavan.

Muscular energy:
Draw arms and legs to the midline, to the place in the middle where we can feel love and compassion without it turning into worry.
Firm your  muscles and affirm your faith in the ultimate benevolence of the universe/Bhagavan

Kidney Loop:
Draw the front ribs together and move the floating ribs back to engage abdominals and trust.
Broaden your back body and your trust in the universal that things will work out the way they are meant to.

Organic Energy:
Shine with the radiance of knowing your connection to love and grace.
Let your pose glow with your connection to Bhagavan

Monday, November 3, 2014

Aligning with the Light

Last week we began our unpacking of Bhakti Sutra #78 by studying the yama of ahimsa (to see last week’s reflections and the text of the sutra click here).  This week let’s delve into one of the niyamas suggested as a way to move us deeper down the path of self discovery and self love.  The niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are actions and attitudes we can cultivate to help us realize more connectedness.  The first Niyama is saucha, which is usually translated as purity.  As I yoga teacher I have shied away from teaching this niyama because the word “pure” can be problematic.   If we’re not “pure” then we must be “impure”, right?  In many cultures being “impure” has punitive and shameful connotations.  What comes up for you when you hear that word?  Exactly.

The practices of Saucha in the classical yoga tradition were in part meant to cleanse the body.  Practices like neti pot to flush the sinuses and nauli to cleanse the abdominal organs were part of saucha practice.  Although these practices can be helpful for maintaining health of the physical body, in the Tantra tradition we approach saucha not from the idea that the body is a problem that needs transcending or fixing by “purification”, but that at our essence, we are pure.  And yet we forget that the Absolute is whole, unadulterated light, and that light is pure, clear, radiant and brilliant and it is what we are made of.  One of the reasons newborn babies are so precious is that they exist as closely as possible in human form to that pure state.  As life goes on, the bright pure light gets dimmed by experience, but it’s our job as yogis to reconnect to that light through all our actions.

When we acknowledge that as manifestations of the divine we are at our essence pure, we need to make choices that help us to reveal that pure light – this is the essence of Tantric saucha practice.  As beings with free will it is our choice. So in all we do we must make sure that we are aligned with the purpose of promoting connection, harmony and peace within ourselves and among all those who we interact with.  Since we have a choice, we can act in a way that aligns us more fully with that pure light, or a way that doesn’t.  So there isn’t such a moral judgment related to “purity”, it simply means acting in alignment with the light, or not.  Moving towards the pure light of universal consciousness or moving in another direction.

In yoga practice one of our highest objectives is to move towards spiritual evolution according to each one’s own possibilities, or in terms of the Bhakti sutras, to move towards love.  So what are the practices which bring you closer to that experience?  A friend once said to me that “The moments of greatest spiritual purity are moments in which I am able to act without any trace of moral conflict.” Practicing saucha means engaging in activities, food drink, work & relationship that brings you closer to your true nature of pure, unadulterated light of consciousness, which of course brings you more joy and ultimately more love.

Off the Mat: 
  • Create a Pure body: practice kriyas (cleansing practices) like neti pot, tongue scraping, trataka dristhy (gazing).  Practice nadi shodhana, the channel purifying breath.
  • Eat Pure foods: strive to eat no chemicals, preservatives or genetically altered ingredients, and no highly processed foods.
  • Create a Pure environment: one that is clean, orderly, and keeps outside energies out (for example taking off your shoes and washing your hands when entering your home) to maintain the purity of inner energies.
  • Aim for Pure thoughts: free from judgments of others or yourself, free from worry, doubt, fear and negativity.
  • Have Pure conversations: free from gossip and hurtful comments
On the Mat: 
In my classes this week we did a full-spectrum class, touching on all classes of poses including standing/strength building poses, abdominals, hip openers, arm balances, backbends and inversions.  We did simple, straightforward sequences with the intention to focus on our alignment in every pose to help our bodies line up so that the light within can flow most freely and easefully. When we practice with good alignment we are practicing purity in the body. As a teacher once said to me: “Practicing purity leads you into purity, and then, strong and steady in your own pure light, you become a force of purity. You can walk into even the most wretched place and, just with your own vibration of coherence and clarity, shift it towards light and beauty.”

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace: Breathe in and let the pure, auspicious light of consciousness at the core of your being fill you up.
Let the breath be pure and clear, easeful and flowing.

Muscular Energy: Onto that light inside, firm the muscles encasing and protecting it.
When we tone the muscles they become more “pure” by acting out their own given purpose.
Magnetize the muscles to the bones as you direct all your actions towards the inner light.

Inner Spiral:  This is a refinement of energy, a more subtle shift towards clarity in the body. As you move your inner thighs in, back and apart, shift your awareness inward towards the untainted light that is your true nature.

Outer Spiral: Direct your tailbone down and your awareness towards the light.

Organic Energy: Let the unadulterated light emanate from the center of your being.
Let your intention to align with the purest aspect of your being shine outwards.
Let the radiant light that is your essence shine out unimpeded.
(In honor of Halloween) Like a jack o lantern, let the light inside shine out.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Drive-thru Empathy

The practice of yoga does not just exist on our mats.  If we embrace the teachings, they offer a moral compass so that the way we live our lives becomes our yoga practice.  In Exquisite Love, Bill Mahony offers this suggestion:  “(One should) follow the ways of approaching and living life that support the devotional attitude and enhance our ability to express love.  These virtues should be fully protected and nourished.”  This is a commentary on Bhakti Sutra # 78 which says:

Unwillingness to do harm, truthfulness, purity, generous compassion, the affirmation of Divinity, and other such modes of conduct are those that should be fully protected.

There are lots of suggestions here for living a mindful, meaningful life, but let’s focus on the first one “unwillingness to do harm”, or in Sanskrit, ahimsa.  This word is usually translated as “non violence”, but the literal translation is closer to “non-harming” (himsa meaning harm, the a negates it).  I’m assuming that all of us on a basic level think, ok, easy enough, don’t be violent.  But I was thinking about it in practical terms of what might help us to put ahimsa into daily practice in our own lives, and empathy is what came to mind.  Being willing to see the world through another's eyes, or to see another's view helps us to put ahimsa to use in our relationships because when we have judgmental or cynical thoughts towards those around us we do cause harm in a more subtle way.

Here’s an example.  Food.  I am very strict about eating non-GMO, organically grown food.  I rarely eat meat, and only do when I know exactly how it was raised and where it came from. I get my organic, grass-fed milk delivered direct from the farm every week. I shop at the farmers market, and I drive 20 minutes to Fairway or Whole Foods to get everything else.  I see this as a positive thing for myself and for my family, adding to our health, and something I do out of great love.  However, although I try not to be, I tend to be very judgmental about other people's eating habits, especially those that don’t agree with my own.   A while back I was chatting with another mom and she was sharing proudly that although she had run out of milk that morning, on her way to school she went through the McDonald’s drive thru to get milk for her children so they wouldn’t go without it for the day.  Yes, I had the same reaction as you probably did.  McDonalds?  For mass-produced, hormone-filled milk?  Don’t you know you could just give them some kale and they would get the same calcium?  Right from love to judgment.  
Of course I stopped myself from saying any of this aloud.  When I stopped to think about it, I realized that what she was doing came from from the same well of love and devotion for her children as I have for mine.  It was no less an act of love than driving out of my way to the supermarket I choose to shop at. When I back up and try to see things through another perspective I realize that of course we are all doing the best we can, that every mom is feeing her child in the way that she understands to be the best for that child and that I might not actually know better.  Life is just not that black and white.  

When we cultivate empathy we recognize that other's beliefs, ideas, and feelings are just as important as our own, and we expand our feeling of bhakti or love to encompass those ideas.  When we practice empathy we practice ahimsa - we try to see how the other sees and realize that, for the vast majority of us, the way we choose to act comes from love.  And since the way we all love is different, but no less valuable, or valid, or pure, it manifests in a million different ways – from the farmer’s market to McDonalds.  This doesn’t mean we change our own ideas or beliefs, it simply means we try to see another perspective, and we acknowledge that that perspective has just as much validity as our own.  And our ability to express love grows.

Off the Mat:
Practicing empathy is relatively easy when we’re talking about issues such as food.  The bigger the issue is, the more people it affects, the harder it is to reconcile our beliefs with those who’s ideas oppose them.   When the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict began my Rabbi encouraged us to read all the press we could - including and especially those that we did not agree with so that we had a really full picture of what was actually going on - not just the version that felt the most comfortable.  This week, turn on a radio program that you normally wouldn’t listen to, try to really hear what the contrasting voice is saying.  Have an open minded, calm, respectful conversation with someone who has different political views from your own.  Read a well-written article in support of an idea that is in conflict with your beliefs.  Don’t do this with the goal of changing your mind – it probably won’t and honestly shouldn’t.  But when we can practice empathy, honestly trying to see the world through a different lens, we soften around our hardcore ideas and we admit that perhaps we don’t know what’s best for everyone, just what’s best for ourselves.  Then we can respond from bhakti – love – rather than fear, from compassion rather than judgment, and we put ahimsa into action in our lives as a guiding principle.

On the Mat:
We practice twists in my classes this week.  When we twist, we have to keep one part of the body really stable, in most cases it’s the hips that stay steady, and the torso rotates around the spine so we get the really beneficial “wringing out” of the internal organs.  In this way, we stay grounded in our own beliefs, and yet can still turn and see another perspective.

For the Anusara junkies:

Open To Grace:
Expand your breath and expand your vision to see the world from another perspective.
Breathe in and expand your awareness of the sacredness of all things.
Place your feet (in standing poses) to stand strong in your beliefs and ideas.

Muscular Energy:
Firm the muscles to engage with your ability to empathize.
Engage the muscles of the legs and hips to stay steady in what you believe in.

Level and parallel your hips, staying rooted in your own beliefs but turning to see another view.
Turn from the deepest core of your being towards empathetic understanding of another.
Turn the whole upper body towards a deeper understanding of all that you encounter.

Inner Spiral:
Expand sit bones and expand your capacity for compassion for all those around you – those you like and those you don’t.
Widen your sit bones back and apart and make space for all beings to live joyful, peaceful lives

Outer Spiral:
Sweep your tailbone down and anchor yourself in sensitivity towards all beings.

Organic Energy:
From the core of your being, send loving-kindness to all those in the room.
Send out your intention to see all those around you with empathy and love.
Let bhakti radiate empathetically outwards, encompassing all beings.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ecstasy arising

Bhakti Sutra 6: “Having known which, one becomes ecstatic; one becomes stilled, one comes to delight in the Self”

So first we come to know what bhakti is (for a refresher check out last week's blog entry), then once we "know" it, what occurs is ecstasy, quiet, and delight.  The word matta, translated here as "ecstatic", has many layers of meaning.  Other descriptions of this experience are: an exhilarating, bubbling forth of happiness; heavenly delight; spiritual intoxication. Bill Mahony defines it as "Exuberant gladness that seems to flow outward from one’s core, freeing the soul to roam thru wondrous and beautiful realms."

When I read this translation I could immediately call to mind many such experiences I've had, but one stood out above all the rest.   (I’ll ask your forgiveness in advance for getting personal.)  I have 3 children, and had challenging births with my first 2.  My labor with my 3rd son (who just turned 2) was quick and intense, and it was my only natural birth.  It was an amazing experience on many levels, but what was most amazing was that as each powerful and uncomfortable contraction began to wane, in it’s place a feeling of utter joy, ease and contentment would rise up and take its place and stay with me until the next contraction would begin.  It was not just a feeling of relief that another one was over, but an actual enjoyable and ecstatic state would come over me.  So in the midst of the benchmark for suffering in the world I was having one of the most sweet and intoxicating experiences I’d ever had.  It felt like, just as the word matta describes, a “bubbling up of heavenly delight”.  The feeling was so strong that it lasted several days, and even though I had a newborn I felt completely energized and full of love and joy.  I needed very little sleep and didn’t feel the least bit tired (that came later, like when your still-nursing 2 year old has a head cold and can’t sleep so he wants comforting from 1:00 – 4:00am….).

This was a dramatic and transformative experience for me, but when I reflect on this feeling I realize that it happens quite often really, in smaller but just as life-altering ways.  After a good, long, hard run.  Unexpectedly running into a dear friend.  Turning a corner to see a huge, beautiful full moon rising above the landscape.   I’m sure you’ve had experiences like this too – sweet moments of connection to grace when you feel spontaneous tears of happiness spring to your eyes, or goose bumps raise up on your skin, or your heart swell up with love or joy.  Now here’s the thing: you have to expect that it is going to happen, you have to be open to it.  Bhakti is always there, every present at the core and as the essence of our being.   But as many times as we are reminded of it, we forget it’s there.  Especially during challenging times, it becomes dormant until we allow it to rise to the surface.

So how do we allow it to bubble up?  When we are aware of times we have had the experience of bhakti we become more and more open for it to happen again, and the more it happens the more we invite it and the more it happens.  The start of this sutra says, “having known which”, meaning that once you’ve had an experience of bhakti you become aware that it is there.   And, like beating a pathway through the woods (or in this case a neuro-pathway in your brain), the more it is travelled, the clearer the path becomes.  We have to have the actual experience of it to really "know" it, then the ecstasy and delight surges up.  When we practice yoga, we “practice” bhakti.   On the most superficial level by simply taking loving care of our bodies, then deeper as we let go of judgments of ourselves, connect through our breath and our awareness to our ineffable, effervescent essence, and through the vehicle of the poses themselves, allow that essence to reveal itself from the inside out.  When we allow ourselves to feel the ecstasy that is our true nature, we are truly able to “delight in the Self”. 

Off the Mat:
What experiences in the past, big or small, have you had where love (or happiness, joy, or ecstasy) has just bubbled up and overflowed?   Become more aware of these experiences on a daily basis.   I spoke in this commentary on the more ecstatic nature of this feeling, but note that this sutra also mentions that this feeling can come in stillness as well.  Sometimes the "knowing" of bhakti leads us into a quiet and profound state of simply being.  When you have such an experience, either heavenly delight or deeply reflective and quiet,  allow yourself to pause and savor it – let it come to the forefront of your awareness.  Each time we do this we invite more of these experiences into our daily lives.

On the Mat:
Hopefully your yoga practice inspires matta in you each time you practice.  To help encourage it, use the conduit of Ujayyi breath each time you come to your mat.  Ujayyi means “triumphantly uprising”, referring to the dormant energy that lies at the base of the spine.  But we can also think of the energy of bhakti – as you breathe, let the love and joy that is your true nature rise up with every inhale, and with each exhale let it overflow, giving the pose a radiance and beauty beyond just the physical form.
In my classes we worked on keeping the natural curve in the neck in all poses, with the goal of allowing the bhakti to rise up through a clear, unimpeded channel.  In more advanced classes we worked towards sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulderstand), two inverted poses with many benefits. When you release out of holding any well-aligned inverted pose for an extended period of time, there is always an uprising of energy – a bubbling up of joy.  Come out of these poses slowly and savor the ecstasy that floods through your being.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace:
Let the joy that is your true nature bubble up to the surface of your skin and fill you with an inner fullness.
Breathe in and fill up with the ecstatic feeling of bhakti.

Muscular Energy:
Embrace the effervescent ecstatic love at the center of your being with every muscle.
Hug from skin to muscle to bone to the ineffable ecstasy at the core of your being.
Hold the muscles and the pose in stillness to connect to the quiet underlying joy that suffuses all of creation.
Make your skin like wrapping paper, encasing firmly the joyful gift that lies within.
Make your muscles like the cork holding in the champagne ready to bubble out.

Skull Loop:
Create a curve in the neck to allow the joy to bubble up unimpeded.
Draw the sides of the throat and the tops of the ears back and soften down the front of your face, keeping the channel open for ecstasy to rise.  (Energy rises more easily up an unblocked channel - the channel is open when the curve is in it's optimally aligned position.)

Organic Energy:
From the inner well of knowing let your ecstatic essence spill over.
Let the effervescent joy pour out from your soul like champagne at a party.
Let your joy rise up and overflow.
Free your soul to roam thru wondrous and beautiful realms.
Spread your energy out beyond the confines of your physical body, into an extraordinary experience of joy and love.

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 Narada 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.