Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Bigger Picture

As living, breathing humans overflowing with emotions, conditioning and ego, it's easy to get wrapped up in the grind and commotion of our day-to-day life. So much so that we forget that we are but a small part of something much, much bigger and more profound. With such exhaustive focus on the small stuff (the stresses and agitations of work, finances, family and the minutia of our lives) we get drawn further and further away from the 'big picture' and may see only the tiniest speck on the page.  Our daily work is to pull back from our drama and to crawl out of our limited thinking to take a look at the picture as a whole.

A favorite illustration of this is a children's book called Zoom by Istvan Banyai that I've used in class from time to time. 

From School Library Journal"Zoom" is a wordless picture book that re-creates the effect of a camera lens zooming out. For example, one illustration shows a boy on a cruise ship, the next shows him from a distance, and the next reveals the whole ship. Finally, the viewpoint moves back farther and it turns out that the ship is actually a poster on a bus. The perspective continues to recede, revealing the bus as an image on a television screen. Three pages later, viewers see that the person watching TV is drawn on a postage stamp. The final picture shows a view of Earth from space."

Over time and with practice what we begin to find is that taking the time to sit silently in meditation or getting on our yoga mat allows us to connect to what one of my favorite teachers, Erich Schiffmann, calls "Big Mind".  We crawl out of our narrow worldview and expand into the experience of our deeper connection to all things which in turn makes our narrow view seem not quite so important.  Erich says: "Far too many people get distracted by the complexities of their various techniques and lose sight of what the overall 'big picture' is.  Don't lose sight of the big picture. Don't lose sight of what the practices are all about. The big picture, the reason for doing yoga is... to have the experience of yoga (yoga = to yolk or harness the powers of the mind). The reason to do yoga is to have the experience. And what we're talking about is the small mind, the personal mind, personal self... merging with infinity. In easy words, small mind joining with Big Mind.  Once you even have a taste of that for even a split nanosecond, it wipes out your previous convictions about the way you thought things were. What you discover is that there's no such thing as small mind. There's only Big Mind infinitely expressed.

To me, a big part of the practice is about cultivating mindful awareness of all the ways in which we tend to contract, grasp, cling and close ourselves off.  Pulling back the lens from which we view the landscape of our world, we slowly start to shift from our small, constricted realm to a much larger and inclusive worldview. With attention, patience and practice our circle of awareness widens outward and we become more liberated.

     So how do we start to expand our sphere of understanding?  We begin by finding the "witness"- the part of us that is detached from the small stuff, the "I", "me" and "mine, and enables us to observe impartially.

To invite "Big Mind", try this:
Begin by sitting comfortably or lying on the floor in savasana.  Settle yourself into stillness. Let your eyes close and take a few moments to simply tune in to the flowing quality of your breath as it moves into and out of your nostrils.  Begin to slide into stillness.

From here mentally step back from your body, as if you are standing outside yourself looking at your body sitting/lying on the floor.  Slowly scan your awareness over its surface.  Feel where your body comes into contact with the earth, where your skin comes into contact with the air-is it warm or cold?  Feel the border between what's inside and what's outside, or where your skin is soft or stretched over the bones.  Take your awareness to all of the dark, tight or closed off places.  Your attention will help you to bring light and energy to these shadowy spaces.  

Then, continue to pull your awareness back even more to include the fluctuation of thoughts.  Try to see them as an observer might, looking at them from different angles without staying with any one thought in particular (kind of like watching a dramatic movie with the volume turned down).  Stay with the understanding that although you may have lots of thoughts and activity in the mind, you are not those thoughts or activity.

Keep your awareness with the body and the thoughts but now begin to include the movement and energy of the breath.  Feel it inflate and deflate, rise and fall with each inhale and exhale. Stay with the breath for several minutes.

Now let your awareness of boundaries dissolve; the boundaries of your skin, your chair/mat, the walls of the room you are in, and allowing yourself to expand into the spaciousness surrounding you.

Continue to sit or lay in stillness cultivating the quality of expansion  Try doing this for 5-30 minutes.

Until next time...

Keeping Things Whole by Mark Strand
In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dust In The Wind

What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across
the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
 Attributed to Crowfoot (ca 1830-1890), chief of the Canadian Blackfoot tribe.

My plan for Monday morning's class was to talk about impermanence.  Sitting down at the computer to compose my thoughts before class, I had just finished typing the last sentence and was preparing to copy and paste one last thing when suddenly everything disappeared from the screen. After several vain attempts to retrieve the lost paragraphs, it became painfully obvious that they were gone forever.  

I smiled at the irony.  

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is quoted as saying: "Nothing remains the same for two consecutive moments. The Buddha implored us not just to talk about impermanence, but to use it as an instrument to help us penetrate deeply into reality and obtain liberating insight. We may be tempted to say that because things are impermanent, there is suffering. But the Buddha encouraged us to look again. Without impermanence, life is not possible. How can we transform our suffering if things are not impermanent? How can our daughter grow up into a beautiful young lady? How can the situation in the world improve? We need impermanence for social justice and for hope.
If you suffer, it is not because things are impermanent. It is because you believe things are permanent. Aware of impermanence, you become positive, loving and wise. Impermanence is good news. Without impermanence, nothing would be possible. With impermanence, every door is open for change. Impermanence is an instrument for our liberation."

Everything changes, of this we can be certain.  Everything in life and on this earth is impermanent.  Having a deep understanding of this, in what ways can we make the most of the preciousness of our time?  First, we can start by asking ourselves over and over: "Am I awake?  Am I fully present and making the most of this fleeting moment? Am I fully aware of what I am doing?" Recognizing impermanence helps us identify the ineffective patterns and activities that we are being distracted by. Then, we can begin to see more clearly the things that exhaust us and distract us from experiencing the blessing and opportunity of each unique moment.

In Zen practice it is often said that the span of our lives is like a dew drop on a leaf — beautiful, precious, and extremely short-lived. Life is remarkably unpredictable.  One of my favorite Zen parables is about a meditation master named Achaan Chaa.  When his students came to him and asked him how he could be so happy in a world of such impermanence, the master held up a glass and said, "For me, this glass is already broken. I love this glass; I drink out of it. It beautifully reflects the light coming through the window,  But when I put this glass on a shelf and the wind knocks it down or my elbow brushes it and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, 'Of course.'  When I understand that this glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious."

Whatever it is that you want to accomplish - whatever is important to you - do it, and do it now with as much grace, passion, and sense of ease as you can muster. None of us can know what life will bring. In any moment everything we take for granted can change. We must be careful not to be preoccupied by impermanence to the point that we become afraid of loss, but rather to use the awareness of change to shift our focus and heighten our appreciation of the sheer beauty of being alive.

Evening Gata
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost 
Each of us should strive to awaken....awaken...
Take heed.
This night your days are diminished by one.
Do not squander your life.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A New Serenity Prayer

I recently wrote and spoke in class about a meditation experience that awakened in me a realization of the need to change.  So it was interesting that this morning while looking through an old journal, I stumbled upon something I had jotted down a while back and it made me smile at how the universe delivers the "teachers" we need at exactly the right time.

Here's what I found:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it's me." (author unknown)

Although we sometimes crave change and we sometimes dread it, we cannot escape it.  All we can do is keep working toward a quieter mind and have the courage to take responsibility of the quality of our actions and attitudes that surround the changes that appear.

From the same journal entry:
"Change is not a direct or even indirect consequence of yoga or any other practice.  We cannot depend on it.  What we can count on gaining from our yoga practice is a quieter mind - somehow the heaviness, jumpiness and worry vanish.  Yet something very personal and essential has to happen for us at the right time, and it has to touch us so deeply that we suddenly really want to pause, consider, and change the course of our actions.  After this happens we simply go forward step-by-step.  The quality of our action begins to change.  The new positive conditioning becomes stronger and our mind remains clear.
If real clarity is present, we experience quietness and peace within us.  If there is only intellectual clarity, we may be happy for a moment or two, but this feeling will not last.
Our aim in yoga is to bring about a change in the quality of the mind so that we can perceive more from the consciousness.  Yoga attempts to influence the mind in such a way that it is impossible for our consciousness to operate without hindrances." 

The above passage was scrawled in my journal without reference to where it came from (note to self: I really need to change my messy note taking habits!).  I'm fairly certain it came from The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, but nonetheless it's a beautiful illustration of what the practice of yoga can do to awaken a more conscious way of living.

Ultimately what matters most isn't what others see in you, it's what you see in yourself.  The power to make changes comes from within.  Self-observation, focus, willpower, strength, wisdom, faith - they give you the power to change.

Until next time...

WELCOME CHANGE by Sri Chinmoy   
Don't resist;  
Be flexible.  
Don't be rigid; 
Be supple.  
Welcome change! 
Each change  
Is an illumining opportunity 
To knock at the door  
Of fulfilling progress sweet.~

Change yourself slowly   
And cheerfully.  
Conditions will change immediately 
And unimaginably.~

The mind thinks  
That any change 
Is painful.  
The heart feels 
That any change 
Is powerful.~

Change your attitude!   
Look what stands before you: 

Change your mind 
If you do not want anybody 
To bind your life.~

Not because you are clothed 
In a frail body,  
But because of your stubborn
Unwillingness to change, 
Your life is a misery-haunted house.

The entire world may not change. 
The entire world cannot change. 
The entire world even will not change. 
But your tiny world you can and will change 
forever at this very moment with the help of your 

Today's Strengthening Flow playlist:
Timshel-Mumford and Sons
Drops In The River-Fleet Foxes
Change-Blind Melon
All These Things That I've Done-The Killers
She's Only Happy In The Sun-Ben Harper And The Blind Boys of Alabama
Dust In The Wind-Daughter Darling
Acid Tongue-Jenny Lewis
The Greatest Sum-The Avett Brothers
To Let Myself Go-Ane Brun
Journey Through The Past-James Mercer
Dust In The Wind-Fred Benedetti
Changes-Seu Jorge
Innocent Son-Fleet Foxes
Those To Come-The Shins
Remembrance-Benjy Wertheimer

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Living in The Open

Early this morning I was sitting in meditation, immersed in stillness, tuned in and empty of the usual push/pull of whirling thoughts. I was feeling peaceful and content.  Then, bubbling up from some deep, dark internal spring was a sudden realization that hit me like a punch in the stomach. Was it a profound moment of clarity? Perhaps another step in the direction of awakening or enlightenment?  Whatever the case may be, it reared its head and boy did it ache!  An aspect of my personality that I struggle with had shown its unsavory face.  I watched it enter.  I sat with the discomfort of it.  I listened to it.  The understanding of it caused a lump of grief in my throat. Holding steady, I held it with my attention until is started to dissolve.

When I crawled back into bed I told my husband John about it.  Being someone who knows me well, he was already aware of what I had been turning a blind eye to and we talked about ways to work with it (gotta love a good perspective from your best friend!).

The thing is that even though we have the best intentions of living in the open, parts of us are concealed.  Through the practice of yoga and meditation we discover that although we can't help hiding parts of ourselves, we can help which parts of us - the open or the hidden - rule our lives. What we can be sure of is that when we're living in the open, life nourishes even those parts that are so carefully - and sometimes painfully - hidden.  Living a hidden or open life is like the concept of Yin and Yang (the ancient Chinese understanding of how opposites work in relation to each other). The outer circle represents "everything", while the black and white shapes within the circle represent the interaction of two energies - called "yin" (black) and "yang" (white) - which cause everything to happen. They are not completely black or white and each contains a part of the other, just as things in life are not completely black or white and they cannot exist without each other.  The hidden helps to nourish the open and the open helps to shine a light on the hidden.  Both are necessary.  Our practice helps us to live in the awareness of which aspect we choose to dwell in.

Mark Nepo writes:

"...we become so preoccupied with what we are not able to address, what we are not able to mend, what we are not able to leave behind, that we forget that whatever we are in the light of day is slowly, but surely healing the rest of us."

So, breathe into all of those things you feel incapable of solving in your personality, surround them with your awareness and breath.  Give them space and know that the part of you that is easy, the part that happens without any work is using its strength to soften what you can't solve.

Want to sit with what's present?  Try this: Viloma Pranayama-”Interupted Breathing” 

Perfect for connecting with both the light and the dark, Viloma pranayama brings a feeling of ease, calmness and lightness to the body (in Sanskrit "Vi" means against, "Loma" means hair, viloma means against the natural flow). In Viloma pranayama the inhalations and exhalations are interrupted with brief pauses. 

How to do it:
Exhale all your air then:Inhale 3, pause 3, inhale 3, pause 3, inhale 3, pause 3-long exhale.  Repeat x10 

Deep inhale then: exhale 3, pause 3, exhale 3, pause 3, exhale 3 , pause 3-deep inhale.  Repeat x10.
Inhale/exhale naturally x10

Today's Basic Vinyasa playlist:
"Soul of the Esraj" by Benjy Wertheimer

Until next time...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Got To Be Real!

Have you ever encountered something or someone who appeared so perfect, so beautiful, colorful, happy, spiritual, squeaky clean and well, just down right angelic?  Chances are that as a result of this encounter you've walked away feeling inadequate or even ashamed of your perceived "imperfections".  Or perhaps you were so concerned with what others would think that you went out of your way to project the appearance of perfection: the "right" clothes, job, car, relationship?  We've all experienced both scenarios in one way or another.

The reality beneath outward signs of perfection is that most often things are never as flawless as they appear on the surface.  Very often it's a fear of judgement that causes us to mask our true identity.  We tend to be so worried about what others will think that we conceal who we really are.

The practice of yoga teaches us to find the
REAL person beneath the smoke and mirrors. We learn that our true nature is nothing to be ashamed of, but rather to be celebrated and embraced.

Yoga is not about perfecting the physical body nor is it hiding behind a false notion of what a spiritual person is supposed to look or act like.  Instead, through the postures (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and a good old fashioned honest look at the way we behave towards ourselves and others (both on the mat and in everyday life), we become more grounded and present.
In the roots of the present moment we begin to embrace the parts of ourselves that aren't so squeaky clean - warts and all.  We begin to realize that there's nothing to be ashamed of. We're all human. We all make mistakes. And from that ground of truth we set about acting and living in a way that reflects the best of what our true spirit has to offer.

Until next time peeps-be real!

Today's readings:

Imperfection by David Whalen

There’s something to be said
for imperfection

Something to be praised
in things cracked and crazed

For there’s something unsettled
That makes me feel nettled

And something in perfection
That leaves me dismayed

Give me a nick
on the lip of my cup

Give me bird poo
on my car

Give me a rip,
a tear or a stain

I’m perfectly happy
With imperfection by far.

Perfect Imperfection by Melissa Bachara

I am a contradiction
a perfect imperfection
On looking in from outside
I think I’d pass inspection

My nails are neat, each hair in place
My clothes the latest styles
But look a little closer,
And you can see my trials

The window to my balanced soul
Is stained from too much smoke
A birds eye view down at my heart
Will clearly show it’s broke

My best intentions lead to pain
And complicated messes
My head is filled with wishes,
My decisions second guesses

There was a time I tried to hide
each wrinkle, scar and tear
But I’m learning to appreciate
That I’m more than I appear

Each wrinkle tells a story
The path from there to here
I’ve earned a little wisdom
With every falling tear

My soul will soar in brilliant skies
But then I’ll need to rest
The embers of my passion
Still smolder in my chest

Perhaps I’ll let my hair go wild
And skip the manicure
I’ll wear my favorite color
They’ll say "Hey, look at her"

My hair, my heart, my clothes, my soul
Will walk in one direction
No longer contradicting
My perfect imperfection

Monday, June 20, 2011

Balance is ALIVE!

Happy Monday!

It's a HOT and hectic day here in these parts. The kind of day that very often makes your body, mind and spirit feel lethargic and off-balance.

In class, I often talk about how in order to find balance on our yoga mat we need to be aware of body, mind and breath all at once. As humans, this is not something that typically occurs on an intellectual level (like taking inventory). Instead it comes from an energetic experience at our center which organically organizes and creates balance (if given the freedom to do so).

When we first start practicing and exploring asana, we may feel that what we're doing is merely a series of stretching exercises. Nothing may seem to be connected or coordinated. But with time, patience and persistence we will begin to notice something much deeper: the energy that runs through us and all living things.

On the mat, we start by rooting into the moment by using our breath (pranayama practices or breathing techniques) to help us find our physical, emotional and spiritual center. From these roots, we start to pay attention to the body as a whole. What's present in your body in this moment? An itch? An ache? Heat? Coolness? Where are you connected to the earth? What parts are buoyant or heavy? Once we become keenly aware of the whole body, we begin going deeper, moving through the center and tapping into the energy beneath the surface. By using "lines of energy", we set in motion an expanded inner awareness and begin to animate each posture from the inside out. With practice what unfolds is magical! Our physical practice begins to shift and deepen from being exclusively external into a much more fulfilling internal and spiritual experience.

By cultivating such awareness, you will slowly begin to learn that balance is not still. It's dynamic and alive! My hope is that through patience and practice, you will begin to understand clearly that at the center of this energy is a deep stillness that can be accessed while in motion. You can find balance in the midst of activity.

To learn more about "lines of energy", check out my teacher Erich Schiffmann's website for words of wisdom on the subject:

Today's class reading is a poem by an unknown author:


We always talk about stability.
Well, forget stability.
A rock is stable.
Death is stable.

Stability is stagnant.
But balance-
it changes,
it grows,
thrives even,
it lives.
It is passionate but considerate.
It cares for those people close to it,
generous but not spoiling,
protective but not stifling.
It is humble in its flashes of brilliance
and steadfastly confident in its lapses of reason.
It is a quiet mind in a crowd and
focused determination facing a mountain of work.
It ignores the trivially depressing
and amplifies the sweetest little pleasures.

Where stability is alone, balance is in great company-
many things working together.
It recognizes the unstoppable power of time
and shows prudence in remediation and appreciation
for today’s good things.
It works hard, but plays hard too.
It is continually forgiving, but only in resolution.
It is nearly perfect, but can never be so.
It is the inspiring downpour of rain outside your window.
But, most of all, balance is the respect and love it has for the whole of itself, and no one part.

Until next time y'all!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

How Do You Fill Your Moments?

Flipping through a recent issue of Yoga Journal magazine, I spotted an article about meditation that resonated with me so I thought I'd share it in class this past Friday.

The gist of the article was that meditation, while a beautiful and ancient practice, does not necessarily have to happen while sitting in silence on a meditation cushion, chanting mantras and handling mala beads. I am a true and passionate believer in the power of a daily seated, silent meditation practice and I am here to say that it works wonderfully.  

That being said, meditation and stillness can happen wherever we happen to be at any given moment.  Everyday we find ourselves with free minutes while "waiting" for something to happen.  This waiting provides many opportunities for personal transformation.  Whether we're stuck in traffic or at a red light, standing in line at the bank, or waiting for an appointment, we have the choice to either fill our moments with the simplicity of stillness or we can fill the still moments by chatting on the cell phone, sending text messages, logging onto Facebook or turning on the TV.  Not to say that any of these things are wrong in and of themselves, but taking a look at the need to fill space is where we begin to move closer to transformation.

By setting an intention, we can transform our free moments into stillness or relaxation and experience the qualities of meditation.  The Yoga Journal article suggested some ways to cultivate stillness in your free moments.  Here are a few:

1) Stand more firmly on your feet or settle into your sitting bones and hips.  Breathe deeply.

2) Soften your facial muscles!

3) Free your hands - rest them by your sides or place them gently on your lap.

I'd also like to add a few of my own:

4) Take a moment to close your eyes and deeply inhale then slowly exhale (not while driving of course!).  Notice how it feels to be present with yourself.

5) Rather than getting in the car and turning on the radio first thing, roll down the window(s) and feel the breeze in your hair.  Breathe!

6) Standing in line at the grocery store?  Use it as an opportunity to inhale/exhale then pause for 5 seconds before drawing in another inhale.  Repeat until the line begins to move.  Instant stillness!

Asana practice can also be a moving meditation. At home and have a few free minutes?  Roll out your yoga mat or find a quiet space to stand and practice the following flow:

Be sure to match your movements to the length of your breath which is ideally long, slow and deep.  Let your mind, body and breath move together as one.

Start out standing in mountain pose (Tadasana).  Root yourself.  
Inhale, slowly raise your arms over your head.
Exhale, slowly release your hands to your sides and clasp them behind your back.
Inhale, draw the clasped hands away from your back, open you chest/heart, lift your gaze towards the sky!
Exhale, fold forward from the creases of your hips with your hands still clasped behind your back.
Inhale, lift the chest, sweep the arms over head
Repeat 5 times or more.  

This flow is a wonderful way to not only root yourself in your body, but it also opens your heart, your chest, and your shoulders.  It increases your lung capacity (more breath=more energy!). It helps to connect you to the meditative power of linking breath with movement (also known as Vinyasa).

How do you fill your moments? The choice is yours!

Until next time!

What To Remember When Waking
by David Whyte

In that first hardly noticed moment in which you wake,
coming back to this life from the other
more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world
where everything began,
there is a small opening into the new day
which closes the moment you begin your plans.

What you can plan is too small for you to live.
What you can live wholeheartedly will make plans enough
for the vitality hidden in your sleep.

To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.

You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.

Now, looking through the slanting light of the morning window
toward the mountain presence of everything that can be
what urgency calls you to your one love?
What shape waits in the seed of you
to grow and spread its branches
against a future sky?

Is it waiting in the fertile sea?
In the trees beyond the house?
In the life you can imagine for yourself?
In the open and lovely white page on the writing desk?