Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Spring Cleaning

We are in the week leading up to Passover and Easter, and hopefully more spring-like weather, so to me this indicates a good time to think about spring cleaning.  In many Jewish households, this week (and usually the several leading up to it as well) is spent scouring the house for any and every crumb of bread.  We actually search for anything made from the 5 leavenable grains, anything capable of rising or “puffing up”. The Hebrew word for these grains and their products is chametz. The word chametz comes from l'chmotz, which means to sour or ferment (fermentation is the process by which bread rises). In the physical world, this means sweeping under every couch cushion, vacuuming in crevices between furniture we usually ignore, and scouring your oven until it shines like the day you got it in order to rid your entire home of any last morsel of anything even remotely resembling bread (which, when you live in a house with 3 young boys, means it could be literally anything!). 

In the world of the spirit, we can also do a spring cleaning. This is a perfect time to examine what we have left to sour in our own hearts, to notice what we have left to ferment. I recently had to opportunity to make my own fermented elixir and the process included putting lots of strong, spicy veggies into vinegar, sealing it all with an airtight lid, and hiding it away in a closet for a few months. It was pretty stinky when I reopened it.  This happens with thoughts and feelings we allow to fester as well - and the longer they sit in the dark un-examined, the more murky and foul they become.

What injustice, hurt, or angry feelings have been left to embitter your heart? One of my favorite reminders is the saying “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” This is the time to let go of the poison. It’s hard to let go of old patterns, forgive someone who has hurt us, or even forgive ourselves for a mistake or misstep. Jewish tradition holds that even after all the cleaning, on the night before Passover we ritually take a candle and a feather and search out every last crumb that might be hiding. To me this is emblematic of 2 things – the first is really taking a look into our own dark spaces, the nooks and crannies in our hearts we are usually too ashamed or afraid to look at, and bringing light to them. We can be a little softer with ourselves in the dark, and it makes the seeking somewhat less scary. The other part is the feather. Our old patterns and stories feel so real, so concrete, and often we can see no other way of being.  The thing is, most of the time they are just thoughts, ideas, or fabrications of our own human minds.  They aren’t reality, or at least all of reality, and they can be swept away with the brush of a feather if we are willing to let them go and see who we really are underneath the layers of everyday life. 

This spring cleaning of the heart is a particularly helpful practice to do before coming together with family where our old habits and behaviors have dug deep grooves in relationships. Ram Das famously said “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” Doing a spiritual purge before engaging in intense family holiday time is important, not because it will make us a “better” or more “enlightened” people, but because when we look at our own sour places with compassion and self-love, we are that much more likely to look at others’ that way, and it opens up avenues of empathy and compassion and makes our interactions that much sweeter.

The way this has manifested for me this week (well, at least the one way I’m willing to share openly!) is with my leg. For the past few months I’ve been dealing with an old hamstring tear that I re-injured. Because of the injury, I’ve been in a lot of pain for what seems like a really long time. I’ve had to seriously modify my yoga practice and take some time off running and I am realizing this week as I seek out my soured places that I’ve been holding onto resentment and anger towards my leg for being the source of so much pain, and for not “allowing” me to do the things I love to do the way I love to do them, and towards myself for “stupidly” causing the injury in the first place. I recognize that I need to let go of my intense feelings about it, let go of my frustrations, and make space for the slow process of healing.  This is easy for me to acknowledge and write about, but each time I work on my PT routine, or try to jog a couple of miles and find myself hurting so much that I have to stop, or go to a yoga class where seemingly EVERYONE else in the room can do EVERYTHING it feels near impossible. I mean, I’m just trying to touch my toes for God’s sake, is that asking so much?! And yet I know this mindset is not conducive to healing, so my prayer right now is to forgive myself for hurting myself, to hold patient space for recovery and restoration, and to look at my injured leg with love and compassion. 

If you’re not feeling particularly sour towards anything in your life right now but are still interested in doing some spring cleaning of the heart, another way to do a Passover/spring cleanse is to look at all the ways you “puff yourself up”. On the physical level during Passover we forgo any food that has risen (puffed up by way of fermentation), but on the spiritual level we can look at all the thoughts and behaviors that make us feel self-important, self-righteous, entitled, or justified in thinking of anyone else as “less than”.  Notice in what situations the puffery of ego and pride rear their ugly heads in your spirit.  (Side note about ego: the Tantra doesn’t teach us that we should be free of the ego. Your ego is important, it is what makes you who you are! But we do want to have a healthy ego - to take up just the right amount of space, not too much and not too little.) 

The word Yoga means to yoke, or more simply said, union.  The goal of our practice should be to bring us into deeper connection with our loved ones, our community, nature, and ultimately the Divine. What sour, rotten story or pattern is clogging up your mind and heart and keeping you from seeing the beauty in each moment?  How are you puffing yourself up and disconnecting to those around you? As we throw the windows open to welcome the spring air into our stale and musty homes, throw open the windows of your heart, let the breeze enter and blow the crumbs and dust from the dark corners. Let the fresh air clear out the sour and festering sources of worry and despair and welcome the liberation that comes with letting go.

Off the mat: To really make change you need to be willing to let go of the old to make space for the new. Incorporate a pranayama practice into your day as often as you can which is focused on a longer exhale. Imagine with each breath out that you can let go of anything inside that needs letting go of. It’s helpful to notice where in your body you experience a tightening or grasping, and imagine that you are bringing softness, openness and light to those areas as you release your exhale and with it all that needs releasing from your mind or heart. We did Viloma B in my classes this week, using a 3-part strategy for completely emptying out every bit of stale air from our lungs. Kapalabhati works well too, or Bhastrika for seasoned practitioners.

On the mat: In my classes and in my own practice I focused on deep twisting.  Twists are self-regulating and detoxifying poses.  They squeeze and wring us out, helping to release toxins from all the internal organs. It can be as basic as a seated or supine spinal twist, or as challenging and complex as Eka Pada Koundinyasana I or Baddha Parivritta Parsvakonasana.

Baddha Parivritta Parsvakonasana
Eka Pada Koundinyasana I

Monday, March 19, 2018

Life with Yoga, a Handicap, and a Chair by Herb Benkel

Looking back on life from age 72, I was never really fit. I was never an athlete of any prowess. I became lightly handicapped at age 22, when a fight with cancer, and the radiation to treat it, destroyed the muscles surrounding my right femur (upper leg bone). I was able to walk. I looked fine, but would never run anywhere again. I was already married, to a wonderful woman who accepted my shortcomings. She even supported me when I went to Dental School. I was 40 when I tried my first yoga class. Immediately I knew I had found a health and fitness regimen that was accepting to someone partially handicapped. I loved the classes. I could only bend my right knee to 90 degrees and had much reduced muscle mass (quad and hamstring). Yoga was totally accepting of my limitations. The same people showed up to classes based on personal schedules, therefore classes became a warm and friendly place to go. I was always envious of those with full capacity, but no one ever seemed to notice my diminished ability. Yoga is very personal to each individual. It is a quest to understand and improve only you. There is no competition.

Well, life is amazing. It goes by so quickly that you don’t even realize you are getting old. Then one day....you are a senior citizen, on Social Security and Medicare. Apparently, life passes in a whirl of attention to the rigors of life, family and work. 

 Now to the present. The cancer from age 22 caught up to me. The radiation had destroyed the quality of the right femur bone, and it broke: terribly. An orthopedic surgeon couldn’t fix it. I needed an orthopedic oncologist. It took 6 major surgeries in 53 weeks to repair the leg by removing bone and replacing it with a titanium rod and knee. Now, I was really handicapped. One of the many who supported me that entire year was my yoga teacher, and the other students from the yoga community. During my worst time in the hospital, when I thought it might be better to be “gone”, I took control of my feelings by starting to do upper body yoga. I started that night, at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, to stretch and work my upper body using the arms of the hospital bed as props. I used my ‘no’ wheel walker, my first style walker, as support for twists and bends. My ability to cope with my problems soared. I was doing “better” then the patients around me. This lasted through the 6 surgeries and the months of rehabilitation, including the period at home recovering. It was my family, friends and yoga that brought me through what was well over a year of crisis. 

2016 post surgery

Today, I can’t bend the titanium knee past 40 degrees (so it’s very straight in its metal brace) and there is no functioning quad or hamstring at all. Both muscles are totally atrophied. Yoga still accommodated my needs both physically and mentally. I attend classes 2 or 3 times a week. They are now “Chair Yoga” classes. All moves are with the support of a chair, with no time spent on the floor. In the class are others with different physical or age related problems. There is still a strong and supportive social and emotional framework. We are, not even necessarily older. The need for modified types of yoga is based, not on age but on ability. Ability or need brings people to chair yoga. The ultimate result of doing yoga is the same from any level practice. Yoga creates self confidence, physical and mental strength and well being, personal awareness, better balance and the ability to handle life’s curves after injuries, or age, catch up to you. I once counted the “5 Most Important Decisions” I had made in my life. One of those was getting involved and staying involved with yoga. 

 Herb Benkel 

 If you are curious about chair yoga, we offer several classes each week.  No reservations needed, just show up. We’ve got a chair waiting for you!

We offer 10 gentle therapeutic classes each week ranging from chair yoga, to yoga for strong bones, bad back, restorative and meditation and more.  See our full schedule on our website: www.shreeyoga.com

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Samavesha Mexico 2018

Samavesha Mexico!It’s hard to imagine being in 80 degree sunny Mexico last week and in a snow storm today.  I had the privilege of being both a student and a teacher at the Anusara School of Hatha Yoga’s gathering called, Samavesha, last week. 

Over two hundred people convened on the lovely town of Tepoztlán an hour or so outside of Mexico City. The town is famous for the remains of El Tepozteco temple built on top of the nearby Tepozteco Mountain.  The event was held at Hotel Buena Vibra or hotel of good vibes.  And it certainly was just that.  Set against the backdrop of the mountain, the hotel was filled with lush gardens of greenery, flowering vines and bushes, Buddha statues, meditation areas, hot tubs and bird song.  Every view was exquisite.  There were three yoga studios and we had three choices of classes or workshops to attend for each time slot.  There were workshops on assisting, teaching with themes, anatomy and functional movement as well as classes for all levels and focus.     
We hiked up to the ancient Aztec pyramid at the top of the mountain – a hot, intense hour long vertical climb accompanied by much panting, water drinking and rests to slow the heart rate.

Carolos Pomeda, a dear old friend and esteemed scholar, taught on Paramarthasara, an 11th century text which offers a summary of Kashmir Shaivism in 105 verses.  This is the Tantric philosophy of inclusivity that underpins Anusara yoga.  Each class and offering was bilingual.  English speaking teachers had their classes translated into Spanish. Spanish speaking teachers had their classes translated into English.  We could all understand one another and grow and learn from each other.       

I reconnected with many dear old friends and teachers and met and made many new ones.  It struck me how important the feeling of being part of a community is to me: the sense of knowing I have place.  Kula, or community is an integral part of yoga and a particular focus for Anusara and for us at Shree.          

Saturday morning was a highlight.  At 9:00 am I taught 55 of my peers a yoga class focused on Rahasya, or the secret.  My friend and fellow Anusara teacher, Adolfo, translated my class into Spanish: word for word with great skill. He also did a few spectacular demonstrations. I was very nervous about teaching this class.  I have never taught at the Anusara gatherings.  Teaching my peers felt different from teaching my students.  I prepared the class with more care than I’ve ever prepared a class before.  I practiced it several times at Shree and asked for feedback.  I was told that the class was technically great, but I wasn’t being myself.  I was so stuck to the notes I’d prepared, scared I’d forget something or do a poor job.  Feeling the support of the Anusara community, I let go of my notes, stepped into the seat of the teacher, into just being myself and, in my opinion, nailed it!  I felt really good about it.  It was so hard to let go, and so worthwhile.  

Anusara Yoga experienced a shake-up in 2012.  Now that we are a teacher led school, we are thriving and growing, alive and well.  The Anusara methodology, philosophy and science remain current and applicable.  They and the community are the bedrock of my own yoga practice, teaching, and what I bring to Shree.

It was a wonderful five days and now I am happy to be back and look forward to continuing to share Anusara yoga with you all.


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