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.
A rather conservative co-worker, who was one of the people who would have to go grocery shopping last night lest the family be without perishable food for a few days, was talking to me about the impending snowstorm (including me advising him of the one forecast for next Tuesday/Wednesday). “It shows,” he said, “how easily our infrastructure and food supply can be disrupted.” I gave it a little pause, and then replied, “this is why I talk about gardening in our own yards and switching away from agribusiness to a more sustainable and self-sustaining way of living and seek to shift myself, though it is difficult.” He said, “hmmm,” letting the idea stick in his mind, but not wanting to carry the discussion further. I know him well enough to have dropped it for the time, but also know he will think about it and perhaps over the years, for his beloved daughters or out of perceived necessity, start making small shifts.
In yoga practice, the concept of suddha vidya — illuminative wisdom — is both revealed and practiced. When we start practicing or even before, we may have occasional and early insights into fundamental truths of being, but without steady practice and contemplation they will be fleeting and not shift our way of living. If we practice and study continuously, though, our insight will become steadier, more consistent, and will start to illuminate all states of our being on and off the mat. The more I practice, the more it is illuminated for me the connection of all beings and my need to live in a way that is more open, tolerant, loving, and aligned with the complex web of our interconnection. My co-worker’s insight might not have been “yoga,” but it was indeed a moment of illuminative wisdom in its recognition of a misalignment of society that tears at the fabric of our being.
Last night, at his workshop at Willow Street Yoga, Todd Norian discussed the niyama samtosha — contentment. “Perfect,” I thought, because I had been contemplating the practice of samtosha all day. When I had sat to meditate in the morning yesterday, it was hard for me to stay with my mantra or any sense of peacefulness, light, or delight. Thoughts of the horrendous repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision on campaign finance kept arising. Time to get back to the foundations of practicing! As I began walking to work (past the Capitol), I brought myself back to the practice of samtosha, which I find one of the most useful practices for me.
Samtosha is the second of the niyamas set forth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are ethical precepts for living and for practicing. In Patanjali’s eight-limbed, dualistic path of raja yoga, they precede the practices of asana (the physical postures), pranayama (breathing), and the various stages of meditation, which culminate in samadhi (equinimity or bliss). When I am struggling with what I witness in the outside world, I always come back to the practice of samtosha. Some people may be naturally lighter-hearted than others, but contentment is indeed a practice, and it is a foundational practice.
When I practice contentment, I remember to be grateful for all that I have. When I fully practice contentment, instead of becoming bleak and cynical (it is easy enough for me), I not only feel more naturally cheerful, but find I have have more strength to continue acting in accordance with my beliefs, even when I am confused, alarmed, outraged, and disgusted by what is going on outside. When practicing contentment, I try to find my own light, I seek the love and company of friends, I join with like-minded persons to be moved to work for change, even if I do not trust it will make any visible change to anyone other than me.
FYI, Todd Norian will be at Willow Street Yoga Center all weekend. If you are local and reading this in time, try to come for some of the weekend. He is wonderful.
When meditating and practicing in a group, if I am feeling settled and grounded myself, it does not disturb my practice that others near me are fidgeting or not fully present. Just as I can meditate on a bus or in a waiting room, I am responsible for descending into my own inner space. If I am unsettled myself, then I am more likely to notice others fidgeting. But it is not their fidgeting that disrupts my practice, but that I am having a day when it is hard for me to center on my own.
It is true, though, when practicing with a group, that sometimes we will all be deeply centered and then the power of the group can bring all of the individuals to a deeper experience.
I walked into the dining room yesterday and caught a hint of an exquisitely sweet fragrance. I knew the paperwhite bulb I was forcing was only in bud. What was it? I went to look and saw that there was a single blossom on the nightblooming jasmine. Inside, in winter, the single bloom emitted as much apparent fragrance as dozens outside. I have had this plant for 12-13 years, since it was in a three inch growers’ pot. The last time I repotted it was several years ago, but I faithfully bring it inside and out every winter/summer cycle, and feed and water it plentifully. In response, it keeps getting fuller and offering blooms. When it is outside, it can have dozens of blooms at once. Sometimes I harvest the buds before they open and use them to scent green tea. When I find open blossoms in the morning, I harvest them by the handful and put them on my alter or in the bedroom, where they will provide scent for a day or two. Outside in the summer, while profuse, the blooms last only a single night. Inside in winter (with an average 24-hour a day temperature of 61-62F), the blooms, though coming more occasionally and only a couple at a time, can last for three or four days.
I think the blossoms of yoga and meditation sadhana (practice) are not dissimilar to the way this plant blooms. With steady care, they will always bloom, though sometimes more than others, sometimes with a different character, and sometimes with just growing periods with no apparent blossoms. Sometimes, there will be a wild profusion of vision and offering, but those tend to be fleeting. The memory of the intoxicating perfume, though, keeps us tending the practice, knowing it will come again. During the time between the wilder experiences, the nectar still comes, and though in less dramatic ways, perhaps all the sweeter for coming in a time wh
en we are just practicing and tending and not expecting any great revelation.
Vikalpa samskara is a term that describes the fundamental process of an ever refining yoga practice. It encompasses both study of text (with a teacher) and experiential learning and practice. With just experience, we may feel full unto ourselves, but we cannot explain the richness of our experience to others nor can we understand why. If we just hear something from a teacher or see a picture or read about it in a book, however, no matter how book smart we are, we do not have the understanding that comes from personal experience. It is by continuously combining and refining study and practice, that we can have a progressive deepening of true knowledge.
We often talk about “beginner’s mind” with respect to asana practice and meditation (and bringing the beauty of that state off of the mat). We are invited to be receptive and open the way is an ideal beginner, who wants to learn, but does not yet know the topic.
What does “beginner’s mind” really mean, though, in the context of someone who is experienced? I do not believe that it should mean discarding either book learning or discrimination built of experience. What it suggests to me is to approach our practice and life with freshness, with open-mindedness, without being bound by preconceived notions. I think this is the true process of vikalpa samskara. To be able to deepen our knowledge ever more deeply, we have to be willing to be open to shifts and changes in understanding. Then “samskara” does not become a rut, a bad habit, the inevitable effect from a previous action, but the development of a deepening path for more refined understanding.
The other day, after having worked, been on the phone, and continued in the social whirl of the holidays, the thought sprung up in my mind that I wanted to “go to the place of no words.” It felt absolutely essential that I go into the space of deep meditation. It was not so much for escape, as for rest. For me, meditation can provide more of an opportunity for my mind to rest and renew than can sleep. I rarely have dreamless sleep, and when I am very busy, my dreams get more so. My meditations, like everyone’s, can be full of thoughts and words. Thoughts will inevitably arise. What is different in meditation, though, is that even when my mind is full of thoughts, I know I do not have to follow them. I can just let them be — as if there were some radio or television program on that I just allow to be on, but to which I do not give my attention. It is this rest from paying attention, from having to follow and direct thought that I wanted so that when I returned to active thought there would be more clarity, discrimination, and, where needed, detachment.