As it is every year, the Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum fills me with joy and wonder. “Was it really this splendid last year?” one of my companions asked. “I go every year,” she said, “but I forget how gorgeous it is!” She comes back each year to remember the beauty and the awe. So, too, it can be with our practice. We stop going to class or practicing our meditation or asana for a while because we get too busy. Then we come back, and we ask ourselves how we could have forgotten the joy and beauty a steady practice brings us, and we are inspired to commit again.
It is good to act consciously, to move and react from a place of sensitivity, discrimination, and understanding. It is good to know both the big picture and the details. When does paying attention and thinking things through, though, become “overthinking?” I think (ha ha) that it is when thinking things through takes us away from the heart, when it desensitizes, instead of assists us in acting with discrimination.
On Friday night, Betsy Downing was at Willow Street’s Silver Spring studios leading a weekend workshop. The focus of the weekend was learning how yoga practice can assist us in “interesting times.” In this regard, Betsy invited us to recommit to two practices that we know support us when we fully practice them. I did not feel the need for more meditation or asana or pranayama. I do those steadily.
I have been struggling, though, with where I am lately — I think something was triggered with all the confined time during the great snows. This morning I decided that for me, this invitation would best serve if I allowed it to help refocus my practice. In getting a little off-kilter, I forgot to practice fully gratitude and self-acceptance. Remembering to practice those fully will nourish me well in these challenged times.
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.