I woke this morning with an intense awareness of a friend who left his body several years ago. That he and others who are no longer physically present in my life are so very much a part of my present consciousness leads me to a fuller awareness of the dance of life and consciousness. Nataraja.
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.
Ayurveda says one should only eat “fresh” food. What does that mean? How does that translate into having delicious food making the best use of every bit of it without waste and without having all of our time being devoted to creating it (from start to finish). Is making a fresh dish from a food item from yesterday’s meal “stale” food? I don’t think so, but then, I am not an ayurvedic practitioner. I am fairly certain it is less “stale” than “fast” or packaged food. And I am too much the New York grandchild of peasant immigrants to forego making the most optimal and complete use of all the food that enters my kitchen. Also, the simple efficiency of leftovers are too important a component of having the most personally and lovingly prepared food I can with my life style.
Here are some of my favorite ways to eat bread the day after it was a fresh accompaniment to a salad, sandwich, or larger, festive meal. (Obviously, this is not for all of those who cannot or do not like to eat bread, which I think of as indeed the staff of life.) Here are some of my favorites, not in any particular order:
Crostini/Bruschetta (topped with tapenade, salsa, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, etc.)
Bread salad (with the best of the summer tomatoes and fresh basil)
Croutons (for salad or soup, my favorite is rubbed with a little garlic)
Red pepper spread with pomegranate molasses and walnuts (bread is the thickener)
Skordalia (also can be made with potatoes or a mix of bread and potatoes)
Stuffing for squash
Bread crumbs for a whole variety of things
Savory bread pudding
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?
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.
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.
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.
A yoga teacher acquaintance once said rather dogmatically to me that it was not possible to be a true yoga teacher unless one had a guru. He meant having a guru in the traditional sense — being devoted to a particular person as the embodiment of the divine and of the true teachings. I did not engage on the issue, thinking (perhaps unfairly) that he would not listen to another point of view.
I do not have a guru in the technical sense. It would be unlikely. I was raised attending unprogrammed meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers), where services are premised on the idea that there should be no preacher or minister because the light of the spirit shines equally in all and that each person is equally able to connect through his or her own faith and practice to the spirit. My first major exposure to the teachings of yoga was through the writings of J. Krishnamurti, which a teacher in an alternative program in high school I attended gave us to read, along with the classic yoga texts. Krishnamurti believed that all change comes from within and eschewed devotion to a guru.
Although I do not have a particular guru to whom I give my devotion (bhakti), I strive to honor and recognize that our true teacher is the light and spirit that is within all beings. The first line of the Anusara invocation — om namah shivaya gurave — resounds with truth for me.
On this guru purnima, the full moon of July, I honor the teachings that have so shifted my life, my teachers, especially John Friend and Suzie Hurley, and all of my students and friends, who shine with light always, and who inspire me to try each day to live more aligned with the ideals of yoga.
Just wanted to let you know that the last two newsletters I’ve sent have had significantly more returned mail than usual. If you have changed your email since you first subscribed and you wish to continue to receive occasional e-mailings about workshops and other happenings, please go to the website and re-subscribe.
I am also getting returns from a few regulars. Please check your spam settings (especially if you are an AOL or Gmail user) and make sure to add my e-mail to your address book. If you haven’t gotten the July newsletter I sent today and wish to receive it, please email me directly at email@example.com, and I will forward it to you.
I remind myself that I would not have these minor tribulations without having the joys of technology. I think it is worth it.
The boy in the blue shirt and his friend stopped me as I was going into my yard, “happy 4th of July,” they said. “Happy holiday to you,” I responded.
“Do you like fireworks?” the boy in blue asked. “I like the pretty ones on the Mall,” I replied, “but I don’t like the loud, smoky ones on the street. I find them too noisy, and too much of a fire hazard.” “Oh,” he said, and ran off down the street.
Tonight, if previous years are a reliable indicator, he and his friends and family will light dozens upon dozens of illegal fireworks on my street, pausing only to let the bus go by. They will scream with delight every time they startle themselves with a big one. I will water the front to help prevent fire, marvel at human inventiveness, and ponder the nature of freedom.