Choosing Wisely

Choosing Wisely

Blog image, 5/16/18
 

Exercising clear judgment, taking into account what is helpful versus harmful…
can help us avoid future suffering.

– Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras

When I opened the email and read its first few paragraphs, I was hooked – heart and mind. The email described a program called the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership.

This training – which combines forest bathing, yoga, Ayurveda, outdoor skills, and an overview of relevant research on nature’s health benefits…”

And it goes on to explain that the program is designed for those who are called to share nature’s gifts by integrating their love of the outdoors with mindfulness.

How perfect this would be for me, I thought. Isn’t this what I do in my yoga classes and meditations – use images from nature to help students connect to qualities that support them, or give them a sense of calm, or energy, or joy, or peace? The coolness of the full moon to calm them, or the movement of a stream to bring energy, or the light of the sun to encourage clarity, or the mountain for stability? Just the idea of sharing “nature’s gifts” excites me and brings joy.

I tried to convince my dear friend that the program would be perfect for us. We could become nature and mindfulness guides. I tried to convince my husband that he and I could do this program together, sharing the adventure of nine days of training in the Berkshires in late October, early November. After all, we have loved adventures in the past, like the month we spent in India studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, and our time in Japan on a yoga retreat, as well as driving Route 50 wherever it went across the U.S.

He was cautiously interested. More cautious as he thought about spending 10 hours a day for nine days outside, which the program required. He was even more cautious as he looked up the temperature highs of 52 and lows of 32 at the time of the year the program is offered.

After my conversation with my husband, I sat quietly in contemplation. My intent was not to reflect on the program or anything in particular, but to be open to the wisdom of a source beyond myself. This kind of self-reflection or svadhyaya, one of the three components of kriya yoga, has kept me more than once from going down a road that wasn’t right for me.

So, as I sat, I came to realize that my enthusiasm for this program was not really training to be a nature guide. What I wanted was to spend time walking in a forest or on a hiking trail. To have more time to be outside. I wanted the peace I feel in nature.

I also reflected upon who I am and where I am in my life. As a yoga teacher and vedic chanter committed to sharing the teachings so generously given to me, why would I disrespect this wisdom, my years of study and experience to take up a different path. As a woman of sixty-nine, with a husband, children, grandchildren, relatives and friends I love, do I really want to commit my energy to this program? Would it bring me joy?

My mind can trick me into responding as if I am thirty-nine instead of my real age. In yoga, this is called asmita. Asmita is a misidentification with who we really are and is one of what Patangali, in the Yoga Sutra, calls the klesas. We are all subject to the klesas, and things generally do not go well for us when they are dictating our actions.

Rather than allowing this misidentification to lead me astray, I found checking in with my friend and my husband helped me to recognize that more reflection might be needed before signing up for this training. My reflection allowed me to have the discernment to see more clearly and choose more wisely what I was going to do. Lastly, after sharing my initial writing on this experience with my teacher, I realized how yoga’s teachings have guided this process of discernment and reassured me that what I am doing, and who I am, is truly enough.

Full Moon – “Let the Water Settle…”

Full Moon

Let the water settle and you will see moon and stars mirrored in your being.”
     …Rumi

Observing the gradual waxing of the moon this month, I reflected on how this celestial body might offer timely support in our yoga practice. Everyone who knows me has heard me talk about the moon and moonlight, and about the cool, calm, nourishing, healing qualities that we might link with as we focus on the image of the moon. I love this image of the moon and the real possibilities meditating on its qualities offer as an antidote to the often overheated lives we live in the 21st century.

The association of the moon with coolness, nourishment and healing in yoga comes from its ancient roots in the Veda-s. The Veda-s, a vast collection of scriptures in the Sanskrit language, are the oldest record of the Indian culture.

One of my favorite Vedic chants is a salutation to the moon. This mantra (a word which itself means “that which protects” ), can be roughly translated: “Nectar from the full moon nourishes the healing herbs.” The beautiful images of “nourishment” and “healing” are linked to the full moon and received by the herbs, all plants, and then ultimately by us.

When we meditate in yoga, we link to an “object” that has positive qualities we would like to bring into our life. But meditation isn’t easy for most of us. What is most challenging about meditation is our mind. I love these lines from Rumi: “It is agony to be still; the spool turns when mind pulls the thread…,” and the spool is often turning at a dangerously high speed for many of us.

But we are reminded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra that we have tools to help us quiet the rough waters of the mind. When we practice appropriate yoga poses, consciously linking movement and breath, the mind become less distracted. When we practice regulating the breath in an appropriate pranayama, the mind can settle. When we use sound in a chant, the mind can focus. By doing this, we create space in the mind so it has the possibility of linking to the chosen image or concept. We have set the stage for meditation.

What I am suggesting here is that in this season of heat, with lives overcooked by work, demands at home, social activities, and 24 hour news, focusing on the moon in meditation, with its cool, nourishing, healing, calming light, can move our bodies and minds to a deeper, quieter, more peaceful place. We might use a picture of the full moon or the moon in one of its phases, of the light of the moon, of the moonlight reflected on water, or of any other image that evokes the moon and/or moonlight. Then we continue to focus on this image, eyes closed, letting it fill our awareness.

When meditation becomes an exploration in a regular practice, without judgments and expectations, we begin to notice the effects. As we are all unique individuals, how we experience such a practice will vary from person to person. But, I think you will notice something. And, if Rumi is right in his quote beginning this blog, it will be good.

If you would like to explore yoga meditation or a meditation on the moon more intentionally, please let me know. I am planning a workshop on this topic in the fall and am available for working with you individually to develop a personal practice.

Japan Reflections: Respect

6/03/17 blog image

On our recent yoga retreat to Kyoto and the village of Kurama, our group of seventeen visited many shrines and temples. With each one, our wonderful guide, Chiharu, explained not only the history and significance of each sacred place, but she also unfolded the beliefs and concepts underlying the two religions of Japan: Shintoism and Buddhism.

At one point in our travels, as we stood before a Shinto shrine on the path up the mountain to the Kurama-dera mountain temple, Chiharu said, “Religion in the West is more about believing, religion in Japan is about respecting.” She, of course, was talking about “respect” in its deepest sense, something like “reverence,” “veneration,” even “love.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what it means to live one’s life with such an attitude of deep respect.

In Japan, we observed “respect” practiced in many forms: in how people always bowed to one another and to us; in how the meals were served with great care; in how the city streets were clean and without litter; how even the trash trucks were freshly painted and their fenders shiny; in how ancestors are honored and remembered. Respect was also apparent in attitudes toward nature: a reverence toward trees, some of which exceeded a thousand years in age, toward mountains, which are worship by some as links between earthly life and deities. In the deer park in Nara, I even witnessed a young man, probably of high school age, bowing reverently to the deer who approached him, deer who are considered sacred in this city.

It appeared to me that a deeper connection to and reverence toward nature and the seasons exists in Japanese culture than here in the West. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if we held as a cultural value an attitude of reverence and caring toward the forests and waters, the mountains, the air, and wildlife. Would we not take care of, rather than polluting, the waters so they would be clean and pure; revere, rather than remove, our mountain tops, preserve, rather than destroy, forests and habitats for wildlife. I love the lines from Joy Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” which, though she is Native American, seem to express the kind of reverence that I sensed in Kyoto.

We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the upmost care
And kindness in all things.

The concepts of “respect” and “reverence” are very much the underpinning of the teachings of yoga. What are referred to as the first two “limbs” of yoga recommend five ethical practices (yama) and five personal practices (niyama).

The five ethical practices are: non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, moderation, non-covetousness. The five personal practices are: cleanliness, contentment, a disciplined life aiming for mental and physical balance, self-study, devotion to a Higher Principle.

Each of the ethical practices implies living with respect toward all sentient beings and taking care not to cause harm, which are necessary in order to have a peaceful mind. Nicolai Bachman in his book the Path of the Yoga Sutras states: “Each yama is a guideline for behaving in a benevolent manner toward others so as to support the process of quietly turning inward and discovering our true nature (140). The respect we show through the practices of the yamas implies a respect and reverence toward ourselves since we each share the same inner light as all other beings.

Sometimes obstacles can limit our ability to live with the attitude of respect and care for ourselves that the niyamas imply. Many of us received teachings growing up that taught we should always put ourselves last to be a “good” person and that our most important goal should be serving others. I know for myself and many others with whom I have spoken that focusing on self-care or personal practices can raise feelings of guilt. Yet, if we do not take care of ourselves, how can we care for others? If we truly believe all beings, including ourselves, share a divine light, how can we ignore working to remove obstacles to our health, well-being, contentment, and peace of mind. How can we ignore caring for what is a temple for that light?

I am grateful for the guidelines for behaving and living that yoga’s yamas and niyamas provide. And, I am very grateful for the awareness raised by my time in Japan. Cultivating an attitude of respect and reverence “in all things” supports my commitment to practice the ethical and personal practices of yoga and deepens the peace and joy of living each day.

For your consideration: What might your life look like if you consciously lived with an attitude of respect and reverence in all you did each day?