The Mystery of Yoga

From the late Michael Stone:
"Yoga teachings are not a response to life that stand apart from its movement. Yoga is a living question that continually points its practitioner back toward his or her own life, back into the body, straight into community. An ongoing practice recognizes that there is a transcendent mystery beyond the techniques that a practice employs."

Time and time again as I come back to my mat, to my cushion, my practice, I accept the mystery of yoga. What is it that keeps drawing me back in? There are so many components to this practice, creating a framework for understanding the complexity of life, of humanity, of ourselves.

Working at postures is a lot of fun. It is a holistic system for keeping the body functioning optimally. Daily practice allows us to dive into what we NEED in the moment, in the current climate of our lives. The diversity of available yogic practices makes for endless exploration and creativity.

Meditative work is often removed from the classroom setting, but should really be as important as our asana practice. Coming in to the stillness of meditation is a constant challenge requiring daily discipline and effort. And it sometimes creates more frustration than inner peace. But the experience of sitting with WHAT IS, whatever that may be, teaches us so many lessons, this work is invaluable.

Living as a yogi in the modern world requires non-stop engagement with life, with people, with your own habit patterns. Not always the most desirous of affairs. Taking on yoga philosophy as a guideline to living my best self has been my TRUEST practice of living the life of a yogi. It isn't usually easy, but it certainly feels rooted in REALITY + MYSTERY in equal measure.

So why do you practice? What motivates you to show up and do the daily work?

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Yoga is the Antidote to Fixity

Over the course of a lifetime, through our various life experiences, we form some strong attachments and opinions. We dig a hole, set up camp, grow roots, and harden. Physically, psychically, opinionally.

Yoga is the antidote to fixity. Yoga practices of asana, pranayama, meditation and energetics bring PRANA (life force) into areas of holding, areas of stuckness. When we bring new fluid and awareness to long-held and tight spots, they open up. SPACE can occur and space lays the groundwork for healing.

My teacher Tias says, "The art of the entire yoga training is to be free of all kinds of fixation, not only mental and physical fixation, but to be free from cultural, linguistic, economic, racial or gender fixation."

So, as much as YOGA can free us up physically, the more SUBTLE implications are equally important. When we are loose and open, we can much more easily merge with the FLOW to let things play out as they will.

The pathways of the NADIS allow energy to flow freely through our bodies, hearts and minds. When we have blockages energetically, we are not functioning optimally. Yoga practice opens us up to SPACE and FREEDOM in all aspects of ourselves.

Yoga in Action: inner listening

To listen is to lean in softly with a willingness to be changed by what you hear. 

This morning I listened to Tara Brach speak about active listening. Like, really listening. Listening is a real skill that requires effort.

Oftentimes we have to teach ourselves how to be listeners, how to be active participants in conversation. In the podcast, she talked about ways in which we avoid active listening: our propensity to multi-task while we are in telephone conversations, our tendency to try and shape the way that someone views us while we converse with them (rather than actually listening to them), and the need to develop skills of listening, which can eventually impact our deeper meditation practices.

This meditation application eventually becomes an act of inner listening, though it often begins with acts of outer listening. There are some meditation schools which encourage that you note the environmental sounds around you as you sit. There are some forms of meditation which encourage concentration on a sound or chant. Sometimes in the beginning stages of our meditation journey, even awareness of our thoughts can feel like outer listening as well. I have been inclined to think "who is that person thinking those thoughts?" a time or two in my own sitting work. In the yoga realm, we typically begin our practices by following the instruction of a teacher through outward listening.   

And then through time and regular effort, listening for sounds/thoughts/instructions outside of ourselves can be replaced by inner listening. Listening to our own thoughts for instinctual feelings and habit patterns of the mind, and listening to our bodies for signs of our overall health, clues about injuries/disease and effectiveness of our practices. Inner listening is how we can know us. By taking time to get quiet, go inward and tune in to us, we can better understand ourselves and what we want, what makes us happy, what our true expectations are for not only us, but others. Sometimes through listening, we hear things that are unpleasant. But then we have the opportunity to work with those challenges rather than avoiding them. 

Sometimes through this inner awareness, we begin to move toward silencing. Not necessarily silence as the goal, but pleasant quieting, softening of the typical clamor of the mind. 

In her amazing Bringing Yoga to Life, Donna Farhi notes:

Just as the impressions left by the constant stream of thoughts and sensations tend to propel more of the same, the impressions left through participation with the silent substrate of consciousness generates a flow of itself. Silence begins to flow through us as our fundamental state of being. This is as it as always been. Nothing new has been created; we simply have cleared a pathway through which this silence can flow and regenerate itself.
— Bringing Yoga to Life (p.72–73)

So, how can we move from being a so-so listener, to an active listener to inner listener? 

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

spending quiet time in the woods is a great way to listen

One of the main ways to become a more active listening with others is to be present. I regularly find myself planning my day or my dinner or just generally caught up in my own thoughts when I'm talking with someone else. I think it happens to all of us. But it doesn't feel that great to me. When several moments into my distracted thoughts I re-emerge, I always feel a little like a jerk. Like my brain was telling me that another being is less interesting to it than my own being.

This is just a point of awareness. If you can first create awareness around presence in conversations with others, you can begin to work toward greater and greater presence generally.

Through deepening awareness moment-to-moment in our daily lives, we can create ease around the same work, the same desire for presence when we're on our mats or cushion. It will be easier for us to be active listeners of ourselves, to be inner listeners, if we're willing to be present with what we hear. And if we're willing to really hear what the inner teacher is offering, then we are more likely to make positive change. Or at the very least, to be open to the possibility.

Yoga in Action: abhyasa, diligent practice

Daily practice is challenging. Especially if you aren't comfortable with a home practice, have a long commute to and from work, have a regular work-week, have children, etc. Carving out the time to get on the mat and get on the cushion may not fall high on the list of priorities. I feel really grateful to have established my yoga practice at a time when I didn't have a lot of responsibilities and I could make yoga and meditation a daily priority. It just stuck and now it's in there for keeps. 

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

The good thing about coming to practice regularly is that you end up practicing through the ups and downs of life. When you are rooted in a regular routine of morning meditation or evening asana you can't help but do it even when things are really bad, or when things are really good. When I think back over the past decade of my practice, I think of practicing through break-ups, through moves, practicing on vacation, making it to the mat in India, practicing through health issues. And a great thing about the versatility of a yoga practice is that you can always practice something, no matter your state of mind, state of body.

Some days I seriously don't feel like it. And not always, but sometimes, those are the most fruitful days of my practice. 

Now I know that some of you are probably thinking that I obviously practice every day because yoga is my job and that's what I do and so I have to. But it isn't that simple. I think about my personal practice, my personal spiritual quest as somewhat separate from my teaching. I incorporate a lot of my findings into my classes for sure and my training is usually translated right into my teaching. But, my time on my mat and my morning meditation is mine. It's work that I do for me, it's work that I do to actualize my potential, it's work that I do to fulfill my dharma. Being anchored in regular practice is the key for me to living in the middle ground.

In the Yoga Sutras the sanskrit term for diligent, continuous practice is abhyasa. (The following translations and explanations are taken or adapted from Nicolai Bachmann's The Yoga Sutras. It's a great resource with a workbook, flashcards and several cds explaining the philosophical concepts. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of yoga philosophy)

There are several sutras which explore the concept of abhyasa

The most commonly cited is sutra 1.12:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah
The stilling of the vrtti-s (mind-chatter) is due to diligent practice and vairagya or unattached awareness. 

Sutra 1.13 goes on to further explain abhyasa:

tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah
Diligent practice is the effort put forth to maintain a point of focus. 
Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Nicholai goes on to list the qualities of a yoga practice that represent abhyasa. They are effort of focusing on a point, over a long period of time, uninterrupted, with sincerity and firmly grounded. The following sutra 1.14 suggests that abhyasa becomes firmly established when pursued with eagerness, sincerity and continuity for a long time. 

Whether it's good news or bad news, there is opportunity to practice yoga all day every day, even when you're not on the mat. The work of the yamas and niyamas is never ending and can be put into action with every interaction with another person, in your daily routine and each time you find yourself aware of your thoughts. 

Mr. Iyengar (R.I.P.) translates abhyasa as practice and about the everyday work of yoga he says:

"I have said that the cure for our inherent flaws lies in sustained practice of the eight petals of yoga (here, understood as the eight limbs). Knowledge of yoga is no substitute for practice. Since the difficulties lie within ourselves, so do the solutions." —Light on Life (pg 94)

And so, we must practice. The more often we confront our difficulties, the more likely we can create solutions to them. If you find yourself struggling to commit to regularity on the mat or the meditation cushion, what can you do to encourage yourself to get there? How can you make greater lasting changes by incorporating your yoga work with regularity?

Going In

If I were to make a guess, I would say that this post will get about 7 reads, whereas my posts about asana are read by dozens. There are a number of reasons why this is so. Namely the current craze of yoga as a workout and a purely physical activity to enhance the sculpt of your abs. We as Americans are constantly trying to better ourselves not through reflection or introspection, but rather by weighing less and looking more beautiful on the outside.

I think it stinks a little, but also it's very much cultural. With the constant distraction of smartphones, money, bigger and better "stuff" it's no wonder that we aren't particularly capable of "going in" and doing internal work. Why is that? Because it's hard.

chakra system, very much "in"

chakra system, very much "in"

It's a heck of a lot harder to sit down and watch your breath than it is to go to a yoga class with rockin music where you are constantly moving and doing. In other words, modern yoga is commonly just another distraction for our already "monkey" minds.

The process of going inward is outlined in the last 4 limbs of the 8-limbed yogic path. The first of those limbs is pratyahara which is the "turning-inward" of the senses. It's essentially the process of quieting the mind by turning off your awareness of that which is outside of you and moving toward awareness of what is happening on the inside. From here, your work moves into concentration meditation (dharana), meditation without a point of focus (dhyana), and finally samadhi which is full absorption into your current task at hand.

So, what to do?

The work of coming regularly to your meditation cushion to quiet the senses takes a mature and sophisticated student. This person has to be willing to sit still, be quiet and examine the nature of their own mind. This is scary business at times. Part of living on the surface and not delving too deeply into the depth of the mind has to do with our notions of keeping ourselves safe. If we can just cling to tangible "real" physical things and keep our mind preoccupied with those, then we don't have to go deeply inside and see the shit that makes up our minds. Sometimes what's in there is crummy and needs some tending to, which can be painful.

Me, going in.

Me, going in.

Now, don't get me wrong. I do the physical practice of yoga on an almost daily basis. I am firmly committed to keeping my body healthy and well as I age. But, at the same time, I use my daily practice as a way to examine myself. I watch my breath. I watch the whirls of my mind. I watch the sensations happening in the body. I pay attention to me much as a scientist would. Constantly observing and at  the same time, constantly trying to stay present with what is.

If you are someone who is not ready to commit to a regular meditation practice, all is not lost. There are ways to be reflective and introspective without a daily practice (though, the work is much more satisfying if you can make it every day!). For more accessible internal work, try just noticing when you experience something truly joyous or beautiful. Observe the sensations in your body/mind that arise as a result. Observe the thoughts that come up and whether you cling to the "goodness" or whether you can let it all go.

You could also journal 5 good things and 5 difficult things that happened to you each day. Reflect upon why you consider them good/bad and how you reacted to each of the experiences. That work should take you about 5 minutes before you go to sleep.

If even that is too challenging, next time you're in the car or riding the bus, do the same sort of work but just mentally. Scan the events of your day and notice how you categorize them (good/bad) and why. Did you react as per usual, or did you experience a new type of reaction?

The more you can tune in to the inner-workings of the mind, the closer you will be to understanding your choices and decisions along this path 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.

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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. 

Practice is the Salve

Thanks to my lovely friend, teacher, and general yoga inspiration Theresa Murphy, I have a title for today's post. My phrasing was "thank goodness for practice" but she took it to the next level. Deep bow for that.

So, those of you who know me probably know that I'm currently in a transitional phase (to put it kindly). My relationship of over five years ended rather suddenly and I was left a bit grasping for how to go on in my life. Being an adventure seeker combined with a big-time family gal, I opted to move several thousand miles away from my current home to live near my sister. So within the span of just two months I have experienced some heartbreak, the challenge of relocating and a whole lot of packing.

You should even practice when you go to India!

The main thing that I have been consistently grateful for throughout this period is my daily time on the mat and the cushion. My practice never even skipped a beat. Through all this personal turmoil I had the ability to find an hour or two of sweetness and stillness every day.

A month ago I went on vacation and saw a good friend of mine. She asked what it is that I'm doing for myself to get through this difficult time. I was at a loss for words, temporarily lost in the thought that perhaps I wasn't doing anything for myself when she interrupted my thoughts to remind me of my practice. It was at that point that I realized how reliant I am on my personal mat time and how much a part of me and my life it truly is. I feel blessed to have a disciplined skill set during this time.

In the future when I look back on this time in my life, I'll be able to do so with integrity and grace because I kept it real for myself. Practice is the salve for me.

Breaking from Daily Practice

Every time I go on vacation, I suddenly become someone who doesn't meditate. And every single time I feel annoyed with myself and lazy. And I feel less good in my brain and my emotional realm than normal. And I spend all day thinking, "I'll just do this one thing, and then I'll meditate."

So why in the hell can't I bring myself to do it? At home I am exceedingly disciplined, bordering on rigid, making time for meditation no matter what. Which brings the obvious point to mind--it's part of my routine and my day wouldn't be normal or complete without it. But if it makes me feel so sane and so joyful why not just do it?

Me, on vacation, meditating!
Yesterday I returned to my routine from a ten day hiatus, having traveled with my family and friends in Colorado. I did find sporadic opportunities to meditate while there, and some days were as good as any day on my cushion at home. But yesterday I got to sit on my cushion, with my mala, and read the Yoga Sutras and do my chanting, and do the whole routine, free from the eyes and ears of all.
Oh my. I spent the entire time with a giant smile on my face.

But I wouldn't have had quite the same experience, had I not taken a few days break. This break gave me the opportunity to reflect on how much I appreciate my practice and how good it feels as a part of my day. I think taking breaks from any constant thing that we do is a key to enjoyment of that thing. Now this observation may seem like a cop-out from someone who can't bring themselves to meditate while on vacation, however! the point for me is that I did come back to my cushion and will continue to do so regardless of missing days. And when I did come back, it felt like coming home.

Breaking from asana practice is also useful. It can be hard to recognize progress without stepping back to reflect and enjoy your effort. Every week I take at least one or two days to enjoy my morning without practice. Sometimes it's hard to step away, it can make me feel lazy or make my body feel stiff. But most of the time I am grateful to have a break and to enjoy the fruits of my labor with a morning to myself.

This is part of a larger practice of letting go. Accepting what is as it comes and learning to live joyfully regardless. Surrendering to the flow of life when necessary, and coming back to your cushion with regularity and devotion.

Slowing Down with the Breath


 

In the previous post (which you can find here: breath) I talked about several different approaches to thinking about the breath. For the next few posts, I will explore practical applications of some different breathing techniques and styles.

This post is specifically about ways to use the breath for calming, restorative, relaxing effects. If you tend to be someone who has trouble sleeping or relaxing, these techniques are ideal for you.

In slow, low to the ground practices of yoga, the simplest way to establish a calming and ground breath is to elongate the exhale. So if you count the beats of your breath and establish an even ratio, you would then lengthen out the exhale breath. Make sure to keep it sustainable--you don't want to end up with a 12 count exhale so that you're begging for the next inhale breath. I typically work with a 4 beat inhale to a 6 or 8 beat exhale in my personal practice.
Additionally, you can direct the exhale breaths downward, as though you're going to breath out of your pelvic floor. This type of breath corresponds with apana vayu which is a way to move energy toward elimination and grounding. So, in this type of breath, I inhale in and down from my nostrils to the pit of the belly and exhale from the belly out of the pelvic floor. Ten of these breaths will have you grounded in no time.
This breath work is most effective in slower styles, so it's perfect for these styles:

Yin Yoga (super long holds of five to ten minutes with passive stretching; intended to lengthen the connective tissue and to increase the flow of prana in the body)
Restorative (passive, relaxed long-held poses designed to "restore" the body)
Slow Flows (vinyasa styles with slower movement, longer exhales help to stay present and calm)
Meditation (deepening the breath can be effective in remaining present with your meditation)

Breathing this way is also ideal for the start of your savasana. It's a great way to get you tapped in to some grounding slowing energy before you drop in.
It's also perfect for falling asleep or falling back to sleep in the middle of the night. I find that just counting the pulses of my breath is automatically relaxing. Try this: roll on to your right side--this will encourage the flow of breath through the left nostril which is the yin calming side. Focus the breath on the left nostril, so try and breath solely in and out of the left and then use the technique above to lengthen the breath. I personally don't last long at all when I do this style of breath in the middle of the night.

One more thing to mention is a yoga style which combines slower breath with visualization.  
Yoga Nidra is yogic sleep which leaves the body and mind totally refreshed and renewed. It's fantastic. Here's a link to some practices on YouTube: yoga nidra

Happy Practice!

Momentum

Have you ever noticed that when you consistently come to your mat or your cushion on a daily basis that it gets easier and easier to continue to do so? My teacher Theresa Murphy suggests that you come to your mat everyday, even if it's just for ten minutes.
This past week, I found myself low on the inspiration and drive totem pole. This happens to me often after I have an especially inspired practice or class. I'm not sure what it is....some little part of me feels that I've made an accomplishment and now I can retire.
Perhaps I will retire to India?
So, this past week I felt a bit like I was dragging myself to the mat. And then essentially rolling around on the mat because I couldn't muster up the impetus to practice any sequencing. Each day I'd come up with a list of things that I had to do before practicing (checking my email, drinking tea, folding my laundry, rechecking my email) but each day, even though it felt like a drag, I ended up on my mat and then my meditation cushion.
I do believe that this sort of slow down happens to everyone. It's pretty impossible to be "on" all the time and can actually be quite useful as a time for reflection to not quite "turn off" but at least turn down. Roll around on your mat (actually I was doing a lot of sensory awareness training also known as somatics), keep it low key and appreciate the times when I do feel the urge to do a badass practice with meticulous sequencing.
Being on the backside of last week, I feel grateful for making my way matward, even if only for a few moments. by doing so, I retained my sense of forward momentum and trust fully that inspiration will head my way before too long.

Yoga in Action: Compassion

I read recently that one of the marks of spiritual progress is an increasing sense of compassion toward other beings. I think it's absolutely true. As I become keenly aware of my own Self and inner light, I become increasingly sensitive to the fact that everyone has the same inner light and potential for living as their full Self.

MT bringing compassion to the table 24-7

Simply put, everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to suffer. But we do suffer, as it is the nature of life. Being alive means that inevitably we will have to experience pain. The intensity to which we experience suffering is based on our past karmas (actions) and samskaras (patterns), yet to some degree we all know what it is to suffer.

This is why it is so important to act with compassion. When I get angry with someone, or perceive some offense, I go out of my way to see things from that person's perspective. Maybe they're having a shitty day, maybe their cat died, maybe their relationship ended, etc. Maybe they are acting like an asshole because they are suffering. With this approach toward other beings, I am able to practice deep compassion, maybe even kindness when someone offends me or they act on some pain they are experiencing.

This guy is pretty solid at compassion.


How can you put this in action? Well, the next time someone offends you, take a second to step away from the situation and assess it objectively. Or the next time you notice someone else acting without compassion, notice how it makes you feel. What would you do differently?

The Ravi Ravindra translation of the Yoga Sutras offer this suggestion in chapter 1, verse 33

maitri-karuna-mudita-upeksanam sukha-duhkha-punya-apunya-visayanam bhavanatas-citta-prasadanam

A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality toward wrong-doers.

So there you have it, folks. Straight from the pen of Patanjail, we should practice compassion toward those who suffer. You can practice this on your cushion too. Here's a link to a step-by-step guide to a metta meditation, which can directly enhance your sense of compassion: Metta Meditation

As you can see, the metta style of meditation begins first and foremost with you, yourself. In order to compassionately view the world, you must first be able to treat yourself with the kindness you'd offer to others. You gotta love you first.

Expectations

We are disappointed. Often.
I think we can narrow the cause of our disappointment down to two things:

1. Things change. People die, money goes away, new loud neighbors move in. We don't like things to change, because we really like the way things are. Even if we're miserable, we'd rather maintain the status quo than have things change.

2. We have a lot of expectations for how we want things to turn out. And then, on top of our fantasy idea about the way things should be, we are attached to the outcomes we created in our minds. How silly is that?

Think of the last time that you had an expectation about something and it didn't turn out the way you had hoped or...expected.
Mine was today. I planned to take an amazing bike ride (my first of the season) 7 miles to teach yoga in 80 degree heat. I expected that it would be awesome, like a Coca-Cola commercial. Me all sexy and tan with a big smile and some awesome song in the background. Truth is, I got my ass handed to me. Which was just another way that things could turn out, and did turn out.

Think about the last time you didn't have expectations. What happened?

For me it was going to India. I had no idea what I should expect. I had some relative notions about possible experiences (lots of beggars, lots of trash, foreign language, big cities) but no clear fantasy projection about what I wanted to gain. I didn't know if my program would be any good, if Indians would be nice, if I would be afraid while I was there. And it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.

I wasn't afraid the whole time.

I'm not saying this is always the case, but setting yourself up for each and every situation with a grand expectation is a great way to disappoint yourself. Often.
Instead of constantly comparing the way things are to the way you would like things to be, can you instead appreciate things for what they are?


Here's a meditation to help with releasing your attachments and expectations.
Bring your awareness to the crown of your head. Rest attentively there keeping your body relaxed and your breath steady. With each breath, increase your point of awareness at the crown of the head and increase the vibrancy of that feeling. (2 minutes)
Now begin to draw your breath from the crown of your head through the middle of your brain to your heart center on an inhale. Exhale stay present in the heart center. Inhale back up from your heart center, through the middle of the brain to the crown of the head. Exhale up and out of the crown of the head. With each continuing breath, increase the awareness and vibrancy of the points at the crown center and the heart center. (3-4 minutes)
Now, maintaining that same pattern of breath, begin to draw in your goals and desires from the universe from the crown through the middle of your brain to your heart. Exhale let your desires rest in the heart. Inhale moving from the heart to the crown, drawing upward your expectations and any attachment you have to the outcome of your goals and desires. Exhale release them into the universe through the crown of your head. (3-4 minutes)

Try it out. But...try not to have any expectations around it. Let it unfold naturally and be open to the possibilities that it presents.

India Part 5 or Today I Met a Rishi

It's funny, when I'm at home and studying or talking philosophy with my students I am totally on board with the ideas of kundalini energy, siddhis (magical powers), the mysticism of tantra, and the idea that meditating in a cave for 15 years would lead to something important. But suddenly when I get to India and have the opportunity to meet a holy man (a real life holy man!) who is involved in all of those thing, I get all skeptical and wonder if he's messing with me.
Huh?

I met a rishi. He meditated in a holy cave for 15 years to raise his kundalini energy. Now he lives in the hills in Central Kerala in India and meditates except for when he's accepting visitors for whom he prophesies and answers pertinent questions they might have about their dharma. He was slight and short and had a giant (giant!) dreadlock which he wrapped around his head like a turban. His home was about 10 X 10 feet, completely full of murtis and photos of Shiva and Parvati, and filled with thick, pungent incense.

When we came in he greeted us warmly and we were invited to sit next to him. Our guide told him a couple of things about us and then he lit a stick of incense and began to meditate.
When he began to speak, he addressed Veronika first. He told her that she has a business mind, that she already has some power in her third eye and that if she starts her own business, it will take a couple of years, but she'll be very successful.
Veronika has been taking about opening up her own tea house for about 6 months now. No joke. What he told her was succinct and to the point. The whole thing took a couple of moments. Then he came to me.

He was told that I am a yoga teacher in the USA.
This is what the rishi told me:

What you are doing now is perfect. (as in, you have found your dharma, stay put) Continue to teach classes and teach your students philosophy and meditation. You were born with a philosophical mind. You are a very calm person and when you talk to people you have the ability to transmit that calm to them.

The rishi asked if I was married. I said no.
He meditated for a few more moments....I started to get nervous.
Next he said:

If you choose not to get married and practice brahmacarya you could be known to the world.
(admittedly this made me nervous, so I asked him if I could get married.)
Yes, you can get married, but if you want to have followers and become someone who is known, you should choose not to get married.

To increase your philosophical abilities, there are several practices that you can do.
In front of you, place two oil lamps or candles, a glass of water and some fruit. For fifteen minutes meditate on Om Namah Shivaya. Drink the water and eat the fruit.
Before you go to bed each night, hold a glass of water in your hands. Meditate on Om for five minutes, drink the water and go to sleep.

You can speak to your soul. Sit eight feet away from a mirror and make a point on the mirror between your eyebrows. Stare into that spot for fifteen to twenty minutes and you will soon be able to talk with your own soul.

Then the rishi asked if I owned my own business. I responded 'no' and he meditated a bit more. Then:

In a year you will have the opportunity to own your own small business in yoga. If you choose to do so, you can be successful.

We were then allowed to ask a few questions and were ushered out. We were allowed to take a photo.


And that is what happened when I met a rishi.....

India Part 4 or No Choice but the Present

You know how when you start practicing quieting your mind and suddenly you notice that you are very very rarely quieting your mind? You should maybe try moving to India.
The level of noise and stimulation necessitates an extreme level of attention to the present moment.

Thinking that I might sit and enjoying a few quiet moment on the bus the other day, I proceeded to soften my breath and begin to turn inward and !! honk! mere seconds (moments?) later I am awoken from my reverie. Joke's on me though. I can't be mad or annoyed about the noise. I was supposed to be meditating and quiet my mind, but it was a distraction that brought me back to the present.

The scene of the blog.


Thank you India for this humbling reminder. The present is now and I am fully here.

The More You Know

I am just coming off a 5 day intensive with ParaYoga teacher Rod Stryker.
See more about him here: Rod Stryker Bio

This was an in-depth study about the teachings of Tantra Yoga which is an incredibly ancient tradition based on the flow of energy in the body and how it can be manipulated to create "awakening" to the inherent beauty and bliss in the world. Another very popular system Anusara Yoga is based on Tantra as well, though there are so many schools of thought within Tantra that I wouldn't know for one iota if they're in the same school.
We spent 5 days doing asana (posture), pranayama (breathwork), kriya (cleansing techniques), mantra (chanting) and meditation with the express purpose of moving prana or life force throughout the body. Incredibly transformational stuff. I am currently overwhelmed with information and the urge to incorporate it all into my personal practice. If only there were more hours in the day....

When I look back to just a few months ago, before I started studying privately with Ben Vincent, before I did a weekend with Bhagavan Das, or when I look back to my newly teaching self 2 years ago, or my teacher trainer self in 2009 or even my "I am only doing this for fitness" yoga self from all the years prior to that, I am amazed by two things. The first is the incredibly vast amount of information available for anyone seeking a yogic path and the second is how exponentially my practice has grown in a short amount of time. And how each time I take a class, do a training or even talk to another yogi, the possibility for growth and understanding presents itself.
While I am pleased with progress, I constantly have the sense that the more I learn, the more questions open up and the more I don't know. At times this is truly disheartening, and other times, profoundly inspirational--that the path upon which I tread will never run out of potential for new techniques and new understanding.

That being said, I feel even further away from understanding my own role in this game of yoga. So many divergent paths all promising the same (or similar) outcomes, how is one to decide? Each time I learn a new method or explore a new path, I feel drawn to pick and choose the things that work for me and discard those that don't. Can I piece together the meditation and pranayama of Tantra with the sangha (community) of Anusara, the long holds of YinYoga, the brilliance of Theresa Murphy and Yinyasa, the alignment of Iyegnar, the dharma talks of Tias Little, the kirtan of Bhagavan Das and my own yearning to forge a new path all of my own?

It all remains to be seen, my friends.
I'll be in India starting next week for 5 weeks. I have every intention of sharing some while I'm away, but sankalpas (intentions) don't always align with actuality.

Perseverance

This is an apt title for someone who hasn't written on their blog in a month.

Well, I am happy to report that despite my lack of perseverance in composition, I've been steadily humming along in my daily practice. And this week for the first time, I am experiencing a profoundly deeper serenity in my meditation practice than ever before.
This process of "enjoying" my meditation has taken two and a half years of diligent daily practice. In addition, I have read countless books and studied with multiple teachers to come to this minute achievement.
The point here is not to toot my own horn about progress but rather to illustrate the need for seriously dedicated perseverance to the yogic path. My teacher Theresa Murphy used to always say that achievement in yoga asana will not come quickly or easily. And 8 years later, I recognize that she's absolutely correct. Things get easier and more accessible, but there are still days when I have trouble balancing in Tree pose or I don't feel like coming to my mat to practice.
Progress in a meditation has been even more laborious in my experience. We are hardwired through our humanness and societal conditioning to attach ourselves to our ego and cling to our thoughts or emotional states. When we can begin to break down these barriers by practicing, we can actually begin to experience the peace of mind about which the ancient yogis were writing.
Through regular (and I mean daily) practice, we begin to develop tapas or the "fire" or "heat" that eggs our practice onward. The more you show up, the more you get out of it and in turn the more you want to continue to show up. See a whole post on tapas here: Tapas
Usually when we experience difficulty and pain in our lives, we tend toward a "woe is me" sort of attitude. This is naturally human of course, but certainly not productive. When we can change our perspective to reflect the need for daily practice, then we always have somewhere to turn when the going gets rough. When shit hits the fan, you make your way to your mat or your cushion as you would on any other day and spend some time presently, persevering on the path.

Sangha

So, I am studying yogic philosophy with a local MPLS teacher--Ben Vincent. He's kind of amazingly smart and kind. Check his website out here: http://vincentyoga.com/

Our work together involves many approaches stemming from the studying and chanting of the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit. I'm here to tell you that it's not easy work. And for that matter, neither is the mantra practice, meditation practice or dharma work that I'm doing in conjunction. Not only is it difficult on the mind and body, but it stirs up all the emotional crap that I've been subconsciously storing for....oh, the past 30 years. Ouch.

So, as the work continues to, well, work, and my emotional health is feeling a bit low, I have finally figured out what I need. And that is of course a sangha. 
A sangha  is a community in which you practice. Ideally it would include people with whom you see eye to eye and who are doing similar work to you. In the current system of Western Yoga, this tends to take the form of a yoga studio. In Buddhism, it's your community of fellow meditation practitioners.

In Buddhist philosophy the sangha is one of "three jewels" or "three refuges" also including the teacher (Buddha) and the teachings (Dharma). In yoga these can be understood as the teacher (guru) and the teachings (shastra). Though I have a philosophy teacher, I've been lacking an asana teacher for some time now. Someone who I really connect with seems out of reach somehow, and in order to continue to grow as a teacher myself, I think it best to maintain a strong practice with someone.

Which brings me to my plan. I am going to attend a week's worth of classes at all the Minneapolis yoga studios that peak my interest. On my list are the Yoga Center of MPLS, One Yoga, The Om Collective, The Meditation Center, Devanadi Yoga and the St. Paul Yoga Center. And maybe, just maybe I will finally find the refuge that I've been craving. And maybe with the appropriate sangha connection, I will have a support system when the going gets rough on the meditation cushion.