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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Cracked Pot and Crackpots

The Cracked Water Jug

A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on an end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot always arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master’s house.  After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the cracked pot spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream.
"I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you." 
"Why?" asked the bearer. "What are you ashamed of?" 
For these past two years, I have only been able to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts." the pot said.
The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, "As we return to the masters house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path."
Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again the Pot apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house."

Monday morning at breakfast I told this story to my children.  When I got to the end of the story I asked them what they thought it meant.  My 7 year old looks at me like I’m the town idiot and says “Mom, pots can’t talk.”  Ok, every creature with a bizarre name and even more bizarre appearance on Pokemon can talk, but not a pot.  Good to know where we draw the line with the suspension of disbelief.

He did get the story of course – that all of us are cracked pots (as one student said to me on Monday, “I’m going to take it as a compliment the next time someone calls me a crackpot!”).  Some of us physically, some emotionally, some spiritually - hopefully not all at once but usually one way or another from time to time.  We all have perceived imperfections that can drain us and seem to take away from who we are.  And yet, for many of us, these cracks are where we can open up and bestow grace on those around us in ways we aren't even aware of.  The great Leonard Cohen said it best in his song Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.


Regular yoga practice can help heal the cracks.  Not by making them disappear necessarily (after that story, do you really want them to?), although often we find great healing from asana and breath work.  The healing comes more from practicing acceptance.   When you practice acceptance you soften around your broken places, and realize that even though you're not "perfect" that those things you wish to be different can (and probably already do) offer blessings to those around you.  

The pursuit of perfection seems to me to be the national pastime.  My son during his first week of school last week, exhibiting frustration about the many responsibilities required of him, said "Mom, you don't know how hard it is to be perfect at school, perfect at Hebrew School, perfect at soccer AND perfect at home!"  Ouch.  Well, sadly, I do know that pressure in fact, but I recognize now that it is self-inflicted (all he sees of course is that pursuit, not that it comes from the internal pressure we put on ourselves).  To quote another great poet, Danna Faulds:

Perfection isn't a prerequisite for anything but pain. Please,
oh please, don’t continue to believe in your disbelief. This
is the day of your awakening.

Meaning that the pursuit of "perfection" only makes us miserable, since really, the best we ever have are moments of perfection.  And those moments come more and more often when we accept ourselves as we are, cracks, fissures, leaks, broken places and all.  The awakening comes when we forget our perfect offering and know that whatever we have to offer authentically from our hearts is offering enough.  It comes when we recognize that there is a crack in everything and we embrace those cracks fully.  And when we both let in the light, and let the light shine forth from those openings as brilliantly as it can, whether we are aware of it or not.

Off the mat:
In the words of one last great poet, John Legend "(All of me) loves all of you - all your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections."  What are your edges?  What are your perfect imperfections?  A good window into what these things are is to try to see yourself as a good friend or sibling or spouse sees you (like he does in this song).  What are the little things about you your family jokes about that you have tried to change but find difficult?  That may even seem to be complaints on the surface, but are really the things they would miss about you if they were gone. 

On the Mat:
In my classes this week I am focusing on hip openers and joking that in yoga practice not only do we embrace our cracks but we sometimes work to crack ourselves open even more.  But it's not really a joke.  With a healthy respect for the amount of cracking that allows opening and growth, not the kind that leads us to be broken permanently, we recognize that opening ourselves up to a deeper experience let's in more light.  The more cracks in the façade, the more light flows in and out.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace:
Take a breath and soften around your cracks.
Stand evenly on the 4 corners of your feet and spread your toes out into acceptance.
Breathe in and fill up with acceptance for your imperfections.
(In poses weight bearing on the hands) Claw your fingers into the mat and anchor your heart and your pose in acceptance of all your weaknesses

Muscular Energy:
Firm your muscles to your bones embracing your broken places.
Pull all your muscles and all your perceived shortcomings into the midline and feel your body strengthen from the hug.

Inner Spiral: (Ok, this one’s a little risqué…not sure how else to say it :-)
Widen inner thighs back and apart to broaden the low back, opening up the cracks even wider.

Outer Spiral:
Root your tailbone into acceptance of your perfect imperfections.

Organic Energy:
From all your broken places let light pour out like the water poured out to nurture the flowers. 
Forget your perfect offering and let the offering of this pose shine, cracks and all.

Foot awareness: (in preparation for Eka Pada Galavasana and other arm balances)
Spread your toes and make even more cracks to let even more light in.
Hook the pinky toe side of the foot back (into the floor, around your arm, etc.) to harness your cracks, knowing they are a part of who you are and what you have to offer. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Rock Concerts and Wild Geese

 Wild Geese
- Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This is one of my all time favorite poems, and I think the reason it so speaks to me is that it is so universal.   All of us from time to time feel like we need to walk on our knees repenting, everyone feels despair, love, loneliness…..and the world goes on. When I read her words I feel like I am not alone in feeling those emotions, and it is a comfort to feel connected to others in this way.

Last weekend I was lucky enough to go see the band Train perform, and I forgot how much fun rock concerts are.  Anytime there is a gathering of people with a universal love of something – a concert with a great band, a sports event, a race, a yoga class or workshop – that universal love becomes an equalizer.  At the concert there was a wide demographic of ages, colors, shapes and sizes, and yet we were all there for a common purpose and it connected us to one another.  For those 90 minutes we were all related. Energetically everyone was aligned, and that energy lifted each of us up even higher. 

At one point the band was playing a popular song and everyone was singing along.  At the chorus they darkened the stage lights and stopped singing, and turned up the lights in the hall so the audience could take over.  There is something so amazing about singing with thousands of people. We all join our individual voices and create one big collective voice, full of joy.  I turned around and there were thousands of people behind me (we had good seats!) singing the same words – and I felt united with every person in that room.  I looked at all those faces and saw all the differences and all the similarities all at once, and that kind of awareness just fills up your heart.

Singing along to Drops of Jupiter
Singing is such a joyful offering in and of itself – St. Augustine said “He who sings, prays twice.” (For a really beautiful commentary on this quote, click here and read to the end.) When we join our voices together in song, we connect to each other on a deeper level – this is one of the reasons we chant at the start of every yoga class.  We connect to a joyful part of our hearts, we connect our voices with everyone in the room, and we connect to the divine through the words of our chant.  (If you are new to Anusara, find the words to the invocation here.)  Singing is just a deeper expression of breath. I heard the great yoga teacher Mary Dunn once say “You know you’re really practicing yoga if you can sing a song while (comfortably) holding a pose.  If you’re singing, you’re breathing.”  I highly recommend this practice, if nothing else, it’s super fun and adds a little levity to your practice.  I know there is widespread discussion on playing music in yoga classes, and there are pros and cons on both sides, but I never practice yoga without music on.  I just enjoy my practice more with a soundtrack.  As I write this, I am realizing that universal connection is one of the reasons for why I feel that way.  Whether it is an ancient chant or prayer that connects me to many generations of yogis, or a modern rock song enjoyed by millions on iTunes, either way it helps me feel part of something bigger than just myself.

Yoga practice is also a universal connector.  When we practice yoga we become aware of the ineffable part of ourselves that is interconnected to all things, the part that is beyond our body or age or income or race or job.  When we are aware of that place in ourselves, we recognize that it exists in every living being, and we see the unity of ourselves with all others.  Recognizing that unity brings a sense of love, friendship, and belonging.

Off the Mat:
A couple of simple practices:
Turn up your radio, find a great song and sing like you’re at a rock show and can’t even hear yourself.  Think of all the people that are singing along with you to the same station and let your heart fill up.  

As we slowly enter this fall season and the geese start flying more frequently overhead, each time you hear their call, harsh and exciting, let it call out to your heart and remind you of your unique, individual and irreplaceable place in the family of things.

On the Mat:
Open to Grace:
As you fill yourself with breath, fill up with your connection to the One who breathes life into everything.
As you place your feet mindfully into your pose, feel your connection to the Earth and all who walk upon it.

Muscular Energy:
Hug from your skin to muscles to bones, to the deepest part of your being that is one with all things.
Energetically pull from your fingers to your heart (in arm balancing poses) to invite in a sense of friendship and belonging.

Inner Spiral:
Widen the inner thighs to broaden your back body (which represents your connection to the Universal).

Outer Spiral:
Lengthen your tailbone down to root yourself in your union with all beings.

Kidney Loop:
Draw the front ribs down and back, feeling the connection of your individual spirit (the front body) to your universal spirit (the back body).
Lift the back of the floating ribs up and draw the front waistline down and back, opening up space in the back body to feel your connection to the oneness of all things.

Organic Energy:
Shine your pose like you are “announcing your place in the family of things.”
Let the soft animal of your body glow (with the love of this pose).

Meeting Train backstage at the Borgata

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All the Hemispheres

All the Hemispheres
By #Hafiz

Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.

Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
And love.

Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
And giving
Upon our intimate assembly.

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence
Lie beside an equator
In your heart.

Greet Yourself
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.

All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of You.

I often berate myself for being “scattered” or ungrounded. I frequently start a project, then read or hear something else that interests me and immediately absorb myself in a new task or endeavor.  I have a wide range of interests in both my personal and professional life, and I find myself drawn in different directions frequently, and just as often I beat myself up about it.  This aspect of my personality has led me to become more of a jack of many trades rather than a master of any one.  I am often envious of people who commit themselves unequivocally to one career or religion or even hobby and have really immersed themselves wholeheartedly in it.  Their lives seem simpler to me and I think there is a beautiful ease that comes with following a specific path with dedication and focus.  But that is not my life!

Recently I was reading Danny Arguetty’s fabulous book Nourishing the Teacher where he talks about doing the same thing, and points out that this “ungrounded-ness” actually works in his favor.  When I read his thoughts about this I realized that it works for me as well.  All of my interests and abilities, when combined, have the ability to create something unique, creative and interesting when I allow them to do that.  So the time I take beating myself up about getting “distracted”, and trying to force my awareness back to something that isn’t serving me right now detracts from who I have to potential to be if I just let all these facets of my life coalesce with less resistance.  It’s like 

“Greet(ing) Yourself
In your thousand other forms

As you mount the hidden tide and travel
Back home.”

Yoga means union, but another translation is “integration”.  In our lives, when we can bring together all the pieces (hemispheres!) of ourselves with acceptance and grace we live a more authentic life.  When we foster integration on our mat of the physical with the spiritual, our  individual spirit with universal spirit, or even body part with body part we create a whole more beautiful and brilliant than simply the sum of its parts.  And when we can do that on our mats, when we move out into the rest of our lives we can integrate more seamlessly all the “hemispheres” of our existence, whether it be diverse interests, or career and family, or light and dark forces forever omnipresent, or any other seemingly opposing force.  We become more authentically who we are meant to be and our lives flow more easily.

I often think of the universe as a giant tapestry, each of us representing a unique and necessary thread.  And anyone who sews, or has even mended a loose button (which is about the extent of my sewing skills), knows that most thread is made up of smaller threads woven together.  When we live more authentically we weave our own thread tighter so its color becomes more brilliant and adds more to the universal tapestry.  Or another way to say it is:

“All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire

While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of You.”

Off the mat:
What are the opposing forces working in your life right now?  In what ways are you resisting them?  In what ways can one of those forces inform the other to create a stronger, more vibrant whole?

On the mat:
On a physical level, healthy integration is one of the ultimate goals of our practice.  I was thinking about those charm necklaces that were popular when I was younger: a circle reading “Best Friends” was cut in half, creating a charm for each friend to wear.   The halves made up a pretty charm on their own, but only really made sense when they were put together and the words were completed.  (Sweet side note – when I graduated high school my dad had a giant one made for my whole family, cut into 6 pieces and each of us has a charm to wear – so our charms made up an even bigger more beautiful whole!)  But I digress – the point is, our bodies work in the same way – every part serves a function, whether it be life-sustaining or simply adding beauty to the world.   On their own they are unique and necessary, yet integrated together they form the distinctive and irreplaceable you.  So in my classes this week we worked on the physical principle of “hugging the midline”, drawing all the “hemispheres” of the body into integration with acceptance and grace, and in the process, creating stronger, more cohesive poses and bodies.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace:
Breathe in and fill up with all the hemispheres of yourself.
Let your inner body be bright and full with the myriad aspects of all of your being.

Muscular Energy:
Hug the midline and feel your “thousand forms stitching themselves together as you”.
Hug all the parts of your body to the midline to feel all the parts of your being integrate themselves into a beautiful, cohesive whole.
Pull all the hemispheres of your being to the equator of your heart.
Draw to the midline to ”stitch together the great circle inside of you”.

Inner Spiral:
Widen your inner thighs to make space for all the rich characteristics of your life.
Widen sit bones back and apart like a blooming night flower.

Outer Spiral:
Sink your tailbone into your “thousand other forms” and stitch them together inside your low belly.

Organic Energy:
Shine in your pose like a “blooming night flower, bestowing your vital fragrance of happiness and giving.”

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