Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Svadhyaya: The Yoga of Compassionate Self-Awareness

So I pooped out on the blog last week, but I wanted you to know I had a good reason.  I have spent the better part of the last 2 weeks completing my Anusara Certification Exam (yes, I am already a several-times certified teacher, and have been "Anusara-Inspired" for the last 8 years, but this is the FULL certification).  It took me about 30 hours to complete and in the end was 72 pages of simple, black and white answers to questions about anatomy, translations of Sanskrit words, and explaining alignment principles, as well as many long, interpretive answers to questions about yoga and Tantra philosophy, application of yoga therapeutics, and my own thoughts and ideas about all aspects of yoga practice, as well as other topics.

Although it was very intense and intensive, it was an amazing process - really, a culmination of the last 10 years of my life in many regards, and it was energizing and exhilarating!  I found that I was full of energy all week from immersing myself so deeply in spiritual study and thought.  In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras he lays out an eightfold path of yoga practice.  The first two steps on this path are practicing the yamas and niyamas, which some people call the "10 commandments" of yoga.  One of the niyamas is a practice called svadhyaya, which means self-study, or study of sacred texts, and that's exactly what this Certification process has been for me.  

Now let's be clear – the inner voice of svadhyaya is not the one that says, "Holy crap, you idiot why did you say THAT?" or "Man, that pose sucked!" or even "Hey, I had the best handstand in the class."  It is the open, non-judgmental witness that simply observes.  It is the voice of reflection that sees through the surface of things to what is really going on. Then the discerning mind can make choices based on what you’ve seen to move you more in the direction of shree - all that is life-enhancing and beautiful.   When we look at ourselves with svadhyaya, we look with compassionate awareness at the full picture of our lives and can lean into that life more deeply, and live more joyfully and fully.

Most of us spend our lives creating and maintaining an image of ourselves, actually probably more than one: a public self-image, an intimate self-image shared only with those closest to us, and a private self-image.  If we are willing to look at patterns, behaviors and strategies we habitually use to maintain that persona, we can use svadhyaya to pierce through the veil that this self-image creates, and we see through to the true nature of our own essential being. We see into the motivations that cause those patterns and behaviors.  We can use svadhayaya to skillfully step back, and with self-love and compassion examine those aspects of our lives that aren't serving us anymore.  

Another part of the Anusara Certification process is to make a video of a class I've taught and fill out an 8-page self-assessment form. This is the harder part of the process for me.  Having to watch yourself on video is so painful at first.  I was so intimidated by the process that I eased myself into it by just audio recording a few classes first and listening to them, just to get over the sound of my voice and to stop cringing at every other word out of my mouth.  I avoided watching my first video for almost 2 weeks before I could bring myself to do it.  But if you can come at it with compassion for yourself there is SO much to be learned.  Once you get over the initial self-conscious squinting through parted fingers, this process is nothing less than transformative.  When I was a performing musician I would tape record (remember tape recorders?!) all my practice sessions leading up to a performance.  Nine times out of ten I would listen and think, for better or for worse, "Wow, that is not what I thought was going on there!"   This experience was similar, and just as those tapes were invaluable additions to my performances, the practice of svadhyaya is an invaluable window into why we do what we do.  Often, we are not even aware of what we are doing.

So first, take time to become aware.  Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths so that the constant chattering voice of multi-tasking that we have all become immune to because of it's imminent presence in our minds quiets down.  And then invoke self-compassion.  It's so important to start from there or else the whole process can feel shaming and punitive and that definitely does not move us in the direction of shree.  Which is not to say it will be easy, but honesty rarely is.  See your self as your dog sees you....or your mom....or spouse, and then just be open to what is revealed.  Look with open, honest and loving eyes and allow yourself to be transformed.

Off the mat:  Other than practicing compassionate awareness in our yoga practice and in our lives, one of the ways we can move down the path of svadhyaya is to enlist the help of those close to us.  I’ve been reading Max Strom’s book A Life Worth Breathing, and in it he suggests this exercise. (I am giving a brief outline here – if this is of interest to you, I highly suggest you get the book and do the full exercise – or contact me at and I will send you the full version)
Choose four or five people you really trust and respect, and who trust and respect you (hint – those who you are in emotionally charged relationship with are not good candidates).  Make an appointment with each one separately to meet private with the goal of critiquing you.  

First, ask each person what your strengths are, your talents and gifts. It is important to start here! Then ask them to offer suggestions about what might be improved, where there are weaknesses or blind spots.  Listen to the answers without responding, reacting, interrupting, disagreeing, explaining, or becoming defensive, however challenging it might be.  If you can, record the conversation or at least bring a notebook to jot down some thoughts.  You will see some patterns emerge and this will help you to practice svadhyaya.  As Mr. Strom says “This exercise illuminates you, holds a lamp up to your face and says this is who you are, who you have been. With this new knowledge you can finally learn what direction to walk in – and when you walk forward with true knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, you will not fail.”

On the mat:  Start your practice by cultivating self-compassion and self-love – awaken your inner witness.  In my classes this week we are focusing on plugging the head of the arm bones back, integrating them into the shoulder sockets to plug into self-awareness.  Throughout your practice be mindfully aware and make alignment adjustments on a moment by moment basis, based on your observation of what is actually happening, not on what usually happens.

Open to Grace: Breathe in and open to the lessons you have to teach yourself.
Soften and open to the lessons from ancient traditions and holy scriptures.
As you breathe deeply, fill yourself up with self-knowledge and self-reflection.

Muscular Energy: Firm the muscles to the bones and embrace self-awareness and learning and growth.
Draw from the skin to the muscles to the bones and all the way into place inside yourself where the inner teacher resides.

Shoulder Loop: Draw the head of the arm bones back to plug into self-compassion.
As the head of the arm bone engages into the shoulder socket, engage with compassionate self-awareness.

Inner Spiral: Widen your sit-bones to widen your awareness of yourself.

Outer Spiral: Scoop your tailbone down into self-love and self-awareness.

Organic Energy: Shine the light of your truth out.
Let self-compassion and self- love radiate from the inside out.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mirrors and Spiders, Lessons in Mindful Awareness

My youngest son, Rakhi, is the age (almost 2) where he parrots back to me everything I say, almost always in exactly the tone of voice I say it in.  Needless to say, it is VERY revealing.  Since he is so little I am very aware of how I interact with him directly, but he is with me most of the time and so is hearing all my exchanges with my older children, my husband, on the phone with the cable company after the internet has gone down for the 2nd time this week and I’ve been on hold for ½ hour, slow waitresses, drivers of other cars, etc., etc.  And he is absorbing all of it into his little, impressionable brain - every action and word is being watched and recorded and repeated.  Although I think I am fairly calm and together most of the time, and try to speak and act respectfully to those around me, when he mirrors back behaviors or words that have come out of my mouth I often cringe (sometimes I laugh….but more often cringe).

We all have innate tendencies, developed from our own genetic code, our upbringing, and the people and environment that we choose to surround ourselves with.  A beautiful part of spiritual practice is bringing these predispositions to light, becoming aware of our patterns without judgment, and then making changes to move more into alignment with the person we aspire to be.  What helps us with this practice is mindful awareness.  I know that when I am unaware or unmindful I slip into old reactionary patterns, patterns that I don’t love about myself, and that I would rather not pass down to my children by modeling less than ideal behavior or speech. 

I think the hardest thing about being a parent (or any loving relationship for that matter) is that it puts your life under a microscope.   When we really love someone it inspires us to be a better person.  In my life I try to be more kind, tolerant, empathetic and even tempered, because I love my family so dearly and I want to demonstrate that love through my actions.  I want to inspire my children to interact with others in a similar way.  I recognize that the periods of time when I am having a harder time holding things together, those around me seem to be having that same hard time, most especially my children. During those times I often read, chant or meditate on this prayer:

Prayer of St Francis of Assisi:

Divine One, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

Oh Universal Spirit,
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, and
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

This prayer inspires me to be, as Mahatma Ghandi said, the change I wish to see in the world. To align with my highest regardless of what I am facing.  When we practice yoga we cultivate awareness and mindfulness so we can respond rather than react.  We connect deeply to a calmer state of being, and we come to know the most elevated and divine aspects of ourselves and bring them forth into the world.  When we are mindful and aware we can feel the moment where we start to feel anxious, angry, or frustrated and instead of letting those feelings grow or knee-jerk reacting, we can take a breath and respond from a place of deep alignment with our highest self and choose the way we act in any given situation.

It’s always fascinating to me that Universal Spirit/Source/God always presents a lesson at exactly the right time.  I teach at Shree on Monday mornings, and this Monday, after thinking and meditating on this theme and the qualities of mindful awareness and equanimity, I arrived at Shree to see the biggest spider I have ever seen scurrying across the floor only to settle under my meditation blanket on my mat.  It sent me into a state of utter fear and aversion – honestly, I was freaking out.  I tried to formulate a plan to catch it but the sight of it paralyzed me and I ended up waiting for students to arrive and asking one of them to deal with it.  The first two students to arrived were as freaked out as I was, when finally a brave soul showed up to trap it and move it outside.  

I swear it was this big!!
When I was speaking about my theme, the beloved student who had caught the spider started laughing, as she had just witnessed me completely lose myself over an insect.  It was rather ironic…but I don’t believe in coincidences.  I was speaking with her after class and saying things like “I just can’t do spiders” and “I just panic and freeze when I see a huge spider like that”.  She looked at me and said, well, the first thing you have to do is stop saying those things and convincing yourself you “can’t”.  It is said that we always teach what we have to learn. I’m sharing this story because it was such a great lesson for me to deepen this teaching.  When we find ourselves in reactive patterns the first thing we often do is reinforce those patterns by continuing negative thought patterns about the behavior. Once again, mindful awareness can help us stop this cycle.

So whether it’s a huge spider, or any other trigger you might have, before reacting, before freaking out, take a breath and be aware of how you are feeling.  Ask yourself how you’d like to respond and then do just that.

Off the Mat:
My husband and I took a parenting class a couple of years ago and one of the best pieces of advice she gave us was to pretend that she was in the room when we were faced with some situation with our children we were about to fly off the handle over.  It totally works.  One way to practice mindful awareness is to pretend you have a 2 year old with you at all times, and be aware of the behavior you’d like to model in front of them.   If you’d like an actual 2 year old to practice with, Rakhi is available for babysitting.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we worked on hugging the midline to connect to our highest self, the one we wish to respond in any given situation.  This gives us strength to respond rather than react, and helps us into poses like Bakasana (crane) with straight arms, and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Upward Facing Tree, or Handstand) with awareness and equanimity.

Open to Grace: With each breath wake up to your innermost divine self.
Wake up to the person you aspire to be.
Be aware of even the subtlest of sensations, emotions, and feelings, then take a breath and soften before responding.

Muscular Energy: Hug the midline, the place of inner awareness.
Hug into a calmer state of being, your highest self.
Awaken and firm your inner thighs to awaken to your inner self.

Inner Spiral: Widen your inner thighs apart and make space between yourself and knee jerk reactions.
Spread your sit bones back and apart widening your awareness of yourself and the way you wish to respond

Outer Spiral: Sink your tailbone into mindfulness.

Organic Energy: Light up the pose with your highest intention to respond rather than react.
Let your pose shine with all the divine qualities of your heart, love, pardon, faith, hope.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Guest House

The Guest House – Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

My childhood home was basically a guest house.  Not officially of course, but my mother took in strays of all kinds.   My mom reads my blog so I’m sure she’s laughing already reading those words, and I’m sure she’ll forgive me for sharing the intimate details of my childhood!  While I was growing up we had Fresh Air Fund kids during the summer, a babysitter who lived with us for a while, moved out, got pregnant and moved back in and stayed until her daughter was around 9 months old, a stranded Israeli, exchange students who came through the school at first, and then came back just to hang out numerous times (and are still coming back, now with children of their own!), foster children both official and unofficial, and as we got older, friends who were on the outs with their parents or significant others. Often these people would show up uninvited, knowing that they would be welcomed by my family regardless of their circumstances or ours.  They would stay for varying lengths of time and some of those times were easy and fun and some were really challenging, but we all learned and grew as individuals and a family as a result of all those guests. 

What I took away from my upbringing was that when someone shows up needing something, you not only invite them in, but you welcome them.  Whether they have been invited or not, whether it’s convenient or not, whether you know they are going to violently sweep your house empty of it’s furniture or not (fortunately this never happened).  I think my parents recognized that these folks showing up at our door were in fact guides from beyond, and even though the relationships were sometimes challenging, these people came into our lives for a reason.   As children, my 3 siblings and I learned hospitality, and these experiences encouraged us to be open, accepting and flexible.

When you open yourself up with gratitude to who or what arrives, knowing that each has been sent into your life to teach you something about yourself or life in general, you open yourself up to deeper relationships with those around you and with yourself.  This is not always easy to do, I’m sure many of us can appreciate this even more during the summer months when vacations often send us into close and even cramped quarters with family and friends, and travel often bring unexpected guests in places we don’t expect them.  So this is really a perfect season to cultivate generosity of both home and spirit.  When you open your heart to even unwanted guests you cultivate tolerance, hospitality, and generosity, and your life becomes so much richer as a result of these relationships. 

Welcome each and every experience – every thought, injury, and setback, every friend, family member, acquaintance, and stranger, and meet them at the door laughing.  Invite them in and know that your life will only become richer, more varied and interesting if you can approach these guests with a smile and a namaste.

Off the Mat:
Be aware of what “guests” are arriving on your doorstep – maybe it’s in the form of an actual family member or friend or even stranger.  Can you welcome them in with open arms, even if the timing is not convenient, and their presence might disrupt your day or week?  Perhaps your “guests” arriving are coming in the form of challenging situations, emotions or thought patterns. Welcome them, allow them to move in and sweep your house clean, making room for some new delight.

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we are working on split leg poses (lunges, Warriors, Tree, kicking up to handstand, ultimately leading up to Hanumanasana, or full split) with the focus on the widening aspect of inner spiral of the back leg to make space for “guests” to move into, and outer spiral of the front leg to balance that action and be able to stretch more fully into the pose and into generosity of spirit.

Open To Grace: Stand with awareness in your guest house – inhabit it mindfully and completely.
Breathe deeply, and with each inhale welcome in all guests that are arriving in your life.
Soften and welcome all “guides from beyond”.
Breathe in and light up every room of your guest house, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the lived in, and the ones filled with cobwebs from neglect.

Muscular Energy: As you hug the midline, pull in every dark thought, every malice, every emotion and joy.
Draw from the outside into every part of yourself, from the basement to the attic.
(In standing poses) Draw in every emotion, every joy and every sorrow from your feet and your torso into your pelvis.

Inner Spiral: (In split leg poses) Expand your back leg inner thigh wide and back, and open to every joy, depression, meanness.
Widen your inner thighs back and apart, broadening your sacrum back to make space for new “guests” and experiences to arrive.
Broaden the sit bones back and apart, opening up to whatever lodger is arriving in your house.

Outer Spiral: Scoop your tailbone and let the visitor settle into the guest house.
(In split leg poses) Invite your front sit-bone forward and sit deeply into your front leg, like you would invite a guest to sit in your favorite armchair.

Organic Energy: Let your guest house sparkle like a home lit up at night for a summer party – shine light from the windows of the eyes.
Light up your guest house and let it shine brightly from within.

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