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.

One Day at a Time

One Day at a Time

Swan in lake

This week I had an awakening. As a friend reflected upon the slogan “one day at a time” and how important it was in her life, I realized how much stress and anxiety – what yoga calls duhkha or “suffering” – my calendar was causing me. Of course, it was not the calendar causing this, but rather my attachment to it.

I admit to loving my monthly planner, how it lays out each day in tidy 1.5 x 1.5 inch white boxes. And this habit of keeping a calendar to look ahead over a month has served me well in the past. It allowed me to plan, to reduce uncertainties, to be prepared, to control and order events and responsibilities in my life.

But my use of the calendar to assure my life in the future would be manageable has been making it unmanageable in the present, along with my propensity to add too much to too little time. My mind constantly visited the weeks ahead, reviewing what I needed to do and how I would manage to do it.

Yoga teaches that when we are unsettled, unhappy, or disgruntled, mental or emotional afflictions called klesas usually are at fault. Lack of awareness or knowledge, avidya, is the primary klesa. When avidya keeps us from seeing clearly, then we make choices that cause us pain or unhappiness. One of avidya‘s step-children is fear. My attachment to my calendar is a way to manage my fear of being unprepared or taken off guard, as a way of providing some certainty even while knowing intellectually there is no certainty.

Yoga gives us tools to help us see ourselves clearly and to keep klesas small by helping us move away from those things causing us suffering so we can reach a place of balance and peace of mind. The Yoga Sutra suggests that when we are caught up with a mental/emotional affliction, we should look at how we can move in the opposite direction, what is called pratipaksa bhavana. For example, we may be working on a project that challenges us and makes us fear whether we can succeed. A pratipaksa bhavana might be “courage.”

If my attachment to ruminating over the events on my monthly calendar causes me anxiety, I can cultivate the opposite by focusing on “one day at a time.” I can put the monthly calendar in my desk drawer, look at it periodically, and place a calendar showing only one day on my desk. I can focus on “one day at a time” in my yoga practice.

After all, this one day is really all that any of us have. Living each day in the here and now, paying attention to each dish I wash, each person I meet, each bird I listen to, each word I speak or write means I am present in my life – the only life I have. “One day at a time,” that is the way we find joy and peace of mind.

New Year’s Reflections

Last week I received a blog in my email from Ellen Fein entitled “Re-imagining What is Possible.” First, let me say, I always read what Ellen sends out. She is a very wise, professional, and compassionate yoga teacher and healer. (You can learn more about her and her work and read her blogs at Breathe2Change.com.)

In her blog, she acknowledges the uncertainties and hostilities permeating our times and world. Given this climate, she asks herself a question that I and, I know many others, are asking themselves: “What can I do with my own energy that supports the people I care for and the world I want going forward?”

In her wisdom, Ellen reminds us that none of us can be of support and help in the lives of others when our own energy is depleted. Moreover, if we are physically, mentally, emotionally and/or spiritually drained, we have harmed ourselves.

If we are to have a peaceful heart and quiet mind, the practice of ahimsa is crucial. Ahimsa is translated as non-violence toward and non-harming of others or ourselves in all aspects of our lives. It requires a depth beyond just actions, to our words and thoughts, as well. Nicholas Bachman in his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras explains that “A nonjudgmental and forgiving attitude is essential to practicing ahimsa…” I bring up ahimsa, not just because it is considered the most important ethical principle in the Yoga Sutra, but also because it relates to the suggestions that Ellen Fein offers for herself and interested others in this new year.

Her first suggestion is self-care, which has to be the foundation for living our lives. I, like so many women, struggle with this concept. In my head, at times, I still hear “self-indulgent” when what is needed is self-care. As I grow older, I have had to face my own vulnerabilities and what living compassionately toward myself requires. At times, I can even see this as a gift of aging, as living with balance and care in life becomes more a necessity than a choice.

Ellen’s second suggestion, what she has called “inner disarmament,” is also a practice of ahimsa. “Inner disarmament” requires first that we acknowledge we all can fall victim to anger, intolerance, or hostility. We ask ourselves how often we fail to carefully listen because we are immersed in our own feelings of anger, indignation, or outrage? Inner disarmament” starts as we become aware of our responses to situations and individuals. Rather than becoming consumed by our thoughts and feelings, we observe and listen to what is really in front of us.

Her third suggestion is to “commit to action that builds community, diminishes division, and honors our interdependence with each other and the planet.” My good friend Margee Kooistra likes to remind us of a quote from Dan Berrigan: “If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things.” Any action that supports our positive connections with one another
and encourages a healthy planet cannot help but be hopeful, and also non-harming.

I would love to hear your thoughts on these suggestions, and what you are doing as we start this new year.

The Energies of Autumn

2016-0909 blog image

It may be 90 degrees, but hints of fall are everywhere. In my backyard the rose of sharon’s flowers have all browned and curled while her leaves are yellowing. Some bright pink blossoms still grace the crepe myrtle, but they are more like highlights among the fading, drying flowers. And, this morning as I looked out the window, I noticed leaves, newly surrendered to the breeze, riding air currents to the ground.

While the calendar tells us the fall equinox is still two weeks away, autumn has already announced herself.

In our Wise Women class we talk about the shifts we notice in how our bodies feel, our minds function, and even how our emotions fluctuate. It is part of cultivating awareness so we notice changes within us that may require attention to avoid discomfort or illness in the future. We know choices we make in our lives or lifestyle may cause us problems. If we eat or drink too much too often, we may feel dull or depleted and gain excess weight. If we have several nights with only four or five hours sleep, we may feel tired and out of sorts. In addition to noticing the effects of our nutritional and lifestyle choices, we must also be attentive to the weather and the seasons and the roles they may play in how we feel.

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of life, tells us that each person has a “birth constitution,” which consists of a unique arrangement of three different doshas or energies. The vata dosha controls body movement and is concerned with the nervous system. The kapha dosha controls body stability and lubrication and is concerned with the tissues and wastes of the body. Pitta dosha involves digestion and concerns the body’s endocrine and enzymatic systems. Our particular arrangement of these energies affects how we respond to life and seasonal changes.

Each season also has a dominant dosha, with its own characteristics. Autumn’s dosha is vata. As vata is about the energy of movement, fall is characterized by the movement of air, wind, which has the effect of drying things. Wind, too, stirs things up. Think about the reds, yellows, oranges of autumn leaves, that eventually dry and brown and roil and rustle in an October wind.

We are affected by autumn’s energies and may even experience imbalances in our own systems. When vata is out of balance within us, we may experience creaky joints, constipation, dry eyes, hair, and nails, difficulty sleeping, nervousness, forgetfulness, and mental distractedness. If we are in a vata stage of life, mid-50s and up, we are even more vulnerable to such an imbalance, particularly in autumn.

If you find yourself feeling out of sorts with some of the symptoms of autumn’s vata dosha, you can explore some of suggestions that follow.

  • Allow your approach to yoga practice to be attentive and meditative. Keep your focus on cultivating a feeling of groundedness, staying one or two breaths in your postures.
  • Choose activities that support a calm mind and heart.
  • Include soups and stews in your diet, using vegetables and fruits from our local bountiful harvests.
  • Hydrate your body by drinking water throughout the day.
  • Add good oils to your diet, olive and sunflower, as the weather cools, and in winter some sesame or fish oil.
  • Oil your skin before you take a warm shower, using sunflower oil or sunflower mixed with sesame.

Much information exists on the subject of the ayurvedic constitution, and you also can work with an ayurvedic practitioner to learn about your birth constitution. But we all can begin by paying attention to how we are affected by the seasons and our lifestyle choices and adopt strategies to maintain a sense of comfort, stability, and balance.

First Quarter Moon, Growth

First Quarter Moon, Growth

First Quarter Moon

This week the moon arrives at the first quarter phase of her journey to fullness. I love the irony of this phase of the moon – called “first quarter” but appearing to us on earth as a “half-moon.” Since the moon is a sphere, not flat like a disc, we are privileged to see only one-quarter of its daytime side which appears to earthly inhabitants as half of the moon.

About a week ago the moon entered her “new moon” phase, which I spoke of in my last blog as symbolically a time of new beginnings. When I think of the new moon in terms of the planting cycle, I image a shoot beginning to emerge from a seed, making its way toward the light. So, too, in a time of new beginnings our own thoughts and intuitions begin to roil, gradually starting to cohere and emerging as new goals or directions or decisions.

With the first quarter moon the shoot that emerged from a seed just a week earlier, pushing through the soil toward the light, gradually unfurls a few leaves. They may be tentative at first, but grow stronger and larger as they are nourished by light, water and the nutrients of the earth. So too, we may find our own goals and decisions becoming clearer, our steps becoming firmer as they are nourished by our own faith in our direction and the support we may receive from friends, family, a counselor, or mentors.

One of the reasons I love Vedic chant is that so many involve nature. And in these chants, various elements of nature relate to aspects of the human system. For example, fire is identified as supporting speech, air supports breath, the sun support sight, water is connected to creativity, and the moon to the mind.

The Vedic chant laghunyasah is an example of a chant in which elements of nature and their positive relationship to the well-being of the human system is expressed, with a beautiful refrain threaded throughout. The effect is spiritual, almost the feeling of a prayer. A rough translation from Sanskrit of the lines in this chant that speak of the moon and the refrain follow.

May the moon support my mind.
May my mind be linked to my heart.
May my heart be linked to me.
May I be linked to that which is eternal within me.
May what is eternal within me be linked to the universal source.

If you are drawn to these images, you might use this as a mantra (mantra meaning “that which protects”). You might even recite it to yourself aloud several times, then softly, then silently. Just sit, and perhaps hold the image of the moon in your mind for a few minutes. You might even have a picture of the moon there with you.

In your own life, as you find your direction, decisions, and goals beginning to unfurl, perhaps you will find this practice focusing on the moon to be of support.

Below you can listen to these lines chanted in Sanskrit and recited in English:

~

New Moon, New Beginnings

New Moon, New Beginnings

the Moon

“You can’t really criticize the moon,” one of my Wise Women yoga students observed on the heels of our yoga practice. It was the day before the new moon at its darkest stage, a time in the moon’s cycle connected with the idea of “new beginnings.”

In the days leading up to our class, the idea of “new beginnings” had taken roost in my mind as a dear and close family member struggled to find the best path for herself and her family. When I noticed the small darkened circle in the corner of June 4 on my calendar, I made the connection – new moon, new beginnings. I did a little research on the symbolism attached to the new moon only to find the idea of “new beginnings” coming up again and again.

The new moon is a time of both darkness and a sliver of light, which, like the gentle light of winter, supports a more internal focus, encouraging reflection. We can look at old goals, some of which may have been laid aside or forgotten as other aspects of our lives required more attention.

As I started reflecting on my old goals, I became aware of a new beginning I made in my practice of vedic chant. Although I had been studying and practicing chanting since 2003, my progress had been slow and disappointing. About a year ago, that changed when I decided to work via Skype every two or three weeks with a chant teacher. My chanting practice became more regular. I felt a renewed commitment to continue, and not only saw progress, but came to enjoy the work, as well. Sometimes the new beginning simply requires a new direction to move us closer to our objective.

As we reflect, we might decide to resurrect and recommit to some old goals. Some may have already been attained. With others we may find new directions reveal themselves. Some goals might have beginning after beginning in an ebb and flow, each one leading down a path we hadn’t expected when we first began. But not all old goals may seem as desirable as we had initially thought, and those we may decide to release. .

With the darkness and sliver of light of the new moon encouraging reflection, we each might ask ourselves what it is we might want to cultivate in our lives. Courage? Compassion? Joy? Patience? Balance? Or perhaps there is something more concrete we would like to attain. A daily yoga practice? Traveling? Playing the piano? Volunteering to read to children? Finding a different job?

We need only be open and patient to what may come up in our reflections, be not afraid to plot a path toward what we hope to cultivate, and move with patience and a willingness to continue to listen to ourselves and be open to modifying our direction.

The new moon days invite us to make new beginnings.

~

Below is a poem by a favorite poet of mine, inspired by the new moon.

NEW MOON

How much it must bear on its back,
a great ball of blue shadow,
yet somehow it shines, keeps up
an appearance. For hours tonight,
I walked beneath it, learning.
I want to be better at carrying sorrow.
If my face is a mask, formed over
the shadows that fill me
may I smile on the world like the moon.

     …Ted Kooser

 

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.