Thursday, July 23, 2015

We Have Come to be Danced

We have come to be danced. 
by Jewel Mathieson

We have come to be danced
not the pretty dance
not the pretty pretty, pick me, pick me dance
but the claw our way back into the belly
of the sacred, sensual animal dance
the unhinged, unplugged, cat is out of its box dance
the holding the precious moment in the palms
of our hands and feet dance

We have come to be danced
not the jiffy booby, shake your booty for him dance
but the wring the sadness from our skin dance
the blow the chip off our shoulder dance
the slap the apology from our posture dance

We have come to be danced
not the monkey see, monkey do dance
one, two dance like you
one two three, dance like me dance
but the grave robber, tomb stalker
tearing scabs & scars open dance
the rub the rhythm raw against our souls dance

We have come to be danced
not the nice invisible, self conscious shuffle
but the matted hair flying, voodoo mama
shaman shakin’ ancient bones dance
the strip us from our casings, return our wings
sharpen our claws & tongues dance
the shed dead cells and slip into
the luminous skin of love dance

We have come to be danced
not the hold our breath and wallow in the shallow end of the floor dance
but the meeting of the trinity: the body, breath & beat dance
the shout hallelujah from the top of our thighs dance
the mother may I?
yes you may take 10 giant leaps dance
the Olly Olly Oxen Free Free Free dance
the everyone can come to our heaven dance

We have come to be danced
where the kingdom’s collide
in the cathedral of flesh
to burn back into the light
to unravel, to play, to fly, to pray
to root in skin sanctuary
We have come to be danced

Every morning at camp (where I am working this summer when I am not teaching yoga) we dance.  From a mom of 3 boys, who understands that in the ALM (“Act-Like-A-Man”) world that we inhabit most of the time you don't dance, to see them out there shakin' it is huge.  It might actually be the best reason for sending my kids to camp, and for me to be there working – to see them dance freely, wildly, unselfconsciously, and with so much utter joy and presence in the moment.

My oldest son Zev is an anxious kid.  He worries about doing the right thing, about how he should look and how he should act, about what to wear and read and say, and in spite of that he gets by fine most of the time.  But the first day of Camp Ramah every summer I see his whole body exhale.  I see him, a child who would no sooner dance in public as he would hug his mom, front and center on the field where we dance, smiling away and dancing his heart out, even when no one else is doing it.  Never a physically affectionate or demonstrative guy, yet I see him walking with his arms around friends and counselors, and at home, there is so much less fighting, arguing, and attitude.  He becomes comfortable in his own skin, so much more at ease and peaceful.

A short clip of Zev dancing at camp - he is in the middle in the bright yellow/green hat

I see so much of me in him - my anxiety about how to fit into the world, trying to figure out how to dance when I really wanted to but it just didn't seem like the cool thing to do so I didn't and my heart aches for him. I wish I could pass down what 15 years of yoga has taught me, how he is worthy of feeling at ease and peaceful no matter what situation he finds himself in, but I know he has to figure it out for himself.  I am so grateful that he has a place to help him do that.

Watching Zev in his daily morning disco session has shown me how embodied practice in an environment where we feel safe, be it yoga in a studio or dancing at summer camp, can be life altering. Being able to be in your body and feel comfortable and safe and able to express yourself in a way that is authentic and real and accepted unconditionally by those around you helps you to find your voice and your truth and to live in a more comfortable and genuine way. I see it in every class I teach, students exhaling, softening, finding their way back to themselves and am grateful every day that I get to help facilitate that environment and opening. 

One of the Attributes of the Divine which Yoga practice awakens in us is called svatantrya in Sanskrit. It is one of the ways we experience our true nature, which is unbounded, absolute freedom. Asana practice gives us the opportunity to be in our bodies and our hearts, to show up without apology, however it looks, regardless of age or weight or size or health, and be wholly who we are: cat out of it's box, matted hair flying, voodoo mama, shaman shakin’ yogis.  To live in our luminous skin of love with all the radiance we can muster. When we practice without inhibition, being fully present in our bodies, our breath, our poses, our hearts, we ARE svatantrya.

Off the Mat: Have a dance party.  Turn up the music, do it with a friend or in a club or alone in your bedroom.  Listen to your body and move the way it wants to move. If you need some inspiration, check out this clip, one of my favorite movie scenes and break out your inner Kevin James:

On the Mat:  Backbends are the poses that feel the most free, even though they are ironically some of the most challenging poses for me.  In my classes this week we used dance as a warm up, and worked towards the mother of all backbends, urdhva dhanurasana, adding drop-backs in the more advances classes.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace – Feel the Inner Body Bright with the fullness of your own dance.
Fill the inner body with the breath, with the Shakti that dances inside you, as you.

Muscular Energy – Firm your arms (in DD) and commit to the dance fully, the dance of you.
Firm your muscles and slip into the luminous skin of love.
Claw the fingers into the mat like you are clawing your way into the belly of the sacred, sensual animal dance.

Shoulder Loop – Move the head of the arm bones back and plug into the cathedral of flesh that is your sacred body.
Move the bottom tips of your shoulder blades into the back of the heart and slap the apology out of your posture.
Move the palate back, resting your head into the comfort of anyone in your life who allows you to feel completely yourself and completely free.

Inner Spiral - Move your sitbones back and apart and shout hallelujah from the top of your thighs.
Outer Spiral – Root your tailbone in the sanctuary of your skin.

Organic Energy – Make this the Olly Olly Oxen Free Free Free pose

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Creating Harmony

We have been talking about Saraswati for several weeks at Shree, the Goddess of speech, art and music. So it is fitting that my middle son Kiran, a rising musician, turned 8 this week.  All he asked for for months for his birthday was a keyboard (well, also a ruby ring and a drone, but keyboard was top of the list!).  We went last weekend and bought it for him and basically haven’t seen him since.  What he has been doing, for hours on end, is playing the pre-recorded songs that are available in the keyboards computer and improvising along with them.  The key and rhythms don’t always line up perfectly, but about 50% of the time they do and it is totally amazing to hear. I am a classical musician, meaning really good at following what is already written on the page. I studied music theory for years, I understand how the notes work together in different keys and modes, and yet it has always been a challenge for me to harmonize and improvise so I admire his skill with a tinge of jealousy.  
Kiran rocking out on his keyboard with baby brother Rakhi
Harmony in music is the "vertical line" of the music, whereas the melody line is the "horizontal line". In the vertical line notes layer on top of notes to create lusher, more dynamic and interesting sounds over a melody already present.  Depending on which note gets layered on top the sound evoked can be more or less happy, spooky, melancholy, etc. I've always been amazed at how one simple addition or subtraction of a particular tone can change everything so dramatically, and I love listening to my child figure this out.

The word harmony comes from the Greek harmozo or harmonia, meaning to fit together or join.  This is very similar to the meaning of the word yoga, which is to yoke or unify.  So to be "in yoga" is to be in harmony.  And just like in music, things can fit together in different ways for different effects and results.  When our bodies are in harmony, the bones are integrated into the joints in a way that offers the biggest range and ease of motion, The muscles are working together to create balance, stability and flexibility.  The vertebrae of the spine are stacked (like notes in a chord) one atop another to create length and space, and the overall effect is a congruity on the inside that reflects outwardly in our posture and the way we carry ourselves in general. In asana practice the alignment is the “vertical line”, how we layer muscle over bone to create a clearer and more supported pose, and the vinyasa or sequence is the horizontal, how each pose builds like a beautiful melody to a peak pose where all that came before comes together. 

The more introspective practices of yoga give us the means to create an inner harmony with the Divine.  When your mind is in harmony you are at peace and “joined” with uplifting thoughts and energy that are constantly being live-streamed by the Universe. When you are harmonious in your heart, you listen to what is being put forth in the Universe and join in and make it even better by joining your voice to an already beautiful music. Playing in harmony is not about what is lasting or permanent, but how you make beauty with what is being presented to you right here and now. It's about individual voices coming together for a moment, however brief, to celebrate and bring more beauty to the world. 

May we all be attuned to the music of Saraswati, and may our song join hers to play out our lives in divine harmony.  

Off the Mat:  This week as you are aware of your reactions to events in your life, see if your reactions to those events are adding to the beauty of the universe....or not.  Notice if your actions and reactions are in harmony with what is happening, meaning that they are creating more ease and beauty and grace in your life and in the lives of those around you.  If they are not, ask yourself what action or reaction would help move you closer to a harmonious state.

On the Mat: We worked on deep twisting in my classes this week, creating harmony in the relationship between the elbow and outer knee (as is done in so many twisting poses), and inviting the abdominals to the party, to create the deepest and most satisfying twist.  Twists are balancing poses, and their wringing action on the internal organs helps to create balance within and congruity between the digestive, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems.  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sticks and Stones...

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”  ~Upanishads

During the time of the Upanishads (approximately 3,000 years ago), wisdom was passed from teacher to student orally. There were no texts to read or study, you would learn directly from your teacher (the word Upanishad itself means to “sit near” or “sit at the feet of”). The teachings were offered in the ancient, sacred language of Sanskrit, which is what is known as a vibrational language.  It is said that the existence of the entire universe is encoded within the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, and that each letter has a corresponding sound vibration both in the subtle energy channels of our bodies and in the cosmos. So when these words are spoken it was not only the content of the teaching that was being passed down, but the sounds themselves would resonate on an energetic level, infusing the wisdom of the teacher into the very fabric of the students being. 

There is actually a similar theory about Hebrew, which is also a vibrational language.  The idea originated in a sacred text called the Sefer Yetzirah, which interprets the line from Genesis “God said “let there be light…” to mean that God’s “speaking” is how the universe is created. In Judaism it is widely believed that when you name something you speak it’s essence, which is why there is no real name for God in the Jewish religion, just a bunch of sort of nicknames.  The closest we have is what is known as the tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable 4 letter “name” of God (yud-hay-vav-hay in Hebrew, sometimes articulated as Yahweh), but is really closer to the sound of the breath “yaaaah”.  This is really a whole other conversation but worth mentioning in this context!  

What we glean from all this is that words, language, speech are the very stuff of creation, and in the world of yoga this is the realm of the goddess Saraswati.  Sally Kempton says “The gift of speaking truthful teachings and reciting mantras was considered one of the manifestations of Saraswati, and it carried great power.”  In modern times we don’t have quite the same influence as those gurus in the forests of India 3,000 years ago, or even farther back to the beginning of time, but we do know that words are incredibly powerful. Matrika Shakti is the Sanskrit term for the inherent creative energy behind the letters that make up a word. And if we look back to the original quote from the Upanishads we see that it is the thought behind the words that is even more important.  Matrika Shakti lives deep in our energy body, helping to form our deepest thoughts and intentions, and shape the way we speak and act in the world.

As yogis when we come to our mats or meditation cushions we connect to our highest thoughts and intentions which are the power behind our words, actions, habits, and character. We take the time to connect deeply to the virtues that we wish to bring forth more of in the world, the qualities that bring more joy, freedom and happiness to ourselves and the world around us and allow them to shape our destiny.

Off the Mat:
Begin each day by setting an intention.  With your first breaths of the morning, before even opening your eyes, choose a quality you wish to bring forth more of in your life. It can be as simple as gratitude, joy, strength, love, compassion, etc.  One word.  Take a few moments to plant it deeply in your heart, let the feeling that word evokes in you fill you up, and then let it guide the rest of your day.  Let every action flow from wanting to bring more gratitude, joy, strength, etc. to your life and the lives of those around you. 

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we started with mindful intention setting, much like the exercise I mentioned above, and worked on staying connected to our intention through our feet.  We practiced sequences that kept one foot always aligned and firmly placed on our mats as a way to stay anchored in our intention.  This also meant that we stayed on our feet for all of our practice, forgoing Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) and the accompanying vinyasa altogether.  Many students, including myself in my own practice, found this really challenging! And yet it’s those times when we are really challenged that we need to be most mindful of our thoughts, so we used those moments to come back to our intention to guide our thoughts and actions as we moved through our practice.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace (connected to the breath and the start of each pose or sequence):
Letting the wisdom, knowledge, teachings of our tradition fill you as breath fills you.
Fill with breath and with meaningful thoughts to guide your words and actions.
Let the inner body be bright and filled with intention for your day.

Muscular Energy:
Firm the muscles to create the vessel to contain the energy of your thoughts
Tone your muscle to create a container for the Matrika shakti, the power of our thoughts and words to create.

Organic Energy:
(From Focal Point) Send your intention down into your feet, plant it in the earth immovable, and let it flow out in all directions.
Let the energy you have cultivated with your intention fill the form of this pose enlivening it with beauty and grace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Our story of the week at Shree has many different variations, but this one is my favorite.  As we spoke about last week, Parvati’s question of Shiva is to learn the secrets of yoga, the doorways to the Infinite, the pathways to liberation.  Shiva, adoring her so and wanting to make her happy, finally gives in to her constant requests and endeavors to share all he knows.  They come together to sit on a sacred beach and Shiva begins his discourse into the practices of yoga.  Unbeknownst to them, a giant fish swims nearby and realizes that something remarkable is happening, so he sticks around to listen in.   


This is no ordinary fish – years before he had rescued an infant boy who had fallen into the ocean, and the boy was still growing in his belly as he comes upon Shiva and Parvati.  The boy also overhears all Shiva has to say and becomes entranced by the teachings of yoga.  He spends the next 12 years inside the fish exploring the practices described and demonstrated by Shiva on the beach.  When the fish expires, the boy emerges, fully enlightened, as the sage Matsyendranath. He then spends the rest of his days passing down these teachings through his students and disciples, including Gorakshnath (one of the Nath Yogis, widely accepted as the father of Hatha Yoga), and as such he is regarded as the human originator of yoga.  This is a pivotal moment in yoga tradition because it begins the tradition of passing down knowledge from teacher to student that has been one of the hallmarks of Hatha Yoga for thousands of years, and one that we still continue today as we study and practice yoga with our own teachers.

(Side note, from Yoga Journal: "Matsyendranath appears to have been an actual historical person, not just a figure of myth. Born in Bengal around the 10th century c.e., he is venerated by Buddhists in Nepal as an incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. As with most Indian myths, there are many versions of the story of Matsyendra's metamorphosis into a realized adept—and all of them illustrate the radical transformation that yoga makes possible.” So the fish part of the story is probably myth, but the man was real.

I have my own story of eavesdropping to share, a 20th century version.  Last week, while running some errands I was using the voice translate feature of my phone as I was driving to make some notes for myself. As I was doing this, I was navigating a busy parking lot and finally found a shopper leaving a store that I could follow to her spot.  As she pulled out of her spot, someone coming from the opposite direction cut me off and "stole" my parking spot.  Being alone in the car, I had a few choice words to say about this turn of events as I continued on my way and found another spot.  I grabbed my phone to shove in my bag, and when I picked it up the note I had been transcribing was on the screen. It read something like:

Pick up Kiran's necklace, get end of year gifts for Rakhi's teachers, finish writing blog YOU STUPID JERK, DIDN'T YOU SEE ME? WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU??  I’VE BEEN DRIVING AROUND FOR 10 MINUTES, OH, AND NOW YOU'RE LOOKING AT ME LIKE I SHOULDN'T BE HONKING AT YOU WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE….” and so on. 
It was basically the ravings of a lunatic.  Not one of my shining moments.

So the point of both of these stories: You never know who might be listening.  Whether it’s your children, your phone, or just the Universe, every being around you absorbs your energy so it is up to us how we want to share.  As I write this I am sitting on my back patio, listening to my neighbor yell at her husband for the last 15 minutes. And even as I cringe I recognize things I have said before in heated moments.  As we talked about last week, conversation, dialogue is so important.  In my more mindful moments I am much more aware of what comes out of my mouth, so I know that thoughtful person is in there somewhere.

My most beloved and influential teachers are the ones who, just as Shiva did for Parvati, demonstrated and modeled simply through the act of living their lives how to be a yogi.  But as we often speak about, and evoke in our invocation each time we practice, the real guru is inside our own hearts – a good teacher can just awaken that awareness and help draw it out.  Each time we come to the mat we touch on the guru inside, our higher Self, and in making that connection can bring forth more love, light, generosity, compassion, and gratitude to the world around us.  What is your heart teaching today through your words and actions? Is the message clear and authentic and uplifting?  We all have the capacity to radically transform our own lives and the lives that we touch.  It’s up to us what we wish to offer to the world.

Off the Mat:
Leave the voice recorder on your phone on for a while and go about your business.  Listen back later and hear if your words and actions are in alignment with your highest intentions.

On the Mat:
In honor of Matsyendranath, in my classes this week we practiced Matsyasana (Fish Pose) and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), both named for him.  We also worked on hip openers, with careful alignment of the feet to ensure safety for the knees and hips.  We let the feet be the teachers, sending clear teachings of alignment and intentions for deep opening to the student in the hip.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Breathe in and feel the person you aspire to become already inside you, filling you up and lighting you up on the inside.
Align (your foundation) to demonstrate your highest intention to offer beauty, love and light to the world.

Muscular Energy: Firm your muscles and firm your resolve to send love, light, beauty to the world.
Engage muscles to engage with the voice you wish to share with the world.
Pull to midline to connect to your authentic heart.

Ankle alignment: Let the ankle/foot speak with clarity and truth to the hip (by pulling back pinky toe side of foot, lifting toes and inner ankles, pressing into ball mound of big toe, un-sickling the foot)
Level the ankle bones and let the ankle enlighten the hip.

Organic Energy: Let your pose be an offering of beauty to the world.
Let your pose speak your heart’s radiance to the universe.
Make an offering of light from your heart to everyone in this room in the form of your breath.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Getting Spiritually Naked

Since very early in our relationship my husband and I have had what I call a super-conscious connection.  When we were first dating he would often arrive to pick me up wearing the same outfit I was wearing (no, he’s not a cross-dresser, I mean like jeans and a white button down and black boots kind of thing).  On a practically daily basis for the last 15 years at some point during the day I have the thought “I should call Arj”, reach for the phone and it is already ringing.  Or we’re sitting in silence in the car and I’ll think, “gee I’m kinda thirsty.” just as he turns to me and says “hey, you want to find a Starbucks?” And then we look at each other and say "Did you send or did I?"  It's never clear who was the first to think it, it’s just like we share a brain sometimes.

This is what I think of as sacred dialogue. I have this most often with my husband, but also with other people in my life as well.  It is not something that can be forced or you can "try" to achieve with someone - it just happens naturally with those you trust and allow yourself to be vulnerable and open with.  There are lots of names for it actually: coincidence, synchronicity, etc. but it is really an opening up of yourself to the greater wisdom of the Universe that comes from both beyond and inside yourself, and when you’re with someone who is willing to open up to this wisdom as well, the communication that passes between you is seamless and seems to come from beyond just the two of you. It’s like when you walk into yoga class and your teacher starts talking about exactly what you need to hear that day when you haven’t talked to her in a week.  

Shiva and Parvati’s marriage is the archetype of sacred dialogue.  Dialogue always starts with a question or inquiry, in their case usually of Parvati’s asking.  And the answers come not because of a concentrated intellectual conversation, a “figuring out”, or a hierarchy of knowledge on Shiva’s part, but because there is such a strong mutual love and trust that wisdom simply arises.  Parvati wants to know the secrets of the Universe, how to know Shiva’s (and hence the Universe’s) essence in the most intimate way possible, and in turn she awakens in Shiva the inspiration to reveal that Truth.  In Awakening Shakti, Sally Kempton describes this sacred interaction this way: “Dialogue happens when, like Shiva and Parvati, we recognize our fundamental unity, our interdependence. Instead of being a conversation between separate individuals trying to find solutions with their minds and from their egoic selves, dialogue happens in a shared space of presence. It comes from the inspired, revelatory, transformative energy that shows up when a group of people allows boundaries to come down and real mutual vulnerability to emerge.”

Asana practice is the opportunity to awaken this level of intimacy with our bodies. I am often asked if yoga can help you lose weight. My answer is always yes, but not for it’s calorie burning abilities. Much of the time we are required by jobs, families, and general cultural pressure to ignore much of what we feel. When we come to the mat, we become more sensitive to our bodies, which spills over into other facets of life like eating.  We can judge more easily when we’re full, how certain foods make us feel later on, and in this way become more discerning about what we put into our bodies, which can lead to weight loss if that is what is needed.  In this same way it guides us to more life-affirming, healthy practices in all aspects of our lives. We let the boundaries down, release our self-imposed and society-imposed thoughts about what our physical form should look and feel like, and move guided by our own innate wisdom and intuition, whether it is to find a deeper pose or heal an injury. 

Likewise, meditation practice is the opportunity to cultivate sacred dialogue with with our breath and the One who breathes us. When we are truly open and receptive, wisdom spontaneously arises, and meditation practice is what can guide us there.  On a purely scientific level, meditation moves us beyond our sub-conscious and into super-consciousness - it’s the direct line to the Divine, from where all wisdom flows.

Again, Sally Kempton: “We replicate Shiva and Parvati’s conversation every time we sit together as lovers, as teacher and student, or in a group and seek revelation, transformation, or the insight for change. Shiva and Parvati symbolize the moment when we get spiritually naked together, when our love and trust is great enough to let us be vulnerable and thus make space for revelation to arise.” Each time we come together in a yoga class or sadhana, we open ourselves up to sacred dialogue.  We lower our defenses because we are in a safe shared space, and our collective intention to transform and be transformed, to expand beyond where we even thought possible, is matched by those around us, and consciousness grows exponentially.   In this blessed place we more easily open ourselves up to how we are actually feeling in the given moment, both physically and spiritually, and truth emerges within that opening.

Off the Mat:
Invited sacred dialogue in all your relationships, starting with your relationship with yourself. Get spiritually naked!  Begin each day with an inquiry, ask the Universe for guiding wisdom in some facet of your life, and be open to the answer in whatever way it might come to you.

On the Mat:
Be in deep, honest conversation with your body.  So often we have the same conversations, whether they are with our beloved or our hamstrings, and we hear only what we expect to hear.  Be really open in your practice, don’t assume it will be the same old thing.   In my classes this week we worked on waking up the sahasrara or crown chakra, which is the gateway to wisdom. It is the energetic opening that invites connection with a higher intelligence. So we practiced several poses with hands interlaced on top of the head, guiding a natural inward curve and length to the neck, moving towards Sirsasana (headstand) and Dwi pada viparita dandasana. 

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Open to a deeper breath and….
a deeper conversation with your body, your heart .
open to wisdom that wants to download itself into you. 
open to the dialogue, a conversation, not about being right or selling your opinion, but a real honest discourse with your body, your breath, your heart.
Be in conversation with your breath and with your body.

Muscular Energy: Firm muscles inwards, into a place of inner wisdom.
(In Dog pose or other arm balances) Draw from hands into heart, the seat of your inner wisdom.

Shoulder/Skull Loop: Extend from the palate back and up to the top of the head, waking up the crown chakra to wisdom from the universe. 
Extend the vertebrae in your neck, making space for wisdom to flow in

Organic Energy: Send your inquiry out to the Universe in the form of your pose, let your whole body reflect your opening to divine knowledge.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Wild Dance of Life

Once again there was a demon loose in the world that only a woman could do away with (ladies, are we sensing a theme here??).   Shiva’s consort Parvati steps up, taking the ferocious form of Kali to do battle with him.  A fierce battle ensues and eventually Kali dispatches the demon as she was meant to.  But the battle was so riveting that she becomes enraptured with battle lust and to clear that energy she begins to dance.  Once she starts she can’t stop, she becomes entranced and she dances into the forest and moves so wildly that the trees begin to shake, and the world threatens to come apart.  Seeing this, Shiva intervenes to try and break her trance to no avail.  After several unsuccessful attempts he realizes that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and he challenges her to a dance contest. Now Shiva is the famous Nataraja, the king of all dancers, so guess who wins this one? He begins to dance with her, and as he loses himself to his own rhythm his dance becomes even wilder than hers.   When he becomes so wild that now the planets are threatening to spin out of their orbits her reverie is finally broken, she comes out of the trance in order to settle him down and life itself settles back into normalcy.

I think it’s perfect that we are reflecting on this story during the week of Mother’s Day. Anyone who has ever raised children, or even babysat, knows this paradigm well because children are really good at dancing wildly through life!   When things start to get crazy sometimes the best thing you can do is just get down and dirty with whatever is going on.  Join in the unruliness and let it run its course.  First and foremost this story tells us that we can’t fight what is - life itself is a wild dance, sometimes we just have to surrender to it and let the dance move through us, to let the rhythm of the universe move us and just move with it.

I had a friend going through a difficult divorce a few years ago and when the battle got really fierce and she was feeling really angry or overwhelmed by it she would put on some really loud music and just dance.  Energy needs to be moved through the body to be released, and dancing does that.  Kali knew it, and my friend knew it – it was cleansing.  Music itself takes us to a deeper realm of existence. It connects us to the intrinsic rhythms of our bodies; the cadence of our heartbeat, the pulse of our breath, and when we move our bodies in time with a steady rhythm like Kali we can become entranced.  Surrendering into a dance connects us to intuition, emotion and our primal source of being.

And yet there are times we have to learn to tame the wild dance of life – when we acknowledge it is happening but we have to do our jobs and take care of our families and pay our bills.  This is the opportunity to channel it; to still let it move us but harness it and use it to propel us forward in the direction we wish to go rather than control us.  Fortunately yoga gives us the wisdom and the tools to do both.

Off the Mat:
Dance!  Put on your favorite song to rock out to and let go!  Here’s some inspiration from Shiva Rea:

On the Mat:
This week in my classes we surrendered to the music for warm ups, moving with the rhythm and letting it move through our whole bodies, warming up from toes to nose.  Then we worked on taming the dance, pulling in to the midline to harness it's power to move us into radiant and expressive arm balances, from Bakasana variations to Eka Pada Bakasana Sirsasana II (my own crazy invention) to Eka Pada Bakasana.  We stayed fully present to the breath as the dance of the goddess within us, finding the balance of being breathed and consciously breathing, dancing with Kali in all her glory.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open To Grace: Breathe in and open to the dance of life.
Grip your fingers into your mat to find an anchor point in the wild dance of life.

Muscular Energy: Adduct the lower arms (in caturanga and arm balancing poses) to tame the dance.
Adduct the inner thighs (in Bakasana) to steady the dance as it rages inside.
Hug the midline to connect to stillness in the wild dance of life.

Organic Energy:  (As the last step of Shoulder Loop) Expand your upper back to find levity in your dance of this pose.
Press out from your heart to your hands and your hips (in arm balances), making your dance lighter and freer.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Surrendering to Love

I was reading Bambi the other day to my kids and Thumper the bunny was explaining that in springtime (which it finally feels like, halleluia!) all the animals become "twitterpated". So, love is in the air! When I contemplate love many things come to mind but I had a defining experience a few years ago I wanted to share.  

It happened almost 4 years ago, a week after moving to NJ from the Chicago area.  I was miserable, heartbroken over leaving close friends, despairing over renting a house, my beloved grandmother had passed away the week before and I had to miss her funeral because it was the day we moved, my kids were having a hard time - suffice it to say that I was in a very low place.  In search of some healing I went to a yoga class (it wasn't at Shree). The opposite of what I was searching for happened - I hated the class, hated the teacher, hated every word he said, hated every pose we did.  (Of course he was a perfectly fine teacher - it was just my experience.)

At the end of class I felt stripped-down-to-the-bone raw.  As we laid down in savasana the words that came into my head were "I surrender".   What I thought I was surrendering to was grief, fear, and misery, just letting myself plunge down into the black hole I had sunk into in times past and was trying so desperately to avoid. But it didn't happen. What came with the tears in that moment was overwhelming love.  There was a presence with me; surrounding me, holding me, and filling me up, and, although I was crying they were tears of relief, because in that moment I knew everything was ok, and that everything would always be ok.  That this presence was always with me, but I had to open to it.

I had spent weeks fighting what was coming to me and actively resisting everything I felt.  Tell me if this inner dialogue sounds familiar: "I'm a yogi, I practice equanimity and breathing and santosha, I know how to handle things so I don't go down the black hole of despair. I'm fine."   Or "I can't feel all this, my kids need to see strong mommy, not falling apart mommy." That was some of the commentary in my mind all those weeks trying to avoid what hurt.   I put up all these barriers to pain, these walls to keep suffering out, when what I really needed to do was just let myself mourn and be sad and be okay with it. My friend Silvia Mordini says "The Universe is always speaking to you - sometimes she whispers and sometimes she throws a brick at your head." So here came Kali, brick in hand, knocking down every wall I had put up because love comes in many forms and sometimes it hurts.  She knew it but I didn't, and this is how I had to learn it.  Everything shifted from that moment forward because I was willing to let the armor down, to not be fine. And when the armor came down, all that was left was love. What an absolute relief. Learning this truth first hand was a transformational moment for me, nothing was the same afterwards.  

I didn't know Kali so well back then, but I think on some unconscious level I summoned her to be with me.  What I know now is that she is the power of elimination which can be destructive, but ultimately she brings us to love.  Kali energy is a massive love force - she has to be to break through the armor we put up.  Here's the thing though, we have to be willing to participate with her to let her open us up. We have to be willing to let our barriers down, to be vulnerable, to feel even if it hurts.  She comes when we are at our lowest not to break us down, but to force us to break down the barriers that keep us from happiness and love...which might feel like a breaking down but I am here to tell you it isn't. It's like the Leonard Cohen song says "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."  Kali is the hammer wedged into that crack. 

So whatever you might be facing or feeling, invite Kali energy to be with you.  I am reminded again of the Rumi quote we've read so many times: "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it." Be brave and call on her - she will break you down but I promise you what will come is love, and it will heal you and open you and change your life in any way you allow it to.

Off the Mat:
Be aware this week of the ways that you protect your heart. Boundaries are important and necessary, but often we put them up where they aren't necessarily needed simply because it's become a habit, or because we've needed to do it in the past in some situation or another. It doesn't mean that it always has to happen, and we don't always need the armor up to face the world. Where are the places you can let yours down (safely)?

On the Mat:
I've been seeing a lot of photos of myself lately and I've noticed my shoulders dipping forward, spine slightly rounded.  My posture is reflective of my heart being a little closed down, which is something I've been  working on in my relationships.  Now don't get me wrong, I know plenty of people with bad posture and huge generous hearts so it’s not like we improve our posture and magically become more loving and intimate with those around us.  But many of us do face the world this way - our posture reflecting a kind of protectiveness.  When we can open up the vulnerable parts of our bodies with confidence and grace it becomes easier to receive love, others feel more willing to offer it, and we find it easier to offer it back.  And that does open us up in a way.  

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Open yourself up to the places in yourself capable of great love, and with each breath expand the love you have to offer.
Open yourself up with compassion to the places in you that push love away, and let the breath soften those boundaries.

Muscular Energy: We have to be strong to open ourselves up, it’s not like we just flop ourselves open and say here I am for the taking – we participate with that opening up, like every muscle of the body participates in the pose.
Fire up your muscles with the fierce love you have for those that are most dear to you.
Draw (from periphery to focal point) all the love the Universe (Kali) has to offer to you.

Shoulder Loop: Imagine the bottom tips of the shoulder blades like the two hands of Kali, pressing forward and piercing through the tough armor around your heart and into the love at the center.
Move the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward, feeling them gently nudge the back of the heart, waking it up to receive the love of the Universe (of Kali).
Move the tops of the shoulders (head of the arm bones) and the throat back, opening up the guarded vulnerable heart to love.

Organic Energy: From the core of your being spread all the love you are capable of.
Let love shine from any crack in the facade of your being.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Fierce Grace of Kali

A few weeks ago we talked about the goddess Durga and her epic battle with the evil brothers (for that story click here).  During that battle, Durga calls for help and it comes in many forms, the fiercest being Kali.  Kali manifests to defeat the demon-god Raktabija, whose drops of blood fall to the earth and instantly become new demon warriors.  Kali follows him around the battlefield drinking up the drops before they hit the ground, preventing new demons from forming.

The iconography and imagery of Kali is violent and scary: she is depicted as bloody, often blue or black in color, usually holding a severed head and bloody sword, with a garland of skulls around her neck.  It is intense to look at and can be hard to see beyond.  But as Tantrikas we look beyond the surface to see the shree (beauty, auspiciousness) even in what is not pretty:  “The skull in her hands, which her sword has just lopped off, is the ego that separates us from her. Kali’s nakedness shows that she has cast away illusion; in her, the entire truth about life and death is revealed. Even her color is esoteric; Kali’s dark colors stand for the ultimate void state, where all differences dissolve into the absolute beyond all form. Her sword is the force that slices through delusion, ignorance, false hope, and lies.” (Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti)

Kali opens us up to the side of ourselves that the "good girl" or "good boy" we show to the world wants to suppress.  She represents the raw, open (maybe even bloody), exposed parts of ourselves that we feel we have to hide to “fit in” with our culture, the parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable to reveal.  She represents the naked truth of who we are if we are willing to be really honest about it, the part that would hurt the most if, when revealed, it was rejected.  Perhaps this side of ourselves does need to be somewhat tempered, but it is a necessary part of life and one that I think most of us keep locked away in service of fitting inside the box society creates for “good” behavior.  Becoming comfortable with our Kali side means facing our shadow side, our built in contraction and narcissistic tendencies.  Even as I write this I am slightly cringing on the inside, but allowing her in means getting comfortable with your discomfort.  There is nothing subtle or soft about it – if you’re opening up to Kali energy, you open completely, you step into your life in all its beauty and terror and don’t look back.

And yet she is also the great protector.  During the battle she swallows up all the potential demons in order to protect the world, as fierce as a mother protecting her young. Sally Kempton says it like this: “Kali challenges us by daring us to look her in the face and find the love behind the pain of life. The way we see Kali at any given moment has everything to do with where we are in our own journey. Whether Kali seems terrifying, fascinating, or loving depends on our state of consciousness and our level of both emotional and spiritual development…. But she always invites us to a radical form of ego-transcendence.”   Kali invites you to be fierce in your life in all the ways it serves you and those around you, whether it’s in love or in battle.  

Because Kali is a destructive force in the universe, she shows us what is truly indestructible.  The beauty is that in doing this she shows us exactly what cannot be destroyed.  She asks us: what are your non-negotiables? What are you willing to give up, sacrifice in service of living an authentic, meaningful life? What is most important?  Once we are clear on what that is, she inspires us to be ferocious in going after it, fierce in our love or passion or desire for the deepest connection we can make in this realm of existence. 

In all my years of teaching yoga I have never taught Kali until this week.  It was too uncomfortable for me to embrace that side of myself so I avoided her altogether.  As is usually the case, we try to evade that which we need to face, and as I've been getting more acquainted with her through study and practice and contemplation I realized she is exactly who I need to invite into my life.  What she represents for me is looking at my life with stark, brutal honesty, and instead of cowering in the corner and hiding from the demons that threaten to eat me alive, running at them head down, horns out, saying I will literally swallow you up before you can get to me. It means allowing myself to be really vulnerable, baring my soul for all to see no matter how scary that feels, and speaking my truth no matter how unpopular or different that might be from the world I find myself living in.

As I've embraced and opened to my own Kali side this week, for only the second time in my life I lost my voice.  I’ve taught classes channeling the wild Kali-esque beauty of Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin, and instead of feeling limited and restricted by my raspy, raw vocals I felt liberated by it - it was like Kali was speaking through me, that my altered voice was actually hers and I felt like a conduit for her fierce grace.   It gave me a confidence I didn’t know I had and in spite of being sick it’s been a glorious week. 

That grace and glory is waiting for you, it comes as soon as you open the door and allow Kali into your heart. 

Off the Mat:
Short and simple guys – speak your truth.
A friend sent me this quote this week, by Rob Brezsney, the author of the book Pronoia:

I invite you to say this, or something like this: "I pledge to wake myself up, never hold back, have nothing to lose, go all the way, kiss the stormy sky, be the hero of my own story, ask for everything I need and give everything I have, take myself to the river when it's time to go to the river, and take myself to the mountaintop when it's time to go to the mountaintop."

On the Mat:
In my classes this week we worked on ferocious poses – like Uttkatasana (fierce pose), done with our tongues sticking out and a hissing or roaring exhale. It’s hard to be meek or timid with your tongue sticking out!   We  did a lot of core work, connecting us to our “non-negotiables”.   

Getting fierce on the mat means making no excuses - we invoked our Kali-power to lap them up before they could get in the way of our practice, which brought us to a level of deep focus and intention.  We worked on Kali pose, which is a deep wide squat, reminiscent of the pose women used to birth babies in (and some still do).  The goddesses are all related to creation, and this pose reminds us that we need to be fierce in order to transform - like in childbirth, you have to surrender to what’s happening no matter how much it hurts, if you try to fight it you suffer.  

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