Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Winter Balance

It happens to many people: You go to yoga class and find the balance poses difficult. It might be that at another time the poses felt steadier, or it’s just a new discovery.

The first thing to do when you feel out of balance is to listen to what the wobbliness might be telling you. This observation is a message. Just like a tree waves in the wind, when lives are in times of change we might feel physical ramifications of life events in our bodies. And have compassion for yourself. It can be uncomfortable to look at your life in this way by saying, “what change in my life might this be about?”

It also could be the effect of learning a new skill or relearning after a break from practice. The more you practice the difficult poses, the steadier you will tend to become. Practice tip: Try starting your yoga practice lying flat on your belly, and tune in with the sensations there. Breathe fully. Safety and contentment can be dominant feelings when you are close to the earth. Also try practicing near a wall to steady your self. And use it as much as you need to without judging yourself. It is good to practice yoga in a way that is helpful to you.

During the past few winters, with the exception of this one, I felt jittery. Here are some things that might help if you think your unsteadiness is connected to winter cold and sunlight deprivation.

1. Get enough sleep. There is pressure to do so much. In the winter, try to allow a little more hibernation time.

2. Try light therapy. This year I’ve been using blue-light therapy.

3. Eat root vegetables in a salad or soup. Because these foods grow in the earth they contain the energy of it, and can be helpful for steadiness.

4. Eat enough healthy oils from foods like avocado and flax seeds.

5. Try hot cinnamon or clove tea. They can soothe the winter jitters.

6. Eliminate processed foods. Too many empty calories and processed sugar trigger nervous feelings for me.

7. Wear a long, warm coat. This has been key for me. Just dressing warm enough makes a big difference.

Be well in winter!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tapas, Staying on Task!

During the muggy Ohio summers when I was growing up, I would watch a soap opera here and there. It was cool in the air conditioning in front of the TV. Maybe I had already been to the pool, or I was just hanging around the house eating frozen Eskimo Pies. And even though I thought they were cheesy, due to my young age, I couldn’t help but look to daytime dramas to learn about adult life (however ill-advised that is). I remember the shots that indicated that the character (usually female) was going into fantasy or dream-state. The shot would zoom in on her face and get blurry or wavy, fading into the fantasy scene. This is where she would imagine something wonderful like a romantic scene with a hot guy, or where she would imagine something terrible like her man cheating on her. Then the fantasy would fade back to the one who was dreaming. Real life is a little like that. I find myself going into fantasies, and then wanting to stay on task and do the work of my life without deluding myself.

The five aspects of Niyama, or personal observances, are just that: personal. They govern the realm that other people don’t necessarily know about. Tapas, the third observance, is discipline.

“The word discipline means to learn—not control, subjugate, imitate, and conform. Discipline means to learn. From the word discipline comes “disciple,” one who is willing to learn from the master, to learn. But here there is neither a disciple nor a master but only the act of learning all the time. And that requires great deal of attention, a great deal of energy, so that you are watching this and thus, you create no illusions. It is easy to create illusions; they come when you are pursuing, demanding, wanting, an experience. Desire creates illusions.”

-by J. Krishnamurti, Total Freedom, p. 287

When I see that I’m lost in thought, I bring attention to my breath, the room I’m in, or I focus on the lips of the person who’s talking to me. I try to bring myself to the task at hand, whether it’s listening, walking, or doing my laundry. It is not easy to stay present. It is easy to go off into fantasy or illusion, as the Krishnamurti quote points out. And it is an easy road to self-gratification to imagine something wanted, even to the point of neglecting what is truly there. But, in the long term it’s easy to see the pitfalls of this habit. If I am spending time in fantasy, I am not using this time to do all the small things necessary to live my life fully.

Fantasy can be dangerous because it leaves a memory and it can affect how you relate with others, and harm relationships because these thoughts are probably not true. The only way you can know what is going on with someone else is to ask questions, listen to answers, and watch behavior. Even if something feels true, it might not be. I am reminded of Meryl Streep’s character in the movie Doubt who did things based on her “certainty” rather than facts. Experiences of certainty and power are seductive but should always be tempered with feedback from the world. This requires that someone looks, asks questions, and listens, bringing learning into important decisions.

In terms of the yoga practice, there are certain poses that a seasoned practitioner might have done hundreds or thousands of times. Tapas is what makes it possible to continue to learn in the face of repetition. The discipline is to remain aware. So if the yoga practice ever gets boring, or you find yourself thinking about other things, like a soap opera fantasy during practice, it is useful to see what is happening—awareness is dull. During practice if you are breathing well and feeling the pose through all the cells of the body and adjusting accordingly, and noticing the pose building, and seeing when it begins to fail—awareness is sharp.

It’s good to realize that experience includes times when we’re sharp and times when we’re dull. And when we can learn to identify our mental states, we can to begin to work with our selves. Tapas or discipline helps us stay with it. Don’t take the easy path of illusions. Take the path of learning.

When I see that I’ve been daydreaming I can to shift my attention to awareness of the present moment, and let things unfold from there, instead of trying to control experience with my imagination.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Ashtanga Mirror

In an Ashtanga yoga class you are doing the same poses in the same sequence every time. It is the Primary Series. So rather than the poses or sequence being different with each practice, the difference is you. As you put yourself into the same poses/sequence every day you can begin to detect differences in your body’s day-to-day energy. You might feel fatigued on one day and king or queen of the world the next. You will notice differences in flexibility. On one day you will break all previous records with a super-deep practice, and then the next day you might feel tight in the same set of poses. The breath is easy on one day, and hard the next. On one day you might feel in love with yourself and your practice, and on another be totally self-loathing. When the sequence is set as in the Primary Series, it highlights the changes that we go through every day. Ashtanga yoga becomes a mirror of observation for our selves.

Last week I took Bill Shapleigh’s Tuesday night Ashtanga class at YogaView. His class is done according to the traditional way. He calls out the poses, counts out the breaths, and adjusts students (with permission). There is almost no instruction about the poses. It is not a class for beginners, but it is a great class for those with experience who want to practice Ashtanga. This time I felt like a totally different person from the last time I had practiced the Series. In the last few years I haven’t been as committed to this style of practice as I once was, but I do appreciate it’s ability to tell me how I’m doing relative to the last time I did it. This time I felt more confident and sure in my body. A friend who was doing Ashtanga around the time I started yoga said she remembered when I first started how my legs would shake like a newly born foal in down dog. And now my legs feel sure like they are drinking healing sap from the earth. I was strong during the practice, and strong after it.

The biggest difference I noticed after doing Ashtanga yoga for a few years is that I began to feel comfortable in my own skin. The healing balm of yoga worked. Then, after three-plus years of this practice, my emotions became difficult to process. I was going through a difficult break-up and making the first real decisions of my life. I eventually slowed down my practice, studied Iyengar yoga, and started to teach yoga. And now I have come into a better balance with myself spiritually and emotionally. And I still like Ashtanga!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Iyengar. Ashtanga.

You say Iyengar, I say Ashtanga.
You say Anusara, I say Kundalini.

Iyengar. Ashtanga. Anusara. Kundalini.
Let’s call the whole thing off!

Yoga is beyond any individual style or lineage of yoga practice. Basically they are all leading to the same place. But how you get there can look radically different, because there is such variety in yoga practices. And I have worked with a few!

I had been working in high-stress offices and practicing Richard Hittleman's Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan on and off since college when I took my first Ashtanga yoga class at what was then Priya yoga studio on Oak Street, here, in Chicago. I realized it was kind of out-of-my-league, so I took some Yoga Basics classes for a while, and eventually got back to Ashtanga, and was hooked! The intensity, heat, and movement of the practice was exactly what I needed after years with very little exercise. It was an outlet, and a metaphor for my frustration and angst, as well as a way out. The poses in the Primary Series for me symbolized going inward and being born again fresh into life. However, I did get injured a couple times. I lacked body awareness and really wrestled myself into those poses when I was first learning.

Perhaps it was my intense zeal for a very powerful practice that led to my ungrounded state after about three-and-a-half years of daily Ashtanga yoga. I became unbalanced. Whether it was other life circumstances, or the practice itself, I can’t really say. Maybe it was just my karma.

It was during this time that I met Gabriel Halpern, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher with eclectic healing skills. It was learning this practice, with longer holds in the poses and attention to alignment details, that helped me come back to earth. The healing I have experienced during this time is due, I think, to slowing down, using the technique, and getting to know Gabriel. He is a man who is living his yoga in an imperfect world, and has learned valuable life skills that he talks about in his classes. It has been so helpful to meet someone like this. Thank you, Gabriel! I can live in this world.

I don’t think that one practice is better than the other, but they are so different! And there is so much nuance and subtlety in the different approaches to practice. So I admit, I’m not going very deep here, just a brief outline of how Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga have informed my experience.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Slumdog Synchronicity

At first I resisted liking the movie, Slumdog Millionaire. But, in this case, resistance was futile. It just seemed so contrived on the first viewing, though I appreciated seeing the slum that was like nothing I had seen before. From the director of Trainspotting (a movie I liked, though I remember it only a little), Slumdog Millionaire seemed like British style movie-making transposed onto an Indian setting. The film shots are stylish. The music is hip. And what’s wrong with that?

Nothing, except when it obscures authenticity. Yet, doesn’t it seem silly to see a film desiring a real experience (like I was apparently doing)? But, I do go to movies looking for a taste of something outside my ordinary realm of experience. And I can leave feeling fulfilled, as if I have visited somewhere else, almost as if I had been someone else. There have even been times when I’ve needed a little reentry time to get used to being myself again after a particularly absorbing film. This was not one of those times. The style did get in the way for me.

But even though I wasn’t able to totally loose myself in this film, it did give me a rush. And the second time I saw it I cried during the dance sequence at the end. I think it was out of relief for a break from the relentless love, determination and violence the film presents up to then.

I like the fearlessness of the character, Jamal. From the very beginning he and his brother show absolute fearlessness when going through their world, except in a funny shot with their mother. They might fool and outrun everyone else, but not Mom.

And the setup of the movie shows that all the events in his life have given him the tools to win on the TV show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It strikes me as crass that a life’s mystery might be devoted to solving a television game show. But of course it’s all in the name of love. And it makes a tidy little package that keeps the film moving at an almost bewildering pace. (So this isn’t a rave review.) Okay, it’s contrived!

But don’t you want to make life make sense? I feel pulled to make sense of it all. And so it is satisfying on some level to see Jamal’s life unfold around a challenge that he’s chosen for himself. I’d like to think that my life would be able to reveal the answers that would help me succeed in what I choose to do. And maybe it can. I don’t know.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Santosa under Pressure

This morning I covered a 6am yoga class for someone. It was seventeen degrees below zero for the commute! I was feeling sluggish from the generous portion of Thai noodles I ate late last night. I had checked the clock several times during the night, making sure that I would get up on time. I was down to the very last of my yoga clothes that I almost never wear. So, I didn’t arrive at class feeling my best, and the class was full. And it was time to begin.

So I began, automatically, to lead the class through “Yoga Basics.” I wasn’t happy to be there. I was thinking negatively to myself and about myself. I had the class in down dog, and I did it, too. And I said to myself silently, “Cut your self some slack. It’s seventeen degrees below zero.” And I giggled. From then on, I began to make more eye contact with students. Things felt better. I ended the class with a poem about gratefulness, and I was thankful for the students and the class. I was learning about Santosa under pressure.

The second personal observance (Niyama) of yoga is Santosa, meaning contentment. How can one respect or fulfill this aspect of yoga when experience naturally includes things like irritation and discontent? I don’t think that the answer is to just pretend like everything is great. If we are just pretending or showing others that things are fine, but know inside that it’s not true, is that helpful? In some cases it is okay, but as a habit it is deadly. It kills the potential for real connection with people if we cannot share authentically. And what about lying to our selves by thinking everything’s great when it’s not? This might lead to us just being a mess of repressed yogis unintentionally lashing out without awareness. This is why it’s important to see your negative thoughts (because they can drive you).

How can we see negativity safely, without becoming subsumed by it?

One approach is to “cut your self some slack” like I did this morning. Also, I am looking to learn which thoughts are helpful, and which are not. What I have found is that a lot of the stories I tell myself are not helpful. I am learning to be suspicious of my thoughts. So when I discovered the negative crap my mind was spewing this morning, I honored it just enough to shift my focus. And I left class feeling that my job was well done. Can I do better next time? Absolutely. I am learning all the time. I sometimes make mistakes. And I aim for doing my best.

I want to live my life fully, with Santosa (contentment) in my heart. My life is a real life, a human life, with ups and downs, gains and losses, achievements and failures. Yet, I know that this is life and things are always changing. So becoming attached to any one aspect of the experience (even positivity) is false. And in this is a measure of contentment. I am doing what I came here to do. I am laughing and crying as I live. I am grateful for the experiences I can have.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Story Seed

I was walking around in the big snow today. Big wet flakes were blowing in my face, and my mascara was not waterproof so I had my hand up in front of my face in a futile attempt to shield it. Every time I turned a corner, the wind seemed to change direction so that the heavy snow flew directly into my face. I was walking quickly so I could meet my friend on time. I got really hot under my coat, so I loosened the collar to let some air in. Then the wind picked up, so I buttoned up again. A young guy was taking a break from shoveling snow in front of the hospital, and was watching me as I was shielding my face, straightening my coat, and trying to keep my bag from slipping off my shoulder. When I was near him I shared a cheerful, “hello.” And it was warmly returned along with a compliment about my coat.

A little later in my walk I reflected on how cheerful I felt in the midst of the potentially irritating factors. I had practiced yoga right before going out, perhaps making a difference. But in the past I remember times where I was absolutely miserable under similar circumstances. And I realized that how I feel is the seed around which the story of my life unfolds. If I feel relaxed, connected, and confident, a little snow in the face isn’t going to budge my sense of wellness. But, if I feel that the snow is somehow infringing on how I think things should be, I might worry myself into a miserable state, creating a totally different story about the snow. So I can look at the same weather occurrence as fine, miserable or fun, and these different possibilities emerge from how I feel at the time.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Saucha: Purity is peace.

We live in a time where cleaning means killing: killing germs, ethnic cleansing, and banishing negativity. To be clean, pure or safe seems to mean living in a pristine environment that doesn’t include perturbing things. It is thought that the perturbing things must be eradicated or removed to be in peace. I will be suggesting a different approach to this concept.

When I fly I feel a blissful sense of removal from earthly concerns. I am in the air, far above the troubles that the earth represents. I move through a magical space, free to peruse the mental landscapes that have now lost their substance, like holograms that communicate, without beating me up. It feels clean, up high in the air. I can’t be touched up there.

It’s hard to be touched, changed by life events. Emotionally, we tend to cling to comfortable moments that exist mentally, but aren’t in the tangible world. This resistance to new experience acts like a thick wall that insulates the fearful self from change. The concept of cleanliness can similarly help us hide from life by preserving a certain amount of space as “clean,” that is surrounded by everything fearful.

But there is another way to look at the idea of cleanliness and purity. Rather than the absence of impurity, which implies that we are somehow “dirty” and must be “cleansed”, let’s consider cleanliness as space. And there is usually more space than there are objects in any given living space. The space that the air occupies is larger than the room that the objects take up. Objects tend to overwhelm attention. They seem important. Let me suggest that the space around objects is also important.

We could look at operations of mind similarly. The stories, objects and concepts of memory take up less room than the infinite space of consciousness and creativity. So this space is there around positive and negative thoughts. And there is enough room for everything in experience. With this model of processing experience there is no need to exterminate certain thoughts, because there is enough room for everything. Just because we have a negative experience, it doesn’t mean that it will crowd out positive ones. The fact is that we have positive, negative and neutral experiences, and there is room for all of them, and more.

It is in the spirit of this concept of mental space that allows all life experiences, that I’d like to look at the first precept of Niyama: Saucha. Saucha means cleanliness or purity, and for the mental aspect: space. This can become a powerful tool, because when we invite discomfort into this pure and endless mental space the discomfort looses it’s power to control behavior. Just like the fire in the fireplace warms a room, but doesn’t take it over through incineration, feelings can exist in a similar way—the feeling is present, yet not running the show. It is just warming the mental space, bringing flavor to a particular moment. But, if we enter into the discomfort, allowing it to overwhelm our faculties, then we are at the mercy of our own feelings. And our ability to choose is incinerated. So to me, the mental aspect of purity is about the ability to maintain perspective, rather than being overwhelmed by any singular event.

There is also a physical aspect of Saucha that has to do with personal hygiene. Keep the body clean, inside and out. Eating fresh fruits and vegetables can help with health and vitality. The natural fibers help clean the system internally, and fresh raw foods can help the body cleanse itself of toxins. Eat a fresh raw salad every day.

Saucha can also help with living spaces. Too much accumulated clutter gets in the way of pleasant living, and can keep us stuck in the past as we are surrounded by all of those old things. Remove things that no longer serve the space.

Clear the mind by releasing the grip of outdated concepts and by actively seeing the space that is the potential for change. Clear the body with exercise and cleansing foods. Clear living spaces by removing clutter. Saucha.

Saucha Snack:

Winter Solstice

Lacinto Kale Leaf with stem removed
Slice of Avocado
A halved Date with pit taken out

Place the Avocado and halved Date across the Kale leaf. Roll it up. Eat!

Adapted recipe from The Sunfood Diet Success System, by David Wolfe

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Friends, Again!

I am sorry about your suffering.
I am sorry about my suffering.

Perhaps, you're right.
Perhaps, I'm right.

I admire your courage.
I am praying for courage.

Maybe, one day you will be able to see my flaws,
And be my friend.
Maybe not.

Let's be friends,

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Niyama for Revolutionary Road

Niyama offers tenets that can help harmonize our inner lives. Some might wonder why we should focus on our inner worlds. Doesn’t the outer one provide enough challenge? It may. But consider the situation in the movie Revolutionary Road. The challenges of the characters are similar to challenges that most people face. And even though I didn’t especially enjoy this movie, it does do a great job of illustrating the concept of emptiness and hopelessness of giving up dreams to live life in the suburbs. The main characters find themselves giving up their uniqueness to adhere to conventional behavior. But it doesn’t work out very well for the characters in the movie, and the only person who can speak freely is someone who has a day pass from the insane asylum. Pretty sad. I found myself feeling a little crazy just watching this film.

But I think that if Kate Winslet’s character could have just explored herself a little more she might have been able to find balance. She was concerned with creating space for her cutie-pie hubby, Leonardo DiCaprio, to discover himself. But her character’s personality seemed so strong. If she could have just taken a class or something (so she would have been growing something inside herself along with children) I think she might have fared better. But the movie starts out by showing her personal dream failing, and sets us up for her feelings of hollowness and hopelessness that the mentally ill guy helps us to understand. This family’s downfall is that they couldn’t accept themselves, and found themselves faking it and lying to get through the hours.

What does this have to do with yoga?

It has everything to do with yoga, because what yoga presents is the possibility for inner transformation. And the character’s downfall is a failure of their inner worlds. It’s pretty common that the first set of life plans don’t work out exactly as planned. So this movie presents a pretty dismal version of this. The characters give up. Life is too much for them. Desperate and ghastly measures are taken. But in lives that are living (as opposed to screen characters) there are opportunities for renewal. We can dream new dreams—even in the suburbs.

Niyama is the second of the eight limbs of yoga. It offers a strategy for attuning oneself toward positive change, and discovering oneself. It has five aspects that are concerned with the personal life of a yogi:

1. Saucha – purity
2. Santosa – contentment
3. Tapas – discipline
4. Svadhyaya – self-study
5. Isvara-pranidhana – surrender

These five principles set the stage for positive personal growth. Niyama guides us to relate with ourselves consciously. In the world it’s easy to forget about oneself in striving to fit in. There is so much going on and so much distraction. That’s why the first limb, Yama, brings attention to behaviors that are harmful, to take away that draw on our valuable resources. And so we have some energy to devote to ourselves.

The principles of Niyama outline a plan for taking care of oneself. Saucha has to do with inner and outer cleanliness. Santosa calls for the cultivation of contentment. Tapas is the discipline to stay with it. With Svadhyaya, or self-study we can observe the effects of practice and study. And Isvara-pranidhana is surrendering to the truth, or to a greater sense of reality. It takes into account that the world is bigger than oneself. Things happen that are out of our control.

Niyama outlines a compassionate approach for making changes. I have heard people say that they are stuck, even trapped in their lives. It’s usually best to start with something simple, and to follow through with it. Recently, I made a positive change. I always do some yoga practice (even if it’s only thirty minutes) before the first private session or group class I teach. What was previously holding me back was that I regularly teach 7am classes and my travel time is almost an hour. So I have early mornings, and was sometimes just showing up to teach as if that was enough. But I have found that the extra time for practice before teaching is essential. Practice later in the day is good but it doesn’t sharpen my senses for teaching the way early practice does. This change requires discipline (Tapas) to ensure that I persist with it. The practice clears my mind (Saucha) so I can be more accurate in my teaching. I watch the effects of this practice (Svadhyaya). And I feel good about my work (Santosa). And above all, I surrender to the truth of the moment (Isvara-pranidhana).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Respite from disease

We were walking on Bear Butte, a sacred site for the Lakota people, in South Dakota last spring. It felt natural. Though we had only known one another for a couple days, I was magically transported into feelings of safety and belonging that I had not encountered since childhood. I felt honored by you. Your eyes seemed to reflect my joy in discovering you. The terrain in one place had rocks the size of feet; it was unstable as we walked. I heard you say “ow” because it hurt your ankles, and then you asked me if my feet were okay. Later that night, in the dark and moist heat of the sweat lodge ceremony, I heard you say my name, and it sounded like my name referred to a cherished one.

Throughout the trip we talked about intense life concerns. Looking back on it, I guess I was talking and experiencing with my imagination fully engaged and without regard for life beyond the trip. We were on a spiritual journey, and I should have left it at that. But in the moment I thought it would translate into the rest of my life. And I suppose it has, just not the way that I was fantasizing it would. In my love-drunk state I thought that I could do anything. I could heal. I belonged. The trip was a respite from disease. And I am grateful for the moment of bliss.

The disease I’m talking about here is dis-ease, as in not being comfortable, and not feeling okay. And I realize that it’s very common to project our salvation on someone else. But, then when people get together so often the other one also takes the blame for things going badly. Both of these attitudes ignore the bigger picture.

I can’t begin to wrap my mind around the events that led to my birth, or any human birth. According to current beliefs a Big Bang started our universe, then there was the miracle of life and the evolution of species. Human culture and societies formed. My ancestors participated in this. Then my dad met my mom and I was born into this time period. (Obviously I am leaving out some detail.)

And, it is a project much bigger than a blog entry to describe all the events that led up to me having the personality and life circumstances I now have. Who I have become, since birth, is a part of a larger flow of information and interactions that lead back to the first people who walked on earth, and perhaps even further back to our evolutionary ancestors. In each moment of my awareness there is potential to see myself as a natural culmination of life up to now that includes the events of my personal life as well as the lives around me and those that came before me.

From this perspective, it is not logical to blame myself for how I am showing up at any given moment. I am a part of the larger flow of life. I am a representation (there are many others) of what we were, and I hold potential (along with everybody else) for what we will become. In my actions I contribute to this greater flow. So when it comes to my interactions with another person the “your fault/my fault” thing doesn’t really hold up when looked at through the lens of the bigger picture that I’ve just barely described.

Ashtanga yoga offers a strategy for maximizing one’s contribution to the greater flow of life. It starts with Yama, which governs our interactions and helps us to conserve precious life-energy by not harming others, and continues on with ways to concentrate and express this energy towards a transcendental experience of life.

In these ancient scriptural concepts I see a way to direct my life according to whatever wisdom and inspiration I might have. So instead of flowing aimlessly, and riding out whatever current happens to push into me, there is the possibility to add some direction to my path. It’s as if at first I’ve discovered that I’m on a boat, and then I find that I actually have an engine to initiate change and a rudder so I can steer.