Monday, April 28, 2014

Embodied Practice: Become What You Love

Have you ever seen or envisioned something so beautiful and perfect that you wanted to lose yourself in it, to merge and become one with it? Even if you didn't have that exact thought, "I want to merge with this," you may have gazed at a painting, a sunrise over water, the full moon on a clear night or a beautiful animal in nature, and forgotten where or who you were in that moment. 

Certain fleeting moments can give us the feeling of being transported to another realm or level of existence where we feel peaceful, blissful, and whole, and where time seems to stop. Sometimes we experience this in a relationship; our walls crumble and we feel at one with another person. 

These experiences of unity are a shared human phenomenon. People seek out and cultivate unifying experiences. In Yoga, we most definitely cultivate wholeness and unity; the word "yoga" literally means "to unite," "to join," "to yoke," from the root word yuj

Thousands of years ago, when the first yogis devoted all their hours and energy to developing, teaching and recording yogic practices, they honed in on a particular meditation technique which combines the last three limbs of Astanga Yoga: dharana, dhyana and samadhi. This technique is called, samyama, a word that means "tying up" or "binding together." 

Samyama is the process of total absorption into the object of meditation. Through samyama the meditator develops an ability to focus so intently on one thing as to acquire the very inherent qualities of that thing. "As you think, so shall you become," a statement we have heard in various forms from the Bible, the Buddha and people like Bruce Lee. Samyama is a way to choose a focus, lose ourselves in it, and merge with it. It brings about the experience of unity. 

Here is the English translation of the initial teachings on Samyama in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:

1. Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.
2. Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition toward that object.
3. Samadhi is the same meditation when there is the shining of the object alone, as if devoid of form.
4. The practice of these three [dharana, dhyana and samadhi] upon one object is called samyama.
5. By the mastery of samyama comes the light of knowledge.
6. Its practice is to be accomplished in stages. 

We don't have to be master meditators or experienced yogis to begin working with samyama in our practice. There is no other place to start something than at the beginning, and indeed many beginning meditators will train their minds by visually concentrating on one object, like a candle flame or a photograph. We should be judicious in choosing our object of meditation so that it aligns with who and what we wish to become. If it is true that we take on the qualities of our object of meditation, it would be unwise to meditate on anything we don't want to resemble. For this reason, we choose an object that is simple and pure, like light, hence the common choice of a candle. 

Though samyama is meant to be practiced in formal meditation, I want to offer it up as technique we can use as we move through our yoga postures:

In your practice today, begin in seated meditation by quieting your mind, and then choose a quality you wish to embody. What would you like to become? What reality do you want to express with your body? Take some time in stillness and allow a quality to come to your mind. Think of one word. If nothing arises for you, some suggestions are: grace, peace, joy, harmony, love, tenderness. 

Once you have chosen your word for the quality you wish to embody, sit and focus for a few moments on that word, saying it silently to yourself in a class, or both silently and out loud if you are alone. Feel the sound vibrations of the word. Picture it written on a chalkboard. Tune into any sensations you feel in your body as you think of your word. Then, imagine a person in total harmony with your chosen quality. For example, if you have chosen grace, think of the most graceful person you can imagine. Next, imagine yourself as an embodiment of your chosen quality. Say to yourself, "I am [your quality]." I am grace. I am peace. I am love. I am tenderness. Imagine this quality radiating from your center through all of your being: your chest, arms, hands, legs, feet, throat, eyes, forehead, each strand of your hair, and even your pores. Your mantra for your practice today is, "I am ____." Connect with it and keep coming back to it in a breathing and moving meditation through your postures. In each movement, each posture, each transition, keep reaching deeper and deeper for the essence of that quality and let your focus and attention remain anchored there. 

Use this technique on your own, for longer periods in seated meditation and when you want to bring a certain quality to your yoga postures. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Lesson from Mother Earth

This Earth Day has me thinking: many of the lessons our mothers teach us, especially our Mother Earth, are so simple they are easy to miss. Our mothers teach us what is basic and essential from an early age: eat healthy meals, groom and dress neatly, go to bed at a reasonable hour, be kind to family, friends and pets. Mother Earth teaches us that when we nurture and cherish life, it grows, that we can be fed from our labors, that life follows natural cycles, that the greatest gift we possess is life itself. 

We distance ourselves from our mothers as we grow older and step out into the world on our own. We find other teachers and more complex lessons and develop pride in our own accomplishments. At certain times we once again draw near to our mothers and are reminded of our roots, of what makes us who we are and of the truths we cannot avoid. 

Today, many of us make a conscious connection to Mother Earth. This time of year I love to lie down on the grass and stare at the sky and smell the scents of Spring in the air, of the soil that is once again warming, of the blossoms that are blooming. Yesterday I positioned myself under our small magnolia tree. She is small because her biggest branches broke off in an autumn snow and ice storm in 2011. Her blossoms open a few days later than those of the other magnolia trees in our neighborhood. I thought yesterday may be the day they would begin to open, and I wanted to watch. I did see many of the blossoms beginning to open and this was glorious to behold. 

In the watching and waiting, I was reminded of some basic life lessons: it is good to slow down; there are gifts all around us that cost nothing; when we slow down, we can open up to the gift of life; we each have our own time table for growth; all things come to fruition in their own perfect timing; there is order in nature but order is not uniformity; there is beauty in nature but beauty is rarely uniform. 

Our lives follow these simple truths. When we try to push or force something, like a relationship, it breaks. When we slow down and allow it to unfold in its own time, it grows. When we stop grasping and appreciate who and what is there, we can give and receive love. When we slow down, have faith in ourselves and others, and wait with an open heart, love blossoms. 

Our physical and spiritual practices unfold according to these simple truths. In our yoga practice, we step out of our labors to slow down. We move in accordance with our breath and our body's natural rhythms. We build heat gradually. The heat begins to open us. As we start to open, we unfold into our postures in our own time, in our own way, experiencing the gift of our bodies. Just like the magnolia blossoms, we all look different as we unfurl our petals. We are not uniform in our postures, in our breathing, in our experiencing, yet we are unified in one tree of life, as the children of one Mother Earth. 

As your sister, in your practice today, I invite you to slow down and open up, to open yourself to the light and warmth that surround you, to deepen your connection to your roots as you face the sun and unfurl your petals. I invite you to blossom and embrace the Spring. A Blessed Earth Day to All. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Your Immovable Anchor

"Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are." -Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

We have all faced adversity in various forms; adversity is part of the human condition. We live in an ever-changing world and universe, occupying bodies that age and spaces that deteriorate with time. Over the span of our lifetime, we will inevitably lose many or most of the things and people we love. In spite of this fact, we persevere and experience fulfillment anyway. How do we do it?

This week my family was poignantly reminded of the reality of impermanence when my sister's dog had his jaw ripped off by another dog. Pets are like family members. We share deep bonds with them. We grieve when they are injured and die. My sister told me that after this horrible accident she went running down the street holding her bleeding dog in her arms. Because she was in shock, she tripped and fell three times and finally someone stopped to help her find her way to the emergency vet. The dog is still alive, but will never be able to close its mouth again or eat anything but baby food. He will drool constantly; even drinking water will be a challenge for him. 

This is a sad story. We all know many stories like it, and indeed worse stories. My sister is a pediatric nurse and has seen many children in the emergency room and ICU recovering from gruesome and shocking trauma. Even so, her work experience didn't adequately prepare her for seeing her pet maimed and helpless without feeling completely heartbroken. But she herself is not broken. Something in her, the same part of her that helps her in her work, is keeping her from falling apart. She will suffer worse losses than this one, and we all have and will. Yet, each of us has an amazing capacity to bounce back even stronger after every trial. We are all resilient. 

What are you doing in your life to recognize and keep building on your resilience? 

If you are reading or listening to this, then you practice or are interested in yoga. So that is one thing you are doing to tap into your deepest inner resources. Yoga practice anchors us to the strong, rooted, still point within us that keeps us from breaking apart or floating away in the midst of a storm. Through a regular, dedicated practice we learn how to find our anchor so we can go right to it when the strong storms come, as they always do. Familiarity with this unchanging place in us comes with more and more practice. In meditation, we anchor to our breath and familiarize ourselves with stillness. In our asana, we consciously connect with the body, and in each posture, as we move, we stay aware of the anchor. We find and connect to that unwavering place in us that holds us, and our postures, together. If we fall down, we get back up, because resilience is in our nature. Yoga just helps us to realize it. 

Through yoga, we learn to be firmly anchored in our own being so that what happens around us swirls around us without pulling us up from our root. We can experience pain, loss and trauma without those experiences defining us. Our true self is always secure and yoga is something that gives us that experiential knowledge.

To connect to that still point within, focus your awareness on your breathing. In your practice today, find a few moments to sit and simply tune into the sensation of your breath, giving your mind a respite from any other task or train of thought. Sit comfortably with a straight spine and supported seat. Close your eyes to tune out distractions. Relax your jaw. Relax your belly. Relax your hands and feet. Then, begin to feel into your breath. How does it feel to inhale and exhale? Breathe naturally. Notice any sensations. Then, begin to allow your breath to even out and slow down. Allow yourself to pause after each inhalation and exhalation and notice that space in the breathing. Notice that there is a point of balance and stillness between each breath cycle. Immerse yourself in this sensation of stillness. As you become more and more aware of this peace and ease in the space between the breaths, your mind will begin to merge into the stillness. You will come back home to your true anchor. Now that you know how this feels, see if you can retain and keep returning to this awareness in the midst of your postures today. And know that you can take this awareness with you wherever you go. This is who you really are, at all times and in all circumstances. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Wanting What Others Have

Something that gives me peace, joy and a sense of purpose in life is appreciating the commonality of the world's belief systems. In the wisdom and faith traditions of the world, the essential teachings remain the same: this builds my faith in Oneness. For example, we find the Golden Rule expressed in all major religions:

Another universal ethical teaching is a warning against "greed-based desire rooted in jealousy" (Davidji, Aparigraha: The Forgotten Yama). The fifth yama or ethical precept of Yoga is aparigraha, usually translated as non-greed: aparigraha is a mindset that keeps us wanting more and focused on what the people around us have. In the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible the 10th Commandment is, "You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor." Of course these basic precepts can be expanded and enriched to cover other related behaviors and attitudes, but at the foundation of aparigraha and non-covetousness is an admonition against greed. 

Here is a paradox of the human condition: greed keeps us poor. You may say, "that is simply not so! Look at the fat cats on Wall Street. They are rich because they are greedy, scheming, always wanting more." I am speaking not only of material poverty, but also of spiritual poverty. To be full and rich spiritually is to be at peace, content, joyful, blissful. Also, many people who are materially wealthy achieved their state in life from a combination of hard work, focus, and opportune circumstances. The third part of this equation is beyond our control, but the hard work and focus components are not born of greed and jealousy of what others have. Instead, external success comes from a one-pointed focus on the goal and the task at hand, and doing what one can for oneself. That attitude is not greed and is only related to greed when the fruits of labor are hoarded and not shared. Greed and jealousy impede true wealth of any kind because they rob us of gratitude and pull our energies away from creating and receiving blessings. 

I am going to share something very personal and meaningful from my family experience. When I was growing up, one of my younger sisters adored me so much that she wanted to look like me. She told me that when she was very little, she prayed each night that she would look like me when she awoke the next morning. In reality she was a beautiful child and grew up to be a very beautiful woman, with different hair and eyes and features from me. A few years ago our Dad was telling me a story of how she told him how lucky I am to have such a wonderful life partner and that she wished she could have someone like him. It made me think about her prayer when we were younger. I wondered then what it would be like for me to be the younger sibling rather than the older one, and if she were older, would she have been more focused on her own gifts and her own desires, rooted in an appreciation of who she was instead of what she saw outside of herself

We all have moments when our attention is placed on another person's gifts, achievements and possessions rather than on our present experience of ourselves and our unique life purpose. Some of us struggle with this more than others, and it becomes an ingrained pattern of thought. When I am experiencing jealousy I notice it and try to shift back to self-awareness and my own creative work process. It happened this week a couple of times, when I was focused on the successes of other spiritual teachers who have strong networking skills and more determination that I have currently. I noticed one spiritual teacher with less training and experience, but more willingness to promote her work, receiving community support and publicity that I don't have. I was focused on the fact that she has those things and I don't, and wondering why I don't, since I also "deserve" it. I recognized pretty quickly that these thoughts were destructive and a waste of my energy. I shifted my focus back to the immense blessings and support I have received since starting on this formal teaching journey less than 1 year ago, after a lifetime of hesitation to answer my calling. I brought to mind the synchronicity, opportunity and support from others that lift me up and carry me on my way each day. I decided then to put my full support behind others who are doing similar work, rather than perceiving them as competitors. We are all in this together, answering the same universal calling to walk each other home and keep the pathway well lit. 

Do you struggle with jealousy? It is a bottomless pit that will suck blessings away from you. Shift your focus from wanting what others have: 1. Notice what YOU have, and, 2. Dream of what you want for yourself, because it is right for YOU. This will unlock all the good on its way to YOU. As long as you are jealous you will be deprived. It's that simple.

We can work with shifting the energy of jealousy in our yoga practice. As a way to honor the yama of aparigraha, we can bring in some of the other limbs of yoga: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses); we can draw our focus inward lessening attachment to the outer world. Pratyahara will help us with our asana (physical postures), as we hone in and execute our postures with greater focus, which leads us to dharana (fixed attention and concentration), noticing only what is happening on our own mat and embodying our practice with full attention. Finally, we can always use pranayama (control of the breath), to channel our energy in the way that best serves us on and off our mats. 

In your practice today, free yourself of desire for what others have and fully experience the gift of yourself and your practice. Imagine drawing a circle of light around your mat, and then a smaller circle around yourself. Sit for a few moments with your eyes closed, in this protected circle, focusing on your unique light and energy. Silently incorporate the So Hum mantra into your breathing. This mantra means, "I am that." On the inhale, internally repeat "So," and as you exhale, internally repeat "Hum." As you proceed through your asana, don't let your energy or awareness drift off of your mat. Don't covet the asana practice of your teacher or fellow students. Instead, fully enjoy your own practice. If you become distracted, pull your energy back to inhaling "So" and exhaling "Hum." Close your eyes as often as possible in this practice to enhance sense withdrawal and to seal your focus inward. Bask in the richness of your own presence and power. Be satiated with who YOU ARE.