Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Yoga for Holiday Balance

We are currently in the midst of the Holiday Season and for many of us and our culture in general, this is a time of excess: more social activity, spending a lot more money than we usually do, excessive eating and often eating things that are more sugary or rich than what we are used to.  It is easy to feel very out of balance this month, on many levels.  This is true for our minds as well as our bodies.  In our bodies, when we overeat and eat foods with a lot of toxicity, we feel bloated, lethargic and nauseous.  It is the same with our minds: when we are tuned into thoughts that are anxious, negative or toxic in any way, we can get depressed, impatient and angry.  We need something to bring us back into balance: on the level of the digestive system that could be fasting or a cleanse, and certainly on the mental side we would think of meditation as a remedy for imbalance or excessive, unwanted thoughts.  

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us a specific technique to rebalance ourselves, and we can use it in our practice and in truly every aspect of our lives.  It is such a valuable technique.  Any guesses as to what it is? The Sanskrit term is Pratipaksha Bhavana.  Sutra 2.33 reads, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of.”  One translation of pratipaksha bhavana is “moving to the other side of the mansion,” so it’s similar to what we might do with a baby or a young child who is screaming and crying and can’t get un-fixated.  We take the child into another room, changing up the environment and providing a different stimulus than whatever it was that produced the upset.  That is something I have experienced often with my own kids, and even with myself.  We all do this, and here is a holiday example: if we are having a discussion with a family member during a holiday gathering and something they say triggers us, knocking us back into the dark side of our samskara, our habitual negative patterns, one of the quickest ways to snap out of the cycle of reactivity is simply to walk away and focus on something else; we may excuse ourselves to go and wash dishes, or better yet, we may say, “OK, I am feeling a little sluggish after that meal and I need a constitutional,” and we go for a walk outside, getting rebalanced and re-grounded in our bodies and in the fresh air.  

This is what we are doing in our yoga practice.  We are training our minds and our bodies, little by little, to run on a more positive track.  Whatever challenge we come in with, be it worry, poor self-image, distractibility or any other negativity, we get on our mat and replace those thoughts and feelings with qualities more like peace, stability, compassion and the thought, “I can do it.  I can do this posture, today, right now,” and we come out seeing life in a different way, perceiving ourselves differently.  We get grounded in who we really are, and we balance the scales of our experience adding enough positive to temporarily and gradually more permanently cancel out the negative. We want a fix that's quick, but we also want a fix that will stick.

So in today’s practice, let’s rebalance, let’s move to the other side of the mansion by following pratipaksha bhavana, through focusing on the steadiness of our breath instead of our racing thoughts, focusing on our drsti or gazing point instead of the movement around us, and experimenting with our bodies, putting them into unfamiliar positions that open us up to a more positive perspective. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Defogging My Glasses: Seeing with the Spirit

I had something scary happen to me when I was driving at night recently.  I had attended a class for my yoga teacher training and when we came out of the class, the temperature had dropped considerably and there was a thin coating of ice on my windshield.  It was dark, and I couldn’t really tell the thickness of the ice from looking at it briefly, but I was cold and wanted to get into my car and get home to my kids and my to-do list, and I figured my windshield defroster would take care of it pretty quickly.  So I got in and started the car and turned on the defroster, and then tried the windshield wipers.  That didn’t do the trick so I figured I’d try the windshield sprayer along with the wipers, and that worked… for about 30 seconds, just long enough for me to get out of the parking lot and onto the road.  Then, surprise, surprise, the water from the sprayer froze on the windshield and I couldn’t see out, again.  I thought, well, anytime now the defroster will create enough heat to melt this little bit of ice, but it didn’t… so I just kept squirting the washer fluid onto the windshield and using the wipers, and I could see for a couple of seconds, but what then happened is that the ice started to thicken.  Not good!  No bueno at all, to be driving in the dark on a two-lane highway in Putnam County with an icy windshield. 

As you may have gathered, it turns out that my defroster is a little on the slow side.  Fortunately there was next to no traffic going in my direction and I could go kind of slow and eventually the heat from the defroster did work and I could see.  Still—that was a scary experience, and I could have avoided it had I only used the ice scraper that was sitting on the floor of the passenger side of my car.  You may ask, “wasn’t that rather impatient and shortsighted of you? Didn’t you just come from a yoga class where you cultivate qualities like patience, presence and focus?” I would answer you, “As a matter fact, yes it was impatient and shortsighted! What state of mind must I have been in to have made a decision like that? A hurried state of mind, no doubt.  And at the same time, what a happy accident! What a great metaphor to use for the way the condition of our minds dictates our vision!" When we experience an unfocused, agitated state of mind, this has a negative impact on our clarity, our spiritual visual acuity.  When our minds are unclear, we really can’t see well, or at all!  Those of you who wear glasses can also relate very well to this metaphor.  When you are sitting outside at a football game in the winter, for example, and you bend down and blow on your hot chocolate to cool it off, your glasses fog up!  Among other things, changes in temperature and humidity cause your glasses to cloud up.  This happens to me a lot, too. 

So, from a spiritual perspective, what do we do about that?  What do we use as the defroster in our spiritual practice?  What can do we do to clear our windshields, to defog our glasses, so we can really see what’s going on, so we can see clearly to walk our path to the Divine?

In yoga, we talk about creating heat (tapas) with our practice for the purpose of unclouding our vision, and allowing the true Seer within us to emerge.  We use all of our physical and mental training to defrost our windshield, our filter of perception, so we can begin to see ourselves, the world, and even to see God.  The yogic teachings tell us that the entire purpose of this natural world around us is to allow our souls to see themselves, and to allow God to be seen.  We get to that place through engaging in spiritual practice and purifying our minds.  I’m going to read you two scriptures that use this same metaphor for attaining spiritual visual acuity, one from the Yoga Sutras and one from the New Testament of the Bible:

Sutra 1.41 from The Yoga Sutras: Just as the naturally pure crystal assumes shapes and colors of objects placed near it, so the Yogi’s mind, with its totally weakened modifications, becomes clear and balanced and attains the state devoid of differentiation between knower, knowable and knowledge. This culmination of meditation is Samadhi. 

1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face; now I know in part; but then I shall know even also as I am (King James translation).
For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God] (Amplified Bible translation). 

Upon reading Sutra 1.41 and taking notes in class on the idea of yoga practice culminating in mental clarity, I looked up this Bible verse which describes a similar transformation for students on a disciplined spiritual path.  We know that our current mental and spiritual vision is dimmed and we struggle with this impairment.  Nonetheless, we keep going in our practice, believing that we can eventually reach the apex of clarity.  We develop faith that through our practice, the Seer within us will emerge and perceive reality uncolored by our clouded mental patterns. 

There is a reason I immediately thought of this spiritual lesson when I had that experience in my car.  It didn’t just come from me, so I can’t take all of the credit.  The yoga teacher I have studied under for the longest amount of time has spoken in class about trying to see through a fogged up mirror or windshield, and how in our practice we create the heat that will clear away all of that fog so that each time we practice, we are removing more and more of the fog.  When she has used this example, in the more trying postures or moments of the class, she reminds us of what we are really doing, working to clear up that glass so we can really see.  In my own practice, this lesson holds true.  

Though I have experienced many calm and clear moments, I generally have some anxiety that clouds my perception.  I firmly believe that some of the thinking patterns left over from early conditioning have caused the one lingering health problem I have (nerve damage).  I committed to a regular yoga practice motivated a great deal by a desire to heal my nervous system and my mind.  

I agree with the yogic philosophy which says that we need a healthy mind and body to develop spiritually.  The one caveat I would add is that many people who become ill make use of that illness precisely for spiritual growth, and I fall into that category.  Ideally, we would all be working towards our mental clarity and spiritual growth before our negative patterns encouraged or nourished illness, but in reality illness often precedes the deeper spiritual quest.  Some of us need that extra push to get going.  So I am very thankful that my particular disability does not physically impede me from yoga or meditation practice, and I have compassion for all those who cannot undertake a physical practice due to illness, praying that they are nonetheless able to become spiritually refined in the midst of their suffering. 

I used to try and meditate without combining it with any physical practice.  I do adapt well to sitting meditation and I had some success with it.  I was really able to do this regularly when I had a baby who napped, and then a young toddler and a younger baby who napped at the same time.  I was so preoccupied with raising my “Irish twins” at that point that I didn’t have any other pursuits, so if they were sleeping for two and a half hours, I would take an hour of that time to do sitting meditation.  I felt comparatively clear then, even in the midst of the chaos of very little ones in the house.  As they got older and stopped sleeping during the day, and as we added more and more pursuits to my life and our family life, I was finding very little time for sitting meditation, and when I did find the time, I wanted that time to really count.  I found that either practicing yoga in a class or at home before even just ten minutes of sitting mediation was a great help, and brought me clarity along with many other physical benefits I wasn’t seeing before.  

I find that through a challenging yoga sequence, my mind gets very quiet and focused.  I link to my body and my breath and nothing else gets in the way, and this is the action that really starts removing the fog from that glass.  At the end of a home practice or yoga class, I experience a body filled with much less nervous energy and more ease and balance.  My mind is much clearer, and whatever thoughts or disturbances I brought in at the beginning of the practice have dissipated by the end.  Very often, I feel like I still need a fairly active practice to achieve this, but sometimes even some slow and gentle asana sequences will get me where I like to be for meditation readiness, or simply for relaxation and improved clarity.  

Through yoga, I find that I am able to get closer to what I call my “higher Self,” which is probably very close to the idea of the Sanskrit word, Purusa (source of consciousness/perceiver).  I also feel closer to my ishta devata, Jesus or God.  No matter what it is I am facing in my life, if I stick to yoga practice, meditation and prayer, my mind opens up to equanimity and my heart opens up to compassion.  My hope is that I can become disciplined enough to experience more and more of this in my life.  Eventually when I teach, I want to bring to students exactly this kind of optimism, wherein they know that the physical and mental effort they expend on their mat and cushion will lead to a brighter path, clearer vision, a greatly enhanced and more accurate view of themselves and reality.  

I do believe as the ancient yogis did, and as people of other faith traditions do, that we have a soul within us, a part of us which is purely spiritual, sometimes called the atman.  As I understand it, the purusa and the atman are two different aspects of the soul; the atman is the universal soul, the part of us connected to the whole universe, while the purusa is our consciousness.  One of my seminary classmates who is also a yoga teacher told me to think of it as pure consciousness, and I also used to hear this at the end of yoga classes when we did guided meditations; the teacher would say, “pure awareness, pure consciousness,” and I didn’t know the term purusa at the time.  Now, upon reading Sutra 1.41, I think of the purusa as the individual pure consciousness which perceives divine consciousness, transcending the mind and allowing us to see with our spirit; it can only do this when we weaken the modifications of the mind.  When this happens, we can see “face to face” and know God as God knows us, just like we read in 1 Corinthians 13:12.  To get there, we devote ourselves to purifying the mind so that it does not get in the way of our purusa, starting with our body, the vehicle housing the mind and spirit.  I want to do this through yoga practice, and learn to help others who are on that path as well.  

Why is it necessary to train the mind to attain spiritual vision?  This quote from the book, The Heart of Yoga gives a precise answer: “…our purusa sees an object through the mind.  If the mind is colored, we cannot see clearly.  If the mind is very clear, then it is almost as if it does not exist.  We see the object exactly as it is.  The problems we have to deal with in life arise from the way the consequences of our actions have settled in our mind; that is, they arise from our samskara (mental conditioning).  We are not able to distinguish the colored image that exists in the mind from the real object” (Desikachar, 116). 

Ultimately I want to see, and I would like to help others to see as well, just as my yoga teachers, pastors, and all other teachers have encouraged me.  I know that I can’t give to someone else what I don’t first possess myself, but even if I can’t impart clarity to others, I can at least point them in the direction of it.  Again, in The Heart of Yoga, we read, “A yogi or yogini has not seen something others can never see; rather, he or she sees what others do not yet see” (Desikachar, 123).  Speaking to his own students, the yogis of their particular culture and time, Jesus said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, in order that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand” (Luke 8:10).  Through our dedicated spiritual practice we begin to unlock the parables, defrost the windshields and defog our glasses, attaining that spiritual visual acuity that makes true perception possible. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Peace Through Complete Surrender

Photo credit: Christian Michael,
Yogis have their own version of The Ten Commandments: the yamas and the niyamas are the “do’s” and “don’ts” of the yogic path.  Yama means “abstinence” and niyama means “observance.”  From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated and presented by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Sutra 2.30 reads: “Yama consists of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed.” Sutra 2.32: “Niyama consists of purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study of spiritual books and worship of God, or self-surrender.”

Right now in my practice I am very focused on Isvara pranidhana, the fifth and final niyama, considered by many to be the ultimate realization of the yogic path.  It is a surrendering of the self and all actions to God; this idea of surrender to God seems very religious, and that is because the Sanskrit word Isvara does actually mean God, or in some translations, “Lord” or “Supreme Being.”  The word points to a recognition of a life force or power that is greater than us in the scope of our individual existence, some greater force that encompasses us and includes our being within a larger whole.  If we are not religious, we may prefer to think of this niyama simply as self-surrender.  Even if our interest in religious faith is merely intellectual, it is interesting to draw the parallel between this niyama and all of the well-known faiths of the world: for example, the very word Islam means “surrender to God,” and in Judaism, the central prayer, called the Shema, contains these words: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” words which Christians also revere since Jesus declared them to be the greatest commandment.  So then Yoga, along with these Abrahamic faiths, tells us that surrender is the path to the highest spiritual development.  

Expanding upon Isvara pranidhanam, Sutra 45 in Book Two of the Yoga Sutras reads, “By total surrender to God, Samadhi is attained.”  In the commentary we read that the easiest and quickest way to Samadhi or enlightened consciousness is to dedicate ourselves wholly to God, converting all of the energy we expend, all our thoughts and actions, to God’s service.  The teaching says that when we do this, we will be at peace because we will no longer be worried about the outcomes of our efforts, clinging to our possessions, anxiously hoarding rewards for ourselves.  Perhaps even more importantly for our peace, we'll no longer be resisting what is, or striving to swim upstream, against the flow of that greater whole which surrounds us. "Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life," writes Eckhart Tolle in Practicing The Power of Now.  We keep moving, but when we surrender we align our movement with God's movement.  In The Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says, “Do everything in My Name. Then you will get peace and joy.” This is also what Jesus was getting at when he said, “None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has” (Luke 14:33).  With that renunciation comes perfect peace, bliss, or Samadhi. 

We read that Isvara pranidhanam is an easy path, which also reminds me of what Jesus taught, because he said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).  However, we recognize that the simplest truths so often cause us to trip right over them, falling over ourselves.  It is damned hard for most of us to let go of our efforts, our cherished labors and the fruits thereof.  A powerful recent example of this is what happened with the New York Marathon in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.  The marathon was cancelled and tens of thousands of people had to let go of the anticipated cherished outcome of all of that training effort.  But-- in total surrender to God, there are no wasted efforts. God takes in everything that we do. We can adopt the attitude of surrendering every effort to something greater than ourselves, knowing that outcomes are not for us to control or hang onto.  This is in fact spiritual truth which is constantly proven out in our everyday lives; with our senses we discover how everything around us is impermanent: our possessions, our homes, and even our bodies.  It all passes away.  We should not take this to mean that nothing matters or counts; it’s just that we cannot cling to anything.  The marathoners can be at peace knowing that their efforts were not wasted, but the outcome of those efforts ultimately had to be surrendered, just like everything else in this life.  There is comfort in knowing just how meaningful that surrender can be. 

It is the same for us on our yoga mats.  We expend a great deal of effort in our yoga practice, day after day, month after month, year after year.  We work hard to master our asana, to deepen our meditation, to reach greater awareness—and, as we repeatedly discover, we can’t control the outcomes.  Sometimes we fall out of our postures, we get sick, we don’t meditate as long or as often as we would like—but in surrender we find peace.  When we take child’s pose or savasana, we let go of the effort, and it becomes a gift rather than a struggle.  In that moment of surrender, grace pervades us.  In that moment, we begin to see how Isvara pranidhana truly is the easiest way to peace.  

Let’s see if the next time we practice, we can experience a glimmer of that peace and bliss when we simply let go, turning our efforts over to God or the Universe.  Below are two beautiful pieces of music I like to use in my practice, to remind me of Isvara pranidhana. In the beautiful words of Snatam Kaur, “May you never forget God, not even for a moment, worshipping forever, the Lord of the Universe.” 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Can You Run Like A Yogi?

When I took up running last Spring, I wanted to run like a yogi.  I found out the hard way that this was no easy task.  Looking at The Yoga Sutras, here is how I made sense of my running experience.  I chose Sutras 14 and 15 from Book One as guidance on how to run like a yogi:

Sutra 1.14: Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.

Sutra 1.15: The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.

The message I take away when reading these sutras together is to detach, but stay grounded.  That’s not easy!  It’s tricky to patiently persevere in any endeavor without reaching for a reward to cling to.  In our relationships, in our work, in diet and exercise routines, we learn that when we stay with something or someone for a long time, without break and in all earnestness, we must cultivate patience to see us through our commitment.  Sutra 1.14 tells us we have to stand our ground, and at the same time, Sutra 1.15 says we have to be wary of attachment.  So we are to be diligent, focused and committed, but from a place of detachment to outcomes or end results.  I have been reminded of this so many times by my teachers, in relation to getting too caught up on perfecting the postures or having an ego-driven yoga practice.  In other areas of my life this lesson is a constant struggle, but I find it easier to remember in asana practice.  

I decided to do yoga teacher training when I realized that my yoga practice is something I am committed to for the long haul.  After several years of practicing diligently, I had a six-month hamstring injury; even then, I found modifications and remained dedicated to practicing.  Also, I was able to let go of a need to look good in the postures or push myself to do a particular asana before I was ready.  I still have a mental block with arm balances and I am OK with that.  It doesn’t matter to me when or if I incorporate a lot of arm balances into my practice because I am not attached to being able to do them.  Hopefully that translates into doing them in a safe and strengthening way in the future, rather than from a place of feeling like I have to do them to look good or to complete something.  

My most recent struggle with patience and non-attachment occurred when I decided to incorporate running into my yoga practice.  Initially, that is how I looked at it: it was another physical practice I could do while remaining mindful of the breath and practicing svadhyaya (self-observation).  For the first couple of months I even used mantras as I ran and that really helped.  I thought that through applying yogic principles to running, I could remain detached yet grounded; after all, running is supposed to be grounding; I was running on trails, feeling my connection to the earth.  However, over the course of time, I found myself getting overly attached to running and the results of running.  This attachment started pulling me away from my asana and meditation practice.  I was taking the time away from my yoga practice and using that time to run.  The scales tipped to become imbalanced.  

Even assuming that the running was an extension of yoga, what was happening is that I wasn’t looking at it as a lifelong practice where I was patiently planting deep seeds.  I wanted specific outcomes and I wanted them right away.  I was not practicing vairagya (non-attachment); instead I was signing up for races, not giving myself enough time to rest between long runs and focusing on bettering my times to the detriment of developing strength and improving the quality of my stride.  This quote from Sri Swami Satchidananda sums it up: “If you are unsettled and anxious to get the result, you are already disturbed; nothing done with that disturbed mind will have quality.  So, it is not only how long you practice, but with what patience, what earnestness and what quality also.”  I was being impatient and sacrificing quality in the running, and in the yoga asanas my earnestness had eroded; all of this was due to the attachment I had developed to the running and the goal of getting faster.  What ended up happening is easy to guess: I injured myself.  I did place in a 10K, but then I had to cancel my plans to run a half-marathon because I kept doing long runs close together and focusing on being fast.  When our teacher training started I knew that I couldn’t sacrifice my commitment to yoga or risk injuring myself again.  I will continue to run, but far less often, and if I sign up for a race in the future it will be with these two sutras in mind.  I want yoga to inform every aspect of my life, especially the physical aspect, because we have the opportunity in this lifetime to be tutored by our bodies in our spiritual growth.  

In your own physical practice, whatever that may be, remind yourself that here on this Earth your body is a teacher to your soul.  Instead of accomplishing or achieving, connect to the spiritual aspect of your workout.  We can access this wisdom when are grounded, yet detached.