The Hardest Thing…

February 8th blog image

Some mornings I wake and my mind fills with thoughts of tasks to be done and situations to be worried over. Sometimes it is the details of something I am working on that won’t even come due for a month or two. Sometimes the worry comes as I imagine what may happen based upon wisps of information. All that activity as I lie in bed, my body still.

When this happens, I know I must get up and do something to change the thought patterns my mind wants to cling to. I come to my yoga practice, not to just stretch my hamstrings, but, more importantly, to reduce the agitation of my mind, for it is the activity of my mind that is causing my discomfort.

I have come to the conclusion that the hardest thing in yoga is not putting the body into a particular yoga pose, challenging as that can be. Rather, the hardest thing is calling the mind from its incessant roaming to inhabit the body – to move the mind from a state of agitation, or what is sometimes called “monkey mind,” to a place of balance.

Patanjali gave us the Yoga Sutra to help us to achieve a focused, uncluttered, peaceful mind. Even as we focus on postures, which is where most people first begin yoga, we learn that the root of the word asana – the Sanskrit word for postures – expresses the idea of being fully present in one’s body, “inhabiting, existing, living in it.” In addition, certain qualities must be brought to the posture to help us be fully present: sthira, meaning firmness, stability, as well as “attention and mental stillness;” sukha, meaning ease, comfort, relaxed, “without excessive force.”

What allows us to explore and attain these qualities in our practice of postures is the breath. Its subtle rhythm and sound alerts us when we use too much force and the breath becomes labored and rough. It also helps the mind to settle as we focus on the soft sound of the throat-sounding or ujjayi breath. In exploring the qualities of sthira and sukha in our practice, we are preparing for the deeper, more internal practices of of breath control – pranayama – and meditation.

Yoga is about change: moving the agitated or dull mind to a clear and balanced place. When we do this we have the possibility of achieving or attaining something we couldn’t do before, like being stable in a balancing pose, or kind to a neighbor who previously had irritated us, or reducing sugar in our diet, or starting a meditation practice.

I believe our work with breath practice, pranayama, can be one of the most powerful tools for creating positive change. It is also recommended that as we move through our middle years and on that we spend more time in our pranayama practice, and in our later years more time in meditation for which our breath practice prepares us.

That is why I am offering a workshop called “Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama.” Please join me on Saturday, February 20 from 1 – 4 pm to learn about, explore and experience how pranayama can create positive change for us. You will find a flyer for this workshop by clicking on Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama – or register by visiting www.themovementcenter.net.

Breathe Smooth As Silk

Breathe Smooth As Silk

Breathe Smooth as Silk blog image

Unless we have a cold, bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia or another condition that shortens our breath or makes it uncomfortable, we usually don’t think about it. Breathing just happens. Our body goes right on taking in air, sustaining our life, just as it did from the moment we emerged from our mother’s womb.

What makes our breathing apparatus so fascinating to me is that it is both involuntary and voluntary. Our body continues to breathe even when we pay no attention. Yet, we can change our breathing patterns in quite profound ways, if we choose.

Because the experience of stress is so ubiquitous in our culture, I encourage people to pay attention to how their breath responds when they feel stressed. Inevitably they will say their breath becomes shorter and sometimes irregular while their bodies tense and anxiety rises. When a waterfall of hormones initiates the flight or fight response, all aspects of our system react.

When we come to understand the concept of prana in yoga, we can understand why we pay such a high price for a stress-filled life, and, also, how the tools of yoga help to mitigate the effects of stress.

Prana is vital, life force energy; it functions in the most subtle aspects of our systems. “Prana… is responsible for all movement in the body and directly influences our physical, mental, and emotional health,” according to Nicolai Bachman in The Path of the Yoga Sutra. It is the means by which our mind influences the body, and the body the mind. Making sure prana can move freely and smoothly so our body feels stable and relaxed and our mind is calm is one reason we do yoga.

Our breath influences prana. That is how the breath influences the state of our mind. And, as our mind influences our breath, like when we are frightened or overwhelmed, prana is affected. When our breathing becomes irregular or shortened, our life force energy is interrupted or blocked.

The fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is the conscious control and regulation of the breath. These breathing practices can help balance, slow, and smooth the breath, which affect prana, helping to calm the mind and relax the body. They can counteract the negative impact of stress if the practice is appropriate for our body, and we perform it consistently over time.

One caveat is the strong effect that pranayama can have on the breath and nervous system. Consequently, it is important to learn pranayama from an experienced teacher.

Saturday, February 20, from 1:00 – 4:00 pm, I am offering a workshop entitled “Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama.” If you would like to learn more about and experience pranayama, please join me for what I believe will be an engaging and enjoyable afternoon.

You can learn more about workshop by clicking here – Breath as a Path to Change: Exploring Pranayama – or register by visiting www.themovementcenter.net.

Life Situation or Life

Life Situation or Life

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A friend of mine shared a wonderful insight that has come to mind again and again over the summer. My friend’s insightful words center around a distinction he made between our “life situation” and our “life.”

Our “life situation” is just that – the situation(s) we find ourselves in: our jobs, ages, illnesses, losses, wealth or poverty, marriages, divorces, parenting, care giving, and so on, in other words, our activities, our health, our relationships, and our responsibilities. These things are ever-changing. But our “life” refers to something deeper – something abiding and unchanging within us.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra makes a distinction between the material, ever-changing aspects of our life and that which is eternal. The material aspect, prakriti, is synonymous with our “life situation” – our age, our physical and mental condition, our role in the world. That which does not change, purusa, is the eternal, unchanging aspect of ourselves, often referred to as the soul, consciousness or spirit.

The Yoga Sutra teaches that if we believe that our “life situation” is the only thing we truly are, then we will identify with those things in our life that are temporary and cause suffering. I often hear people say, “I am old.” Being “old” and the consequent changes in our physical, energetic, and mental systems that accompany aging create distress for many of us. Yoga teaches that believing our body to be who we are, rather than recognizing our spiritual nature as our essence, causes suffering.

This is not to say the body isn’t real or that suffering isn’t real. It is when we identify so strongly with the impermanent aspects of ourselves to the exclusion of anything else that we get into trouble. For example, if I tell myself I will only be happy if I lose 5 pounds, I tie my happiness to how my body looks.

Yoga is about coming to a place of clarity and understanding that we are more than this physical body whose natural course is to change over time. We grasp that our “life” is something much deeper than “I am old” or “I am overweight”. Then, the decisions we make start to reflect that clarity.

For me, the process of moving from making decisions solely based upon my life situation to those informed by purusa has not been easy. With consistent yoga practice and study over time, along with faith and the support of others, I find it a bit easier to trust in my higher self and am more aware of where my actions are based.

When we make decisions from a place of clarity, with a sense of peace, and a “settled heart,” then our outcomes are almost always positive. This is when we rest in purusa. This is when we are living our life.

 

The Dilemma of Desire

Decorative Coffee

I have been thinking about trading in my old iphone 4 for a shiny new iphone 6. Some days when I sit staring at my phone, waiting for my email, or a news article, or a Facebook page to appear on the screen of my old phone, I imagine the ease a new phone might bring to my life. Emails arrive promptly; photos appear sharp and clear, and my searches materialize without glitches.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tells us that most human beings suffer from afflictions – called klesas – that cause distress and suffering. You may be surprised to know that the main affliction, called avidya, is misapprehension, lack of understanding, or ignorance: we think we know something and we don’t, or we think we don’t know something and we do. This avidya manifests in our attitudes, relationships, and actions causing problems.

One of avidya‘s “children” is raga, which is best translated as a burning desire, attraction, or attachment to something. We have experienced a pleasant situation, and we want to repeat it again, and again, and again. In its most intense manifestation, raga is addiction.

Even today as I sat down to write, I kept thinking about making myself a nice cup of coffee with some foamy milk and stevia. For me, this kind of coffee has pleasant associations beyond the drink – things like sitting at a table under a palm tree outside a coffee shop on a sunny day in Los Angeles talking with my daughter, or sitting with my husband at Wegman’s enjoying a late afternoon coffee and muffin, or coming to my desk with my coffee and writing without hesitation something important for me to express.

Too much coffee has a down side for me, as well, causing heartburn and stomach discomfort, and, if caffeinated, leaving me feeling a little jittery and unable to focus. To think that the cup of coffee will leave me with only the pleasant feelings I have experienced in the past is avidya.

Patanjali calls avidya a confusion, mistaking “the ephemeral for the eternal, the impure for the pure, suffering for pleasure, the trivial for the essential” (YS II.5 as translated by Frans Moors in Liberating Isolation). This confusion is a source of suffering.

There is nothing wrong with buying an iphone 6 or having a cup of coffee with foamy milk. Suffering occurs when we obsess about having the phone or coffee, as if our ability to feel contentment depended upon having one or both. Or, on the other hand, we are so caught up by desire that we fail to see or acknowledge the possible negative effects the acquisition might bring.

To avoid the suffering that arises when raga becomes active requires noticing when the desire or attachments begin to appear. Then we can come to our yoga mat and practice, creating space so we have some distance or detachment from the object of our desire. That space can allow us to reflect on possible causes for the obsession, such as poor diet, lack of rest, or stress, as well as possible consequences. With an appropriate yoga practice we have the tools we need to come back to balance.

This week just begin to notice if raga may be coming up in your life.
 

OMG or OOPS

OMG or OOPS

Image for 6/8/15 Blog

Whenever I go to study at my Vedic Chant workshops I learn something new – something that will not only help me to move forward in my chanting, but something that also can help me live my life with greater focus, peace, and self-confidence.

Before our workshop ended, Sonia Nelson, our “guru” of Vedic Chant, explained how we might approach our own chanting study once we were home and on our own. She did this by focusing on how we might behave when we see we are making a mistake in our chanting practice.

The first way she called the “OMG” reaction. We hear ourselves stumbling in our chanting, and we react as if our mistake is a crisis – “oh, my god.” As Sonia explained, this reaction creates fertile ground for the antarayas or obstacles, as described in Yoga Sutra I.30-31, to grow. Thoughts of self-doubt can arise about our ability to chant or what our teacher might think. As the reaction plays out, we may feel defeated in our endeavor, the mind is disturbed, we feel anxious, and we suffer. As this unfolds, we lose any opportunity to determine how we might proceed to deal with the mistake, itself.

The second way she called the “OOPS” response. We hear a mistake in our chanting and stop with “oops, what happened here?” Then we look more closely at the mistake to see how we might deal with it. Perhaps we need to break a phrase into syllables – small chunks – to practice and correct the error. Then we can rebuild the phrase by focusing on the syllable, adding another, chanting it several times, and adding another until we can chant the entire line correctly.

What we do not do with the “OOPS” response is trigger a crisis in our bodies and minds. Instead, our minds remain clear so we can move forward rather than staying stuck.

By now you can probably see how this model can help us in our everyday lives. We free ourselves from having to anxiously try to make every endeavor “perfect,” which, of course, we never can do. Nor do we have to pillory ourselves for every mistake. Instead, we can determine calmly the best action to take.

Chapter II of the Yoga Sutra gives us the eight limbs of yoga as a path to “discernment and clear perception.” The first limb or yama prescribes five principles to guide our relationships. The first principle is ahimsa, which is considered the most important. Ahimsa is the practice of “nonhurtfulness toward others and ourselves,” according to Nicolai Bachman in The Path of the Yoga Sutras. He goes on to say, “A nonjudgmental and forgiving attitude is essential to practicing ahimsa.”

I ask you to reflect: if you wish to make ahimsa a principle you practice, how are you going to respond to your mistakes – “OMG” or “OOPS?”

Coming Home

Coming Home

Red Flower image

I just got off the phone with my dear friend and fellow yoga teacher Lynne Graham. Some of you may remember Lynne from the lovely practices she taught the Yoga for Wise Women class as she was completing her teacher training.

Lynne is one of those people who continues to learn about and delve more and more deeply into the study of yoga. In our conversation, she explained she has come to see problems that arise in life as opportunities to motivate further study of yoga, knowing the philosophy and practices of yoga hold insights and healing for challenges we experience. It is a way to approach positively what might have felt like a large obstacle.

As she labored over planning for a yoga class, Lynne explained, she decided to give up her usual routine of drinking coffee, recognizing that coffee was not helping her, and perhaps making the planning process more difficult.

I understood exactly how unfocused the mind can become after having too much caffeine. Rather than connecting more deeply with the tasks at hand, my mind is on caffeine is like a fly, buzzing here and there, landing briefly, then buzzing off to alight on another thought. Even without caffeine, I have found myself, from time to time, distracted, thinking answers to my problem lie outside myself – in a book, if I find the right page, in notes if I can only find them, in a website – any place other than within me. This kind of search is usually fruitless, just another distraction, really, from focusing on what I need to do.

Breaking from her coffee routine, Lynne decided instead to do some chanting, a breathing practice, and meditation. What she found was that this new approach yielded a focus, a certainty of direction for the class she would be teaching.

Her insight – beyond the immediate planning for her class – was to realize she already had the knowledge she needed. And, the way to access that knowledge was to make space to go within. This is the intention of our yoga practice: letting go of the distractions of the mind. In doing so we can come to see ourselves more clearly. In observing ourselves with greater clarity, we come to know ourselves, which is the goal of yoga.

Our yoga practice, done over time consistently, illuminates a path leading us to look within. It is where we can find answers, as well as peace, and faith. It is a going home.

Thank you, Lynne, for this reminder.

Enough

Sunset at the beach

I don’t know what I expected when I went to “Ted Talks” on the web to listen to Brene Brown talk about vulnerability. All I know is my friend told me, “you have to watch this.”

The thirty minute talk set off a flurry of reflections for me. But what has stayed with me, returning again and again in my thoughts, came in the final moments when she spoke of how to practice “whole-hearted vulnerability:” love with our whole hearts; practice joy and gratitude; believe we are enough. It was the last element that has been the biggest stumbling block for me, and for so many other women I know.

Friday was a journey. We rose at 5:15 am. I said good-bye to each of my dear kitties, and then we drove to Baltimore to board a five plus hour flight to Los Angeles and arrive in what seemed like chaos in the Los Angeles airport. Our reward was seeing our daughter and family and being with our oldest grandson to celebrate his college graduation. But the preparation for leaving during the previous five days had left me feeling as if I had gone beyond “enough.” I had been trying to take care of things in all areas of my life before leaving town, as if all had to be in order so I could go. I was not conscious of my thinking until I looked back. When I did, I realized I was operating with the belief that by completing all these tasks, I would have done enough. I would be enough.

I have been in the “doing enough to be enough” place many times. We live in a culture that reinforces this belief constantly. After all, our economy is about production and consumption and progress; we receive these messages all the time, in media, from other people, from our teachers. It is as if we are enculturated into the belief that there is always more to do, to accomplish, to buy, and to be. If we come to a place where we accept ourselves as we are and believe what we do is enough, we usually notice we are swimming against the current.

But we pay a price for trying to be enough by doing more. When I feel that way, my heart, not to mention my mind, feels depleted, and I have little emotional energy or ability to be present or patient. Doing too much in order to feel I am enough robs me of what is most important, my connection to those dear to me and to myself.

The ability to observe our reactions and behavior is called svadhyaya in Sanskrit. This is one of the three elements of kriya yoga, the yoga of action, as described by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 2.1. Svadhyaya offers us the possibility of seeing how we create suffering in our own lives, things like believing we are not enough. This sutra tells us to develop a practice to deal with behaviors or attitudes causing problems. The practice, called tapas, requires effort and continued self-observation to make sure it is reducing the negative effects. The last element of kriya yoga is isvara pranidhana, requiring an acknowledgement that there is a power greater than ourselves to whom we must turn over the results of our actions.

Our tapas could be a mantra we include in a meditation each day. One student in my Wise Women class told of a therapist who had given her a mantra that could be used: “I am enough. I do enough. What I do, I do well.” The svadhyaya becomes our continued self-observation. Since our old way of thinking has become a habit, at some point we face resistance. The old pattern will be pushing us to do more so we can feel we are enough, yet our practice will be linking us to a new message, one that assures us we are enough as we are. Inevitably this resistance creates heat, the heat of tapas, as we move to create the new positive pattern, and so effort over time is required to transform the old pattern. To maintain the effort required we need humility and faith that something positive will come to fruition, over time, through our efforts – isvara pranidhana.

There is a price we pay for staying in our old patterns, which is continued suffering. And, there is a price we pay when we engage in making change, which is effort. But there is a pay off eventually as we begin to move from “not enough”‘ to a place of believing we are enough. When we live in the place of believing we are enough, we are kinder and gentler to ourselves and others. We feel connection in our relationships, and we are able to touch joy and peace within ourselves. The universe is full, the Veda-s tell us. And indeed it is when all is enough.