Yoga, Freedom and Moving into Sovereignty

The focus this moon month in the newsletter is freedom or in Sanskrit, Mukti.  Mukti translates as “liberation”,  freedom, and it’s important to understand that freedom in the sense of yoga is different than freedom in of our day-to-day life – although they are related. We may think that having tons of money would be freedom or rebelling against social conventions would be freedom. Freedom is not inherent in those experiences.  Ask anyone who has very large amounts of money or who has lived in the counterculture for a long time and in their story you will hear of the oppressions that still remain.  In yoga  freedom is something that we develop inside ourselves as we cease identifying with the fluctuations (vritti’s) of our mind. That’s the  second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The fluctuations of our mind frequently take the form of how we think of ourselves, how we think of others and how we think of the world we live in. These mental constructs can become rigid and block our ability to be open and spacious and, well, liberated.  The freedom of the yogi comes in the form of an inner sovereignty which allows us to become the masters of our own minds and to use that freedom to choose the path of love over and over again.

Yoga is a discipline that leads to freedom The practices of yoga involve experiencing certain kinds of restraint and under those conditions finding the freedom there. When the  restraint is lifted you have a different understanding of who you are. Restraint comes in the form of tying yourself in a knot in an awkward posture and remaining peaceful.  Restraint can mean  being willing to suspend our immediate desires in order to allow a higher state of wisdom consciousness to guide our actions.

When we tie ourselves in a knot in a posture we stir up the deep resistances we have to living.  The knots are knots within our consciousness and so the goal is that to breathe, to be present to what’s happening and not fight with it. Consider this first level of freedom one that you could find contentment even when circumstances around you are not to your liking.  That’s a tremendous amount of freedom. Sometimes for whatever reason it’s not the best idea to change a circumstance. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s better to be strong. This capacity is honed in the practice of asana.  Accept the limitation, breathe be still and allow your inner guidance to direct you step by step to moving beyond the limitation into a deeper expression of the posture.

This kind of yoga training reveals discernment – the capacity to understand if our impulses are coming from our authentic heart desires or our desire to control. It’s a powerful means of developing aligned autonomous inspired choice making. Sovereignty. It is a gift of the yoga practice born of moment by moment alignment with self and that is the freedom. Rather than having others dictate who we are or who we become  or what actions we take in our lives we are free to take action in alignment with our highest best interest.  Yoga will take us to a healthy and beautiful body of all different kinds of shapes and sizes but this is the heart of the yoga  – this sovereignty and the freedom that emerges through practice.

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. 

Experiencing Yoga:  Overcoming Obstacles within – without

This month in class – as we practice asana, we are holding space for the understanding of yoga as presented in the first pada or book of the timeless text Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In this pada Patanjali lays out the arc of yoga – he spells out the origin and result of the practice as well as  some fundamentals of practice itself.  He also spells out the inner and outer obstacles.  This is important.  Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people in the world find well-being in yoga.  We all want that  well-being, but, well, maybe we just don’t feel like we can do yoga. My teacher once taught me that the hardest part of yoga was just getting to class. Do you have obstacles? What are they?  As a yogi, I confront those obstacles daily. As a yoga teacher, my life is filled with persons telling me why they can’t practice — at job interviews, at the bank, at the dinner table and in the grocery store.    Hey, maybe you just don’t want to! Nothing wrong with that!  But if you do want to, acknowledging the obstacles and being willing to engage them can be a powerful move forward towards actually becoming stable in your practice. It’s really important to note that Patanjali spells out both inner obstacles (our thoughtforms) and outer obstacles (i.e.not feeling well). Adopting a two pronged approach to address these two apparently separate dimensions of our being can be a powerful catapult into a strong practice.

For many of us, the outer obstacles seem to be the easiest to focus on in the beginning.  It seems that  if there was just a little less traffic we could get there.  But, from the perspective of yoga, the outer obstacles always have an inner corollary.  The outer obstacles Patanjali identifies are: illness, laziness, negligence, the attraction of pleasures, confusion about the practice, attachment to the way things are and a tendency to fall back on old habits.  The inner barriers to the experience of yoga are the various thoughtforms that we have been conditioned to believe are true and unchangeable (“I’m not athletic – never have been since I was a kid”).    The solution to the equation is yoga.  In the samadhi pada Patanjali describes the experience of yoga arising as we shift away from identification with our conditioned thoughtforms and engage with and identify with the ground of consciousness which is fresh and clear and unfettered. 

Arm balances – historically – have always been a big struggle for me.  It took seven years for me to do a handstand.  When I finally stood on my hands, it was a surprise.  My physical effort had been minimal; linking to some measure of illumined consciousness had been maximal.  It’s a story I lived many times in my years of practice.  Today, faith in myself and a willingness to let go and link up with a more illumined perspective is still essential to my practice.  If that linkage wobbles, so does my posture.  But what I saw in that moment of my first handstand was that I had held myself down with the belief that I could not support myself with my own two hands.  To be honest, that epitomizes much of my life journey and my journey through yoga.  It’s been a journey from dependence to independence. 

The first step is a little bit of willingness to see what our inner thought forms are.  We don’t have to worry about changing them.  A willingness to consider that they are there can go a long way towards dissolving them.  Patanjali identifies them as:

  • What we’ve learned intellectually from valid sources
  • What we’ve learned intellectually from invalid sources
  • Hearsay – what we’ve heard about, but have never experienced.
  • The arising of states of non-wakefulness (sleepiness)
  • Recall – drawing forth of past experiences (memory)

Because the obstacles can be so deeply embedded in our programming it does take a bit of faith to get on the mat at all.  But if we desire the sovereignty to deeply transform ourselves and our world that desire can propel us along in our practice until faith in the practice emerges.  It’s all in what you focus on.

About the Body – Alignment

Understanding Alignment — in the body.

“Just tell me what to do.”

 I hear that a lot as a yoga teacher.  Life can be overwhelming, and when we get to yoga, we just want to let.  That has its place in our practice.  But like eating chocolate cake It’s best used in a particular time and place – but not all the time.  It’s easy to get lost and miss what we come to the mat do to, whether it be physical or spiritual results we are aiming for.  The personal experience of life and yoga blossoms with individual alignment and connection to the effulgent source of being. This requires a bit of trailblazing to find our way through the wilderness of situations and challenges we encounter on and off the mat.  This call to authenticity and engagement led me to study the source texts in the original (rather than relying solely on expert commentary) and to apply them in the moment  – opening into the essential experience of living yoga. This includes physical body postural alignment.  Alignment always is an individual matter. While masters of yoga can pin point an alignment issue, I’ve found it isn’t complete if my own insight and understanding doesn’t emerge from it.

 There are very, very few alignment instructions in the texts (another reason why Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga” was such a breakthrough yoga classic). The texts discuss the shapes of a few postures in a general way (the Hatha Yoga Pradipika) and Patanjali advises that our posture should be stable and  joyful, or  steady and easeful (although the translations for that vary widely). So we are given a general principle ( think of it as equivalent to gravity) and then it’s up to us to find it in the world and decide what it means. The journey of self-discovery that yoga offers can elude us if we rely just on the teacher who offers their experience. To find our own understanding requires that we embrace the forms, as we as we have encountered them in class on YouTube, etc., and then let’s explore this mystical formula oin our own f steadiness and ease in our own bodies.

It requires attention, honesty with ourselves and a willingness to feel. You see, in the end, what a yoga practice always reveals (and this is supported in the texts) is that the level of change is in mind. This is a universal principle. If the mind is heavy or inert the body will be, or perhaps wobbliness arises during change in the life, etc. and you may find difficulty balancing.  So I invite you to open to discover your alignment through exploring balancing steadiness and ease and take note of what interferes with  the experience of steadiness and ease when you are on your mat.  Most of the people I’ve worked with find that it’s surprising what the underlying issues are, and the sense of freedom that emerges as a result of that work is well worth the effort.

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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Established in yoga…while moving through it all…

I fractured my wrist at the end of October. The cast came off, December 11. During the time in the cast I floated through time and space, a little removed from life, a little removed from pain, a little removed from sitting with this unexpected event in my life. I did some responsibility taking around that somehow, but generally, I was floated by my spiritual practices in this place beyond time. I didn’t struggle against the weight of the cast to do asana (physical postures) practice, because I understand true healing to take place on the level of consciousness, first. Lots of healing happened on that level, and then the cast came off, and I plummeted back to Earth.  I was back in my body, remembering the accident and the pain, and meeting and seeing the limitation now embedded in my physical body. I was in shock. When I left the hospital and climbed into my car, I burst into tears. It wasn’t victimy. It wasn’t woe is me tears. It was sadness for the whole world, all of us, going through this experience of restriction. It was a visceral experience of the sense of vulnerability of our bodies and the sense of vulnerability to all kinds of forces external to us. This month in my classes we are talking about pratistayam, or to be established in.  In Patanjali’s  yoga sutra Patanjali refers to yoga as a state where we dwell in our true nature and the text builds a pretty good case that where we seem to dwell in the external world is intimately related to where we dwell inside. To make a choice to dwell in our true nature is to become established, and that is to position ourselves in such a way that the impact of external forces on our ability to move through the world is diminished. We become conscious co-creators of our life experience.

When I was in the hospital, initially, after the break, I was there four days. A significant amount of the time was spent discussing pain. This was what the hospital staff worked with me on. The managing of pain. The avoiding of pain. I liked the underlying message which was, you don’t have to suffer pain. I’d spent many years with the belief that I did have to suffer pain. Of course, there is that meme “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”. I will say that what when you extract the suffering, it’s no longer pain. It’s just powerful sensation. But therein lies the rub. We have to choose not to sit in the state of mind of our own suffering. Randy, the very kind, bright-natured nurse who was my primary “pain coach” advised, “You don’t want to chase pain.” What does that mean? She explained that it’s very difficult to reduce the pain once you’ve allowed it to take hold. So, the process is to ward it off in advance, in this case by regular systematic taking of meds as the doctors prescribed. Every X number of hours. Isn’t that interesting? Patanjali advises the same thing. He says future suffering is to be avoided. And I think it’s good to note that Patanjali is not just one guy with one idea, but he organized all the information from what people who were practicing in that day were doing so, you know, it’s not the kind of information that gets outdated.

So if future suffering is to be avoided, how is this done?  Yogically, there are a number of different interpretations of what that means but for today let’s just consider that part of it, avoiding future suffering, is that we train ourselves through asana pranayama meditation and good old fashioned discipline to stay anchored, to stay established in our true nature. Part of that training is learning to catch ourselves when we are not in our true nature. Randy advised that pain was a tricky thing. In my post cast life I feel what she meant. It’s random and it’s stubborn – arising with no apparent logic. Although, the mind will try to give it logical source, ‘I ate french fries yesterday and must be inflamed’. But then one might notice the pain lingers long after the french fries are gone. 

The time came last week to remove myself from painkiller killers. You can’t really take Tylenol or aspirin, in large doses, forever. I’d left the high-octane painkillers behind while still in the hospital. There are herbs and there is homeopathy. Last week I began physical therapy and what I didn’t realize was how painful the process of rehabilitation would be. I’ve spoken before here about the releasing of fascial tissue and trauma stored within it. Now I’m living that daily and an important side note – when fascia is releasing you relive the pain of the trauma itself. Medicating at that point is thought to interfere with the release process. On some level, you have to feel it to heal it on the level of consciousness.

Just transcending just moving out of the place of awareness of the pain

might support psychological health in the moment, but holistically transforming the pain creates a more integrated healing. About three days into my PT exercises a return to a generally full asana practice, as I lay down to sleep, my whole arm caught fire with pain. It was clearly a fasica release, as I could feel the impact traveling through my body, as it had at the moment of the accident, dull but shocking. I already taken my herbs for the day. That was it. I was left with chamomile tea and deep breathing, as my only recourse. “I’ve entered the world of pain.” I thought, knowing that millions of people abide there full time. Now, I have some inkling of their experience, and I am awed by it. What that must be like to live there, in pain, through your whole body, all of the time. I think to myself that I don’t want to live in the world of pain. So as I breathe deeply and consciously, I effort to reorient myself to be situated, established, not in the pain, but in the calm center I have touched many times over my years of practice. Pain is tricky. It is seductive and magnetic and absorbing. This requires some effort.

But I really don’t want to live there. I chose to dwell in my true nature. The pain is not receding, but it ceases to be me. And instead, the sensation becomes an experience I am having. It sounds like splitting hairs. But when I pull myself out of the pain experience, it’s just another experience. I know that there is some experience within me at all times, that is not pain, and that somehow I will find my way to dwell in that space. I woke up the next morning amazed that I slept. Funny that, right? We think a billion bucks is the goal but how valuable is a good night’s sleep? The big deep pain of that evening is gone, but it still comes and goes both emotionally and physically as I reclaim the use of my arm as part of the whole of my body – and work to expand my reach. And now I feel really connected to a whole new level of this pratistayam thing – to master being able to sit in that calm sweet place as I deal with the challenges of the world. The practice becomes a a deeply essential life skill to have. It’s been very exciting. I was able to use my left hand to take some vitamins yesterday. And that was a big leap. And I’ve enjoyed creating sequences without the Down Dog for the time being. No plank, no Chaturanga. And a world of creative movement has opened up too.  My treatment goal is down dog. Okay, so two months ago, right before the accident I was jogging and doing a forearm stand and enjoying the process of reclaiming each little step. And now and then, I feel a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, my yoga practice will evolve into such a grand adventure, yet again.

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.

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.

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