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. 

Processing…
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The Healing Narrative

About three weeks ago, I spent a few days in the hospital after having emergency surgery for a fractured wrist. As the physician’s assistant reviewed the x-ray’s with me before my discharge, I mentioned that this would be a time of learning about how hands and wrists work. I am yoga teacher, and know that sometimes this is how we learn the best, through healing,  through putting it all back in order.  He responded that he was glad I was approaching the process this way.  Some folks just want to be fixed and other folks are prepared to do the work.  For each there is a path.  Hatha Yoga, traditional healing practices, to me fall in the path of work.  A Muslim client of mine once told me that Allah, God, could heal through any path she chose.  I believe this to be true.  I also believe that we are responsible for consciously aligning with and choosing our path and our healing team.  I have received much spontaneous healing, and much healing work in which my role was to receive.  But in all cases, my healing required that I show up and do the work of healing, whether that meant changing my lifestyle, my attitudes, forgiveness, practicing, getting up and taking a walk every day, or just plain old deciding that I don’t want to feel bad anymore and I’m willing to change.

The healing narrative that I live and share is that empowerment and healing comes through self-mastery, responsibility, and surrender.  It’s a working path.

So in this narrative, what is the place of rest? What is the place of receiving?  For me it’s being spacious around my willingness to change.  Much of that is about being willing to soften my opinions and resistances and expectations, allowing them to be transformed.  Much of that is about accepting things I may not be able to change and allowing myself to accept what is. Sometimes it’s about accepting discomfort. But my ability to do that well, arises from the work that I do.  The surrender and the work are inseparable.   The work of yoga, of healing, trains me to step beyond my habitual ways of doing things.  Beyond those habits, those ruts of thinking I have created, is the inner teacher.  Like a wisdom field behind a stone wall, the practices are the gate.  So maybe the surrender piece, is, once I’ve opened the door, to be willing to lay down in the wisdom field and let the light shine over me.  Or maybe the effort is the knocking on the door, and the surrender piece is the willingness to step through the gate whenever it opens and waiting until it does.  Either way, as we walk down our paths it’s good to be conscious about our choices, bearing in mind the use of the particular tools we have access to, and what they are for and who to find to help us use them.

Our outer teachers train us to use the tools, so we might have the tool when we need it.  I’ve found my outer teachers were always spot on in identifying my major obstacles. That often hurt.  I find my inner teacher steps in and speaks the loudest when I’m trying to fix the television by banging on it with a hammer.  (stop! stop!) We need the right tool for the job.    That hurts sometimes too.  But it’s like a surgery.  I’m very grateful they cleaned out and rebuilt my wrist.  I couldn’t have done that myself. I find the inner teacher is the quiet voice which directs me to the right tool, the right person, if I’m listening.  Sometimes they aren’t what is the most comfortable for me. But if I’m spacious sometimes I find I’m being shown a new way I’d never considered before, or sometimes one’s I have rejected.

In a way the healing narrative comes down to whatever is needed for you, or me, or whoever, to change the story line which is not in alignment with our highest best mode of living and loving. And to change that narrative requires that we let go of the story our personality has created about who we are, and be open to becoming an expression of our true nature, and the gifts that we are here to share with the world.  Those gifts are like the sun, sometimes hidden behind clouds.  In this sense healing is not a fixing but a growing, an allowing, a fulfillment of promise.

So what is the action step? Know our healing narratives. Explore the stories we tell ourselves. Start out creating the willingness to live a different story, if we want a different result. That is all. A little bit of willingness goes a long way.

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.

Moment by Moment

Tadasana, again. 

Tadasana is the simple standing foundation posture in the hatha yoga practice.  It is the beginning and the end.  The atom and the galaxy.  The man in the image above is in a variation of Tadasana. 

Some days, I get on the mat and it just seems like I don’t feel like doing anything.  But, I’ve committed to my practice, and while I definitely have periods of it falling away, I know that the root of the empowerment in yoga is DISCIPLINE.  I’ve learned over the years that forcing myself to do things that I don’t want to do (a very old school idea of discipline) seldom yields a good result.  Instead it generates a deep rift in my relationship to myself.  I am forcing myself to do something I don’t want to do.  That, is not the kind of seed I want to plant.    Perhaps understanding where I am will reveal what my next steps are.  So….Tadasana.

I stand in Tadasana.  I am amazed at how quickly I am aware of the imbalance in my physical body and I question how long I’ve been IN the imbalance and not been aware of it until now.  When I began practicing in 1993, I may not have perceived it so quickly.   My weight is forward in the balls of my feet.  I am projecting myself into the future – which is a fancy way of saying “fear”.  Of course I am.  And at this moment in time, it’s likely that you are too!  In the fast emerging post-Covid economy we are all grasping at a secure future. 

Security can never come from a fear-based foundation – at least from the perspective of yoga philosophy.  Security comes from nurturing a sense of security.  From a yogic perspective that kind of thinking creates difficult scenarios.  Projecting into the future doesn’t place us in the right position to make wise decisions. 

I examine the weight distribution shifting front and back.  The balance point eludes me.  I recognize in the  imbalance, a pattern.  The front right corner of my right foot lifts and weight shifts into my left heel.  What would create balance here?  I consider that Trikonasana, the triangle, provides opportunities to explore the connection to the earth differently.  I have nothing to lose, so I try it, and then back to Tadasana.  The imbalance has diminished, but it’s still not easy to stay centered front and back in tadasana.  I try Vriksasana, tree posture, and my hip emits a little pop.  Back to Tadasana.  Wallah!!  Tadasana arises like a mountain, stable, uplifted and free.    The energy flows through my body and insight arises about why I am here and what I am doing.  I am pulled to meditate and reminded of the power of asana to set the stage for meditation by liberating energy.    Asana nurtures clarity vs. delusion, which is more common that we might think.  It’s been a big day in my personal yoga practice – all emerging from shifting into the “now” of balanced weight distribution. 

Patanjali Yoga Sutra (an ancient text on yoga) sutra 4.33, “The sequential progression of moments is understood at the final end of it’s changes” teaches this power of each present moment as points of creation.  My lived experience of this teaching is that at the end of a series of moments we see how we arrived at a destination.  I’ve found that this arises as a clear vision of every pivotal decision I’ve made which contributed to the outcome that I am experiencing.  When this understanding arises it is always amazing, although not always cheerful.  It’s a way  of owning that we  responsible we are for our lives.   Painful as this may seem, only through this awakening process can we transcend the perception of ourselves as victims, and thus become active creative agents. 

This month we consider moving through transitions in this mindful present tense kind of way.  It’s not that we don’t have goals, I know when I’m transitioning from down dog to plank that I’m aiming for a plank, but it is the way I position myself in each microsecond of that transition which builds the plank that I will find myself in. 

I think it’s no accident that the heroes of the great Indian epics are archers.  Imagine having such a sense of vision of the pathway to a target that you could accurately set up your bow and arrow in such a way that oncoming winds would work in your favor!!  Magnificence!  Our lives are no different.  The present moment by moment awareness of the multitude of choices that we make every single minute of every single day….taking OWNERSHIP of that decision-making power, is a choice of great consequence and a fertile field for creativity.

With love and blessings

Natalie

Thanks for sharing the link http://www.natalieteachesyoga.com or my name whenever you refer to anything presented here.

Stability and Joy Revisited

“Yoga is the process of dehypnotism”  Shri Brahmananda Saraswati

This month the underpinning  ideas of our practices were stability (shtira)  and  joy (sukkah), as embodied in parivritta trikonasana, the Rotated Triangle.  We nurtured a balanced and activated foundation in the legs and feet, which provided the opportunity to then “reach out” with the upper body, leading with the heart and extending out into the world around us.  In practice on the mat it can be just that simple – an intention to connect to planet earth well, and an intention to extend that experience of connectedness (which is love)  into the world around us. With patience, the body will follow where the mind leads. 

Here is the crown jewel in all of this.  The stability and joy doesn’t really need to be cultivated at all. They are already within you, waiting to be revealed.  They are aspects of your true nature, svarūpe. The experienced yogin stands in their true nature.  To stand in one’s true nature is to be yoked (yoga’d!) to your essence.  Our ability to root our feet, activate our legs and extend our hearts and our arms will reflect how well we are yoked to our true nature in any moment.  The more we are yoked to our true nature internally, the more we will experience joy which creates activation, extension and rootedness in a posture.  It is a process.  For most of us, still buffeted by the fluctuations of our minds, there will be a fluttering throughout any posture when the stability fluctuates. 

A friend recently pointed out the degree to which the current state of affairs on planet earth is surfacing our shadows and much projecting on one another is occurring.  It is a prime time to become aware of our inner stability.  The media and perhaps those around us are posing powerful influences.  Using a wide variety of means to manipulate the stuff of our minds, they bombard us with opinions, accusations and suggested terrors.  We all have ways of dealing with this.  I have a friend who seems to be immersing herself in horror stories.  Catharsis!  The fear is expelled, but the conditioning of  vulnerability remains.  Yoga suggests, instead, that we dehypnotize ourselves through the process of unplugging from externals and plugging instead into the reservoir of peace and joy which is accessed through the silence in our mind.  Yes, we can stay connected to  peace with our eyes open, even when a disagreement is going on.  That is the power of yoga. 

So how do we practice this?  Self-observation.   The moment we catch ourselves fluctuating, we stop and make it a point to detach from what is coming at us from the outside and anchor in to something inside.  We develop a habit.  Say that someone around you does not like your political stance or your mask choice.  They direct angry energy at you, it is quite intense.  For most of us the first reaction is likely to be retaliation.  Any action we take which emerges from the small self will have limited effectiveness.  The actions we take while connected to our inner resources will have limitless effectiveness.  If I’m not anchored in myself and I shout back, I may get the person to go away for a while, but it’s likely to be temporary.  The same issue will arise again.  If instead we choose to stand silent in our truth, extending love all the while, our actions will extend out to hearts and minds and in ways we cannot see.

Consider taking the knee (a graceful and magnificent gesture of support and love) vs. burning down  a building.  The first extends love and changes hearts.  The second inspires nothing and demands a retaliation.  Taking the knee is an expression of svarūpe.  The first is a manifestation of fear and disconnection.  There are those who would like us to remain forever fluctuating, buffeted and hypnotized into fear and submission.  Yoga teaches that we can break away from that influence and choose to stand in love, instead.  In that breakaway our inner freedom is ensured.  Only Love is truly sovereign.  Only love (in all it’s flavors, truth, joy, sweetness etc.) is svarūpe.  We can train ourselves to choose and we can train ourselves to be steady in remaining unplugged from  external influences.  (and by the way, we can train throughout every day, not just in the big events.  Lakshmi, the cat who lives with me, forever tries to press me to be at her beck and call at all times.  It is a herculean effort to stay connected within and take care of everything else which needs to be done!  But I grow stronger and her efforts to communicate become more skillful all the time. 

Thriving in Balance

I once dated a gentleman who was a practicing Hindu. I was new to yoga, and was not yet deeply familiar with the many Gods and Goddesses, their forms and their qualities. I was kindly disposed in that direction and had some exposure to the religion. His deep swim into the ocean of that exotic and alluring landscape intrigued me. At that time, it was still common, at least in New York City, to see representations of the Gods and Goddesses adorning the studios. Often, there was no indication who they were or what it all meant. Some of them had many arms and carried objects I was unfamiliar with. They seemed to be similar to one another and different at the same time. I felt I was supposed to understand, and I didn’t. So one day I asked him. How many arms do they have? He turned and looked at me like I saw daft and responded, very seriously, “As many as they need.” I didn’t understand and he explained that they were Gods/Goddesses and so they were infinite and so they weren’t limited by a particular form, they could just manifest as many arms as they needed. It remained a mystery until a yoga friend of mine had a child. her husband turned to me one day and said, “Now I understand why the Goddesses have so many arms”. A kind reference to the many roles his wife was now tending to, simultaneously. We all do this in our own way, mothers or not. It’s not surprising that yoga and Hinduism emerged from the same landscape. Just as the Hindu deities appear centered as their many arms swirl around them, yoga practices nurture our ability to stay in our center while reaching in multiple directions to tend to the requirements of a various roles.

It begins with the right and the left. It’s more common these days for a yoga teacher to create a sequence to mix the movements of the right and left side. If you’ve taken such a class you know that the brain skips a beat and you may feel the beneficial effects of being jarred out of the routine flow of thoughts that we each carry around inside of us. No matter how complex or simple the routine, the bottom line is that every yoga practice is done equally on both sides.

Most of the traditional healing arts observe a roadmap of the human anatomy. Yoga is no different. In the simplest of terms you have three primary channels which are very important. We all have a left side channel (the ida) which nurtures the various flavors of interior experience: depression, intuition, sleep, coolness, lunar, yin, the spiritual and the feminine. We all have a right side channel (the pingala) which is associated with various flavors of external states: anger, action, heat, solar, yang, the physical and the masculine. When these two side channels are balanced, the energy is drawn into the neutral third channel which is called the sushumna. When the energy is elevated in this subtle central channel we are transformed spiritually. This is the most fundamental teaching of yoga. Our practice will progress smoothly and harmoniously when we are perfectly balanced right and left, materially and spiritually, neither directing our anger outward or inward but finding resolution, when we nurture both our masculine and feminine qualities in equal measure.

Many times we are tempted in our practice to charge it up in whatever way we can, and then relax. This is great fun to do! But when we are looking towards a long term shift in our quality of life, the practice unfolds with more value when we approach it with an intention towards a state of balance. It can actually be one of the biggest challenges to determine the right amount of effort in a given posture. It requires attention and, consistency can be really helpful in this way. A daily practice helps us to observe what happens in the body as a result of what we have done, and provides the information with which we can identify what we need to tweak to obtain and optimal result. The optimal result being a healthy body which feels resilient and strong and an awake clear mind, unfettered by emotional or mental afflictions. We then dwell a state of balance in the body and the mind, centered on a very deep level.

So, what can we learn from those many armed Goddesses? That being centered is not about pushing away the world. It’s about extending ourselves out into the world. We don’t move our center towards that friend in need, we stay in our center and extend our hand, our good will, our strength. When we extend we share as opposed to giving ourselves over to. It’s subtle, but then some of the most powerful techniques from the yoga practice are saturated with subtlety. In fluctuation subtlety is lost. In balance, subtlety is visible.

So what do we do to stay in balance? We observe. We notice. We stay still a moment before charging forward. We honor process as much as destination. We trust that if we attend to what is here in the moment, that the path with unfold with it’s own wisdom.

Ha—tha—-Yo—ga

“….the Kula Arnava Tantra states [that the] the ultimate purpose of Hatha-Yoga, which is God-realization, or enlightenment, here and now, in a divinized immortal body.  This is often expressed as the state of balance or harmony (samarasa) in the body, when ordinarily diffuse life energy is stabilized in the central channel.  This idea is present in the term hatha yoga itself, which is esoterically explained as the union (yoga) between “sun” and “moon” the conjunction of the two great dynamic principles of aspects of the body-mind. “  Georg Feurstein, commenting on the Kula-Arnava Tantra, in the Yoga Tradition (1998)

This sums it up!!

Here are many words which describe the potential of a yoga practice, all of which reflect the culture and time in which they were said.  In an age of skepticism (now), few are enticed to the mat for something like “God-realization”.  What does that even mean?  “Divinized immortal body”.  We have bionics, why do all the work of hatha yoga?  So, let’s step back from the words of the Georg, and uncover the essence of this.  The yogi attains a magnificent state through the alchemical combining of two opposites into one presence in which opposition ceases entirely. Let’s consider that the opposition never really existed.  The body and mind were always one, the left and the right were always two parts of one body, but some how we experience ourselves as fragmented.  When we cease to swing from one polarity to another, we will function optimally.  In any moment, to function optimally would be to outperform any previous and similar circumstance.  In other words, evolution.    When we cultivate honoring balance and harmony on and off the mat, the best aspects of ourselves will shine through our physical form:  emotional and relational depth, creativity, wisdom and innovation of all kinds.  Whatever our field of endeavor, yoga practice with a mind towards balance and harmony expands what we are capable of. 

We’ve been in Shelter in Place for 15 weeks now.  In the months before the shutdown, I’d left a long term, very exhausting job, and unexpectedly found myself teaching yoga again.  I was a substitute teacher.  I taught enthusiastically through the holidays, stacking classes with abandon, sure that when the holidays were over the intense need for coverage would diminish.  It did not.  My base camp was a tiny yoga studio in the Inner Richmond, San Francisco.  Sometime in February people began to get sick.  Teachers, students, front desk staff one by one being taken mysteriously ill.  The studio ran out of substitute teachers and I was working my ass off.  I was chugging along thinking everything was fine, I was rising to the occasion!  I’d lost my center.  On March 17, 2020 when Marin Country went into Shelter in place, I took to my bed, tired beyond having the energy to question or fear what was happening.  I never got sick.  I was exhausted. 

It’s 15 weeks since the shutdown.  Today, I made a new recipe for lunch.  Everything was calm –  the bounty of colors and smells as I tossed the ingredients one by one into the pan drew me deep into the present moment.   I realized that I was in balance for the first time in a long time.  It took 15 weeks of solitude, nurturing and yoga for me to return to my center.  It amazes me that it took that long.  Compared to many modern American lives, my life is pretty balanced.  Today was a day of focus, accomplishment, giving and nurturing.   The point is, when we go out of balance, the rebalancing may call for  some awareness, some presence and some time.

What do I notice in this new state of balance? After all, each time we rebalance we land in a different place.   I’m aware.  Aware of how I am standing, alert to the smells, sounds, sights and tastes of the world around me.  It’s easy for me to respond to the neighbor who asks for a little of my time.  Laughing comes easier, and so does hope.

An imbalance can sneak up on us.  First, we are doing a little more of one thing and then another.  Before you know it, we’ve lost our center.  While a “divinized immortal body” may seem remote to us, the fragility that arises when we become out of balance is familiar to just about everyone.  When we are in balance, we are strong and resilient.    Balanced here refers to resting our attention, awareness and presence inside of ourselves, rather than having our attention pulled by ten thousand things.   Or in the language of Mr. Feuerstein, “ordinarily diffuse life energy is stabilized in the central channel.”  Classically this is done in meditation, but our waking lives are reflections of those inner energies, and the inner energies are reflections of our waking lives. When we are centered our attention is broad enough to hold the awareness of all the facets of our lives while we stay stably rooted in our own awareness.   

It’s a superpower, to choose where and when to give your attention to something, and to choose to stay focused when the guy next door is using his chain saw.  It’s a superpower to cultivate the skill of harmonizing the body and staying well.  It’s a superpower to not be buffeted by the fluctuations of the world around us.

There are many approaches to harmonizing the body  and reclaiming our center in the yoga practices.  What I consider the most useful, is to  just begin with the structure of a given posture.  The weight balanced between both feet. This weight distribution will, in turn balance our channels, right and left, or in classical practice the sun and the moon.  If we practice just this, with consistency and detachment the sense of fragmentation dissolves as our central channels are awakened.  We begin the movement towards a deeper level of potential and fulfillment.

Presence in Practice

From:  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:

PYS 1.12:          abhyasa-vairagya-abhyam tan-nirodhah

In Devanagri:      अभ्यासवैराग्याअभ्यां तन्निरोधः

Pronunciation:  abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ

Idea:  The fluctuations of the mind cease through the dwelling in yoga and detachment. 

During a recent conversation with a dear friend I became upset and said many regrettable things.  Try as I might to fix it, it cannot be changed.  I’d like to take my words back, but I can’t.  The first of the yoga sutras calls our attention to the moment we turn our attention to yoga.  On one level, the entire text is summarized in that call to the power of our attention.  In practice I found the potency of practice isn’t initially in the focus itself, but in our ability to turn our attention back to our chosen point of focus when it has wandered.  In other words, choosing to turn our attention to practice is a powerful choice. Through our choices our lives are built.  Between each sentence of this paragraph, thoughts of the relationship arises.  Mid thought, I catch myself and return my attention to the sutra about which I intend to write.

As I sit down to write this, the disruption in my relationship haunts me.  In regret I continue to mull the past.  I assess and reassess.  He is not a forgiver; I think.  Neither am I; I think.  My attention flickers to avoiding any place I might run into him.   That would be very inconvenient.  I’m also not sure that it would be the best choice.   I finally decide that it is time to accept that the relationship will never be the same again.  Perhaps, I think at this point, it will be better in some way that I do not understand.  No, perhaps it’s better to avoid.  I grow tired of the fluctuations of my mind and turn my attention to the task at hand.  Writing this post.  My attention turns towards yoga. For a moment only. 

I am attached to what I want this relationship to look like.  To avoid the relationship entirely is to stay attached to what I think it should look like, which, truth be told, was the problem to begin with.  It’s my responsibility to be present to what exists, spaciously.  Not gritting my teeth and enduring, but allowing deep acceptance of how things are, and allowing the transformation that occurs when I get out of my own way enough for the situation to become spacious.

Abhyasa has two flavors   It refers to dwelling in the illuminated consciousness that allows us to see everything clearly and with love (the state of yoga).  It also refers to consistency in practice.  We take aim at a desired state of mind.  We develop spiritual muscle by continuing to turn our attention to the practices which nurture that state of mind, with consistency and discipline.  When I choose to honor my commitment to practice asana (postures) 5 minutes a day, I build spiritual muscle.  When I resist the urge to quit practicing and go have a snack, I build spiritual muscle.  When I forgive myself for skipping practice and show up the next day like I never missed a day, I build spiritual muscle.  Abhyasa, as consistency, is about building spiritual muscle.  In the long run, this is cultivating the strength to live in alignment with our inner truth.  Every time we choose to practice, we are choosing to align with our inner truth rather than external demands.  Through practice, living in our inner truth becomes a lived reality. 

Detachment is a practice of staying aligned with our inner truth, rather than allowing ourselves to be absorbed or repelled by a circumstance, object or person.   As I write this, my attention turns back to the situation with my friend.  The spiritual muscle of Abhyasa provides the strength for me to turn my attention to this article.  As I begin to consider detachment I understand what love would do in the situation.  Before I contemplated detachment, I thought only of what I thought I should do.  But in detachment my heart tells me – Your job now is not just to be present …but to be present in LOVE which is the willingness to be shown what “presence” really is.    Which might just be another way of saying being shown what friendship really is.

Through this we come to know what love really is, and what love really is, yoga really is.

Practice Possibilities;  Honor your commitment to be present in your practice in whatever way you have committed to and for as long as you have committed to practice that way.   Allow love to unfold in your life by exploring the spectrum of avoidance, presence and absorption in your relating this week.  Taking notes will help you remember what transpired.