Monday, December 23, 2013

Amazing Peace

Amazing Peace
By Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God. Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us as we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come. Peace.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
implore you to stay awhile with us so we may learn by your shimmering light
how to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
to translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices to celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.  Peace.

We look at our world and speak the word aloud.  Peace.

We look at each other, then into ourselves,
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation:

Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.

This is a poem about seeing Oneness through pain and fear.  Although I am Jewish, I have always loved Christmas time. It always felt to me like a time of great love and benevolence and kindness, a warmth that envelops humanity during a cold December.   It’s the time of the year that we set aside our differences, we look beyond race, religion, ethnicity, sex, and see the Shree (auspicious beauty) in everything and everyone.  We all dig a little deeper to our own innate goodness and open-heartedness and offer it a little more freely and liberally. In class this morning we started on our backs to start with the feeling of openness and softness that savasana gives us.  Starting the practice in savasana (which doesn’t mean you skip it in the end, you get to do it twice!) imbibes the practice with a sense of softness and a feeling of peaceful tranquility that then guided us through our poses.  Then we worked on bringing a backbend into every pose we did, reminding us that whatever pose we find ourselves holding, in life or on the mat, we can choose to approach it with an open heart.

As we spoke about last week (see last week’s blog entry if you missed class!), when the world starts to get chaotic, Vishnu the Sustainer incarnates to restore order.  In the Mahabharata he incarnates as Krishna, seemingly a man and a king, friend and advisor to the Pandava brothers.  The characters in the story overlook his divinity.  They don’t see it. How often do we do the same thing?  We get caught up in our daily routine and forget to seek out the highest in ourselves and those around us.  Yogi Bhajan said “If you can’t see God in all then you can’t see God at all.”  Holidays are time to see the divine in all, starting with ourselves.

We are living in busy, complicated, and often chaotic times (was anyone else a little freaked out that in the same week in December we had 4 inches of snow and a 70 degree day??).   It’s easy to go into contraction, to close our hearts and protect them.  The holiday season can be the invitation to do the opposite.  To choose to see the Shree.  To choose to be nice, kind, benevolent, generous, not of wallet but of spirit.  To choose to look into the eyes of every person we meet and see divinity and oneness first.  And it is our responsibility as yogis to be open and receptive to those very same qualities when they are offered to us.  To focus on the checkout girl who offers a Christmas blessing (whether you celebrate the holiday or not) rather than the guy in the parking lot who stole your spot.  The sweet thank you hug from a grateful niece rather than the griping about the meal by an allergy-ridden cousin.   You get the idea.

Lao Tzu said:
“If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.”

This season the best gift you can offer those around you is to cultivate peace in your own heart.  2 savasanas per day should do it…if not, add a round of meditation or a few restorative backbends.  Chant a few rounds of Lokah samastha sukhino bhavantu, invoking this blessing: May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

Let your peaceful presence be the present to all those around you this season and always.  Wishing you all abundant blessings, from my heart to yours, for a beautiful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Faith or Fear?

We have arrived at the brink of war in the Mahabharata (the famous war that is the subject of the Bhagavad Gita).  A few chapters ago the Pandava brothers lost a dice game and their kingdom along with it, but have now fulfilled their obligation by living out their 13 years in exile, earning their kingdom back. Duryodhana (who won the dice game) is reneging and refusing to restore them to their kingdom so it’s looking like a fight is imminent.

Arjuna (Pandava brother) and Duryodhana decide to seek advice from Krishna, who is a character and a man in this story, but is also an avatar of Vishnu and as such a God.  They arrive to speak with Krishna on the same day, Arjuna looking for advice, Duryodhana looking for an ally in the fight.  When they arrive Krishna is sleeping.  Duryodhana gets there first and flops down to wait by the head of his bed; Arjuna comes in after and stands by his feet, a respectful distance so as not to disturb him.  Krishna wakes up and asks why they are there, to which Duryodhana answers “There will be a war. Be on my side.”

Krishna refuses to fight but gives them each the choice to either have himself unarmed or an army of 10,000 warriors.  Arjuna chooses Krishna, and Duryodhana chooses the warriors.  Arjuna’s first request is that Krishna drive his chariot if it comes to battle, but to first go to talk to Dhritarastra (the blind king, father of Duryodhana and the Kaurava brothers) to try to broker a peace.  Dhritarastra, who is physically blind but also chooses to be blind to his sons’ behavior, refuses to talk to Krishna and refers him back to his son.  When Krishna goes back to Duryodhana, asking for him to fulfill his promise and return the land that belongs to Arjuna and his brothers, he recounts a story of his father giving away half of his kingdom when he was a child and says that he doesn’t want to lose what is his again and refuses Krishna’s entreaty. 

This is a story about choices and what guides us to make the decisions that we do.  When Arjuna makes the choice to take Krishna as his help rather than the 10,000 warriors, he is choosing to walk with the Divine, even though Krishna makes it clear that he will be unarmed.  It’s not the obvious choice, but it is a choice that is full of faith.  Can you imagine standing at the brink of a war and choosing God over an army?  And yet we have many examples of those who did just that and won the fight in the end (Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.).  Duryodhana chose the warriors, those who would fight and try to win by force. He made a choice from fear.  

When we read these stories we need to remember that every character represents ourselves - it's easy to picture ourselves as Arjuna, aligning with our faith.   But think about the story Duryodhana tells Krishna of losing his kingdom as a child. He was hurt.  He wasn’t feeling loved by his father, and was afraid that it was going to happen again.  Instead of facing that fear and hurt he chooses not only to hold onto it, but also to let it be a determining factor in his life. It becomes his "story".  I won’t tell you mine right now but we all have one - the "I got hurt in the past" story that clouds our vision, moves us from faith to fear, and unfortunately guides our decision making from time to time.  

What is guiding the choices you make?  Making the subtler, less obvious choice is not usually the easy route, but we have to ask ourselves if we are being guided by faith or fear, and which we want to bring forth as we decide on our path. Sharon Salzburg has a beautiful explanation of faith: "In Pali, faith is a verb, an action, as it is also in Latin and Hebrew.  Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don't have, but is something that we do.  We "faithe".  It is the willingness to take the next step, to see the unknown as an adventure, to launch a journey.”  There is a reason we start Anusara yoga practice with open to grace - it softens us, moves us from fear to love, makes us more open and receptive to the possibilities that making the subtle, less obvious choice might bring us.  So go out and “faithe”!

Off the Mat:
Think back to a time when you made a less obvious choice.  How did it work out for you?  How is that outcome guiding your current choices? 

On the Mat:
Open to Grace: Allow yourself to be breathed. Feel how the breath comes and goes without an effort on your part.  In Hebrew the word for breath and soul are nearly the same word - feel how your breath connects you to the ineffable - the life-force that breathes you.  Feel how it fills you and supports your life, both physically and also at the deeper level of the soul. Connect to your breath and your Source and let it become a stronger presence in your life so when you are faced with challenging decisions you have something deeper to draw on than just the obvious.  Align with your faith, tap into your innate intuition and inner wisdom, and let it guide your practice.

Muscular Energy: Draw from the outside, physical aspect of yourself, to the inside, subtle aspect of your being with faith
As your muscles tone, embrace your faith in whatever it is that supports and holds you

Kidney Loop: Breathe into the back part of your waistline, the part you can’t see, expanding your belief in all that you have faith in

Pelvic Loop: Tone your low belly with your conviction in making the faithful choice

The Choice
Danna Faulds

Is it faith or fear
that rises to the fore,
affirmation or negation
at the very core
and center of the self?

Will it be light or dark
Within the heart today?
The icy grip of fear
that knots and sours
leaving me to cower
in the shadows?

There is another way-
I know it as surely as I
know the scent of Spring.
The choice of faith
invites, invokes, calls forth
from all creation
both the blessing
and the lesson
of the day.

Whether faith or fear
the choice is mine alone.
Each moment, choosing,
stepping through the door
trusting that the path
beyond will surely
lead me home.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Waking up

We find ourselves this week in the continuation of the story of the Pandava brothers.  They have just lived out their 13th year in exile successfully in disguise, and awake on the last day to find that Duryodhana (their cousin and exil-er) has stolen all of King Virata’s cattle.  Arjuna decides to reveal himself to the king’s son Uttara to help him go fight Duryodhana to reclaim their cattle.  They set off to find Arjuna’s weapons which he hid in a tree outside the city.  Armed, they confront Duryodhana and his army soon after, and Arjun, instead of harming them calls down the “weapon of sleep”.  As the army sleeps, Arjun and Uttara free the cattle and send them back to the kingdom.  Duryodhana wakes to see Arjun and Uttara fleeing with the cattle back to safety.  He asks his brother Bhishma where his bow is, to which Bhishma answers “It is on the ground, as you might expect when you fall asleep during a battle.”

How often do we find ourselves in a situation and “wake up” and wonder how we ended up there?  It is so easy to fall asleep to our lives!  Sometimes it happens because there are situations and aspects of our lives that we don’t want to see.  Let’s face it, life is sometimes easier when we’re asleep!   We can also check out by simply taking things for granted.  When we moved here 2 years ago and my husband started with his new company, the owner told him that he wanted to meet with him weekly for the first year, not to check in on what Arjun (my husband, yes the same name as the hero in our story!) was doing, but so that he could give him an “outsider” perspective on how things were going.  Arjun could see things with fresh eyes and those meetings had profound affects for both him and the company. 

So why wake up?  Most times when we choose to be asleep (i.e. ignore) something that’s going on it’s because we’re hoping that it will go away.  But that rarely happens - most times we are just putting off something that is inevitable.  So when we choose to wake up and be aware we become co-participants with the Universe in creating the life we desire for ourselves. We put ourselves in the drivers seat, cruise control off.

When we practice yoga we realize that there are so many parts of our bodies that have been “asleep”.  In class this week we worked on Shin Loop and Ankle Loop, waking up parts of our bodies that we don’t often think about, and that often have a hard time engaging.  What I heard from my students in every class was, wow, that was hard, but old familiar poses felt totally different!  And many got into poses they hadn’t been able to before.   When we choose to wake up our awareness of ourselves deepens, and we wake up to the miracle and richness of our lives.  And if what we wake up to doesn’t feel like miracles and richness right off the bat, once we’re aware of whatever it is, we can choose to make a change in that direction.  It’s not easy. But it is totally worth it.

Off the mat practice: Take a moment to do a little inventory.  What have you been asleep to in your life?  Sometimes this is hard to see for ourselves, so ask trusted and loving friends to reflect back to you if you need help (like Arjun at his new company, they have “outside” perspective).  What have you been taking for granted (your job, spouse, kids, housekeeper, friend, your health, your pet, etc.)?   Choose to stay aware and honest with yourself this week.

On the mat:
Take an extra long savasana this week, and make a commitment to stay awake, aware and absolutely relaxed for the duration.

Open To Grace: Take a breath and wake up to this moment - not what happened earlier, not plans for later, right now.

Muscular Energy: Wake up the bones by hugging the muscles to them.
Feel every muscle in the body enlivened and aroused with the awareness of your highest consciousness.

Shin/Ankle Loop: Engage calf muscle and press it forward. As your calf muscle wakes up, feel yourself wake up to what you’ve been taking for granted in your life.
As you lift and spread your toes, spread your awareness to all aspects of your life, the good, the bad, the ugly. 

Organic Energy:  Send out blessings to those you’ve taken for granted.
Offer your light to dark places that are still asleep.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Than the strong. There is always one stronger.

I was visiting my sister for the Thanksgiving holiday and her 4-year old daughter, Layla Rose, is a blossoming gymnastics superstar.  She also takes yoga and she and I like to do yoga together when we are visiting.  As soon as I arrived she pulled me to her gymnastics mat because, unlike her 4 year old friends, I am happy to do gymnastics and yoga for hours on end!  She immediately told me that her teacher announced in class last week that they were going to do “grown up” yoga, and when I asked what that meant she got down on the floor and pushed herself up into tittibhasana (see below for the visual - not the best photo but you get the idea!).  It was totally amazing!  Then she asked me to do it…so I said, well, maybe in a half hour after I do some grown up warm ups.  

Then she got up on her gymnastics bar and proceeded to do about 100 pull-ups and other incredible feats of strength.  I watched and admired her…and then I got jealous.  Of my 4-year- old niece.  Seriously. 

The Mahabharata says “Than the strong.  There is always one stronger.”  And richer, and funnier, and happier, and more peaceful, and…the list goes on.  And on the other hand, there will always be one less strong, less happy, less peaceful, etc.  Although I know all this I guess I just didn’t expect it to be a 4-year-old!   We all compare ourselves to others, it’s human nature, but it is a slippery slope (whether it puffs us up or pushes us down), because either way we are using an external marker to measure our happiness and self-worth.  Most often we compare ourselves to qualities in others that already exist within ourselves so we are more aware of them.  So we can use that awareness to be inspired by someone else's prowess…or we can choose to shrink and feel small.  The bottom line is whichever one we choose to focus our energy on, how we choose to respond to our innate reaction when we witness a display of great skill, is what we grow inside ourselves.  When we can focus our energy on our own unique and individual strengths they grow and become even stronger.  When we focus our energy on our shortcomings they grow too. 

There are many paths to the Divine, but the paths of jealousy and envy aren’t one of them. It’s like taking a wrong turn on the way to the Wizard of Oz – one path finds you stuck and hiding in the forest without courage, or skill or strength.  The other gets you to the end and you realize all was within your power to get there all along.  Like all things, it’s about perspective. 

I often tell the story in my yoga classes of watching an interview with Mohammed Ali a few years ago where the interviewer asked him how did he get through the day being so limited in what he could do due to his Parkinson’s disease, especially after being such an amazing athlete his whole life.  He said (in captions at the bottom of the page because his speech was so slurred) “I do the same thing I’ve done every day of my life: I focus on the things I can do rather than the things I can’t.”  Our yoga practice should help us to embrace and celebrate our unique and individual strengths and gifts.  It can be the opportunity to see what we CAN do. Because really, most days I am pretty happy with the fact that I can do tittibhasana at all, let alone at 38 years old after having 3 kids!  It may not look like Layla's pose and I may need to warm up first, but I've worked hard to be able to do it and I am proud that I can. And when I align myself with that feeling of fullness and happiness for my own body and my own practice I immediately feel stronger and more joyful and that's what I bring forth into the world.
To help cultivate these qualities in your own life, try this off the mat practice this week: Notice how often you compare yourself to others, either putting yourself in the positive light or the negative. Notice if it's more of one or the other.  When you notice yourself doing it, see if you can be aware that you’re judging and actively choose not to.  Become the witness and see what there is to be learned from witnessing without judgment of the other or yourself. 

On the mat try this:
Open to Grace: as you breathe feel yourself fill up with pride for your gifts and abilities
Open to the place that you hold in the universe, your unique and individual thread of the tapestry

Muscular Energy: Embrace fully & completely your strengths
Imagine the midline like a giant magnet for strength and worthiness and feel it pull all of yours into it, concentrating your power

Kidney Loop: (In Eastern medicine, the kidneys represent longevity, and long-term energy storage – think of them as a cosmic battery pack at your back)
Plug your floating ribs back into the positive vision of yourself that the universe holds of you already
Activate your cosmic battery pack and feel it strengthen your core

Organic Energy: Let your unique gifts shine
Let your strengths grow by extending them from the inside out

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hanukkah - Celebrating your Inner Light

I wanted to give the very basic Hanukkah story to start so we have some context for the contemplations to come:
It begins with Antiochus III, the King of Syria, who reigned from 3538 to 3574 (222-186 B.C.E.). When the Romans started penalizing him with taxes he passed the pressure down on his kingdom, including the Jews. He gets succeeded by his brother Antiochus IV who wants assimilation among the kingdom, so he forbids the Jews to study Torah and practice their traditions. The priest Matatthias and a group of dedicated Jews flee to the hills of Judea .  The Syrians come after them and a battle ensues where many on both sides die.  Mattathias elects Judah to lead the defense and calls him “Maccabee" a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Adonai, "Who is like You, God.", usually translated as “hammer”. There are a series of battles (of the smaller Judean army against the bigger Syrian one) and the Maccabees triumph.  They head to Jerusalem to liberate the temple, clean it up, find only one small vessel of oil deemed pure enough for the rededication and it burns miraculously for 8 days.  The priests then appoint these 8 days for celebration and thanksgiving.

This is a deep and rich holiday.  Let’s start with the 8 days - in Torah the number 8 is the number that refers to the world that is "above" nature - a higher consciousness.  Rabbi Samson Rafael Hersch teaches that you can compare it to an octave on the piano - if you play the note C an octave above middle C it is the same not but in a higher reality. Turned sideways it represents infinity.  The number 8 in Judaism refers to a higher reality world, the world beyond the created world, the world of eternal connection to God (we name and circumcise baby boys on the 8th day after their birth, Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate receiving the Torah, is the 8th week after Passover, 8 days of Hannukah, etc.). So Hanukkah connects us to this aspect of our awareness.  

The Syrian Greeks of the Hanukah story were interested only in the physical, in what was visible on the outside and graspable with human intelligence. They brought in idols to decorate the temple, which is forbidden in Jewish practice, but are of course aesthetically pleasing.  My teacher Diane Bloomfield says “Judaism (and yoga!) is dedicated to the connection of the physical with the spiritual and intangible. It teaches an alignment and connection of the physical with the spiritual.” What the Maccabees were fighting was the disconnect from the spiritual.  The conquering Syrians didn't want to know the realm of the spirit, which is why they wouldn't let the Jews study Torah and practice their religion in other ways.  They wanted to disconnect the Jews from the world of higher consciousness because it didn’t make sense to them.  Hanukkah is really about returning to the realm of the spirit.  Very interesting considering how we celebrate Hanukkah in America, right?  Again, it’s not a bad thing to be concerned with the physical – we are embodied beings and neither yoga or Judaism support an ascetic lifestyle and yet both seek balance.  It’s not a “bad” thing to have things, give gifts, dress up, and celebrate , it’s just that when those things become the temple that we pray at that we start to lose touch with our spiritual selves and our connection to the Divine.  It’s like going to a yoga class that is too based in the world of the physical, concerned only with the physical practice – there is something missing. 

The word Hanukkah is of course a Hebrew word.  Hebrew is a really interesting language because every word has a 3 letter root and a number associated with it.   We often learn a lot about the deeper meanings of Torah by breaking down the words themselves.  When we break down Hanukkah down can mean several things: 
Chana (the “ch” is not pronounced like the English, but a guttural sound in the back of the throat): to rest in, to dwell in, to settle
Chen: one of the 8 synonyms in Hebrew for beauty, it can also mean grace or favor – the aspect of beauty that expresses itself through the aesthetic of graceful symmetry (so yogic, right?!)
Cah: this is a word that hints at a higher realm, the un-contracted light of God.  Its gematria (numeric value) is 25 which is an important number mystically: the 25th word of the Torah is light, Hanukkah is on 25th of the month of Kislev, the world was created on the 25th day of the month of Elul.  So we take this to mean that it is the day that God began to create the physical world, and it began with creating “light”.
So putting that all together Chana-cah means: (time to) rest in/dwell in the (in-dwelling) light that is God, or resting in the grace of God.

On Hanukkah the main mitzva we  practice is to light the menorah (a mitzvah is a practice designed to bring God into the physical world). And we are required to put the menorah in a window so the light shines outward into the darkness for the length of the holiday. The menorah represents the inner light of “cah”.  The Torah teaches that on the first day God created light, but it wasn't until day 4 that God creates the sun, moon and stars.  So what is this light then? Again from my teacher Diane Bloomfield: it is the or haganuz (hidden or concealed light) - an extract from the hidden light of the first day of creation.   It is the light of wisdom and awareness and consciousness (like paramshiva in the Tantra philosophy we study and practice at Shree).   We know that every one of us holds a spark of this light inside ourselves and this is the light we bring forth on Hanukkah when we light the candles.  This is the light that can guide us in meaningful holiday practices of celebration with family and friends, of giving and receiving. 

The great yoga teacher BKS Iyengar says "Alignment is the even distribution of consciousness through the entire pose." When we practice yoga and light up our bodies with awareness we become the embodiment of the or haganuz. The 8 days of Hanukkah are the celebration of the most essential Jewish teaching that the infinite God is penetrating and manifesting through the realm of this finite, created world.  It is up to us to prepare fitting vessels for containing and revealing this light.  The physical form creates the vessel to hold the light.  We connect to the in-dwelling presence of the Divine, and through the practice we shine it out like the menorah in the window.  

So as you celebrate this last day of Hannukah, or move forward towards Christmas and New Years, feel the inner light take the form of your outer shape on the inside and let it guide you in all you do.  In the Anusara invocation we say satchitananda murtaye, which means my inner most brightness takes the form of my outer body.  Let your inner brightness light up these darkening days of winter.  Nurture the spark of the or haganuz inside you so it can burn a little brighter. Let your practice both on and off the mat be a rededication of the temple of your body, mind and heart.

Wishing you happy and blessed holidays!

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