Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How to Stop Carjackers

On some days, during certain moments, you know exactly where you are going. You are just where you want to be, or well on your way to that place. The ride is smooth, the horizon is clear and --sailing takes you away to where you've always heard it could be! (Sorry if you are too young to remember Christopher Cross). 

In other moments, you are in your vehicle (your body), cruising along to a destination of your choosing and WHAM! Something or someone collides with you and the vehicle halts, or sputters, or veers off course. In those moments you need to keep a good head about you for quick repairs, readjusting course and resuming your route! If you want to reach your destination--other than an exploding vehicle--your worst case scenario is a carjacking. You get knocked out of the driver's seat and somebody else steers you in an entirely different direction. 

Can you relate to being carjacked? I can. Just last night after an enjoyable weekend spent with family and friends in beautiful weather, I felt immensely content. I said to my husband, "I am so relaxed right now. I don't feel the need to do anything in particular." I just felt at peace; that was all; simply peaceful. I imagined staying that course until the next morning. Then I checked my Iphone apps, like e-mail and Facebook. All it took was a couple of messages from the outside world to collide with my contentment and steer me in another direction. Before I knew it, I had been carjacked. I was off, thinking about other things, creating new stories in my mind and experiencing emotions related to disruptions in the world, gossip and unruly chatter. 
It took me an hour or so, but eventually I threw out the carjackers. I lit a candle, completed a few rounds of mindful breathing and opened up the Yoga Sutras. Honest, I did! Sometimes I really do walk the talk. 

The Yoga Sutras are a good road map to a peaceful, steady mind. There are other road maps! Lots of others. Only you know how to choose the maps you're going to keep in your vehicle. Only you can set your own GPS. Personally, I like the concise sutras; they lay out direct routes to guide me to a steady mind and bring me home to my true Self. 

Based on translations from Sri Swami Satchidananda and Liz Schulman of sutras 29-39 in Book One, I am going to run through some quick directions for you (kind of like those times when you're driving aimlessly around a neighborhood looking for an address). The address is: a steady mind. You were carjacked by a gang of miscreants. They drove you around in circles and stole your GPS. You stopped and kicked them out, but now you're lost. You saw me jogging alongside the road and pulled over to ask for help.  

You: "I'm trying to get to a steady mind. I was carjacked and got rid of the carjackers but now I'm lost. You look like you live around here. Do you know where a steady mind is?" 

Me: "Yeah, I drive past there all the time! I've even been inside a few times. Good job kicking out the bad guys. That took some awareness and resolve. We have a neighborhood watch around here but we still get a lot of car jacks. Anyway, the way I know to get to a steady mind is to practice yoga, meditate and focus on your breathing."

You: "OK, I saw those road signs earlier but don't know how to get back there. Can you be more specific?"

Me: "Sure. If you want to find a steady mind, you'll get there. Even if you have been before, it's easy to forget because there are so many distractions on the way and the roads get blocked by obstacles. There are lots of characters wandering around here who will try to stop your car and divert your attention, but here's a quick way to deal with them: 1. Be friendly if they seem happy! 2. Have compassion if they appear unhappy, 3. If they're doing something good, show support, and finally, 4. Just ignore anybody acting badly. They'll suck you in if you jump in the middle of it."

You: "Right, so you covered what to do when other people are running around the roads, but I still don't know which roads to choose."

Me: "OK, you may want to write this down. There are several you can take and they all lead there: Focus on your breath, OR, tune into subtle sensations in your body, OR, go within yourself and connect to the Divine, OR, think about a person who truly inspires you, OR, recall a really good dream you had, OR, if you don't want to go any of those ways, just stop and think of whatever it is that uplifts you and drive towards that. Keep going. If you veer off course, just get back on course and be more focused each time, and you will get there." 

You: "You said you'd been there before. How did you go?"

Me: "The last time I was hijacked I focused on the breath. I made pretty good time getting to a steady mind after that." 

The idea here is this: We have so many distractions and disruptions in our lives. Some are unavoidable. We all want to get to a steady mind. We can help each other out in our communities. Let's band together to stop the carjackers. We are all driving each other home, to peace, to bliss, to our true nature. For yoga practitioners, mindful breath and movement is a direct route to a steady mind. If you don't believe me, try it for yourself. Tune into your breath and let it even out before you move. Then, hone your attention in on your breath as you practice each posture and transition today. Let your teacher give directions and follow according to your internal navigation. Then help others find their way whenever you can. I hope to meet you there when we all arrive. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Making the Unconscious Conscious

Do you like to remember your dreams? Can you prolong your dreams, or continue them when you go back to sleep after waking? I can answer 'yes' to both questions, though not most of the time. The times I do remember my dreams or go in and out of sleep to continue them, I feel fortunate. Dreams are a gift--even nightmares. They uncover key insights from our subconscious mind and serve as lessons from our own inner teacher.

In our awake lives, we would all choose to be awakened, if we could. No one wants to live as a prisoner to forces beyond her control, forces she is largely unaware of, pulling invisible strings behind a black curtain. Those forces are the programs running in our unconscious mind, the beliefs, patterns, fears and desires that run us so long as we run from them. 

It's not all bad, though! Our unconscious mind also harbors thrills, delights and revelations that are the stuff of magic. Our imaginations get close to expressing the power and beauty of our unconscious treasures, but since the imagination works through the filter of the conscious mind, some of the most brilliant gems escape its net. 

This morning in a dream I collected a precious jewel, an image I will keep with me for a while. In the dream I was living in a large house with a group of other people. One morning as everyone was getting up and ready for the day, I walked down a hall and stumbled upon an enormous floor to ceiling spider web that blocked a hallway. The web glistened with morning dew from a a nearby open window, and morning light shone through its filaments. I went to find people I could bring back to the web so I could show it to them. Finding no one, I returned to the web and found my teacher standing in front of it, playing the flute. Then I woke up. 

Our dreams contain symbols which relate to things we are working on in our conscious awareness, as well as feelings and experiences we are processing. Some of the symbols from our dreams can be linked to spiritual traditions which resonate with us, and cultural and ancestral imagery. 

The spider's web is a spiritual symbol in many traditions: Muslim, Celtic and Native American religious symbolism contain powerful stories about spiders and the webs they weave, but the one most familiar to me is the Native American Animal Medicine belief that the spider represents creativity. Seeing the spider weaving its web reminds us that we must weave our own lives, and the web is a symbol of creative power. There is also a well-known Scottish legend wherein Robert the Bruce finds inspiration in a spider weaving its web in a cave: after losing a battle to the English and being forced into exile, he hides in a cave and sees a spider struggling to stick its web to the wall of the cave. Finally watching the spider succeed in building its web, he takes away the lesson of persistence in the face of defeat and goes on to win the Battle of Bannockburn. 

The flute is another significant symbol in dreams, according to several mystical and religious traditions. I immediately thought of the pure and clear expression of the soul, a good omen for things to come and a melodious, harmonious turn of events. I played the flute as a child and adolescent and have very positive associations with it. I used to sit outside and play it to summon birds and other animals. 

The message I take from this dream is to be true to my higher self, listen to my inner teacher and rely on my own creativity, to persevere when challenged with a directive to conform, and to find the joy in the song of my soul. Living in a house with a community (as in the dream) signifies a desire and current pattern of seeking out those who share my path. My teacher playing the flute in front of the web signifies placing trust in a person with a collective creative vision. 

Only you can remember your own dreams and see how they reflect the direction of your life. Often you won't be able to remember them, so it's good to have other ways to tap into and channel gifts from your unconscious mind. Settling into stillness and quieting an overactive, thinking mind is a great help to do this kind of work. 

Yoga and meditation pacify and settle us, allowing more of the unconscious to surface. Writing, drawing, painting, playing music, creative and mindful movement of the body--each of these activities help us call forth hidden treasures from within. Working with one or several of these practices at a time will also stimulate the imagination and make you more aware of your dream life. 

No matter your daily activities, you are always carrying a world of hidden gems within you, in the unconscious mind. Make a commitment to do something each day to bring it forth into consciousness. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Under the Weather

My father-in-law gets aggravated by meteorologists. He wants accurate weather forecasting because he runs a seasonal business and most of the work is performed outside. He rants about weather conditions and unreliable weather reports, amusing his family members and associates. His weather monologues are predictable and quite funny.

My husband says that I also take weather conditions and inaccurate forecasting personally. I grew up in Missouri, a relatively agrarian state compared to New York (where we now live), and talking about the weather was a given in any conversation. People said things like, "Welcome to Missouri! If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes...it will change!" Here on Earth, the weather certainly changes a lot (unless you live in the desert, or San Diego). 

The Missouri weather hyperbole, "wait five minutes and it will change," can be used just about anywhere, and, truthfully... it can be applied to almost anything in life! Think about all the cliche weather metaphors in our language. 3,2,1, Go! The winds of change, the seasons of love, a whirlwind romance, a sunny disposition, a foggy memory, a fair-weather friend... We see our life condition reflected in the weather, which changes, often unpredictably. Yet, we all long for some kind of permanence and stability, something enduring, not subject to erosion.

What underlies the changeable weather? What is beyond unstable conditions? I think of the sky as the eternal backdrop underlying the weather. When I first learned to meditate, I read in books and was told in classes to think of my awareness as the pure, blue sky, and my distracting thoughts and emotions as clouds and weather systems. This weather analogy still makes a lot of sense to me. I do have moments of clarity in my life and in my spiritual practice, and these moments feel like a clear, sunny day in my consciousness. There is a sense of expansion and weightlessness. 

In one of my recent classes I was locked out of the studio where I teach due to a faulty key for the dead bolt. Fortunately, it was a beautiful, clear day, so I invited the students who wanted to stick around to practice outside on the grass. At the end of savasana I asked them to open their eyes and look at the clear, blue sky for a couple of minutes. Then I said a few words about how our yoga practice helps us to uncover the clear and unchanging aspect of our own being, our own pure consciousness. Two Sanskrit words often used to describe this powerful and unchanging awareness underlying our being are atman and purusha

Words can be helpful in pointing us to an experience which ultimately defies and surpasses definition. Read up on atman and purusha in the Yoga Sutras or other yogic texts if you are interested; more importantly, use self-inquiry in your yoga and meditation practice to find out if you believe you have pure consciousness within your being. Is it there? Are you able to experience it, even if only for a moment? Will you know when you experience it? Or do you believe that all of you is subject to change, erosion and forces beyond your control? Who are you? Are you your thoughts, emotions and concrete physical sensations, or is there something more? Can you use yoga to experience more of the expansive, blue sky and fewer days "under the weather?" I believe that you can and that I can, based on my own practice and self-inquiry. Your journey is yours alone, so I am asking you to look deeply and see what is true for you. I invite you to use this practice to seek and possibly uncover a pure and unchanging aspect of yourself, seeing what's really there, under the weather. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

How To Win In Yoga

Have you ever won first place in a race, in a pie eating contest, or in a spelling bee? Ever finish at the top of your class or score the highest on an exam? Ever been named MVP of your team? Are you competitive? If not, does it matter in yoga? If so, can you bring that quality to your yoga practice? 

The third niyama (observance) from the Yoga Sutras is tapas, which is translated as fiery discipline. The word tapas contains notions of heat, self-discipline and unquenchable drive. The Sanskrit verb "tap" means "to burn." Tapas in our yoga practice is the consistent and passionate effort we bring to our mats each time we practice, and it is also the determination we bring to our lives off the mat. Tapas is a willingness to show up and do the work, day in and day out. 

Will you be the best in your yoga class if you consistently observe tapas in your practice? Perhaps. To know for sure might require a panel of judges, which is an unlikely scenario... so you may never know. What you can count on is that when you observe tapas, you will be your best self in your yoga class. You will do your best. You may not have the ability to be the best, but each of us has the ability be our best.

To illustrate the difference between doing your best and being the best, something we may easily forget in our competitive society, I will give you an example from my life as a parent: 

Both of my sons play soccer. One of them seems to be developing a natural ability for it. The other one likes to play and practice at home, but typically has a hard time focusing at practices and games and tends to get upset and frustrated. When I was watching him at his practice and game this past weekend, he was unfocused, running around the field aimlessly, even twerking in the middle of the field at one point when he was supposed to be playing offense. Several times he stopped what he was doing, looked at me and gave me two thumbs down when another kid got the ball away from him. Afterwards he talked to me about how unfair the game was. I talked to him about not worrying about how well the other players were doing but instead focusing on his own efforts in staying on top of the ball. I reminded him of all the time he spent goofing off instead of getting involved and applying himself. He said he was upset by the other kids playing better than he did, and so I told him that was not an excuse for not trying his best anyway. I said, "You may not be 'the best,' but you still have to do your best." Can't we all relate to that? 

At the end of the yoga class I attended yesterday, just before my son's game, the teacher had taken us through a very challenging practice and I was unable to complete the goal pose, flying pigeon. However, I still tried to do it. I have a suspicion that I could have tried a bit harder and come closer to getting into the pose. It's an advanced arm balance and I am not ready to practice it or teach it yet, but I may be in the future, and I can set it as a goal. At the end of the class, the teacher told us that how we approach the most challenging postures and sequences tells us a lot about how we approach challenges in life. Studying our habits and patterns helps us get to know ourselves. Some of us push too hard on a regular basis. Others of us have a tendency to lay back. I fall into the latter category. I think my son may as well. Before we left, my teacher told us that as yogis, we have an unwritten obligation to walk out of class and put forth our best efforts in all we do. I actually think that obligation is written after all, in the sutras that teach us about tapas. 

If we ask ourselves what needs work in our lives, we will know where to channel our fiery discipline. Tapas is a commitment to finding the areas we need to work on and then showing up everyday to do the work. Tapas for you could look like finding that extra half hour per day for meditation, or committing to weekly volunteer work, or sticking to a budget. 

In yoga class, tapas won't always translate to mastering the toughest postures or having a practice that appears very strong on the outside. Sometimes tapas will mean working more on our internal habits, such as being overly competitive. If you are a competitive person, you can use that trait to your advantage in observing tapas, both in working hard at your practice and in disciplining yourself to ease up more often. Sometimes what is required for us to be our best selves is to allow more rest into our practice, or to work on cultivating healthier mind/body patterns. When you do yoga, tapas is always going to mean doing your very best, committing yourself to your practice with unrelenting discipline. So we have to be relentlessly mindful of our edge, knowing where we need to work harder and where we need to back off, channeling our best self onto our mat and always moving from that place. 

I invite you to be extra mindful of fiery discipline today, so that you are not just playing around or tuning out, but instead using all of your attention and effort for the next hour and a bit. Commit to your postures and execute them to the best of your ability. Commit to your breath, your rest and your renewal, so that you are really giving your best to yourself. Only you know what you need to work on, so make your practice your own, but see it as work instead of a mindless pass time. Work hard with no excuses, and you will win your yoga!