Please see the Spring 2010 Willow Street Newsletter to see more about what led me to teach. While you’re reading, check out all the fabulous yoga offerings.
Here’s an aerial view of the back garden on the equinox after I spent several hours cleaning, deadheading, repotting, mulching, etc. As you can see, the moss is ecstatic from having had the weight of the snow on it for several weeks. Coming up in quantities almost enough to pick are lettuce, spinach, cilantro, parsley, chives, onions, lemon balm (always have too much of that — if you’re local let me know if you want some). The first rosebud emerged sometime between Friday and Sunday. It is hard to believe that just a month ago, I was blogging about indoor gardening — how to find delight even when snowed under (scroll to the bottom of the linked post to compare pictures of the same view).
As you can see from comparing the two photos, things were still growing under the snow or getting ready to do so. That is what practice is like for me. Sometimes I feel completely snowed under by an injury or rush jobs at work or personal circumstances beyond my control. I keep practicing, but I don’t have the time or energy for long practices or full weekend workshops, when it is easy to get to a place of delight. Other times, things are less pressured, and I feel brimming over with health. Then practice feels wildly effulgent. For my garden to offer its full potential (as is true with my practice), I need to spend lots of time and effort in it for the next several weeks. I know that if I do so, I will be blessed with fullness.
I am subbing Fusion Flow tonight up at Willow Street. Natalie, for whom – am subbing, has been teaching the yamas and niyamas this session. She asked me to cover “samtosha” tonight.
In contemplating this principle of practice again (it is high on my contemplation list), I thought of the what was drafted by the “Founding Fathers.” We are not guaranteed the right to happiness, but the right and freedom to pursue it.
That leaves open the question of what is happiness and whether and how to pursue it. It contains, I think, a hidden agreement that to keep the right open to all that happiness cannot be realized by the acquisition of external power and things that will prevent others from having the same freedom.
When I get caught up in our current societal vision of what we are supposed to have or be, a reminder that “samtosha” — contentment — doesn’t just happen, but is a practice, always regrounds me. I choose to come back to a space of gratitude, and my my whole self eases. I return to a place that serves me and enhances my own freedom to find happiness, while bringing me to a place that is aligned with that freedom growing for what and whom I touch.
My friend and Willow Street colleague Natalie Miller taught a lovely class on Monday night, using sauca as her theme. She said that she had recently read a book that described the yamas as things we do to be better persons, but that the niyamas were precepts for our spiritual practice to lead us better on the path. In that sense, she suggested, sauca is about clarity or purity of intention.
What I love about contemplating and practicing with these concepts is that they are so pregnant with meaning; they have so much to offer wherever we are in our life and on our individual path of spirit exploration. The more we contemplate and visit and practice and discuss, the more we will discover both about the meaning of the concept and about ourselves.
The elevator I rode to my fifth floor office this morning was very full. Several of the people in the elevator were wearing visitor badges. As I walked on, I heard a woman say to a colleague, “…if you get a good one, they can do amazing things. I had a frozen shoulder, and it was just incredible the change from the physical therapist. I highly recommend [don’t remember the name].” Her colleague, who evidently had extremely limited range of motion and a limp from something with his hip, said, “that would be great, but I don’t have time for something like physical therapy.” They got off (slowly) on a lower floor, leaving me and someone I know who works on my floor.
“He obviously does not want to heal or change if he doesn’t have time for physical therapy for something that is debilitating,” I said. “He would vehemently deny it, if you told him that,” replied my co-worker. The reality is that if we want to change or heal or grow, we have to make an intention and then stick with it. Whether it is healing an injury through therapeutic yoga and/or physical therapy or a more internal shift sought through yoga, we must be steady and committed to our intention.
I was reminded the other day of a principle of reading the great Hindu philosophical work: all of the meaning of the text can be understood from not only the first sutra, but the first word. The first sutra of The Yoga Sutrasof Patanjali’s is “atha yoga anusasanam” — now begins an exposition of the practices of yoga. Implicit in the “atha,” the now, is that something else has come before. The translations I have speak of previous study and preparation; the studies offered by Patanjali are not for the novice, but for one who has already been practicing. If we read Patanjali’s first sutra with the implicit understanding that the first word contains all of the exposition to follow and that we do not need the rest of the explanation and practice if we truly understand the first word and sutra, then I think more must be meant here by “atha” than just this exposition now comes after previous study.
In this latest contemplation of mine what the word “atha” must hold within it for the practitioner, I thought about the Anusara axiom of practice “the breath leads the way,” which has been the alignment focus in my classes for the past week. What does it mean to have the breath lead the way? At its highest level, it serves to bring us back to “first principle” of “opening to grace.” (As an aside, I note that I believe can apply to the Anusara principles of alignment the same method of understanding: the principle “open to grace,” and even the first word “open” holds all of the other Anusara principles. All the other principles and axioms are explanations and methods for living “open to grace.”)
When we let the breath lead the way, we start each pose by a deep listening, an openness to something greater, an openness to the pulsation between the universal energies and our individual self. We invite the subtle energies to support us and lead us like a great dance partner. We actively surrender to the dance, while still bringing our own skill to our part of the dance, the way the partner being led in a waltz is skilled both in the dance and in being led. In letting the breath lead the way in our yoga practice, we come to the very fullness of the present moment even as we move through a sequence of asanas in time and space. Being open to grace in each moment, in each part of the pose, and allowing our self to be led by the pulsation of the breath even as we move with it, brings us to a recognition that in each moment, we are both part of the sequence of time and space and more than time and space (akrama krama). We come to the atha of samadhi. We use the practice of letting the breath lead the way to teach us to open to grace, to find the exquisite timeless fullness of being itself in order to illuminate all of our practice. If we are already in that atha, that now, then we do not need any of the other practices or explanations, but if we cannot find it on our own, then again and again, the study and practice begins now — atha — so that we can experience in our very heart the fullness (purna) of our selves and better illuminate everything we do on and off the mat with the blissfulness of that fullness.
The moon had risen in all her glory when I left Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring (from a talk with Dr. Manoj Chalam about archetypes yesterday evening and headed for the metro home. I thought about how the moon shines fully no matter what is below: a pristine mountain lake, a construction site, a palace garden, a land devastated by one of the Four Horsemen, or the street in front of my house. What I think is the goal of most “spiritual” practice is to find a place where, being able to see the light all the time, one can live with uncertainty and challenge and have a greater capacity to serve from one’s unique place.
Last night in group practice, we were working on the mini-arm balances. As I demonstrated a pose, my spine shifted. From the middle thoracic vertebra right behind the heart all the way up to C7, each vertebra popped sequentially, releasing energy not only from each vertebra, but upward. I felt an incredible lightness moving from the heart space all the way through the crown of my head. We talked about it a little in practice, because the fact that some kind of opening had occurred was fully evident to everyone in the group.
As a purely physical matter, opening my thoracic spine is good. I have degeneration in my cervical and lumbar spine. Those parts of my spine are very mobile, almost unusually so, whereas my thoracic spine is quite tight. This imbalance can cause pain and muscle tension, though through therapeutic practice of the Anusara principles, I progressively find a healthy balance of stability and freedom. Go to any decent physical therapist for neck or lumbar pain, and the therapist will work to open the thoracic spine, which although it should be stiffer (being attached to the ribs and protecting the heart), likely needs to be more mobile to be in better balance with the rest of the spine.
This morning, I woke up still feeling more open around the heart space and noticing a shift in the energy in my upper back, neck, and head, and the sensation of the opening I experienced carried itself through my morning meditation.
We never know when we are going to get an opening in our practice. I keep coming to the mat and the meditation cushion because I want to be more open, more grounded, more free, more full of energy, more compassionate, more at peace, more in tune with others. It is fairly rare, though, that I experience a noticeable opening all at once (and the reason to practice should not to be to have wild moments, sensations, visions, etc).
When one comes, though, it leaves open the question: what will I do with it? Will I get absorbed in talking about it and reliving it? Will I think that I can slack in my practice because I have had a big opening? Will I return to how things were before? It is easy enough to do. Just witness the collective energy and momentary hopefulness of this country when it elected President Obama. Upon not getting instant change and relief, the country has returned to blaming, divisiveness, ineffectiveness, finger-pointing, greediness, warlikeness, and catering to the corporate war machine instead of moving towards universal health care, peace, and “green” energy consumption. It would likewise be easy for me to have enjoyed experiencing something wild and special on my mat and then go outside to walk to work and be tense and grumbly about the ice on the sidewalks, the snow in the forecast, and the limits I experience in my daily life. I know there will be some going backwards, but I will strive to take this experience to shift to a more optimal place in my practice on and off the mat.
My cherished friend Cynthia for who there will be a memorial service on Wednesday often said that her favorite time of year to garden was winter. She was not only a passionate gardener who had established an exquisite ornamental garden over a period of decades, but also a scintillating intellect. In winter, of course, she would tend the houseplants and have flowers from forced bulbs, but that was not “winter gardening;” it was just having some beauty in the house. Winter gardening for Cynthia meant sitting in her nice warm house, reading stacks of gardening books and seed and plant catalogs and planning ways to enhance and develop the garden come the new growing season. Cynthia did not practice yoga or meditation although she asked about yoga and exhibited her habitual, engaged and polite intellectual curiosity about my practice out of friendship.
After I took care of the house plants this morning, I sat down with a gardening book and read it while I had my morning hot drink and thought of Cynthia saying this was the best gardening time. This time last year, I was marveling that I had chard to eat from the garden and espousing the joy of sprouting indoors in order to have fresh food year round (still sprouting and recommend it to all especially this harsh winter). This year I cannot even see the containers (see picture below after five days of melting and before another coating to come this afternoon), much less any plants outside, so spring gardening will be a completely different experience than it was last year. I go back, then, to my books. I read about edible container gardening for climates where spring starts later than is typical for DC. I think about what I can start indoors and whether I will want to start with different plants. In the space of time when I cannot actually garden, I develop my intellectual knowledge so that my garden skills and experience can still develop. When I am out in the garden this spring, digging in the dirt, watching things grow, I will experience with joy in my very being the subtle and not so subtle differences from a dry, warm winter and a cold, snowy one throughout the whole growing season.
This pulsing relationship among practical experience, study, and joyous understanding is our true practice (sadhana). Steady practice includes not just actual doing of postures and meditation, but also repeated study for enhanced intellectual understanding of what we are experiencing (vikalpa samskara), and joyous, non-intellectual contemplation with heart and spirit (bhavana) of the burgeoning of combined experience and study. When we appreciate on the mat and off that there will be times for practical experience, times for study, and times just to rest with a rich fullness of contemplation of the fruits of experience and study for the joyous recognition of beauty and consciousness, then we will never be empty. We will not suffer from the confinement of a blizzard or an injury because we will know that it is time to shift our focus from being on the mat or on our meditation cushion or out of the garden (or whatever it is that is your work or hobby or course of study) and more to studying what others can teach us in words or demonstration. We will know that the more we enhance our practice with both practicum and book learning, the more we can move towards an ever refined and steady abiding of whatever is our passion in our hearts.