Prerequisite to Letting Go

04-08-15 blog image

04-08-15 blog image

“Understanding the transitory nature of all things is prerequisite to letting go of expectations and attachments.”
The Path of the Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman

Over the past few weeks in yoga classes, I suggested that students focus on the concept of “letting go.” After all, it is spring, and spring brings up the idea of cleaning, letting go of the detritus of winter. At a more internal level, it can mean letting go of those attitudes, habits, behaviors that no longer serve us.

As students discussed that one thing that they would like to let go of, I was reminded of the difficulty of doing this. Letting go of a house filled with things accumulated over a lifetime can feel like a heavy weight when a person wants to downsize to something more modest and easier to keep up. Such a task requires not only much work, but also the giving up of objects that feel connected to family and friends. Even recognizing that the objects are just that – material things – they can come to represent that person who is now gone.

In my last blog, I wrote about the concept in yoga of parinama vada, meaning “everything changes.” This reminds us that all those material things in our world change – the seasons, the weather, a house, ourselves. Even a mountain changes over time, as will our sun.

But yoga also teaches us that there is something which is constant, unchanging. That constant within us is called purusa, which means “that which sees,” or “that which sees correctly.” Unfortunately, the ability of purusa to see correctly is, for most of us, hampered. Purusa can only see through the window of the mind. Yet, past experiences, memories, beliefs, feelings cloud this window with thoughts about what we see in the material world. This happens constantly and most often we are unaware they are obstructing our ability to see clearly.

For example, I am at the food store, and I see a woman I used to work with walking toward me. Our relationship had been difficult, and I had always felt she had been critical of my work. So now, the old feelings are triggered along with these memories. I am seeing her through a window clouded with thoughts and feelings from the past. When she greets me smiling and with a warm hug, my response is hesitant. I cannot see her as she is in the present moment because my mind is so filled with the past.

We have been given the tools of yoga so that we might be able to clean the window of the mind. When purusa can shine, allowing us to see the world clearly, we have the ability to discern the best path for ourselves. We may decide good reasons exist for keeping the house we have been living in for so long, and as a result feel more accepting of our choice.

Alternatively, we may see our best interest lies in letting go so we might have a home easier to manage. In either case, we choose with a sense of acceptance because the clarity of purusa allows us the discernment to choose wisely.

The elegance of yoga rests in the opportunities it offers us to live our lives with greater peace and freedom. It is also the promise for those willing to come to practice with faith, constancy, and a positive attitude.


Note: Joy is one of our eleven Benefits of Yoga

Joy imageYoga identifies five dimensions in our human system: the physical or annamaya, the energetic or pranamaya, the intellect or manomaya, the personality or vijnanamaya, and the emotional or anandamaya. The word ananda, in the emotional dimension, is translated as “joy that never stops.” This level of our system is capable of joy because it is not linked to habitual ways of thinking that cause suffering.

Habitual patterns of thoughts may be things such as ruminating over regrets about something in the past, or thoughts of failure because we have less than our friends, or fears about our future or our children’s future. When our minds our engaged in these kinds of negative thoughts, we feel constricted, ill at ease: we cannot experience joy.

Since yoga acts on all the different parts of our human system, doing postures, simple breathing techniques, and using sound or other tools of yoga can allow us to see negative patterns of thought and help free us from them and the frustration and unhappiness they engender. Over time, an appropriate, regular yoga practice helps us to see those things creating “non-joy” so we may let go of them, and those things linking us to that joy inherent within us. Through our yoga practice, we can choose to move toward what is positive, toward what nourishes joy at our deepest level.

How Often Do You Experience Joy?

Blue Horses poetry bookThis question has lingered in my mind since it was asked on a form I was filling out for my first reflexology session with my friend and reflexologist Lori Sweet. The question stopped me. I had no idea how to answer it. And, I began to ask myself “what is joy for me?”

Yoga teaches that joy – ananda – resides in the subtlest aspect of our being. It is there for all of us, yet may seem elusive, even mysterious.

After reflecting on this question, I can best describe the feeling of joy to be a profound opening of myself to all that is around me: it is a connection and a deep gratitude. It may be brief or linger, a glow in the sky of my being after the sun slips below the horizon.

Yoga teachings tell us we have a choice whether to move toward joy or away from joy. We have to reflect on what brings us “non-joy” and say “no” to that. The great gift of yoga is a quieting of the mind, which helps us to discern those things that bring us joy and those bringing us “non-joy.”

This morning after returning from the veterinarian with my most lovable fluffy 14-year-old kitty, Bagheera, I sat in the chair in the living room with a cup of coffee. Looking out the window to the snow clinging to the sycamore, I could feel myself leaning into a space of inertia. Bagheera was going to OK, but I was slipping into malaise with the day.

I don’t think I was conscious of making a choice, but I did pick up a book of poetry my husband had given me for Christmas. The poet was Mary Oliver. I read poem after poem until I reached “Franz Marc:s Blue Horses,” in which the poet imagines herself stepping into the painting “Blue Horses.” The poet reflected on the painter who “died a young man, shrapnel in his brain,” but also on the beauty of the blue horses in the painting and her gratitude.

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.”

I read the poem again and again, and then found myself holding the book close to my heart. It broke me open to something beyond the living room and the snow and the sycamore. I realize now I had made a choice to move toward joy. And that has made all the difference in my day.

So what about you?
How does joy feel to you?
What are you going to connect to that will bring you joy?


Exploring an Inner Radiance

Bare tree

Earlier this week, before the weather turned chilly, I took a rest from cleaning up weeds and detritus around the two crepe myrtle by our driveway. Their fushia flowers had brought us great pleasure during the summer, but what remained now, in November, was just browning and falling leaves.

Leaning my arms on the trunk of the car, I looked toward the creek, to the old sycamore whose boney branches rose above the rooftops, glowing in a slant of sunlight. But my gaze was stolen from the tree by the motion of hawks. Two hawks circled in similar flight paths, at different heights, riding the thermals as they flapped and coasted, flapped and coasted. Banking to maintain their circle the angle of their bodies shifted, and sunlight flashed across their creamy white bellies.

Sycamores, hawks, light.

“Light originates in the center of the heart,” explains Bernard Bouanchaud in his commentary on yoga sutra I.36. Meditating on that light, which is believed to be the source of the divine within, brings a sense of serenity.

This concept is very precious to me, personally. At a time when I was struggling with a lack of confidence and a feeling of distress, my yoga teacher said to me, “Your light is so bright. You just cannot see it.” Her words were a gift, something I return to for solace and stability.

We all experience times when we feel as if we are in a dark space. That is why I offer this image of the light in the heart to my students as focus in class from time to time. When we are caught in a dark space in our thinking, we can visualize the image of the light within. As flicking a switch in a dark room dissipates the darkness that had been there, linking to the image of a light in the heart can help dissipate the darkness of our thoughts.

The ancient Vedas offer a beautiful image that can help us explore this mystery of the light in the heart.

In the body is the heart,
In the heart is a lotus,
In the lotus is a light,
This light is the source of inner peace…”

According to Bouanchaud’s commentary, meditating on the luminous quality of the heart offers us the possibility of more than a sense of peace and stability, as wonderful as that is. This serenity can open a door connecting us to “the life that animates all beings and everything in nature” and encouraging “a deep relationship with it.”

As I watched the light flash on the bellies of the circling hawks and gleam on the white skin of the sycamore, I was reminded of the light living not only within me, but within all people, all beings. The promise of peace and connection is there for all of us, if only we notice.



Elizabeth at labyrinth

Last Sunday my daughter and I brunched at the Chocolate Maven where we enjoyed a quiche of green chilies and the best mochas I have ever had. I swear Santa Fe must be the only place on earth where you can find green chilie quiche. And, the pleasure in eating it was only enhanced by having had three days with my daughter.

Monday morning when we had to say good-bye so she could return to Los Angeles and her many responsibilities of children, husband, and work, my whole body felt the loss of the intimacy of our weekend. In the space between her departure and the arrival of my husband, I walked.

Often, when feeling troubled or sad, I want to feel close to the earth. On this day, in Santa Fe, I wanted to take in the Sangre de Cristo mountains whose peaks were whitened by Sunday’s storm, the deep blue of the cloudless sky, the brilliant yellow of a tree flanking the white stone of the New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial. But I did have a destination in mind.

Walking San Francisco Street, I passed homeless people, tourists, and just ordinary folks. Ahead lay my destination – Saint Francis Cathedral, with the Sangre de Cristo mountains as its backdrop. I climbed the stairs as visitors milled and photographed the church and one another. Rather than entering, I turned to the left and crossed the portico to the labyrinth. The only person nearby was a man reading as he sat on a nearby bench.
Here it was quiet.

Only the day before, Katherine and I had walked the labyrinth on Museum Hill. And, only a week earlier, Jim, my friend Leslie, and I had walked the labyrinth at the Benedictine Grange near Redding, Connecticut.

I had explained to Katherine my sense of the labyrinth, and how you had to place your attention on each step you took, how the exactitude of the narrow path required attention as it led closer to the center, and then wound away. Sometimes it was only a few steps until the path curved back in the direction from which you had come, while other times you were lead with many steps before the path curved, and you had to slow just to stay on the path.

A plaque beside the labyrinth explained that they had been used since at least 2000 BC and were found everywhere in the world. In medieval times labyrinths were built into the floor of churches where pilgrims came to walk them. The one at Saint Francis in Santa Fe was built on the pattern of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France.

I had told Katherine that I felt walking the labyrinth was like life. It reminded us that sometimes things went smoothly, then, suddenly there would be twists. Sometimes twist after twist required slowing and quick adjustments. Sometimes we approached the center, which for me is a closeness to a Higher Source, and we find joy. Other times our path changes suddenly and we may feel alone, abandoned.

Something felt soothing and healing on the morning I walked the labyrinth at Saint Francis. It did remind me of the twists in life we all face. But, in the space of time in which I walked the labyrinth, I moved from sadness to gratitude. I realized that in feeling such a connection with my daughter, I had reached a center – at least for a time.


Cultivating a Tranquil Mind

Tranquil Mind blog image

Two friends, Vicki and Naomi walk to their cars after having had dinner together. They work together and have known each other since kindergarten. Naomi wanted to get together to share her good news. Not only had she received a promotion and a substantial raise, but she had just gotten engaged. Vicki tried to be happy for her friend, but inside she was consumed with envy and resentment. Her mind was racing with thoughts about how unfair life had been to her.

This is an example of just one of the situations that Yoga Sutra I.33 speaks to, as it addresses how to maintain a stable, tranquil mind in relationships. This Sutra is translated: “A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality towards wrong-doers.”1

Vicki, in the example above, is seeing the happiness of her friend through the lens of what she feels she is missing in her own life. Her thinking has become negative, and she is suffering, as a result. This Sutra advises us, instead, to see the happiness of others as just that. By being friendly towards those who are happy we share in their positive experience. Our minds remain tranquil.

Actually each of the four situations mentioned in this Sutra share a common thread. What keeps a person’s mind ensnared in negativity is seeing other people’s lives through the lens of one’s own life, experiences, or values.

Let’s look at another example. Jean is 26 and recently divorced after an abusive marriage. As a result she asked to move into her parents’ home with her 1 year old. Neither her father nor mother liked the man Jean had married. They told her it was her choice to marry him, and now she has to live with the consequences. Without their help or a job, Jean and her baby are living in a shelter. Jean is obviously suffering from her failed, abusive marriage and lack of resources. Yet, anger and blame cloud her parents’ minds and close their hearts to her suffering. Sutra 1.33 advises us to cultivate compassion, a sympathetic consciousness, of another’s suffering. Our mind, then, remains stable and calm.

When faced with someone doing things that are wrong or harmful, this Sutra advises impartiality toward someone acting poorly. Many of us might stop at this and ask if this means ignoring someone’s harmful behavior.

I don’t think so. Yoga is about cultivating responsible, thoughtful action based upon seeing clearly what is in front of us. This part of the Sutra, I believe, directs us to withhold judgment about behavior because we cannot know the whole story behind it.

In Ferguson, Missouri this week, protests have turned violent following the shooting and death of Michael Brown, a young, unarmed, African-American man, by a white policeman. His death is being investigated, and the violence in response has been condemned.

Yet, we do not know the whole story. We can be disturbed and angry judging the behavior of the white policeman. We can condemn the behavior of African-American crowds angry over another case of police violence seemingly based on race. But, to be impartial means we don’t take events personally. We have to take more into account than just our own ideas and beliefs. And, we need “to understand that there are compulsions…which cause them [wrong-doers] to act as they do.” For that we need sympathy and understanding as well.

1Translation from The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, by Ravi Ravindra


Choosing Peace

Finding Peace blog image

Each one has to find peace within. And peace to be real must be unaffected by outside circumstances.”
      – Mahatma Gandhi

As I prepared for teaching my Wise Women class, I came across a short article, “An Inner Choice,” I had printed out in 2010 from the online site the “Daily OM.” The first line was in large type and immediately brought me up short: “There cannot be peace in the world until we have it in our own hearts and minds, our own families and neighborhoods.” It grabbed my attention because I, as I know many others, had been struggling with the news of war and violence, the images of children dying, the anguished voices of loss and hopelessness. If you are attentive to all this, it is hard to feel peaceful inside, and easy to feel powerless.

This article, however, was a realistic reminder that how we live our own lives – whether it is with anxiety or calm – has an influence beyond just ourselves. Because this is a choice we can make, we are not powerless. When we feel the turmoil of the world’s chaos and conflict, we need to look within ourselves. We need to ask ourselves: What is our own sense of peacefulness?

We all experience busy minds and conflicting emotions. It is in our nature as humans. The difference between those who experience peace and those who do not has to do with how we invest our energy, not who we are. As the article explained, those people who feel at peace do not invest their energy in disturbing and disquieting thoughts and feelings. Instead, they allow the thoughts and feelings to “rise and fall like the waves of the ocean without disturbing the deeper waters of peacefulness within.”

The Yoga Sutra defines yoga as the ability to stop the mind’s busyness and distraction so it can be still or silent. In yoga we have tools, such as postures, breathing techniques, chant, gestures, meditation, to help us calm the mind and emotions by creating space.

As we begin to create space in our bodies, minds and emotions, we also can pay attention to those things in our lives that create obstacles to feeling at peace. How is our diet? Do we get enough rest? Do we have too many commitments or commitments that feel burdensome? Do we have habits that create uneasiness or agitation? This self-observation or svadhyaya can bring awareness to these obstacles so we can seek positive change, giving us more space in our lives.

With a feeling of space, the turmoil of our minds and emotions can recede, and, in its place we can glimpse, if not connect to, the peace within ourselves. This peace is available to all of us. It is within us already. Even if we are distracted by the ruffled waters at the surface of our lives and in the world, we can set an intention to work toward getting in touch with our own peaceful center. This is the real power we have.