Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Advent Meditation for Joy

Sitting comfortably with your body supported, close your eyes. Notice your breath and the way it feels in your body. Allow yourself to be fully present where you are, at home in yourself. Say silently to yourself, "welcome home." Being here, now, begin to soften internally. Let your breath become smooth and even, cuing your muscles, your organs, your nervous system, and even your brain, to soften and open up. Soft and yielding, we are opening to the Lord's coming.

In this season of Advent, we are opening to receive the Lord's light. In this third week of Advent, we are opening to receive the Lord's joy.

Invite spiritual joy into your being. Breathing joy in, and breathing joy out, turn your attention within, awakening the joy already present within you. Envision joy as points of light, within and all around you.

See the color of joy.

Feel the texture of joy.

Experience the aroma of joy.

Savor the presence of joy.

As you breathe joy in, feel the light of joy illumine your body, moving from the crown of your head, to the space between your eyebrows, to your temples, to your ears, your jaw, your throat, your neck, collarbones, feeling the warmth and light of joy spread across your chest, resounding deeply in your heart, spreading through your upper arms, forearms, wrists, into your hands to the tips of your fingers...breathing sweetly into your belly, feel the warmth of joy spread through your abdomen, across your back, down into your low belly, into your hips, pelvic region, and lower back...feel joy moving down your legs, to your knees, the muscles on the fronts of your legs, the backs of your legs, your ankles, spreading into your feet, into each of your ten toes. Feel your feet on the floor, and your seat on the chair, grounding you into the presence of joy. Feel the lift of your head and your spine rising up to greet within you and all around you the presence of joy as you inhale and exhale, embraced by the presence of holy joy.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, "Go and make careful search for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, that I too may come and worship Him." And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy." Matthew 2:8-10

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. Psalm 16:9

The joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13

Friday, December 4, 2015

Christian Meditation for Advent

Christian meditation and contemplative prayer have a long history, even if meditation is something many people do not associate with Christianity. Early Christian monks and nuns spent many hours in prayer, meditating on scripture and waiting in silence upon the spirit of the Lord. In Christianity's more recent history, theological analysis has overshadowed the more internal, quiet practice of meditation.

As modern Christians gather in community and cultivate their shared faith, much solace and solidarity can be gained from coming together to meditate.

Many passages from the Bible refer to personal spiritual practice and quiet time spent with God. There are too many to list in one place. My favorites: "When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place…"(Matthew 6:6), and "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).

Our faith is one of action, focused on shining the Light of Christ into the world through performing the works exemplified by Jesus: helping people in need, healing the sick, championing the downtrodden, being good stewards of the Earth, and, of course, worshiping God.

Meditation is a practice that counterbalances all of the external acts we perform as Christians. Especially at this time of year, we are busy preparing for the Holidays, collecting items for the needy, preparing food and gifts, planning church events, traveling to see family, celebrating after hours with co-workers, practicing for Christmas Chorales... In the Bible, we read about the many times that Jesus retreated into solitude to commune with his Father, God. He showed us by example that we are called to do so as well.

Christian meditation differs only from any other meditation in its focus upon calling in the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit, waiting upon the presence and inspiration of God, and allowing the silence to be filled up with these Holy gifts. Otherwise, the practices are the same: sitting comfortably with a straight spine, focusing on the breath, stilling the busy mind, and usually using a mantra (repeated phrase to anchor the mind back to the meditation). Many Christian meditators use the mantra, maranatha, an Aramaic word meaning, "Come Lord." Another prayer phrase can also be chosen, or you can choose to say a prayer at the beginning of your meditation and use mindfulness meditation in the quiet that follows, waiting upon the Lord.

What follows is a brief guided meditation prepared for the season of Advent, a time when we wait patiently for the Light of Christ to be revealed in the darkness of Winter. With so much literal and metaphorical darkness in our world at this time, calling in the Light in our meditation is a healing respite and a balm for our hearts. Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life"(John 8:12).

Find a comfortable seat where you can be at ease in your body. Bring the hands together in prayer at the heart. Gently close your eyes. Bring your awareness to your breath. Allow your breath to slow down and deepen, naturally soothing you and calming your body and mind. In this reverent, peaceful position, allow your focus to turn to the Holy One. Turn your heart towards God. Silently recite the Lord's Prayer to yourself, or another prayer of your choosing. Focus on the meaning of each line of the prayer. After you close your prayer with Amen, bring your hands to rest gently in your lap. 

Begin silently repeating the mantra, "Maranatha, Come Lord," to yourself. You can repeat Maranatha as you inhale, and Come Lord as you exhale. If you'd like to choose another mantra, you can chose a word, Love, Hope, Peace or Joy, breathing love in and breathing love out, breathing peace in and breathing peace out... Without judgment, let all other thoughts come and go as you bring your awareness consistently to your mantra and your breath. 

With each breath, feel more grounded in the presence of the Lord. With each heartbeat, experience your connection to the heart of Christ. 

Feel the inner Light of Christ expand through your heart, through your chest, throughout your entire being. 

Envision the Light of Christ surrounding you here and now, encircling your body and radiating from your core. 

As you continue breathing and sitting here, in the stillness, imagine the Light of Christ emanating from you, spreading beyond your body, beyond this room, beyond this building, spreading out into your community, your country, your world, even into the whole of the Universe. Feel your deep connection to the God of the Universe and all of His creation. 

Rest here in this glorious space. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

99 Problems But You Are Not One

You may have problems needing solving or fixing, but you, my friend, do not need someone or something to fix you, change you or make you over.

Because I teach yoga, I see a lot of fitness and diet trends (why would that be? because our society equates yoga with fitness and attractive bodies). I think of yoga as a tool for physical, mental and spiritual health. Fitness is a part of that, no doubt. But fitness is not more important than the mental and spiritual aspects of yoga, AND the physical aspect is not just about fitness. It's about the health of your nervous system, your immune system, your endocrine system, your spine...and so much more, folks.

I respect the work of fitness professionals, traditional and alternative doctors, practitioners of complimentary medicine...there's a long list of people I respect, admire and collaborate with on many levels in my job as a yoga teacher.

However: I want to set myself apart from the people trying to fix you!

I took part in a recent discussion around body image, illness and aging. Along with nine other yoga teachers, I shared how my practice has informed my feelings about my body. We all agreed on one thing: we love ourselves just as we are. One teacher used the metaphor of courtship, engagement and marriage for her relationship with her body. She is in love with her body and she is not an abusive spouse. Another teacher spoke of a colleague who had committed suicide after struggling with body image. She was emaciated and had plastic surgery for breast implants, then a few years later, she killed herself. No one likes to talk about those stories which happen to other people, even when in the midst of our own body image struggles. We need to kill the body image struggles rather than killing ourselves. This needs to be said.

I've been hearing a lot about Cross Fit lately. "Work out so hard that nothing in the office scares you," is one post I have seen, along with mentions of pain and bruises in a positive context of self-improvement. I've also seen a lot of advertisements on social media and television for a diet and exercise program called the 21 Day Fix. I like the program from the sounds of it: portion control and strengthening exercises you can do at home. But the marketing seems centered around concepts like fixing your body so you can look good, and sticking to a diet without "cheating." If you love yourself, why would you cheat on yourself? And why would you think you need fixing? During the holidays the onslaught of diet and fitness advertisements will increase. Halloween was a good one to get people motivated: work off those treats! Have a plan to counteract Thanksgiving dinner! God forbid you enjoy yourself and not have a counterattack in the works!

Why do these advertising tactics succeed? Why do people yo-yo diet? Why do they want to hurt themselves in their workouts? No pain, no gain? What do all of these "health" and "fitness" trends say about the relationship we have with our bodies? Sounds a lot like spousal abuse to me.

We have to get to know our bodies before we can develop lasting love for them. We need to take time to connect: to our breath, our feelings, our energy. A relationship not based on love, trust and respect is doomed to fail.

Practicing yoga is a process of self-inquiry, involving all aspects of the self. The health of the mind and spirit are inextricably linked to the health of the body. All parts of us work together, ideally in harmony. Insult one part of yourself and you insult the whole. Deprive one part of yourself and you deprive the entirety of who you are.

You don't need to be fixed. You need to be loved. You need to be appreciated. You need to be treated well. Solve your problems, remedy your ills, fix your broken parts, but don't ever confuse all of those for who you really are.

“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; 
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” -Psalm 139:14

Monday, September 28, 2015

Five Obstacles Obscuring Our Light

Traditional Yoga philosophy claims that all we truly need for our own peace and happiness lies within us. Every individual possesses an unshakable inner wisdom to illuminate the path of enlightenment. Yoga itself is not something outside of us; instead, Yoga is the natural unified state of our consciousness with universal consciousness. Yoga means "union." The teachings of Yoga tell us that we are already whole; all we need to do is realize that wholeness. 

The thought that I am already yogic inside and don't have to chase after enlightenment uplifts, inspires and encourages me!

The second chapter of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras presents the yogic methods to attain liberation. According to Patanjali, there are five major obstacles, the kleshas, regularly obscuring our latent brilliance. These are:

1. Avidya/Ignorance
2. Asmita/Egoism
3. Raga/Desire
4. Dvesa/Aversion
5. Abhinivesa/Fear of death

The translations given for the Sanskrit words above are rough. I will briefly explain each obstacle:

The obstacle of ignorance has to do with a case of mistaken identity. Avidya is mistaking what is false for what is true, what is not me for what is me, what is impure for what is pure. This type of ignorance obscures us from seeing our true self. Instead, we mistakenly believe that we are what we have, what we do, or what others think of us. Wayne Dyer gives a beautiful explanation of this false sense of identity we develop in the film, The Shift

Asmita is the type of egoism that preoccupies us with defining ourselves and defending our idea of who we are above all else: think labels, comparisons, judgments. Again, in The Shift, Wayne Dyer talks about this type of ego as EGO, Edging God Out. 

Raga is not a healthy kind of desire. Some desires are, of course, healthy! Raga is an imbalanced craving or attachment that keeps us chasing after one thing or person or another, in our minds, our thoughts and our actions. Raga keeps us on the run, constantly chasing fulfillment. 

Dvesa is the flip side of raga, the aversions that keep us running away or pushing away from people, places and things. Where do you find your dvesa? Fill in these blanks: "I can't stand ____. I won't be around ____. I am terrified of ______. I refuse to _____." What else can you think of that brings up your aversion? Try being with the feeling of aversion rather than acting on it. This is something we work on in both our postural and meditation practices. 

The final obstacle, fear of death, refers also to a fear of living your life to its fullest. It is a fear of impermanence, a sort of rigidity that makes us like stiff corpses. We try to make our existence fit into a neat little box by avoiding new experiences, staying perfectly safe within tired routines, shying away from sharing our love or gifts. Instead of truly living, we die little deaths every day, wanting to keep things just the way we like them in our tepid comfort zone. 

The most powerful book passage I can find about these obstacles obscuring our light is from When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. 

We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that's death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn't have any fresh air. There's no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later we're going to have an experience we can't control: [fill in with your favorite examples of tragedy and disappointment].

The essence of life is that it's challenging. Sometimes it is sweet and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100% healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice, smooth ride. 

To be fully alive, fully human and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that's life. Death is wanting to hold onto what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say [abhinivesa] is fear of death, it's actually fear of life. 

Acceptance of ourselves and our circumstances, an ability to be present to our life, and a deep and abiding self-love will emerge from the darkness the more we become aware of our obstacles. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

French Yoga Lesson

Mais oui! Yoga in French, pourquoi pas? I just got back from a family vacation in Québec. So lovely! I was reminded of prior years I spent in France, a time before I had ever practiced yoga...

I heard and spoke a lot of French on vacation and one expression got me thinking about one of the niyamas in the Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs of Yoga: santosha. It means contentment, being at ease, comfortable in oneself and at peace in the present moment. The French expression is bien dans sa peau, se sentir ou être bien dans sa peau. The literal meaning of this expression to be "well in one's skin," to feel good in one's body, comfortable. A person who feels this way has achieved a state of harmony between the mind and the body, so that the body doesn't feel like a prison and the mind doesn't feel like a taskmaster. 

Another French expression:  mal à l'aise, ill at ease. We've all felt this way at times, some of us more than others. How can Yoga help?

Yoga helps us to feel at home in our body, maintaining a healthy body/mind connection, moving and breathing in an embodied way. The care, attention and consciousness we bring to our breath and movement, along with the contentment we cultivate in meditation and relaxation make us feel bien dans la peau, content, at ease. 

We all have a right to be bien dans sa peau, to experience santosha, contentment. When we experience stress and trauma, we sometimes disconnect from our natural state of harmony and ease. Let your yoga practice bring you back into balance. Vive le Yoga! 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Guided Release Technique: Ball of Yarn

This is a brief meditation you can do during your savasana (resting pose after postural yoga practice), or simply lying in bed. 

Close your eyes. Connect within your body, feeling the sensations of your in-breath and your out-breath. Notice the feeling of the breath in your rib cage, in your abdomen, filling you up as you inhale and clearing you out as you exhale. Notice the sensation of the air touching your skin. Feel the back of your body resting on your mat. Notice the darkness behind your eyelids, or any colors you see there. Tune into any sounds you hear around you. Develop a keen awareness of your entire experience, and yourself as the experiencer. 

Then, allow your awareness to go deeper within you. Release all effort to notice or control your experience. Be at rest. Inhale fully and deeply, holding your breath at the top. Exhale through your mouth. Let go...

Once you've rested like this a few moments, begin to scan your inner awareness throughout your body, beginning at the top of your head and working your way down to your toes. With this relaxed, accepting awareness, let yourself feel both physical and emotional sensations. 

Are there feelings, memories, sensations or experiences at the physical, mental or spiritual level which you want to release? 

Locate and name everything you'd like to release. Find where it resides in your mind and body. Perhaps there is one thing, perhaps there are more than one. You're going to thread them out of your system like strings of yarn. Imagine in your mind's eye that you are pulling out individual strings of yarn, for everything you want to release. See the colors. Feel the textures. Hold the strings in your hand, one by one, and begin to roll them together into a ball of yarn. 

Give yourself time to do this, to feel and see your ball of yarn, making sure it is complete. And then, imagine that next to you is a round plastic shell that opens like a plastic egg. Take off the top and and you will see that your ball of yarn fits neatly inside. Place your ball of yarn inside the shell and close it up. Place the shell on top of your belly, letting it rest there. Feel it's weight. 

Keeping your attention on your ball of yarn in the shell, with each exhalation, the ball will float up higher and higher above your belly, above your body. You will keep resting and breathing, and your ball of yarn will keep floating further and further away from you, until you can no longer feel it or see it. It will be absorbed into the atmosphere, where it will unravel and dissipate. 

When you are ready to get up again, take your time. Let your breath gradually deepen. Move your feet and hands slowly. Draw your knees into your chest and roll over onto your side to sit up. 

May you be free of all unnecessary burdens, and may your experience always be colorful. 


Monday, July 20, 2015

Saucha: Clean up, Tidy up and Lighten up!

Look around this summer to see what your friends are reading--chances are you'll see this book on a beach or lawn chair: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. It's a New York Times bestseller. I've been seeing it and hearing a lot about it!

Though I'm not reading the book myself, I did spend a portion of this past weekend decluttering my home with my husband. We prepared 8 large moving boxes of adult and children's clothing and shoes along with a few useful appliances to be picked up today by a charitable Veterans organization. We normally donate to Goodwill, decluttering in little spurts a few times per year, but yesterday was much more thorough! My Virgo husband made it easier by devising a system and a schedule for us. We still have more work to do on our basement and garage, but we already feel much freer and lighter. My closet is empty of scary secrets!

Simplifying my life, making space and creating structure are all parts of my yoga practice. In yoga philosophy, there are five recommended personal observances for cultivating happiness and avoiding suffering. These are called the niyama. The first niyama is saucha, which means inner and outer cleanliness or purity. A home where saucha is faithfully observed will be orderly, clean, simple and light. Taking inventory, tidying up and simplifying our home brings more peace, ease and clarity to our life. It helps us to develop a sattvic, balanced energy, within and without. 

Once saucha is applied to any area of your life, it really does feel magical! Pulling all of the old clothes out of my closet, items from another era of my life (suits from 10 years ago when I worked as a lawyer) made me feel a little queasy, but looking at my closet now, I feel refreshed and liberated! 

How can we apply saucha in our postural yoga practice, in public spaces or at home? We can start with the basics by keeping mats and props clean, respecting others' practice space, putting our blankets, blocks and straps away in an orderly fashion; it's pretty straightforward, like preschoolers tidying their books and toys. Yet sometimes we forget! 

Finally, how does saucha show up as we move through our postures? We can find it in clean lines, careful alignment, cleansing breaths and orderly transitions. We can also experiment with decluttering our foundations, simplifiying, working with the idea that less is more (perhaps a smaller base, like standing on the balls of our feet) and seeing what that opens up. 

Try setting saucha as your intention the next time you practice, or if you teach, write a sequence around it. You may discover some long-lost essentials hiding under the clutter!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Say It Like You Mean It

Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. Anything other than this comes from the evil one. -Matthew 5:37, Common English Bible.

For many years I have wanted to grasp the precise meaning of this teaching. Yesterday the meaning came to me after giving a short talk on boundaries and authenticity. I "teach" to learn. Anything I am teaching is an exploration of what I am trying to learn.

Recently Kino Macgregor posted a brief lesson about Susima, a Sanskrit word for solid boundaries. An essential part of self-actualization is learning to walk the balance beam between extremes, finding the equilibrium of our inner authority so we don't over-extend ourselves on the one hand, or shy away from opportunities to grow and serve on the other hand. Kino wrote about people who always say yes, and others who always say no. Some of us are extreme people-pleasers and others are extreme skeptics, averse to any risk. Still others are balanced in their relationships and commitments. I have traditionally fallen into the "always yes" camp, and am learning the hard way that my "yes" really needs to mean "yes!" My best intentions fall apart when my "yes" is inauthentic.

How do we know which is right in any given moment, "yes," or "no?" Yesterday in class when we posed this question for discussion, a woman named Karen said it has to do with our inner authority--before giving an authentic answer, we have to go within to feel our way forward. We structured the remainder of our class around feeling our way through our yoga practice, taking the modifications that were right for us individually and connecting to our inner authority on our yoga mat. I loved watching the great variation in poses as people felt free to explore and do what felt to good them, sometimes saying "no" to a pose I offered, other times responding with an emphatic "yes," going deeper than usual in a particular pose.

At the end of class we drew a circle in our mind's eye around our mat, creating a mental and physical safe space to go within and rest in our seat of inner authority. Knowing, remembering what it feels like to be connected within, we're better able to create healthy boundaries in our daily life; like saying "yes" to helping a friend move, truly intending to extend ourselves in that effort, or saying "no" to a colleague when asked to replace someone on a project that's not a good fit for our talents or interests. You can think of your own real life examples. Just yesterday I said "yes" without thinking when a prospective client asked to book a next day private session, glossing right over my own doctor's appointment. This left me with a decision, do I cancel my own health maintenance appointment to keep a hastily made commitment? That's not a good place to be. My yes did not come from a place of inner authority, but from an autopilot program running in my mind. A no in that instance would have better served me and my client as well. Sometimes meaning what we say is simply a matter of slowing down enough to respond authentically.

As we learn to pay attention to our inner signals, like how we feel in our bodies and emotions when asked to do something, we respond with authority and presence, meaning what we say and saying what we mean.

Authenticity on and off our yoga mat, in our home, workplace and community, is the fruit of deep inner cultivation. The avoidance of broken and empty promises, missed opportunities and failed commitments is possible when we are internally connected, living from a firm foundation of inner authority.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Celebrate Your Independence

This week in the US we will celebrate our July 4th holiday, a commemoration of our nation's independence from a controlling Colonial power. We will barbecue, display our flags and wear red, white and blue. This holiday brings a word to mind, lauded and proclaimed in patriotic songs: Freedom. Let freedom ring! Freedom is an intrinsic American value.

Independence is synonymous with freedom. Independence from what?

I want to live and die free. Yet like most of us, I often find myself bogged down or entangled. Many of us feel beholden to a job, an employer, even a family. We all have obligations. Our movements cannot always be free; or can they?

Even if we can't always go exactly where we want or grow money trees in our backyards, we are able to free ourselves internally. We can work towards freeing our minds and emotions. Yoga is a practice I use to emancipate myself from inner slavery, like Bob Marley sang in Redemption Song.

There are three Sanskrit words I associate with freedom, even though many more exist. The three words I think of are moksha, vairagya and kaivalya. We can find these words in the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. 

Moksha describes liberation in the truest and deepest sense, a spiritual and mental freedom releasing us from the cycle of death and rebirth that Hindus believe in. In more Western terms, we can think of moksha as a final liberation from the consequences of our actions and from the heaviness of our burden of existence. Christians use the term "salvation" to describe this kind of freedom.

Vairagya is the freedom from all worldly desires, a state of non-attachment to the fruits of our actions. Sutra 1.12 of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah says that we can free our minds through dedicated action without attachment to outcomes or results. A simpler translation is practice or work without attachment. This means doing our duty, giving our best effort, yet releasing expectations. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna teaches Arjuna to work without attachment. In Chapter 3, he says, "by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme."

Kaivalya means real independence, and is translated as "isolation," but it does not mean loneliness. Rather, kaivalya is a state of freedom from entanglements, wordly desires and egoism. A person who achieves kaivalya is called a Kevalin, someone who knows how to live in the world without being enslaved to it, just as Jesus Christ talked about being in the world, but not of it.

The simplest formula I can think of to apply these concepts to my life is living life to the fullest without clinging to expectations. Show up, and expect nothing.

This path to inner emancipation applies to both active and passive pursuits. It is easier to see how it applies to your work or your yoga practice. Do your best and let that be your reward; don't expect perfection or applause; don't be greedy; don't be a show-off; instead give without an expectation to receive; apply effort, then surrender. Do what you do for the sake of doing it, no matter what it is. The quality of being you bring to your work is more important than the reward of the work itself. Any other type of work is a form of enslavement. Even our yoga practice can enslave us if we are attached to the results.

What about the times when we rest, when we play, when we seek distraction and entertainment? We can also be freer and happier in these moments when we are able to let go of expectations. One example is going to see a film. Do you ever go to a movie without knowing anything about it? Can you simply watch a film and let it be what it is, enjoying it without expecting it to elicit particular emotions or inform you in a particular way? Sometimes I go see a movie purposefully ignoring all descriptions and reviews beforehand, so it's a like an unknown gift for me to open. I enjoy it more when there are no expectations.

Our expectations, attachments and entanglements are a trap. We give away our freedom, our peace, our joy and our power when we depend on an outcome.

Today, July 4th, every day, celebrate your own Independence Day.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Inner Sanctum

Within a church or temple, the inner sanctum is a private, sacred and secret place. It is safe and protected.

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty
-Psalm 91:1, King James Version. Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty -New International Version.

Let the yogi engage himself in yoga, remaining in a secret place by himself, with thought and self subdued, free from hope and greed.  In a pure place, established on a fixed seat of his own, neither very much raised or very low…he should restrain his mind and concentrate it on Me, and sit down engaged in devotion, regarding Me as his final goal -Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6.

Teachers of spiritual traditions love metaphor as a teaching tool, and many describe the human body as a temple (eg. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?).

Yoga is both a physical and a spiritual tradition. The breath work, physical postures and meditation in yoga lead us deep into our inner sanctum. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the body is described as an obstacle to be transcended, but in Tantra Yoga, the body is seen as a holy vessel. The well-known Anusara yoga teacher, Christina Sell, authored the book My Body is a Temple: Yoga as a Path to Wholeness as a guide to help people reach their inner shrine through yoga practice.

My yoga practice leads me within, to a secret place where I am safe, at rest and divinely connected.

Even in a group class, practicing collectively, we are traveling on this individual journey to the inner sanctum. The niyama, one half of the ethical teachings of yoga, is a Sanskrit word that translates as "inner culture," in English. Svadhyaya is one of the five niyama, and it means study of the scriptures and of the self. The literal translation of svadhyaya is "one's own reading."

In our practice today, may we turn our attention within and find our inner sanctum, allowing our practice to lead us to that secret resting place where nothing can perturb us, the place where the soul abides.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Jewel of the Moment

How's this for a subversive statement?
Life is not made up of milestones, but of moments. -Rose Kennedy

So often we define our life in terms of accomplishments or failures, lists on a resume, photos in an album...or when a life is over, the contents of an obituary. We reach into the past or future for the contents of our life, yet this is not living. Living is sensing, breathing, giving and receiving, showing up in the here and now.

Each journey consists of many steps, a series of discrete moments. If we're not careful, we can't see the trees for the forest. This is why we turn to practices like mindfulness and yoga, to connect to the fullness, peace and joy we find in the present moment. The quality and very essence of a life is found in the moment. This is the place where the real You and Me reside.

Each moment, each breath, each meal, each conversation, each discrete posture in yoga, all are one-of-a-kind jewels. Each has a different hue, texture and feel. Can you hold all the jewels in your hand? Can you collect them and wear them like a prize around your neck, or a crown on your head? No. You can only hold one jewel at a time in your palm. It is good to dream and plan and indulge in precious memories, but when we cling to the promise of a future reward, agonize over past failures or imagine away the gift of the moment, we're losing our treasure to jewel thieves.

You don't have to dig deep to find a gem. You just have to open your eyes and notice it.

I experienced a vivid example of this truth this morning, when I had this post written and lost all of the text. For some reason, I really like hanging onto the products of any work I do, unless it's cooking, and then I just want to eat it. I don't agonize about preserving a pie for as long as possible, defining my happiness by it. I just eat it, enjoy it, then forget about it. I wish I could do this with other parts of my life. I hang onto things. We all do. When I got up and walked away from my laptop and left my house, I accompanied my son on a field trip to a farm to study vernal pools. That experience was one jewel I held for a short time. I'm not going to dig with greedy fingers and nails to pull it out of the ground and have it set into a ring. It's gone. Now here I sit, enjoying writing. There is always enough in each moment. I am always enough.

I don't want to miss the essence of my well-lived life trying to piece together a collection of milestones, a box of clunky rocks. No one does. We want the real gems. They're ours for the taking.

“My mind then wandered. I thought of this: I thought of how every day each of us experiences a few little moments that have just a bit more resonance than other moments—we hear a word that sticks in our mind—or maybe we have a small experience that pulls us out of ourselves, if only briefly—we share a hotel elevator with a bride in her veils, say, or a stranger gives us a piece of bread to feed to the mallard ducks in the lagoon; a small child starts a conversation with us in a Dairy Queen—or we have an episode like the one I had with the M&M cars back at the Husky station.

And if we were to collect these small moments in a notebook and save them over a period of months we would see certain trends emerge from our collection—certain voices would emerge that have been trying to speak through us. We would realize that we have been having another life altogether; one we didn’t even know was going on inside us. And maybe this other life is more important than the one we think of as being real—this clunky day-to-day world of furniture and noise and metal. So just maybe it is these small silent moments which are the true story-making events of our lives.”
Douglas Coupland, Life After God

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Heal Your Heart

Just as the physical heart pumps life sustaining blood throughout the body, the spiritual heart takes love in and gives love out. When our heart is unhealthy, we are cut off from giving and receiving blessings. A hardened heart is a sickness leading to decay and death.

Learn to receive with a soft heart. "God is seated in the hearts of all," Bhagavad Gita 10:20. "Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest," Koran 13:28. "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh," Ezekiel 36:26.


    Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!–
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

      Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!–
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

      Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!–
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

      Last night, as I slept,
I dreamt — marvelous error!–
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Last Night as I was sleeping, Antonio Machado, translation by Robert Bly.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Lens of Love

"My eyes are the eyes through which God sees." -Vilyat Inayat Khan

“The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” -Meister Eckhart

Whether or not you believe in God, you may believe in goodness, truth, beauty, honor and other human values. Humanists and religious people share many values in common. The quotes above may appeal to humanists, since they believe that any would-be God must live and work through humanity. 

If there is a God, and God is love, and mine are the eyes through which God sees, when I see myself, I must love myself. When I look at others, I must love them.

When I look at the world through my divine eyes, I must see that the world is good: "Then God looked over all that he had made, and he saw that it was very good!" -Genesis 1:31

I had a yoga teacher who often spoke to her students about their practice as a continual effort to clear the lens of perception, to remove the fog and the dirt, so that we could see clearly. I've heard my pastor say similar things about faith. My father has also spoken to me many times of seeing others through the eyes of love, rather than judgment. The following verses from The Yoga Sutras and the Christian Bible echo these teachings as well as the opening quotes above:

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. 

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). 

The Sanskrit word prema means Divine Love. The Sankrit word maitri and the Pali word metta mean unconditional benevolence. The Greek word for Divine Love is agape.

Would that we could see ourselves, each other and our world through a consistent lens of Prema, Maitri, Metta, Agape. 

Your yoga, your meditation, your prayer, your mindful walks, your alone time, your worship...may all of these practices focus your gaze and refine your vision, and may you always see through the lens of love. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Yoga in the Mirror

"Recognize that the other person is you," is the first of Yogi Bhajan's five sutras, and a founding principle of the practice of Yoga. A critical step on the path to self-realization is seeing ourselves in others and others in ourselves.

You have heard and read that Yoga means union. The state of Yoga is the realization of unity within and without, a felt understanding that we are not separate from God, from the Universe or from one another. In the Christian Bible there is a verse written by the Apostle Paul, describing the feeling of this union: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord," (Romans 8:38-39).

Yogis, Christians, and mystics from other traditions believe that love and unity are the true nature of reality. Based on this belief, when looking at others, we see our own face, and the face of God. But when we stop to look at the world, even just at our own hearts, there is so much strife and division. Our experiences of unity are fleeting--abundant evidence of separation and conflict appears to contradict Yoga.

Lofty ideals and spiritual experiences aside, how can we practice recognizing the other person as our self? In our day-to-day experience, is there a practical way to see ourselves, perhaps even God, in our human interactions?

In movement practices like dance and postural yoga there is a concept called mirroring; the student replicates the movement of the teacher and vice versa. The mirroring technique is also used in psychotherapy as a tool to enable the therapist to empathize with what the client is feeling. Infants mirror their parents and all of us subconsciously mirror one another. In our brains, we have specific neurons, called mirror neurons, that fire both when we perform a specific action and when we observe the same action being performed by someone else.

To further our physical, mental and spiritual growth, we can apply the practice of mirroring to our relationships and other experiences. Growth is rarely easy, and sometimes it hurts. Other times, it feels exhilarating. Using our relationships as a mirror, we'll experience both ends of this spectrum.

When we see something we dislike in another person, we experience a negative emotional reaction. This unpleasant feeling is a cue to look more deeply and recognize in that person an aspect of our self we need to heal in order to be whole. On the flip side, when we notice qualities we appreciate in someone else, it makes us feel good inside; we may feel attraction, admiration and affection. These feelings are also a prompt to appreciate the same qualities within us, to love within ourselves what we love in others. This is a blissful path to self-love and acceptance, experiencing the moments when we can say, "that's me! I love this because it resonates, because it's familiar." Carl Jung once said, "The meeting of personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed."

Ultimately the practice of mirroring leads to greater depths of empathy and compassion. The field of neuroscience has proven that our mirror neurons play an essential part in our human ability to empathize. For those of us who feel spiritually inclined, mirroring can lead to a more personal experience of God, a fervent search, seeking Him/Her in the faces of everyone we meet, in each interaction.

On a very concrete level, we can use mirroring in our postural yoga practice, in our breath work and in meditation. When we feel an aversion or an attraction to certain postures, it's a cue to go deeper, to explore and find out which aspects of our self we need to integrate, eg. do inversions scare us or do they feel exhilarating? are we restless in deep forward bends? why might we enjoy twists or arm balances but dislike standing balancing postures? which thoughts tend to recur in meditation? Most importantly: can we accept all of this with empathy and compassion?

Try some conscious mirroring, maybe for one day, or one week. Whenever you can remember, stay tuned into your feelings as you work, as you interact, as you practice yoga, and find the reflection of yourself in all you see. Use all of your experience on the path of integration. All you see and do and feel is valuable on your journey to wholeness, to unity, to Yoga.

We are the mirror, as well as the face in it. 
We are tasting the taste this minute, of eternity. 
We are pain,
and what cures pain, both.
We are the sweet cold water and the jar that pours.

I want to hold you close like a lute,
so we can cry out with loving.

You would rather throw stones at a mirror?
I am your mirror, and here are the stones. 

-Music Master - Rumi

Image credit: Mirror Me by 60's Girl, Deviant Art

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rooting Out the Bad Eggs: A Lesson from the Cowbird

Many people say that having children gives you a shot at a second childhood. This seems mostly true: being an active participant and observer in my kids' lives lets me play and learn like a kid again. Just last week my husband and I went along on a Cub Scout outing to a local arboretum to learn about birding. Since I am trying to learn more about local plants and wildlife, I paid close attention.

One of my favorite ways to study spirituality is through the lens of nature, looking at the natural world as a reflection of spiritual truths. This is a belief held by Native American, Hindu and African spiritual traditions, among others.

Something we learned on our birding outing last week gave me an epiphany of sorts, one that I may not have experienced as a child. We sighted a Cowbird, a species native to the United States and often feared and disliked. Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other species. The females seek out female birds of other species who are actively laying eggs; then when the nest is unprotected they go in removing or damaging some of the existing eggs, proceeding to lay their own eggs in their place. Cowbird eggs have a relatively short incubation period so their babies hatch before the others, are usually larger than the others, and end up taking most of the food from the mother, causing her to lose her own offspring. To learn more about cowbirds, go here and read up a bit.

Upon hearing the story of the Cowbird, I had the thought that everything we see in nature we can also observe in both human society and the human mind. I said to another mother next to me, "Sadly, we know people just like that, don't we?" After all, we're a part of nature, too. We find our own strategies for survival.

My Cowbird epiphany had more to do with the inner workings of the human mind than human parasitic behaviors. The lesson I take away from the Cowbird is to watch for and root out parasitic thoughts and beliefs. 

Each of us has an inner nest in our consciousness where we incubate good thoughts, ideas, feelings and beliefs that can hatch into our best life. We have the power to feed certain thoughts we want to grow and thrive. On the other hand, we sometimes find insidious, harmful thoughts and beliefs invading our nest. Sadly, we are often unaware of these destructive thoughts, almost as if they were planted by someone else. They often begin in our unconscious mind, subtly planted there, beneath the surface, waiting to take over the nest. By the time they hatch from eggs, we may feel like it's too late. But no matter how big or loud these harmful thoughts may seem, we can remember that we do get to decide which ones we feed.

It takes conscious, concerted effort to find and eject the bad eggs in the nest of our consciousness. Just like an avid birder, we have to stop, listen and look deeply. We can do this through any regular mindful and focused practice, (including birdwatching), especially in meditation. Meditation is one of the central components of a yoga practice, and the culmination of the strong and beautiful postures we execute. All mindful practices allow us to cultivate and maintain a deeper relationship with the self and to become the watcher, the observer of our thoughts. We may even get lucky enough to witness the very moment when one little destructive thought inserts itself into our consciousness--at that moment, or in any moment that follows, we can recognize its power to siphon our energy and rob us of our freedom to feed our good thoughts.

Take a thorough inventory of your nest today. Count the eggs that are there, and really look at them to see which ones you are willing to nurture. Throw out the ones that threaten the integrity and success of your mental brood.

In my own mind, a recurring belief that stops me from living my best life is the thought that other people can't and won't believe good things about me, and that their opinion of me will cause me to fail. I know this belief to be mostly false and 100% destructive. I am consciously choosing to recognize it when it surfaces and demands to be fed. It is my hope to starve it out of my nest.

You may have a similar recurring belief you would like to starve. It may relate to your relationships, your career, or even your perception of your physical body. It may be a belief that you can't achieve something or have something you have always wanted. It may be something as small as the belief that you are not good at yoga, or some other physical practice. Use every activity as a chance to observe your thoughts and beliefs, how they make you feel, how much energy they consume, and whether or not they are serving your highest goals.

Don't let a parasite take over the nest you have taken your life to build.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Feel It To Heal It: Practicing Interoception

Based on our own intuition and experience, many of us know that meditation, conscious breathing and mindful bodily movement have the effect of calming an overactive and anxious mind. When we are flustered or upset and stop to take to a deep breath, close our eyes for a moment or stand up and stretch, we feel instantly better.

Are you curious to know why this is? Why do certain behaviors serve to soothe us? You may have guessed the answer relates to our brain and nervous system. Different parts of the brain and nervous system are responsible for performing different functions related to our thoughts, feelings and actions.

Fortunately for us, we are not puppets exclusively controlled by the automatic strings of our brain and spinal chord. We often think of our brain as the executive organ in charge of most all we do; while this is true, there are ways we can consciously pull the strings to turn on specific parts of our brains and nervous systems and disengage from others.

For example, our autonomic nervous system contains our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems performing complimentary functions. Even though these systems are automatic and involuntary, there are things we can do to voluntarily affect them. The sympathetic nervous system aids in our survival through controlling our fight or flight response, gearing us up for intense action; this part of our nervous system engages our stress response. On the other hand, our parasympathetic nervous system brings the body back into balance following a stressful experience, slowing down the heart rate, supporting glandular activity, facilitating digestion and helping our muscles to relax. The way I was taught the difference between the two systems is to remember that sympathetic means fight or flight, and parasympathetic means rest and digest. The most important way we consciously engage our parasympathetic nervous system is through intentional and controlled breathing. If we can slow down and control our breathing, we can override our stress response.

To give an example of turning on different parts of our brain, we can point first to the frontal lobes of the neocortex: these allow us to respond to external stimuli, to think, to analyze and to gauge our place among others through social judgment and conceptual self-evaluation. All of these functions are extremely useful, yet this part of our brain can feel like it's on overdrive at times. Not surprisingly, this is the part of our brain responsible for the distressing thoughts that come with depression and anxiety. We may often feel that we need to shut off our thoughts so we can relax or sleep. At these times, we can switch gears, relying more on two smaller and deeper areas of our brain, the insula and posterior cingulate: these relate more to feelings, both physical and emotional. When we can go deeper into our present experience of physical sensations and emotional or intuitive feelings, we can bypass racing thoughts and find relief from external stress.

When our attention is turned to the outside world and the way we engage with it, we can say our awareness is exteroceptive. When we turn our focus to our immediate physical and internal experience (such as the sensations related to breathing), we can say we have interoceptive awareness. When we meditate, do conscious breath work and engage in a movement practice such as tai chi or yoga, we are increasing our interoceptive awareness--we are practicing interoception. Interoception is related to mindfulness practice, another mind/body tool for reducing stress and anxiety. When we are able to feel, very deeply and keenly, what's happening on the inside of us, we move towards healing mental and physical ailments that show up on the outside. When we can feel, then we can heal.

Some people may find it initially quite difficult to spend quiet, intimate time with themselves engaging these practices. Uncomfortable feelings may surface and ask to be resolved. I have a friend who has told me she always cries in savasana at the end of yoga class and that's how she knows she needs to do it more often. Her self-assessment is very wise. Laughter and tears do sometimes show up in classes I teach, in my own yoga practice and in classes I attend, and I find that the environment adequately supports any such natural reaction. However, many people will prefer to have these deeper experiences on their own in their practice, on a yoga or meditation retreat, or with a trusted and qualified teacher, one-on-one.

These methods of dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma have been scientifically tested and proven, and are currently used to treat veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as other sensitive populations. We can use these methods on ourselves and our loved ones, as good preventative health measures and also avenues for enjoyment.

Meditation, breath work and mindful movement practices proactively support our mental and physical well-being. A little interoceptive awareness brings a much needed balance to our externally focused behaviors, habits and patterns.

If you are interested in reading more about interoception and the brain, check out this article from Scientific American, by Emma Seppala.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Blessing Meditation

As a human being, we each have such great power,
so much more than we realize, to create, to heal and to bless
ourselves, our loved ones, our community at large,
and all of the world around us.

Pulsating within each of us,
a strong heart,
an electric energy,
a spark of the heat and fire
at the heart of the Universe.

Take a moment,
and look at your hands.
Touch them together,
and bring them apart,
and then slowly back together,
and apart again.
Bring your hands in closer and closer to one another,
and feel the energy moving from one hand to the other.
Feel the power, heat and energy in your hands.

Find a place to sit or lie down comfortably,
with your eyes closed.
Rub your hands together until they are hot,
then place them over your eyes,
gently pressing the heels of your hands into your eyes,
with your fingertips on your forehead,
blessing your eyes, blessing your brain,
connecting to your own power to bless.

Know that you can bless yourself with your thoughts,
and bless others through your eyes,
when you look at them through the lens of love.

Move your hands over your throat,
and bless your voice and your speech,
connecting to your power to bless through your words,
and the quality of your voice,
which is yours alone, your unique and precious voice,
a vehicle for blessings.

Move your hands over your chest,
and breathe into your heart space,
feeling your chest lift up into your hands,
realizing you are blessed with each in breath,
and each out breath.

Move your hands over your belly,
and breathe into your belly,
blessing your digestive system.

Move your hands down your body now,
over your hips, sliding them down your legs,
all the way to your feet,
and bless your feet for carrying you through the spaces you walk,
each day.

Come back to sit or stand with open eyes,
clear mind, clear eyes, clear throat, clear chest,
clear heart, clear lungs, clear belly, clear body,
and look back at your hands, and spread your blessing arms wide.

Go into the rest of your day and be a blessing to this Earth and its people. That's why you're here. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Row Me Home

Closing my eyes, this is what I see,
On this pond, in this row boat,
With you rowing me. 

Fresh in my mind's eye,
the green and the pink,
vibrantly stirring my thoughts,
and I think.

And then I don't think,
my thoughts are thinking me. 
And you are rowing me.

I don't see you, 
but I feel you,
I remember you, yes. 

Familiar, so familiar...

I'm knowing you, and even more,
you're knowing me. 

I'm resting, and rocking,
the little oars are knocking,
I can hear and feel and taste 
the water,
my body in the sun,
my heart in my chest.

A passage in my mind is opening,
you're taking me there,
I'm bringing you with me,

And you row me home. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Steadiness Requires Readiness: Yoga and Preparation

"Study to show yourself approved," is a biblical quote I'll always remember my father saying throughout my childhood before tests or performances. When I looked it up I learned it comes from the book of 2 Timothy in the New Testament. Verse 15 of the King James version reads, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." At the time the King James version was written, "study" carried the meaning of striving or working diligently. I can understand why my parents used that verse to encourage me and it helped me set a pattern of preparing well for exams.

These days, as a yoga practitioner and teacher, I sometimes think of that verse in relation to yoga. The "study" aspect, taken literally, makes me think about the self-study and scriptural study aspects of yoga, from the yoga concept of Ishvara pranidhana. More recently, though, I've been thinking about how it relates to the concept of purvanga, translated as preparation.

Purvanga (preparation) is meant to apply to all aspects of our practice and life. Generally, the more prepared we are for anything we do, the smoother it all goes down. In the meditation courses I took in the past, meditatators were instructed to prepare their own space for regular meditation to maximize comfort and minimize distraction. I apply this instruction for both my postural and meditation practices. I remember one of my yoga teachers describing how the simple act of making one's bed in the morning can set the right tone for the day, making everything run more efficiently. I also find this to be true and dislike doing my practice at home with an unmade bed or an untidy space. I also dislike jumping right into any sort of physical practice without an adequate period of warming up my body--the preparation for what's to come.

I had a very literal reminder of the importance of preparation during my home practice this week. I was in my tidied practice space, going through my postures and beginning to work on bakasana, crow posture. This next part may seem made up, but it's not: my phone rang and my neighbor informed me that my garbage cans sitting on the curb were being attacked by crows! I had to pause my practice and go outside to clean up and put lids on the garbage cans. My wonderful spouse had taken the garbage out without lids. Immediately I thought about preparation: were we prepared to have our garbage collected having left off the lids? Wasn't that a part of the necessary preparation? In addition, I had accidentally left a kitchen drawer partially opened and while I was practicing, my dog had pulled out a container of sandwich bags and strewn them all over the living room floor during my sun salutations. These two oversights, the missing garbage lids and the opened drawer, created distraction and interruption, as the outside as well as the inside of our home have a direct effect on my home practice.

As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul! - Hermes Trismegistus. There's another concept related to being prepared, and reminding me of another Bible verse attributed to Jesus about preparing the inside as well as the outside of the cup. If we are truly studious and diligent, everything is important. Nothing can be neglected on the outside or the inside for a truly successful physical, mental or spiritual practice of any kind.

So how does this wisdom help us with our day to day practice, besides reminding us to put the lids on our garbage cans and secure our drawers and pets? I think it's a good way to think about streamlining our lives and remembering what's essential. It's a good reminder to come back to our simplest and best intentions and remove anything and everything cluttering our space, our minds and our lives. For example, I have a goal of some sort of healthy physical exercise each day, and I am more likely to remain true to that goal if I don't put lots of extra pressure around it, such as the number of miles I must walk or run, the number of fancy yoga postures I must execute or any number of extra obligations I pile on top of that simple goal. Another example is the goal my husband and I share to spend time connecting with one another and our kids: we are more likely to achieve that goal when we keep it streamlined and simple, not signing up for more and more "family" events packaged as quality time, like saying yes to each and every birthday party, fundraiser and extracurricular activity and spreading ourselves too thin. Sometimes we need to stay home and cook and play a game instead of piling into the car and heading out to another gathering.

As a rule, I believe that good preparation in yoga practice and life translates as "less is more." As I am discovering this, I'm including fewer yoga postures in the classes I teach so they don't feel so "busy," and fewer physical obligations in my home practice so that I don't intimidate myself into showing up on my own mat: "Do what you feel like doing today and include time for rest," has been good self-talk for me lately. I'm feeling freer and more focused as a result. I'm also feeling stronger. Streamlining your life and slowing down the tendency to over-effort (common in our culture) does not mean slacking--in fact, it takes more concentration and intentionality to live this way.

When we intentionally prepare and streamline our yoga practice, we train ourselves to focus on what's important in our lives and begin to experience more peace and ease. Don't take my word for it: try it yourself. Review your personal goals this week and make a list of what you can eliminate from your practice and daily life that may not be serving those goals. Take extra time to prepare yourself, tidying up what's already in your life and being more intentional about each thing you add to your space, your body and your consciousness. Pay attention to yourself on the inside and the outside and you'll feel better when life's real tests come, as they always do.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Zoology Meets Yoga? Animals Are Our Teachers...

Last week I attended a three day yoga and meditation retreat at the Prama Institute in North Carolina, and something the retreat facilitator said to us is sticking with me: most yoga poses have animal names, because animals are our teachers! If you practice yoga, this is something you've undoubtedly noticed: upward and downward facing dogs, puppies, cows, lizards, crows, eagles, cobras and even scorpions make their way into our verbal and body language in yoga classes.

Our retreat facilitator, a veteran yoga teacher and clinical psychologist, referenced the history of yoga and the ancients' practice of closely watching animals and the ways they moved to provide insight into how we humans can best manipulate our bodies to reach a more enlightened state. Although animals were not the theme of the retreat (the actual theme was the Science and Practice of Meditation and Yoga), what we learn from animals figured prominently in my experience over the three days. 

As soon as we pulled up to the retreat center and took our bags out of the rental car, we were greeted by a dog who looked to be a boxer/hound mix, young and tentatively friendly. The staff informed us that this dog was a stray who had been abused and had adopted the retreat center as its new home. The dog seemed to want to make friends with us right away, yet acted skittish as we offered our hands to pet it. Over the next few days we encountered several other dogs who had also been cared for by the retreat center community and who seemed to be adjusting quite well. The staff told us, "the dogs are our teachers!" 

Horses also figured in our experience since one of the teachers leading the movement classes uses equine therapy in her teaching and work with psychotherapy clients. One of the techniques she used in class was bouncing to eliminate stress, emotional imbalance and pent-up energy--I had the sense of trotting on a horse as we bounced. I later discussed with her my previous horseriding experience as an adolescent and how the relationships we have with particular horses can teach us a lot about where our challenges lie in relating to people! 

In my own work with yoga students and clients, I use shaking and swaying motions to warm the body up and help "shake off" unpleasant moods, lethargy, frustration and other unwanted sensations. One of my teachers refers to the way dogs shake off anything they don't want on them: water, dirt, negative contact with other dogs and humans--I have seen my own dog do this many times, even when she is scolded by me! 

The dogs I interacted with on the retreat during breaks outside had an important lesson for me. All of these dogs had been abused in some way and were working on their ability to trust humans again. Many of us, by simple virtue of being alive on this planet for X number of years and not living in a cave, can relate to some type of abuse or painful relationship dynamic. Like the dogs, we all want and need loving acceptance and companionship. When I took a walk off the property one day, I had started to jog and a large, black dog barked loudly, running from its owners yard and jumping on me in a threatening way. I kept moving and spoke sweetly to the dog in a high pitched voice until he calmed down and began to trot alongside me. Another dog joined us and I talked to both of them, pet them a little, and they stayed by my side on my hour long walk accompanying me back to the retreat center before they went their own way. The strays I had met earlier were somewhat intimidated by these dogs and there was a show of territoriality; the strays cowered. I thought about human survival and predatory instincts, our fear, protectionism and territoriality, in spite of our need to love, be loved and create safe families and communities. I felt empathy and compassion for the dogs, because I too struggle with balancing protective impulses with my need to be loved and my desire to show warmth to everyone.

The lesson I took away from these dogs was this: there is a scared, territorial dog in me, and in each of us. The best way to deal with this dog, whether internal or external, is to greet it with consistent, confident friendliness and acceptance. Each time I see this dog, inside or outside of myself, if I react with consistent loving acceptance, the dog will learn to trust. I made a commitment to myself that very day, at the retreat: I promised to show lovingkindness to myself in acknowledging and embracing my fearful impulses and emotions like distrust, diffidence and jealousy with an attitude of quiet and comforting reassurance. Like the friendly yet skittish stray dogs, I too could relearn to trust and be at ease among humans, dogs... perhaps among all creatures. 

In practicing yoga and meditation we can use every experience, every relationship, every posture and each and every moment to learn, grow and evolve. This applies to our internal and external worlds. Who and what will be your teacher today? Will it be your pet dog or your downward dog? Your pet snake or your cobra pose? Your cranky boss or your cranky hips in lizard pose? Your impatience as you drive or your feelings of sadness as you sit in meditation? The dream you had last night or the daydream you had waiting in line at the pharmacy? Pay attention to all of your life as it passes, greeting each unique teacher with as much lovingkindness as you can muster, and you will be well schooled in Yoga, a yogi in the truest sense. 

Monday, March 9, 2015


As the ground begins to thaw,
the seeds and bulbs of Spring
under the ice and snow
and piles of dead leaves.

As hope always persists
in the face of death,
exuberance appears in the wake of loss,
creation equalizing destruction,
light balancing dark,
heat tempering cold,
action completing inaction.

Always following,
in tune with an involuntary awakening,
our bodies respond to the cyclical stimuli
of death, rebirth and growth,
as the Earth spins on,
1.8 deaths per second,
undeterred by mourning.

Come out of your shadows,
chimeric illusions in a flimsy,
phony world.
Slip into the power
of the raw, animating force
which drives your sun, your seasons,
your tides,

and flow.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vulnerability Builds Confidence

Instead of hiding our vulnerability, what if we embraced it? What would it feel like to allow transparency instead of building more walls, to know that we are acceptable just as we are, to open up to the vulnerability of our partners instead of backing away? Embracing vulnerability is part of owning our truth, and goes along with the yogic ethical practice of satya, respecting truth.

Some yoga practitioners and teachers use video diaries as part of their personal practice and teaching. Initially I was very shy and skeptical of sharing videos of my practice, yet I enjoyed watching others' videos. Now, sharing some of my practice videos helps me to embrace my vulnerability and get comfortable with it as a teacher. It helps me with satya and also with surrender and self-confidence. On a lighter and perhaps unrelated note, it's just fun... and creative... The following six videos are of my home practice, background noise, dog, snow, flaws and all! I really love practicing in pajamas!