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.