Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Rumi, Pay Homage

Rumi, Pay Homage

If God said,
“Rumi, pay homage to everything
that has helped you
enter my arms,”

there would not be one experience of my life,
not one thought, not one feeling,
not any act,
I would not bow to.

3 years ago I was teaching a yoga class to a room full of students and Teacher Trainees.  We were working up to visvamitrasana, an advanced and challenging pose.  There was another teacher in the room and I asked her to demonstrate the pose but she told me she wasn’t able to do it.  So I weighed the options in my head – “Am I warm enough to do it? Can anyone else show the alignments necessary to do the pose?, etc.” – and decided I would demonstrate myself.  As I came into the pose, stretching my leg over my shoulder and close to my ear, there was a very loud “pop”…and there went my hamstring and my yoga practice as I knew it.  I learned later that I had separated around 35% of the muscle at the attachment.  It hurt…a lot.  In fact, it still hurts a lot from time to time. 

As part of my rehab, I saw chiropractors, an acupuncturist, a physical therapist and was treated with cold laser, ultrasound and massage.  I studied privately with my teacher to learn how to modify and help the muscles heal through yoga practice.  I learned a tremendous amount about my body and chronic patterns of misalignment that had probably been happening for years leading up to that moment.  I learned so much about rehabilitating the hamstrings muscles, which was invaluable to my teaching since many of my students come to me with hamstring issues.  And, because forward bending was so painful for so many months, I practiced a lot of backbends and mastered many poses during that time that I had not been able to do previously.  So in spite of the trauma and pain, there was tremendous growth and even blessings that came as a result.

Everything that happens to us can be a vehicle for our own awakening.
Every thought, feeling, act and experience has something to teach us, even when it is a lesson we might prefer not to learn. 

Let me say off the bat that I’ve been very blessed that I have not had great tragedy or loss in my life, and I imagine for those that have that this might not ring as true as it does for me. This is not “everything happens for a reason.”  Life does happen, and some of it really sucks, but when we choose to live a spiritual life it means choosing to look for the shree, the aspect of things that is life-enhancing, in everything, however challenging that might be. Although I haven’t had huge trauma on a personal scale, I have had so many students share really heartbreaking experiences with me, and share how from those experiences they had shifted and grown and perhaps even been able to see a blessing in what had happened after time had passed so I know this is possible.

Everything in our life is moving us towards our Source, one way or another. Everything that happens happens as a manifestation of the divine.  This is hard to see when there is tragedy and grief, and I think that when you are faced with real trauma this isn’t possible to see at first.  But I hope that eventually you get there. 

When we recognize that all our life experiences contain some gift or blessing or opportunity for growth, we soften to what is and allow our lives to unfold with more acceptance and grace. What are the thoughts, feelings, and experiences you wish to bow to and pay homage to in your practice this week?  Open yourself to the possibilities – it might not be the one you expect!

Off the mat:
Stay open to all the thoughts, feelings and experiences you have this week. As things come up, mindfully choose to not label them as “good” or “bad” – just be open to your life.  Take time to reflect back on past feelings and experiences you’ve had, especially challenging ones, and honestly think about what learning, or growth or blessing happened as a result.   As challenges come up this week remember all you’ve learned and choose to stay open to where they might take you.

On the mat:
We worked up to some deep forward bends in our practice, Upavistha Konasana and Kurmasana, as well as lots of balasana (child’s pose) to bow and pay homage to all the experiences of our lives.

Open to Grace: Breathe in and soften into acceptance of all your life’s experiences.
Step into your pose and step into the inexorable flow moving towards the Divine.

Muscular Energy: As you embrace your muscles into your bones, embrace all your thoughts, the brilliant ones and the dark ones, as opportunities to move you closer to Source.
Draw (into the Focal Point of the pose) and invite in all thoughts, experiences, and feelings with acceptance.

Inner Spiral/Thigh Loop: Root your thighs to root into all of your life experiences and lengthen your spine to expand beyond your limited concept of what is good or bad.
Press your thighs back grounding into your thoughts, feelings and acts, and grow from all those experiences.

Outer Spiral: Root your tailbone into the space that opening to all your life experiences offers you.

Organic Energy: Stretch yourself into seeing all thoughts, feelings and acts as a connection to the Divine.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Narrow Places

This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover, when Jews celebrate the liberation of the Israelites, led by Moses, from slavery in Egypt.  The root of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, means to bind or tie up, or to be restricted. As a noun or adjective, it means distress, narrow or tight.  So from this we understand that mitzrayim is a narrow, constricted place, and this is not only a physical condition, but a spiritual one as well.  The Israelites in the story had forgotten who they were, they had forgotten their connection to their Source, and as a result had allowed themselves to be enslaved for hundreds of years.

I do not want to insinuate that slavery is a choice.  The mere fact that I am able to sit and write these words and publish them as I wish is indicative of the fact that I was blessed enough to be born into a life of freedom and I do not take that blessing for granted.  However, all of us have felt bound up and constricted from time to time.  We all have narrow places in our lives.  From a Tantric point of view, our humanness is not a constricted state that we need to transcend to find liberation, but an inherent state of unlimited freedom.  No matter how constricted we might feel, physically or otherwise, our true nature is unfettered and unbound by any aspect of our human experience – the essence of who we are is infinite freedom. But, like the Israelites in mitzrayim, we forget. 

On our yoga mat we are invited to expand into the narrow places in our bodies.  Even as I have that thought, my mind goes immediately to the places in my body that feel restricted – maybe yours did too.  But here’s the thing, we can know those narrow places without becoming enslaved to them.  The mental torment we layer on top of our physical limitations are what bind us up – our wanting of things to be different than they actually are.  As Bob Marley said, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”

And the mind really is the vehicle of our spiritual contraction.  What are the thoughts and experiences that keep you from the full experience of your innate freedom?  What are the constricted, narrow–minded places in your life right now?  Just so you’re not feeling shy, I’ll share some of mine:

The image I have of, as a yoga teacher, what my body is supposed to look like

The standard I have of what success means

The ideas I have of what proper parenting is

…those are some big ones, but there are more of course. I find that many of mine come from outside influence and this is an aspect of mental slavery - allowing outer voices to dictate what is “right” and “wrong”.

One of the most striking parts of the Passover story to me is that when the slaves are finally told that they are free to go, they say no.  They don’t want to leave the only place they have ever called home.  At face value this seems crazy of course, but how often do we choose to stay in patterns that restrict us simply because it’s easier, or it is what we’ve always known or done?  Our narrow places are familiar and change is hard. We have to be ready to step into our freedom.  We have to choose to hear the voices that move us towards liberation, rather than the ones that keep us bound up and tied down to patterns that don’t serve us, or those around us, anymore.  

Although this story happened thousands of years ago, it is said that the Jewish people are still in a state of leaving mitzrayim.   It’s almost a relief for me to read those words every year, because in spite of all the practice, the study, the reading, the asana, pranayama and meditation, I am still unfortunately very aware of my narrow places, and most days they are of the mental or spiritual variety.  This is a holiday of remembering – we tell this same story year after year after year to remind us that our essence is freedom, but that it is a choice to align ourselves with it.  We need to choose to face our narrow places and soften our thoughts about them.  When there is a narrowing, like the constriction of the throat when we practice Ujayyi pranayama, the energy that passes through it becomes concentrated and so much more powerful.  So let your narrow places give you something to push out against, to expand into with the fullness of your inherent freedom.

Off the mat:

Become aware of your narrow places.  What are the thoughts you have about yourself that keep you “enslaved”?  What are the thoughts or actions you have about others that keep them in a state of constriction?  
I read that it takes 21 days to change a habit. What practice can you commit to that shifts you from restricted mind to expanded mind for the next 3 weeks?  As you become aware of these patterns in your mind, create a mantra for yourself to help redirect where you are sending your energy.  If you need help, don't ever hesitate to reach out to me: - let me be the mirror that reflects your freedom back to you!

On the mat:

We practiced binding this week, poses that physically constrict us like Garudasana (Eagle pose), Baddha Parsvakonasana (Bound extended angle) and Svarga Dvijasana (Bird of Paradise).  In our yoga practice when we mindfully put our bodies into narrow places, we can work to expand our awareness to make more space inside.   We consciously create constriction so we can practice being in a limited place, and yet connecting to our breath and our inner Self to remember our limitless nature.  And when we can do this successfully on the mat, then when life binds us up we have the tools to remember what to do.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Love Does That

Love Does That 

All day long a little burro labors, sometimes
with heavy loads on her back
and sometimes just with worries
about things that bother only

And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting
than physical labor.

Once in a while a kind monk comes
to her stable and brings
a pear, but more
than that,

he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears
and for a few seconds the burro is free
and even seems to laugh,

because love does that.
Love frees.

-Meister Eckhart 

I think this poem spoke to me because I often feel like the burro – I’ll just come out and say that balancing work, practice, husband time, 3 kids, and all the other little details of life feels exhausting to me much of the time.   My back feels hunched and my jaw feels tight. We can get weighed down by working hard, and we can get weighed down by life.   And yet I know that when my 6 year old gives me a spontaneous hug, or my 9 year old rests his head on my shoulder in silent recognition of gratitude, or my husband smiles sweetly at me across the noisy dinner table I soften.  When we get so weighed down by our worries or our work sometimes we need someone to look into our eyes and just see us.  See our burdens and be the witness to our lives.  What lightens our burdens is knowing we are not alone, knowing that we are all in this together.   

I have a friend who is a bit of a complainer.  The first 5 minutes of every conversation is a litany of horrors of her life and it got to the point where I was beginning to distance myself from her because I felt exhausted by trying to solve all of her “problems”.  But I really love her and I didn’t want to do that, so I took some time to really reflect on our interactions.  It occurred to me that after her outpourings of stress and drama, our conversations progressed easily and smoothly into more uplifting subjects.  What I realized was that she just needed me to bear witness to her life and her experience.  I didn’t need to fix anything, I just needed to listen and then we could move on.  Like the burro in the story, she just needs to be seen through the lens of empathy.

In Chapter 1, verse 33 of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras he suggests:  “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice, thoughts become purified, and the obstacles to self-knowledge are lessened.”   The thing is, suffering is sometimes disguised under a thick outer layer of attitude.  It’s easy to think of those we love and feel compassion, but when we really want to dedicate ourselves to living a life of meaning we have to start looking at those people who really challenge us – whose ideas and values clash with ours, those who are nasty and argumentative, even those who have hurt us in the past – and realize that their behavior most likely comes from the burdens they are carrying.  Our yoga practice connects us to the part of ourselves that is connected to all things, allowing us to feel compassion and empathy for even those who challenge us the most. 
The nature of the universe is compassion and love.  We abide in an ocean of empathy, and when we let ourselves dissolve into it we can let go a little bit of the daily armor that we wear and become more sensitive to those around us.  We realize that everyone we meet is carrying burdens of their own, and if we can offer any small kindness, even just a heartfelt smile, we can ease the suffering of the world.  When we live a life of kindness and offer it to those around us unselfishly, we awaken to our true nature of generosity and love. 

Off the mat:
Make this prayer of St. Francis of Assisi your mantra this week:
Oh Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest of intentions.  What small thing can you do as you go about your day to ease the burdens of another?  Maybe something comes to mind now.  Set an intention to do it, whatever it might be.  If nothing is coming up right now, commit to staying open hearted this week, more sensitive to those around you, and when a situation arises where you can offer kindness don’t hesitate.

On the mat:
We worked this week on “un-burro-ing” our backs.  Through breath and alignment we lengthened our spines and offered our love and compassion energetically through forward bends.  This week, dedicate your practice to someone you wish to send kindness too, maybe someone's whose back is bent with hard work or burdened by worries, maybe someone who challenges you and you need to cultivate empathy towards.  

Open to Grace: Breathe in and open your heart to those around you.
Step into the pose and step into the moment with a silent prayer of kindness and compassion.
Source kindness and empathy for even the darkest thoughts that might arise.

Muscular Energy: Cultivate strength through compassion.
Strengthen your muscles to strengthen your connection to the place inside that is connected to everyone and everything.
Draw in (to the Focal Point of the pose) the compassion being offered by everyone in this room.

Organic Energy:  As your spine grows, grow your capacity for tenderness towards yourself and others.
Radiate compassion and empathy from your heart through your whole pose.
Send kindness out, creating space for those around you who’s views might be different than yours.
Lengthen your spine and let go of the burdens you are carrying.

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