Saturday, December 28, 2013

Year-End Review: A Guided Meditation

Year-End Review: three words that can make your heart race a little! In corporate culture this means a sit-down with your manager and some feedback on your work, sometimes framed as "constructive criticism," though euphemisms have come to replace anything that could seem too "critical," unless you are a law firm associate or finance professional. Just kidding. Sort of. Well, I'm really glad I teach yoga these days... but even I had a Year-End Review! "Here's what's working, here's what's not." I asked for it! Old habits die hard. Reviews are helpful!

This is a rich, festive and fruitful week for those of us on the Good Ole Gregorian Calendar. Year-End is a beautiful, sacred time when we can look back and reflect on all we have accomplished, ways we have grown, new relationships we entered and events that shook things up in our lives. Facebook has a Year-In-Review feature that lets you see your notable status updates and photographs. You can do that with an old-fashioned photo book, too, or a personal journal.

Today, I'm suggesting we do this in a yoga class, or on your own in your home practice. I'd like you to direct your mind's activity in a purposeful meditation period today, first getting quiet and centered and then systematically going back through your year to collect impressions, high points, low points and turning points from 2013. I want you to form a mental picture of what 2013 brought to you, good and bad. What do you want to celebrate, and what do you want to leave behind? Make peace with 2013, thankful for both the blessings and the adversities and what they meant for you on your life's journey, so you can step into 2014 with an open mind and heart, ready to receive the gifts of the New Year.


Let's begin. We will use a candle to ritualize this moment and our intention, so light your candle and set it down in front of you if you are at home. Find a comfortable seat so you can begin settling into your body with ease: either legs crossed and hands resting on your thighs, or sitting up on a block in hero's pose with the tops of the feet resting on the floor. Now, steady your gaze on the candle. Begin to bring awareness to your breath. Feel the in breath and the out breath. Notice the sound and sensation of your breathing. As you focus your attention on the breath, begin to even out the length of the inhale and the exhale. With the eyes open, still gazing at the candle, we will take three deep, soothing breaths, inhaling to the top of the lungs, and exhaling all the way out, to a hollow belly. 1.....2.....3.

Gaze at the candle for a few more moments.  And now, let your eyes gently close. With your eyes closed, see the image of the candlelight set against the darkness on your eyelids.

Direct your attention to your head. Relax your forehead. Release any tension between your brows. Relax your jaw. Relax your scalp, from the top of your head to the base of your neck. Relax your neck. Relax your shoulders and the area between the shoulder blades. Relax your arms, all the way down to your fingers. Breathe into your belly and as you exhale, fully release and relax your abdominal muscles. Bring your attention to your legs. Relax your thighs and feel them get heavy and loose, the weight of the thighs dropping towards the floor. Relax your knees...your calves...your ankles...and your feet, down to your toes. Direct your breath all through your body, from your heart to your extremities, and feel everything relaxing and releasing. Let go.

Now, let your mind take you on a journey. Begin to take yourself back in time, to this time last year. You had finished celebrating your holidays. You were ready to embark on a New Year. Take yourself back to Wintertime, one year ago. How was last Winter for you? What did it feel like, physically, emotionally? How much did you work? How much did you play? Was it cold outside and warm in your house, in your cozy bed? Or did you go away? Was it warm where you went? When were you happy, or sad? Did you get sick? What was that like? Did you get better? Did you set resolutions? Did you get a financial bonus? Were you focused on gratitude, goal setting, or both? What other things happened in your life last Winter? Stay in your previous Winter for another minute or two.

Now, we will travel just like that through the other three seasons, up to today. Let's move on from Winter and into Spring, 2013. Take yourself back to last Spring, and envision what happened for you then, what you wanted, what you experienced, what was memorable? If nothing pivotal comes to mind, just focus on the sensations and impressions of Springtime, and something notable may come to you.

Last Summer. Go there now. What did you do last summer? Really. What can you be proud of and what could have gone better? How did it feel? Summer. Ahhhh...stay a few moments in Summer 2013.

Fall. Let's go. Autumn in New York...or wherever you were. Where were you? This one is recent. Did your autumn fly by? Take note of what happened in your life, what you achieved, what fell behind and what moved forward, and what did you experience? Who was with you?

And now come full circle, back to Wintertime, here in your body, sitting on the floor, at the tail-end of 2013. How do you feel this Winter, and how do you feel right now? What were the memorable moments of your holidays? What are your plans for New Year's Eve? What do you feel really good about and what do you want to happen?

Keep your eyes closed, but move around a little. Start to come back into the now. But as you are doing that, I want you to envision a big, old fashioned collage on poster board, or on a projector screen...a vision board, if you will. Imagine snapshots of events and people from the past year, and also words and other images that form a picture of your year. Get that image ready, and then, look it over really well, side to side and top to bottom. Hey, you... good job! And also--I'm sorry. And also... what an adventure. You gained some things, you lost some things, but most importantly, you are still here, and you are still breathing. You are a gift, and your life is a gift. Thank yourself. Applaud yourself. Bring to mind those achievements and good times and good feelings you want to keep with you as you move into new blessings.

Finally, I want you to choose a few things you'd like to leave behind as you move into 2013. Remember the candle. Imagine that candle is actually a big fire, big enough to burn anything you are leaving behind. Now, in your mind's eye, I want you to see yourself approaching that fire and throwing onto it all the experiences and sensations and memories you'd like to leave behind you. They're going to burn out in the fire, and in the heat we create in today's movement practice.

Take a few moments, and let your eyes open. Look at the candle. Come back into the room. Wiggle your arms and legs and fingers and toes. Deep breath in, deep breath out, three times. And now open your arms wide, and feel your chest and heart open. You are ready to walk with open arms, an open heart and an open mind, into a new year. Congratulations. And Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

In Everything, A Gift: The Wisdom of Madhu Vidya

This moment is a gift--that is why it is called the "present." Yoga teachers often tell you to focus your attention on the present moment, anchoring to the here and now, coming back to the immediacy of the breath and body. Increasing numbers of psychotherapists will give you similar advice, using techniques such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBSR and MBCT).

We live in an exciting era where we are seeing ancient teachings from Eastern wisdom traditions validated by Western science and utilized in various therapeutic settings. Mindfulness teachings (or practices analogous to mindfulness teachings) exist in Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and Yoga.

In the history of Yoga, the spiritual tradition of Tantra (a Sanskrit word roughly translatable as "expansion leading to liberation") had its greatest influence during the post-classical period, in the time following Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Some scholars claim that Tantric teachings date back at least 7,000 years, but in the teaching of Yoga, Tantric philosophy came in and shook things up after Patanjali's contributions. Tantra is a non-dualistic spiritual discipline, embracing all experience as a pathway to the Divine. The Yoga Sutras teach that matter and spirit need to be separated in order to evolve consciousness. Patanjali considered the body an impediment or obstacle to developing higher consciousness. Tantric philosophy brought in a different perspective: for Tantric practitioners, the body is used as a vehicle to evolving consciousness; the physical body is seen as a sacred vehicle to enlightenment, so there is an emphasis on nourishing the body and prolonging life. According to Tantra, this body, and everything good and bad that comes with it, is a gift.

In Tantra Yoga, the practice of fully embracing the present moment is called madhu vidya, which means "sweet knowledge" or "honey knowledge." The body is a gift, the present moment is a gift, and fully experiencing the body in the present moment is the path to enlightenment. Click here for an example of tantric mindfulness practice.

“Tantra is the yoga of everything” (Ramesh Bjonnes, The Yoga of Tantric Love: 7 Reasons Why It’s Not Just About Sex). Read the article. The day-to-day peaks and valleys of human existence are the essence of the spiritual journey; this includes suffering, sickness, desire, anger, boredom and vice. Tantra teaches that we can meet the Divine everywhere, in the good and the bad within and without. “This knowledge, this wisdom is called Madhuvidya, or honey knowledge, the idea that the bees of Spirit can turn everything we do and feel, even failure, into nectar” (Id.). Through embracing all experiences, even physical experiences and the great range of human emotions, Tantric yogis make use of vulnerability as a gateway to receive Divine love and compassion. “Tantra is seeing love in everything” (Id.) Tantra is seeing the gift in everything.

The gift is the present. Let's open to this gift, through our practice today. Simply experience your practice, without judgment, and in the fullness of your own embodied presence. Can't get on your mat today? Tantric practice can be any activity or experience as long as you intend it to evolve your consciousness, so open up to the gift of your own experience today, in the wisdom of madhu vidya.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Namaste: Celebrate the Light

The Winter Solstice occurs on December 21st, this year and every year. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year. It has been marked and celebrated around the world and throughout the ages to usher in the return of the sun’s light. Our planet and our species rely on the sun’s light and heat for survival. This is a fact that has not changed, even though our beliefs and practices for celebrating the Solstice have evolved.

In ancient Pagan traditions, the return of the sun’s light at this time of the year was celebrated through long festivals dedicated to various deities representing the sun. Modern Pagans still celebrate what is called Yule, the name for one such ancient festival. In our Western society, we have both religious and secular traditions around the holiday of Christmas. Christmas was made to coincide with the celebration of Yule. The season leading up to Christmas, Advent, is a season to prepare Christians for the arrival of a great light, the light of God come to shine on humanity in the form of a living person.

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is celebrated near the time of Christmas and Yule, and it also celebrates light; in fact, it is sometimes called the Festival of Lights. A bit of oil, only sufficient to light the menorah in the Temple for one night, kept the menorah burning through eight consecutive nights. The story of this miracle is the origin of the Chanukah celebration.

Light, as a universal quality and value, is a beautiful thing to celebrate. In Yoga practice, we also celebrate light. Yoga is not usually thought of as a religion; indeed in the West, and even in the rest of the world, people with all sorts of different religious beliefs, or even no religious beliefs, practice Yoga.

We hear Yoga teachers talk about the practice of Yoga uncovering the light of the soul. In Yoga philosophy, the word most often used for the true self, or the light of the soul, is Purusa. This is the big self, as opposed to the small self. Purusa is the self that never changes, the part of us that is not subject to changing conditions and circumstances. My teachers have called Purusa, “pure consciousness.” We use the practice of Yoga to help us come to a direct realization of our pure consciousness. We try to make room for the true light within us to arise and shine through. This is the classical goal of Yoga.

Last week, my teacher talked to the class about refining our consciousness through a three step process: sense consciousness, witness consciousness and God consciousness. This describes the classical progression in Yoga from the gross to the subtle aspects of the self. First, we become fully aware of our body and our senses through breath and movement. Then, through meditation, we develop the ability to be a neutral observer or witness to all that is happening within and around us (this is witness consciousness). Finally, as we achieve that state of balance and equanimity, we can raise our consciousness to a reality that is larger than our small self, something that is greater than, yet shared by all of us. We do not have to call this higher reality God, and there is nothing particularly religious about it. It is simply a recognition and experience of a reality that transcends our suffering and limitations. It is consciousness of the light within us, which we all share, and through which we are all connected.

Welcoming the return of the sun, or the Light of the World, is act that turns our focus outside of ourselves to something greater than us, something we anticipate and depend upon. In a Yoga practice, it doesn’t work quite that way. In Yoga, we begin by focusing and refining our consciousness to fully dwell in the body, in the breath, in our movements. We begin at the gross level, focusing on what is concrete for us right now. Then we gradually move towards meditation, learning to reside in the place of the witness, witnessing rather than engaging with the fluctuating movements of the mind. Finally we progress to the subtler level of opening up to the true light within us, our pure consciousness, the Purusa.

Our yoga practice leads us to the emergence of the light within us, and that is something we can celebrate on our mats every single day. All of these other traditions and festivals around us can remind us that this is a goal we all share as humans, and that because we all carry this light within us, we are all truly One.

Namaste (we say this to honor the light within each of us which reflects a greater, universal light, and connects us all). 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Unconditional Friendliness

Last week I was away on a one-week Thanksgiving vacation with immediate and extended family members. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Our every need was attended to by a large staff of cheerful servants: waiters, babysitters, bartenders, cooks, housekeeping staff and even entertainment specialists. I was struck by the consistently warm, joyful and friendly attitude of these workers. The resort welcomes guests from all over the world, from different cultures and with differing preferences and needs. I was impressed by how unfailingly accommodating the staff was to the various types of people they served.

Lounging by the pool, I read part of a book by Pema Chodron. When I read her explanation of the Sanskrit word, maitri, I looked up from my book at the waiters strolling around the pool area. I then re-read this bit, “The word for loving-kindness in Sanskrit is maitri. Maitri is also translated as unconditional friendliness.” I thought to myself, “the staff at this resort excels in displaying unconditional friendliness to every guest who is here.” It was a perfect example of how I could immediately apply the concept of Maitri in my own life; what if I could do the same for myself and the people I am supposed to serve? I decided to work towards unconditional friendliness to my extended family members during the trip and this holiday season, as well as unconditional friendliness to myself during the stressful moments of travel and holiday preparation. I don’t expect to change all of my reactions and develop a new personality overnight just because I set a new Holiday Maitri goal, but keeping it in my mind as a theme this season feels right.

The concept of Maitri is present in Yoga philosophy as well as in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. I thought about unconditional friendliness in my yoga practice and my relationship with myself. My practice is where I work on developing Maitri, in asana and especially in meditation. I did water aerobics and Zumba on vacation. I also practiced yoga in my room. What made the yoga different from the other two activities was the practice of connecting with myself, and working on that relationship. This is what sets yoga apart from other physical pursuits. On this vacation, I had to apply the concept of Maitri when I realized my muscles were loose after a massage and a mid-day cocktail; the practice felt very different. I would normally never have a drink before yoga, and I rarely treat myself to a massage. Both of those things change the state of the mind/body, so I couldn’t do certain postures the way I normally like them. I did not freak out and get off the mat. I just found other postures to practice and took more time in savasana.

Every time we practice is like that—we are experiencing different states in our minds and bodies, accommodating different types of guests: high or low energy, up and down emotions, aches and pains, good or bad digestion. It all affects our practice, both physical and mental. When we can accept all of it with unconditional friendliness, going with the flow instead of resisting our experience, we are practicing Maitri with ourselves.  Gradually this makes it easier to practice Maitri with other people. We don’t have to judge our experiences in our practice as good or bad—we can simply accept it all and keep on breathing, moving or sitting. No need to freak out or stop. We can learn to live that way, too. I tried it on the airplane on the way home. We had 30 minutes of uninterrupted turbulence. It was scary. I felt nauseous. I didn’t resist those feelings. I closed my eyes and breathed into those sensations, fear and nausea, and said to myself, “of course you are frightened. Of course you feel sick,” and comforted myself that way.

Whether or not you choose “Maitri to All and to All a Good Night” as a theme for your Holiday Season, at least try it out on your yoga mat. When you feel tight, when you feel unbalanced, or scattered, or hungover from holiday parties, or perhaps you'll even feel happy and giddy some days: instead of resisting the experience, accept it with unconditional friendliness. “Of course I feel tight, but I will breathe into it.” Welcome each passing sensation with Maitri, and as the poet Rumi wrote, remember that “this being human is a guest house.” That attitude removes a lot of stress from the holidays and from all of our everyday experiences. 


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks