Kaladanda – Beat Death

Sometime in the early 2000’s , a series of teachings on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika were presented at the school where I taught.  At that time yoga branding was all the rage- a new thing =  and people were using Sanskrit words to define their yoga, their clothing brand, their travel agencies.    We had great fun with this.  You see, at that time most of the people who were branding that way were part of this kind of geeky cool strata of the New York yoga world in which everyone studied Sanskrit because it was “cool”  I’m not making this up, there were fashionable New Yorkers participating in this.  Someone had branded the word Kaladanda for something, I don’t remember what, but we all were given baseball caps with a beautiful design and the word Kaladanda on them.  Kaladanda is a staff carried by the Lord of Death, Yama, in the Ramayana an important Indian epic.  The word is composed of “Kala” which is time and “Danda” is staff – the club with which we beat time.  In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the Danda is the Yogi’s staff (see Dandasana) or the energy channel that runs a long the spine, formally known as the sushumna nadi.  If we beat time there is no death.    The reference is to our capacity to visit worlds without restrictions through  our yoga practices.  If you’ve ever experienced a truly blissful moment of joyful absorption in your creativity, in love, or on your mat,  you have touched this timeless unrestricted space.  Many of us have, although the magnitude appears to be somewhat more dramatic in the yoga practices.  A well done Hatha Yoga practice empowers the yogi to enter these states of consciousness at will.

How does this work – we spoke last week about the way Arundhati, or kundalini, travels up the sushumna nadi along the spine – and travels through and opens three knots called the granthis – each of these being a conditional experience of limitation.  The Rudra granthi placed at the juncture before the  opening of the third eye is what keeps us anchored in time and space.  To experience a state of consciousness that is beyond time is to know true liberation.

What practical value does this have?  A lot.  You know that wound you are carrying from age 15?  (Forgive me if you are beyond that, but most of us humans carry a little baggage) well, it can be resolved through the practice.  How can that be?  When we carry those moments we don’t really move forward, we keep feeing the same feelings and choosing the same things over and over.  When we touch the space outside of linear time the clarity that arises at that moment allows us to choose differently,  Taking ownership of that power to choose anew heals the wounds from choices made long ago, before we knew better. 

What other practical value does the experience of yogic liberation have?  Entering a transcendental space, the relationship to the body changes.  It ceases to define our experience of life, instead the yogi defines the body.  To me this is a great power of the practice of Hatha Yoga.  One can attain transcendental states  in meditation or chanting or study, but the relationship with the body is transformed uniquely through Hatha Yoga.  Transforming the relationship to the body is pivotal to the spiritual journey.  To be comfortable dealing  with the body as things arise is a form of freedom. 

It is worth reading the stories of the great jivanmuktas of India – as this unique relationship to the body is frequently demonstrated to their followers.  There are many validated tales of Neem Karoli Baba, Ramana Maharshi and others taking disciples disease states into their own body, and by transforming the disease themselves leaving the disciples body healed and whole.

In practical terms in our Hatha Yoga practices a transformed relationship with the body points to an opportunity to shift our yoga experience from confining to liberating.  Through directing how we interact with the body via our thoughts and beliefs while on the mat, we lay the groundwork for a different life with the body.  Some practical tools to begin transforming the relationship with the body:

  1. Om – Om always resolves unclear thinking.
  2. Tune into sensation rather than labeling.  If a knee hurts in postures breath and observe and feel.  But I avoid going into the realm of “there is something wrong” or even “pain”.  I also don’t push it away.  The recommendation would be to stay present with it without developing a story about it.
  3. Make the breath primary and layer the body experience on top of that.
  4. Practices turning the mind towards breath or Om, love or devotion, as you practice.

The tales of beating death are glamorous and enticing. For today we can understand this idea of transcending death is really about changing our experience of time, and our relationship to the body.  This opens the doorway to  understanding and living our lives in a new, less restricted way.

The Full Circle of Vinyasa – Transcendence

In its purest form, the Vinyasa experience  is what Patanjali calls samyamah, a synthesis of  forms of concentration which modulate the fluctuations of the mind, in this case, the focus is on breath, movement, intention and internal anchoring in the moment by moment unfolding of time.  The result is that beautiful transcendental physical flow that so many of us admire, aspire to and experience.   In my experience the vinyasa is an inner experience first, an inner experience of moving intentionally through time and space oriented primarily in an anchoring in the wisdom self. 

To understand this brings us to one of Patanjali’s key instructions about yoga, that yoga is nurtured through the practice of abhyasa (practice time spent dwelling in the true nature) or practice dwelling in our true nature, the wisdom self, and vairagya – detachment.  These practices form the landscape from which the classical practices of renunciation arise.  In it’s essential form, renunciation is an inner practice, developed through outer practice.  A simple moment when you soften around a moment of change can teach us a lot about the inner landscape of yoga.  What do we feel as we begin to move, is it sticky?  Clunky?  Awkward or painful?  Or does it flow?  Are we able to be still comfortably or at a different pace, comfortable?  Our capacity to do that is built on practicing this inner spaciousness which arises with practice and detachment.  The experience of and wake from the COVID related worldwide shutdowns has triggered an avalance of change.  Having survived four job changes and a tumultuous presidential election which, last night I found myself cringing in fear at the thought of further changes which will likely be unfolding as we move forward.  Who knows what’s coming?  Cringing.  I was  actually cringing.  And then, like a good dream my years of practice kicked in and I was awash in love and gratitude rather than fear of what was to come.  I am grateful that I was here in this beauty and that I have had the experience of knowing amazing people in my life.  Things may be different for all of us moving forward, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good.  I find this way of vinyasa-ishly moving through a challenging experience helps me keep it in perspective.  It’s like walking through the streets of the city, any city.  Every neighborhood has it’s flavor and feel and we are just walking through those varying flavors and feels.  An uncomfortable neighborhood doesn’t require us setting up house there.  One the inner level we don’t need to set up camp in an interior landscape of opinion and belief which doesn’t serve us.  Instead we set up our camp in the wisdom self as we move through the discomforts and comforts  of life.  Th

In its purest form, the Vinyasa experience  is what Patanjali calls samyamah, a synthesis of  forms of concentration which modulate the fluctuations of the mind, in this case, the focus is on breath, movement, intention and internal anchoring in the moment by moment unfolding of time.  The result is that beautiful transcendental physical flow that so many of us admire, aspire to and experience.   In my experience the vinyasa is an inner experience first, an inner experience of moving intentionally through time and space oriented primarily in an anchoring in the wisdom self. 

To understand this brings us to one of Patanjali’s key instructions about yoga, that yoga is nurtured through the practice of abhyasa (practice time spent dwelling in the true nature) or practice dwelling in our true nature, the wisdom self, and vairagya – detachment.  These practices form the landscape from which the classical practices of renunciation arise.  In it’s essential form, renunciation is an inner practice, developed through outer practice.  A simple moment when you soften around a moment of change can teach us a lot about the inner landscape of yoga.  What do we feel as we begin to move, is it sticky?  Clunky?  Awkward or painful?  Or does it flow?  Are we able to be still comfortably or at a different pace, comfortable?  Our capacity to do that is built on practicing this inner spaciousness which arises with practice and detachment.  The experience of and wake from the COVID related worldwide shutdowns has triggered an avalance of change.  Having survived four job changes and a tumultuous presidential election which, last night I found myself cringing in fear at the thought of further changes which will likely be unfolding as we move forward.  Who knows what’s coming?  Cringing.  I was  actually cringing.  And then, like a good dream my years of practice kicked in and I was awash in love and gratitude rather than fear of what was to come.  I am grateful that I was here in this beauty and that I have had the experience of knowing amazing people in my life.  Things may be different for all of us moving forward, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good.  I find this way of vinyasa-ishly moving through a challenging experience helps me keep it in perspective.  It’s like walking through the streets of the city, any city.  Every neighborhood has it’s flavor and feel and we are just walking through those varying flavors and feels.  An uncomfortable neighborhood doesn’t require us setting up house there.  One the inner level we don’t need to set up camp in an interior landscape of opinion and belief which doesn’t serve us.  Instead we set up our camp in the wisdom self as we move through the discomforts and comforts  of life.  Th

In its purest form, the Vinyasa experience  is what Patanjali calls samyamah, a synthesis of  forms of concentration which modulate the fluctuations of the mind, in this case, the focus is on breath, movement, intention and internal anchoring in the moment by moment unfolding of time.  The result is that beautiful transcendental physical flow that so many of us admire, aspire to and experience.   In my experience the vinyasa is an inner experience first, an inner experience of moving intentionally through time and space oriented primarily in an anchoring in the wisdom self. 

To understand this brings us to one of Patanjali’s key instructions about yoga, that yoga is nurtured through the practice of abhyasa (practice time spent dwelling in the true nature) or practice dwelling in our true nature, the wisdom self, and vairagya – detachment.  These practices form the landscape from which the classical practices of renunciation arise.  In it’s essential form, renunciation is an inner practice, developed through outer practice.  A simple moment when you soften around a moment of change can teach us a lot about the inner landscape of yoga.  What do we feel as we begin to move, is it sticky?  Clunky?  Awkward or painful?  Or does it flow?  Are we able to be still comfortably or at a different pace, comfortable?  Our capacity to do that is built on practicing this inner spaciousness which arises with practice and detachment.  The experience of and wake from the COVID related worldwide shutdowns has triggered an avalance of change.  Having survived four job changes and a tumultuous presidential election which, last night I found myself cringing in fear at the thought of further changes which will likely be unfolding as we move forward.  Who knows what’s coming?  Cringing.  I was  actually cringing.  And then, like a good dream my years of practice kicked in and I was awash in love and gratitude rather than fear of what was to come.  I am grateful that I was here in this beauty and that I have had the experience of knowing amazing people in my life.  Things may be different for all of us moving forward, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good.  I find this way of vinyasa-ishly moving through a challenging experience helps me keep it in perspective.  It’s like walking through the streets of the city, any city.  Every neighborhood has it’s flavor and feel and we are just walking through those varying flavors and feels.  An uncomfortable neighborhood doesn’t require us setting up house there.  One the inner level we don’t need to set up camp in an interior landscape of opinion and belief which doesn’t serve us.  Instead we set up our camp in the wisdom self as we move through the discomforts and comforts  of life. That, is transcendence.

Vinyasa

A Compilation of commentaries from newsletters sent to students during the moon month

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Putting It All in Place

Sunday is a workday for me.  Two days of my week are dedicated entirely to creating content, planning classes and workshops, marketing and visioning – to building a scaffolding for the life that I want to be creating.    A workday, but it’s the day I get to flex my entrepreneurial muscles and work towards my own personal vision.  I had plans of everything that I would get done.    I work up early to get started, and when I woke, I knew – I just knew – that the time had come to rearrange the furniture.  Distraction or meaningful digression?  I didn’t know.  But I knew I needed to do it.  And so I did.  I spent the day sweeping away the dust which had accumulated under the desk and reflecting on the feng shui of it all.  Not deliberately forcing the placement of objects in the magical feng shui areas but noting the call of my heart to place an object here, or there, or to carefully dust off a beloved memento.  When I realized how late in the day it had gotten and how many things still needed

to be put in their place, I began to chastise myself about how I had “wasted” my time.  But then my eyes took rest on a yet to be placed object, and I recalled my planned subject matter for the month.  Vinyasa.  While Vinyasa is a term commonly used to refer to a general kind of flowing with breath in the yoga practice, the word itself breaks down into vi and nyasa.  Nyasa I understand this to mean placing something, and the vi confers a sacred intentionality. To place even a tiny object, like a thought or a wish intentionally is a very very big deal.  Mostly I understand this on the basis of my practice.  Not the how, but what was reveealed through practice embedded in spacious understanding.  This month we invoke into our practice a little energy of the elements of conscious co-creation revealed in vinyasa practice.

I was first introduced to this concept at the Jivamukti Yoga School, where Vinyasa is brought together with Sutra III.52 from Patanjali’s  Yoga Sutra to form the basis of a philosophy of vinyasa sequencing.

क्षणतत्क्रमयोः संयमात् विवेकजंज्ञानम् ॥५२॥

kṣaṇa-tat-kramayoḥ saṁyamāt vivekajaṁ-jñānam ॥53॥ Swami Vivekananada

PYS III.53 Through samyama on a particle of time and that which proceeds and succeeds it comes discrimination.

(Translation by Swami Vivekananda –>>)

This sutra is carefully placed at the end of the third pada, or foot, or maybe even step of Patanjali’s technical manual on yoga.  By the time we are this deep into the practice, we have entered the realms of mysticism.  The experiences encountered are multidimensional and beyond language.  But discernment is all about choice, and so the process of practicing this very deliberately, the movement into a conscious placement, the awareness of where we were and where we are going leads us to a place of clarity about how we are moving forward in life.  As always, the yoga illuminates an experience on and off the mat.  It brings us to a place where “going with the flow” and deliberate action are united, yielding conscious intentional movement.  It brings us to a place a conscious creation in conjunction with the power and love of our wisdom selves.  And that is a very powerful position in which to find ourselves.  Which brings me back to rearranging the furniture.  Sometimes, when I’m following

that luminous inner guidance, I am guided to do the most illogical things, but as I move forward with and in alignment with that higher guidance, like today, I find myself in some miraculous place that I could never have arrived at with my intellect, both eternally and in the physical realm.  As we moved through the chaos of the past 18 months or so,  I took a thousand conscious steps forward with guidance and this is where I landed.  I was so busy that I couldn’t adjust my environment to how my life was changing, and now, as I look around my little studio, I realize that it’s now the perfect set up to support where I am now, as I conscious craft where I am going, and I’m looking forward to the inevitable surprises contained in the perfect placements.  What will emerge in this newly reshaped environment I am living in?


Where Vinyasa Begins – Intention

A long time ago when I began to practice yoga vinyasa, one day during practice this thought arose ….this must have something to do with surfing…that riding of the waves of breath and movement.  I sensed, that there was some common element physically.  I found out soon there after that the first “landing” of yoga vinyasa in America was in the surfing communities of Hawaii and California.  The connection between the two disciplines, I felt, must have been mula bandha.  Mula bandha is a physical lift of the pelvic floor which allows one to balance while moving.  Esoterically mula bandha is associated with the practice of inner alignment, to direct one’s energy towards the highest possible levels of mystical consciousness.  It is a practice which leads to tremendous clarity.  We don’t need to go into deep resonance with the sacred to know this, if you’ve even done a few rounds of sun salutation, you know that clarity emerges quickly with such a practice.  While there is a physical component of mula bandha, the activation of it on the level of consciousness is achieved only through intention.  The physical activation of the pelvic floor wakes the energy up.  The direction of our focus will determine where the energy goes.  There is no right or wrong about the directing of energy, but I think it’s good to know that our results will very much be determined by  the direction of the energy.  In true vinyasa fashion this idea is circular, our intention . will determine our focus which will determine the direction of the energy which will then create a result which will influence our intention and so forth. The most important moment In our yoga practice is the moment we override inertia and consciously go about choosing a direction.

                   In the classical schools the only intention considered potent enough to activate the bandha was  desire to know God.  The aspirant would begin each practice bowing down to God and the Guru who represented God in form.  In America this intention became softened somewhat to offering the good of our practice to others, a classic Buddhist practice.  The energetic result is the same because the energy is directed towards something beyond our personal needs.  It’s uplifted.  In recent years in America the practice of intention has shifted again, now to honoring ourselves and good self care.  Good self care is essential to a yoga practice, but as an intention it can keep you anchored in what you need, rather than your most illumined potential. Following Patanjali’s formula we know that what we focus on grows.  We don’t want our needs to grow. The heart of the yoga practice is to transcend our needs and fulfill our potential (hence the complex landscape of renunciation practices which have historically defined the practice).  Deprivation is undesirable and not effective.  But to direct our intention higher than our needs is to up-level our capacity for living.  But even this requires some conscious consideration. We need to be aware of what we are intending.

                    To offer oneself as a vehicle for the divine may result in a role where you are the deliverer of blessings hard truths.  An important, but not always fun role.  An intention to serve may yield gracious and elegant opportunities to serve others, but you may have to deal with constraints on your self expression or ability to make decisions.  To intend to know true compassion may inspire you to give away your last dollar.  To intend to align with the most magnificent and expanded vision of your divine sacred infused snowflake self (no two are alike you know) well….that may lead you on your own magnificent divine journey which may include being compassionate in your own unique snowflake way.   It’s nothing we need to fear.  The point is to be awake and clear in the creative opportunity that Vinyasa presents.  Vinyasa, broken down into it’s parts is to place on purpose.  To place a purposeful intention at the beginning of our practice and then to consciously observe our ability to focus as the moments arise and fall in the practice is to take ownership of the power of asana in a whole new way.   Intending a practice is frequently invoked in yoga class, which is good.  Then it is up to us to discern the best way to use that opportunity.


What to Say About Vinyasa Om

This is the second time this year I felt called to teach about vinyasa, and both times when I went to write, words eluded me.  As this month unfurls practicing, contemplating and teaching vinyasa I come to a place where silence feels best.  Vinyasa, after all, in body or spirit is an experience.  But, it’s my job to teach and if  the only communication which occurs in teaching and learning is silent, so be it.  But there is a place for speaking about breath, movement, intention, purposeful placement and continuous focus on the past, present and future.  So we know, somehow this is not just about our bodies.  If we are spacious enough in  our practice through our practice we come to know that our placement in this moment in the spectrum of time is no accident, and through our conscious intention we can influence where we land in the days to come.  An intention for kindness, for generosity, for clarity and peace, cooperation and good relating can do wonders in transforming our life experience.  Today we’ll just experience, continuity of moment by moment movement through past, present and future on our mats.

The last word on Sukha (सूख) – Joy

We spent a lot of time this month speaking of the cultivation of ease in our lives and yoga postures – sukha.  But there is another essential facet of the sukha experience which in some ways eclipses the idea of ease, and that is JOY.  Joy is key in the yoga practice:  we cultivate it, and the experience of it is the culmination of the yoga experience. 

The Joy referred to in yoga is a spirit rooted, inspired state which arises from within as our practice unfolds It differs from an outward kind of happiness or pleasure in that it grows in stability over time as we become established in our well-done practices, it’s lack of correlation with so-called “happy” experiences in life, and that it emerges from within.  My personal experience, the few times I’ve touched it, is that it’s flavor is truly sweet.

This deeper flavor of sukha is connected with primarily through our cultivation and openness to our inner development and practices, breathwork, devotion to our relationship with our higher power, meditation, and sacred text study.  You may have other inner practices which serve as deepeners in your personal spiritual recipe.  It’s the deepeners which bring us to yogic Joy.  Joy is this form is also met through good service to others.  This doesn’t mean necessarily running down to the local soup kitchen to ladle soup to the homeless, although it could mean that.  It means truly seeking to render service in whatever role you have assumed, whether it be a clerk or the president, a school teacher or a musician.    You may have discovered that joy of this nature is infectious.  If you have ever been blessed by the experience of having your table waited on by someone who is embodying true service…it can almost be giddying to be in the presence of such a person. 

Another aspect of Joy to consider is that when Patanjali (an ancient sage and expert on yoga) tells us in his seminal work “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” that our postures should be stable and joyful, he’s advising us that we don’t need to suffer. This is very very important.   Yoga is not a “no pain no gain”.  endeavor.  Everything that yoga has to offer is encompassed in an ever increasing stability in the state of joy. You are  meant to be happy.  The work in the practice though, is the discovery of what happiness truly is. 

May you have a blessed and wonderful week and I hope to see you in class today!  Links below. 

This post is from the weekly newsletter I send out to students, complete with easy links for classes. If you would like to see this in your email once a week, and once more when the new moon month begins, please sign up for my email!!

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Make it Easy on Yourself, Trust the Process

“But, whether the form be perfect or imperfect, the Being of the form is perfect [wisdom] power, substance, and intelligence.” The Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East, David T. Spalding.

I was married in my early thirties to an academic, a social scientist.  I’d been raised by a father who was protestant farmer turned highly successful businessman, a capitalist.  His advice to me when I was growing up was that I could have whatever I wanted if I worked hard.  My husband the academic found this very funny, as he observed me struggling to climb my way up the corporate ladder.  “You think hard work will save you.  This is a faulty philosophy.” I resisted his analysis, but I never forgot it, and as the years went by realized that there was some truth to it.  Shortly before my father passed away I spoke to him about my occupational struggles and he said, “Well, I guess I just got lucky.”  These days, I understand that perhaps success is a result of combination of things.  I have accepted the idea that it really isn’t hard work alone.  My ex-husband would have broken down the various obstacles to receiving (or not) rewards for hard work as some combination of class and economic oppression.  This may be true from a certain perspective.  But there are those, like my father, who successful slip through all those obstacles and find themselves successful, sometimes wildly unexpectedly, as in his case.  From the yoga perspective, whether on the mat or off, the key to successful navigation of the complex landscape of our lives is a combination of focus and spiritual alignment, or steadiness and spacious, or stability and ease – all these being expressions of the dynamic play of the opposites threaded through the universe and managed through the practices of yoga.  This month we are contemplating the idea of sukha (or comfort, ease, sweetness, joy) which Patanjali, a well-respected ancient sage and expert in yoga, advises is a key component of a successful posture.  One key to bringing sukha into our practices on and off the mat, is to identify  where we make things harder than they are, and let go of that. 

One of the first things we can get hung up on is doing the posture “right”.  Doing the posture “right” is very hard work, and well, there isn’t a lot of agreement about what is “right” in a posture.   Even the shapes themselves change in time.  If we try to get all the details “right” we can end up working too hard prematurely. We might be better served to consider just doing a posture well – meaning, weight balanced, reaching in all directions of the body equally, being present in  our bodies and breathing.  You will get there.  In time, the details will fill themselves in.  You will grow from feeling your feet on the ground, to feeling your toes and your navel and your shoulder blades.  The body will wake up through breathing and quieting the mind.  We don’t have to think about the postures.  We feel them and do them.

Another thing we can get hung up on is unrealistic expectations.  I remember taking Bikram classes in New York City.  Bikram had a standard set of instructions that the teachers memorized.  One of the instructions was to touch the top of your head to your toes in seated forward bend.  I yanked and pulled and sweated for years until finally one of the teachers said “Maybe two people in the world can get their head to their toes.  But we show up and we do our best and we benefit just from that.”  I lightened up on myself a lot of after that and my postures lightened up as well.

Another way a person could work too hard in asana would be expecting that our progress would unfold in a straight line.   It seldom does.  Yoga brings into alignment infinite aspects of our being.  Sometimes regression in one area (say the physical) brings progress in another area (say, the spiritual).  In the school where I studied the folklore was that if you injured yourself it was a call to meditation and a change in the quality of the  relationship with the body.  Indeed.  Becoming comfortable and easy in our practice is partly about allowing those fluctuations in experience without resistance.  We soften into spaciousness around the moment and open to what needs tending to.  Sometimes we soften the  physical effort and discover that there is a subtlety in the body that we are invited to tend to, say, microscopically adjusting the position of our little toe (and then the whole leg shifts). 

Breathing. Feeling.  Being.  Maybe this is the essence of sukha, to remember that we are not working machines, made to be constantly doing, but that we are breathing feeling whole beings  meant to be living and unfolding gently, powerfully and lovingly into an experience of magnificence which is unimaginable but ever present, like the blossoming of a flower. 

Oh, and, when my father passed away he left me a little bit of money.  I was getting nowhere in my corporate ladder climbing and so I followed by heart and stopped doing those late nights at the office and attended a yoga teacher training.  Surprise, surprise, when the year ended and I graduated from teacher training  I was rewarded with a raise and a promotion at my corporate job.  They were pleased at how I had changed.  Hmmm….

Trust the process.  Trust the process of yoga.  Maybe it is all easier than we think. 

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Surrendering into Power

We’ve been dancing around the practices of kriya yoga: Tapah, Svadyaya, Ishwara Pranidhanani.  They are central to the practice of yoga, on and off the mat. They are embodied in trikonasana and they are a simple doorway into the deeper dimensions of the practice.  These three building blocks of the yoga practice can be loosely translated into English as: effort, self-reflection, and surrender. Ishwara Pranidhanani, so-called “surrender”, may appear to be the antithesis of power. The translation of surrender, carrying as it does the connotation of defeat, may bear a coloring of sacrifice.  A closer examination yields a different point of view.  Surrender is required anytime we are invited to step up our game.  Ishwara is the “one beyond form “ and “Pranidhanani” is to bow down to.  The bowing down is not to make oneself less than, but rather to soften our rigidity that we might be transformed into something greater. .  The formless quality of Ishwara allows us to utilize any variety of divine entity or quality in our practice   Think: caterpillar, butterfly. It is that simple.  What do we wish to transform into?  Practice reveals that Ishwara Pranidhani is the most powerful of the three practices as softening our rigidities opens the door to great fullness of our being. This is great power, albeit of an inner sort. When we relinquish the struggles and conquests of our limited personalities, the spiritual power of our connection to source is moves through us, transformation occurs.  We all know our best relationships occur when the two of us together are better than each of us alone.  This requires a little softening.  It requires a little alchemy. It invites us to get out of our own way so to speak. This moment is about relationships, healing occurs when the us and them dissolves.

Ustrasana, camel posture, embodies this.  Our personalities and sense of conventional power are seated in the third chakra in the solar plexus, the heart resting right above this.  Relinquishing the tight hold of our personal power in the solar plexus region invites the flowering at the heart center.

Finding OurSelves – losing ourselves

Finding OurSelves – losing ourselves

We’ve spoken in these posts about yoga in terms of “yoking” or joining with, our higher self, God (dess), love or truth.  We’re always going to join with something.  Most of us are joined, intimately, with our personalities and the conditioning from our past experiences.  The yoga practices are designed to liberate us from the confinement of those identities, opening up fields of possibilities which are obscured by those limited perspectives.  The practices open us up to the vastness of our sacredness, our divinity and to an experience of life which is larger than ourselves.  But we live in a field of influences.  As we open up it’s important to be clear in our elevated personal intention. i.e. “I wish to yoke to the greater  creative force of the universe”. Otherwise it is all too easy to find ourselves swept away by a tidal wave of charisma, affection, or illusion.  I believe this is the source of many controversial events in spiritual history.  Participants got involved to find themselves and lost themselves instead.  It can be a very easy thing to do, getting lost.  In order to navigate the fields of liberated consciousness it’s wise to learned to stay centered as you practice (tapah), to develop your self-awareness of your own inner feeling states of consciousness (svadyaya), and to clear that you are surrendering your own restricted consciousness states to a higher consciousness state appropriate for you.

There are numerous techniques to stay centered in your practice.  Two widely used and simple techniques are the focus on the breath and the focus on the third eye center which is between the brows and slightly back.  Both techniques can be used in asana practice, in meditation practice, in bed, standing in line or on the bus.   It can be helpful to learn with eyes closed, but both techniques can be practiced with eyes open.  To focus on the breath, direct your inner gaze to the tip of the nose and watch each breath as you beath in and out through the nostrils.  To focus on the third eye center, direct the inner gaze to a space between the brows and slightly back, and allow it to rest there.  For both practices, the gaze can be directed either by moving the physical eyes or just directing the attention.  When you discover your attention has wandered, just bring it back again.  Try starting with 5 minutes and build from there.

Self-reflection is a perpetual on going process.  It may begin with noting your emotional states, and then deepen into subtler states of consciousness.  Just practice checking in with how you are feeling, and then what you are feeling underneath the feeling with a receptive and gentle awareness.

In the practices of bhakti yoga, practitioners nurture a relationship with what is called their Ishta devata. The Ishta Devata is their preferred form of God (dess), or guru.  Many western practitioners begin by working with Hindu deities they feel an affinity, a guru or or even Jesus.  Mahatma Ghandhi worked with truth.  You can take a quality that you aspire to embody in your practice and work with that.  Then the practice is to allow oneself to surrender into that.  For example, say I aspire to beauty and graceful femininity.   I find a symbol of that…a flower, a book, an image of Venus, and I focus on that, or in my asana practice, I dedicate my practice to aligning with that.  My experience is that it works well if you don’t use other people for this, or you can develop their flavor of the qualities instead of your own.

These practices work best when we hold them gently, training ourselves to rest in our own sacred centers and intentions rather than creating rigid boundary lines which we then defend by pushing the outside away.  Nurtured carefully, gentle centering practices allow us to stay clearly on our own path while opening up, connecting with others and accessing higher states of consciousness.  As the inner doors fly open, we find ourselves within ourselves, rather than losing ourselves in others.

The Forces Within

The Forces Within

In my observations as a yoga teacher all the postures we take, on and off the mat, have a variety of expressions one of which is the reflection of what we are feeling that day.  Some people shift from expression to expression in their postures, trying to find the one that “fits”.  Some people identify with one expression or another and hang out there for awhile until a new idea sparks transformation, or they feel the pain of the imbalance acutely and decide it’s time to change.  The days we live in require a great deal of strength and resilience.  Students thrive when given the opportunity to nurture their strength.  All of the Tadasana based straight line postures (Plank, Chaturanga Daṇḍāsana (low plank), Vasisthasana (side plank), Vrksasana (tree)) invite us to reflect on and move beyond the psycho-spiritual-physical tangles which obstruct our ability to experience the power of our wholeness. 

I always teach plank early in the class.  Why?  Because it tells me a lot about who I’m teaching and what they are in the mindset to engage with on any given day.    Over the years I’ve come across (and experienced in my own body) some common expressions of plank which could be thought of like this:

  1. The Conqueror:  Every ounce of will is drawn forth, the eyes and jaw tighten, the body is wrapped around the posture like grasping onto a twig if  we were falling off a cliff.  The breath is forced or held. 
  2. The Non-Chalant:  A similar determination to conquer the plank, or perhaps the way one feels in that moment, but being aware of the mind body implications of everything, we attempt to look cool.  The face and jaw are relaxed, the will is strong, but maybe the leg or the eye or the arm are twitching out a steady current of subconscious disharmony.
  3. The Dread:  The teacher says plank and there is hesitation (not today!  Do I have to do this today?).  The brows furrow – the face and body droop before even attempting to shift into the posture.  The body shifts forward into the plank and then crumples to the floor under the weight of expectations. 
  4. The Flying Buttock:  Exactly what it sounds like, our tailbone is not in alignment with the rest of the spine and is jutting up towards the sky.  Somehow, it seems to make things easier.  But the dis-alignment interferes with the subtle dynamic of balanced strength which we can cultivate through these straight-line postures.  In other words.  It’s easier, but not the easiest.  It’s a little like contorting yourself to adapt to an intrusive seatmate on a plane or subway.  We hold back a little from our ability to extend out into the world with the flying buttock shape.
  5. The aligned: The alignment comes all together, balanced front and back forward and backward and up and down and right and left and it’s EASY. And it SHOWS. This plank can be held for a very long time, by persons of all ages and appearances of physical body strength. The person inhabits the body rather than conquering it through will. The capacity for strength emerges from inside, not out.

None of these are bad or wrong but they can be invitations to bring a little more yoga into our yoga.  Yoga meaning to “yoke together”  to bring a little more of our inner being into our actions on and off the mat. 

Embracing the spiritual practices of yoga opens us to the exhilarating vastness of possibility.  To integrate that vastness into our lives requires a moment by moment yoking to spirit as we take action.    Breath is the key to this on and off the mat. Breath is a doorway to the subtle realms.  Developing an understanding of balance in the body supports this.  Balance in the body frees us from some of the struggles of the postures and opens an inner spaciousness which allows us to inhabit a physical action and tap into the vast potential of a given moment.  Releasing the external goals allows the body to be aligned by the illumined inner and outer forces, rather than our perceived shortcomings.

To cultivate right effort in your plank  try these:

  1. Focus on the breath
  2. Focus on the balance, which will always be some evening out of two opposing forces
  3. Release the goal – or perhaps the thought of the goal-including your expectations of what it would take to achieve it
  4. Extend in all directions
  5. Repetition and consistency

Practice of an integrated plank posture reveals our capacity to succeed through attention, presence, balance and extension (used in a geometric sense rather than anatomical), allowing us to funnel our spiritual potential into our physical form.  We no longer have to build strength, we become strength.

Open Sesame

It is an extraordinary moment.  Around me, I see those moving through life untouched by the turmoil in the world.  I see others, devastated.  I find myself fluctuating between the two.  Fluctuating is the key word here.  Flux is a substance used in metal joining (Attaching two metal pieces to form say, a ring).  It has a function of purification which facilitates the yoking of the pieces together.  The flux of my life is this moment of heat and challenge.  That process of fluctuating is a purifying one, my doubts, my fears, my worries, my angers are brought to the surface and purged.  In the moment that alchemical reaction is happening I have a choice.  I can identify with the matter which is being expelled or I can release and let it go.  To identify with it will move me away from yoga.  To release it and keep doing the work – allows me to move deeper into the experience of alchemical strength.  The joining of spirit and matter.

Forearm stand is the current focus of my personal practice.  Each morning  against the closed bathroom door, with an eye towards learning to balance in the center of the room, I lift, awkwardly into the position.  The other day I was in a time crunch but wanted to honor my commitment to work on the posture every day.  I flipped upside down and reached my foot back towards the door behind me to press against it and come back into balance and…the door swung open behind me.  What followed was an inelegant dance of flailing limbs and indecision resulting in a sideways crash into two drums, an electronic keyboard and an altar (I have yet to ascend into the level of real estate which would allow me to have a separate room dedicated to my yoga practice). 

It happens. 

But the glory is always there, the divine spark never leaves, and it surfaced a moment later when I picked myself up from the rubble, calmly said “ouch”, reordered the chaos in the belongings I’d crashed into,  and then promptly took child’s posture.   I just knew that any imbalances in my musculoskeletal system from the flailing would be rebalanced in steady breathing child’s pose.  Here’s to agility.  I don’t talk about it much, but I’m 57 years old (just a number of course), and I walked away from this without even a day of pain.  It was all absorbed within minutes.  This is the power of a well-balanced integrated yoga practice.    Agility.  Don’t try this at home!  But just know that when we allow ourselves to go deep in the process of yoga, power emerges in the most unexpected and subtle ways.

The impact surfaced the next day in an interesting way.  Pain?  No.  Restriction?  No.  Imbalance?  No.  But I was unable to lift into forearm stand.  I couldn’t get off the ground at all. 

“I guess, “  I thought, “this is what they mean by a setback.”  I settled into another child’s posture and allowed myself to find peace with that, breathing, accepting, not judging.  Then I proceeded to take headstand, a steady and confident posture for me.  Had I forced myself to keep trying the forearm stand I would have gone into conquest.   I want harmonious union, not conquest.  So, I honored the setback but maintained some ground in the world of the upside down. 

Conquest is exhilarating.  But it doesn’t stand on it’s own.  It requires that you reclaim it day after day after day.  Claiming the same victory over and over.  Harmonious union, with a posture or a life circumstance,  establishes a foundation of creative growth and an expansion of possibilities.  This is why inhabiting the simpler postures with awareness and love deepens our practices so much.  We become one with the shapes that way.  We internalize them and then that wisdom extends into every posture that we do. 

There was a time I learned in life that showing up consistently would change everything.  That became my effort.  Just to show up even if I felt tremendous resistance or fear.  Historically, when a relationship felt difficult, I would avoid and run away.  Showing up did change things.  But it was a fight inside to do that and that conflict continued to show up in the relationships I was trying to show up for.  Something deeper than showing up was called for.  Wholeheartedness was called for.  I learned that I needed to resolve the part of me that wanted to run away to begin with.   Personal resolution opened the door to experiences in relationship in which conflict transformed into love. 

The question then became less about conquering my shortcomings and more about understanding and embracing life as it was. After all, why keep balancing against a closed door when an opened door offers so many un-imagined possibilities?

Creating a Mosiac – Integrating Spiritual and Material Goals

The process of integration consists of millions of choice points where a single aspect of a life reflects our inner values or external values.  In the context of yoga (yoking) philosophy and practice each single aspect reflects proportions of spiritual and material expression.  Consider gold.  It must be mixed with another substance in order to be substantial enough to wear as a very useful ring or necklace.  Gold is just too malleable and soft to hold a shape without some other element present in the mix.  My experience is that our practice of yoga is like this.  Too much pure spirit leaves us ungrounded and ineffective in our lives.  This is not much use for ourselves or others unless your role in life happens to be embodying that ideal for others.  We need a mix and we can work consciously with our choices to create the right mix for the lives that we are creating. 

I studied the energetics of food around the time I transitioned into veganism.  My food teacher, a seasoned wise man who had been vegan for many years, did not think that I should be a vegan.  It didn’t fit what he saw my role in life to be.  I objected and went my merry way, working as a yoga teacher in a school which emphasized heavy duty spiritual practices and deep meditation.  He was right, I crashed to the ground with that, unable to manage the business of being a yoga teacher, and reside in those exalted realms.  My colleagues, many of them, had others to support them in the business functions, but to be honest, I knew I was a better teacher when I was grounded and present physically for the students.  When I still had my corporate job and taught in the evenings, my classes were packed.  Of course, I was younger and all of that, but, the grounding I had in my job helped me to relate to what every one was going through. I shared the way that yoga worked in my day to day life at work. 

So, I considered what my food teacher told me, and I decided that veganism was a really really important component of my practice.  I would have to change something else to create the perfect mix of spiritual and material for my life.  I chose to re-enter the work force and to lighten up a little on the extreme practices that I was doing.  I felt better, more awake of my life and more aligned – meaning I felt like myself again.  It’s a constant juggling act integration.  A little more of this, a little more of that, and developing the awareness to feel when the mix is perfect.  Generally when the mix is perfect I feel functional, strong satisfied and balanced.  In that place of integration there is balance strength and joy.  Balance strength and joy isn’t some long off goal I’m always working towards, it’s my chosen normal.  In that normal I find that I’m productive and I have the energy to be kind and generous.  In balance, in alignment I find that I don’t feel that parts of myself are suppressed.

If balance strength and joy aren’t goals in some far-off future, what does setting goals have to do with anything? 

Well, in a life of thousands of decisions at every moment, it’s good to know where we are going, what kind of balance or expression feels optimal to us, and then re-establish the “goals” of how to get there.  I’ll write more about this, but for the time being consider this, my goal of integration is built on an understanding that with my time I am creating a mosaic.  Several times a week I sit down and create visions, schedules and commitments to myself.  I block out time for each of the things that are important to me.  For example, for some, working in the soup kitchen is their spiritual practice, for me it is asana and music.  For some, health is jogging every morning, for me it is nurturance and good food.  (Some jogging doesn’t hurt!)  But the point is, I work with all the components of what is important to me and make sure they are all represented in that schedule and then my goal is to actually fulfill what I have scheduled for myself and the outcome is assured.  It’s very effective.  It means I learn to write a little faster, keep the kitchen clean while I’m cooking, and not spend all my time chasing money but to step by step do what I can to make my time worth more, to myself and others.  Then moment by moment, choosing to honor the schedule (sometimes choosing not to if, say, someone needs a hand).  It means not procrastinating on what I am wanting to do! 

I consciously choose the sequence of my week, and then roll it out, knowing that it may need to change.  At that point I recalibrate.  You may recognize this from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, at the end of a series of steps we can see how we arrived at a given destination.   We flip it around and take charge of the steps along the way so we can create consciously.

As far as asana practice goes, well, I do the same thing.  I try to create a well-rounded practice and I build it over time, practicing those postures I like and those I don’t.  A steady well-rounded practice, like a steady well rounded life will establish the discernment to detect when something is missing  or when the balance of life needs to be adjusted. 

It’s not romantic, but balance allows our energy to be available for romance, love, creativity…whatever we want.  Balanced energy sustains, it doesn’t deplete. 

It is my deepest wish that this information is useful to you!

Have a blessed and wondrous day.