About a week ago, maybe even a little earlier in the month, daylight savings time started feeling artificial. My body started insisting on sleeping nearly an hour later, and I found that I wasn’t really using the hour of light at the end of the day. It was time to go inside and cook or read or otherwise move inward. When we change the clocks this weekend, I will already have shifted, and the clock will feel as natural as living by a clock can feel. Part of the refinement of a deeper yoga practice is learning to pay attention to such subtleties, to learn what is most optimal and when, both time of day and time of year. This applies to asana practice (i.e., when to emphasize forward bending v. backbending),what we eat and how much, and what kind of activities we choose.
When I was meditating this morning, the last lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on A Grecian Urn’ welled up in my thoughts: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” How odd, I thought, for this to appear, as if out of nowhere. I have been contemplating this week on what it means to be refined, but not in the way of an aesthete. Rather, as I have been concentrating on the Anusara alignment principle of “ankle loop,” I have been thinking about how deepening our practice with repeated exploration and study we are able to refine our understanding and the flow of energy within us so that we can be more connected to ourselves and each other.
As I understand the essential structure of the Anusara principles, the “loops” are really tertiary principles. The primary principles are those of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which are the principles of how we practice. The secondary principles are the fundamental physical and energetic principles — “opening to grace, muscular energy, inner/expanding spiral, outer/contracting spiral, organic energy.” The loops serve to refine the secondary principles. Ankle loop, for example, which starts at the base of the shin bone, travels down the back of the heel and then back up through the arch, energizes the foot, lifts the arch, supports our stance and helps us focus muscular energy. When we are feeling challenged finding as much muscular energy in our feet and legs as would be optimal for a full expression of the pose, we can use ankle loop to refine our understanding and practice of muscular energy in the legs. Keeping in mind the primary principles of practice, though, the refinements should also always lead us towards the heart and not just get us into details. Getting more sophisticated and refined, likewise should not lead us to disdain for that which is unrefined.
Funny, then, that the aesthete’s call to beauty should arise in my meditation while I have been consciously thinking about refinement. What does it mean to appreciate and study refinements, but still honor and delight in a novice’s full expression of “attitude, alignment, and action” as much as an impeccably aligned and skillful pose that does not reveal a yearning for spirit? Beauty may be truth, and truth beauty, but what is “beauty?”
One of my favorite fairy tales is the one about the traveler who teaches the old woman how to make “nail soup.” It is a cold, wintry night in the forest, and a traveler comes upon a hut. He knocks on the door and asks for shelter. The old woman who lives in the hut says he can sleep in the shed, but she cannot give him any food. The traveler thanks her for providing shelter. He says he does not need food, but if she lets him in by the fire, he will show her how to make soup from a nail. The woman, who is rather miserly, is excited by the idea of being able to make soup from a nail, so she lets him in and puts a big soup pot filled with snow to melt over the fire. The traveler puts the nail in the soup and says, “what a wonderful broth we will have from this nail. If we only had a potato or two, it would be even better.” The woman roots around in her hoard and puts a potato in the pot. “Now it will be even more wonderful,” said the traveler. “If we only had an onion to add, it would be the most savory soup you have ever tasted.” The woman goes to her winter stores and finds an onion. The traveler sniffs the soup, “mmm, how wonderful it smells, if we had a carrot or a parsnip, it would be gracious enough for any guest.” The woman, trembling with the excitement of creating soup from a nail, adds both a carrot and a parsnip. At this point, the broth is starting to take on thickness and color, and the hut is redolent of bubbling hot vegetable soup. “Oh for some salt and a little meat,” cried the man, “and this soup would truly be fit for a king.” “From only a nail, soup fit for a king!” exclaimed the old woman, “that I must have.” She added a precious pinch of salt and some meat dried to last through the winter. The soup, of course, was delicious, the traveler well-fed, and the woman happy to share (even if she was tricked).
Sometimes we need a reminder of our abundance, both inner and outer, to be invited to bring out all we have so that we can better serve. Just as the traveler with the nail reminded the isolated old woman of how to share her abundance, sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we have rather than what we are missing. I find that when I am feeling more empty than full, coming to my mat and my meditation cushion and practicing gratitude quickly helps me remember.
From late September through the first week when there either are two or more nights forecast to below 38F or one night below 35F, I assiduously watch the 15-day weather forecast to determine when to bring in my tropical plants (orchids, bromiliads, a night-blooming jasmine plant (now 8 years old), a bay tree in a 24 inch pot (now 12 years old)). I also bring in the lemon grass and lemon balm I have in containers so that they can be the perennials they would be in a warm climate; here, left outside, they are annuals.
When I first had a few orchids — over 10 years ago now — as soon as there was a hint of cold weather (below 45F) I rushed the plants inside, believing that if they were tropical, they needed to be inside. In one of the early years, the first night below 40F was in late September. The plants really suffered from a full seven months inside. I have since learned (by studying and personal observation) two things about my tropical plants. The first is that they are a lot happier outside than inside (when inside is not a properly humid, sunny greenhouse). The second is that they like cold weather as long as it is not near or below freezing. They especially like cold rains like we had the other weekend. The stress of a few weeks of nights in the 40sF, in fact, seem to help the orchids bloom. Now, by waiting until the last possible minute, and bringing them out as soon as it seems like the danger of last frost (for my backyard, which is very early) has passed, the orchids are outside at least seven months of the year.
Thinking about how the orchids flourish with the stress of some chill, but not too much, reminds me of what my teacher John Friend talks about in yoga practice of the difference between stress and distress. Some stress actually strengthens us. This is why one of the best ways to avoid or at least slow the process of osteoporous (according to the general medical literature to I’ve read) advocates weight-bearing exercise. Putting weight, i.e., stress, on our bones and muscles strengthens them. Too much, too fast, however, will injure our muscles and bones.
So, especially for those of us with injuries (prior or current) or physical challenges such as arthritis, it is optimal to exercise, to seek our edge, to put ourselves under stress, mindfully and intentionally. We need to be aware, though, of the subtlety of the edge between stress and distress so that we are strengthened not injured, just as exposing the orchids to some fall weather invites them to bloom, but actual freezing or near-freezing temperatures will harm or kill them.
Gopi Krishna, in this book The Awakening of Kundalini, writes: “Yoga exercises can also be directed toward worldly objectives. There are exercises that are conducive to the health and efficiency of the mind, others that lead to psychic gifts, and still others that strengthen the will and improve the ability to deal with problems. However, no single achievement of this kind — or even several of them taken together — is Yoga.” He continues to state that “Yoga is a transhuman state of mind attained by means of the cumulative effect of all practices combined, carried on for years, and supplemented by grace.” Other texts say enlightenment comes to some just by “grace” with no need for the yoga practices. Others need various amounts and types of practices.
Me, I have no idea what is a “transhuman state of mind” but I want for myself and those around me being healthier and stronger, with an improved ability to deal with problems. (Imagine, for example, those gifts applied in the context of providing universal health care, while simultaneously educated and shifting our society to a healthier way of living). I don’t think anyone can judge or determine whether one’s self or someone else is truly enlightened or can lead others to enlightenment (whatever that means). But I am certain from my own experience that yoga helps me to be more grounded, more centered, more intentional, stronger, and healthier. Thus served by steady practice, I am more content and find it easier to be kind. I’ll take that for now.
The 17th sutra is “madhya vikasha cittananda labhah,” which is translated by Swami Shantananda as “the bliss of Consciousness is attained through expansion of the center.”
Madyama, in our physical embodiment is the central channel, the sushumna nadi that runs vertically in the space of the spine. One of the key actions of Anusara’s organic energy is expansion from the midline. It is, in its essence, using the body to physically explore the bliss that comes from the expansion from the center.
If we can get bliss just from expanding, then why would we first draw in? In applying the Anusara principles, we use muscular energy first. We hug into our core before reaching out. This parallels the yoga texts. If, for example, one already embodies the perfect bliss of consciousness, one doesn’t need to study the sutras or to practice yoga, one would just live from that place of perfect bliss.
The way I think about it in terms of the Anusara principles, if one were perfectly open to grace and lived being fully open to and expressive of grace, there would be no need to explore, learn, or study any of the other principles. That’s a rare being though. Most of us, and definitely me, need practice to discover and embody even a glimpse of perfect bliss and grace. So the expansion from the center comes after consciously softening and opening, after intentionally drawing in to strengthen and embrace, after making with discrimination further expansion, and after drawing in to contentrate mind and body with honed intensity. With ever more refinement and practice, we then can experience and make offering a deeper bliss when we expand from our center.
There is a specific sequence to the major Anusara alignment principles even though ultimately we are doing all of the alignment principles simultaneously. “Organic energy,” the action of reaching out and making offering is the fifth of the physical principles. We do not reach out until we have softened and listened (opened to grace), intentionally drawn in with nurturing, focused embrace (muscular energy), expanded with discrimination (inner or expanding spiral), and drawn in again with discrimination and awareness to concentrate the energy (contracting or outer spiral). We do, in fact, need to be aware and open, to be nurtured, and to study and expand with refinement, to enhance our ability to make offering and to serve in the most optimal way. So we take care of ourselves and draw inward as much as we reach out to keep ourselves in balance.
Once we have taken care of ourselves, though, it has been my experience that without reaching out, there is no true strength or meaning in either a yoga pose or in life. Organic energy as a physical principle is expanding from bone to muscle to skin, expanding outward from the midline, and reaching from the core to the periphery. How I experience organic energy at its most supporting is a true reaching out, an offering of the energy created and refined by the other practices.
What is the point of a self-embrace or personal enlightenment if it is not used to serve, to offer the love and wisdom cultivated by the practice? Organic energy is what changes yoga (on and off the mat) from being enjoyable “navel gazing” and being a source of power that helps us brighten and shift not only ourselves, but our relationships and all around us.
My friend D the other week had been talking about how much longer every thing takes to get done in a new city and home (he just moved across country). I was thinking about that as I work to get up to speed on the replacement computer that came into my house yesterday afternoon. I can tell there is lots of extra functionality, but at first, I am slower than I was with my old computer (at least five generations old) because I need to learn some new commands and navigation tools, as well as recreate my old bookmarks and remembered passwords, etc.
To be able to cope with life, we need to be willing to go out and explore, try new things, to be willing to have the time and struggle to learn enough to feel comfortable with a new place or technique. To mature gracefully, we need to sometimes stay with the old (whatever choices led us there) and continue to refine so that we can go deeper and deeper into knowledge of what we have chosen.
Sometimes we have a real choice, sometimes we have no choice, sometimes we have an apparent choice, but only one sensible one. One of the beauties of steady yoga practice is that it prepares us both for the new and for repetition. It truly shows us the beauty and delight of revisiting, reexploring, and ever deepening our understanding of the complexities of what appears simple. It also cultivates the fortitude and openness to start anew when necessary.
When it gets cold and rainy, there is little I enjoy more than a good, warm restorative yoga practice. If you live in town, come join me this Saturday at Capitol Hill Yoga for this month’s Serenity Saturday workshop. I’ll be bringing out all of the blankets.
I took this picture the other day when I was walking to work. I have seen TV cameras set up at this spot dozens of times to film news interviews. I have seen tourists galore photographing each other. I’ve seen a couple of photo shoots of brides and grooms dressed in their wedding clothes. I’ve seen the fountain full of ducks or gulls. I’ve seen it empty of water, with rain pelting on it to eliminate any reflection, in a blizzard, iced over, full of algae, as a play spot for dogs who like to swim, in fog, in beating down sun, with cherry blossoms floating on the water, and with waves from a strong wind. Although (or more likely because) I’ve walked past this view hundreds of times in the 25 years I have lived on Capitol Hill and the 18 I have worked for the Department of Labor, I have never taken out my camera and photographed this incredibly photogenic spot.
When I took the photograph on this day when the reflection just happened to be perfect, it led me to see the spot the way tourists see it: full of freshness and wonder, beauty, and excitement to be in this place that represents a certain mind-blowing type of power. Reflecting on the act of taking the photo from my perspective as a resident, led me to think about the Anusara alignment principle of “opening to grace.”
One of the many aspects of “opening to grace” is having a “beginner’s mind.” What does it mean to have a beginner’s mind on or off the mat? I think it means being open to new insight, to a sense of joyous discovery, to a feeling of fresh intoxication and wonder, no matter how many times we have done or seen something before. How many times have you done lunge or downward facing dog? Eaten a green bean or a potato chip? Petted a dog? Turned on a light switch? Filled a glass with potable water out of the tap? If it is the “same old, same old,” then you will lose the desire to practice and the possibility of growing. But most of what we do, especially as we get older, is a repeat of something we have done before. Grasping at new experience as a cure for boredom or jadedness will only make us unhappy. If we can see each day with newly opened eyes, then we can find fulfillment in each moment and be better able to grow. We will be open to ever deepening refinement and exploration within the space of our existence.