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.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


“While they meditate, slowly and unconsciously, they let go of the muscles in their faces, dropping their jaws, their mouths opening like children. How vulnerable we are without the mask of thought.”
-by Michael McColly, The After-Death Room

These “masks of thought” live on the body as well as the face, which is why we can’t really think our way through the yoga poses—the thought is already sticking in the body. We can use thought as interpreted instruction to get us going, but there must also be a letting go, and a clearing of gripping thought remnants in the body.

My brow worries and my shoulders say, “I’m unworthy,” with a sickly and tender ache that includes the back of my neck. I read this as imprinted shame left over from childhood, a remnant of trying to disappear over and over in my life—especially during childhood and early adolescence.

My body tells the tale. At times I can still hear my shoulders saying, “Watch out!” as when blows of childhood abuse came at me in the past. My stunned eyes were opened wide, in the stark light of horror, wondering, “Why?” My hands gripped in on themselves like tiny sweaty balls, shaking with power diminished. My belly was tight and hurting, attempting to stop the life force. My feet were numbly holding my body, not knowing where to go. And a geyser of grief and anger pushed through, everywhere.

Of course, my life is very different today, yet my body still seems to speak of my traumatic past. And yoga has been a treasure to me because it allows me to relax and soothe my body, gently clearing it of the remnants of trauma. Every time I practice I release the grip a little more. Yoga is my medicine.

To relax the “mask” and body suit of thought is to experience freedom inside, liberation from the clinging bonds of the past. And when the tightness, shame, anger, and trauma are released from the body, an unblemished curiosity remains, an innocence unencumbered by personal history, receptive and open. Presence deepens in a body that has released the tension around trauma and old baggage as you become more deeply connected with yourself. And it just feels better in the body! There is also richness present as fresh perspective with a burnished luster. It is not the naked, bright-hot vulnerability of youth, but a well-defined beauty, a glow that comes from yielding the fruits of experience, both positive and negative.

The phrase, “keeping it bottled up,” does just that, preserving all the old hurts indefinitely so you can continue tasting them in their original form. This is like serving the jelly of the past on the bread of the present moment, possibly blocking the good flavor of today with the concentrated essence of the past.

Employing techniques—yoga is one—to release and process old pain, can allow the fruits of experience to be savored. This work can also help to bring clarity to a muddled mind, as well as opening a doorway into greater compassion and strength.

The daily practice of releasing tension and personality masks in my body and mind allow me to be more present, grounded, compassionate and understanding of myself and others. It also enables me to be more relaxed, comfortable, clear and focused in my life.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kaleidoscopic reentry

We were walking down a street, in conversation. The sun was bright and hot, yet the breeze felt nice and cool on my skin, the ideas were flowing and suddenly, like a tidal wave passing through me, I could no longer listen as I was swept away by something you said. The flow came on inside me at full-blast; it was a bit like motion sickness.

The closest reference I have for a similar experience of that rush, is a time with my first boyfriend when we had just been to the Greek Festival in Columbus, Ohio. I had drunk too much red wine, so he was driving my car. Even though he wasn’t driving fast, I was holding on tight to the car’s door and seat, cool gray imitation leather under my hot sweaty palms. The visual information was pouring in too fast, and it felt like I was being sucked into the vortex of the scene ahead. I was about to be either engulfed or obliterated, so I told him, desperately, to slow down. And when he did I felt a little better. So we drove very slowly for a while after that.

This time I wasn’t drunk, yet there was a similar perceptual effect from an idea. Behind the scenes my mental world was being reordered in a typhoon, and I just didn’t know exactly where my feet went, yet. I couldn’t quite grasp my place in this new realm I was seeing. This time I just needed to stop walking and be with the idea for a moment before we went on. I think it was just a pause where I said “wait,” and took a breath, said “wow!” or “whoa!” and “what?” And sadly, I don’t remember exactly what it was that transported me. It was something about the way writing works. I was seeing how ideas and images gather around a subject from infinity; I was seeing a relationship between writing and meditation. I was seeing the writer as having a hand in creation, and choosing the words as being almost god-like as worlds are brought into existence through the pen or laptop. And I was seeing a reader able to explore herself through another person’s words.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

World-changing Actions

Being and doing are not separate from one another. The two words "being" and "doing" describe different aspects of experience, which really is one huge all-inclusive thing. The reason I am bringing this up, even though it might seem obvious, is because a subtle misunderstanding has tripped me up.

In yoga there seems to be an emphasis on being--almost to the point that doing is bad. "Stop doing so much, and slow down," might be a message that someone would walk away with. And in some cases it might not be a bad idea. Of course I see that we are in a culture that emphasizes the material side of life. Yet it also puts us in a double-bind where being and doing are interfering with one another: in order to be I have to stop doing so much. So I'm stuck because I have things I need to do. Looking a little deeper into Indian philosophy shows a way to work with this apparent conflict.

"In contrast with Western philosophy which acknowledges only five senses, Hindu tradition attributes eleven senses to the body, the five senses of knowledge (the jnanidriyas), i.e. the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch, and the five senses of action (the karmindriyas), i.e. the hands (as the means of action), the feet (as the means of locomotion), the digestion and the elimination (both necessary for the survival of the individual body), and the sex organs (necessary for the survival of the human race). The eleventh sense is the mind, which coordinates the other ten senses..."
-Dona Holleman, Centering Down

Understanding action as a sense offers a possibility that we can perceive the world through our actions, as well as our ability to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. This idea is extremely empowering and hopeful to me. The world is no longer only what I see and hear and so on passively, now the world is also what I do. Suddenly, with this subtle perceptual change, the world becomes a creative and vital place where I can make a difference.

In the Western model, it seems like the truth is outside me, like I need to be told, or see someone do something, before I permit myself to do it. But when I shift my perspective to embrace doing as a natural expression of myself, it gives meaning to what I want because now I can do something about it. It also somehow gives me permission to act, knowing that doing is as natural as seeing or tasting.

It also liberates the western yoga practitioner to know that it's okay to do, and even good to act. We don't have to worry so much about loosing "being" because we have things to do. But, can we also allow our yoga practice to help us to act from a place of increasing awareness, and really consider how our actions are changing the world? Are we making the world a better place?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Numb me up, Wall-E!

In this high-speed society we have forgotten how to relax, instead we numb-out--a poor substitute for relaxation. Numbing-out strategies: carb-loaded food, drugs and alcohol, workaholism, over-sleeping, even compulsive yoga practice can be desensitizing. To numb oneself through these or other methods regularly is also an expression of hopelessness--like saying to oneself: I don't want to deal with reality, or I can't take reality, I feel uncomfortable or unsure about the future. This is totally normal human experience! Yet, to have an awareness that sees what is going on can help a person make clear decisions about how to spend one's precious life energy.

There are times (many more than I'd like to admit) when I eat a carb-loaded snack or meal, then, "surprise!" I need to rest or sleep. The food puts me out. I know this, yet there are still times where I come home to "get things done," and realize,"I'm hungry," which can lead to, "I want Thai noodles," or,"corn chips," which leads to,"night, night." And later it leads to self-loathing, as I've let myself down again!

Do we really have to numb-out so much that we let the world get as bad as the movie Wall-E, where the world is totally buried in garbage? Earth is not habitable, so the people in the movie are all on a space-ship in a robotized culture where they are totally subdued and numbed-out. Robots take care of every whim and clean-up. They are only slightly more able-bodied than those people who were plugged into The Matrix. Wall-E has a light touch in that the people seem pleased to wake up and rebuild their lives on earth. They have a sense of wonder as they rediscover themselves.

Do we have to wait until things get as bad as that? Do we have to hit the lowest low before we can build something fresh and new? Of course you must realize, dear blog-reader, that I am talking about myself, and maybe you can identify with these ideas, too. ...It does look like we're in this together.

"If you have come to help me
You are wasting your time,
But if you have come because
Your liberation is bound up with mine
Then let us work together."
-Lila Watson

Thank you T-shirt wearer at The Grind coffee house in Lincoln Square where I found this quote.

How can one gain a sense of wonder for life when things seem lost and hopeless? This is an essential ingredient: to be curious about life. Even when you've seen the fall season for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 or more years, can you smell the leaves this season, and see the colors, and feel the brisk air and the warm sun on the skin, and hear the leaves rustling as you walk, feeling weight in one foot then the other, tuning into your true sensations. They might be and probably are different from what I'm describing, as I can only give a rough sketch. As you feel your sensations, at home in your body, you might feel your mind open up, too, in delight, spacious awe, and wonder.

Many of us spend "down time" over-stimulating ourselves with constant movies, TV, video games, chores, worries, music, books on tape, etc.--never really resting. If this resonates, find a technique that suits: a relaxation CD, meditation, yoga, walking in nature, or something else that works for you. If you don't do it already: start a daily relaxation practice. My daily yoga and meditation practice is so important to me, and I see it as a place of physical and mental rejuvination. A resting body and mind is a clear body and mind. It is from this more relaxed place that we are better able to make the world a better place.