Tuesday, March 25, 2014

No Feeling is Final








God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
 then walks with us silently out of the night.

 These are words we dimly hear:

 You, sent out beyond your recall,
 go to the limits of your longing.
 Embody me.

 Flare up like flame
 and make big shadows I can move in.

 Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
 Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
 Don't let yourself lose me.

 Nearby is the country they call life.
 You will know it by its seriousness.

 Give me your hand.

  ~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~
 

This poem was given to me by a student & friend when I was going through a particularly challenging time. It is one I come back to over and over again as a source of great comfort.  It is such a relief to be reminded that no matter where we find ourselves, whether it be great joy and abundance, or heartache and sorrow, that it will pass and another feeling will arise to take its place.   And when we examine any feeling that we find ourselves in, no matter how stuck we might feel in it, how insurmountable it might appear, we realize that it is not stagnant.  There are subtle shifts, ebbs and flows within even strong emotions and feelings, and this is a powerful reminder that shift is possible and even inevitable.



The sacred text Yoga Spandakarika says that all of life is spanda (pulsation).  When we engage with this pulsation we step into the flow of consciousness, which is not a fixed state but one in constant flow and flux.   When we study Tantra we come to know that any emotion is simply the gateway to another emotion - sadness is the predecessor to joy, creation and destruction a continuous, infinite cycle of energy.  All our emotions make up the totality of the universe and they all exist simultaneously. We’ve all had glimpses of great joy in our darkest times, and flashes of darkness at our happiest, and we remember that these are just separate points on the same circle.   

This poem also ignited my faith in the divine.  When I read (no matter what happens) “don’t let yourself lose me” I remember I am not in this alone, that the power of grace and my ability to co-create with that power will help to move me from whatever feeling I find myself in to the next one, and that they are all part of where I am meant to go and what I am meant to experience.  Like most things that are worth anything, this can take time.  So I breathe in and out, in and out, feeling one breath merging seamlessly with the next and knowing that that seamless connection will eventually carry me to the next feeling and experience.

I have a bracelet that my mom gave me that says in Hebrew “this too shall pass”.  When she first gave it to me I only wore it on days when I was having a challenging time, but I’ve taken to wearing it on good days too.  It keeps me anchored in the present, reminded that life is one big circular flow and when I can just be there without clinging (which we do when times are good) or resisting (which we do when times are challenging) I soften and open to what is.  Wherever I find myself will only serve to lead me somewhere else if I can just keep going.  

There is no end, until the end that is, and so we step into the flow and ride the current with as much grace as we can muster.  We’ve all had days where we feel like we just can’t go on another minute – but when we see it as part of the bigger cycle of our lives it becomes less scary to be there.  Just get out your surfboard and enjoy the ride.

Off the mat:
Take some time this week to practice what I call a “circular breath”.  Spend a few minutes every day with your eyes closed breathing deeply and letting each breath flow seamlessly into the next one.  Let the breath become so smooth that you can’t tell where one breath ends and the next begins. 
Be aware of your feelings throughout your day.  When a strong emotion arises, notice that that feeling isn’t stagnant, that it pulses as your breath does.  Notice how, when you focus your awareness on the circular breath, that you can let go of clinging to or resisting that feeling a little bit more easily.


On the mat:
We practiced mindfully moving with our breath, and letting all our movements be smooth and flowing and graceful.  We held challenging poses and reminded ourselves that “no feeling is final”, and when we breathe steadily and smoothly through the challenges that we step into the flow of our lives with grace and acceptance.  We practiced with strong “shins in, thighs out” balancing energies to bring us into surya yantrasana (sundial pose) and visvamitrasana (world friend pose) and their preparatory stages.

Open To Grace: Feel how each breath merges effortlessly into the next one.  Allow your feelings to follow your breath.


Muscular Energy/Shins In: Flare each muscle up like flame, enliven the whole body to awaken to the flow of life.
Hug your shins in to every emotion you have – beauty and terror.
Engage your shin strongly to your upper arm (in surya yantrasana and visvamitrasana and prep poses), feeling how every feeling is connected to another in the cycle of your life.
Hug shin into whatever feeling you are having knowing it will soon pass into the next one.
Hold your shin to your upper arm to hold onto your faith.

Inner Spiral/Thighs Out: Expand your inner thighs to “make big shadows (the divine) can move in”
Press inner thighs out to the limits of your longing.
Widen sit bones back and apart to expand beyond your current feeling.

Outer Spiral: Anchor your tailbone into the flow of one emotion to the next as one big cycle.


Organic Energy: Flare up like flame and let your feelings spread from your heart like fire.
Expand out beyond your recall, past this feeling and into the next.
Send whatever feeling you are feeling down into the earth and then up and out in all directions, letting it go.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Mahabharata, Purim and the Divine Acts of Shiva


We are finally concluding our study of the great Mahabharata. The last line of this epic story is: "What shall we play next?"  For the most part it is a serious tale: there is family drama, war, kingdoms won and lost...but in the end it's just play for the characters spinning out the tale, just another story in a universe of stories.

The Jewish holiday of Purim was this past weekend.  It is a very playful holiday that is born from another serious epic: as the story goes, the Jewish people are about to be killed (what's new, right?) but the interesting thing is how they are saved.  In most religious stories (including the Mahabharata) miracles occur as acts of divine intervention.  In this story the “miracles” that happen are natural events that all line up to create something miraculous.  It is the acts of people, not God, that bring salvation.  In the whole story God is not mentioned once - God is only hinted at.  To signify this concealment, it is customary to dress up in costume, appearing as something or someone else, while our true selves remain hidden beneath the masquerade.

My oldest son was very into the dressing up this year.  He is the kind of kid that appears very confident on the outside – he is successful in school and in sports, has lots of friends - but down deep often feels self-conscious and uncomfortable in his own skin. His costume this year included a mask and he was adamant about wearing it even though I thought it might scare some of the younger children.  He begged me: “But mom, then NO ONE will know who I am!”   I get that – there is a freedom in anonymity, a letting go of our usual persona to try on a different one.  When we put on a costume we can “play” at being someone else, and because it’s not really “us”, we can act out our life in a way that isn’t necessarily within our comfort zone and there is deep discovery and revelation in that kind of play.  It also helps us take life a little less seriously, something that I personally really need to work on, for a few reasons – first, because we know it’s temporary.  Second, it’s not really us so we can be more silly/wacky/wild/carefree etc. and blame it on the costume if we need an out.  Last, and most important, it’s play for the sake of play because really, if we're not enjoying our lives than what is the point?  It’s hard to take life too seriously when you are dressed as a hamentaschen (those little triangle cookies filled with something sweet, which is what my middle son dressed up as)!

And speaking of hidden sweets, this is such a Tantric idea.  The play of the universe is one of concealment and revelation – the Divine conceals itself within us, as us, merely for the joy of rediscovering Itself.  Our bodies are our original costumes, concealing our essence of sweetness, joy, and beauty in bones and muscles and skin.  This “costume” is part of who we are but it’s not the whole story. One of the greatest reasons for practicing yoga is to reconnect to and remember our true nature, the unlimited ephemeral spirit that is hidden and concealed within the limits of our physical bodies.  The practice reveals this to us through mindfulness and awareness, but also through playfulness. Did you ever notice that so many of the poses we practice on our mats are things we did naturally as children?  I see my kids break into spontaneous yoga poses all the time as part of their natural play.  When we cultivate playfulness in our lives we are reminded that life is a celebration, and it is easier to see the happiness and joy that is our true nature.  We try on each yoga pose to explore different aspects of our beings, and each pose gives us a new perspective physically as we arrange body parts to create the outer form, mentally as we face challenges like balancing on feet or hands, emotionally as feelings are released by the energy moving through us, and spiritually as we connect to something greater than ourselves, whether it is community or divinity.

Purim is about play.  You are obligated have a festive meal, get drunk (I’m not kidding), bring gifts to friends, and gather together to hear the story, which is marked with raucous cat calls when the “bad” guy’s name is mentioned.  It is a celebration of earthly pleasures, honoring the physical aspects of ourselves.  But we do it in costume, reminding ourselves that the physical is not all there is, that there is something bigger, something deeper, something richer than just skin and muscle and bone that is hidden, but is the essence of who we are.  And when we remember that, the party really begins.

Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue hidden inside of it.  It is up to the artist to chisel away to reveal it.”  This is what our yoga practice does – chisels away through the stony armor of our daily lives and stresses, the injuries and discomforts of our bodies, the drama of our stories, the hamster wheel churning of our minds and reveals to us the potential and the beauty of who we really are. We remember that every concealment is just the opportunity for revelation later.  Like when it’s 19 degrees during the first official week of spring…it makes that 60 degree day that is coming so much sweeter.

Off the Mat:   
Michelangelo also said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”.  Embrace playfulness this week.  What would set your inner angel free? Play dress up with your children or grandchildren, wear your hair a different way, learn a joke (clean or dirty, your choice!) and tell it to everyone you meet, do cartwheels, draw or color a picture, gather some friends for some good old junk food and play a round of Cranuim (my family’s favorite game) or Balderdash, play hooky from work and stay in your pajamas all day, etc. etc.

On the mat:
We worked on lots of playful poses in class this week – rolling side to side and into Setu Bandhasana from Dhanurasana, wild thing (which  became a pose since so many people fall out of Vasisthasana - side plank!), jumping into Ardha Chandrasana, hopping with 2 feet into Handstand.  You’ve got to have a sense of humor to try any of these  so give it a go – safely please! – and be prepared to laugh!

Open to Grace: Breathe in and expand your capacity for play, for joy for the sake of joy
Set your feet/hands with the intention to establish your foundation in fun.
Breathe in and connect to the masterpiece concealed in the stony exterior of your body.

Muscular Energy: Hug to the midline to connect with your true self, concealed within the costume of your skin.
Hug the midline to remember the divinity concealed within your earthy body.
Hug the midline to connect to your inner child who is playful, free spirited, and celebratory.

Inner Spiral:  Widen your sit-bones to make room for play in your life.
Move your inner thighs back and apart to make space for lightheartedness and levity.

Outer Spiral: Lengthen your tailbone and align with your true nature of happiness.

Organic Energy: Spread your toes to expand your capacity for silliness.
From the core of your pelvis extend through your feet to move out of your serious comfort zone.
Shine out your capacity for playfulness, cheerfulness, and buoyancy.
Let your divinity shine through the costume of your skin.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rippling with Ahimsa


At the end of the great epic Mahabharata, Krishna is pretty much the last man standing – the Pandava brothers have ascended to their enlightenment in the forest, the Kauravas have perished in the war, his brother Balarama has passed, and he is wandering about, missing his friend Arjuna.  He is so disheartened he decides to lie down in the grass and take a nap.  While he is sleeping, a hunter passes by and mistakes his foot for an animal.  The hunter shoots an “arrow of grass” into Krishna’s foot and then hurries over to claim his prey.  He is shocked to find Krishna, dead in the grass.  He wonders how the arrow, which only “slightly pierced his heel” could have possibly killed him?  Realizing there is nothing he can do about it the hunter leaves, feeling disheartened by what transpired.

Although the hunter takes responsibility and feels terrible for ultimately causing Krishna’s death, it is pretty clear that it wasn’t exactly his fault.  Krishna comes into this story as an avatar of Vishnu, the Sustainer of the Universe, who incarnates when chaos reigns as it did for much of the story of the Mahabharata.  But the war is done, life has settled down, everyone ends up where they are meant to be, and so it is just time for him to pass.  The hunter was simply the catalyst for this inevitable shift. 

I was remembering today a time when a friend was planning a visit.  She was conflicted about when to come, arranging her children’s activities schedules and her work schedule, and over the course of several conversations intimated her concerns.  So finally, even though I really wanted her to come and felt disappointed that she might not, I set aside my own feelings and gently suggested that maybe it wasn’t the right time for a visit.  Over the next couple of days she was a little short with me and I got the feeling that she was angry with me, so I finally asked if she was.  Much to my surprise, she replied that she was so hurt that I wanted her to postpone her visit -  she felt like I didn’t even want her to come. My effort at benevolence had totally backfired!

Like the hunter, we often take responsibility for events that aren’t necessarily within our control.  That is not to say we have no part in the story, but life is rarely that black and white. Sometimes it’s just how things have lined up.  All our thoughts and actions have a ripple affect as they flow from us out into the universe, and we can’t always know what that affect will be.  Yoga philosophy teaches us to practice ahimsa, which is often translated as non-violence, but more accurately means non-harming.  And here’s the thing, it simply means to have the intention to not do harm or cause pain…because, as we know, even when we live with that intention our actions can inadvertently cause suffering.  




None of us gets through life without causing harm, whether by ignoring someone's feelings, using more of the earth's resources than we need, or buying products made by underage or underpaid workers. What do we do when there is a spider in our children’s bedroom? Mice in the attic?  How often do we do things that are hurtful or harmful to ourselves?  Every time we put ourselves down, reaffirm our hopelessness, dislike our appearance or see ourselves as incompetent or unworthy we cause harm.  We hold onto feelings of shame, guilt and fear, sometimes not even consciously, and these patterns diminish us and bring negativity to ourselves and the world around us. The goal of ahimsa is to become so steeped in the love and respect that you have for yourself that it emanates from you to everyone around you, and in doing so actually causes hostilities surrounding you to dissipate.

When we cultivate an intention of non-harming, we create an environment of loving-kindness.  We awaken to the sacredness of all of life and treat our universe and everyone in it with kindness and respect.  Simply through the intent to cause less pain, each of us can bring greater dignity to our world.  It might seem like a futile effort in the larger scope of the world, but think about it this way – you are either a part of the solution, or you are a part of the problem.  As always, the choice is yours to make.

Off the Mat: 
Commit to practicing ahimsa in your daily life.  This is relatively easy to do with those we love. Widen that circle to those people in your life you don’t know so well, to every being you come in contact with, even those who challenge you.   Yes, that guy on route 17 who is tailgating you and honking while he’s texting with the other hand, your child’s “friend” who was his BFF last week and this week leaves him last picked for the kickball team, your boss who takes responsibility for the project you completed – them too! 
I read somewhere that the smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.  So don’t let this practice just be an intention: this week, do at least 4 random acts of kindness – towards someone you love, towards an acquaintance, towards a stranger, and finally towards someone who really challenges you.  (Of course more is fine too, but I find that setting small, realistic, achievable goals sets you up for success without taking so much time from daily tasks that you become overwhelmed or resentful).
Here’s the Dalai Lama’s advice on the subject: "Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."

On the Mat:
This week in class we worked on Eka Pada Galavasana, a challenging hip-opening, arm balance pose (we worked on the prep poses in the beginning level and therapeutics classes).  Arm balances require a strong hugging to the center, so we did some good core cultivation.  When we work our abdominals we connect deeply to the core of our beings, our core values (like ahimsa) and it gives us the strength to become airborne.  It also requires a big expanding of the back of the torso which connects us to our universal self, the part of us that is connected to all beings and our Source, making us more sensitive to the world around us. 

Open to Grace: Breathe in and expand your awareness of the sacredness of all things.
Honor yourself in each pose, with each breath, recognizing that you are listening to the deepest needs and desires of your body.

Muscular Energy: Tone your muscles and create a framework for ahimsa to expand into.
Hug to the midline to remember your connection to all beings everywhere.
Hug to the midline and your capacity to ripple out into the world in whatever way you choose to.

Inner Spiral: Widen your sit bones and make space for all beings to live joyful, peaceful lives.

Outer Spiral: Sweep your tailbone down and anchor yourself in ahimsa.


Kidney Loop: Move your waistline back to remember your connection to all of existence, how your actions ripple out into the world.
Expand your kidney area to open up a conduit for loving kindness towards all beings to flow.
Lift the back ribs away from the top of the pelvis to make space in the back body for ahimsa to grow.

Shoulder Loop: Draw your shoulder blades towards your spine to open your heart to embrace all beings, even those who are not open to you.
Soften your heart and soften towards all of humanity.

Organic Energy: Send loving-kindness to all beings everywhere.
Let your intention to do good in the world radiate through your whole pose.
Radiate love and acceptance for yourself and all beings equally.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Kingdom or the Forest?


We are nearing the end of the Mahabharata.  Through this rich story, the Pandava brothers lost their kingdom in a dice game, were banished to the forest for 12 years, returned to battle their cousins the Kauravas, (led by Public Enemy #1,as I have come to call him, Duryodhana), and won their kingdom back.  The Kauravas perish in the war, and the Pandavas are restored to their royal place.  They regain their land, their elephants and horses, their chariots and castles.  All is right with the world, right?  
 
http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_yjY3yi0RmTY/TMakzUukgfI/AAAAAAAAAQc/YA3tbztfDuE/s1600/ExileofPandavas_22885.jpg 


Well, not exactly:  “Joined with Arjuna, Yudhishthira with his brothers and Draupadi, all wearing bark, walked into the north.” (i.e. back to the forest - the north is the Himalayas, a place of hermitage and wisdom).  





Huh?  So they get the castle, the riches, the parties, the food that they fought a vicious war to win back…and they walk away?  If this were a movie (and it is - check out some of the videos on You Tube for the "Cliff Note" version of the story!) I think I'd be a little annoyed at the twist ending!

This is a story ultimately about Dharma, the true path each person is destined to follow in their life.  And their path took them on that whole journey – to the dice game, the forest, the war, the kingdom and back to the forest - all of it was part of their story.  So although the banishment to the forest was at first seen as a punishment of sorts, it was there that they ultimately learned what was truly important to them. They had to come back to fight for their kingdom and, of course, to destroy the evil that had overtaken the land, but it was the means, not the point.  Theirs was a higher purpose.

I have shared before that my family has moved around a lot.  When we moved to Chicago (2008 – 2011) I went kicking and screaming.  But once we were there I embraced it, made it my own and carved out a beautiful life for myself and for my family.  The experiences I had there transformed my life dramatically and created new and unimagined pathways that I never would have found if we hadn’t gone.  Ultimately the path led back here, but I’m so much more open now to where my path might lead me in the future.  Since we’ve moved frequently I’m always saying I’ll never do it again (because really, moving is exhausting!), but when I think about it, that move that I so resisted was one of the best times of my life, a time of tremendous growth and abundance on so many levels.  One of the greatest gifts of that time was learning to not pre-judge a path presenting itself simply because it is not the one that was in “the plan”, and even when it’s not been one of my choosing. 

Our path leads us where we are meant to go.  Every journey becomes an opportunity for growth and even abundance. It’s not always the obvious choice (like the one filled with the riches of a kingdom), but when we live with the intention to devote our lives to the highest purpose of yoga, to connect with innate grace and goodness, it makes the path we do choose (or are forced to choose for one reason or another) easier to follow.  And we know that that path will eventually lead us to what is most important. When we open ourselves to all the possibilities and paths that life has to offer, we align with the fullness and abundance of the universe. 

Off the mat, reflections for your week:
Was there a time when you found yourself in a situation not of your choosing?  Looking back, can you see how it was part of the larger path of your life, how it fits in with the whole of your existence?

On the mat:
Open To Grace: Want what your creator desires.
Step into your breath and into the flow of your dharma. Let yourself be carried by that great river to the places you are meant to go.
Become aware of what is really important to you, where your path is ultimately leading regardless of the winding road it might take to get there.

Muscular Energy: As you tone your skin to muscle to bone, move from external to internal, from superficial to deep and deeply important values.
Firm your muscles to embrace what is really important, and whatever route might get you there.

Inner Spiral: Widen your sit-bones to open to the abundance of pathways that will lead you to fulfillment of your goals.
Widen your inner thighs to broaden the perspective of “having” (whether it’s a kingdom or a pose) and recognize that that is not “it”.

Outer Spiral: Scoop your tailbone to come full circle back to the forest, to the things that are truly meaningful in your life.

Organic Energy: Stretch into the unknown.
Expand into the awareness of your highest purpose of life, regardless of the path you find yourself on.