I'll Meet You in the Middle

Extreme points of view are generally the ones that get the most press. And in our culture, there's a really strong tendency to shout our views from the rooftop. Or rather, from the comfort of our computer screens via social media. But the idea is the same--everyone MUST know how I feel, because it defines me as a person. I have to set myself APART from the other people. My views are very strongly NOT theirs. Sound familiar?

Now believe me, I am prone to very strong feelings. I side politically distinctly on one side. I have a lifetime of religious guilt built up, which inhibits me from magnanimous feelings toward organized religion. I have a particular way of eating that I think is the right way. I have a certain way in which I present myself to the world that I think is correct. I think that the way I do asana practice is THE way to do asana practice. You get the idea.

I share my own experience of strong opinions to illustrate that yoga doesn't just make opinions go away;  I am also quite human. I am prone to my own particular views. But, I also recognize what happens when we insist on setting ourselves apart from groups of humanity. Viewpoints of "my way is the only way" can be really damaging to the people who we"re separating ourselves from and also to ourselves. The "my god is the one and only god" argument comes to mind. Why should we insist on a singular path for everyone? Does anything else in life work as a one-size-fits-all set-up? 

The definition of yoga is union. The root word of yoga is yuj which means to yoke, as in to yoke an oxen to a cart. So, generally in western modernity, we understand this union to be that of yoking the body to the mind. Or the breath to the body. I like to entertain defining yoga as the yoking of my individual consciousness to the cosmic consciousness. Or the unity of we as a people in the search for something greater than ourselves. For happiness and contentment and universal love. 

Now, I'm nothing if not a practical yogi. I don't posit that yoga will lead to everlasting bliss or automatic happiness. But what I do believe is that through the exploration of ourselves, as we TRULY are, opinions and all, we begin to understand our true natures. And when you get right down to the truth of the matter, everyone, no matter their opinions, is looking to be happy, content and offered unconditional love. So, if we could align even in just that small unifying thread, is it possible that we could meet somewhere in the middle? 

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?

Awakening to spirituality

I was raised in a faith, 12 years of school in that faith, all the sacraments, all the Sundays at church. And I can see the benefit for my parents to follow this framework. It was what their parents did, it was how they were raised and it made sense to them to continue in the same way. Well, as commonly happens, around the time I was 16, I started to question the faith and why I had so many disagreements with their approach. I eventually denounced my faith, spent a lot of time pondering, experiencing agnosticism and at times even bordered on atheism. I was really turned off by organized religion and felt that I had to make it very clear, very loudly, that I was no longer a practicing member.

on a blanket in the sun? yes, please.

on a blanket in the sun? yes, please.

It took me nearly a decade to come to the realization that I can be a spiritual person without any religious affiliation. For so many years, I just couldn't separate the idea of divinity/spirituality from that of the rules and dogma present in most of the world's religions. It actually came as quite a relief to discover that I wanted to feel spiritually connected to something and to be able to recognize it as a joyous moment when it occurs. For my whole life, I've felt really deeply moved by classical music. But I didn't ever see it as a divine experience until I could create separation. The same is true of natural beauty. The joy that I experience in the quiet of nature is almost unsurpassed. I now feel a genuine, at times even physical pull toward this depth of feeling.

I was talking to my sweet little sister Laura this weekend and she asked me if yoga was a religion. I think this is a great question. And one that I'm surprised I don't hear more often. There are a lot of aspects of yoga practice that seem well, religious. Chanting at the beginning of class seems a lot like praying, mala beads seem a lot like a rosary, many studios have statues of the Buddha or Hindu deities, there is a whole body of philosophy that goes along with a physical discipline. And I can say from my own experience that it took me several years of asana practice alone before I was even remotely interested in the spirituality/philosophy piece. I think this is one of the brilliant things about a yoga practice—there is always the potential for more depth, more knowledge, more study. And not in a one-dimensional way, in so many ways—physically, mentally, emotionally and spirituality. But everyone must allow this to play out in their own time. I think we become ready to learn the deeper aspects when we're truly ready to be open to them.

A walk in the woods can deeply connect one to the divine.

A walk in the woods can deeply connect one to the divine.

So, what's the answer? Is yoga a religion?

Yoga is a science. 

The ancient yogis developed yoga practices as tools for enlightenment. Open up the energy channels in the body through asana and pranayama, create vibration and additional energy through chanting and devotional practices and then meditate in a cave in India for 15 years.

Tada! Enlightenment. 

While this level of devotion isn't super practical for most of us in the modern world, we can certainly benefit from these ancient practices in much the same way. Through our asana work, we cultivate sensitivity to our bodies and minds, we begin to tune-in, to awaken essentially. And on a spiritual level, when we are moved by beauty in the world, we can recognize it for what it is.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't had a spiritual experience, but many people are uninterested or unwilling to view it in those terms. I think that each time we are moved by beauty, joy, contentment, even sadness; these all have potential for spiritual awareness. Of course some experiences are more intense than others and one can certainly have feelings without it being a divine encounter. But when we feel really deeply about something, when we are really open to the experience of depth, the potential for spiritual connection is present. As with anything, it takes practice to see these experiences for what they are. But with a bit of effort and self-reflection, any one of us can find ourselves on a spiritual journey. 

Satya: Tell It Like it Is

As a way of introduction, allow me just say that I am currently in the dating pool and it has been a very, um, interesting experience thus far.

There are some challenging aspects to putting yourself out there: nerves about meeting new people, having awkward encounters with them, the potential for rejection. But the real difficulty for me in this experience has been consistent with just about every one of my potential suitors. People really don't like to tell it like it is. Especially guys who don't want to screw up the possibility of maybe some day getting into your pants (sorry mom!).

Moose, the cat, who tells me no lies.

Moose, the cat, who tells me no lies.

It's really difficult to be forthcoming with your feelings. This I know. We are all concerned with not hurting feelings and trying to let people down easy. It feels yucky to be rejected and our awareness of that feeling can keep us from presenting information clearly.

But. Wouldn't it be more kind if we were upfront with our feelings? In relationships with people, romantic or otherwise, we have to be able to trust their words in order to have open and honest interactions. We also create expectations for people around what they tell us. Whether for good or bad, we tend to choose our activities, think our thoughts, and live our lives around our interactions with others. When someone is unclear or untrue in their communication, it's quite challenging to know how best to proceed. It doesn't require brutal honesty or unkindness, but maybe just letting someone know that you'd rather be friends, or even that you really like them would make life easier in the long run. Plus, when we can tell the full story, it means that we no longer have to worry about it. It's often a load off of our chests to let someone know how we truly feel. 

My grandmother, who you may remember from previous posts, is a big proponent of The Four Agreements. One of the agreements is to "use your impeccable word." Impeccable. As in true, with integrity, honest, open. In the yogic tradition, the word for truth is satya and it's one of the yamas or the outer observances of practice. It's essentially the second rule of thumb for how to treat others.

Sutra 2.36 says

satya-pratistayam kriya-phala-asrayatvam
When one abides in truthfulness, actions result in their desired end

So, if we truly mean the words that we say, if they are actually our intentions, the likelihood of them coming true is high. Nicolai Bachman says it like this:

Satya also involves a high degree of responsibility and follow-through. If we give our word that we will do something, then it becomes our responsibility to finish it. Following through on commitments develops confidence in ourselves and others that we will do what we say. If we think one thing and say another, the energy becomes diffracted and much less potent. When all three energies are the same, they are focused like a laser beam and the intention is much more likely to come true. (The Yoga Sutras, pg. 108)
Non-harming through truth-telling. How sweet.

Non-harming through truth-telling. How sweet.

How would our lives be different if we were more careful with our words? If we could be honest and open and upfront about our intentions with other people? I understand that at times we feel that we're protecting them from pain or shielding them from the suffering that may result from the truth, but is that truly kind? Wouldn't we be practicing ahimsa, non-harming, in the fullest way possible if we told the whole story? Can we tell it like it is?

Yoga in Action: Loving You First

Perhaps it's self-imposed, but I commonly sense that other people think of my yoga practice, or yoga practice in general, as very selfish. And to a point, it sort of is. It's certainly self-involved; I would even argue that yoga is the study of the self, it takes up large chunks of time, and typically your practice isn't really a group thing. Sure, you go to class and see your friends and fellow practitioners, but ultimately you're there to dig into you. And then hopefully, you can take that work out into the world. (That seems to be a message in every single one of my posts, huh?)

In one of my favorite books on yoga, Awake in the World, author Michael Stone puts it this way:

Yoga reawakens ones connection with the whole body and mind and in so doing restores pathways of communication at an inner level that then begin to spread out into the interpersonal world as well. When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world. (p. 155)

And I wonder, how else are you going to get to know yourself? To really begin to understand the inner workings of the mind, you have to go deep. You gotta really go inward and get really quiet and listen, listen, listen, and do that again and again and again. And then you might, just maybe, possibly catch the tiniest glimpse into your true nature. Your capital S Self, if you will.

Okay, that's all well and good, but take caution. You come to know yourself through svadhyaya or self-study, but hopefully we can use that self-awareness to be part of the greater whole. We get into trouble when we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity.

Again, Michael Stone:

We are not in any way separate from anything else. Ocean cliffs get hammered by the wind, falling rain is eventually pulled back into cloud, and the ego is always traumatized by the flux of life. When we are stuck in the framework of a "me" and a "world out there" or a "me" in a body in a world, we alienate our "selves" from the world. Self apart from the world is a mere abstraction because we are not inherently separate from anything. (p.23)
Makin' myself the Number One love.

Makin' myself the Number One love.

Alright, so we've got a few things going on. Through the practice of yoga, we study ourselves and become aware of our habitual patterns of thought, our reactionary tendencies, and the intense hold of our ego on our own minds. Then, (probably many years later) once you are armed with your Self-knowledge, you can start to break down the barriers of the mind which see the self as separate from the rest of humanity. Everyone has the same (to borrow a term from sanskrit scholar Nicolai Bachman) inner light of awareness and ultimately we're all just trying to be happy. Or perhaps more importantly, we're trying to have santosha (contentment). 

Which brings me to my point, the reason I'm writing this post.

Only you can make you happy. When we rely on other people (spouses, children, boyfriends, friends) to create our happiness, we run into trouble. It might work for a bit. We can certainly feel joy and love in the presence of others, but to rely on that feeling, to need the presence of another person to feel it sets us up for future pain. Because then when things change, as they inevitably will (the world and all its creatures are in a constant state of flux) suffering results. 

When we can take refuge and root into ourselves, while we will evolve and change in time, we are present for that change. If you can be comfortable with all your quirks, if you can accept your humanity, if you can love you, you'll have the foundation for a life of contentment. Which is not to say that there won't be suffering, but when it occurs, you will be both your anchor and your guiding light to joy again.

Okay great! Let's do it, right? Well, how?

Like pretty much all the posts on this blog, it's easier said than done! If it was so easy to love ourselves, there wouldn't be nearly the heartache and pain and struggle that exists in the world. But I know it's possible! We have to practice acceptance. We have to be as kind to ourselves as we would to another being. We have to offer ourselves compassion for our failures and missteps. We have to acknowledge our shortcomings and try to be better. Put your lovin' kindness into you first. If you can be happy and content, you'll project that action out into the world.

What are some of your ideas? How do you practice self love?

Cultivating the Opposite

Last night, I had dinner with my Grams who's 91 years old. She is fortunate to still be completely sound of mind and fully capable mentally, spiritually and emotionally. She looks to many sources for her spiritual growth and guidance included the Catholic church (she's big on JC), Judge Judy and Deepak Chopra. She reads every book that she can get her hands on that centers around positive thought. She does the work for herself first. But she also wants you to do the work too. For yourself. Last night, the plan was to manifest me a husband through a writing exercise from a book called Write it Down, Make it Happen. For her, every opportunity for practicing positivity and impeccable speech (from The Four Agreements) is worthwhile for improving her life and the lives of those around her.

Gramma Jamma

Gramma Jamma

In our chat, we were discussing the inevitable "mind loop" that occurs when something bad happens. More specifically when someone does you wrong. We can't help but go over and over the same damn scenario in a million different ways to try and figure out what went wrong, what we could have done differently, what the other person should have done, what we would say to them if we saw them today, etc.

What we both recognize is that these thought processes are a waste of time. Maybe not at first while you're hashing out your feelings and gaining clarity into the full-scope of the situation. But eventually, once it becomes obsessive and we begin to grip and grasp it for all that it's got, it's time to change tactics.

The Yoga Sutras offers an absolutely precise and clear solution to the problem of the "mind loop."

2.33 vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
When difficult thoughts restrict us, we can cultivate opposite ones.

Okay. Easy enough, yeah?

Well....maybe not the easiest. I think this is a practice that you work your way up to. The first step to retraining the mind is to be aware

I try to remind my yoga students that the initial stages of yoga are really about creating body and mind awareness in a new way. We have to first create new neural pathways to see things and then see things as they truly are so that we can approach them with clarity and insight. In yoga asana you have to recognize the body's defects and differences from one side to the next and where you are stuck and where you are too open and how your body moves. In that way you can approach physical practice safely and for your specific bodily needs.

In meditation and matters of the mind, you first become aware of the frequent thought patterns that you're prone to, the mind loops that you tend to get in, and when and how often you find yourself thinking negatively. If you kept a tally throughout a single day of all the times you had a negative thought, how many would it be? 5 or 500? If you were aware of an excessive amount of negative thoughts, would you want to change it?

Armed with your new-found self-awareness, you can (hopefully) see the areas which need attention.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

just cultivating the opposite over here.

For me, it pretty much always comes back to the mind-junk. The mind loops of 'what if' and 'why didn't I' and 'how could I have' etc. My work is to cultivate the opposite. What did I do right? In what ways did I display integrity in the face of challenges? Was I able to act with kindness and compassion, even though I probably didn't want to?

When things don't go my way, my work is to first change my perspective and hopefully through that effort begin to plant new seeds (remember that work?) for positive thoughts.

And like anything else in life, the more often you practice, the more it becomes easily accessible. If you can cultivate the opposite one difficult thought at a time, eventually it will become a part of your routine.

Holding Yourself Accountable

In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges in our day-to-day lives is holding ourselves accountable. It's pretty easy to talk a big game about ways that we are going to improve ourselves, how we are going to be better, resolutions, etc. but in truth it's really really challenging to actually follow through. I don't think that anyone wants to over-eat, watch TV all night and not be physically fit, but it can be easier to let yourself off the hook than to actually do the work.

If you have made the decision to live yogically, you pretty much have no choice but to hold yourself accountable. A big part of the day-to-day work is the discipline that it takes to get yourself to your mat and cushion on the regs. The more often you can make it there and do the work, the more you will build tapas, one of the components of kriya yoga. Through practicing again and again, we build tapas which is an internal heat. Essentially you "stoke" the fire within which hopefully keeps you coming back to practice again and again. 

If you are not a regular practitioner of yoga, it is still important to hold yourself accountable for things that you say you are going to do. How many times a day or a week do we say we are going to do something and do exactly the opposite or a half-assed job? It's hard to put forth the effort that is required to achieve our goals and aspirations. There is no question about that in my mind. But the more often you plan to do something and don't actually take the steps to follow through on it, the more challenging it will be the next time for you to keep your promise to yourself.

You know darn well that you have to come back up.

You know darn well that you have to come back up.

And then, there is the issue of holding yourself accountable for things you promise to other people. Be it your spouse, your children, someone you just started dating, or your yoga students, it is absolutely integral to honoring your own inner light of awareness to actually do the things that you say. For instance, with your yoga students, are you expecting them to attend 3 to 4 classes a week but not practicing regularly yourself? Are you telling your children or your spouse that you're going to make more time for them and then filling in that timeslot with other less important life events? When we say one thing and do another, we set a precedent for others to follow our lead. By actually remaining true to our word, we are establishing a foundation in truth. This good example will hopefully lead to continued true behavior.

If you are reading this and you think that I am talking to you specifically, I am not. But it seems that way, right? It's because we all do this. We all make greater promises and than we can keep. So, how can we do better?

For one, I think we need to lessen our expectations of ourselves. Not that we need to dream smaller or aspire less, but we need to make more realistic goals that have actually achievable outcomes. We also need to not get down on ourselves for minor deviations from the path. Shit occasionally goes awry and it's our job to recognize when we've strayed and come back to the straight and narrow.

For another, we need to just follow through.  Most especially when it's challenging and we don't want to, that's the time that we need to put on the heat and make ourselves act. This way the next time will be much less difficult.

We also need to celebrate when we do accomplish what we set out to achieve. However small, if you plan an action and make it happen, it is worth your while to recognize your work.

See if you can begin on a small scale. Follow through on several small projects/ideas and take note of how it feels. And then build from there. Happy practice!

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 in Action: Always Integrity

Always integrity. Always self-respect.

One of my most challenging challenges over the past several years has been how to rectify being a spiritually minded yogi in the modern world. The modern world seems to be to be constantly throwing obstacles to practice at me. Traffic is a bitch. People are stressed out so tension is always running high. My smart phone is always around beckoning me to look at cat pictures.

Sometimes it feels like you can't catch a break. It's one asshole after another; honking their horn, cutting in line, saying hurtful things....

But damn if it doesn't supply some serious fodder for practice. Lately I have been especially challenged by personal interactions. It seems as though the universe has something to tell me, or some lesson to teach me. Dealing with people is hard. It is up to us to interpret the actions of others and respond appropriately. When we can approach this interpretation from a place of self-love, self-respect and total integrity, that's when we are practicing yoga off the mat.

Sometimes, we or the other person perceives something about our actions which we either didn't intend or they misinterpreted. This is common. Human interactions are constantly unclear or confusing and as a result, you have developed your own communication style to combat general weirdness.

It's hard not to take things that someone else says or actions that they perform personally. Yet, it's very rare that someone else is acting a certain way because of something that you did or said. Taking these things personally is a quick path to suffering. Most people are doing what they do out of personal experience and their own way that they've developed to deal with the world and other humans.

gabriellehopp_always-integrity.jpg

It would be so easy to go through life reacting instantaneously to everything that happens. Most people do this. Someone wrongs you, you wrong them back. Retribution and eye-for-an-eye are really common ways of approaching conflict.

But, what if instead, you were able to step slightly back from the situation and assess. How would responding in an unkind way aid the situation? Would you be acting yogically if you responded negatively?

The most difficult work of yoga happens off the mat. Getting on your mat and opening up your body is a joy. And even when it's hard it usually feels good. On the contrary, acting with integrity in the face of negativity is almost always hard.

To practice, here's what I propose:

When someone else wrongs you, apologize. When someone says unkind things to you, offer them compassion. Maybe you have to go home and sit on your meditation cushion and force yourself to bring that person into your heart and LOVE them. I mean it, love them! Offer them compassion. And act as the yoga sutras suggest.

Yoga Sutra 1.33 says:

maitrī karuṇā mudito ‘pekṣāṇāṁ sukha duḥkha puṇyā ‘puṇya viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta prasādanaṁ
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 towards wrong-doers. (Translated by Ravi Ravindra in The Wisdom of Patanjalis Yoga Sutras)

One of the main reasons that I practice is to cultivate peace of mind. And I truly find that the path of integrity and self-respect is the clearest route to serenity.

Yoga in Action: Repect for the Earth

gabriellehopp_turtle.jpg

Happy Earth Day!

Part of our practice as a modern yogis is practicing compassion and a mindful approach to living. This is a constant challenge in a world of fast-paced technology, instant gratification and the constant desire for bigger, better and more. It is a major challenge too, to offer the same practices to the earth as we would to say, another person.

At times, I feel like my mind belongs to someone else with the way it grasps at material things. I mean, really? After all this work of non-attachment and I still haul an entire u-haul around every time I move?

But, it's all just practice in the end. And in my opinion, yogis should be at the forefront of practice when it comes to respect for the earth. Treading lightly on this planet comes naturally to those who practice such deep respect for their own bodies and minds.

gabriellehopp_veggies.jpg

Here are some of the simple things that we can do to balance modern life with a yogic life:

  • Garden your own veggies.
    This is typically super simple and very rewarding, giving you the chance to nurture your future food as you would nurture your yoga practice. Also gives you the chance to be outside and connect with life. For an extra earth-friendly approach, collect rainwater to use on the garden, rather than relying on the hose.

  • Get an eco-friendly yoga mat.
    They are a little more expensive, but typically last longer. The eco yoga mat that I am currently using is from Yogasana. It's made of cotton and woven in India. They have great bright colors and a strong texture to help you connect to your hands and feet.

  • Buy secondhand yoga clothes.
    For those of you who know me, you know that I buy pretty much everything secondhand. I find SO many yoga clothes this way. Expensive brands that people have donated after just a couple of wears. 

  • Stop buying bottled drinks.
    Get a filter for your water. Make your own kombucha (I do this and it's super simple). Make a huge pot of ginger tea, bottle it and keep it in the fridge for when you crave a sweet drink.

  • Buy local/organic food.
    I know this one seems like a no-brainer. But it can be a hard leap to take when the expense is considered. Once you dive in, you'll never go back. Organic food is better for you and better for the earth. You can get a CSA box from a local farm on the cheap. Usually they are organic and have lots of interesting new things for to try. Also, it's just about farmer's market time for most places. This makes it easy to do local eggs and meat as well.

  • Turn off lights, use the heat/air conditioning within reason
    Duh, right? Not so. Our idea of comfort is way out of wack in my opinion. If it were up to me, we'd turn on the air-conditioning two weeks out of the year in July/August when it's unbearable.

  • Bike/walk/run/skip/scoot/ride the bus
    Cars are bad news. I drive a car. Often. But in a perfect world, I would not. I would walk and ride my bike. This is one for my own personal work.

  • Bring your own tupperware for leftovers
    As a server, I see so much waste go out the door in the form of to-go containers. This one is particularly easy. Just keep a couple in your car and grab em before you go in to eat.

Got any other ideas? Tell me what they are, and I'll include them!

  • Use a Mooncup/Gladrags for your moon cycle, ladies. 
    Thanks to my friend Lacey for reminding me about this one. Rather than create extra waste from tampons or pads, I use a Mooncup. It saves money, lasts for 10 years and isn't putting any harmful chemicals into my body. 

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: Your Inner Light of Awareness

Over the course of my recent study, I keep coming across a "buzz-phrase" that really pleases me. It is: your inner light of awareness. It refers to the you who you really are. At your core. Not your job or your life experience or how anyone else perceives you. It is simply and basically you. The you who you are now and have always been. Not who you strive to be, or who you have been.

It's beautiful, right? 

Your inner light of awareness.

like this, but on the inside!

like this, but on the inside!

Another way of thinking about this is as your dharma. My main sanskrit guy Nicholai Bachman defines dharma as "the underlying substance that does not fundamentally change but simply appears differently over time." (The Yoga Sutras Workbook, pg 56) In Indian culture, dharma is like the law or the fundamentals of the way things are. If you think of this in terms of yourself, your dharma is the fundamental structure of you that does not change.

I was pretty caught up in trying to understand dharma for awhile, because I was confusing it with dharmic purpose. This is a concept that my father hammered into our brains all throughout our childhoods/college/continuing today. Your dharmic purpose is the thing that you were put on this earth to do. The thing that you can provide to humankind that no one else can. Your dharma is more like your essence. It's what makes you, well, you!

For a couple of years recently, I was desperate to figure out what it was that I was put here to do. I thought it was something that if I meditated on it and thought about enough, that it would come to me in a big shocking epiphany!

I discussed it with my teachers, my friends and my partner. I thought about it in the car and on the cushion. I need answers, damnit!

I've given up the quest for a solid answer to the "what is my dharmic purpose" question. It's not that I don't want to know. I really really want to know. I still think about it a lot. It's just that I don't really think I need to know now.

 If I really needed to know now, wouldn't I know?

Over time, I have been able to loosen the hold that it has on me. Letting go of the thinking that "if I can just discover my dharmic purpose, then everything will fall into place!" My focus now is cultivating santosha (contentment) with what currently is.

Santosha with my very own inner light of awareness. To be content is something we could all strive for a little more. To be content with who we are, at our very essence.

Can you connect with your inner light of awareness? 

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.

Yoga in Action: Love in Your Heart

I am living with someone who has a very different life perspective than me. He's a super sweet guy—generous, friendly and interested. He also happened to end a very serious relationship recently. I thought he and I could commiserate in a similar way. Turns out it's not so easy.

Through my steady practice and work on the meditation cushion, I am able to see my breakup as something that happened. Not something that happened to me but as something that occurs when two people are no longer together. We had an amazing relationship. And I still love him because I loved him for 5 years, so why would that suddenly change?

Contrarily, this person is deeply full of hate. He feels extremely angry, bitter, resentful toward his ex-girlfriend and eager to move on. He goes on dates. He tries to make his ex jealous.

Now, I am aware enough to recognize that his actions are a result of suffering. A pretty typical human response to your own suffering is to try and make others suffer so that you'll feel better. The sanskrit word for suffering is dukkha. The pain and anguish of dukkha are the result of the first of the 5 kleshas (hindrances), avidya (ignorance). Suffering is caused by not having all of the information. By thinking that what you perceive as your reality is the reality.

There are many ways to combat the suffering that is the human experience. Practicing yoga allows you to understand your true nature. It brings to light that everything and everyone is interconnected. That suffering does not begin and end with you, and that when you feel deep painful emotions that there is a way out.

Through practicing yoga, we can begin to bring love into our hearts. Even if bad things have happened to us, even if we feel nothing but pain and sorrow, yoga offers us the possibility to lift dukkha and replace it gradually with sukkha (ease). That yoga offers us the possibility that we may move through the world on a foundation of love and ease is enough for me to get on my mat day after day.

Yoga in Action: Finding Joy in the Process

We are so "finished pose" oriented in this country. Nobody wants to be the schmuck who doesn't look like B.K.S. Iyengar in their one-handed handstand, right? It's pretty common to see an intense amount of strain from a student who just isn't ready to go deeper.
I always try to give a few options of steps along the way to a peak pose--something like, "your first option is to work pigeon pose, when you're ready, you can add pigeon with the thigh stretch and for those of you who are quite open in your shoulders, you might try eka pada raja kapotasana."

Inevitably these initial suggestions go unexplored. Everyone jumps directly into what they perceive to be the "final posture." They cram their legs and arms into extreme angles, forgetting entirely to breathe, or to be present or to find any joy in this process of yoga. And this is how injuries happen and this is how people come to the conclusion that they "aren't good at yoga." 

The process of joy in this one took some work.
When I went to India to study with the Mohan's (see a post on that here) I was struggling between an orientation that was largely based in asana (posture) and one that was more interested in the movement of prana (life force/energy). I had just come off a week-long tantra intensive that was very um, intense in the pranic realm. I had ruffled my accrued lifetime of yucky stuff (karma) and wasn't really sure of how to best proceed.

The man himself, Krishnamacharya
The Mohan's are like the most pragmatic yogis that you've ever met. They teach Yoga Therapy as developed by Krishnamacharya. You know that guy? The one who taught all the modern day masters?

Ganesh, the son of the Mohan's, is trained as a medical doctor and an ayurvedic doctor. So yeah, he's pretty into wellness. And he happens to be one of the best teachers I've ever had. This is why--he's incredibly thorough and every single thing that he instructs is based on breath. The reason that you would go to a yoga therapist and not a physical therapist is because yoga connects to the breath and it creates an energy (prana) in the body that you don't get from doing exercises alone.
Breathe! Be present! Find joy in the process!

That's the rub, people. The reason that yoga works isn't because people with flexible hamstrings have more fun (bumper sticker?). It's because yogis who practice regularly just automatically start to slow down and experience more of life. When you base your practice on your natural cycle of breath, and you really really pay attention, you can't help but be more aware. And when you become more aware, it's easier to realize to all of the beautiful things that exist in a day, or in a moment!
And in my experience it becomes easier to appreciate small things at first and then larger things like being alive, and having friends and family and the fascinating world.

The process of yoga is a process of tracking down joy--true inner joy that can only come from you. The next time you're in class and your teacher gives you options, maybe try the first, fully connected to your breath and fully connected to a sense of joy before moving on to step two.

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.