Giving it Up to the Universe

When we were little, our dad always told us that we had to give up all of our goals to the universe. You can really really really want something, but you have to hand it off to the cosmos to take care of. In other words, you have to let the vice grip of your yearning heart and mind relax. You have to soften and settle around your goal. After you've set your intention, it's no longer in your control. It's under the control of the universe.

I go in and out of remembering the work that my dad gave us as children. He always had some project or energy-focused activity for us to increase our positive output into the world. This idea of letting go of intentions and offering them up to a higher power has just surfaced back into my consciousness.

I just finished How Yoga Works by Gesne Michael Roach. It's a fictional story which outlines the Tibetan tradition of yoga and how it came to India centuries ago. The technical lingo is a bit challenging at times in the book, but the takeaway is essentially simple. In the book, the work of the characters is to "plant good seeds." First they learn the physical practice of yoga to open up their energy channels and then they remove negative energy from the channels by sending out good vibes to the universe for all the people that they know. And from there, their work is to always act in a manner that will "plant good seeds" for growing future good things. They essentially learn how to be good people by never lying, keeping themselves and their surroundings clean, wanting happiness for others, thinking before they speak, etc.

And so, by planting good seeds, you set the groundwork for good things to happen for you. Which means that when bad things happen, that you planted the negative seed at some point earlier in your life. It's a little bit like the Americanized notion of karma, but what it really boils down to is that you are completely responsible for making your own future outcomes. And if you want them to be good ones, you better plant the sweetest, most fertile seeds.

gabriellehopp_plant-good-seeds.jpg

I have been thinking about this work so much lately. What can I do to plant better seeds? How can I have intentions and goals that I can just offer up to the universe? Can I plant enough good seeds in my life that I can let go of attachment to future outcomes and know that I've done the work to make my dreams come true?

I'd like to think that I manifested my biggest life goal earlier this year. I had spent years and years wanting nothing more than to be a full-time yoga teacher. I thought about it constantly. I schemed plenty of crazy ideas for how to do it. But it just wasn't happening. I was still slogging along, waiting tables to pay rent so that I could teach yoga on the side. I certainly wasn't happy with the arrangement, but I didn't know how to change it.

At some point last year, I sort of stopped worrying about it so much. I inadvertently forgot to grip so hard on being a yoga teacher. I got pretty comfortable with waiting tables so that I could teach yoga. I settled in to the reality of my situation and tried to make the best of it.

And then.....

Seemingly out of the blue, I was offered a gig. It involved moving back to my hometown. I was skeptical. I had finally settled into my life as it was, you know?

I mulled it over for a long time. I talked to everyone who I love and trust for their opinions. I weighed the pros and cons. And I accepted.

Originally, it was just another part time situation, but in an established studio. But as time unfolded prior to my moving back, the job became even better. It became full time. The thing that I wanted more than anything. It just happened. But did it just happen? Was it my previous work that allowed it to come to fruition?

And just for the record, it's the total best. It is literally my dream job. I am living out my dreams. And now, onto the next manifestation....

Yoga as a Useful Tool

You guys know that feeling when you very first like someone and it feels like the world is moving super fast and super slow at the exact same time? It sort of makes you into a crazy person. And it definitely affects the ability of the body to function. In the extremes sleeping and eating even become impossible.

Okay, this might be me right now. My brain is a swarm of bees. My heart is running at top speed.

So, what to do with all this mind chatter and pukey feelings? Why, turn it into a yoga lesson, of course!

It is totally astounding to me to see how easily my body and brain just absolutely fall apart on something like this. My nervous system is totally haywire. After a certain point of years of yoga practice, you think that you can exert some control over your body and mind. But damn, if it isn't really really hard.

But, guess what? You probably already know what I'm going to say, right?

This yoga shit works! Seriously.

Guess when I've been able to actually calm down and relax my jack-hammering heart? Guess when I have been able to remove myself (very slightly) from the tumult that used to be a relatively calm mind? Yoga class, of course. And it's not instantaneous. It's not. It takes about half of class. And that is half of class of seriously focusing on my breath and my breath alone. And it's taken years and years of cultivation of yoga skills to even get to this point.

It takes every fiber of my being investing in a state of calm. But I can do it. And that's the important thing.

A decade of practice may seem like a lot, but it's a drop in the bucket. No worthwhile lasting change can come quickly. This ability to calm oneself down through yoga is usually years and years and hours and hours of practice in the making. It means getting on the mat and sitting down on the cushion even when (especially when) you don't feel like it.

So, how does it work? How can yoga be a useful tool and not just a way to exercise?

The Nervous System (does not lie)

The Nervous System (does not lie)

Take a look at the right side of this chart. I was (am) literally experiencing all of those symptoms. My sympathetic nervous system is in a tizzy. It's like a textbook example. It literally is a textbook example.

The work of yoga is to tap into the parasympathetic system—you can see it on the chart! When you practice well, the heart rate slows. The breath slows. You are less affected by external stimuli.

When you consistently come to practice, you learn to use your parasympathetic system. When the asana work is challenging, you teach yourself to slow your breath down. You teach yourself to get out of your mind and experience fully the body and breath. You respond to the bodily stimulation by encouraging it to chill out.

This is what I want yoga to be for everyone. When I teach, I try to approach it as scientifically as possible, with complete emphasis on breath. Breath as the gateway between body and mind. Breath as the tool that sets yoga apart from other disciplines. Breath as the switch for the parasympathetic nervous system. We need more calm and peace in this world.

Calm of body, soft of breath, quiet of mind.

And in this way, I like to think that yoga can be a most useful tool. So that you can inhabit the beautiful container that is your body, breathe with ease, and fill your mind with peace.

This is me on sympathetic nervous system.

This is me on sympathetic nervous system.

What is Yoga?

I currently have the privilege of teaching yoga to individuals in recovery from drugs and alcohol. They are awesome. They are also a special sort of yogi. Basically they are starting their lives over. Starting fresh. They have this amazing opportunity to begin life again with a clean slate.

Isn't it great to be alive?

Isn't it great to be alive?

And because they're in recovery and working through all the shit that got them there in the first place, they are particularly open. They are looking for something real and sustainable to help them maintain their sobriety and lead fulfilling lives. At least that's what I'm hoping...

So, I sort of see it as my job to provide that real and fulfilling activity. One of the aims of yoga is to open your eyes to what is real. To the reality of the universe, of yourself, of life. Most of us as humans lead our lives as if in a trance oblivious to the wonders of being alive. It's so easy to get bogged down in the mire of day to day crud. If you constantly keep yourself busy with to-do lists, it's easy to avoid examining the reality of being alive.

I am currently reading Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by Stephen Cope which is a vast tome of yogic and psychology knowledge. It's packed to the brim with philosophical gems like this one:

"If you want to experience the joyous ecstasy that life offers, there is one commitment that is absolutely fundamental: the commitment to live in the moment. With that commitment as your guiding focus, whatever you do in your daily life is part of your
transformational process. Your commitment to the living in the moment becomes your vehicle for spiritual growth." (p. 113)

And another:

"The goal of the reality project is not to disengage from the phenomenal world, but to turn to embrace it more and more deeply—to discover its hidden depths. And in order to do that, paradoxically, we do not reject the vicissitudes of the embodied life. We do not reject suffering. Rather we turn and go through the doorway of suffering. We turn to embrace our neuroses, our conflicts, our difficult bodies and minds and we let them be the bridge to a fuller life. Our task is not to free ourselves from the world, but to fully embrace the world--to embrace the real." (p 115) 

So. My challenge with these new yogis who are newly sober and eager to embrace reality (maybe?) is to give them a well-rounded experience of yoga. A bit of asana, some breathe work, some meditation, some philosophy and even some yoga nidra. In an hour. Twice a week. How can I fully convey to these people the great depth of what it is I'm teaching? How can I offer them something that awakens them to reality? And the potential for the practice to create real and lasting change within them? What is yoga to these people? What is yoga?

Is this yoga?

Is this yoga?

Yesterday we were ending class with baddha konasana before savasana. One or two of them was complaining of the stretch. I told them to think about leading with their sternum as though they could lay their heart center down onto their feet. Well, they thought that was pretty hilarious. And one of them asked if that was the goal. 

Now, I probably could have just said that "yes, putting the head to the ground and the heart on the feet was the goal of the pose" and left it at that. But no. No! I owe to these people in flux to give them something more.

Here's what I offered:

Me: If the goal of yoga was to be flexible, then any gymnast could come in and automatically be good at it. 

Student: But that's not the case?

Me: No. 

Student: Really?

Me: Really. The goal of yoga is not to be flexible. What good is that going to serve you in your life? The reason that we do a practice on the mat is to learn to deal with difficulty. We purposefully put ourselves into challenging postures to see how well we can continue to breathe and be present. So that when shit comes up for you in difficult times, you have some tools for knowing how to be present and how to deal when life is challenging. If you can stay in the moment and be clear about what's going on in the mind, then you are doing yoga.

It was simple. It was a 2 minute little philosophy lesson. It made me feel so alive and present in myself that I was instantly filled with joy. I don't know what they think about it now or if they have even thought of it since. But in that moment, I was exactly the sort of teacher that I want to be.

Yoga in Action: Being True to Yourself

So, I've been teaching for 3 years now. Not too much time, admittedly, but enough time to have a decent grasp of my own style and what works well for students and what works less well. As someone who has to promote myself as a small business, as well as continue a personal practice, I am constantly looking for ways to improve myself as a teacher and student and bring in more people.

To expand my skill-set and business acumen, I tend to look to yoga studios/teachers who are successful. What do they offer that brings so many people in? What is it that yoga practitioners are looking for in a teacher, studio, class format, etc.?

And I have to say that it's impossible to collect this type of information and not allow it to inform your own personal methods. When you take someone's class, it's only natural that you learn something new and begin to transmit that information in your own way.

I have been moving around the world for the past 5 or so years. I have studied with some incredible teachers all around the world. Here are some of my biggest influences over the past years:

Theresa Murphy, Omaha, NE

Lucie Konikova in Prague, Czech Republic

Ben Vincent in MPLS

Laurel Van Matre in MPLS

Rod Stryker of Para Yoga in Boulder, CO

Ganesh Mohan of Svastha Yoga in Chennai, India

This is an eclectic bunch of individuals with many different styles and approaches. I love being open to all different types of styles and being able to incorporate them into my own teaching. Theresa Murphy, my biggest yoga influence calls herself a "cross-pollinator" implying that she gets her information from multiple sources. I can't help but be the same way. When there are so many traditions and methods out there, why would you not experience as many of them as possible?

It is very challenging for me not to get mired down in the yoga pop culture muck. And the notion that one particular way/method is the only way is very prevalent in Western yoga culture. If you want people to buy your brand, you have to promote it as the brand.

What I have recently realized is that through my knowledge-seeking, I have strayed from teaching in my own very personal way. I have lost track of teaching in a way that is completely true to me. Not that I have not been teaching well or am disappointed with myself, but I have been learning so much really new material and trying to rectify it with my own personal style. And, I came to realize that it isn't really working. Part of the challenge of being a good teacher is transmitting the knowledge you obtain in a way that is clear and meaningful for your students. And you can't really do that if you're teaching in another teacher's style/way. For me, the most important thing is to be completely true to myself.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be open to the vast expanse of knowledge that is out there. And I wouldn't trade my experience/studies for anything else.  But it became clear to me that I've been trying to share information without first making it my own.Armed with this revelatory knowledge, not to mention yogic information, I forge on.

This is me.   

This is me.

 

There is so much to learn on this path.

Yoga in Action: Giving Thanks

Here comes the trite holiday post.

Actually, I quite like holidays. You get to eat as much as you want. Drink as much as you want. Hang out with your family (luckily, mine happens to be awesome, though I know that's not always the case), play cards, have awkward conversations and probably go see a really good movie.

What I don't like about holidays is that they try to force you to feel something. Now, I can easily border on the cynical side of things when it comes to "crap that is mass-marketed to the American people." I don't like that we have a day to tell someone how much we love them, or a day to be really nice to our mom, or even a day to celebrate our freedom. Shouldn't we be doing those things every day?

I think it's easy to get caught up in middle-class white kid problems. At least for me, as a middle-class white kid. We are easily led to feel that the world is crashing down around us if we have to wait in line for 10 minutes, get into a minor car accident, don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend, our computer crashes, etc. With little regard for the way a lot of people live (in poverty, in slums, hungry, oppressed) we can get completely caught up in our overly dramatic tales of woe.

Through a regular practice of yoga, we can begin to develop an appreciation for life and the things that we take for granted. I talked about this a lot in my last post. You can read it here:

Everyday Yoga

In my opinion, we should be thankful for our blessings every single day of the year. One way to put this into action is to list 5 things that you're grateful for as you are falling asleep. It's pretty easy. They don't have to be profound. They don't even have to be big things.

Here's 5 off the top of my head: running water, organic vegetables, family, 3-legged cats, Austin, TX.

3-legged cat!

3-legged cat!

And as I think of the things on my list for which I am grateful, I try to feel, just for a moment, how I connect with those things in my day-to-day life. And maybe how my life would be different without them. A teeny tiny practice which can bring you back to the bounty of life.

Everyday Yoga

You know when you go to class and your teacher says things like, "yoga is a way of life" or "your practice does not end after class" etc.? Here are some of my ideas about that.

The practice of yoga asana is totally like a gateway drug. You get hooked on the performance of physical postures, the deep expansion/contraction of the breath you feel in class, and the incredible sense of clarity and serenity that you feel when you're done. Right?

So you keep going back. And you get stronger and more flexible and your body feels better, which frees up some space for your mind to feel better. And pretty soon all you can think about is yoga poses and how to "improve your yoga game" and maybe even entertain the idea of doing a teacher training, cause it feels so good.

This is a beautiful process—one that I myself went through many years ago, and continue to go through each time I go to class.

But here is the best part.

Yoga does start to extend past class. It starts to work it's way into your daily life. Maybe you begin to feel compelled to spend more time quietly. Or to go outside and romp around more often.

Wild rosemary in the sun. Looking good

Wild rosemary in the sun. Looking good

You might start to notice life more intensely. Small surprises like a flower blooming or the sight of a colorful bird may bring you joy. Laughing and talking with loved ones suddenly feels precious in a way that it never had before. You may even take less things for granted; you may even begin to appreciate all of your opportunities and gifts in a new way.

Maybe over time you become a little less interested in yoga asana. Perhaps time you once devoted to handstand and lotus becomes time you devote to sitting quietly and following the breath. Maybe a walk in the woods or along the beach is your new yoga practice. Possibly you practice by mindfully preparing a meal, listening to your favorite music, or riding your bicycle.

Or maybe you aren't there yet and the joy of working through postures and going to class is still one of progress for you. And so you continue.

gabriellehopp-zen.jpg

And perhaps over time you begin to notice a different kind of practice emerging and unfolding. And if it does, your new challenge is to embrace the present moment of your life.

***It somehow didn't occur to me until several hours later, but I must have subconsciously taken this title from Charlotte Joko Beck's book "Everyday Zen." Just want to give props where props are due.