Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Breaking down barriers

Earlier this week my husband sent me a link to the commencement speech that Jim Carrey gave at Maharishi University a couple of weeks ago (yes, Jim Carrey of Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura fame).  I have not listened to the whole thing, but the clip that I was sent was so inspiring that I wanted to share it. (See it here)

He said: “Fear is going to be a player in life, but you get to decide how much.  You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all it will ever be is what’s happening here, the decisions in that we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear.  So many of us choose our path based on fear disguised as practicality.  What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect so we never ask the universe for it.  I'm saying I'm the proof that you can ask the Universe for it.  And if it doesn't happen for you right away it's because the Universe is too busy filling my order.”

Fear disguised as practicality – that hits home for me.  When I heard him say those words I literally burst into tears. Honestly, there have been so many things in my life that I have chosen not to do and blamed on being sensible, when really I was just afraid to fail and at age 38 I am just starting to realize it.  Better late than never I suppose! 

The great poet Rumi said: 
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” 

Read “love” as happiness, success, fulfillment and this is just another way of saying what Mr. Carrey did.   My barrier is that I don’t think I am good enough or worthy enough to attain the deepest desires of my heart.  I am really good at making excuses, some of them are even valid. I have chosen to have a family and I have chosen to raise my family a certain way and that does present certain happily self-inflicted limitations. Yet when it really comes down to it, the real barrier to achieving my goals is my disbelief in my abilities, the sacrifices I am personally willing to make, and the amount of effort I have put into getting where I want to be…and all of that is based in fear and negative what-ifs. When we are afraid, we can build up our barriers pretty high, so high we can’t see over them to what the possibilities might be.  The thing is, many times we see those barriers as walls, when really they are doors.  And it might take some time and effort to figure out how to open them, but we need to recognize that that is a possibility.

Love is the nature of the universe.  Love is simply another name for God, Source, the Universe, and happiness....or vice versa.  We don’t have to look for it, it is there.  Just like all the possibilities and desires of our hearts.  But we do have to open up to it, to choose to open a door rather than to be afraid of what we might find behind it.  If we believe we are truly worthy of love, of success, of happiness the barriers disintegrate.  You are worthy.
Maybe you’ve heard this parable before – it’s one of my favorites. There is a poor man who prays to God every day to win the lottery – he goes to church and prays, then to a synagogue, then to a mosque, begging God to bless him.   After years of praying he passes away having never won once.  When he meets God in heaven he asks why God never answered his prayers.  God replied, “You should have bought a ticket!”  Life is a co-participation.  We have to have the courage to dream big and take wise chances and believe in ourselves.  When Darwin wrote the descent of man He mentioned survival of the fittest twice, but he mentioned the word love 95 times.  Love is what evolves us, but we have to be brave enough to open to it. This is where our yoga practice can serve us.  When we come to the mat and face fears in challenging poses, in letting go of self-limiting thought patterns and behaviors, in befriending our bodies, we are actively seeking out a barrier and bit by bit knocking it down.  Through our practice we cultivate courage, which gives us the strength to recognize our limitless potential and realize our deepest and most secret dreams, the ones we keep locked in the vault of security and practicality.  

Jim Carrey shared that “My father could have been a great comedian but he didn't believe that was possible for him so he made a conservative choice.  He took a safe job as an accountant and when I was 12 years old he was let go from that safe job. I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which is that you can fail at doing what you don't love, so might as well take a chance doing what you love.” What do you love?


Off the mat:
This is an exercise I have done at key pivotal times in my life that has helped me gain clarity, and move from fear to love.
Every morning (or evening if that is a better time for you) for at least a week, take out a journal and write at the top of a page:
What do I really, really want?
And then just write.  Don’t worry about grammar, handwriting, content, form or flow – just let your heart speak and put it on paper. From a new sweater to an ice cream cone to a career change or a baby – just look into your heart and get clear on what you love.  After you’ve done this for a while a pattern will emerge.  Begin to reflect on what the barriers are, either real or perceived, that are holding you back from having what you want?  Are those barriers walls or doors?  What are the self-limiting beliefs you have about yourself that keep you from opening up to love? 

On the Mat:
We warmed up with a heart chakra namaskar and worked towards Urdhva Dhanurasana (full backbend), Handstand, and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) in our asana practice.  We took time to visualize ourselves in these challenging poses, holding the vision with love and not fear, before coming into the variation appropriate for each person.  We ended with Viloma pranayama, which is a 3-part, interrupted breath with retention.  The word Viloma means to “go against the grain”, like petting a dog the wrong way.  Doing the work of breaking barriers often feels like going against the grain because we have to step out of our comfort zone.  This pranayama practice is calming and centering so we can more easily let go of our fears, and break through barriers into love!

Open to Grace: Jim Carrey said “Your job is not to figure out how it’s going to happen for you, but to open the door in your head, and when the door opens in real life, just walk through it.”
Breathe in love, breathe out fear.
Spread your fingers and courageously spread out beyond the barriers you have built for yourself.
Breathe into your limitless potential for love and success and happiness and feel it break a wall open inside you.

Muscular Energy: Embrace limitless potential.
Tone your muscles to affirm your bravery.
Draw from (floor to Focal Point) to make your muscles strong enough to smash through the protective fortifications you have built around your heart and your dreams.
Engage your muscles to engage fully with the pose, like buying the lottery ticket.

“Side body long”: Make space between your hips and ribs, and ribs and shoulders for love to grow.
Let the sides of the torso lengthen upwards, making space between every rib and vertebrae for courage.
Expand the side body beyond any barriers you have erected against it.

Shoulder Loop: Draw the palate and the head of the arm bones back and move the bottom tips of your shoulder blades forward to push through any barricades that present themselves.
Press the palate and the tops of the shoulders back and the back of the heart forward into love for yourself.

Inner Spiral: Widen your inner thighs back and apart to open up to limitless potential.
Move your sit bones back and apart to open to love.

Outer Spiral: (In standing poses) Scoop (the front leg) sit bone under and push it forward to break through any obstacles in your path.
Sweep your tailbone down and tone your low belly with courage to live the life you desire.

Organic Extension: Let the pose be as big as the dreams you have for yourself.
Expand your pose beyond the barriers you have erected for yourself.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Connection and Unity

I have just returned from teaching at a retreat in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains in Connecticut.  My family and I spent 4 days in the woods at a retreat center, which is also a working organic farm, waking up to the birds, connected with the Earth through bare feet and food harvested next to where we were sleeping, invoking grace with prayers and song and mutual love of life.  We were surrounded by like-minded community, great teachers, family and friends. There was no television or radio and, because it was a Jewish holiday, cell phones were for the most part absent.  In the middle of one of the prayer services there was a huge thunderstorm and it literally felt like God and nature were participating in our prayers (yes, the G word!…if that description of the force of life that spins the planets and breathes life into all things doesn’t suit you, plug in any word or description that does!).  Needless to say, it was a time of deep spiritual connection for me and my family.  

When I got home, like it always does when I return from retreats and trainings, it was hard to land back in Bergen County.  I could feel the shift happen as the roads became wider and less windy, cows and bobcats were replaced by fast food drive-thrus and mini malls.  I felt the cord of my connection to sacred space and wise old souls grow more threadbare with each passing mile and I begin to sink into despair.  Why do I have to come home??  Why can’t I feel at home like I do in the mountains??  The day after I return from retreat I always have a day or two of contemplation about moving my family to the woods, to live off the land where I feel so connected…of course these thoughts only last a day or so, because when I’m honest with myself the thought of being so far away from a decent restaurant, museum, concert hall, and yes, if I’m REALLY honest, shopping mall, sends me into a different kind of despair!   But these thoughts do help me to put my life in perspective.  When it comes down to it, I do love and value my life here, yet I am so grateful for these opportunities to step out of it from time to time and travel to places that connect me so deeply to community and to Source.

Part of what brought me out of my return-to-reality-funk was to look up the poem of the week at Shree.  As always, it seemed to speak directly to me and my experience:

Just like a sunbeam can't separate itself from the sun
And a wave can't separate itself from the ocean
We can't separate ourselves from one another.
We are all part of a vast sea of love
One indivisible divine mind.
- Marianne Williamson


The truth of it is whether we are up on the mountain or in a business meeting, on our yoga mats or on a crowded airplane, in child's pose or caturanga, we cannot be cut off from each other or our Source.  No matter how distant or disconnected we might feel, how far away from loved ones or the Divine, the deepest essence of our being is one with all things. That energy is where we come from and where we return to, as much a part of us as our heart and brain and lungs.  Every yoga practice is a reminder of this – one of the reasons we come to the mat is that it helps us to feel that connection more palpably, and the more we practice, the more it stays with us as we move off the mat.  Yoga is the opportunity to come to a sacred space, surround ourselves with the kula (community of the heart), and to deeply connect to our bodies and our breath as vehicles for awakening.  But we can’t let our remembrance of that connection be dependent on where we happen to find ourselves in any given moment.  Our feeling of connection, or lack thereof, is a prison or a playground of our own creation.   Whether we feel it or not, we are all deeply connected to one another all the time. As I was reminded so beautifully by Chaya and the other beautiful souls who come to practice at Shree this morning, our yoga, or union, is the practice of reuniting ourselves with that connection, and bringing it forth into the world and into every interaction we have so we can celebrate our lives to our fullest capacity. I am so grateful for our sacred space and the amazing spirits who frequent it!

Off the mat:
Over the years as I have studied with many spiritual guides, Rabbis, yoga teachers, and in sadhana with friends and colleagues, one message has come to me over and over again:  In every person you meet, every interaction with every being you come into contact with, see divinity first.  Look into their eyes and see similarity before diversity, oneness before separation, recognize yourself staring back from the eyes you gaze into.  Offer every person you interact with a namaste (this can be done silently, with hands at the heart in namaskarasana or with a simple, gentle nod of the head) with the wish and blessing:

I honor the place in you
in which the whole Universe dwells.
I honor the place in you
which is of love, of peace, of beauty and of truth.
When you are in that place in you,
and I am in that place in me,
we are one.

On the mat:
We worked on bound-arm poses, forward bends, and arm balances in classes this week.  Often when we work into these poses the back becomes slightly rounded and a common misalignment is that the shoulder blades slide off the back and we disconnect, causing discomfort in the shoulder joint, and closing our hearts down.  We practiced remembering that even when the outer form of the pose seems to belie it, that we can still work the inner actions that keep us integrated and connected (i.e. Shoulder Loop, moving the palate back, the head of the arm bones back, and the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward).

Open to Grace:
Breathe into the place in you that is connected to all things - nature, the universe, and all living, breathing beings – and expand your awareness of that place with every breath.
Feel the presence of Shakti in every breath, breathing you, keeping your connection alive.
Breathe in the same breath as everyone in the room and know you are not alone or cut off.
Let the waves of your breath connect you back to the ocean it flows from.

Muscular Energy:
Engage with your Source, feel how your muscles are a container for the divine grace that flows through you and all things.
Hug from skin to muscle to bone to hug into the place in yourself that is connected to all things.

Inner Spiral:
Widen your sit bones to open yourself up to connection.  What it is you wish to connect to is up to you!

Outer Spiral:
Lengthen your tailbone down, anchoring yourself deeply into your connection to Source.

Organic Energy:
Shine your sunbeam to merge back to its source.
Let your eyes and your pose smile and sparkle with the electricity of connection.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Shavuot - Offering of First Fruits

I am a little behind in my blog posts because I’ve been planning for and teaching at a retreat for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.  I will offer my thoughts about the Shree poem of the week soon, but wanted to share a little something from one of the classes I taught on retreat to tide you over until then!

Shavuot is an interesting holiday as we commemorate several events in Jewish history and the Jewish calendar, and we celebrate in a myriad of ways.  Although I taught about several of these customs, let’s focus for now on the original intent of the holiday.  Shavuot was originally known as the Ceremony of First Fruits, a celebration of the first harvest of spring.  During the ancient time of the Temple in Jerusalem, there were two offerings of Bikkurim, or First Fruits.  The first is that farmers would select and offer the first of their crops as an offering of gratitude for the bounty of the harvest.  There was no prescribed amount necessary or suggested - the invitation was to bring what you have.  So each farmer offers their unique bounty, according to their own means.   It was a highly personal offering, based entirely on what was sown and reaped, offering back a portion of the blessings of that year’s crops.  The very definition of gratitude is “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” – inherent in gratitude is the desire to offer back.  This first offering is an offering of gratitude.
In yoga practice, we give at the level we can, we participate 100%, not 99%, not 101%.  I hear from students all the time that they aren’t “good” at yoga – they don’t know the language, the poses feel foreign, they are inflexible, etc. When we can let go of negative self-talk, and practice with the intention to offer our own personal “bikkurim”, we recognize the perfect fullness of what we’ve got right now.  I once saw a book (which I have not read so I can’t account for it’s content) called “Life Doesn’t Start 5 lbs. From Now”.   What you have to offer right now is your perfect offering, just as valid and beautiful as the person next to you, regardless of what your poses look like.  We have a word for this in Sanskrit: purnatva.  It means perfect fullness, or being in the state of perfect fullness.  Which doesn’t mean we have everything we want and everything is perfect.  It means we know that our offering, what we have to give, is enough.  When we recognize the purnatva of our lives, we step into the pulsation of giving and receiving that is the nature of the entire universe.  When we recognize the abundance of our own harvest every day we are inspired to offer our own gifts more easily and readily. (Side note - as I was reading through my notes and organizing my thoughts about teaching this theme the night before I had to teach, I received and email from my teacher Todd Norian about this very topic!   Here’s a link to his inspiring thoughts if you are interested in reading more about Purnatva.)

The second offering of bikkurim is 2 loaves of bread offered by the priests on behalf of all the Jewish people.  Bread represents our co-participation with the divine to deepen the gifts we’ve received: the sun, rain, and soil, which nourished the crop and brought us wheat, and our own using of that gift to create nourishment (I knew there was a profound reason I can’t give up carbs…!).  In yoga we do the same thing – we take the gift of our body, in whatever state or condition it is in, and through poses and breath participate with the Universe in creating something even more beautiful and meaningful.  Our bodies are the wheat and the yoga is the bread that we can offer back when we practice with intention. 


At the retreat, which was hosted by a retreat center which is also a working organic farm, we commemorated this long-past tradition by each person taking either a stalk of wheat (to represent the seeds we wish to plant and grow something new), a leaf of spinach (to represent unfurling or expanding deeper into an already present offering), or a turnip (to represent rooting ourselves more deeply into an intention), all grown right there on the farm, and marched holding our offering in a symbolic parade through the camp to the “temple”, led by the goats that produce the farm’s milk.  When we arrived at the symbolic “temple”, we placed our offering on the Earth along with 2 beautiful loaves of bikkurim bread baked that morning, and we danced and sang around the heap of offerings, and celebrated all we had to give.  It was a beautiful, moving ceremony that I was so glad to be part of with my parents and my 3 children. 

Off the mat:
What are the First Fruits you have to offer this Spring?  Do you feel like they are “enough”?  What kind of ceremony can you create to commemorate bringing them forth, and offer back with gratitude?

On the mat:
We practiced during this class with great awareness of our breath, and ended with Viloma pranayama.  Our breath is the gateway to our connection with Source, and the way we participate with the force that breathes us in each and every moment in creating our world, like a dance. In our normal, day-to-day life, Shakti (Shechinah in Hebrew) breathes life force into us even as we are oblivious to her - she is the leader.  When we practice pranayama, we lead the dance.  It is a subtle shift, not to control the breath, but to participate with it more fully, directing the energy of the breath and the prana (life-force) that it brings in more clearly. 

Open to Grace/Inner Body Bright – Our poses start from a place of purnatva, fullness.  As you fill with breath, fill up with a feeling of “enough” in whatever you have to offer today.
Let your poses originate from a deep feeling of fullness and abundance from your soul.
Feel the perfect fullness of yourself today, right now.  Yet with each breath feel your capacity for that fullness to grow – your awareness, your mindfulness, your self- confidence and self-worth. 
Let each breath open you up more for the next breath to come.

Muscular Energy – Firm your muscles and embrace the fullness of your life.
Firm your muscles to feel the bounty of your own harvest.

Inner Spiral - From the place of fullness, open up to more and more as you widen your sit-bones apart.
Expand your inner thighs back and apart to expand beyond perceived limitations.

Outer Spiral – Anchor your tailbone and your awareness in your inherent purnatva.

Organic Energy - Let the pose keep expanding and expanding and expanding.
Flow out beyond the limits of where you've stopped before, allowing your harvest to keep growing and growing.

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