The Urban Yoga Den

…where it's all yoga.

Karma & The Big Blue Moon August 31, 2012

I’m not sure how I’m going to flow with this today.  I just know that today and tomorrow are my last days teaching upon this month’s “Karma & Karma Yoga” focus, it’s a Blue Moon, and I need to write the Monthly Class Focus blog.

During August I did three things consistently: I practiced Crow Pose aka Bakasana; I studied the “Karma: Causality” chapter from Michael Stone’s “Yoga for a World out of Balance;” and I witnessed how my actions cause certain outcomes.

*  *  *

The Bakasana practice I took on as a literal exploration of karma’s rule of cause and effect.  For example: I practice certain mechanics, alignment and strengthening over a period of time (cause) in order to improve my Crow Pose (effect).  Sometimes I need very tangible manifestations of ideology in order to truly embody those ideas.  And the Bakasana workshopping definitely brought it home.

On my own, I am not a consistent “student” who studies/practices in order to build knowledge and expertise.  I can be (i.e. preparing for a job) and I have been (i.e. completing Yoga Teacher Training).  But I need specific motivation.  For instance, if I get asked to play percussion on a tour or if I am nearing my summer camp percussion teaching stint, I practice and rehearse and fine-tune.  I am lucky like this.  Very lucky.  I typically don’t have to practice daily in order to perform well.

The question is: Are my skills improving; is my talent developing; am I learning anything new?

I have been popping into Crow Pose for years.  Most arm-strength poses come easily for me.  But this year, my Crow Pose started to feel very heavy – and it looked heavy, compared to photos of my peers and master teachers.  So for the month of August, as a way to dig into physical karma, I practiced Crow.  I asked instructors for suggestions (they generously gave them!) and I took those recommendations to heart.  I practiced daily, and, I taught these same tips to my classes.

The outcome?  My Crow is starting to fly.

*  *  *

“Karma…is a tool designed to help us see the intimate nature of all relationship.  How I talk with you affects the quality of our communication, affecting how I feel, how you feel, and how others who come into contact with us feel about our contact in that moment.  Karma is not some kind of spiritual air-mile system with merit and demerit added by some divine teller.  Rather, karma points out the importance of purifying our actions of body, speech, and mind, so that the way we live our life benefits all with whom we are in relationship.” – Michael Stone

I want this.  I want to live my life in this way.  I want to feed into beneficial intimate relationships in this world.  And Yoga and Buddhism teacher Michael Stone lays out the “how-to” simply and clearly – purify my actions of body, speech and mind.

Some yogis and teachers might argue that the act of serving others comes first, and is the gateway to my own healing and purification.  And I might agree that this works for me, sometimes.  Yet, more often than not, what really works for me?  Starting each day with a strong yoga practice – including Asana, Pranayama, meditation, chanting and praying for others (Ah!  There it is!) – which unfailingly removes disturbances from my mind, and prepares my heart, my soul and my entire being to treat others well.

Morning Sadhana (routine) is like taking out insurance for a good day.  And note – I did not say a “great” day.  A good day – where I enhance my well-being, where I wish well for others, where I take responsibility for my actions, where I am honest, and where I aim to sustain my own peace and therefore support the peacefulness of others – is sufficient for this yogini!

Also, taking yoga’s 1st limb – the five Yama – seriously and aiming to practice those principles in all my affairs undoubtedly sets a tone for positive, healthy actions.  The 1st limb recommends five actions that we might cease in order to live more constructively.  Michael Stone describes them simply as: “nonharming, honesty, nonstealing, wise use of energy, and nonacquisitiveness.”

I am infinitely grateful for teachers who 1st brought yoga’s Eight Limbs to my attention way back when, and who continue to prioritize them in their teachings.  Focusing 1st on letting go of unhealthy actions before processing through the remaining seven limbs has definitely liberated me from unhealthy patterns which harmed both others and me, making room for both a yoga practice and a life which encourages positive action.

That brings to mind the theme of Abundance, and today’s Blue Moon.  A Blue Moon is not blue in color at all; it simply signifies a 2nd Full Moon within one month’s time.

Focusing on what I have also adjusts my brain toward an attitude of gratitude.  This exercise, much in the spirit of Pratipaksha Bhavana (replacing negative with positive thoughts), erases my very valid fears about what I don’t have.  I say “very valid” because there are times that I wonder where my rent, food and living money will come from, because I have been without full-time work for quite some time; there are times that I imagine myself dying alone in a gutter, because my past mistakes have left me without savings for a secure aging process and without family to take care of me; and there are times that I yearn for a loving life partnership, but due to being a late bloomer in the relationship world, worry it might never happen.

So how do I replace these fears with a positive attitude, insuring that I then treat others well throughout my day and my life?  By making a Gratitude List.

My Facebook status before bed last night read: “On past Full Moons, I might have meditated on Manifesting Abundance, or something similarly demanding.  Tonight, as the waxing rare ‘blue’ sphere floats overhead and invites me to ‘do what’s seldom done,’ I will instead meditate on Recognizing Abundance, and then dream overnight of all that I have.  Big fat Gratitude List in the works…  Good night, y’all.”

*  *  *

I watched myself this month.  I witnessed as those fearful thoughts took over at times.  I observed how wallowing in that self-pity negatively affected my behaviors with those around me.

But I also want to give myself some credit.  More often than not, I caught myself – I used my yoga and other tools and stopped the negativity dead in its tracks.  I took things at face value.  I reminded myself, “This too shall pass.”  I focused intently on, embraced warmly and inhaled deeply the positive sides of my worries and woes.  I found that a lot of the time, my negative stories were bigger than they needed to be, or just plain made up!

And guess what else…when I was in a positive mind (cause), I treated others quite well (effect).

C’mon, I should know by now – I’ve survived through and thrived after many years of pretty tough realities in life.  There is always – ALWAYS – a light at the end of the tunnel.  I might have to wait for it!  Still, one thing’s for certain: if I choose to live in, exude and spread positive vibes (cause), there will be more positive energy in the world (effect).  And it’s likely to make its way back to me at some point.  And I can continue to share that healthy mind, heart and soul with all.

And that feels like a cycle of good karma to me.  OM Shanti Shanti Shanti.

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February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali February 9, 2011

At Yogaville, where all dorm rooms have a copy (or two) of Satchidananda's commentary on The Yoga Sutras.

From the title of this blog, one might think:

  • “Wow, Holly’s really going for it this time.”
  • “She’s taking on the ancient text of Yoga (with a capital “Y”)!”
  • “How in the world will we cover four books of aphorisms in one month?”
  • “Who does Holly think she is, teaching the Sutras?”

Hahahahaha!  Believe me, gang, I know better.

For February, our monthly focus is, indeed, the Yoga Sutras. Because without the Yoga Sutras, I wouldn’t be teaching yoga classes.  I wouldn’t have known how to guide you through the basics of Asana, Pranayama, Yoga Nidra and Sankalpa that we reviewed in January.  Heck, I wouldn’t even know what those things were without the Yoga Sutras.  In my estimate, without the Yoga Sutras, none of us would be enjoying yoga as we do today.

Then again, who knows?

I’m open to other POVs.  But I can only teach from mine!  I will admit (because my M.O. is “nothing to hide”) that my knowledge of the Sutras focuses on the practical portions we studied at my Integral Yoga Hatha Teacher Training in 2008.  Like any other studied text, there are parts of the Sutras that are ingrained in my brain – and I quote them the way some people quote one-liners from movies.

Specifically, five Sutras rocked my world when I first learned about them; and they continue to serve as essential tools for living yoga on and off the mat. This is our February focus.

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vritti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced this at the end of a luscious Asana and Pranayama class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  What I love most about this promise is – I don’t have to do it.  I don’t have to force my mind to be undisturbed; I don’t have to change uncomfortable thoughts; I don’t have to force positivity to replace negativity; I don’t have to effort anything.  Yoga will take care of all of this.  I do the footwork (practice yoga); and the rest will fall into place.

So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: through yoga, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana class to restrain disturbances of my mind.  If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy.  Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity.  I’ve told this story before; here it is again.  My dearly departed Uncle Bill (revered in my April 2010 “Oh Death” post) was the king of replacing negative with positive.  I remember one conversation in particular.  I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams.  I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while.  As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee accent and gentle churchgoer’s faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials.  Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!”  And you know what?  Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my smallest intentions and greater dreams have been realized!

Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!  Wondering where/when you can use this tool?  Read on.

3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS

To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One.  Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous.  To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.”  In his commentary on Patanjali’s Sutras, Swami Satchidananda advises: “These four keys should always be with you in your pocket.  If you use the right key with the right person you will retain your peace.  Nothing in the world can upset you then.”  Another lovely promise.

Life has offered me unique opportunities to test this Sutra.  To read my personal experience about using compassionate detachment to understand and find peace with the violence of murder, please see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post.

Yoga can offer relief beyond belief.  It has helped through horrible situations happening around me – as well as situations that I make horrible for myself.

4 – AHHH-SOME

I’ll admit it.  Sometimes I try too hard.  I overload my schedule; I forget to relax.  I feel disappointed that I haven’t mended every past mistake; I forget to forgive myself.  I give and give; I burn out.  And so on.  Mentors often suggest practicing Sutra 2.46 symbolically, as a remedy for this. “Sthira Sukham Asanam.” “Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”  Here in Book Two, Patanjali discusses the practicality of yoga, reminding us that our poses are a blend of effort and ease.  Holding and resting.  Flowing and pausing.  We find ourselves physically expressing yoga poses with this fusion of steadiness and comfort.  Ahhh…just like a nice, balanced, healthy, sustainable life.

The previous Sutras offer immense assurance.  If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results.  When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.

And then comes…

5 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES

Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world.  “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.”  By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering!  Yea!  Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies (steady AND comfortable), we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing the Sutras’ ideological guidance (“Yogas Cittas Vrittis Nrodhah”).

None of this means that we can avoid bad or intense experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But by embracing the above promises and tools, we can avoid misery and suffering – and above all, sustain an undisturbed mind – while going through any of life’s difficulties or sorrows, celebrations and joys.

Wishing you peace, joy, love and light.  OM Shanti.

Resources that influence my POV on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda.
  • Raja – Yoga; by Swami Vivekananda.
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace; by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D.
  • “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010; with contributions from Michael Stone, Mukunda Stiles, Deborah Adele, Dr. M.A. Jayashree and more.
  • “Love in Full Bloom” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Frank Jude Boccio.
  • “Journey to the Light” from Yoga Journal, May 2010; by Kate Holcombe.

(I first wrote about these “promises” and tools last March and April, when our class focus was “Transition and Balance.”  That original, shorter post lives on the Tips-n-Tools tab of this blog.)