Wednesday, February 19, 2020

On the Guru





In 7th grade I had a beloved teacher, Mr. Gittler. He was my social studies teacher and was the first to introduce me to eastern philosophy, which was part of the curriculum at my school, but was also a topic that was dear to his heart so he taught it with joy and excitement.  After studying with him for some time, I came home from school and told my conservative and observant Jewish mother that I thought I was actually a Hindu.  Needless to say, it was not so well received at the time (although to her credit, she came around). Fast forward 10 years and I married a Hindu, but that’s another story for another day. 


The third word of the Anusara invocation is gurave, which comes from the root word guru. Guru is traditionally defined most simply as a teacher, but usually understood as a spiritual guide or mentor. If we break the word down even more we get gu = darkness, and ru = removal; from this we understand that the guru is that which removes the darkness of ignorance and helps to reveal the light of awareness. In Tantric yoga one way we understand this is through the guru tattva (or principle). My teacher Todd Norian teaches that the guru is the wisdom that has flowed through all time and space from the Absolute. The guru is simply the vessel that that wisdom happens to be flowing through in that moment.

In this way, we can understand guru to mean the process by which we are led from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge, from our limited human awareness to the unlimited awareness of consciousness. So the guru doesn't necessarily have to be a person or a teacher in the form of a human. The guru can be a good friend or family member, a particular situation that caused a shift in your life, a transformative experience, an injury, a heartbreak; really anything the leads to a deeper understanding of the wisdom that already exists inside of you. The late, great Ram Das said “If you know how to listen, everyone is the guru.” I can speak for myself when I say that I often look outside of myself for advice, guidance, and  wisdom. Yet when I think back to my most influential “teachers” they were the ones who guided me to my own inner wisdom, to a latent knowing deep inside that was ready and longing to be awakened and remembered.

What was most profound to me way back in 7th grade was not that I was learning something “new”, although in a way I was. What led me to come home and make my angina-inducing declaration to my mother was that I felt like what I had always known to be true in my own heart had finally been given a vocabulary. It was as if Mr. Gittler gave voice to my innermost thoughts and feelings that I hadn’t previously been able to name or categorize or even fully understand until that moment. It felt like my very existence was being validated. It was the same feeling I had when I met my husband: oh, I know you. You’ve been here in my heart all along.

The two words that precede gurave in the Anusara invocation are namah shivaya. The word namah means adoration, homage, or respect. It is the root of the word namasteThe word shivaya comes from the root shiva, meaning auspiciousness.  It is one of the words for the all-pervasive, eternal light of supreme Consciousness of which all of creation, including all of us, is made from.

So put together namah shivaya gurave says:

I bow to all of creation, all of life, as my teacher. 
I honor the flow of wisdom in the universe and I open to its teachings in any form it comes.
I pay homage to the One source of being which flows through every experience leading me from darkness to light.  

And if the Sanskrit doesn’t do it for you, you can just remember the English acronym: G-U-R-U.
 
 
Off the mat practice: Attempt to view every experience as your teacher: the car cutting you off on the highway, an argument with someone, a beautiful moment in nature or with a friend, an illness, a loss. Ask every emotion that comes with the experience what it has to teach you, why it came to you in that moment.

On the mat: Let your body be your teacher, even when you're in a class. Listen deeply to what it needs and respond in kind. Let every pose be the guru, revealing its blessings and challenges.

Monday, February 17, 2020

What I Long For


By Chaya Spencer

Listening to a podcast interview with the author of TheOverstory, Richard Powers, I am filled with a longing to experience an old growth forest.  I have a longing to feel part of something so majestic, so ancient, so alive and so….BIG.  Powers describes stepping into such a forest in the Smoky Mountains and how it was a transformative experience. He spoke of how it smelled different, sounded different, felt different. Trees there are thousands of years old.  He said, “Did I become smaller and more vulnerable, yes, but I also became larger it a Whitman-esque way. I started to contain multitudes, or they started to contain me.”  In North America, only 2-5% of old growth forest still exist.



I want to experience that I contain multitudes and that they contain me. I long to feel deeply connected and part of the whole.  The first law of thermodynamics, states that energy can neither be created nor destroyedenergy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. Yoga philosophy teaches that the universe is one energy manifesting as all of creation.  That one energy is represented by the vibration - the sound of OM, or AUM. It has agency - the agency to create, sustain and finally dissolve all the matter back into vibration, back into energy, back into AUM.

When I think and feel that I am a simply one manifestation of a ubiquitous vibration, I begin to recognize that myself: my body, mind and spirit and everything else is sacred.  I want to step into the ancient forest and feel connection, and feel that energy that I am contained in; that huge oneness. 

In the Anusara invocation, which is taken from the Upanishads, the first line is: Om Namah Shivaya Gurave.  Nama/namas/namah is the word for salutation or praise.  It is the sense of bowing to the sacred in everything.  It is the invitation to recognize that we’re all made of the same stuff and that stuff is sacred and special and it is you and it is me.  At the rare times when I remember this, I touch my keyboard, the oak in the yard, my body, the food I eat, the dishes, my family  as  sacred. I Namah, I bow, I salute and honor it all.  Maybe I don’t need to step into the old growth forest after all.  Maybe that for which I long is right here with me.

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the airdrink the drinktaste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
 ~  Thoreau


If you'd like to join us at Shree for our book club, we're currently reading The Overstory for our March 15th meeting at 4:00 pm.  You are most welcome to join us.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

My Indomitable Hero


By Chaya Spencer

When a heart is so fierce and committed to freedom and joy, it seems no hardship can quash it for long.  That is what I learn from our long time yoga student Herb Benkel who returned to yoga this week with his new prosthetic leg and foot after an epic journey.  A yoga practitioner of 33 years, Herb has been through the literal wringer (read Herb's story here) - through numerous surgeries attempting to save his leg, then 7 surgeries in six weeks last fall first to amputate the leg above the knee, then to remove more and more infected tissue and bone.  Without enough femur bone, a prosthesis would be impossible, and Herb would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.   It came down to the absolute wire with only 3- 4 inches of femur remaining - just barely enough, though not really enough, to allow for the prosthetic leg and foot.  It hasn’t been an easy journey.  There have been times of real darkness, despair, and frustration.  Yet through all of it, Herb has kept his spirit bright and strong.  He attributes his positive attitude to yoga.  I attribute it to Herb.  He has kept his heart open and rested back in the community of family, doctors, friends and the Anusara yoga community he is part of at Shree. 

1.28.20 Herb and his chair yoga class friends (photo courtesy Chair Yoga class instructor, Susan Walsh)
In Anusara yoga we practice using a system of Universal Principles of Alignment.  When I think of Herb I think of Shoulder Loop and Skull Loop. 

Shoulder Loop starts at the center of the palate and moves back and down to the bottom of the shoulder blades, then forward through base of heart and up the sternum to the palate.

Skull Loop starts at the same place as Shoulder Loop at the back of the palate, moves up the back of the skull and forward down the forehead back to the palate. 

Working together, they lengthen the back of the neck and position the head back directly on top of the spine while simultaneously keeping the chest broad, lifted and open.  When we practice these two loops in our poses as well as in our daily activates, we invite our hearts to stay open to the moment before us as well as the situation ahead. Our heads rest back on the headrest of our community and our own inner forces offering us support and strength, joy and connection.

Through countless setbacks, Herb has maintained this courageous stance towards life.  He is my hero.  I am deeply inspired and moved by him and his journey. He says it was just about survival, but he did it with such a positive, uplifted attitude and outlook.  I was amazed over and again by his stance throughout.  One of our advanced level students said she plans to attend the chair class just to be near Herb.  His positive attitude is spreading!

Yoga is an invitation to flower in our own particular way at our own particular time.  Of course, we have a choice to allow the flowering or to shut down and pull back.  Herb flowered. Will you?  Will I?  As David Whyte writes:

THE SUN
Sometimes
I look out
at everything
growing so wild
and faithfully beneath
the sky
and wonder
why we are
the one
terrible
part of creation
privileged
to refuse
our flowering.
THE SUN
From ‘The House of Belonging’
© David Whyte and Many Rivers Press

Monday, January 20, 2020

Am I Alone?


by Chaya Spencer

Many years ago, a local magazine was writing an article on lonliness and asked me to pose for a picture looking out over a river: a picture of being alone.  I wondered why I was asked.  Did I seem so lonely as to be the poster child for loneliness?  Actually, having grown up with a recurring feeling of having been abandoned, I have often felt alone.  David Whyte’s poem (below) “Everything is Waiting For You” resonates strongly with me for this reason.  He reminds me of the quintessential teaching of yoga: we are not alone; we are part and parcel of a great whole; we are one with all that is.  While these teachings can sound like an abstraction, I find great solace in the practice of yoga that enables me to soften my sense of alone-ness and connect into the “grand array”.  In those moments I am not alone on a profound level which has nothing to do with how many people are with or around me. My sense of self expands beyond my strengths and weaknesses, my personality and shame. I am fulfilled and content just with myself.  It is that experience which I long for.



In our classes this week at Shree, we’re teaching two Universal Principles of Alignment, Kidney Loop and Shoulder Loop, which invite us to soften into and open up to that larger whole. 

Kidney Loop: starts in core of abdomen in line with the middle of the lumbar and spot just below the navel. It is an energetic flow that moves up the back from just below the kidneys to the bottom of the shoulder blades, forward through top of the diaphragm (heart focal point) to base of the sternum, then down the solar plexus to just below the navel.

Shoulder loop: starts at center of the palate (skull focal point). It is an energetic flow that moves down the back of the neck and upper back to bottom of the shoulder blades, forward through the bottom of the heart and the top of the diaphragm, then up the chest and throat from base of the sternum to the palate.

The invitation of these loops is to soften and open the back body towards the experience of connection and inclusion while opening up the chest and heart to embrace what shows up.  As Whyte writes: Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.  Below is his poem in its entirety.  I hope it helps all of us feel more connected and less alone.  Join us in class to practice these principles and explore what it could mean in your life to know you are not alone and everything is waiting for you.

Love,
Chaya


Everything Is Waiting For You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.