Author Archive: Elizabeth

“First principle” (and akrama and krama)

When I think about the Anusara alignment principles in the context of the tattvas (see earlier posts), I think about “opening to grace” appearing in two places on the tier.  As “first principle” it is the first among a larger sequence about how we come to the mat, rather than just the first of the physical principles.  “First principle” not only starts the practice and the dialogue, but is already there. It is, in this sense, so fundamental that it is not part of the sequence, but is sequenceless (akrama).  If you are fully conscious of “grace” and can embody it in all aspects of your physical, energetic, and mental day to day existence without further instruction, study, or practice, then there is no need for other practice or instruction (this I think is a very rare being, and certainly I’m not such a being).

The next set of tattvassuddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti (see link above), correspond to the Anusara alignment principles of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which although they are themselves described in sequence, are fundamentally sequenceless as they happen all at the same time and are more elemental than the practice of the physical/energetic alignment principles in sequenced practice.

In this way of understanding the play between the sequenceless and sequenced, we have a universal “first principle” that embodies the purpose of all we do on and off the mat.  It is followed by how we want to practice, described in a way that becomes less of just a concept (which as a universal concept is akrama) and more of a practical understanding (which applies when we are in space and time and therefore in the krama of embodied existence).  As we dance in this play between the sequenceless and the sequenced, we come to practice (or to do any activity) with the “attitude” of wanting to live the “first principle,” to know and experience what is fully present and not bound by time and space.  We then (because we must) study and practice specific “alignment” to try and express this attitude with our “actions.”

The physical/energetic alignment principles then come in as a the way of better refining, studying, and practicing the desire to recognize with mind and body the “first principle.”  The sequence of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy” comes then at the level of physical and mental practice to return us back to “first principle.”  “Open to grace” is first in this sequence, too, but as “first principle,” for me, it is something more than the first of the alignment principles.  “First principle” is not just the start of how we practice when we practice Anusara yoga, but the whole reason for practice.  It is the universal, overarching, blissful element of being that draws us to the practice because of our yearning to know it.

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Looking on the Bright Side

My body does not respond well to cold.  I’ve learned how to dress and to hold my body, so that I do not get stiff and paralyzed by the cold, but I am more easeful with heat.  Still, there is a big upside to the continuing unseasonably cold winter:  I won’t have aphids on my roses in February.  It should also push back the mosquito season.  That is a very good thing.

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“Beginner’s Mind” (and vikalpa samkara)

Vikalpa samskara is a term that describes the fundamental process of an ever refining yoga practice.  It encompasses both study of text (with a teacher) and experiential learning and practice.  With just experience, we may feel full unto ourselves, but we cannot explain the richness of our experience to others nor can we understand why.  If we just hear something from a teacher or see a picture or read about it in a book, however, no matter how book smart we are, we do not have the understanding that comes from personal experience.  It is by continuously combining and refining study and practice, that we can have a progressive deepening of true knowledge.

We often talk about “beginner’s mind” with respect to asana practice and meditation (and bringing the beauty of that state off of the mat).  We are invited to be receptive and open the way is an ideal beginner, who wants to learn, but does not yet know the topic.

What does “beginner’s mind” really mean, though, in the context of someone who is experienced?  I do not believe that it should mean discarding either book learning or discrimination built of experience.  What it suggests to me is to approach our practice and life with freshness, with open-mindedness, without being bound by preconceived notions.  I think this is the true process of vikalpa samskara. To be able to deepen our knowledge ever more deeply, we have to be willing to be open to shifts and changes in understanding.  Then “samskara” does not become a rut, a bad habit, the inevitable effect from a previous action, but the development of a deepening path for more refined understanding.

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Robin Redbreasts (and the importance of sequencing in time and space)

I am working from home today.  I looked out of my window and saw a flurry of birds going from one roof to another.  There were the usual starlings, but among them were five robin redbreasts.  They definitely do not belong here this time of year.  Instead of getting the usual song in my heart from the first sighting of the robin redbreast of spring, I am filled with concern.  What are they doing here?  Will they survive?  How can they get worms out of the frozen ground?  Have they been confused by the warming pattern over the last several years?

I know that the robins are out of place here this time of year from a combination of learning and observing over the years what is supposed to be their season in this part of the world.  So too with many things that at one time a place, a practice, a relationship will serve and another will take us away from what is optimal.  As with yoga practice, we learn for ourselves and what is around us, what is optimal when and where, by a combination of study and practice.

There were also a few gulls. We see those around town sometimes because of the tidal basin, but not usually here in my back alley.  Is there some kind of special bird conference going on that I was privileged to witness?

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The Exquisiteness of Order (Winter Theme)

By order, I mean how things are arranged in space or time.  Even chaos theory presumes order in that sense.  On and off the mat, there is a certain order to things that is optimal.  We do not plant seeds and then till the soil.  Or think of the difference between peeling and chopping vegetables and then cooking them or cooking them and then peeling and chopping them.  One or the other is not necessarily wrong if you do not have a specific dish in mind, but which you choose will dictate the results. Once you have gotten started in the sequence, though, the path shifts and is partly set.  To reach an exquisite rather than a disgusting result, the next steps are ordered by the initial choice.

If only one musician is playing a single note, then there is no possibility of discordance.  Add more musicians and more notes and who plays what notes when can mean cacophony, a catchy tune, or an extraordinary and ecstatic work of art.  None of us are alone and none of us are playing just a single note, so in the great fabric of our being, it is best to understand how to make music.

Sequencing on the mat is more subtle than what poses should be done in what order in a particular practice to emphasize backbends v. forward bends and twists to be able to do the strongest poses with the least possibility of injury, as important as that is.  The order in which we apply the Anusara principles not only aligns the physical body, but brings symmetry to the physical and energetic bodies, helping us to feel more in harmony in everything we do on and off the mat.  I am, in this, a decent musician and not Bach, but the more I pay attention to the optimal sequence of things (keeping in mind that over most things we have no control as to when, whether, and how they happen) and the more I learn and appreciate the exquisiteness of order, the more I feel, understand, and experience the subtleties and joys of harmony.

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Ice on the Potomac

A treasured friend and respected colleague who left her body late last week was buried this morning.  The work year started, then, with some colleagues and I leaving the office for a portion of the middle of the day to drive up to the cemtery and offer our love to her family and our good-byes to her physical presence.  On the way back to the office, I noticed that the Potomac has been icing over, which is very unusual.  I also remembered that I had my camera in my pocket.  So I took it out and caught the moment in honor of my friend who would have loved the way the birds were dancing on the ice, in honor of beauty, in honor of the life teeming above and below the apparently still, frozen river.potomac ice

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Sprouts, Orchids, and Arctic Winds

This morning I misted the orchids.  None are blooming right now, but an orange catteleya I received as a gift several years ago is budding, as is my favorite epidendrum, which offers up a host of delicate, greenish, spidery blooms every February. It brightens my day to spend a little time tending the house plants when it is most wintry outside.

I rinsed sprouts.  I have both bean sprouts and a salad mixture going.  I started new batches of sprouts as soon as I returned from NYC.  I was grateful for the offerings at the grocery store, but pine for at least a little something truly fresh.  I’d had a little chard, parsley, and chives that made it through the snow storm.  Much to my surprise, I even managed to salvage enough from the garden to include in an omelet after the ice storm the other morning, but the day-time subfreezing temperatures and icy winds have finished off the outdoor garden until March.  I think I am going to get some burlap and start some micro-greens in addition to salad and bean sprouts.

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The Fisherman and His Nets

dorothy

Earlier this week, I took a wonderful class with my friend J, who is an Anusara teacher based in NYC.  She started class telling a story of a fisherman.  The fisherman had worked hard and long during the spring, summer, and fall and was looking forward to a rest during the winter months.  He left his boat and went ashore, looking for shelter.  He came upon a brightly lit house and was invited in by a friendly host.  He was given a delicious meal and then brought to a beautiful bedroom with a fabulously made, soft bed with exquisitely scented linens.  He got into the bed, but tossed and turned and could not sleep.  Agitated by his inability to sleep, he left the house, went back to his boat, wrapped himself in his fishy-smelling nets and promptly fell sound asleep.

J interpreted the story as saying that our familiar patterns bind us and keep us from discovering and receiving true beauty and bliss.  This interpretation resonated with the students; one called out in a conversation about the quantity of nets we have, that she could alphabetize hers, and we all laughed.  I heard something different in the story, though perhaps it was because I had seen part of The Wizard of Oz when channel-surfing in my hotel room the night before.  What I heard was that when we accept our work and our place, we find a place of true rest.  When the fisherman realized that his place was on his boat — at home with his work, instead of seeking ethereal bliss — then he found peace and true rest (“there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”)

What is missing from the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, though, is that in later books, Dorothy goes back to the land of Oz, bringing her family and work (albeit that of a child) with her.  She, in effect, integrates the importance of prosaic home and work life with being in a land of enchantment.  In that, both interpretations of the story of the fisherman are partly true.  We need not to let our old habits bind us, but we also need not to cast off work, home, and community as things that interfere with our discovering bliss.  Instead, we need to find enchantment in our very being, as we live and work and relate in this world.

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Happy New Year (and vegan Hoppin’ John variant)

Having grown up in the New York metropolitan area without much in the way of traditions of any kind, I was not familiar with Hoppin’ John.  I am fairly certain that the first time I heard of it was from a college friend whose family has been in South Carolina since before the Revolution.  As it is not part of my tradition, I do not feel bound to any particular recipe (I am sure it is sacrilege in some circles to leave out the ham/bacon) or to eating it at any particular time of day (e.g., immediately after the clock strikes 12 midnight).  It would not be Hoppin’ John, though, if I did not know its tradition and know where I was deviating from tradition.  (Though this would entail a much longer blog than is within my time frame today, this balance of freedom from tradition and needing to know and honor tradition is very much an issue for the Western yoga practitioner.)

1.  Soak a cup of dried black-eyed peas for at least several hours or overnight.

2.  Dice one small onion or 1/2 large onion (about a cup), a few celery stalks, including the leaves, and mince a couple of cloves of garlic.

3.  Heat a few tablespoons of a flavorless oil (peanut, corn, or safflower) in a pressure cooker (my preferred method for saving energy and time) or a stock/stew pot.

4.  Saute seasoning vegetables along with a few hot peppers until onion is translucent.  I used the last habanero from my harvest and so left it whole.  You can use fresh or dried chilis in an amount to your taste/tolerance for spiciness.

5.  Stir in a cup of brown rice until rice is coated with oil.

6.  Pour in 1/4-1/2 cup of white wine and stir until absorbed (as if making risotto).  [You could use stock instead.  If you are using white rice, skip this step, which serves to partially cook the brown rice, so that it will take the same amount of time as the black-eyed peas.]

7.  Crumble in some dried thyme (preferably from your own garden) and a bay leaf or two.

8.  Drain and rinse the soaked black-eyed peas and stir into the cooking pot until all ingredients are combined.

9.  Add one 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes and 2 1/2 – 3 cups of vegetable stock or water.  How much liquid depends on (a) whether you want a soupy consistency or one more like pilaf or risotto; (b) how liquid are the tomatoes; (c) whether you are using a pressure cooker (less liquid needed) or cooking in a pot.

10.  If using a pressure cooker, cover and bring to full pressure, then lower heat and cook at full pressure for 28 minutes.  Allow natural pressure release (about 15-20 minutes additional).  If cooking in a regular pot, bring to a boil, stir, then lower heat and cook for an hour or more until rice and peas are tender, stirring occasionally.

11.  While rice and peas are cooking, mince a few cloves of garlic.

12.  Rinse and chop several handfuls of greens (collard or curly kale are best; don’t use spinach or chard, they are too tender).  Heat oil and garlic together.  When garlic start sizzle, add damp greens and saute until greens are wilted and dry.

13.  When rice and peas have finished cooking, stir in sauteed greens and bring back up to full heat.  Adjust seasonings, adding more salt and your favorite hot sauce to taste (or allow guests to add their own hot sauce at the table).

I don’t know whether having eaten this will bring me luck and prosperity, but I’ve started the year with lots of vitamins, minerals, fiber, flavor, and cooking, which for me means health, love, technique, tradition, flexibility, and joy!  Try this, make your own, read all about Hoppin’ John, or call a friend from the South who must eat Hoppin’ John on the New Year and learn about the tradition and what it means.

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Happy New Year (and “Flow Into Grace”)

May your new year and decade be abundant with peace and light.  For locals, please join me tomorrow at Capitol Hill Yoga (suitably mid-afternoon for those who like to revel until the wee hours on the eve) for “Flow Into Grace” a special intention-setting all-levels flow practice, followed by yoga nidra.   Register on line at Capitol Hill Yoga or just come and register in person.  Hope to see and hear from you all soon.

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