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Peace Tools: Raja Yoga August 14, 2012

(Note: Much of this is adapted from my May 2010 post on “Transition & Balance.”)

According to my teachers, the ancients invented Hatha Yoga so people could sit longer during a specific task.

Back then, yogis were sages who were meditating toward the highest state of harmony, otherwise known as Samadhi.  In his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Hatha founder Swami Satchidananda describes physical yoga as a process created for practitioners to eliminate physical distractions such as body aches and digestive imbalances through Asana (poses); enhance detoxification and energize the body using Pranayama (breathing exercises); reach Pratyahara (softening of the senses) as a result; then, settle comfortably into long periods of contemplation via Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation).  These are just five of yoga’s Eight Limbs – an eight-step system for reaching Samadhi – which are thoroughly explored within Patanjali’s ancient Sutras.  The Yama andNiyama (ethical considerations) comprise the 1st two limbs; and Samadhi is the 8th limb.

Today, yogis are regular-old-people who are sitting through work days, concentrating on family affairs, digesting world crises and seeking peace in daily challenges.  Our contemporary version of reaching Samadhi might be fulfilling our highest intentions for living mindfully on any given day.  Personally, the Eight Limbs have taught me tools for addressing all of this and more.  Their physical and ideological recommendations have been the greatest gift of my life.  Thus far.

Contemporary commentary on the Sutras has become progressive and expansive, enhancing what used to be mere physical exercise for many modern yogis.  Thankfully, there are more and more writings on Raja Yoga – the philosophy and ethics behind yoga’s “spiritual” side, or values-based practices.

When I say “spiritual,” I generally mean ethical, mindful and service-oriented; to me, a spiritual life maintains these qualities.  To achieve this intention for a values-based life, I focus on the tangible benefits of Hatha Yoga; and, I also contemplate the “spiritual” foundations for cultivating emotional and psychological balance within myself in order to share it with the world.

In my understanding, Patanjali’s Sutras are recognized as the most comprehensive treatment of Raja Yoga.  I have been most influenced by the following explorations of the Sutras:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda (www.YogaHealthBooks.com)
  • Raja Yoga – by Swami Vivekananda (www.YogaHealthBooks.com)
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace – by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (www.HimalayanInstitute.org)
  • Yoga Journal, May 2010 Issue – “Love In Full Bloom” by Frank Jude Boccio; “Journey to the Light” by Kate Holcombe (www.YogaJournal.com)
  • Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010 Issue – “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” section with multiple authors (www.IYMagazine.org)
  • And numerous teachers’ blogs.

In my personal Raja Yoga studies, I turn to four favorite Sutras for nurturing balance in the midst of life’s twists and turns.  I think of them as Peace Tools.

*  *  *

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced a bit of this at the end of a luscious yoga class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: using yoga as described in the Sutras, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.  We don’t have to force our mind into restraint – YOGA does it for us.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana practice 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.  My Uncle Bill 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 twang and churchgoers’ 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 dreams and intentions have been realized!  Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!

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.”  To properly discuss this Sutra would take many blog entries.  I refer you to the Yoga Journal articles and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait book cited above for my inspirations to have mercy toward unhappy mindsets (i.e. being compassionate with myself when feeling low) and to compassionately detach from non-virtuous acts (i.e. the violence of murder – see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post).

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…

4 – 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, we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing Raja Yoga’s ideas.  This doesn’t mean that we can avoid bad experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But we can decrease and abbreviate misery and suffering while going through any difficulties by utilizing yoga’s resources.

*  *  *

For me, the most beautiful thing about these promises and suggestions is that, at any time of the day or night, no matter what is happening, I can reach into my Peace Toolbox to deepen my practice, my inner peace and my connections among others.

I don’t ever want to take this for granted.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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Gratitude, Pt. 1: Contentment, or, Samtosha November 8, 2011

I’ve gained 10 pounds over the past 3 months.

There are some very tangible reasons why.  My summer camp gig – during which, over a period of six weeks, I teach 90 Asana classes and 120 percussion lessons, and, run up and down the school’s stairs 100s of times – ended the first week in August.  The last week in August I gave up teaching three of my regular weekly classes – and although I don’t practice all the Asana during class, I do join in for the warm-up Sun Salutations and many of the poses.  And in September, I quit my part-time Florist job – for which I lifted dozens of buckets of water, chopped box after box of flower bunches, and climbed various steps with said buckets and flowers in-tow.  So my level of vigorous activity decreased immensely for most of September and all of October.

“Why,” you might ask, “didn’t you simply switch out your activities…attend more yoga classes…jog…take up fencing?”

Because there are less tangible but more important reasons why I gained 10 pounds.  I was busy getting comfortable with my Self.  Yup.  I was so busy climbing my way out of a major depression, re-gaining my emotional footing, digging deep to rebuild my inner strength and flying high with new truths, that I forgot to exercise my body.  And you know what?  I am OK with this.

In yoga, this might be called “Samtosha,” or, contentment.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali offer a design for living called the Eight Limbs.  According to this ancient text, the primary purpose of yoga is to still the mind’s disturbances.  So the eight-step process calms the mind and leads to discriminative discernment, wisdom, and/or, enlightenment.  The process includes the Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and other popular practices from contemporary yoga classes.  But the initial two limbs, seldom taught in our studios and gyms, present ethical or ideological considerations called Yama (Abstinence) and Niyama (Observance).

In his commentary on the Sutras, Swami Satchidananda says, “[The Yama and Niyama] are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting.”  To me this means that virtue comes before Asana, before Pranayama – before any of the widely familiar practices that I might know as “Yoga.”  It’s an inside job.  Or as my friend likes to tell her students, “Yoga is not a workout – it’s a work in.”

Samtosha/contentment is one of the Niyama.  If I am content, “It is what it is” becomes my mantra.  If I am content, I accept everything just as it is.  If I am content, I have no expectations.  If I am content, dissatisfaction, disappointment and discomfort fade to the background.  If I am content, I am certainly moving toward that inner peace promised in the eight limb.

Further, Swami Satchidananda claims, “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”  And Swami Vivekananda’s promises, “From contentment comes superlative happiness.”  So why beat myself up over 10 extra pounds?  It is what it is.  I’d rather feel supreme joy and superlative happiness than extreme self loathing.  My jeans feel too tight, my muffin-top runneth over, and, yoga classes are kicking my butt.  It’s humbling.  But it’s right where I want to be.  Because it’s the only place I can be.  Accepting the here and now.  Here.  And.  Now.

Y’know what else helps me accept where I am at this moment?  Remembering that I’ve gained much more than 10 pounds over the past three months.  I am grateful for every moment of that journey – from the darkness of despair to the celebration when light returned.  I’ve discovered and embraced new ideals that define me.  I’ve strengthened my purpose and priorities.  I’ve found deep faith and liberating surrender.  I’ve encircled myself with teachers of all guises.  I’ve rebuilt trust.  I’ve come to understand that the darkness itself can hold shining gems of enlightenment.

So basically…I gave up my 125-pound body for a weightless peace of mind.

Yoga teacher Max Strom recently wrote, “When gratitude fills the dark heart with love and humility, the heart becomes illuminated.”  He continues, reminding us to practice focusing on something that will inevitably bring a feeling of gratitude, “…to transform your state from a living hell, to a state of living contentment.”

Hell yeah.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

The Happy Heart Project: The Halfway Mark October 20, 2011

“Hey, I’m trying to hard to see the light, to see the light – to see it burn thru.”  – Abigail Washburn

When it comes to maintaining and manifesting an intention over 100 days – and that intention is to overcome a nagging internal darkness and move deliberately toward joy – it is imperative to know which tools, resources, practices and people support that intention.

So here I am, halfway into a project I started on a whim (for background, please see final note, bottom of page), and I am clearly learning what works – and what doesn’t work.

Back in August, when I started this daily ritual, joy felt elusive.  The origin of that challenge was a string of unfortunate, traumatic and painful experiences beginning in June 2010.  So the “Project” actually represented much more than a flippant whim.  It became a “Sankalpa” (deep intention, commitment, resolution) that would hopefully free my mind – and life – from the grip of PTSD, depression, anger and resentment.

And a shift is happening.  Of course, there are days when fear, negativity and doubt emerge.  Normal stuff.  At the same time, I have to be careful to not let those days stretch into a mindset.  So I reinforce my Sankalpa.

*  *  *

Move.  Toward.  Joy.

MOVE does not happen in the mind.  MOVE denotes a deliberate effort.  MOVE is an action word.

In yoga, when I think of action, I consider how I can take my practice off the mat and into everyday life.  To me, “practice” is a synonym for “action.”  Ashtanga Yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Practice yoga, and all is coming.”  A simple metaphor – when we take action, things happen.  Aphorism I.14 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when efforts are made over a long period of time, constantly, and with great love (or devotion, earnestness, zeal).”

So again I mention the importance of tried-and-true tools, resources, practices and people to support my 100-day Sankalpa ritual.  They have encouraged my efforts, motivated my practice and strengthened my devotion.  Other influences, however, have been downright derailing at times.

What works and/or doesn’t work as I aim to maintain and manifest my intention to move toward joy:

WORKS: Being honest.  With myself and others.   This, by far, has been rule #1 for me.  THE best elixir for battling the stinking thinking.  Not convincing myself that everything is OK when it is not.  Not writing a bunch of “happy” lies in this blog.  Sharing my process with my circles, communities, co-humans.  Being honest about everything – feelings, ideas, plans.  Saying when I feel scared.  Saying when I feel confident.  “Sticking a pin in it” when my balloon of negativity, doubt and fear gets too inflated.  Getting it out.  Sometimes constructively, sometimes like a vent.

WORKS: Being listened to – being heard.  This means choosing the listeners carefully.  To truly be heard, I want to talk to those who have the patience, compassion and love to listen to everything I need to share.  People who care to know my insides.  People who care for my well-being, who have my best interest in mind.  People who do not immediately launch into fixing the problem.  I know this about myself: I need to let it all out – my stories, my theories, my feelings, my problems, my solutions.  Once I’m empty, I become spacious, calm and able to listen to feedback.

WORKS: Listening to, considering and/or heeding well-informed suggestions from people who know me well, who’ve stuck by my side through thick and thin, with whom I connect regularly, who are mental health professionals and/or who are trusted teachers whose experience I trust.  Listening to others’ stories.  Being as open-minded and willing as possible – yet still discerning, keeping my peace, purpose and sustainability in mind.  This is explored further in #1-4 below.

WORKS: Listening to and truly hearing loved ones’ and trusted beings’ encouragement and positive opinions.

WORKS: Staying close to those loved ones and trusted beings.

DOESN’T WORK: Trying to do this alone.

DOESN’T WORK:  Tolerating bossy, know-it-all recommendations (thinly disguised as concerned advice) from people who don’t know me very well (or who mistakenly think they do know me very well because maybe they used to know me a long time ago, or maybe they’ve read my writing or have heard me speak, or for whatever reason, they believe that we are alike), who have shown that they don’t care to know me authentically, whom I have not seen in a very long time, who intrusively beeline over to me because they’ve “heard what I’m going through,” who give medical advice without medical credentials and/or whom I absolutely do not trust.  And do you know what else doesn’t work?  Allowing these people to get under my skin; allowing myself to feel judged by these people; allowing myself to cop a resentment.  Indeed, at times, my vulnerable mind lets this happen!  What works then?  Taking a pause, replacing the false thoughts with a positive belief, and then understanding that these people are coming from a place of fear and/or a need to control.  I can have compassion for them, nod politely…and move on.  Or, avoid them altogether.  Or, be direct and say, “Thank you for your concern; I have a great team of supporters whose advice I am following.  So at this time, I want to stay on track and not add other suggestions. ”  Smile.  Walk away.  Bam.

Phew, that was a sassy little rant!  Sometimes I create my own frustration by being so open and honest about my process.  But, I’d rather have the opportunity to discern between appropriate/useful advice and inappropriate/fear-based advice than not get any advice at all!

*  *  *

In addition to clarity about support and action, I’ve also started to feel very clear about the process of cultivating positive change.  Thankfully, I’ve learned so much of this from the infinite influences I’ve said “yes” to over the years.  Here are the steps I’ve taken this time around:

1 – Let go of what doesn’t serve.  I’ve heard it a-thousand times, and it really is the best starting place for me.  This past summer, after what seemed like a year-long endurance test of trials and tribulations, I started letting go of anything that doesn’t represent deep peace, true purpose and long-term sustainability for me.  Jobs, relationships, belongings.  I took risks.  In the case of jobs and relationships, if I couldn’t leave immediately, I began to cultivate an exit strategy.  One by one, I started saying good-bye.  I will be honest – financially, it is beyond stressful.  But I really needed to let go and be liberated.

2 – Take time in the spaciousness created by letting go.  I learned to not fill the space YET.  To grieve the losses.  To feel uncomfortable.  To admit and accept my mistakes.  To witness my doubts, dreams, stories – positive and negative, real and imagined.

3 – Reflect on what brings deep peace, explore what constitutes true purpose and envision what looks sustainable in the long-term.  I have exposed myself to influences I might not normally consider.  I’ve read-up on the Occupy Wall Street efforts; I’ve started taking a high-power Jivamukti class; I’ve listened to Pema Chodron CDs (I love Pema, but am not typically a fan of audio learning).  And I have indulged in activities I absolutely love – that nourish me and bring instant joy.  I have seen live concerts, bought new CDs (please see the bottom of this blog to check out the video for the above-quoted Abigail Washburn song), listened to comedy, practiced yoga outdoors, watched baseball games, enjoyed inspiring films, participated in the Jewish High Holy Days.  I have let ideas and passions brew.

4 – Define peace, purpose and sustainability.  During the peak of Occupy Wall Street and the Jewish High Holy Days, I was struck with the strongest sense of self I’ve experienced in a long time.  It seems like a combination of the results of numbers 1-3 above, the pressure of calls to action in the media, and, the intensity of moral inventory, atonement and forgiveness sparked an energy of self-definition for me.  From Facebook, other media and other sources, I gleaned quotes that called to my soul, compiled them in a journal, and started aiming to live them, day in and day out.  They include: “Occupy within: a movement in awakening;” “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more deeply in your heart;” “The unexamined life is not worth living;” and, “Do I feel happy?  No.  But I feel progress.”

5 – Take action – fill the space.  A few days ago, a yoga teacher friend exclaimed, “How’s your new life?”  She’s referring to the many changes I’ve made since the summer, when I started this process.  I reflected silently for a moment.  “It’s very empty…” and just then, a light bulb clicked on in my mind.  “It’s time to fill it,” I answered, with resolve.

This is coming up for me now that I clearly understand what works and what doesn’t to practice my Sankalpa with consistency and zeal.  With that support, I can tackle some next steps, which include: seek a  job that fulfills my true needs and allows me to continue teaching yoga; seek new yoga teaching opportunities; continue deepening my PTSD sessions and exploration; conduct a fearless self-inventory that not only identifies how I was harmed over the past year, but that also identifies what my part, mistake and/or contribution may have been to those troubles; practice forgiveness of myself and others; commit to other practices that direct me toward joy.  Thank goodness, there are many!

Let’s see what happens over the next 50 days…taking it one day at a time, of course.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love – and a light that burns thru.  OM Shanti.

(Here is the lovely song containing the opening quote of this blog.  Enjoy!)

*  *  *

THE HAPPY HEART PROJECT.  Under the new moon of Sunday, August 28, 2011 I launched “The Happy Heart Project: 100 Days Toward Joy” – an effort to document my daily journey away from an annoyingly encroaching emotional darkness and toward the hopeful light of happiness.  For 100 days from 8/28 through 12/5, I will wake up, burn a stick of Happy Heart incense and set an intention to grow toward joy.  Each day I’ll post a “Happy Heart Project” status (and accompanying song for that day’s mood) on Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, then see what happens during the day.  Periodically, I’ll post an UrbanYogaDen.wordpress.com blog that covers my journey.  I’m excited that one yoga teacher friend unexpectedly exclaimed, “I’m with you!” and is sharing the journey!  Join us – choose one simple heartfelt ritual for your morning, intend to practice it daily, “Like” Urban Yoga Den on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing from time to time!

 

The Yoga of Being Mugged June 29, 2011

Last weekend I was mugged.

Taking yoga off the mat and into the world means forgiving my mugger. (Photo: Larkin Goff)

Sorry to alarm you.  Rest assured, I am fine – with the exception of some anxiety around the ‘hood, a maxed-out adrenal system from the stress, a sore shoulder from wrestling with the mugger, a cut and bruised finger (see photo of fingers) from my purse being yanked out of my hand, and very sore hamstrings from chasing down my mugger barefoot on pavement (see photo of broken sandals).  Help in many forms arrived quickly.  Although we did not catch my mugger, we recovered my purse and all of its contents, except the cash and some chocolate.  The situation made for a late night, yet I was able to wake up early the next morning, enjoy teaching meditation and yoga classes, and spend time with yoga friends.

Lots to be grateful for.

A few things strike me about the situation: my reaction of fighting back; my impulse to ask (and scream and yell) for help; and my ability to completely forgive my mugger and wish him well.  With a smile.  A giggle, even.

Here’s how it went down…

At about 11pm Saturday night, I returned to D.C. from a week in Tennessee.  Shortly after midnight, I left my apartment building to take a gift of local Nashville artisan chocolate (58% dark) to a friend.  I was carrying the gift bag and a small canvas purse in my hand.  Less than 1/2 block from my doorway, two chubby, sweet-faced black youths approached.  One lunged at me and grabbed my purse.  After a struggle, he ran off with it.

His friend kept strolling slowly along.

I kicked off my sandals and took off after the thief.  As I passed the friend, I punched him HARD in the arm and vented “F*** YOU.” 

I think I heard him respond, “I didn’t do anything, m’am.”

I kicked off (and broke) my sandals.

I chased the mugger for a few blocks, screaming for help the entire time.  People perked up, but not quite in time.  I lost him as he disappeared around a corner.  Thankfully, a neighbor saw which direction he’d headed.  I gave up my pursuit in exchange for calling the police.  They came quickly, neighbors offered support, everyone was great.  After much report-taking, one of the officers and I traced the mugger’s steps and recovered my belongings except the chocolate and about $60.  Overall, it could have been worse.

Fighting back felt great.  Wrestling, screaming, punching, running.  Paying attention to details served well.  Following, searching, finding.  Asking for help was a huge relief.  Not-alone, cared for.

Still, what to do with the mixed emotions and adrenaline at the end of the night’s events?

Yoga.

Yoga and related practices, I should add.  I was wired trying to fall asleep, so I accessed my Somatic Experiencing resources, laying flat on my back with my hands on my hips, breathing deeply and settling myself a bit.   After a little while, I was able to turn on my side, curl up, and drift off.

Before falling asleep, though, I giggled at a vision of this young punk, at home with the video game, chili dog and Big Gulp he just bought with my cash…and digging into a big bar of frou-frou artisan chocolate!  He’d be ruined forever.  I could see it – the next day, his friends offer him some M&Ms and he’s like, “Ick, gross, no way.”

The morning after the mugging, I taught my weekly meditation and yoga classes.  For the guided meditation, we practiced an adaptation of Buddhist Metta.  “May all beings be well,” we inhaled.  “May all beings be free of suffering,” we exhaled.  I included my mugger and his friend in those wishes.  After meditation, a student noted, “It can be hard to wish well for those who’ve harmed me.”  I shared that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (and a great therapist) helped me understand that people who cause pain are most likely in pain themselves.  If I meditate on their well-being and direct compassion toward them, perhaps they will hurt less and therefore hurt others less frequently.

We continued with a set of Asana and Pranayama, focusing on alternate nostril breathing.  I read a story from Integral Yoga’s Swami Ashokananda, where his practice of this calming breath helped him navigate a potentially serious conflict with perfect peace and ease.  These stories motivate me to continue my yoga and other balancing practices no matter what.

It was a powerful “morning after.”

The cord of my purse cut and bruised my finger.

Since the mugging, as I walk my sore body cautiously and anxiously around my ‘hood, I keep my eyes open for my attackers.  If I see them, I am to contact the case detective.  And I hope I do.  Because I have another vision – as part of his punishment, my mugger must do 90 days of yoga classes with me.  I sincerely believe in yoga’s power to transform harmful little punks into helpful human beings.

I believe because it worked for me.

I can’t be sure why this kid stole from me.  But I can guess that he’s in some kind of emotional pain – as I was, for decades.  Through yoga and other tools of recovery, I have changed.  Today, someone asked me, “What keeps you happy?” and I answered, “The chance to help others by sharing the things that have helped me heal.”  Opportunities to practice Karma Yoga keep me happy.

So who knows – maybe this kid and I will share yoga and chocolate and there will be one less hurting/hurtful human being on the streets.  More will be revealed.

Wishing all beings peace, joy, love and light.

 

Focus Wrap Up: The Eight Limbs – Yama April 10, 2011

It was 10:38am on Sunday, April 3rd when I started writing this wrap up, and the New Moon hung invisibly above.

In that Sunday’s classes we wrapped up our March focus on the 1st of the Eight Limbs of Yoga – Yama, or, abstinence. I extended the March focus through April 3rd so the New Moon – at the height of its energy of surrender, letting go and dissolving – could reinforce our liberation from what we might refrain from in our attitudes, our actions, our lives.

During the past month, our classes bravely began a journey of self-examination by way of yoga’s 1st limb.  For me, such exploration of patterns and beliefs is a process.  I have grown to understand that I might not be transformed within the period of one class, one month or perhaps one lifetime!  Each time I step onto the path, I am simply opening a door – maybe even just a little crack – to look inside with curiosity and compassion.  Still, this is deep work, and I try to balance intensity with restoration – during my personal efforts and our classes.

In his commentary about Yama (and Limb #2 – Niyama, or observance) in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda says: “These points are for whole-time, dedicated Yogis; and so, for them, Patanjali allows no excuses.  For people who aren’t that one-pointed toward the Yogic goal, these vows can be modified according to their position in life.”  So rather than introducing the Sutras’ list of five yogic abstinences (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed), I invited students to cultivate their own, personal Yama.  Toward the end of the month, we considered the official Yama from Patanjali’s ancient guidance.

Along with students, I cultivated my own personal Yama based on my “position in life.”  And the position I’ve been playing for most of my life is…

DEFENSE.

Last week, I squarely faced the huge deficit this role has hollowed out of my heart, soul and life.  Ugh.

What happened?

A number of things.  I’ll skip the long story about childhood and other traumas leading to the necessity for self-defense.  If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that I am devoted to looking backward in order to move forward with health.  You might also remember that just last summer I was blind-sided by a serious betrayal that erased all my trust in humans.  My heart was on lock down.  In my yoga practice, with professional counsel and through other spiritual practices, I started to open back up.  More recently, during the Off the Mat Into the World leadership intensive in early March, I revisited my bruised little heart and noticed that it did not feel so safe after all.  It was still in defense mode.  Again, I re-committed to the process of looking inside, taking action, sparking transformation.

But the biggest eye-opener happened last week.

I went through a breast cancer scare after a doctor’s examination.  Thankfully, at the radiologist appointment a few days later, I found out that I do not have cancer.  During those in-between days of fearful anticipation, however, I contacted family and spent a lot of time with friends for support.  Knowing me as well as she does, one friend reached out her arms and said, “Put your hands in mine.”  I did.

Then she told me, with resolve in her voice, firmness in her stance and steadiness in her eyes,  “You are going to be OK.  And you will not be alone.”

I felt my entire body seize up in defense mode.  My stiffened hands could not hold on.  My eyes could barely meet hers.  When I did look her in the eye it was through a hard plate of glass.  I could hear her words but not feel the sentiment in my heart.  I wanted to believe her but could not.  I could not trust for fear of being betrayed again.  I could not accept her love.

What’s the big deal?

If I don’t allow myself to accept love, I will never feel loved.  That’s it in a nutshell.  I don’t think I need to go into the specifics of how humans need to share love; how vulnerability is essential to trust-building; how risk-taking might be the only way to true intimacy.  The fact is, if I don’t take action to continually and consistently address, transform and heal the core wounds of my heart, I will continually and consistently struggle with every relationship in my life – at work, in family, with friends and otherwise.

Realizing this last week, I set a deep intention that will bring purpose to my Eight-Limb work in the coming months.  A Sankalpa.  My own personal Yama:

I aim to abstain from fear-based responses to life’s invitations for connecting, trusting and loving.  I will liberate my icy-cold, walled-up, scared little Anahata Chakra through heart-opening Asana, heart-expanding Pranayama and Bhakti-influenced practices.

Some wounds are hard to heal.  But for the sake of Ahimsa (non-harming – the 1st Yama from the Sutras), I am going to non-harm myself by taking the risk of being vulnerable.  No holds barred, I am rolling my shoulders back, breathing deeply and chanting my heart out. I am abstaining and refraining from, letting go of, dissolving, and surrendering fear.  Damn-it.

Why abstain?

As mentioned in the Intro to this month’s focus, I want to offer my best self in service to the world.  That is what Samadhi (yoga’s 8th Limb) means to me – an interconnectedness that dissolves separation, invites love, cultivates trust.  So in the end, I don’t want to heal my heart so I feel better – although I’m sure that will be a benefit!  In the end, I want to liberate my heart so I can serve others with authenticity, strength and sustainability.

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

 

March Focus: The Eight Limbs of Yoga – Intro & Yama April 4, 2011

As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t dare try teaching the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to my classes.  First, my knowledge of this ancient text is based on my four-week Teacher Training, during which we primarily studied the 1st two books; since then, my study has been on my own.  Second, there are some great Raja Yoga teachers out there whose experience included decades of studying, translating, interpreting and practicing the Sutras; they are the true teachers.

I do, however, like to design yoga classes where (I hope!) our actions on the mat find purpose through the wisdom of the Sutras.  In the beginning of March we embarked on an eight-month exploration of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as introduced in Sutras 28 & 29 of Book Two of the Sutras.  Drawing from my 2010 blog about the Eight Limbs:

“Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lays out yoga’s Eight Limbs.  Probably the most widely known and practiced are Asana (poses), Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Dharana (concentration as a form of “meditation”).

“But there are five additional limbs – and I believe they are in order for a reason.

“The Eight Limbs represent a process of growth from heady self-examination to soulful universal connection. The first two limbs – Yama and Niyama – list the ethical premises of yoga.  After we’ve set our intentions for values and virtues, we move on to Asana, to address physical limitations such as aches and toxins.  Next, Pranayama continues detoxification, awakens our life force energy and balances our nervous system.  With the 5th limb, Pratyahara, the senses are softened to remove outer distractions.  During Dharana, we concentrate intently on one point of focus.  Deepening into the 7th limb, Dhyana, our concentration shifts into meditation, and there is no separation between the meditator that point of focus.  The 8th limb, Samadhi, is generally described as “enlightenment” – but to me, that harkens of apart-ness.  I like to think of Samadhi as one-ness.  It occurs the moment when our practice of yoga’s previous seven limbs brings such peace and confidence that we are selfless.

“For me, Samadhi would be a state of consistently being my best self and offering that self in service to the world.”  (From https://urbanyogaden.wordpress.com/2010/05/21/focus-mayjune-the-eight-limbs/).

*  *  *

The month of March has been an introduction to the Limbs with emphasis on the 1st limb, Yama (or abstinence).

When considering how I might practice the ethical or philosophical virtues of yoga, I ask myself, “Who do I want to be as I walk down the street?  How do I want to treat myself and others?”  In response, I return without fail to the very 1st Yama – that essential virtue that sets the foundation for all other virtues: Ahimsa. Non-harming.

It’s a tough question to ask, “How might I be harming myself and others?”  Ugh.  Do I really want to look at that?  Well, no.  But, yes. And so, when our classes started our journey through the Eight Limbs, I set the deep intention to squarely face my own vulnerability and begin to abstain from whatever harming tendency (or tendencies) I might have.

More will be revealed.

OM Shanti.

*  *  *

Post Script

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Frankly.

Lately I’ve been using “we” instead of “I” when teaching and writing.  For example, “When we practice X, we experience Y.”  Hello?  Who am I to decide what anyone outside of myself is experiencing  in practice?  And so, to finish off this particular blog about living yoga in daily life, I want to apologize.  It is wrong of me to take the position of “we” when aiming to simply pass along what “I” have experienced.

I am hoping this awareness will end the pattern.  Feel free to call me out when necessary.  OM Shanti.

 

Focus: The Yoga Sutras – Love & Murder February 28, 2011

Each morning when I rise, I try to spend about 30 minutes praying, meditating and doing some Pranayama.  When I do, my soul feels infinitely more peaceful throughout whatever the day tosses my way.

For me, this is the point of yoga.

From what I’ve learned, this was also the point of yoga for the ancients who invented this deeply balancing art  – ancients like Patanjali and others, who thankfully passed yoga along for thousands of years so it could reach us. Yogas Citta Vritti Nrodhah is the 2nd aphorism in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  “Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”  The only Sutra that comes before this is the statement, “Now we will explore yoga.”

So clearly, cultivating a calm mind is the most important goal of yoga practice.

In our February classes, we have been exploring a very basic introduction to the Yoga Sutras.  I am sharing five aphorisms from Patanjali’s wisdom that, for me, are practical tools and inspiring promises.  (Please see “February Focus: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” for an introduction to the five.)  On and off the mat, they inform my discernment process when making large and small decisions; they remind me how to live in peace with all others; they guide me toward self-acceptance, -love and -compassion; and they give me hope.

Last week we covered Sutra 1.33, which is a tough order.  In my opinion.

In Sutra 1.33, Patanjali introduces “The Four Locks & Four Keys.”  He suggests that (in order to fulfill yoga’s purpose of a calm mind) we cultivate the following attitudes toward the following types of people: friendliness toward the happy; compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; and disregard (or indifference, or equanimity or detachment) toward the non-virtuous.

As I prepared to teach my seven weekly classes on this theme, I decided to share the story of my 11-year-old yoga student who was murdered in March 2009 – and how I used the four locks/keys to navigate that deeply disturbing situation.  I meditated on this decision, realizing that such a dark story could potentially shake up the room.  I prayed, “May I be relieved of self-centeredness, that I may better play a small, useful role in your big picture.  I pray to be relieved of anything that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength to do your bidding.”

I checked my motives, reminding myself that I do not teach for my own needs, but for the well-being of my students.  In the end, I decided to share my personal experience in order to demonstrate yoga’s solutions for every possible situation.

Even a situation as severe as murder.

*  *  *

In my early experience, the toughest part of Sutra 1.33’s “advice” was offering anything but anger, disgust and all kinds of judgment toward the non-virtuous.  Even today, as harmful things occur around me and happen to me, I can naturally (and humanly) sink into all kinds of harsh emotion.

Thankfully, in his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda nudges me, “We come across wicked people sometimes.  We can’t deny that.  So what should be our attitude?  Indifference.  ‘Well, some people are like that.  Probably I was like that yesterday.  Am I not a better person now?  She will probably be alright tomorrow.'”  Simply put.  And with an underlying vibe of self-forgiveness.  Beautiful.

What of the people who are habitually “wicked” – who commit harm as a reaction to being harmed themselves; or due to fear; or to fulfill a sense of survival?  How do I keep a peaceful mind in the midst of serious threat?  I first recognize that in order to commit harm, a person is most likely deeply unhappy.  Therefore, as the 2nd lock/key suggests, I offer compassion to that person.  And I disregard the non-virtuous deed as the result of that very human state of unhappiness.

I was inspired toward this approach by the beautiful book, “Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace” by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait.  “…if someone is ‘non-virtuous’ according to our definition, the judgmental part of our personality comes forward and we label those people as ‘bad.’  We try to maintain a distance, either my withdrawing ourselves or by pushing them away from us.  Any of these actions sets the stage for violence.”

And then he makes the strongest point.

“Cultivating indifference for people we believe to be non-virtuous damages our sensitivity to others and destroys our capacity for forgiveness, kindness, and selfless love.”  He reinforces, “But by cultivating indifference toward the deeds themselves, we remain free of animosity for those whose actions are non-virtuous.”

Hmmmm – a mind free of animosity sounds like an undisturbed mind.  Therefore, if I want to practice yoga as the Sutras suggest, I must disregard the deed, have compassion toward the doer…and perhaps even forgive her.  I had to practice this recently.  And believe me, it works.  And it’s worth it.  For peace of mind.

In his May 2010 Yoga Journal article, “Love in Full Bloom,” Frank Jude Boccio takes this Sutra one step further.  He invites us to offer ourselves these same attitudes – friendliness or lovingkindness, compassion, delight or joy, and equanimity.  He asks, “How would you like to be unconditionally loved, just as you are, without having to be or do anything special?  What would it be like to feel truly, completely, radically accepted, without feeling as though you had to hide or deny or apologize for any aspect of yourself?”

And I add – can you imagine how peaceful the world and our own mind states would be if we offered this unconditional acceptance to all beings?

So let’s start with ourselves.  Can we remember to offer ourselves lovingkindness, compassion, joy and equanimity?  Can we forgive ourselves for mistakes, accept our humanness, see ourselves as worthy?  Boccio points out, “…if we cannot love and accept ourselves just as we are, we will find if difficult to truly love anyone else in such a limitless, unconditional way.”

Remember, yoga’s ultimate goal is an undisturbed mind.  So how do we cultivate love when it feels impossible?  If I am firmly stuck in harsh judgment toward myself or another, the most effective elbow-to-ribs is the tool we learned in Sutra 2.33 – Pratipaksha Bhavana.  The replacement of negative thoughts with positive.

In his ever hopeful way, Swami Satchidananda says, “If the thought of hatred is in the mind, we can try to bring in the thought of love.  If we can’t do that, we can at least go to the people we love and, in their presence, forget the hatred.  So, although the hatred comes to the surface, we can keep if from coming out or staying long by changing the environment.”

May all of your yoga classes be an Environment Of Love.  May you feel surrounded by love.  May you feel secure, safe and supported during your practice.  May you find peace of mind.

*  *  *

Over the past week, I have witnessed students’ profound dedication to cultivating the virtues suggested in Sutra 1.33.  I have seen them apply The Four Locks & Keys during their Asana practice.  I have watched them wrestle with discomfort, re-commit to cultivating a peaceful mind, and choose positive over negative.  I have felt the love in the room; and I am certain it has found its way off the mat and into the world.

Since hearing the “murder story,” many students have confided in me about difficulties or hardship they are going or have been through.  I pray that, during our classes, they feel support for their healing.  I pray they get an ounce of relief, a break from troubles and tools to cultivate the peacefulness to face whatever life tosses their way.

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