Asana, Pranayama, and Yoga Practice

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

An Unplanned Break from Air Conditioning (and Yogic Physical and Emotional Equilibrium)

I came home last night from my cousin’s funeral to discover that the temperature in the house was 83F (it is now up to 86F). The air conditioning system, which had been serviced last week, is now not working at all. The repair person is not scheduled to return until Friday afternoon, and the forecast is for blazing heat. I have two choices: (1) I can get into a dither about whether the work last week in fact broke the system and get stuck in suffering from the heat; (2) I can be grateful that I have electricity, which is giving me ice and fans. I can wear comfortable clothing, eat lightly, and do yoga practices suitable for the heat.

I am choosing the latter (I am not long from the period of years when being too hot on an irregular, but consistent basis is both inevitable and beyond my control, so this will be good practice). I may not be able to control the heat, but I can, to some degree, control my reaction. Part of controlling the reaction is just accepting the situation with equanimity and grace, so that my mind and emotions do not get heated. One of the reasons we do strenuous and challenging poses on the mat is so that we can get progressively more skilled at feeling comfortable with where we are, even when mind and body are taken out of our comfort zone by forces beyond our control.

By keeping my reaction cool, I actually physically am noticing the heat less. As I will not be able to cool off much after practice, I will be choosing practices that are still and inward and take advantage of how warm are my muscles, rather than engaging in exertion that will make it hard for me to get cool afterward. Balanced and cooling breathing practices, meditating on stillness, and sweet hip openers and forward bends are definitely in the picture.

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A Flood of Memories (and Luminous Spaciouness)

I returned home yesterday from teaching my Willow Street classes and having a late lunch with a friend to a message on my answering machine from my mother advising me that a cousin had died. Although I was not close to my cousin, her parents, my great Aunt and Uncle, were a significant part of my formative years.

As I made telephone calls and sent emails to get coverage for work meetings on Monday and care for the cats so that I could leave for New York, I found myself flooded with long-ago memories of my cousin, my family, and myself. I could also hear and feel old patterns surfacing, as they tend to do in such situations.

In counterpoise to the tumble of memory, I felt a strong pull to go into the space of meditation.

In the spaciousness, I no longer feel trapped by the inevitable consequences from the events giving rise to all those memories that have partly shaped my path. The light of consciousness itself, as the ground of the play and the illumination of inner space, begins to reveal the links and sequnces of the memories, the cause and effect, thus allowing me to see other ways to react. Instead of remaining entangled by trying to dismiss or reject or cling to any part of my history, I could see shapes, sequences, and opportunities.

At lunch, one of the things my friend and I had been discussing was the idea of bringing into “luminous spaciousness” our relationships. John Friend had invited us to think about that concept at the Teachers’ Gathering last month, and I have been contemplating the practice in a variety of contexts and discussing with fellow Anusara yogis what it would mean to them to bring luminous wisdom to relationship by seeking to create the true spaciousness we can find in our practice of yoga and meditation. I had talked about it previously with the friend with whom I lunched yesterday. She asked, “where was your blog entry on luminous spaciousness; I’d been looking forward to it.” “I haven’t found the right context for describing it that would convey what I think it means for my practice,” I’d replied. When I came home to my mother’s message, because I had been continuing both the contemplation and the dialogue, I was focused on the practice when I found myself in a situation where I really needed it. (Great reminder of the need for a steady practice).

I am now on the Long Island Railroad, heading to my parents’ house. Tomorrow we will go back into the City for the memorial service.

As I allow my thoughts to be stirred up–giving myself space, as it were to have natural mind processes–I seek space and light for myself in my relationship with my family to try and foster more love and clarity.

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Not just freedom from

Paul Muller-Ortega, who is offering a meditation and philosophy workshop at Willow Street Yoga Center this weekend, says that sadhana (yoga practice, incuding meditation), doesn’t just give us “freedom from, but also freedom to.”

The “freedom from” is freedom from suffering. The freedom to” is freedom to move towards light and blissfulness.

When we first come to the yoga mat or meditation cushion, we are usually coming to discover the “freedom from” we have heard about — perhaps relief from aches and pains or disease, perhaps weight loss or improved body image, perhaps lowering anxiety or easing depression. We discover, when we start practicing, that even if we do not get “freedom from” exactly as hoped within a limited view, that discovery of the “freedom to” itself provides a “freedom from” by making that from which we seek freedom less prevailing as the focus of our being.

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Stringing Baby Seed Pearls (and “Opening to Grace”)

Last night I sat down at my kitchen table to string baby seed pearls for a mother-of-pearl charm I had gotten from Manoj a few years ago.

When I took the pearles off of the thread they came on and put them on my jeweler’s mat, several challenges were revealed:  even with the lights on bright and my reading glasses, it was almost impossible to see the bead hole; if I touched the wire other than on the hole, the pearl bounced; if I tried to hold the pearl still, the hold was obscured by my fingernail. Using a needle was not a viable option because the holes were too small for a wire-threaded needle.

At this point, since I was doing this after a long and frustrating day at the office, the tendency was to get more frustrated. Should I just give away the pearls? Get stronger glasses or a loupe? Try to return them?

Instead I softened. There was no mandate I get the pearls strung. I was doing this solely for enjoyment.

In softening, I discovered — to mix philosophical underpinnings — the zen of baby seed pearl stringing. If I grouped a bunch of pearls together, not only was it easier to see holes in certain pearls, but the others around it held the pearl in place for the wire to pierce the pearl. By softening, it occurred to me to use the technique of cutting the wire on a bias (and repeating it every several pearls strung), which gave me a smaller, sharper point, making the threading much easier. Most important, though, I stopped trying so hard. I let the wire and each pearl meet each other instead of my trying to force the meeting. When I did that, the openings were revealed, and I entered a quiet and serene meditative state during which the project completed itself through my agency.

It is for discovering, experiencing, and always being able to engage this essential and blissful merging of being and acting that I meditate and practice asana. We practice the Anusara principle “opening to grace” so that we can experience grace itself (whatever grace means to you) doing our acting, both on the mat and off.  As such, “opening to grace” is both the primary and ultimate activator of this merged state of being that is yoga--union..

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An Environmental Perspective on Yoga

Every once and a while, I poll my students and ask them whether they find that they need less medication and medical intervention (testing and other procedures) than before they were regularly practicing yoga.  Students uniformly advise that they take painkillers less frequently.  Some students say they need lesser amounts or have been taken off other medications by their doctors.  Others note better sleep, less frequent colds, flu, or other common contagious illnesses.  Others have stated they have avoided recommended surgery by working hard to shift their alignment.  I personally have experienced great improvements in physical and emotional health from my steady practice, which has led to my doctor of 15 years agreeing that I need less medicine (note:  I am not advocating none) and testing. I think my making the commitment to practice to minimize health care consumption as one of the ways I personally take care of the environment.

No matter what it is we are making, consuming, and disposing, and how we are doing those things, the four R’s of consumption to benefit the environment (refuse [i.e., don’t use], reuse, repurpose, recycle), start with not using things in the first place so that we do not have the environmental degradation of manufacturing and ultimate disposal.   We do not usually think about this in the context of medical treatment because we want to be out of pain and illness and for the most part, think of medical treatment as a fundamental right.

At an individual level, lots of people would rather just take a pill (or even have surgery) than have to make a consistent change in behavior, physical activity, and diet.  There are also times when western medical treatment is the only effective treatment, and we are very fortunate to have it available.  Some people are not in a position in society to make a shift easily in this regard or to understand what it means.  But for those of us in the know, prevention not just of illness, but of medical consumption, by exercising, meditating, practicing therapeutic yoga, and shifting our diet, is a wonderful way we can personally seek to limit our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce our personal waste output.  In addition to eliminating the need to have the supplies manufactured, it will also keep medications that have passed through your body from reentering the water and food supply (which in turn has its own detrimental health impacts to society and to the environment).

Has the practice of yoga changed you as a consumer of health care?  Have you ever considered the relationship between being a consumer of health care and your environmental impact?

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The Svadharma of the Pinky Toe (and Radical Affirmation)

Svadharma, from sva (self) and dharma (duty) means our personal path, duty, calling, or place.  The principle of svadharma is a significant teaching in various yoga texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, especially emphasizing the importance in acting in accordance with one’s caste (for example, Arjuna needing to act in accordance with his dharma as a warrior) or one’s sex (consider Sita’s role in the Ramayana).

Extrapolating this teaching and taking it onto the mat, during one of the practice sessions the previous week at the Certified Teachers’ Gathering, John Friend said that “every part of the the body has its own svadharma to increase the pranic flow.”  He then said that if you just took a photo of the feet of an Anusara yoga practitioner in any pose, you should be able to see that the whole body was fully engaged and active.  John Friend’s teaching here was not just using the yoga philosophy as a catalyst to better understand the body.  By using the principle to illuminate the practice, the practice reflectively illuminated the principle itself, without denying or denigrating its original context or getting bogged down in its historical baggage of perpetuating the caste system and demarcated, subservient roles for women.

Thinking about the svadharma of the pinky toe has no such baggage.  The pinky toes are homely looking things, they do not fit well into most women’s shoes, they rather painfully bump into things, and they are hard to move independently.  They are not essential for living and do not have the emotional charge of the heart and brain, the exquisite connection to the world of the sense organs, or the connection to life itself of the lungs.  Despite this, the call to lift and spread the toes, to draw the pinky toe toward the heel, or the hip happens just about every time I go to the mat in my practice or teach a class.  Activating the pinky toe by opening it and spreading it apart from the other toes is a conscious act of opening that helps hug the shins to the midline.  In hugging the shins in by means of activating the pinky toe, the yogi on the mat can then safely move the thighs back and apart, creating an expansion of the pelvic floor that provides room for more strongly tucking under the tailbone to access core power.  The pinky toe thus is an important part of our practice, even if we could manage to get by without it.

But the svadharma of the pinky toe on the mat is not just to be able to help us access the movement of “shins in” so that we can better do “thighs out,” although that is an important physical part of its essence.  The toe does not move on its own.  We have to start by bringing our awareness and consciousness to the toe.  Part of the pinky toe’s svadharma, then, is to invite the infusion of consciousness to show how full participation of even an apparently insignificant part of the body can lead us to a better understanding and personal experience of the pulsation between reaching out and hugging in and affirming ourselves.   By intentionally bringing our awareness to the power we can unleash in the pose by the movement of the pinky toe, we bring the opportunity for greater strength, expansion, and flow of energies.  This is why, I think, John Friend suggested that by just seeing the toes we should be able to know the engagement of the whole body and mind in a particular pose.

As a practical and therapeutic matter, recognizing and bringing into play the svadharma of each and every part of the body serves to help us increase the flow of energy and expand our range of movement.  In addition, activating the parts of the body that are inclined to slack (for example, the pinky toe or the adductor and abdominal muscles) will bring ease to the muscles that tend to overwork to compensate, such as the neck and low back muscles.  We are not just stronger and more flexible when every part of the body does fulfills its svadharma, but we eliminate much pain and suffering.  (More to come on this particular concept in other posts.)

Off the mat, when all parts of the whole are fully conscious of and know their svadharma, the whole will itself have more consciousness, more light, and better experience the bliss of being.  It is easy to see, without judgment or question, that the pinky toe cannot do the work of the heart, although when the pinky toe is working it can help contribute to an integration of mind and body that will further the opening of the heart and thus the whole person.  Finding our svadharma as a whole person within society does not have to be about conforming to preconceived social norms that no longer serve.  The better we are able to understand where we are in time, space, and the interconnected web of being, though, the more fully we can participate in leading society itself to a more conscious and light-filled place, just as bringing our conscious awareness to the actions of the pinky toe can do the same for us as individual yogis on the mat.  When we recognize and live out our true svadharma as such, we radically affirm ourselves, the community, and the very essence of all being.

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Track Work on the Red Line

I am writing this post as I sit on the Metro platform at Takoma, waiting for a train back to Union Station. There were already dozens of people waiting when I got here. I have been here for ten minutes or so, and there is no time posted on the board yet for the next train.

Some people are talking on their phones or socializing with each other. Some are pacing back and forth. Some look resigned. Some are going into tirades about the problems with Metro. Some are reading and have made themselves more or less at home where they are.

I sit cross-legged, basking in the sun, blogging for now, and if time permits also in my journal. I could be angry or impatient or annoyed, but it would not get me home any sooner. So I just find enjoyment of the waiting time with the materials at hand.

Although there are circumstances where physical pain or suffering cannot be avoided, yoga can help us find a greater sense of equanimity when we are challenged. As John Friend reminded us this week in a different context, “in a large part, it will be seen that the suffering is optional.”

I now approach Union Station. Perhaps when I get home I will supplement this post with appropriate citations to Patanjali. Or maybe I will play with the cats and pick some grrens from the garden for dinner.

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Blogging by Blackberry (after thoughts on discipline and freedom)

When I pause to think about it–something I try to do consistently with the fruits of technology–it is an extraordinary marvel that I can be telling stories to the world from a little device I am holding in my hand, one that also has let me speak and exchange notes while I am away from home with friends, colleagues, and business connections.

What I cannot do (more likely because I haven’t yet learned how than it is not possible) is to be my usual careful self when posting entries. I have not done hyperlinks to attrbute my sources, nor have I spell-checked. At home, I would not hit the “publish” button without doing those things.

Under the circumstances of being away from my regular computer, my library, the ability to check my references, and to provide proper citation, but being brimful with enthusiasm for being with my teachers, colleagues, friends, and the practices while I am at the teachers’ gathering, it seems better to post than not, using the means at hand. I sacrifice some of my usual discipline to share the joy.

All of life is like that. We may have ideals of what is proper, what are our standards for appearance, for work, for sharing a meal or our homes. When circumstances limit our ability to meet our own standards, it is part of the yoga to see whether the standards are binding us or serving to help us better connect. I believe that we should always strive to be more precise, more technically accomplished, better able to convey a sense of grace and beauty. But that effort should not cut us off, bring us to a halt, disempower us, prevent accomplishment of things. Most of all, it should not deaden a sense of spontaneity of gesture–the part of art and relationship that reveals our true spark.

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Intention, Discipline, and Freedom

One of the primary themes at the Anusara certified teachers’ gathering this week with John Friend has been how discipline and technique serve our yoga. In keeping with the elemental Anusara principles of “attitude, alignment, and action” (iccha, jnana, kriya), the point has not been to emphasize rules for the sake of rules, form over substance, or technique for its own sake. Mastering technique, by itself, will not bring us to the ultimate intentions of yoga: living liberated (jivamukti), experiencing the very wonder, bliss, and dance of being.

But just playing or seeking freedom for its own sake, while we are embodied in human form, will not likely lead us to the most expansive and steady experience of ultimate freedom (svatantra). It is discipline and technique with the constant remembrance of the reaon for being disciplined about how we practice and live that will take us further on the path.

It can be nice, for example to go to a class where there is little emphasis on form, and the call is just to flow and feel. For me, though, because of my physical limitations (degeneration in my spine, old groin injury, etc–these do not define my being; they just inform how I practice), I feel far freer and more able to expand how much I can play the more attention I give to the physical alignment. In such a situation, the rigorous attention to detail is not for the sake of an external idea of what is right and what is wrong. Rather, it is the constant disciplined attention to alignment that frees me to play as free from injury, pain, and fear of injury as is possible in my body.

The discipline then becomes a way of self-affirmation. It is the limitations that lead me to have to focus more on technique than if I did not have the limitations. That attention then provides a ground for a more expansive practice and a deeper appreciation for the beauty of what the practice can offer.

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