Friday, December 26, 2014

A New Year's Ritual: Exhale to Let Go, Inhale to Receive

Many of us engage in some sort of annual secular ritual after the December religious holidays to mark the end of another year: one example is watching the ball drop in Times Square! Another one is kissing your lover when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve!

Rituals mark the passage of time in our lives, helping us create meaning from events which could otherwise get lost or forgotten in catalog of ongoing yearly occurrences: birthdays, children losing first teeth, all kinds of anniversaries...we perform a special action to celebrate these moments.

New Year's celebrations mark the close of another year come and gone. We look back, remembering the good times and blessings as well as the struggles and hardships. This is a jubilant time, and also a time to let go of what is now behind us.

There is a concept in Yoga philosophy about letting go and surrendering: Isvara pranidhana, from Yoga Sutra 1.23. Read up on this concept on your own and see how you think it could apply to your life (certainly Patanjali was not writing to us with our modern, Western New Year's parties in mind, but I think we can take his wisdom and apply it to our willingness to let go).

Surrender requires courage, faith and trust: to let go of our efforts, our desires, our memories, our wounds, our former glory or achievements--we must believe that something else is on its way or already here to be welcomed!

Time will not stop when 2014 is over (we hope!) 2015 will rush in to fill the space created as 2014
departs. We don't know what kind of year it will turn out to be, but we trust and allow it to arrive anyway. We must, if we want to go on living. Time always marches forward, with our without us. Our Yoga practice teaches us to surrender and ride this wave of forward movement with ease.

In Yoga we place great emphasis on the breath; indeed, the breath is at the foundation
of our practice. Our breath teaches us how to surrender: with each exhale, we
let go. As we go deeper into the practice of mindful exhalation, we can let go with greater skill and awareness. In certain pranayama (yogic breathing) exercises, we pause at the end of the exhale, on purpose. We learn to rest in that temporary space of stillness because we trust that our inhalation will be there, that it is there, at the door. We allow the inhalation to come in and we are filled once
more, with the breath of life. The inhalation nourishes and renews us, and we exhale again. In each and every breath cycle, we let go and renew. We surrender our breath so we can in turn receive what we need from it.

Our breath is our own natural ritual of letting go to receive.

As you find some time to practice during this final week of 2014, tune into your breath to help you let go. Set an intention for your practice to release and surrender events from 2014 and anything else that's weighing you down or filling up space in your mind. We surrender everything, the good and the bad, to make space for a New Year. Then, we open up to receive new blessings. Let's welcome 2015 with hope and confidence! Exhale...and smile!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ahimsa: Force vs. Violence

Today I experienced something new with my husband and sons, on the invitation of our neighbor, a hunter. We received a call around lunchtime on a Sunday to walk over and watch a man dress a deer he had killed that morning. Since none of us are vegetarians, I thought this would be a great learning experience for all of us, and it was. We enjoyed hearing about how our neighbor took down the deer, seeing exactly the places where the arrows pierced and envisioning how the second arrow was shot to hasten the deer's death and more skillfully avoid paining the animal. We heard the sounds and smelled the scents as we watched the hunter cut through the flesh and bone of the carcas. We saw him handle each of the organs and got an up-close look at muscle and fascia. We discussed how the deer would be cooked and eaten.

As someone practicing and instructing Yoga as it is taught in the West (though I retain a deep respect and fascination for this Indian tradition and read as much scripture as I can, and adapt yogic teachings to my personal, spiritual life) I am nonetheless an omnivore.

The first of the five yamas (Yoga's moral restraints) is Ahimsa, essentially meaning "Do no harm," a universal ethical principle with widely varying applications and interpretations. Many people around the world follow Ahimsa by adopting a vegetarian diet, and some avoid harming even the tiniest insects in their day-to-day activities. Some people understand that even our thoughts can result in actual harm, choosing to cultivate only peaceful thoughts. Most people understand, at least intellectually, that non-harming extends to speech, so cursing, taunting and verbally attacking others are considered vices across most cultures. Ahimsa is categorically understood to prohibit physical violence done to others or oneself.

Because I have lived a sheltered life in terms of physical violence, I have mainly tried to apply the principle of Ahimsa to my thoughts, speech, and writing, admittedly half-heartedly at times. I can be given to destructive thoughts that sometimes spill over into speech or writing. My legal background and past experience did not help me cultivate non-violence in thought, word and speech; in fact, I was a tough negotiator, thrived on conflict, and occasionally enjoyed vitriol in writing or speech, getting a cheap thrill out of it from an early age.

My sons are learning karate and when I watch them at their dojo, I often think that I would have benefited greatly from martial arts as a child. I notice that in martial arts, people learn the difference between force and violence, training to use the former to allay or deflect the latter. They learn to achieve a calm mind and balanced energy, directing their focus to cultivate constructive, directed force. This is an invaluable skill.

I believe that Ahimsa is the restraint of violence, but not force. Force is the directed use of strength towards an end. Violence is force used wantonly or recklessly, or with an intent to harm. The use of force is often necessary and beneficial for our well-being, be it in thought, word or deed. We use force to erect and maintain protective boundaries, to build and procure the things we need for survival, and to create and maintain forward momentum in our lives on all levels.

To me, force is directed strength. Through practicing yoga, we build strength in mind and body and we learn to direct it in positive ways, not so different from the way that martial artists do so. We learn that we ourselves are our greatest opponents and through self-study, we get to know the opponent better so we can more easily end conflicts before they start and forge a direct path through obstacles. It is not a practice for the weak, and notably, neither is veganism or vegetarianism, or a vow of silence. The way that our practice plays out in our lives is going to differ based on the individual in many respects, yet we must all acquaint ourselves with and master force, not shying away from the battles we must fight as part of our progression; realistically, some of those battles have to do with survival. Yoga is not an escape from the animalistic parts of ourselves, but instead a closer look at them, a healthy relationship with even our basest, most predatory instincts so we can hone them to the benefit of all beings, in a balanced relationship with all of nature and life.

As a teacher, I offer that you should embrace your strength, embrace your desire, embrace your power, and never be afraid to use force when you need it. Balance this respect for strength with an avoidance of violence of any sort, towards yourself or towards your neighbor. Do no harm, yet respect force and use it wisely to forge ahead on your path.