Friday, April 28, 2017

Focusing On What Matters

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sadhana Pada,
(Translation from The Essence of Yoga by Bernard Bouanchaud).

Practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga (following ethical precepts, engaging in mindful and powerful physical postures, mastery of specific breathing techniques, restraint of the five senses, focus, concentration, meditation and eventual identification with Divine consciousness) brings us to a clear vision of reality and understanding of our true nature.

"In our ordinary, scattered state of mind, vision is subjective and partially distorted and thus creates suffering to some degree.

We play parts like actors on a stage, identifying with the characters we are interpreting. We are tossed about and carried away by events and the whirlpool of our mind.

Self-identification with the difficulties we encounter tends to make us dramatize them and lose track of what is really going on.

How many of us see only the negative side of our experience, always somehow dissatisfied with sex life, profession, family situation, marital status, children, other activities, and even our mental and physical make-up? And how many of us think others are enjoying the advantages we lack?

Here our thoughts become strongly linked with imagination and misperception" (Bernard Bounchaud).

In recent weeks, I have been talking at the beginning of my yoga classes about refining perception, releasing distractions and awareness of the impact our thoughts have on our bodies. All of this is interconnected.

Yoga is a complete set of mental, physical and spiritual practices leading us to freedom from illusions, distractions, oppression and suffering. Challenges and pain we cannot avoid in this life, but we can be set free from misperception and suffering.

We can't avoid grief and loss and discomfort. These are part of the human condition. I would never tell someone to think themselves well or "snap out of it" or "just cheer up and focus on the positive." Sometimes conditions are painful.

Under any conditions you are experiencing, one instruction which is always beneficial is Focus on What Matters.

What do you think about when you go to bed at night - when you wake up in the morning - when you eat your meals - when you commute to your job - when you work out at the gym or take a walk by yourself? How do your thoughts make you feel in your body? Is your blood pressure or heart rate elevated, are you clenching your jaw or hiking your shoulders, do you have trouble falling asleep? Make the connection between your thoughts and your experience of your body. Ask yourself if what you're thinking about truly matters. If you were given a death sentence and had a week to live, what would matter to you? What about a month, or a year, or a decade? How would you refine your focus if you became aware of how little time you have left in your current physical body?

The last time you felt upset, there is a good chance that what you were thinking about did not really matter much in the grand scheme of your life. However, it may have mattered very much. If you were thinking about not having enough money to pay your taxes, of course that matters, and it's a problem your mind needs to solve. If you were thinking about a parent or child or friend's life threatening illness, of course that matters very much. Most of the time, the thoughts causing us angst or pulling us away from pure presence and awareness are relatively unimportant.

Stay vigilant. Notice your thoughts. Notice the way you spend your time apart from necessary tasks. Ask yourself "does this truly matter?" If it doesn't, then find a way to let go of it.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

4 Ways Yoga Retreats Change Lives

When my husband sent me on my first yoga retreat, I was a new mom with a baby and a toddler. My husband knew I needed a break, even if I was unsure. When he dropped me off at the airport I called his cell phone 14 times wanting to convince him to turn around and pick me back up. Since leaving my career as a lawyer after giving birth twice and recovering from a prolonged illness, all I knew was taking care of my babies. I did not want to leave them, even for a few days. He never answered his phone. I was away for five nights. The retreat changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

I am now a yoga teacher. I taught in several different studios before finding the one that is the best fit for me. I teach weekly classes there and in a fitness center. I work one-on-one with clients in their homes or in mine. I have also taught evening yoga classes for adults through my local school district. Every so often I offer donation based classes to raise money for charitable causes. I also offer workshops on meditation and restorative yoga.

I love practicing and teaching yoga. I love meditation. I love restorative yoga. Would I have turned my love of all things yoga into a career without going on that retreat? I doubt it.

For many people, retreats seem like a luxury they can't afford, financially as well as psychologically. "How can I leave my family to do something just for myself? Why would I go someplace and hang out with total strangers? I'm not a morning person. No one should see me before 9:00 a.m. Shouldn't I spend this money on my kids, on a worthy cause or on something tangible like a new food processor?  Maybe I should set the money I would spend on this retreat aside so we can all go back to Disney for the third time next winter." These are all thoughts I've had before booking a retreat. I have only attended six in my adult lifetime. But without these retreats, the picture of my current life would be less colorful, less diverse, less nuanced, more superficial, and more mindless.

Here are five life-changing benefits of yoga and spiritual retreats:

1. Escape from Habitual Patterns. 

When we venture outside our comfort zones to experience new surroundings, a different daily schedule, new ideas, and meaningful interaction with people heretofore unknown to us, our perspective shifts! Habit loosens its hold on our thoughts and feelings. Want to see your life from a refreshingly open point of view? Break away from your habits on a retreat. “Habit enables us to cling to the familiar, to the self we think we know with a persistence almost irresistible. An anodyne for the terror of the unknown, it effectively keeps us from knowing, and is fatal in itself. Habit is a fiction the organism requires to dim perception. It screens us from the world, and from the true world of the self. Habit—no matter how intense the suffering it causes—is the last thing the personality will give up. It is arming itself against danger. The weapons may be more painful to use than the pain they seek to deflect. No matter. Habit allows us to live—by which Proust means it allows us to exist while it simultaneously compels us to miss Life.” ― Howard Moss, The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust.

2. Rekindled Friendship with Yourself. 

We come to know ourselves primarily through two processes: a) Introspection and b) Extrospection.
Retreats are designed to facilitate both. Engaging in group activities in a low-pressure environment reintroduces us to the identities we have constructed for ourselves. We get a chance to review our foundation for relating to the world. On the flip side, the reflective, alone-time built into retreats is the pause we need to confront thoughts and feelings often lost in the shuffle of the daily grind. We rediscover our core motivations and values. Beloved and often forgotten parts of the self re-emerge. The most important new friend we make on retreat may be our long-lost childhood self, the teenage rebel risk-taker or the college idealist we left behind.

3. New Support Networks.

Individuals who commit to any particular retreat will invariably have certain key traits in common. As a bonus, the festive, relaxed environment on retreat is the perfect setting to form new friendships. I met my husband on a vacation, and some of my favorite people from around the world I keep in touch following our shared retreat. A recent Harvard research study found that the greatest predictor of a person's overall happiness is the depth and breadth of their social relationships. Bonding with likeminded people on retreat will definitely boost your happiness and give you a brand new support network!

4. Enhanced Creativity. 

Unusual events have been proven to trigger creative inspiration.  Combine them with travel, and you're on the yellow brick road to a brighter and more purposeful life.  Committing to a retreat involves risk: it may be strange and unusual. You might regret it. But then again, you just might love it. And when you go back to your usual life, you might start on that home project with renewed vigor. You might start writing that short-story you thought about and then forgot. Maybe you'll sign up for a pottery class or dust off your old sketch book. Or maybe you'll even decide to embark on a new career path that's a better fit for your personality and values. You'll never know unless you give it shot.

Do you live in the New York area or feel an urge to visit this neck of the woods? CHECK OUT this 3 night yoga retreat happening in June in a beautiful natural setting on an organic farm!

Happy travels and Namaste!