The Fruits of Yoga: The Experience of Connection

A yoga friend mentioned to me the other day that an experience that interferes with her yoga practice is competitiveness.  If a moment arises in class when she glances around and sees that others are doing a “deeper” version of the posture than she is doing, she feels competitive.  I have a feeling that this is very common, even if we sublimate it in some way to keep it manageable for ourselves.  I know in my own practice it took a very long time for me be able to celebrate the beauty in another’s posture, even if I might admire it, I didn’t necessarily celebrate it.  If my yoga friends celebrated a postural accomplishment that I achieved, I denied it’s value in my practice.  What my yoga friend is pointing to is not some egoic moral issue.  It’s that one of the most precious fruits of yoga practice is the experience of connection we can experience when we practice together –  even on Zoom, and that the very human tendency to compare ourselves to others interferes with that.

Some of you may have read that my wrist was smashed a few years ago.  It’s fully functional, but I’m taking my time reclaiming the fullness of some of the postures I did.  I do remember what they felt like…Urdhva Dhanurasana, for example, full wheel.  As I draw up the kinesthetic memory, I recognize now what a celebration of life it was that I was able to experience that full opening spaciousness of the front and back of the body. I had a dream after the wrist smash that I would do that posture again.  That inspires me.  But I go one step at a time.  The gift of that experience though, is that I can’t compete.  I can’t even compare.  The truth is, based on the degree of the smash, doing plank is a miracle.  Side plank also a miracle.  That I can participate in a live class  of the nature that I always practiced is a miracle.  With my previous accomplishments removed what remains in class is the sense of connection…unadulterated by the thoughts I had about the quality of my practice, good or bad.  

 A week ago I had my first experience of actually being deeply moved by a colleague’s accomplishment of physical grace.  Instead of “I should be able to do that” – well, that thought was not relevant – I had a spontaneous “that is so cool”.   And then, an interesting thing happened in my ability to see without comparison I could perceive my colleagues articulation of the posture differently, and as a result I began to understand that there was a small micro movement in my body which, at this moment in time, I wasn’t accessing.  Sometimes, becoming aware of something you aren’t doing becomes the doorway into doing.

I was told once that the Buddha said that the final frontier to overcome in the mind is comparison.  Think about it.  He has this…she has that…I have this…she is this, she is that, I am this.   It all points somehow to lack.  That one or the other of us is missing something or one of us has something that we should be grasping for.  This mode of thinking – it’s not bad or wrong – it just interferes with what is possible I ourselves and in our relationships.  Yoga promises that we will come to know ourselves as whole through practice.  If we know ourselves as whole, we know each other as whole and we experience the wholeness that is love itself.  This is an experience worth practicing for.

The Elements of Sadhana: Santosha- Contentment

In the newsletters we’ve been talking about creating a sadhana – a conscious spiritual practice of yoga, a discipline of yoga as conscious spiritual practice. This past week I introduced the mahavratam or great vows outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. These vows aren’t something that Patanjali devised – he compiled them from studying with the esteemed yoga masters of the day (which was some time a few  thousand years ago no precise date is known).  There are ten of them. They are often considered to be moral imperatives. In practice I’ve found it more useful and more authentic  – I get better results – if I let that idea of morality go and open up to practicing them whenever and however I can, trusting that they are actually learning devices for me.  Through practicing them I open to understanding who I am and who everyone else is.  As I open to understanding I make better  choices. The ten mahavratam are: nonviolence, non stealing,  adherence to truth, continence, non- hoarding, cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self- reflection and devotion. In the newsletter I briefly talked about the practice of saucha or cleanliness. Today I’d like to speak a little bit about contentment, or santosha. 

One thing to consider when practicing these – they’re also called yamas and niyamas, restraints and observances – is that we are always creating. We are creative beings – extensions of the divine, which is the creative energy of the universe, the supreme creative energy of the universe. This is an underlying paradigm of the yoga practice.  The yoga practice will reveal that we a specks of divine creative consciousness – and we can live from that truth. This is co-creating, which is yoga – to be yoked to the divine. The restraints and observances clear the palette of our consciousness, enabling creativity which is unbridled by our past. 

 With yoga the idea is that creating in alignment  with the infinite divine opens the doorway to limitless possibilities- and that wisdom, that intelligence – will create richer more satisfying possibilities than our personalities with their cravings and conditioned attunement to lack. If we choose it, these practices deepen our understanding of the elements of a good life.  This is partly why I encourage you to set aside the idea that they are imposed morality.  Practiced lovingly, they open the way to a delicious abundant live.  Less is more. 

With the practice of santosha or contentment this connection between our behaviors our beliefs our thoughts in the world that we experience is made very clear. 

Perhaps in your life you have met those or perhaps you’ve been in this space yourself ( I know I have been) where you feel a need to complain about everything. I’ve seen a real uptick in this during the COVID situation. 

 I think we can all agree there is much to be addressed in the world., but right now we have to accept what’s happened and what is happening and learn to work with it. Shaking our fists at a perceived enemy is unlikely to change the world…changing ourselves is likely to change the world, not only because we engage those conversations differently. 

But let’s think back to the before time – before COVID – and remember those days in offices or classrooms or social gatherings where we or our friends or neighbors or our family would lapse into days where we complained and complained and complained. Surely we’ve all known in ourselves or others that momentum that complaining develops – once you start complaining there just seems to be more to complain about. The yogis understood this very deeply through their meditations , analysis and self reflection. The practice of contentment is to practice contentment under all circumstances that’s a key of these mahavratam – under all circumstances.   So in any moment (the grandeur of universality demands we operate one moment at a time) when faced with complaining, we choose contentment.  It’s like putting down a heavy object.  “I just don’t want to carry the weight of my complaints, so I’m a gonna put this down, right here.”  It’ll be okay.  Once we’ve entered a quieter state of mind, wise action can emerge more clearly. 

What does that mean – in the yoga practice – to work a difficult situation? Perhaps it is to rest in the understanding that you’ve participated in the creation of it and take responsibility for the fact that you’re there. You skip the blame (of yourself and others) you skip the victim story and nurture and invite the ability to see the situation differently.  Liberation arises when we realize there is no one to blame.  The practice of contentment opens our minds so that we are able to see that. To be honest, in content I perceive that there is nothing to complain about.  It’s all perfect.  But to deeply know that feeling we have to practice.  

One of the ways that we can train ourselves in the vast practice of contentment is to practice on our yoga mats. One of the most obvious powerful and potent ways to do this is to be content with a posture even as you are working to transform it. Where I am is fine but I’d like to deepen it. I’d like to expand it; I’d like to move to the next expression of it. So the first part of that is to enjoy every posture just where you are with it. This is one of the reasons why the postures that we can’t do are so important. As I say this I realize that this is one of the biggest difficulties of a home practice is that we never bump into those postures that we don’t like. At the same time if the classes available around us are not suitable – to force ourselves to go into a class that is just full of difficulties makes no sense either.  So what can be a good idea in your practice is to add a small step towards a posture that you would like to attain someday. For me right now this is wheel urdva dhanurasana. 

 I had an accident last fall where my wrist was smashed. I’ve consciously decided to recover slowly. In my full practice days I would do three full or wheel postures every day.  Wow right?  To me that seems like wow.  I was never a born gymnast. That posture has intense ramifications on the wrist and feels remote to me but at a certain point I had an intuition a revelation that in fact I would be able to do it again in this lifetime So what I’m going to practice this moon month is to sit at the wall and take a camel posture and place my hands on the wall. A highly modified introduction to the movement that would lead to wheel. And I am content.. This is the beauty of modifications in yoga. What they do is – if you practice them fully,happily embracing what the modification has to offer you – it’s actually like working the full posture you develop the shape energetically on a deep level and it opens from the inside out. One day your’re ready and the full posture emerges – like a chuck busting out of an egg. 

So how do we learn about modifications if we’d like to incorporate them in our sadhana?  I highly recommend them even if you don’t have an injury. Spend some time in modified postures.  By working with the modifications you’ll learn some of the paradigms of postural yoga. We’re very fortunate to live in an opulent world where there’s all kinds of information about yoga on the Internet so I’m sure you can find some information about modifications there.  As far as books books go and even Internet the best school of yoga from which to learn about modifications is the Iyengar school so I encourage you to look into that when choosing postures to work in your sadana. 

Once you’ve practiced santosha on your mat for some time don’t be surprised if you  catch yourself practicing it in your life.  You don’t have to make a big trip out of doing all of these mahavratam.  Just know that they can extend to all circumstances, and they’re not limited.  Your contentment is not limited to certain circumstances.  You can start practicing them in certain circumstances until you feel confident to apply them in more challenging circumstances.  

OK that’s our blog post for today. As always it’s my sincere wish that this information be useful to you and that your practice will lead you to a blessed and wonderful life. 

Miracle #6 The Treasure Box

I decided to move to California.  Quit my yoga teaching jobs, gave away half my stuff and my rental apartment, shipped the other half of the stuff and then prepared to cram what was left in the back seat of the little Honda I would be driving across country.  The day before my scheduled departure (and the new tenant was very, very anxious to move into the apartment) I took the Honda in for a pre-drive oil change and the kind service agent told me some sorry news.  All the engine struts in the car were broken.  I had $2000 cash for my transition and now that was gone.  I had a six month old kitten, Lakshmi, traveling with me, so camping and  days driving more than 8 hours or was not an option.  I debated staying (too late) .  I debated not going so far (too late). Finally I just thought, “Well I’ll have to tighten my belt and put the journey on my credit card,” and proceeded as planned.

The first night I was in Virginia heading towards Route 40 cross country, and I stopped for the night.  The hotel room was reasonable, and I offered up my credit card.  The clerk processed all the paperwork, only to note after I signed the room agreement that kittens were not allowed.  I hadn’t even thought of that.  She was, after all, less than 5 lbs.  I insisted the charges on my credit be reversed  and when the desk attendant handed me the paperwork that my stay had been cancelled. I observed, to my dismay, a hefty charge against my card.  Hefty, very, very hefty.  It had been reversed but the refund would take 7 – 10 business days. A major bite was taken out of my credit line.  I’m not going to say I didn’t throw a temper tantrum.  I did.  Now I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, late at night trying to figure out  how to get across the country.  Lakshmi, who refused to give in to “Calming Kitty” herbal relaxation tonic, was meowing loudly to be released from her, all-too-small-carrier.  I used the small amount of cash on hand to stay at a different hotel for the night, figuring I would figure it out in the morning.    

The yoga students who took my class in New Jersey had packed a gift for me before I left.  I planned to open it when I got to California, but I was feeling alone and helpless and in need of cheering up so I decided to open it early.  The box was shaped like a book and decorated in a delicate pink paisley.  I opened the lid to find scrolls, tied with beautiful ribbons.  What?  I thought.  I opened one, and there inside the scroll was a beautiful thank you note.  Wow.  I paused, not wanting to consume the entirety of this delicious experience all at once, but something inside me urged me to go on…open another.  In the next one another beautiful note and …a twenty-dollar bill.  I continued to open them one at a time, some had slipped in gifts of cash, some had not, and there was no correlation…sometimes I didn’t recognize the name on the note at all, but there would be cash with the note.  Sometimes it was someone close…and no cash inside.  There was some $500 in cash in that box.  Just enough to get to California if I scrimped.  It was the first of many miracles on that trip as Lakshmi (the kitten) and I were treated to discount hotel rooms by kitten loving hotel managers and delightful free ashram meals.  Miraculously, 7 days later or so as I found myself cruising across the Richmond Bridge to our destination, Marin County, I still had $50 left in my pocket.  While I wrote a general thank you note to the community in New Jersey, sharing the story of our adventure…not a single person ever stepped up and claimed they had tucked a little cash in that box.

#2 A Very Ordinary Miracle

 I have a friend who has studied a Course in Miracles for some 40 years.  Not too long ago she mentioned that she is always given evidence that the material world is an illusion when things disappear around the house.  There it was, then suddenly it’s gone.  A very kind way to approach misplacing your glasses! After she said that I stopped berating myself when things went missing, and experienced a lovely shift in my relationship to the objects I use around the house.  In addition, it reminded me of a miraculous event a friend and I experienced some time ago, when I lived in New Jersey and worked in New York City.

I drove in to work in New York City one day.  It’s not something that folks regularly do without a reason, but I had an evening event to attend and the train service from NY to New Jersey after hours is very, very limited.  I parked in a tiny paid lot that I knew.   It was after midnight when I returned to the lot.  The young man supervising the lot checked the location where they left the key (tucked away near the tire or the steering wheel) and the key was not there.  He searched and searched, and so did I.  It was gone.   I began the trek home.  Driving into Manhattan is not a cake walk – not something you ask someone to do a midnight. A cab would have been a hundred dollars. 

Over the river and through the woods…..it took some 2 and a half hours to journey the fifteen miles to home. I tried to sleep a little then  head back into the city when the lot opened in the morning.  No sign of the key.  It never appeared again.  I worked by the lot and saw the guys often and never a key.  The car serviced and cleaned..never did the key show up.

The years went by and I gave the car to a friend who ended up,  several years after receiving the car,  in Buffalo, New York where his family lived.  He knew about the key incident.  One day he and the car get stuck in a snowstorm and he loses his keys while attempting to dig out.  The keys were gone –buried somewhere in the very, very deep Buffalo snow – not to be found until the spring, if ever.  So he locks up the car and trudges home for the spare key.  His mother drives him back to the car through the snow-storm only to discover that they had forgotten the spare key at home.  It would have been insane to drive back home again.  In a state of surrendered futility they climbed over to the car.  They found the car door open and a single key, not on a key ring or anything, was sitting, very obviously right on the floor in clear sight.  I was skeptical, but he was very sure that it was the key that had “disappeared” so many years ago when I was in that parking lot, and that it re-appeared just so that he, and his mother and I would get to experience that little moment of glimpsing the illusory nature of the material universe.

The Buddha Joins Minds with an Elephant, Nalagiri

This synopsis of a historically documented miracle performed by Gautama Buddha is offered in celebration of the holiday of the butter lamps in Tibet….please feel free to share some miracles of your own in the comments below.

This is a story of how the Buddha joined minds with an elephant, and healed the elephant.

There was, at one time, a savage elephant named Nalagiri in the town of Rajagaha, an elephant known to have killed men.  One morning, the Blessed One (this is how Buddha is addressed in the ancient texts) went out into the street in Rajagaha to request alms.  A sworn enemy of the Buddha arranged for the savage elephant to be released in the Buddha’s presence at that moment with intent to harm, even kill him.  Some  villagers looked on in terror as Nalagiri raised his trunk, and with his tail erect began to charge at the Buddha.  The wise villagers looked on and said “now tusker will be contending with tusker”. 

Then, the Buddha encompassed the elephant with thoughts of loving kindness.  The Elephant lowered his trunk and humbly approached the Buddha, dipping his trunk down to the earth and scooped up some earth and sprinkled on the Buddha.  Nalagiri the elephant then returned quiet to the stable where he was kept, and was known as a peaceful and helpful elephant thereafter. 

Story recounted in “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikku Nanamoli

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Jai Bella

blooming rose

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Miles of concrete, lined with parking lots.  Not a tree in sight for miles.  Burned out buildings housing pigeons, feral cats and a host of other mysterious wild beings (I saw possums, often).   This was the city of Newark where I lived, for many years.

Unlike New York, there were no shady trees lining sidewalks.  I realized this the first time it hit 104 degrees  There was no shade to be found.  I was living in a concrete sahara.

Gradually, over the years, I began to see dandelions pushing up through the cracks in the sidewalk.  They were so exciting, I had to celebrate them.  I gathered their seeds and planted more on the roof.  The next year, the bloom of the moment was Queen Anne’s Lace, the following year, Bachelor Buttons.  The year I left, Red Morning Glories  were climbing up chain linked fences.  On the day I drove away from Newark for the last time, all these so-called “weeds”, tough little flowers that they were,  had burst into a symphony of colors lining the parking lots.

As I was loading up the car,  a guy with a gasoline powered weed whacker was heading down the tiny lane between the parking lots, whacking the flowers up in the name of urban neatness.  I was glad that I wasn’t going to see the end of that story.  How on earth, could you weed whack a miracle?

If you don’t see it as a miracle, I guess.

I was reading today, the interview of a gentleman, now immersed in the business of Silicon Valley, who traveled to India in the 70’s.  He stated that the 70’s was the age of miracles, and that they no longer happened.

Really?  Or did we just get so focused on something else that we missed them?

I now live in a converted garage in Marin County, California.  In the surrounding yard there are flower bushes, not one, or two, but dozens. Oh the pleasure, to be surrounded by flowers. To walk out of my humble abode and see the spiky trees, dotting the horizon.  To see the beautiful Mt. Tam,  a Kailash I can get close to, rising above the landscape.

I make it a point every morning to smell the roses.  Literally.  I can’t afford a Maserati, but I can smell the roses.  Miraculously, everything keeps blooming here throughout the year, even though it never rains.  To my Northeast born and bred eyes, this is a miracle.

This morning, my landlady’s daughter was expressing her various woes.  Well, don’t we all have them?  And yes, many of them are considerable.  I expressed that I was sorry she was challenged, but then offered some appreciation for the flowers.  I’m so glad that there is a rose bush outside my door, and that I can smell the roses everyday when I walk by.

“Roses?”, she responded, looking a bit puzzled.  “Are there roses?  Which bush?”

It was the one right by her car.

“I didn’t see them.”

“I see,” I said.  Meaning, “I understand”.  I know what that is like, those moments when the hard things, the ugly things, the challenging things appear to be so oppressive that it is difficult to see beyond them.  I know what that is like.

I remember learning from one of my teachers to count ten blessings before I put my foot on the floor each morning.  ESPECIALLY when I didn’t feel grateful.  This was partly how I learned to cultivate the awareness of the many miracles that surround us each day.  Dandelions coming up through the sidewalk made the list often on days when I felt I had little to be grateful for.  Oh, how they grew, the more they were on the list, the more I observed them.  The more I observed them, the more it seemed they grew.  I kind of figure that’s how I landed here, with the roses and everything.

“Well, I just wanted to thank you.  I enjoy smelling them.” I said.  She looked at me a little mystified, like I was a little strange, but to me, I was enjoying a miracle

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