Kaladanda – Beat Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Full Circle of Vinyasa – Transcendence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 uplevel 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. 

(c)natalieullmann

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.

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.

Surrendering into Power

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

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

Finding OurSelves – losing ourselves

Finding OurSelves – losing ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

The Forces Within

The Forces Within

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

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

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

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

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

To cultivate right effort in your plank  try these:

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

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