Practice, contemplation, and insights

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.


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.


The Parable of the Guru, the Disciple, and the Mad Elephant

It is a constant dialogue that arises for me with others in my various communities about the place of political discussion in a spiritual community.  Is there a place for examining the state of the world, calling for action, and trying to change things when we believe (or are seeking to understand) everything as being at its essence infused with the light?  I just happened to read this parable today, after being advised that spiritual and political dialogue have no place being conjoined (today, it was about the budget and the war; it could just as easily have been about how to address from a place of spirit the complexities of how to shift and respond to the Gulf oil spill):

“RAMAKRISHNA: … [W]ater remains water, whether it stands still or breaks into waves.  Divine Reality remains exactly the same when one is silent and one speaks.  Relax your mind a moment and consider this parable.  A guru teaches his disciple that every being and event is simply God.  The ardent disciple, while walking home meditating on this truth, encounters a mad elephant.  The elephant-driver, who has completely lost control of the animal, shouts to all who are in the way, warning them to run.  But the stubborn disciple refuses to deviate from his path.  He continues his contemplative exercise, regarding himself as God and the elephant as God.  The crazed beast picks up this foolish man with its trunk and dashes him to the earth.  The guru, famous for his healing powers, is called to revive the unconscious victim.  After certain prayers are recited and holy  water is sprinkled, the young man regains consciousness.  He is surprised to find his guru gazing at him.  When asked why he did not run from such evident danger, he replies:  ‘Why should I run?  My guru, you teach that all beings and events are God.  I have implicit faith in your inspired words.’  The venerable master then addresses his immature disciple:  ‘But my child, why did you fail to heed the inspired words of the elephant-driver, who is also God?'”

Lex Hixon, Great Swan:  Meetings with Ramakrishna (Shambala Publications 1992)


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.


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..


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?


A Mini-Experiment (Meditation and Blood Pressure)

This morning I went for my bi-annual physical. The first thing that the doctor’s assistant did after having me stand on the scale (a blood-pressure elevating activity out of habit), was take my blood pressure. It was on the low end of normal, as usual for me.

In the middle of the exam, after having intimate discussions about tratment to alleviate suffering vs. treatment for longevity, and similar topics, my doctor took my blood pressure again. No surprise: it was higher than it had been when I irst walked into the exam room.

When we were just about done, my doctor said, “let’s see if we can lower that blood pressure. Close your eyes and relax.” “Relax” can be a hard command to obey. Instead, I went right to where I go in meditation, softening to my mantra. In less than a minute, my blood pressure was lower than it had been at the start of the exam. “A beauty of meditation,” I said. “Yes,” my doctor replied (who is a very traditional western medical practitioner, “I wish I could get all my patients with high blood pressure to meditate.”


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.


Windows That Open

When I first got to my room on the fourth floor of the hotel, the airconditioner was straining noisily, and the room was very stuffy. To My great delight — the windows not only open, but have screen and look out onto an unveveloped tract of land with trees higher than my window. I immediately opened the windows and let in the smell of fresh air and the sounds of the forest. There is occasional car noise, but it is muffled by the sounds of wind and rain in the trees.

I thought this morning how often I end up in an office building or hotel where the windows do not open. That cutting off access to the realities of nature, of what is greater than our little world, in order to have a controlled climate seems like much of modern life.

Many I know do not even notice that the windows do not open. Others of us, see the windows and want to know what is outside and to be with the greater energies. We seek to oprn the windows and know. Those who are able and so moved and who are able — rare beings — leave behind the buildings and go entirely on the renunciate path. The rest of us who live the life of householders, seek to have windows that open and spend time each day breathing in the sweetness of what is greater.