Saturday, December 27, 2008

Giving up Fear


I’m giving up fear because fear keeps me comfortably stagnated. Familiar and cloying, it’s almost like one of those invisible electric fences that gives a dog a little shock when it’s at the perimeter of the yard, keeping it in. Similarly, fear alters my body chemistry when I’m about to leave my comfort zone. When fear strikes, the space inside my rib cage feels like it is being squeezed by an invisible iron hand. The veins in my arms and legs seem to vibrate and grip, pulsing with sickly nervous tension. It’s as if I’m being transformed into a jerky marionette of my nervous system. And my belly is so unhappy, tight and gassy.

Why go into the unpleasant and uncomfortable fear?

Life inside the fence feels safe, but it’s stifling. Intellectually, I get that it’s not good for me to stay inside my current habits. These habits that I’m looking at were formed around an idea of myself and who I am that is out-of-date. And even though the stakes are high and facing this fear looks intimidating, I’m feeling restless inside my electric fence of fear. I want to live my life, and actively choose direction. I want to do something for my tired self.

A part of me is tired. This part has seen dreams not come true, in sad moments this part has failed. The first draft of life plans was inadequate. But, this is an opportunity for mind over matter. And I bet that if the dog goes far enough past the boundary of the fence, the collar will stop firing. And similarly, I think that if I go far enough out of my comfort zone I will feel exhilarated to freely roam in new territory.

Comfortable stagnation is really not that comfortable.

Being a prisoner of my nervous system is no fun. I can please myself with small treats and known activities. But to grow, I need to find a way to get past the boundary of my own fear.

Fear keeps me safe.

In defense of fear it has kept me safe, and kept my ancestors safe. But in adulthood there is a call to go beyond the narrow yard where you were taught to stay as a child.

Fear keeps me stupid.

In my interactions with others I can get overwhelmed, when I’d like the courage to speak my truth. This is an area where I feel most stupid. I only remember later what it would have been good to say, or I think of a good question I might have asked. But, sometimes I get lost when I’m faced with a new challenge in communication. Or I just get flummoxed.

Going into fear.

A strategy that works is to go into the fearful place with someone else that has been there, and can encourage you to go there, too. At Kripalu there is a wonderful hot tub, and a cold plunge. I was afraid of the cold plunge. I put my toe in there and a calf, but that’s about it. My body tightened on the inside, seeming to say, “no, don’t go there.” I just couldn’t make myself do it. I told a friend about this, and she told me about how great it was to go back and forth between the hot and cold water. And she offered to be my cold plunge mentor because that was how she overcame her resistance to the cold water. I hesitated for a moment because the cold plunge was a small pool, and most of the women bathe naked. I had a little fear about my personal space, but I really wanted to try so I said yes (of course!).

After getting hot in the spacious hot tub, I followed my mentor over to the little cold plunge bath. She went right in, hugging herself and breathing fast, and said something like, “oh my god,” a few times. I went right in, all the way to my neck. I was smiling. And it was so easy with my friend there. I looked into her eyes and felt courageous. It was very cold, but the coldness seemed secondary to teamwork, doing this thing together, and showing that I could do it, too. I was in no hurry to leave, so we stayed a couple minutes. And when I went back into the hot water my body released so much more. It was wonderful! And for the rest of the visit I did the hot tub to cold plunge whenever I could.

When you have to go it alone…

What about something that you have to do alone? Say that there is nobody to hold your hand. What can we do about a fear like this?

I’m actually stuck with this one. But, of course, I have a few ideas. One is to still get support. Sometimes an understanding and affirming listener can be enough to help someone make a change. Another is to decide to do it. When I’m mentally dancing just outside of something I want it is because there is some resistance to doing it. So on some level I have decided not to do it. For whatever reason, I’m telling myself I want some thing, and at the same time am actively resisting the very thing I might say I want. Ugh. What can I do when I suspect that I’m standing in my own way?

Maybe writing about it can help me understand. Perhaps visualizing something good on the other side will help me convince myself that it’ll be okay. Maybe yoga can help me calm my internal riffraff, or breath exercises can calm the fear response. Maybe meditation can help. Therapy? All of the above? Something I’ve missed? Is it a matter of more life experience? You know, as I age maybe I’ll understand better how to manage myself. But, how much longer do I have? Patience. I’ll keep my eyes open, listen to my heart, and do something about it.

Giving up fear.

I suspect that I have to give up my fear to move forward. The fear is likely to continue to show up in my body, but what I can work with is my response to it. So I’m actually giving up the way I cater to it. Do I allow it to wear me out, so I’m too tired to make the changes I want? Do I allow it to keep me away from experiences that might change me? Do I over-eat to escape the physical tension, and numb myself out? Am I to continue to be a slave of fear, a victim terrorized by my own life?

I believe I have a choice about this. Do I have the strength to walk through the door I haven’t opened? Can I go the way that will change my external and internal landscape? Will I approach a vista that I’d never thought I’d see?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Aparigraha-freed from assumptions and expectations


I trained my eyes to covet. I looked to my eyes to teach me how to be. I see someone who looks good and I want to look like that. I see some who is successful and I want to do like them. This is covetousness. To a degree covetousness is human nature. It’s how we learn to live in the world. Yet Aparigraha, the fifth aspect of Yama, suggests that we be free from covetousness to walk the path of yoga. And I can clearly see some benefit from not coveting things I see. I wouldn’t be disappointed when the way I do something results in a different outcome than the outcome of someone else, and have thoughts like, “Why does my life look like this, when someone else’s life looks so different, so much better or more appealing?”

In fact, yoga classes can be a site of covetous thoughts and resulting suffering. A student sees someone else’s pose and thinks that it looks effortless, and they ask, “Why is this pose so hard for me (when it looks so easy for another)?” Another way this might happen is in memory. A student remembers how they used to bend their knee so deeply, and now they can only go this far. This mental game makes students feel bad, either they’re “not as good as someone else,” or they’re “getting old.” And sometimes these frustrating thoughts cause people to quit practicing yoga. Who wants to live with thoughts of being “less than?” Who wants to feel inadequate? It’s awful to feel disappointed in oneself. So let’s give up! (I’m just kidding. Don’t give up.)

Yoga practice is an opportunity to develop inner strength. It is likely that in just about everything there are people who seem better or people who seem worse at whatever “it” is. And yoga really can help us physically with our limitations, and make life seem a little better. A person has to find the right class for them, of course. An aggressive fitness (workout-style) yoga class is not for everyone. All yoga classes are not created equally. So if you’ve found yourself dissatisfied with one, I encourage you to find another. Or find some way to inspire your practice. Yoga is the best thing I have found in life, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Love yoga!)

Another reason I see for approaching Aparigraha (non-covetousness) is that it’s disrespectful to myself to covet the lives of others. I have my own history, my own attributes, and my own perspective to bring to any given moment. And I think it reveals a lack of self-esteem when I think I want the life of someone else. It’s also the easy way, and a distraction because it keeps me from my real work. My work is to decipher myself, my situation, and my resources in the best way I can, and to apply what I have to this life experience, to contribute what I have, my gifts, to the world.

In terms of the yoga practice, the work of students is to bring their full attention, full effort, and most caring attitude towards the practice of yoga. In this way, a person can best obtain the benefits of practice. Notice that these suggestions have nothing to do with how fit one is, or how “good” the poses are done. Don’t let comparison with others confuse you. The practice is for you as you are. It is helpful.

Covetousness in communication and relationships. Greedy interactions.

I have observed myself (and others) dominating conversation. Bringing what I thought was true to words, without leaving enough room open for listening. I have spoken in this way, not really wanting, and even afraid to hear what the other person would say. This is a greedy way to interact in ordinary conversation. When someone does this, all of the “conversation space” is coveted by the loudmouth. And the content of the conversation is also jealously guarded by the speaker. There is a sense that a different viewpoint would somehow diminish the speaker’s truth or importance. This is fear, and far from the truth. There is actually an opportunity to explore truth with another person. In fact we can’t have a profound understanding alone. The illusion of this is a sort of mental masturbation. Our knowledge and truth is held by all of us together as a group. Greater understanding only happens when we come together and share our different viewpoints.

Greedy behavior springs from inner poverty. This is why the purely material view of life doesn’t work for me. What’s going on for me inside—invisible to others—determines how I interact with the world. Of course, what is going on for me inside, does show up in my behavior in the world, so others experience the after-effects of my inner world. This is why I seek to understand and develop my inner world. Just as light affects the chemistry and scientific processes of photography resulting in a specific photographic print, so the energy of my inner life shows up in my outer life with the same level of specificity and science as a photograph. What I see in my life is directly related to all influences from my past, like culture, genetics, animal processes (like what I’ve eaten), mental processes (how I’ve thought), and likely more.

So I seek to cultivate my inner life with yoga.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Forgiveness Room


Just as I might cultivate a rose garden on the land, I pledge to cultivate forgiveness in myself. This morning I started by waking up early and forgiving everyone who came up as I thought about the desire to forgive. And I allowed them, in my mind’s eye, to forgive me, too. My heart softened pleasantly as I did this. I imagined a room inside myself, and invited different instances from my experience to be forgiven.

Later, when I was on the train, I imagined that the car I was on was an extension of my forgiveness room. And if anything might come up that would ordinarily annoy me—like if someone were to talk loudly on the cell phone right by me—I intended to invite it to meet my forgiveness right away. I had a pleasant ride. As I walked to the yoga studio I imagined that everything I could experience outside at any given moment was a part of my space of forgiveness. I had a pleasant walk.

Then, when I taught the first private yoga session I imagined that the room I was in was the room of forgiveness. I needed to forgive myself for a couple things I said, and I did it right on the spot. I forgave my judgmental mind because it wasn’t so much what I said, but an internal judgment of, “stupid,” that needed to be forgiven. I’m hard on myself, and I can forgive my critical mind.

The mind must open to forgive. The heart must open to forgive.

But, an angry or resentful mind closes down to defend a position. An angry mind can’t see clearly. It judges harshly. An angry mind is stuck going round and round in the same place. An angry heart hardens into a little ball. An unforgiving mind demands or cries, “Why can’t you see me?”

And a forgiving mind can listen—even to anger and resentment. The forgiving mind can see hot emotions without loosing itself. A forgiving mind can learn. A forgiving mind and heart can love someone and see his or her limitations. The heart is expansive. And a forgiving and confident mind might say, “I see you, and I’m comfortable in myself.”

A mind that forgives can grow. A mind that forgives can relax. A mind that forgives can love freely with warmth and support from the heart.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Brahmacharaya, Yikes!


A man was talking on his cell phone on the Howard Line CTA train: “You gotta take care of yo wife.” Pause. “You know what I mean.” Pause. “He. He. ‘Cause the little man is all we got.”

I might know what he means. Our sexuality is important. And at the same time who we are is so much more than our “little man” or “little woman.” I think we’ve got a whole lot more than our sex organs in this life. And it’s dangerous if we believe that the only important or good thing about life is sensual pleasure—which includes a lot more than sex. It could indicate depression if that’s what we think, and create a fertile ground for addictions to take hold. And yet many of us seem to be in this kind of space to one degree or another. I am.

The call to pleasure is strong! And, just the thought of someone trying to tell me what to do with that part of my life makes me want to hide under something! No!

Yet, the concepts defined in the eight limbs of yoga, including the fourth aspect of Yama: Bramhmacharaya, or self-restraint with sensual pleasures, I feel are nature defined, rather than exterior rules to be enforced. The concepts have the potential to indicate where we might be unbalanced, and individuals can take it from there, either by ignoring the information or by going deeper.

“Can’t wait for the workday to be over” (so I can drink beer, or enjoy something). “My day will get good as soon as I get off work…” These are the kinds of statements I hear from people all the time. What is it that happens after work that is so good? Sometimes it’s getting drunk, sleeping, or sitting in front of the TV. I think it’s the promise of doing something you want that is so good. But, are we really doing what we want in our off time? Or is life a constant struggle? We might be so tired from a stressful job that a drink is the best thing one can imagine at that time. Escape!

Our hectic and stressful lifestyles make restraint of any kind difficult. We want what we want, and if the money is in the pocket and it’s legal, what reason is there to hold back? Our extreme work requires extreme play. Current society is built on this.

When I am in a contented state of mind, I enjoy more natural foods, light foods that are subtle in flavor (in line with Brahmacharaya). I am happy with life when I feel good. And when I am stressed there are times that a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream seems like the cure to my pain. It’s not the ice cream that is bad, it’s the way I have engulfed the whole container desiring escape into a beautiful ice cream dreamland that is suspect. The ice cream can’t save me or solve any of my problems; all it can do is give me a moment of pleasure. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it is bad for me when it’s a pattern of escape, whether it’s with ice cream, cookies or whatever.

There is only so much time in this life, and I want to use it as well as I can. I believe there is something more for me in this life, something I can accomplish; there is some way I can contribute to this world to help make it a better place. And when I loose sight of that, that’s when I want to escape. It can be so painful to not know, or to feel hopeless.

The message from Brahmacharaya to me at this time is: Don’t get so lost in what you’re feeling that you forget what you are doing.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Asteya, Been Caught Stealin’!


Asteya, the third aspect of Yama, is actually non-stealing. But, in thinking about it I am realizing that stealing is huge! Where does it begin? And, how can it end? There is interdependency in our human predicament that can even make it hard to decipher where stealing or economic corruption is taking place.

I think I was in third grade when I was picking up a prescription at the local pharmacy for my parents, and the idea came to me that I could take a candy from the container by the cash register while the cashier turned away to find the package for my parents. And I snatched a grape Jolly Rancher—my favorite flavor at the time because it was purple and anything purple was great as it was my favorite color—and shoved it into my coat pocket. The woman behind the counter gave me the package, and I gave her a big smile and said, “Thank you.” And she made some small talk that made me nervous. And I left. I was hardly around the corner of the building, and still on the sidewalk just beside it when I opened my prize. The crinkly sound of the wrapping coming off sang of my reward. I put it in my mouth and didn’t enjoy the familiar flavor at all. The feeling that I had done something wrong tainted it. So I took it out of my mouth and put it back in the wrapper and threw it away in the dumpster behind the pharmacy. I had discovered that I didn’t enjoy stealing. And from then on, I paid for my candy with pride.

When I was a little older, at a family gathering a youthful role model of mine told a tale about renting a car. When this person was returning it, somehow they ended up with $200 in extra change, and were aware that the cashier had made a mistake. This person felt that it was okay for them to keep it because it was not their mistake, and seemed really pleased about what had happened. I eagerly looked to three generations of my family for a reaction, and there was very little. They acknowledged what my role model had said, but that was about it. What I took from this was that this behavior was fine. So when I found myself the beneficiary of a cashier’s mistake I, too, considered it a random good fortune. But a few years ago I made my own decision about this and made sure that my change was correct, returning any extra money. And the cashier is always grateful when I do this.

“Do not steal,” is a basic law of people living together, yet it’s clear that it’s not that easy to do. When people are in survival mode, forget about it. And if someone has to steal something in order to feed their family, which is a real survival need and necessary to live that is one thing. But stealing also happens when people have their survival needs met. Why do we do this?

A good reason not to steal, besides, “we’re not supposed to,” or “to gain enlightenment,” which might not convince some people, is to gain each other’s trust. Can you imagine a world where people trust and respect each other? Dream of this: a trusting world. Especially because I live in a big city, I am aware of being suspicious of people, and am aware of people being suspicious of me. By consciously non-stealing, Asteya, we might build a culture of integrity rather than the current inertia that inadvertently supports racketeering and political corruption. As it is, it seems like we are just sitting around and watching the world decay. Even with our small actions amongst ourselves we can do something about it. In fact that’s the power we really have, our actions. So pay attention to what you do, and how it affects others. And I’ll pay attention to what I do, and how it affects others. And we will make the world a better place through self-observation and self-correction.

As a third-grader I seemed to understand this. I tried stealing candy, didn’t like it, corrected the behavior, and even enjoyed the results of the discovery. But when I got a little older, for a while I trusted stories from my family more than my own experience, as in the story about $200 extra back from a returned rental car. Maybe it was fine for them, but I didn’t agree. And even though I didn’t agree, I didn’t speak up. I wish I would have, but at the time I didn’t know I could. I expected them to teach me, because somehow I had learned that. Now, rather than holding up stories from my culture that aren’t working for me, I seek to understand what I do, correct it as necessary, act in integrity, and speak up when necessary.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Satya: Slippery or Sublime?

Satya, the second aspect of Yama, means truth. Now, if I consider this to be the kind of truth that is about me in a particular moment in time, as time goes on this truth is likely to change. But if I see it as a larger entity about connectedness, community or wholeness, then truth is sublime.

The slippery truth…

Truth can look unclear when we try to see it in an individual’s life-story. For example there was a time, when I was attending the Ohio State University, when I thought I was in love with a really handsome art student (and I was 18 years old). I still remember the kiss we had on “the oval.” It was ferociously windy and grey, but when we kissed the wind calmed. And I thought that the world was making space for our personal love to blossom. Over the summer, I poured my best feelings into a letter. It was a work of art that included a beautiful black-and-white picture of cobblestones that I had taken in Europe. The stones spoke of earth and infinity with the magic of perspective.

Later I had learned what he had been thinking about during that time. When he came back for fall semester, he told me that he did not love me at all, and that he had just been “horney” when he met me. So I told him that I was mistaken in the letter. And he couldn’t believe that, because it was the most beautiful letter he had ever received. I asked him to destroy the letter because it was false. It was false because I didn’t have all the facts when I wrote it.

So for me, in my feelings toward an individual (the handsome art student), I had experienced a big shift. This is slippery truth. “I love you with all my being,” changes to, “you betrayed me,” in this story. It was a loss of trust in my feelings of love, because I had pinned it on an individual. But, now I think that my feelings of love are so much bigger than that, one other person is not responsible for the infinite capacity for love I feel in myself. The love I feel for another person is a doorway toward love’s treasure within me, within this world.

Sublime truth.

When I observe all the ways I was cared for by so many different people in my life, and that this care in the world gave me the ability to be where I am right now, writing this entry, I am astounded. It fills me with awe to see within my life how everything I have experienced feeds into and enriches this moment I am living right now. It is beyond an adjective, to consider how the lives of my ancestors gave me the gift of life, or even how their needs and desires may live on in me. In what way, or to what degree do their struggles reflect mine?

I might go on but I find myself without words to do it. Thank you for reading. I value the connection we have. Be well.



Alright, I’m back. In the paragraph above I talked about connections between people across time. Another way sublime truth can be observed is in a group of people in the present moment. This can happen when differences of opinion can live in the same space, and a larger understanding can be perceived, but possibly not easily talked about. And of course this can be seen as a model or workspace for meditation. In meditation we inevitably confront contradictions inside ourselves. And we can’t turn away from ourselves the way we can another person. So working with a group that allows enough room for different points-of-view, can help us work more compassionately with ourselves.

So, in terms of the yoga, this truth—Satya is about acceptance. And this kind of acceptance can make the world a better place, a place where we can listen to and hear other people, and we can experience ourselves being heard, as well. It is also about honoring the infinite ways in which we are connected in any given moment and across time. (I know yoga is a timeless state, perhaps even beyond time, but from my perspective as an earth-being this is how I see it.)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ahimsa Dogwalking and Primordial Love


A friend and her husband were walking their big pit bull/German shepherd dog, a rescued mutt in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY when the dog charged towards some bushes. My human friends looked to see what was there. It was a frightened bunny. So they decided to give Roofis his walk around the lake, and if the rabbit was still there when they got back they were going to rescue him. (In Prospect Park a bunny too afraid to run away from a big dog is in grave danger.) My friends recognized him as an animal abandoned by people.

By the time they arrived back at the same spot, they had met up with friends also walking their big dog, and the rabbit was still there cowering in the shadow under the bushes. A friend offered to hold the leashes of both dogs, and the other three went under the bushes for the rabbit.

The friend holding the dogs became concerned that others in the park were feeling uncomfortable about the commotion in the bushes so she started to call out, “Bunny wunny fritter-face,” over and over in an effort towards communicating what was going on under the bushes.

Then a primordial scream filled the air, and the dogs took off, pulling my friend to the ground on her back. The rabbit was caught. It was picked up by one of the friends, and the dogs were just triggered to run by the staggering scream that cut through the darkening night.

Rabbits are prey animals, so when they are picked up they might interpret that as the end of their life, thus the primordial scream. So at the end of the adventure, everyone was fine. My friend who was pulled down by the dogs was okay and laughed it off. And this is the beginning of the story of how I came to live with my first rabbit, Fritter (I am petting him in the above picture.).

Ahimsa, the first tenet of Yama, the first of the eight limbs of yoga, is non-violence or non-harming. I also interpret it to mean compassionate action, and compassionate action can mean tough love, or loving when the going gets tough, even loving the world enough to quarrel with it and standing up for what is right. The translation “non-violence” might lead someone to the false notion that yogis are soft, as in pushovers. This is not the case.

Now, my friends from the story do not identify themselves as yogis, but nonetheless the story, itself, has aspects that illustrate ahimsa in action. For example, when they encounter the rabbit, they make the best decision in the moment that considers the important factors. They do what they came out there to do, which is walk the dog. They might have become overwhelmed with an impulse toward martyrdom, “We have to save this rabbit, now!” But they decided to take care of Roofis first. And by doing that they ended up meeting more people along the way who could help.

Ahimsa also concerns thoughts, not just compassionate action, but also includes what is happening behind the scene. So, when the friend holding the dogs saw that it was getting dark and there were concerned glances towards the bushes from others in the park, she decided to call out a goofy bunny song, “Bunny wunny fritter-face,” to let people walking by know that this was a compassionate project happening beneath the bushes in Prospect Park. I guess it seemed to work.

Fritter, the rabbit, had no idea what was happening to him. I would say he thought he was going to die, and the sound that issued forth from him was his last grasping for his soft and fuzzy life. But then he was fine, held firmly in the arms of a caring person, and he didn’t fuss on the way home. And this is just how it is, sometimes. We go through a harrowing experience and then everything is fine, and possibly better than it was before.

This reminds me of falling in love, and the dance performance I saw last night, ‘Lacunae’ performed by Jonathan Meyer at Links Hall in Chicago. I had never seen such intimate details of a man’s emotional life expressed through the body. The title, Lacunae, means unfilled spaces or gaps. And the work communicated volumes about loss, the parts we don’t usually talk about. There was a section, in particular that I read as attempting to connect, and wanting to loose oneself, possibly in love. I felt my own heart breaking as I watched this innocence playing itself out before me. For the dance led into difficulty, and faking it for others, and I didn’t get a sense that the emotions were resolved at the end. This is just what’s happening for this performance: incredible longing, attempts at escape, courageously opening up, and then confusion at the outcome.

Who hasn’t lived this story? It’s a very human story. And, when you’re going through it, it has a primordial grip as if you are going to die. Which is what the story of Fritter’s primordial scream reminds me of. It reminds me of those times in life that just seem to be too much, and then, seemingly inexplicably, you are on the other side and things are fine, possibly better than before. Life goes on.

And how does Ahimsa play into this? Well, I’m not sure I have an answer, but as individuals we can make choices that support thinking, communicating, and acting with compassion. This means taking the time you need to know yourself and make right decisions. Sometimes even if you are the instrument or vehicle through which someone else has a primordial or major reckoning experience (like you’re the one who says it’s time to break up), there are greater forces at work. Just like Fritter misinterpreted being lifted off the ground in the park as a prelude to his demise only to find himself in caring arms, the world might have plans for us that we cannot fathom.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Yama Energy

The first of Patanjali’s eight limbs, Yama, has five aspects that form the basis for spiritual discipline, and it harmonizes relationships between people by governing social interactions.

1. Ahimsa – non-harming
2. Satya – truthfulness
3. Asteya – non-stealing
4. Brahmacharaya – chastity
5. Aparigraha – greedlessness

Yama deals with what we do and say in the world. These moral rules keep us from getting hooked into daily drama. So, if we are not harming (Ahimsa), not lying (Satya), not stealing (Asteya), not over-indulging in sensual pleasures (Brahmacharaya), and not coveting what we don’t have (Aparigraha), then what we choose to do and say can be free of selfish motives. Also we are not wasting our precious energy on harming, lying and so on.

Because we are in a time-bound state of existence, we don’t have the time to tell both truth and lies. Even though it might seem like that’s just how it is, I really don’t think we have time for it if we want to make the world a better place. To enable positive change we have to learn how to make the right choices, rather than reacting and acting without understanding how we are affecting things. Chance is only fifty-fifty, but if we can really learn to choose responses favoring truth, we are going to evolve spiritually.

This idea, that my energy is limited, has been hard to practically take into account as I choose my daily activities, both mental and physical. I can have good intentions about implementing a new and healthy habit, but unless I cut something I’m currently doing out, I can’t seem to get it done. There are only twenty-four hours in any given day, and all the time is necessarily accounted for with either good or bad habits. So when I want to make a change, it’s not as easy as it looks in my mind.

Yama offers helpful concepts towards channeling energy into life-affirming, compassionate activity by drawing it away from common human mistakes. The challenge is to control our basic instinct to survive by any means necessary and without concern for others. We can survive by harming, lying, stealing, promiscuity, and greed, but what is this kind of surviving? Our meat and genes survive, but not our humanity, not what is best in us, not our hearts. The energy that can be freed through greater awareness of our morality as outlined by the first limb of yoga, Yama, will deepen one’s yoga practice, and understanding of life.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ashtanga Butterfly

There are eight limbs of yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali (Ashtanga means eight limbs.). I have represented the eight limbs of yoga with a butterfly image.


Ashtanga Yoga – Eight Limbs of Yoga

First limb – Yama – Moral discipline that regulates our survival instincts

Second limb – Niyama – Self-restraint that regulates our personal lives

Third limb – Asana – Posture that regulates physiology

Fourth limb – Pranayama – Breath control that regulates subtle energy

Fifth limb – Pratyahara – Sense-withdrawal, looking inward

Sixth limb – Dharana – One-pointed concentration

Seventh limb – Dhyana – Meditation, consciousness expanded

Eighth limb – Samadhi – Ecstasy, bliss

Just as the limbs on the butterfly connect into the same body (yoga), all eight limbs of yoga affect a person simultaneously. You can’t really disconnect a person from their natural aspects or limbs. So yoga is operating in our lives whether we’re aware of it or not.

You’ll notice that I gave Ashtanga Butterfly strong legs, and feet connected to the ground. The reason being that a newly discovered spiritual practice can leave someone ungrounded, so remember your feet. Remembering your actual feet is important in practice, but also the metaphorical feet, like relationships, personal history, home environment, and finances--all the things that connect you to a healthy, every-day life. There was a time when instead of connecting me healthfully to myself, my yoga practice served as a means of escape. When I got hooked by yoga it was because it was connecting me with bliss, the likes of which I had not encountered before. And, all I wanted was MORE! I approached my yoga practice like an addict wanting a fix. It gave me a way to escape painful feelings. These days I find myself doing things to ensure a more balanced practice and life. One thing I am consciously doing is remembering my history, because that is what brought me to this moment in life where I can appreciate connection and bliss, and sadness and endings.

I also gave Ashtanga Butterfly antennae projecting upward. This is in honor of the search for the unknown, finding connection, and learning to go deeper into oneself. Part of the practice of yoga for me is listening deeply, aiming to live closer to my truth.

Both aspects are important: connecting to the individual life that brought us here to this moment (symbolized by the feet), as well as listening deeply and being available to give definition to something new in oneself (symbolized in my drawing by butterfly antennae). The gatekeeper for this possibility is the mind, which can be seduced either toward earthly pleasures or toward heavenly bliss. The mind’s job is to direct our energies towards balance. What this balance looks like is my feet are on the earth and I am open to and watching intently the great mystery of life’s journey.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Who am I?

When people are lost in their lives the natural question, “Who am I?” can come up. I’ve recently heard it from a person on a show about addiction and recovery, friends in career questioning, and myself as I consider what I want in life.

This question can also be used as a method to enter meditation. I have experienced the, “Who am I?” exercise in yoga workshops, with good results. In pairs, one person asks the question, “Who am I?” and the other answers. When it gets quiet, the question is asked again for the whole duration of the exercise. This summer someone told me that in the ‘70s she had done this for 36 hours straight! I have only done it for several minutes, and it’s very interesting. Recently my last answer was, “love and nobody special.” I was “nobody special” in that I was seeing myself as a part of the larger flow of life.

If I did it right this minute I might say that I am “a ball of nerves,” “a runny nose,” and “comforting breath.” I am a “questing intellect,” a “mild headache,” and “percolating joy.”

When I scan myself for qualities I see things I like and things I don’t like. Where I can get into trouble is if I mentally attach to a particular aspect of myself. For example, if I focus on my constantly running nose I can build frustration about a body function, leading to an unhappy mental state. But, even if I were to concentrate only on joyful messages from my cells I might find myself in an inappropriately inflated mental state, because I do have a cold to take care of. So pretending that life is perfect is just as false as dwelling on life’s miserable qualities.

In Iyengar yoga I have heard a quote by B.K.S. Iyengar that says something like, “All the cells in the body have eyes.” What I take from this is that in yoga we want to work with consciousness evenly throughout the whole body. From a physical perspective I might say, “I am all the cells that make up my body.” And from a yogic point of view I can see that all the cells participate in my yoga posture in a vibrant or dull way(in the vibrant cells the eyes are looking, and in the dull ones the eyes are closed). For example, if I don’t bring awareness to the way I work my legs in a standing pose, then my spine is probably collapsed. This would prevent me from benefitting from the pose and possibly cause harm to my body. The consciousness is uneven in this case.

Similarly, from a mental perspective, I could say, “I am my thoughts.” And what if all the thoughts I experience also have eyes—just like the cells of my body. This might mean that all thoughts participate in my mental state. So if I habitually favor certain kinds of thoughts, I am not seeing a clear picture of myself. For example, if I choose to favor thoughts that came from what someone else said about me like, “You’re a bitch.” This can clearly lead me into a downward mental spiral as I remember all the times I might have acted from a less-than-pure place.

The trouble with favoring certain kinds of thoughts is that the mind creates more of what you prefer, skewing a person’s understanding of themselves. For example, if I am often looking at all the ways I’ve screwed up in life, I’m going to see myself as a failure. Or, if I habitually look at moments where my actions hurt others, I’m a perpetrator. Or, if I tend to see myself as being hurt by others over and over in my life, I’m a victim. And if I look at all the ways I’ve helped others, I’m a hero.

Who I am at the level of thought is not easily seen, and it changes from moment to moment. Who am I? I am beautiful energy. I am overactive nasal passages. I am freedom and spaciousness. I am cranial pressure. I am a hug.

I am incredibly specific, and totally undefined.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Studs Terkel Listened

In 2001 I was lucky enough to attend the party for the 25th Anniversary of In These Times magazine, where Studs Terkel spoke. Before the party, I remember meeting him because he was so friendly, and his smile was so wonderful. I had the impression that he wanted to linger and talk for a while, but others wanted to move him along as he was the honored guest that night. After that introduction I felt as if I was listening to a friend speak later that night. So easy was his ability to connect!

During his talk that night I also had what might be a mystical insight of sorts. While he was talking, tears came to my eyes as I had a visceral experience of connecting to the energy that Studs Terkel was speaking from. It literally felt like an incredibly stimulating vortex of energy and lightness was drawing my attention toward him. Particles of sensation in my body were moving in that direction. And I realized that this was a man who was perfectly in line with himself. He was doing exactly what he came here to do. How fortunate I felt to experience such a thing! So powerful and moving were his words!

Since Studs Terkel passed away on October 31, 2008 I have been hearing on the radio, WBEZ, (thanks to my election-induced fevered addiction to the news) recorded interviews with Terkel, as well as interviews that Terkel did with others during his career. He had a particular gift for getting amazing interviews from so-called ordinary Americans. But when you hear these interviews you realize that these people are far from ordinary. These people tell extraordinary stories on topics that include the Great Depression and how another person’s race affects how someone acts toward them.

One interviewer asked Terkel, “What makes a good interview?” He answered, “It’s listening…and respect. They know you respect them because you are listening.”

There were also a couple instances in the interviews where people being interviewed by Studs Terkel observed that they learned how they really felt by telling their story. A teacher who was interviewed for one of Terkel’s many books (Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession) shared that the interview changed his life. Through his own words, he realized that his expectations of his students affected their performance.

My observations lead me to believe that we can’t understand ourselves by ourselves. We need to tell our stories. We also need to listen to others. The world offers constant reflections about our truth, if we can train our eyes to see and our ears to hear instead of merely relying on past remembrances to decode what is happening in the present moment. We must remain curious.

There is wisdom in the quote from an interview, “Hope subsides, but curiosity remains.” There was also a piece that said something about “loving the world enough to quarrel with it.”

And as Studs Terkel proclaimed for his own epitaph:
“Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Emotional Warmth

I am enjoying the emotional warmth of a hot cup of chai at The Grind cafĂ© in Chicago. There was a study published in the journal Science showing a connection between holding a warm beverage and feelings of emotional warmth. My experience agrees. At an old job I shared “tea time” with a friend at around 3-4 pm. This may have encouraged the bond of friendship that remains today. And the experience of having a warm bowl of oatmeal just feels good emotionally, as well as hot soup. Some salons already seem to get this, and it is nice to be offered a warm beverage when entering a business. It is very comforting.

But, I guess I want to be aware, and not just manipulated by the pull toward animal comfort. For example I love to go to coffee houses to just read, use the Wi-Fi, or as a nice break between teaching engagements. But, one can become addicted to personal comforts. And in this country it seems to be a goal to earn more money to purchase more comforts. I’m okay with a simple lifestyle. Yet being too tuned in with my emotional comfort can certainly woo me toward complacency. And the fact is that I believe that I’m here to contribute my efforts to the world in the best way I can. And if I’m hiding this impulse under the enjoyment of lattes all day—it’s no good!

That said I also think it’s helpful to know if I’m feeling emotionally cold or anxious that a hot cup of tea might be helpful to be in the mental space I want (or maybe I can just pet my bunnies). Yesterday I found this to be of use when I was doing some tasks in my apartment I had been anxious about. I did a little work, and then drank a little tea. And repeated as necessary: some working, some tea drinking, and some bunny petting.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Spooky Bones

Halloween has me thinking about putting old bones to rest--as in skeletons in the closet. These are thought forms we haven't dealt with and so they could pop out like boogie men with the right triggering situation. Like when someone asks me to do something, and I get really embarrassed to say, "no"--it's an overwhelming feeling. And I'm sure it comes from childhood. Next time I just want to be cool with myself saying "no thanks" if that's what I want. Weird. Why do I do that?

I think about Carrie from the movie (1976). She just couldn't stay buried after she died, because she could not get the love she wanted in life. The kids made fun of her. Her mom had her feeling like a freak. Poor Carrie. And nobody seemed to learn anything from her death.

In sharp contrast, I saw an amazing play of The Brothers Karamazov, adapted from the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Stop reading, and come back later, if you are definitely seeing it and don't want anything "spoiled.") The kids teased and threw rocks at one little boy who got sick and died.  At his grave the kids were there and one boy said to another something like he wishes he could forget the boy existed. Alyosha stepped in and asked them to remember the life of the good little boy who was in the ground now, and to never treat another so badly. If we can only learn from the obscene experiences in life, we can get something from it. We can grow and become better people.

I wish the kids in "Carrie" could have learned from Sissy Spacek's character's death. I know some people would tell me that that's not the point of that movie. They might say that "Carrie" is a biting cultural criticism and there is no redeeming value. But how can this be? Something can be made out of every crappy situation. If we can't then life is hopeless. Now I don't mean that every story needs a happy ending. For example the little boy buried in "The Brothers Karamazov" stays dead, but the children learn and go eat pancakes. Life is okay here. But, at the end of "Carrie" her cold hand reaches out of the dirt craving more life because nobody made any sense of her death.

Things that are scary:

1. Living in the past.

2. Not learning from mistakes.

3. Being stuck. This is related to 1 and 2.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Welcome, Emotions!

My new class, LifeForce yoga is going really well. Students are courageously experiencing themselves honestly. This is “feel your feelings” yoga.

In a recent class, one person laughed a few times. Another had tears after savasana. And yet another wasn’t experiencing any dramatic emotion. As teacher, I encourage the experience of emotion when it naturally shows up in class. I say, let it run its course. During yoga practice is a safe time to do this.

According to Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (My Stroke of Insight), when emotions are triggered, it takes 90 seconds for the emotion to show up, “surge through” the body, “and then be flushed out” of the blood stream. Physiologically, the experience can be short, but if a person hooks into the emotion mentally it can last much longer. So, there is a choice when working with the emotions.

In yoga practice (as well as in life), I can be empowered by this information. When an emotion comes up, and I realize that I’ve been triggered, I then bring my attention to the physical experience and breathe. This allows me to experience the feeling as it moves through me, and honors my truth (which I can choose to act on when timing is appropriate).

But, if I focus only on the story lines that might come up about why I’m feeling this way, it can give my mind too much power, thereby continuing to trigger and even intensify the emotional response of my body. My choice is to bring my attention to the ever-changing flow of feelings in my body to help me clarify my mental, physical, and emotional space.

This process is spiritual house cleaning, clearing the space for me to connect authentically with myself, instead of confusing old wounds for my essential being. Potentially, this is also laying groundwork that strengthens my overall personality structure.

Feet embrace the solid ground, spirit soars, heart loves, and hands create in service of spirit. When I can walk in the world in this embodied and connected way, the experience of life is uplifting, and I am a positive energy source.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Letter to Barack Obama


Dear Barack Obama,

I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother’s (Madelyn Dunham’s) illness. My heart goes out to you. And at the same time I am inspired by your decision to interrupt your campaign to go see her. In fact it makes me proud to be an American to see the Democratic nominee for President honor a grandmother in this way. Go and get her blessing. I feel so strongly about this because my grandmother was special, too.

My grandmother, Doris Ekhardt Rideout (Nana to me), taught me the wisdom in listening, for listening is love. Throughout my life Nana patiently and lovingly listened to my ideas, both the good ideas, and the not-so-good ideas. In her listening there was a sense of care, excitement (like bubbly joy) and curiosity. Her ability to listen was absolutely unwavering and nonjudgmental. There were times when I felt I was challenging her sensibilities by what I was saying, but she stayed curious, and never shut me down. This allowed me to trust her and to open up more and share more than I had planned on, and sometimes more than I knew was there. She was always happy to hear from me. She honored my being here in a way that I cherish deeply. This relationship was built over my lifetime, until Saturday, March 03, 2007 when she left her body. For me, this experience of having been witnessed in this way by someone for so many years was the best gift in my life.

Listening creates space for the person who is being listened to. This space creates room for us to see who we are, and when we listen to each other with a sense of openness, joy and curiosity there is even more potential for us to learn and grow. The gift of listening is one I use in my relationships with others, and it helps me in my work as a yoga teacher. My students get the benefit of Nana’s ear, when life’s discoveries and losses come up for them. I believe that we all want to be heard, and that when we can be truly heard with care and love, there is a vast potential for healing. Nana was a great teacher in my life.

Thank you, Nana! Your memory means so much to me. May your wisdom shine through in my actions. And Nana, if you can, will you see that Barack Obama makes it safely to the White House? I’m sure you would have voted for him. And whenever Madelyn Dunham finds her way (no rush) will you welcome her? You will probably be great friends.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Support for Change

Many yoga practitioners say that when they come to a class they work harder than when they practice at home. Somehow it can be harder to maintain motivation to do a full practice at home. Maybe we come home tired, or there are too many distractions.

The support of having a teacher and fellow students working really gets me going. Even listening to energizing music can help. Having support makes making change more natural. Support helps create space for change.

When a person starts on the path of yoga, whether they know it or not they are on a path of change. This could be because change is the truth of experience. It also could be because when a person is practicing yoga it’s harder to hide from the truth. The body feels different. I became aware of myself in a different way when I committed to my yoga practice.

I learned to become myself in a different way when I got into yoga. Before yoga my attention was on pleasing others. Then, my attention shifted to getting to know myself. And now I want to learn how I can connect more deeply with others, keeping my sense of myself intact.

This is a place where I must give myself support. Nobody else can really know what is best for me, except me. Only I know. Yet, there have been times in my life when I have wanted to give that away. It was much easier to focus on someone else. But, when I have done that it left a vacancy inside myself. And I now feel that it does myself a disservice to the extent that it’s almost criminal.

I came here with a particular take on life, and my experiences have further guided me into a sense of myself that I have to honor. If I don’t it’s a waste of myself. It’s my birthright to be me, even though at times it has been hard for me to accept the responsibility.

I think the level of self-rejection I used to have is unique, yet a part of me doubts this thought. In the past, the most important thing was pleasing other people (as I mentioned earlier). Seeing the smiling look of approval on the face of another was like hitting the emotional jackpot. Or, hearing the words, “good, Brooks” sent my spirit soaring. I’m more suspicious of these patterned reactions, now.

The impersonal format of a group yoga class gave me the support I needed to have quality time with myself. I started to wake up. During the period of time I’m thinking about, I was practicing Ashtanga yoga. Somehow the support of those teachers, and the repetition of the classes, as well as the quietness of the Mysore-style practice provided a fertile ground for transformation within myself.

I don’t know how else I might have found myself in the chaos of this world.

A friend made an observation when I remembered a detail of what I heard him say last week. He had forgotten that he had mentioned it to me, so when I said it he was a little freaked out, like I was psychic or something. I shared that I had only remembered what he said, and that I tend to remember what people say. He responded by saying that it must mean less space for me with other people’s thoughts bouncing around in my head.

And eureka! Maybe that’s why many people don’t really listen or remember what others say, because they feel that they’ll loose that space for themselves.

I think (not being a brain scientist) that we have infinite capacity to hear others. The feeling of tight brain space is an illusion that can be remedied by a regular practice of letting go, like yoga. Listening is a wonderful and priceless gift we can give another being.

To be able to support another by listening can help that person locate their self. Listening in this way provides space in the chaos of life, space to flourish, room to change.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wisdom to Try

The first time I was in a yoga class where Urdhva Dhanurasana (see picture) was taught, I just laid there—no way could I do that. The teacher came over with an inquisitive look, and asked me what I was doing. I said that I couldn’t do the pose, and he asked me if I wanted to try. He helped me and I just got up a little at first, but over time I learned to get up into the pose on my own. In yoga I began to try, and this lesson has spilled out into all corners of my life. I am so grateful for this.

I am reading a great book that talks about the importance of trying: My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph. D. In it Taylor, a brain scientist, describes her experience of having a stroke and her incredible recovery. Through the experience of temporarily loosing certain abilities in her brain she gained valuable insights about consciousness, which she shares in the book. She has a provocative awareness about her recovery:

“Recovery was a decision I had to make a million times a day. Was I willing to put forth the effort to try?”

I find this idea provocative because my tendency has been to let things go too much, as if the things in my life have a natural order that I should obey. If Ms. Taylor had had this attitude, she surly would not have recovered completely. Her recovery was a decision, not something she sat by and watched happen. I wonder as a healthy person: what does this say about my attitude toward my own potential? Can I decide to make the changes I want “a million times a day”? Because it’s not enough to only have a vision in my mind. I want to put it to work.

Somehow I learned from my past that it’s better to have done something, than it is to try. I also learned that it is embarrassing to try. In the book, Taylor mentions that in her early recovery it was a blessing that the judging part of her mind was gone. It allowed her to explore herself with curiosity instead of disappointment.

To try is to be innocent. To try is to be open to learning something new. Stereotypically, these are not considered to be “adult” traits. Even the wise sage of Star Wars (as well as a barometer of mainstream thought), Yoda said, “Do or do not; there is no try.” If taken as absolute wisdom, this kind of thinking is stifling. If someone only allows themselves to do, this person has to be pretty sure already that they can do it, whereas someone who is free to try has more options and can be more creative with life.

As I’ve heard Gabriel Halpern say many times, “Death says: play it safe. Life says: take a risk.”

I don’t think that “trying” can be better than “doing” or vice versa. Both are correct responses to different situations. It’s important to know where you are in a given cycle. For example when I was a teenager, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth mesmerized me. Seeing her muscular arm playing the bass was an inspiring image of strength. It took me about ten years to take my first guitar lesson. I always considered playing to be out of reach. I was disconnected from the thought that I could try, and wasn’t ready to risk the embarrassment of that learning process. I really felt like everything was over and already done when I was in my teens and twenties. I consider myself lucky and blessed that I’ve finally found the wisdom to try new things without the permission of others—even though I consider myself to be a late bloomer in this regard.

A general rule I was taught about yoga teaching was to avoid the word “try.” The idea being that it gives people permission to not do it, because they can just try instead of really doing whatever is being taught. But I see that there times where trying is helpful and healing. If a thing seems impossible, going straight to doing it might not work; it might be better to try it first.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fall-ing for Renewal

The seasons can be seen as metaphor that can be used to work with consciousness.

Here, in Chicago the leaves are blushing with color that signals the fall season. At this time the leaves also drop from their branches. It is the end of a cycle of growth.

In life there are times when good things end: a job, a relationship, youth… We suffer when we psychologically hold onto things that are over. For example, some years ago I was in a job that fit my idea of what I should be doing, but in reality it was a miserable experience. I stayed in it thinking of the so-called “benefits,” and I stayed for my pride. I had thought it was a good decision to take the job and didn’t want to see myself as wrong.

Can you imagine the trees shivering as they pinch onto leaves, trying to hold onto the previous growing season? Yet I was doing something just as ridiculous!

I don’t think the trees desperately hold onto the leaves of their youth. Trees seem wise. They are absolutely in tune with their cycle of change. Even though we had an exceptionally mild and sunny September, the trees weren’t fooled. Fall still happened right on time.

The leaves will continue to fall and decompose, nourishing the earth, and protecting places where fragile plants can grow next spring.

Similarly, we can let old modes of consciousness go and this letting go can nourish our mental realm providing a foundation for future growth and creativity.

When I finally did let go of the miserable job, it initiated a new season in my life when I re-discovered yoga. The practice and my passion rooted strongly in the rich earth of my past experiences, bringing something new and wonderful into my life—spring!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

More than Thought

“Lack of true knowledge is the source of all pains and sorrows...”
-from B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II.4

This “lack of true knowledge” or Avidya refers to spiritual ignorance which is inherent in the human predicament. I say that this ignorance is inherent because our eyes seem to be made to look outward and our ears and other senses also seem to be set up to pick up external vibrations. But, yoga teaches that we can also turn our senses inward to perceive greater depths, or spiritual vistas.

Spiritual wisdom traditions from around the world indicate that we are more than what we see and more than what we think, so why is it hard to experience this? The slant of our materialist culture, according to science, says that we cannot prove the existence of anything beyond the physical world, and beyond what we can measure with mechanical instruments. So I think part of the reason it has been hard for me to accept my spirituality is because I was taught to believe otherwise.

As a woman, I was taught to believe that I was a sex-object, a machine that also must be fed and eliminate waste, and a computer who’s job was to accumulate data as well as follow the rules of society. But guess what? I am more than that. I am more than what I was taught in school. I am more than what others have told me about myself. I am more than the food I have eaten or how many times I went to the bathroom. I am more than how much money I have or what clothes I wear. I am more than “American”. I am more than my sexuality.

What is this more? What more could I possibly be?

I have discovered from my experience practicing yoga and from others who also practice (no matter what spiritual tradition or religious commitments a person has) that yoga helps people get in touch with their spirituality. A person’s spirituality is the other side of the coin from the material aspects of life, and a way to experience this sense of vastness is through a spiritual practice like yoga.

In the absence of practice there is a strong likelihood that I might get totally sucked into the material side of life, and when that happens I am also likely to start drowning in pains and sorrows. This is the nature of Avidya, or spiritual ignorance.
Said another way: when I am caught-up in the web of materialism, without a sense of connection with something greater or more, my life is stuck. But, when I give myself the chance to look inward, and yoga is a great place for this, I can see beyond my little web of thought. I have greater strength and know that I am greater than the contents of my mind, and more than my physical body. In the practice of yoga postures the body is my instrument, tuned into the infinite. And I am happier.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Truthful Fire

In my last entry I talked about creating space for emotions in yoga. While this is an important aspect, if all we did was create space, we might end up like a pancake without blueberries! Emptiness is good, but we need the ripe fruits of our lives to give us direction.

In yoga I want to open up and refuel. This is where the fire aspect of yoga comes in.

A large open gas tank is nothing without the fuel inside. In this case the fuel is truth, including truth that might seem difficult to bear.

Is there easy truth? It can be hard to see in this world where there is violence, ecological destruction, corrupt politics, and sometimes difficult personal truth that everybody faces.

From the Hindu tradition, Nataraja, the fire dancer represents standing in the fire of truth, both personal and shared truth.
In LifeForce yoga, the archetype that Nataraja represents (staying present with one's truth) is coupled with that of Kuan Yin (compassionate understanding, or heart-listening) from the Buddist tradition. Together, an understanding of the human attributes represented by Nataraja and Kuan Yin can help make the situation workable.

If we only stood in the fire of truth we might burn, but if we also include arms of compassion to hold truth, we can protect ourselves from the hot flames.

With this model of practice, we allow the truth to be with us on the yoga mat. The truth could be tightness, fatigue, anxiety, sadness, anger, warmth, ecstasy, and so on... I'm not suggesting that we take yoga into the mental realm, only that we feel whatever is there. And if the story around the sensations starts coming up, observe that and allow the heart to hear. Rather than trying to fix it with intellect, bring attention to the body and to the practice.

For example, I have had various things come up in backbends. One time I was getting a delicious-feeling adjustment from a beautiful male yoga teacher, when my body let out a loud, cracking fart. I felt myself shrinking inside after that. I was so embarrassed! After I came out of the pose, I courageously looked at my teacher. His eyes told me that it was okay. In this case my truth was embarrassment about a body-noise, and the compassionate understanding came from the eyes of my teacher.

In another backbending incident with another male teacher I moaned, but it didn’t seem like me. When I came out of the pose this time (this teacher had brought me up to standing), there was the teacher, who’s first look was accepting, and a female assistant who mocked me with her eyes. Then she looked at the teacher and they shared a look that seemed to judge my behavior. So I explained what happened: I was in the backbend (Urdhva Dhanurasana) and it felt amazing. It had the effect on me as if I existed as pure bliss. The body didn’t seem to be there. The moan came from somewhere far away. I observed it mostly from the outside, and was only dimly aware that the sound came from the body that was “me”. Only after I came out of the pose (feeling expansive) did I realize that it was me, and the strange looks from the teacher and assistant also clued me in. So in this case the truth was ecstasy, and the compassionate understanding also came from inside myself. The experience had seemed to be beyond ordinary experience so I didn’t judge myself, even though I saw others judging me. I just accepted that wildly wonderful backbend experience.

At least that is what I have told myself, but I am suspicious now because I never went to that class again. It was another body-noise embarrassment. In fact I remember myself as a child, cringing at the sound of my voice on a tape recorder. Somehow I haven’t been very accepting of the sounds I make.

What I learn from this is that the compassionate space represented by Kuan Yin has been hard for me to experience. I was so quick to judge.

Both of these backbend experiences happened years ago. The farting backbend happened years before the moaning one, and the moaning one was about five years ago. So perhaps now that I am writing this on a public blog, it might indicate that I am in a place of greater compassion and understanding than I was then. Don’t we all fart and moan? Aren’t these sounds truth?

So as I accept the truth of these experiences with compassionate awareness, I say, “What’s next?” and go back to my yoga mat.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Room for Emotions

A few years ago I traveled with certified Iyengar yoga teacher, spiritual mentor, and beloved friend Gabriel Halpern for a yoga retreat at Kripalu. When we arrived in Albany it was gray and rainy, and I was disappointed by the weather so I complained about it. Gabriel replied with the observation, “Rain is a sign of fertility.” And said that it could be seen as a blessing for a rich learning experience on retreat.

Perhaps emotional rains can also be seen as a blessing. These showers nourish the ground of consciousness and water the seeds of creativity.

A strategy for working with the emotions in yoga comes from the LifeForce yoga training that I did earlier this year. This approach uses archetypes of human experience to set the tone for practice. One of the archetypes used is the bodhisattva of compassion from the Buddhist tradition, Kuan Yin; the name means, “she who hears the cries of the world.”
In the representation that I have, Kuan Yin is seated on a human hand. The hand represents action, and I’m inspired to think that something I can do can actually create enough space to adequately hold my sadness. At certain points in my life this seemed impossible. But the practice of yoga and meditation does create more space in the experience of consciousness so a person can hold much more than once seemed possible. And I now find myself in a place where I can hear other people’s sadness, too.

I’m also inspired to think that this representation might also suggest that humanity has the ability to hold it’s sorrows in this troubled world.

It’s not from the intellect that one can do the kind of listening I’m talking about here, it is from the heart. In the heart I’m convinced that there is adequate space to hear all cries. To me, Kuan Yin represents the listening heart. This kind of listening is not trying to fix anything. Heart listening is acceptance.

The yoga mat can also represent this, an open and accepting space where feeling-states can safely come up. Metaphorically speaking, the yoga space can have the ears and heart of Kuan Yin, who hears an individual’s sorrow, as well as all of humanity’s sorrow. Suffering is bigger than any individual. This reminds me that I am not alone, and that my emotions are a natural part of the path.

In yoga, there is a call for me to expand beyond my woe-is-me story line. Yoga gives me tools for enlarging my consciousness, and with that the sense of who I am.

I have a story, but who I am is bigger than that. And how I express who I am is a creative project.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Judgmental Goliath

“Suspecting that perhaps (s)he is incapable of getting rid of these innumerable images, (s)he has created a super-image, and to that image (s)he has become a slave, therefore (s)he is not free.”
-J. Krishnamurti, The Awakening of Intelligence
(gender inclusiveness added by me)

In my neighborhood, today, I saw a bouncy blonde woman walking down the street dressed as a garish brauhaus maid, wearing an extremely short crinolined skirt and carrying a bunch of yellow balloons that were buoyantly traveling with her. “Would you like a balloon for your baby?” she said to a man nearby. Some teenage girls asked if they could have some. To which she replied, “Yes, if you promise to tell people that I am selling real estate.”

Further down the way I saw five children holding these same yellow balloons, that I now noticed had a big black logo on them. Each child in his or her own time was saying, “Look at mine!” Which seemed so perplexing to me because I was seeing them as exactly the same, and as marketing swag. So I looked closer, and I saw that some of the children were standing at different heights, one on the stairs of one building, one on the stairs of another, with hands holding the balloon’s string as high as they could make them go. A little girl on the grass said, “look at mine!” excitedly. And then with a note of disappointment, “It almost touches the sky.” It was as if she felt that the children who were holding there balloons higher up were a little better than her.
In the above quote Krishnamurti is observing a mental conundrum. When a person believes everything the mind serves up, sometimes we end up feeling bad falsely like the small girl on the grass, and sometimes we might feel good falsely like the children able to hold their balloons higher up. When they really are all holding identical balloons, and the way they hold them doesn’t make them better or worse children. Yet I noted disappointment and shame in the little child who felt her balloon wasn’t as good, and pride and enthusiasm in the children standing on the stairs. They had established a mental framework amongst themselves that they could measure the worth of their respective balloons. This framework created an illusion that one child’s balloon was better than another—the ones “closer to the sky” were better.

A person’s upbringing and culture helps to create similar illusions. The mind creates it’s own complicated logic based on an individual’s experience. And it works well for covering survival needs, like knowing what food to eat, and getting adequate warmth and shelter, even technology and the scientific method. But where it fails miserably is in relationships. The mind thinks it knows what it doesn’t.

As an example I’m sharing a relationship I have with myself, and just like the little girl from the opening story I tend to judge myself falsely. I too allow a framework of thought (mine has been slowly established over the course of my life) to affect how I feel about myself. This framework is the “image to which I have become a slave” from the opening quotation, and I think of it almost like a thought-monster: the “super-image”.

There are times I feel like I live under a giant dome of decisions that have already been made (it represents how I “should” be). These decisions, based on past experience, are frozen into an immense image that hovers over a “me” that is very small, and doesn’t measure up very well to the perfection of the image (of course I am describing a psychological space here). And when I fail to fulfill my expectations I feel wounded inside, almost as if the super-image has lasers that attack my sense of well-being.

I measure myself against this perfect and false super-me, and in this process of comparison I hurt myself. And what does this false “me” look like? She is married, has two kids, a normal career, and had a good and healthy childhood upbringing. This image is far from my life right now so for me my super-image becomes a stepford-wife style robot with guns. This giant she-bot doesn’t even have qualities that I like about myself. So why do I allow this image to rule? Why do I do this when this image is so far from the realities of my life in the present moment? Keeping my eye on the robot, instead of my current situation keeps me stuck. So, again, why does this image get so much power?

Well, when I feel like a victim of my past, it is very easy to see how this King Kong sized judgment-machine can dominate the little “me” who can’t help it. My image is also about cultural norms. And my image comes to me from my family. This image also comes from allowing my primary focus to be on what others think, instead of looking to see my contribution, and really creating what fits for me with my life. Very powerful is this image that has been built up over time.

In reference to the opening quote I do have a choice, even if I don’t always know it. I can let the ogre super-image monster keep me in a state of perpetual torture and servitude. Or I can begin to see differently. I can start to take responsibility for how I relate to the images, thoughts, and stories in my mind. I can take the time to understand how my mind operates, and from that experience I can learn how to use the blessed gift of mind.

Now I know that I don’t really want to be the image from my past, so I can begin to honor my life as it is. And I can learn to appreciate the magical moment we call “now.”

“My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.”
-Swami Kripalu/Carolyn Delluomo

Friday, August 29, 2008

That Universal Place

“Our everyday yoga practice brings us home, allows us to abide in our natural state, that universal place inside ourselves—changeless, eternal, whole—a place that contains and embraces all the emotions.”
-by Amy Weintraub, “Depression and Our Forgotten Magnificence,” Yoga International July/Aug 2002

Place of comfort: home. I put up some decorations on my window and sill to remind me of practice. It has some yoga figures, a candle and heart decorations.


Home is also inside the body. And home is a place where the body is happy.

Even though it often starts in the body, yoga reaches beyond ordinary experience. The words from the above quote, “changeless, eternal, whole” don’t describe an embodied place, those words describe a spiritual place. There is always suffering and separation in our human form. Our lives have stories that anchor us in time, and sometimes that story can seem like a burden, rather than a blessing.

Just like I bathe my body, yoga is my spiritual bath in the morning. It reminds me of my worthiness to have this experience. I am less judgmental, freer. It honors my spirit. I am lighter in the body, fresher in the mind, and more stable in the emotions.

This spiritual housecleaning is important because it allows the accumulation of positive and negative experiences to become part of the rich ground I walk on, instead of clutter in my house or boogiemen in my closet. What I am letting go of is tightness along with emotional stickiness, which can be felt in the body.

If I don’t practice I am more available to unhealthy energies and judgments in my life. Clinging to the past can block the connection to spirit. And I’m more likely to walk around feeling like a victim.


Spirit is connected, and the body desires union. When I am disconnected, ugliness comes out! The body and my past is ruling, watch out. Constricted space. Tight. No room. When I am in a place of spiritual connection I feel like my heart is big enough to hear anything. When I am not I might want to say to the stranger next to me, “Shut the “F” up!” And even though I don’t say it out loud, I make myself very uncomfortable. But when I am connected I might want to hold their hand. I am also more likely to feel compassion towards my own life situation.

The benefits of practice are so clear.