Friday, October 13, 2017

What is Prayer and Who Prays?

The words "thoughts and prayers" are generally broadcast across social media platforms in response to tragedies and crises. In recent weeks our world has seen disaster upon disaster visited upon it, with a variety of responses from private citizens, some helpful and some arguably having little to no impact. Many people have shared the opinion that "thoughts and prayers" are not enough, and possibly even useless. Indeed, solutions to problems come in the form of actions, not wishes.

Does prayer actually do anything? A religious person's answer will certainly differ from that of an atheist. A prayer can be simply an earnest hope or wish, or the act of beseeching an object of worship. Prayer is word which is overused and little understood. Before dismissing prayer as a useless practice, a reasonable person would examine and attempt to understand it. In this post, I'd like to assist in that endeavor.

Prayer is rightly associated with theism (belief in the existence of a god or gods who created and continue to sustain the universe, intervening in the lives of humans). In their efforts to acknowledge and commune with the gods they believe in, theistic people have developed many different practices, prayer being the most visible and well-known.

While prayer is usually conceived of as a devotional activity, just like the humans who practice it, prayer has evolved. There is a connection between prayer and meditation. Both practices relate to human consciousness. As meditation becomes more popular and accessible to larger numbers of people, more attention is being directed at human consciousness. Both prayer and meditation are consciousness-shaping activities. Meditation focuses on greater awareness, getting us in touch with our consciousness and helping us to refine it. Prayer is a willful directing of our consciousness towards a specific purpose, be it religious, or not. As I see it, involving a deity in the practice of prayer isn't strictly required.

As part of its ethical framework, Yoga philosophy teaches the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, the action of surrendering to a higher power (relying on translations from Sanskrit and borrowing from the Twelve Steps terminology). In order to pray, a person must be willing to surrender to forces greater and more powerful than the human self. Such forces are evident in our existence: time and space are two of the easiest examples. Humans are undeniably small in comparison with the far reaches of the universe and the forces of nature which rule our existence. In spite of the great scientific and material progress we have made over the millennia, our knowledge of and control over our condition and position in the universe are indisputably limited. There's a lot we do not know and cannot control. Prayer is an action of emptying out and turning over our concerns, fears and longings to a transcendent reality. It is a form of letting go of what we can't fix or understand.

Atheists, spiritual-but-not-religious people, agnostics and the devout: none of us can pray unless we humble ourselves. Humility lets us experience awe and appreciate the vastness of the universe and the natural world. When we are humble, we can admit the possibility of the transcendent. In allowing for transcendence, we increase our capacity for experiencing peace and comfort. I don't want to thump the Bible here, but this New Testament scripture captures the idea: "Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand" (Philippians 4:6-7).

Prayer is a means of accessing the transcendent and getting beyond the confines of ourselves. You may be intrigued to find out that the latter, the very action of connecting to the transcendent, has been proven in numerous studies to positively impact mental and physical health. My teacher gave a talk last week on the impact of spirituality on health, then she wrote a blog post on her website providing follow-up statistics and references pointing to improved health outcomes from spiritual practice. You can access it here.  In her talk she addressed those people who identify as atheists, offering that they can foster a connection to the transcendent through practices such as meditation and the embodiment of spiritual values, which are at the foundation of yoga. I offer that prayer is one of those practices, just not in the way it is commonly conceptualized.

Strengthen to Open

It takes strength to be open. This is equally true for the mind and the body. When we stretch and open up one part of the body, we do so from a foundation of strength in a corresponding part. On the mental and emotional level, when we open our minds to new ways of thinking and new experiences, we require strength to overcome the forces of fear and habit. In our relationships, as we open to the presence and perspective of another person, a strong sense of our own self and healthy boundaries pave the way to a lasting connection. There is no strength without a certain degree of openness, and no real openness can occur absent a foundation of strength.

In a postural yoga class, it feels good to open up the front of the torso, hip flexors, chest and shoulders in backbending. When our backbends are safe and sustainable, they are supported by strengthening action in our back muscles, arms and legs. Alternatively, as we open up, stretch and relax the back muscles, neck, and backs of the legs in forward bending, we draw our support from our strong core musculature and the strength in our largest muscles on the tops of the thighs. As we do our lateral bending postures, we feel the right side of the body opening as the left side musculature contracts, and vice versa. We experience this interplay of opening one side of the body while strengthening the other as we flow through our yoga sequences. Remaining aware of this dynamic exchange and balance as we move and breathe is a good way to stay focused in a yoga class and in your personal practice.

In our meditation practice as well as in restorative yoga and savasana, we are opening to our internal experience: our subtle sensations, thought patterns and emotions. In the stillness of these more internal yogic practices, we are strengthening deeper awareness and our ability to abide with ourselves in the present moment. From this foundation of strength, we can open to a more transcendent reality and perspective.

As we take this "strengthen to open" mentality into the yoga of everyday life and work, it makes us more aware of our progress. We begin to notice how far we've come, or perhaps areas where we may be stuck, in our openness with loved ones. We can look back and be reminded of fears and doubts we've overcome on our paths. We can appreciate the way our unique experiences have contributed to our growth when we've been strong enough not to resist change or newness.

Allow yourself to own and appreciate your individual balance of strength and openness. In yoga practice as in all of life, make the modifications you need to fine tune your movements.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Yoga and the I AM Consciousness

Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” -John 8:58

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. -Exodus 3:14 

These words from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible reveal the transcendent, universal nature of the Jewish and Christian Divine Personas. 

SO HUM is a Buddhist and Hindu mantra and philosophical aphorism which means, "I am That." It dates back to the Isha Upanishads in the first millennium BCE. Reciting the So Hum mantra is a time-honored practice to connect us to our inner divine nature. Affirming “I am that” is, according to Dr. John Campbell (yoga teacher and professor of Religious Studies at UVA), the antecedent to otherness. “Creation is unfolding in the world and we are like the unfolding world. We are not a single static unity, but rather, we are always changing, and we are constantly learning how to direct the acknowledgment of divinity inward,” says Campbell.

Throughout the world, all religious traditions are guiding humans towards an identity which surpasses our finite individual consciousness, the identity of the true Self. We are so much more than we may think we are. There is so much more truth, power and peace at our disposal. 

Often in my yoga classes, I tell people to go within and connect to the witness consciousness, an infinitely compassionate place within where we may anchor ourselves in moments of upheaval. The witness consciousness is related to the great I AM consciousness. As we draw nearer to the I AM Presence, our small self, with all its judgments, begins to fall away. 

Recently I've been playing with my individual small self identity by researching my ancestry. Delving into paternal and maternal lines of DNA and genealogy records is making me keenly aware of the importance we assign to culture, history, religion, nationality and ethnicity. Each of these elements help us construct our personal identity, along with many other labels we attach to ourselves. We do get quite attached to the identities and stories we construct. When those stories and identities are challenged, we get nervous. We feel the ground of our personal identity shifting and we become afraid. Someone who has always identified as German may find out they're actually Polish. A family story based on cherished Cherokee ancestry may find no basis in DNA or credible recorded history. When something like that occurs, what is the reaction? Can we be open to a new or different story? Does our ego resist? 

There are three words in Yoga philosophy which I call the Triple A's of Identity: Atman, Ahamkara and Asmita. All three of these words come up when we're posing the eternal question, "Who am I?" 

Atman: This is the Sanskrit word for the true self, the inner self, or what some people call the soul. Yogis believe it to be the most real and enduring part of us. 

Ahamkara: The literal translation is the "I maker," that which gives the sense of a separate existence. It is your own distinct entity, appearing, thinking and acting in the world. It is somewhat close to the Western concept of "ego," and to live in this world, we need to have some sense of our self that is part of a healthy ego. 

Asmita: This word has a more negative connotation than ahamkara, and it literally means "the false self," or "the thing other than the real I." Asmita is listed as one of the five obstacles preventing enlightenment and leading to suffering. Asmita is mistaking your ego, your stories, your thoughts, your body, your senses, and all other impermanent aspects of yourself for the real you. 

When we can detach, even for very brief moments, from our entrenched ego-based identities, we get a glimpse into the Eternal. We experience true freedom. The question "Who Am I?" is definitively answered. Our small self does not endure. Our ego-based identities are wonderfully compelling, yet impermanent. 

Many of us believe that we are from God and to God we shall return, however we may choose to call God. Before any of us came into this world, I AM. So Hum. Aum shanti. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Focusing On What Matters

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sadhana Pada,
(Translation from The Essence of Yoga by Bernard Bouanchaud).

Practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga (following ethical precepts, engaging in mindful and powerful physical postures, mastery of specific breathing techniques, restraint of the five senses, focus, concentration, meditation and eventual identification with Divine consciousness) brings us to a clear vision of reality and understanding of our true nature.

"In our ordinary, scattered state of mind, vision is subjective and partially distorted and thus creates suffering to some degree.

We play parts like actors on a stage, identifying with the characters we are interpreting. We are tossed about and carried away by events and the whirlpool of our mind.

Self-identification with the difficulties we encounter tends to make us dramatize them and lose track of what is really going on.

How many of us see only the negative side of our experience, always somehow dissatisfied with sex life, profession, family situation, marital status, children, other activities, and even our mental and physical make-up? And how many of us think others are enjoying the advantages we lack?

Here our thoughts become strongly linked with imagination and misperception" (Bernard Bounchaud).

In recent weeks, I have been talking at the beginning of my yoga classes about refining perception, releasing distractions and awareness of the impact our thoughts have on our bodies. All of this is interconnected.

Yoga is a complete set of mental, physical and spiritual practices leading us to freedom from illusions, distractions, oppression and suffering. Challenges and pain we cannot avoid in this life, but we can be set free from misperception and suffering.

We can't avoid grief and loss and discomfort. These are part of the human condition. I would never tell someone to think themselves well or "snap out of it" or "just cheer up and focus on the positive." Sometimes conditions are painful.

Under any conditions you are experiencing, one instruction which is always beneficial is Focus on What Matters.

What do you think about when you go to bed at night - when you wake up in the morning - when you eat your meals - when you commute to your job - when you work out at the gym or take a walk by yourself? How do your thoughts make you feel in your body? Is your blood pressure or heart rate elevated, are you clenching your jaw or hiking your shoulders, do you have trouble falling asleep? Make the connection between your thoughts and your experience of your body. Ask yourself if what you're thinking about truly matters. If you were given a death sentence and had a week to live, what would matter to you? What about a month, or a year, or a decade? How would you refine your focus if you became aware of how little time you have left in your current physical body?

The last time you felt upset, there is a good chance that what you were thinking about did not really matter much in the grand scheme of your life. However, it may have mattered very much. If you were thinking about not having enough money to pay your taxes, of course that matters, and it's a problem your mind needs to solve. If you were thinking about a parent or child or friend's life threatening illness, of course that matters very much. Most of the time, the thoughts causing us angst or pulling us away from pure presence and awareness are relatively unimportant.

Stay vigilant. Notice your thoughts. Notice the way you spend your time apart from necessary tasks. Ask yourself "does this truly matter?" If it doesn't, then find a way to let go of it.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

4 Ways Yoga Retreats Change Lives

When my husband sent me on my first yoga retreat, I was a new mom with a baby and a toddler. My husband knew I needed a break, even if I was unsure. When he dropped me off at the airport I called his cell phone 14 times wanting to convince him to turn around and pick me back up. Since leaving my career as a lawyer after giving birth twice and recovering from a prolonged illness, all I knew was taking care of my babies. I did not want to leave them, even for a few days. He never answered his phone. I was away for five nights. The retreat changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

I am now a yoga teacher. I taught in several different studios before finding the one that is the best fit for me. I teach weekly classes there and in a fitness center. I work one-on-one with clients in their homes or in mine. I have also taught evening yoga classes for adults through my local school district. Every so often I offer donation based classes to raise money for charitable causes. I also offer workshops on meditation and restorative yoga.

I love practicing and teaching yoga. I love meditation. I love restorative yoga. Would I have turned my love of all things yoga into a career without going on that retreat? I doubt it.

For many people, retreats seem like a luxury they can't afford, financially as well as psychologically. "How can I leave my family to do something just for myself? Why would I go someplace and hang out with total strangers? I'm not a morning person. No one should see me before 9:00 a.m. Shouldn't I spend this money on my kids, on a worthy cause or on something tangible like a new food processor?  Maybe I should set the money I would spend on this retreat aside so we can all go back to Disney for the third time next winter." These are all thoughts I've had before booking a retreat. I have only attended six in my adult lifetime. But without these retreats, the picture of my current life would be less colorful, less diverse, less nuanced, more superficial, and more mindless.

Here are five life-changing benefits of yoga and spiritual retreats:

1. Escape from Habitual Patterns. 

When we venture outside our comfort zones to experience new surroundings, a different daily schedule, new ideas, and meaningful interaction with people heretofore unknown to us, our perspective shifts! Habit loosens its hold on our thoughts and feelings. Want to see your life from a refreshingly open point of view? Break away from your habits on a retreat. “Habit enables us to cling to the familiar, to the self we think we know with a persistence almost irresistible. An anodyne for the terror of the unknown, it effectively keeps us from knowing, and is fatal in itself. Habit is a fiction the organism requires to dim perception. It screens us from the world, and from the true world of the self. Habit—no matter how intense the suffering it causes—is the last thing the personality will give up. It is arming itself against danger. The weapons may be more painful to use than the pain they seek to deflect. No matter. Habit allows us to live—by which Proust means it allows us to exist while it simultaneously compels us to miss Life.” ― Howard Moss, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust.

2. Rekindled Friendship with Yourself. 

We come to know ourselves primarily through two processes: a) Introspection and b) Extrospection.
Retreats are designed to facilitate both. Engaging in group activities in a low-pressure environment reintroduces us to the identities we have constructed for ourselves. We get a chance to review our foundation for relating to the world. On the flip side, the reflective, alone-time built into retreats is the pause we need to confront thoughts and feelings often lost in the shuffle of the daily grind. We rediscover our core motivations and values. Beloved and often forgotten parts of the self re-emerge. The most important new friend we make on retreat may be our long-lost childhood self, the teenage rebel risk-taker or the college idealist we left behind.

3. New Support Networks.

Individuals who commit to any particular retreat will invariably have certain key traits in common. As a bonus, the festive, relaxed environment on retreat is the perfect setting to form new friendships. I met my husband on a vacation, and some of my favorite people from around the world I keep in touch following our shared retreat. A recent Harvard research study found that the greatest predictor of a person's overall happiness is the depth and breadth of their social relationships. Bonding with likeminded people on retreat will definitely boost your happiness and give you a brand new support network!

4. Enhanced Creativity. 

Unusual events have been proven to trigger creative inspiration.  Combine them with travel, and you're on the yellow brick road to a brighter and more purposeful life.  Committing to a retreat involves risk: it may be strange and unusual. You might regret it. But then again, you just might love it. And when you go back to your usual life, you might start on that home project with renewed vigor. You might start writing that short-story you thought about and then forgot. Maybe you'll sign up for a pottery class or dust off your old sketch book. Or maybe you'll even decide to embark on a new career path that's a better fit for your personality and values. You'll never know unless you give it shot.

Do you live in the New York area or feel an urge to visit this neck of the woods? CHECK OUT this 3 night yoga retreat happening in June in a beautiful natural setting on an organic farm!

Happy travels and Namaste!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Music's Holistic Impact

As ubiquitous as music is in the lives of most people, some of us may take it for granted. Imagine being deaf, never having heard music! All sound, not just music, deeply impacts us on the physical, mental and spiritual levels. New Age followers say that music affects our vibration, the pitch and quality of our energy. I believe this to be true.

The type of music we regularly hear, by our own choice or not, undoubtedly affects our mental state. Skeptics may say, "I'm never aware of music in stores, restaurants or waiting in an office. I never notice the music in yoga class. Music has never been important to me." All this means is that the skeptics who don't notice music are not conscious of the way it affects them. So much happens on the unconscious level and the more unconscious a person is in general (mindless and on autopilot or numbed out to their senses) the less likely he/she is to notice music. If that were me, I would probably work on changing that about myself. Food for thought.

Music is central to the human experience, going all the way back to the drumming of our tribal ancestors. Research has shown that music influences our mental and emotional state, something most of us know intuitively. Multiple studies have shown that music eases depression and helps us cope with physical pain. There is a proven link between aggressive music and high anxiety. (All of the assertions in this paragraph are substantiated in the article linked within it). The saying "we are what we eat," seems applicable if changed to "we are what we listen to."

I once had an instructor who told me not to listen to Hip Hop, Dance and Heavy Metal music because it would lower my spiritual vibration, making me more open to hostile, angry feelings, harmful thoughts and poor concentration. Her remarks reminded me of mid-century Bible thumpers who bemoaned the advent of Rock Music. However, there's validity to her assertions. I wouldn't want to listen to those types of music on a daily commute, or every evening cooking dinner, for example. This would fuel road rage and burnt food.

Certain styles of music are spiritually elevating, and quite useful in spiritual practice.  I am always puzzled by the traditional Protestant hymnal music people sing from their pews on Sundays, as it seems to dull the senses and the mind, as opposed to Gospel music, operatic singing or sounds like singing bowls and chimes. I wonder about the segment of our population which finds 18th and 19th century hymns appealing. To be fair, those people probably find the kirtan devotional chants I love quite boring, as well. There are endless tastes and preferences.

Music has been shown to improve mental and physical health outcomes for a wide variety of conditions.
Popular music has been shown to reduce psychotic symptoms in mental patients.

Many elementary school teachers and special ed teachers have been using music in the classroom to calm students down and help them to focus, including my ten year old son's teacher. I noticed that she played soothing music even for the parents during the parent-teacher conferences. I'm sure some of the parents were totally unaware of this! It may have relaxed them nonetheless.

As a yoga teacher, I use a wide variety of music in classes, and on some days, I use no music. In general, focusing the attention on our breath and the subtle effects of yoga practice is best accomplished without music. There is a Sanskrit term, bhav, which refers to the emotion, sentiment and devotional direction of yoga practice; music contributes to the bhav of the class, so I like to use it. Quite often I choose peaceful, ambient music combined with yoga chants, but I will occasionally use contemporary or popular songs in class.

In refining your spiritual practice, try singing or chanting before your meditation. When I do this, my meditation experience is qualitatively different--not better or worse--but different. You can pray to music, as well. You can play music to set the intention and spiritual tone of your day, listening as you get ready or drive to work. Try being more intentional in your music selection and notice how this affects your state of mind and your energy.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thoughts About Fasting

Fasting is a spiritual discipline dating back thousands of years in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Each of these traditions approaches fasting somewhat differently. Fasting for healing and purifying the body also has ancient origins in Greece, China, India and the Middle East.

Currently there is a diet trend of intermittent and full fasting, both of which are controversial from the perspective of Western Medicine (the general consensus is don't do it for very long and don't do it at all if you have certain contraindications such as pregnancy, diabetes, hypoglycemia or any chronic disease).

In this season of Lent, and following my recent trip to India where I heard religious Hindus talk about fasting, I am newly interested in fasting as a spiritual practice. It also just so happens that a friend of mine is currently enamored with the practice of fasting for weight loss, with no purpose other than to detox and shed excess weight.

I grew up in the southern part of the Midwestern United States, so fasting was something I heard of only in biblical scriptures recited in church. I did not know anyone who fasted for any reason other than a doctor's visit. The Christians and Jews I grew up around did not talk about fasting, other than at Yom Kippur. My family is Protestant so we did not even abstain from meat on Lent Fridays. We knew that Jesus fasted for 40 days and that John the Baptist fasted, but they were similar to super heroes in my childhood mind. "Don't try this at home," would describe my view of fasting for most of my life. The Christian holidays and even the religious services I experienced in my formative years featured rich food as a central element. In fact, being overweight as a Christian almost seemed to be a sort of badge of honor where I was raised (I know this is a touchy statement and I truly apologize for any offense).

Currently, in my quest to attain a higher state of consciousness, closer to Divine peace, love, equanimity and joy, I am feeling stuck at a plateau, not unlike what a person on a weight loss program experiences when those last ten pounds just won't budge. I have certain mental patterns and habitual behaviors which continue to resurface and my mind gets continually distracted away from God. Certain Christian teachers in the less mainstream Protestant strains advocate fasting and give spiritual practitioners advice on how to go about it.

Apparently I am at an ideal stage in my spiritual development to work up to full fasting. According to both popular medical advice, alternative medical advice and the advice in the web link referenced above, I should prepare myself adequately and start small. Additional Christian advice on fasting warns me to keep it a private, devotional, ego-free practice, detached from any pride or boasting.

Admittedly my spiritual disciplines come from the Yoga tradition which also holds the view that fasting is a mindful, spiritual practice and not a physical conquest, so it must be undertaken with proper understanding. The Ayurvedic and Yogic view of fasting also addresses our American culture's propensity to eat vastly more food than the body (1) needs and (2) can adequately digest, recommending periodic fasts to maintain colon health.

For the most part, I am intellectually sold on fasting, with some caveats. I am ready to try it, though I will not post much if anything about it when I do it. Why won't I share my experience? The main reason is the warning against turning fasting into some sort of physical feat or conquest. The second and equally important reason is that talk about strict diets and fasting triggers eating disorders for many people. Women and men in Western cultures suffer from many different types of eating disorders and preoccupations with physical appearance and unrealistic body image standards. One of the last things I want to do as a yoga teacher and spiritual counselor is to encourage this type of dysfunction. I have personally been affected by disordered thinking about food and body image as a teenager and young adult, and I grew up in a house with Slim Fast and diet soda (as did many people in my generation in the US!) It is only in recent years that I have fully come to accept and love my body as it is, and I would never deprive or starve my body in any way.

I believe that occasional spiritual fasting and health fasting are salubrious and edifying, after taking some time to learn about fasting through different religious and medical approaches. I am looking forward to dipping my toes into the pool of fasting this year before Lent is finished.

I wish health and happiness to all who are currently fasting and are interested in this time-honored practice!