Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

Discussion of physical aspects of yoga (on and off the mat)

The Swimming Spot (and Karunabdhe)

swimming To find water deep enough for swimming and fresh enough for drinking in the desert is absolutely exquisite, sweet, refreshment.  It is love, nectar, and bliss all at once.

A half a mile away on foot in certain directions, this swimming spot was invisible.  All that was readily apparent was dry heat and scrub.  Sometimes, we feel similarly separated from inner nurture and support amidst the challenges of the world.  When we are steady with our sadhana (yoga/meditation practice), we will more and more easily find our own inner bathing spot — karunabdhe (ocean of compassion, an aspect of shiva), even as we engage in and encounter the vagaries and tribulations of daily life.  When we know the ocean of compassion is right there in which to bathe whenever we need refreshment, we can engage more fully and with more light and compassion, better to serve and love and delight, whatever difficulties come our way.

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Nilakantha (and personal strength and practice)

It takes incredible strength to take on the sorrows and poisons of others.  How many times have you witnessed someone who is awe-inspiringly dedicated to bringing out change to society, but does so at the expense of his or her own health or intimate relationships?  Have you felt yourself getting worn down by trying to make things better?

The archetype of Nilakantha (who drank up the poison churned up by the devis to save humanity) includes what most of the tales of Shiva tell us:  that Shiva was able to drink the poison and become stronger from the experience because he was already strong from deep, long term practices.

When we ourselves wish to serve, we must serve ourselves also, and perhaps first.  To have the strength and boundaries to ourselves live richly and fully while serving those who are suffering or wreaking destruction without such service destroying ourselves means we must have a practice that enables us to come from a place of light even when going into darkness.  (Doesn’t get much more challenging than that).

To some extent, for modern yogis, this includes a physical practice.  For all yogis, it means a steady practice of meditation and a way of life that aligns with nature.

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Of Course I Have Already Seen Harry Potter (and being open to what comes)

I went on Saturday evening after teaching two classes and a workshop.  I arrived at the 5:20 show of Harry Potter just as the opening credits were rolling, having intentionally missed the ads and the trailers (17 minutes of them by my clock).  After the movie was over, and I was walking to catch the bus home, I overheard a young woman loudly giving a blow by blow to a friend about the ways the movie was unfaithful to the book.

I was raised to think the book was always better.  I read all of the Mary Poppins books (yes, there are several), first seeing Mary Poppins in college.  In the books, Mary Poppins has quite an edge; she is not the saccherine being of the movie.  I’d read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory years before I saw the first movie.  The book is fantastic.  The movie is its own art.  The list could go on.

I’ve taken these days — thank goodness I never did realize the ubiquitous adolescent dream of being a movie critic — to just enjoying movies about books for their own sake, without undue comparison.  (It does help, sometimes, though, to be familiar with the books on which the movie is based, for example:  Cheri).

If it had not been for the yoga practice, I do not know whether I could have reached a stage where I could watch the movie without comparing it to the book after my Woody Allenesque how to watch a movie upbringing.  To be open and fully accepting of what comes takes many forms.  This is just a very small and rather unimportant one.  Having come with no expectation of the movie being faithful to the book, though, gave me a much greater possibility of enjoying it for the bit of summer afternoon entertainment it was.

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Serenity Saturday Today (at Capitol Hill Yoga)

If you are in town today and feeling the need for some R&R, please come join us at Capitol Hill Yoga (scroll down the page, past the Itsy Bitsy workshops, for SS info) today for this month’s Serenity Saturday.

It has been a long work week, and yesterday I though that I’d like to be taking a two hour afternoon restorative workshop myself this weekend.  Last night I gave my self serenity Friday night (not so alliterative).

I’d been feeling a bit testy, and my thoughts were starting to be somewhat all over the place.  I stepped back and thought about all that I’d put into my consciousness in the past couple of weeks: how many work telephone conferences and meetings in which I’d participated, how much the email and other computer communications, how many errands, movies I’d seen, parties I’d gone to, etc.

Diagnosis:  overstimulated.  So instead of going out and getting more stimulated (which can be the immediate reaction to feeling like one wants to get away from work and errand thoughts), I stayed home, cleaned the house, and did a long combination restorative, recumbent, and forward bending practice.  This morning I woke up refreshed and newly receptive, ready to teach all day and share the yoga.

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Nataraja (and dancing blissfully in life)

A work colleague of mine graciously said to me that he did not know how I got through certain meetings without yelling, he did not know if he could do it.  I replied that lots of yoga helped.  “Maybe I should get back to transcendental meditation,” he said, “but I found it did not really help; I should find something, though.”

I said that I tried to think of the challenges at work as just part of the dance that yields such rich abundance for me.  The discussion carried on, and we not only resolved the minor problem that had led to the phone call, but also felt a deeper connection that will make it easier in the future to resolve work issues that we mutually encounter.

What I like best about the myth of Nataraja is that the dance is not for the purpose of creating the world or with any particular design, but for the sheer bliss of dancing — anantatandava.  The dance makes possible both destruction and creation, but it is not its reason.  When we engage in the dance of our own lives, yoga invites us just to dance fully with wonder at the rich diversity of experience.  We make choices and seek to be more aligned, but ultimately we are just dancing.

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Observing Another Storm Pass without Raining (and a moment of truth)

The third front in a row.  It is starting to be a long while not to rain in the summer.  It is a tough gardening year:  extreme drought conditions all winter, overly cool and wet spring, now no rain again.

Watching how the erratic weather patterns are impacting my garden, I am reminded that I am not a purist about gardening or food or my impact on the earth.   As much as I enjoy tending my garden and eating its fruits, there is no hesitation in my mind that if my garden does not produce, I will buy more food at the farmers’ market.  If the pickings are slim at the farmers’ market because of local conditions, I am in no doubt that I will buy food from whatever source, even if I try to make sure it is first local, then humanely picked, then organic.

When I write about gardening and eating and yoga, I am sharing what I enjoy, what makes me feel healthy.  I do not think of myself as trying to set an example.  In some senses, my yoga practice is similarly about what works for me personally and no more.  The yoga teachings are fairly clear that the design and purpose of aligning with the subtle energies, including living in a more peaceful, less destructive way, is for the enlightenment of the individual practitioner and not for “making the world a better place.”  If by seeking to live in a healthier, more aligned, more peaceful and compassionate way ourselves also brings more global benefits, that is a bonus.

Looking at our lives from this perspective could cause discouragement.  I hear this question all the time:  “why should I change what I am doing [consuming/eating/driving]?  My behavior is not going to change the world when there are all of those billions not changing.”  In some senses, looking at shifting our behavior from a completely selfish perspective makes it more accessible and meaningful.  If we see our choices having the possibility of making ourselves healthier, happier, and more at peace with ourselves and the world around us, why would we not want to try to live more consciously?

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Shiva — By Almost Any Name (Summer Session Theme)

This summer, we will be exploring a very few of the names of Shiva and how they can draw us to a better understanding of ourselves on and off the mat.

According to the sources, Shiva has either 108 names or 1,000.  Each name has a different meaning.  All of the meanings point to aspects of our own being that are worthy of contemplation.  Some aspects will resonate more deeply for us.  Some less so.

For me, besides my almost childlike delight in of lists, words, and myths, contemplating the various aspects is of deep usefulness in exploring my understanding of myself on and off the mat.  The various names describe different aspects  human nature and how we relate to others and the earth.

The multiplicity of the names also highlights that each of us names and experiences spirituality in a unique way and should have the freedom to do so.  (As an aside, I think this multiplicity of forms of worship could be seen as a kind of rebellion within a rigid system of religious laws, but that is a whole other set of thoughts).

In using these forms of meditation as part of our yoga practice or otherwise, whether we meditate on highly abstract notion of “Shiva” representing the auspicious nature of all beings or on one of the names that points to individual aspects of personality, contemplation on any aspect or name can be used to deepen our relation to our best self so that we can be more aligned with our world inside and out.

For class this summer, we obviously cannot get to more than a very few.  Feel free to send to me your suggestions about names to highlight.

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Personal History (and Samskara and Opening to Grace)

A samskara is generally defined as an impression left in us by a past action or experience.  I found myself thinking about the process of samskara yesterday, when I went with long time friends of my family to watch their son taking class at the summer program at the Kirov Academy of Ballet.

I have not watched a ballet class (except on the occasional film) since I was actively studying ballet as a teenager and young adult.  I have long been conscious of how ballet imprinted my body image and way of looking at myself, but have not found a space before where I was able to look at this aspect of my history with fresh eyes.

What was different yesterday, was that I was observing with openness.  I was sitting with people I have known all my life, sharing their warmth, love, and parental pride for their son, rather than concentrating on my own history.  It brought back memories, but not in the same way that sitting by myself or with a girlfriend, watching a documentary has done.

In this open state of reflection, I witnessed something that I knew at some level, but had not given much thought to before:  how much having taken thousands of hours of ballet class has informed the way I teach.  My tendency in my own practice and in my teaching to see the details of  alignment and to try asanas repeatedly until it seems that I or my students have experienced the alignment in the most optimal way for the day is straight out of my experience in ballet class.

Softening and witnessing instead of feeling or judging from past experience gives the possibility of shifting from samskaras, even ones that are very deeply etched into body and mind.  Being with my friends yesterday, of course, gave me the joy of seeing the spectacular dancing of these young men and the delight of connection.  It also gave me the unexpected gift of a moment of understanding how the Anusara principle of “opening to grace” allows us to shift.  When we are open, nonjudging witness consciousness  (an aspect of “opening to grace”), that is when we have the possibility with each thing we repeat, to experience it new without being bound by our samskaras.

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Prana+Yama or Prana+Ayama (and Global Climate Change)

The other day a friend commented that it seemed that a major contributor to global climate change is how we have set out to control our environment instead of aligning with it (my paraphrase).  So much, he said, of what contributes to global climate change is how we heat and cool and light our homes and work places.  For example, instead of honoring the change of seasons, we overcool in summer and overheat in winter, so that we can wear the same clothes and eat the same foods year round in apparent comfort.

This comment resonated with me deeply.  It brought to mind what I have been taught about possible approaches to pranayama — the yoga practice of conscious breathing.  Pranayama usually as translated as breath control or restraint.  This assumes that the conjunction in sanskrit is of the two words “prana” and “yama.”  Prana here refers to the subtle energy of the life force in general, which we can understand best through the breath.  Yama means restraint.  If, however, we think of pranayama as the conjunction of “prana” and “ayama,” which is a reasonable way of looking at the way the word is formed, we can understood pranayama to be the practice of expansion or alignment with prana.

When we seek with our yoga breathing practices on the mat or with our technology and lifestyles off the mat to restrain and control nature at the expense of listening and understanding, we will be at war with ourselves and the earth.  If, however, we seek to align better with nature on and off the mat, to expand and enhance our relationship with the life force, rather than to restrain and control nature, we will expand our awareness of the subtle forces of the earth and live in a more life-affirming way.

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Choices, A Cardinal in the Grapes, and Viveka

This morning while I was out in the garden, I heard a chirping right above my head.  Within arm’s reach was a bright red male cardinal perched among the grapes effusively talking.  (I planted a tiny red, concord grape vine about six years ago, and it has flourished beyond my wildest dreams).

There were enough ripe grapes for me to pick a handful for myself.  I have bird netting, but I have not put it over the grapes.  They did not do so well this year, many turning brown prematurely because, I think, of the drought-ridden winter followed by the extra wet and cool spring.  I am grateful that I will not be dependent on these grapes as food for myself to survive through next winter (I’m pretty sure; if not, I have bigger things to worry about).

For the joy of having the birds come visit so fearlessly and delightedly, and because the grapes are not fantastic to eat, I leave all, but those I get by the small handful a couple of mornings a week for a few weeks, to the birds.  Maybe next year I will net the grapes, but then I’ll have to have a canning party to make jam.  In the meantime, I’ll marvel that every bird in DC seems to know when my grapes ripen.

We make decisions like this all the time.  With how we shop, what we eat, what work we choose, how we travel, we are making decisions about habitat and environment for ourselves and hosts of other beings.

In yoga, the process of ever refining our understanding so that we can be more in touch with how we act impacts our life force and our relationship with all around us, is viveka, or discrimination.   Just as the more we practice on the mat, the more we develop awareness of what leads us to feel more in tune and more celebratory of life, so too, we want to use that yoga refinement and discrimination to inform our acts off the mat.

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