Avoiding Autumn’s Adversities

Avoiding Autumn’s Adversities

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The Yoga Sutra (YS II.16) teaches that we should “avoid future suffering.” This means not only letting go of behaviors, attitudes or habits that cause us pain, but also looking ahead and preparing for difficulties that may arise so they can be avoided. This Sutra applies to our environment and its seasonal changes as well. They require our attention, so we can prepare and mitigate any adverse effects to come. After all, if we heard that a blizzard was coming, we would go to the store to buy our milk, eggs, and bread, and possibly batteries. We would make sure there was gas in the snowblower, we had trusty shovel, and maybe a little extra food for the birds.

I love autumn. The days may be warm, but the nights feel cool and clear. Mums, and pumpkins, and apples appear everywhere. And, we know that soon leaves will explode in dazzling reds, oranges, and yellow.

But some of the qualities of fall that we tend to overlook can cause problems. Think of the leaves we see fading. Their tips curl as they become drier and drier, even as many color magnificently. The leaves of most deciduous trees will fall to the ground, dry and crunchy as we walk in them. The air moves, as winds sweep the dried leaves, and the days begin to cool.

Ayurveda – the ancient Indian holistic medical system – tells us fall is the season when vata dosha is dominant. The word dosha means “a fault or mistake,” and vata means “to blow or move like the wind.” Vata is one of three doshas, the others being pitta and kapha, that are components of all life.

Throughout the year, each of the three doshas becomes dominant in different seasons. When vata dosha is dominant in fall, it can lead to an imbalance of that dosha within us. And, if we are in our wisdom years, we become more vulnerable to an imbalance of our vata dosha.

Some of the symptoms we might experience when vata is out of balance include: difficulty sitting still, racing thoughts. unfocused mind, difficulty sleeping, dryness of the skin, hair, or nails, constipation, forgetfulness, or anxiety. Our joints might feel creaky, as if they needed lubrication.

We may experience a vata dosha imbalance in seasons other than fall, depending upon our own constitution (the mix of the three doshas we are born with) and our diet, lifestyle, and life situation. But just to emphasize – the qualities of fall make us more vulnerable to a vata imbalance.

An ayurvedic practitioner can help us understand our own unique constitution and recommend dietary and lifestyle changes to help us achieve or maintain balance. Our yoga practice can help us mitigate the suffering that a vata inbalance can cause for our bodies, energy, mind, and emotions as we work to create a sense of groundness. We can use breathwork to calm our breath and mind; we can include a meditative practice to focus the mind. While we regularly use these tools in yoga, it is the intention of our practice that is most important. Bringing a calm, quiet, meditative intention to our yoga practice can help us maintain balance so we can welcome rather than suffer from the autumn days.

Let fall be a time to nourish yourself with your yoga and enjoy the season, and please let me know if you would like to work with me to develop your personal yoga practice for the fall.

 

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.

 

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?”

Slowing Down

Desert scene

Have you ever found yourself receiving the same message again and again? For example, you read an entry in a daily meditation book that so clearly speaks to you that you are startled. Then you lunch with a friend who tells you how she just became aware she needed to change something in her life, and it is exactly the issue the meditation book entry was speaking to. A few days later, you hear the same message in a lecture you attend.

That’s exactly what has happened to me. Recently I heard a woman from Rotary International speak about lessons she learned from her stay in Haiti, helping to install water filters in the homes of Haitians. She described the life of the people in the valley where she worked, how they spent most of their time interacting with neighbors. Their lives, being quite simple, although much more physically demanding than those of most Americans, allowed space for relationships. What the speaker took away was the importance of slowing down and paying attention to people and relationships.

The following day I was Skyping with my Vedic Chant teacher, going over two chants and part of a third I was working on. As we concluded the session, she told me, “You need to slow down. You need to pay attention and listen to yourself.”

As I reflected on my teacher’s feedback, I realized that “slowing down,” “paying attention,” and “listening” were a part of a bigger message I needed to hear.

Later, when I heard Pastor Tom Sweet say: “If you want to go deep, you have to go slow,” and repeat that in a newsletter he sent out later in the week, I knew he was sharing the bigger message.

In his commentary on the Yoga Sutra I.2, where the state of yoga is defined, Bernard Bouanchaud tells us: “Yoga consists of keeping the mind quiet and wakeful so that one is totally present to what one is doing. Thoughts no longer rush forth of themselves in all directions…” To achieve the state of yoga requires going deep, and going deep requires going slowly.

During the holiday season, when messages abound about the many things to do and remember, my thoughts can flash by, dispersing my attention and focus. As I feel stressed by the perceived pressure to “get everything done,” my distraction and thoughts speed up.

We are fortunate to have many practices in yoga that help to quiet the mind and improve our ability to focus our attention in the here and now. The practices are tools to slow us down, but also the vehicles to go deeper. Often the first place we start is doing movement coordinated with the breath in yoga postures. But the eight limbs of yoga suggest many ways to practice paying attention and slowing down: we can observe how we practice the five recommended ethical principles (yama) in our relationships with others; we can observe how we practice the five recommended attitudes (niyama) toward ourselves; we can practice breathing techniques (pranayama) to bring a state of balance to the mind; we can practice withdrawing our senses (pratyahara) from focusing on the world around us in favor of our internal universe; we can regularly practice meditation with a particular focus on an object or concept that helps to support us in our lives (dharana, dhyana, samadhi).

Yoga asks us to go deep, to know ourselves, to make changes so we can live without suffering, with more peace. By going slowly enough to go deeply, we have the possibility of transformation. And, for that message, I am grateful.

 

The Whole Story

Through the trees

Sometimes we think we understand something, but we do not yet have enough information for a full picture.”

….Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutra

 
From 33,ooo feet, the land below lay bleached, the color of sandstone, and dotted with craters lined by low jagged ridges. Here and there a cloud threw a shadow across the earth. But the view still left a sense of barreness under a startling blue sky and relentless sun.

At a point close to our destination the desert yielded to Lake Mead, gathering water from the Colorado River. The chalklines of the lake’s previous shorelines lay naked. Soon tidy neighborhoods of houses appeared, ringed in greenery, many with rectangles of blue in the yards.

Finally the plane approached McCarren Airport, and the jewels of the Las Vegas Strip appear paying homage to New York, Paris, Luxor, Mandolay Bay, among others.

Ten years ago I never would have guessed we would be making Las Vegas our destination twice a year. But somehow, our grown children, with their children, have a way of leading us to places we never thought we would go.

My image of Las Vegas and its environs has been just what I have described – starkly barren desert, suburban sprawl, and the crazy, fantasy world of “The Strip.” As well as leading us to new places, our children, and in this case, grandchildren, have a way of opening our minds to what we hadn’t seen before. In this case it was the Clark County Parks and Recreation Wetlands Park.

One Sunday morning, two grandchildren, our son, his wife, Jim and I visited the Las Vegas Valley wetlands. I wasn’t sure what I expected but it wasn’t what I found – except for the unrelenting heat of the sun. Vegetation of all kinds bordered the path we followed, which led us to a pond. As we stood at its edge, soft-shelled turtles, both large and small, swam to near we stood. A pair of American coots swam on the far side of the pond. Fish of various sizes nibbled in the waters close to the shore.

Before the development of Las Vegas city, this wetland had been an oasis in the valley. But development had led to the run-off of storm water, building of sewage treatment plants and water flows that deepened a channel allowing water that had fed the wetlands to migrate into a wash. Recognizing the important role the wetlands played in purifying water and providing habitat for plants, birds, and animals led to projects that restored the wetlands we walked though.

Sitting in a grove of old cottonwood trees, whose presence signals the existence of water in the Southwest, I found my thoughts coming to the Yoga Sutra. How often, I thought, had I made a judgment from what I had observed, only to learn later that it was not the “whole story.” Sutra I.8 calls assumptions and judgments such as I made “misapprehension” or viparayaya – “comprehension which is taken to be correct until more favorable conditions reveal the exact nature of the objects,” according to Mr. Desikachar in his Reflections on the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali.

While my assumptions about Las Vegas hadn’t serious consequences, it was still a lesson for me to be wary thinking I understand a place, or a person, or a thing, for I seldom have the full story. Mr. Desikachar reminds us, “The aim of yoga practice is to recognize and control the causes of misapprehension.”

 

We Are All in this Together

People's climate march

The hand holding out the button was gnarled and shaking. Its owner, his head crowned with an abundance of curly white hair, mumbled something about the button. My friend, standing near this man, exclaimed, “This is cool.” On the button an image of the earth was held in two hands, one of which was large, the other small, as if a father or grandfather was passing the planet to a child.

At the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, many young people marched. They carried many different signs, but one we saw frequently announced, “I’m marching for my future.” One of my friends carried a sign declaring, “I’m marching for my grandchildren.” And, we saw many of those, as well.

Occasionally a chant – call and response – floated above the heads of marchers. “What is democracy?” they called, and the response, “This is democracy.” As I looked around, the multitude of various faces seemed to acknowledge this truth. Young, old, and in-between marched. We saw people with babies, and at least one person in a wheelchair. People or every color, leftover hippies and their 21st century versions, groups from every environmental orientation, anti-war protesters, members of labor unions, campaign workers, college students, Buddhists, vegans, communists and so many others I lost count, moved around us as we walked.

“Noah’s Ark” was perhaps the most powerful image for me from the March. The ark, which was large enough to hold many people, emerged from a street to slide in amongst the marchers. Aboard the ark were a rabbi, a priest, an atheist, a Wiccan, and on and on. “We are all in this together,” it announced.

Since returning home I have been reflecting on this experience and how the teachings of yoga guide us in living consciously and in harmony with life on this planet. It seems to me two of the yama recommended in the Yoga Sutra, in particular, can help us. The first and most important attitude recommended is ahimsa or non-harming. It is interpreted to be more than a prohibition against violence; it requires, as well, positive action so that we treat all beings – and I believe that includes the living earth – with respect and benevolence.

The other yama especially relevant as we reflect on how to live in balance is aparigrahah. This yama is translated as non-covetedness or an absence of greed. It requires living simply, taking only what is necessary.

These teachings offer antidotes to many of the attitudes that have brought us to such a critical point in the life of the planet and her inhabitants. They are part of a larger group of recommendations that if adhered to offer a chance to live with greater peace and joy.

As a way of living more consciously in harmony with life on this planet and with ourselves, we can ask ourselves questions raised by these teachings.

  • Is there more that I can do to practice ahimsa, bringing an attitude of respect and kindness to others, to all beings, to how I live day to day?
  • Do I live consciously with an attitude of moderation, resisting excesses of consumption or acquisition?
  • Can I live more simply, generously, keeping in mind that how I live each day affects, not just those around me, but those throughout the world?
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Understanding Who We Are

Flower

At the end of a recent Wise Women yoga class, one of the students noted that she had become completely confused with a movement in a posture she had done many times before. As she reflected a little more, she told that class she remembered that she hadn’t slept well and was finding it much harder to focus.

Rather than berating herself for not doing the posture as instructed, the student stopped and asked herself if there was a reason for her to be less focused than usual. She was aware, not just of her confusion with the posture, but also about why – less focus. And, she could relate that to having insufficient rest. Accepting, rather than judging or criticizing herself, allowed her to discover an important factor in her confusion.

Awareness and acceptance can keep us from becoming embroiled in judgment and self-criticism. Instead, they help us to have greater insight into why we may be having difficulty, so we can make change. And, by avoiding the downward emotional spiral that often accompanies self- criticism, we can feel
lighter, clearer, and calmer. This is all part of the process of self-study or svadhyaya, one of the foundational concepts of and requirements for yoga practice.

The Sanskrit word “svadhyaya” can be broken down into “sva,” meaning “self” and “adhyaya,” meaning “inquiry” or “examination.” As Desikachar explains in the Heart of Yoga, “All learning, all reflection, all contact that helps you to learn more about yourself is svadhyaya.” Regular yoga practice itself can be mirror for us to see more about ourselves. Relationships offer a huge mirror for us to see our thoughts, hear our words, and examine our actions. Another avenue is the study of texts, particularly those regarded as possessing wisdom: texts such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or other works of personal significance.

Self-study offers us the opportunity to see what thought patterns, habits of speech, and behaviors may be creating problems and suffering in our lives. Once we have the awareness and acceptance of them, we have the possibility of making changes to more positive habits.

I see relationships as a real opportunity for svadhyaya. Recently I was working on a project with another person. As the time came to bring the project to closure, I found myself increasingly annoyed with the many emails and texts. I began to feel resentful of the time my project partner was demanding. And, yes, I was blaming her.

One day there was a shift in my response. I began to hear in my partner’s voice a sense of being overwhelmed, stressed, and tired. As I really listened, I felt my irritation soften. I began to see the role of my ego and attachment to a certain way of doing things. Having this awareness, I could accept that my thinking was contributing to my own annoyance and perhaps to my partner’s stress. Awareness and acceptance allowed me to open to other possibilities in our project and to work together to bring the project to a successful conclusion.

I relish the opportunities that the practice of svadhyaya brings to my life, for it gives me the possibility of moving toward my goals of being a kinder, more generous and peaceful person.