Art and Culture

Personal History (and Samskara and Opening to Grace)

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.

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Independence Day in the Neighborhood

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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.

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Choices, A Cardinal in the Grapes, and Viveka

This morning while I was out in the garden, I heard a chirping right above my head.  Within arm’s reach was a bright red male cardinal perched among the grapes effusively talking.  (I planted a tiny red, concord grape vine about six years ago, and it has flourished beyond my wildest dreams).

There were enough ripe grapes for me to pick a handful for myself.  I have bird netting, but I have not put it over the grapes.  They did not do so well this year, many turning brown prematurely because, I think, of the drought-ridden winter followed by the extra wet and cool spring.  I am grateful that I will not be dependent on these grapes as food for myself to survive through next winter (I’m pretty sure; if not, I have bigger things to worry about).

For the joy of having the birds come visit so fearlessly and delightedly, and because the grapes are not fantastic to eat, I leave all, but those I get by the small handful a couple of mornings a week for a few weeks, to the birds.  Maybe next year I will net the grapes, but then I’ll have to have a canning party to make jam.  In the meantime, I’ll marvel that every bird in DC seems to know when my grapes ripen.

We make decisions like this all the time.  With how we shop, what we eat, what work we choose, how we travel, we are making decisions about habitat and environment for ourselves and hosts of other beings.

In yoga, the process of ever refining our understanding so that we can be more in touch with how we act impacts our life force and our relationship with all around us, is viveka, or discrimination.   Just as the more we practice on the mat, the more we develop awareness of what leads us to feel more in tune and more celebratory of life, so too, we want to use that yoga refinement and discrimination to inform our acts off the mat.

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Slowing Down (and vinyasa krama)

I wanted to share this article on “ecotherapy,” a term I had not heard before.  I found the article interesting because for years now, I have gradually practiced all the elements listed in the article as treatment for depression, not because I had been told by a therapist to do so, but because, despite my feeling the repercussions of going against the grain, I felt happier and healthier settling in one place, traveling more slowly, connecting with my pets, and tending a small patch of nature.

These shifts in lifestyle simply feel to me more in alignment with my own nature and that of the earth.  I found, incidentally, it gave me much more time overall to do things.  People ask me how I do so much (usually referring to the day job, the yoga teaching, the gardening and cooking, the volunteer work).  Thinking of the way they live, and what they do, they ask when do I rest?  I say that my life is in fact rather slow and restful.  I rest when I meditate.  I rest when I am taking the time to make a home-cooked meal — every day when I am in town, often two or three times a day.  I rest when I am tending the garden.  I do not think of cooking and gardening as chores, but as ways to nurture myself.

I rest when I am commuting because it is on foot or sitting on the bus or metro (note:  instead of getting anxious or angry when metro is slow, think of it as an opportunity to draw into yourself and meditate, contemplate, or read).

Not having moved or changed jobs in years, even though there have been serious challenges with both where I live and my job, I had the time, money, and energy that would have been used up in a major upheaval, to engage in the study and practice to become a certified Anusara yoga instructor, and before that, to study  drawing and photography and to exhibit my art.  Staying in place, I continue to have time to study and to read (not watching TV helps alot, too, for finding time).  The choices are different with children in the house, but it is still possible to make choices that require less racing around for the family.

This, to me, is a larger aspect of vinyasa krama, the art of sequencing.  When we sequence how we move in space and time in a holistic, sensitive way that honors the rhythms and cycles of our bodies and the earth’s, then we feel less trapped or overwhelmed.  When I was trying to keep up with society, I was often sad and anxious.  Now I am much less so.  I have often attributed it to these choices.  Now, I see, society has given us a word for it —  ecotherapy.  With a word coined for it and put in the press, will people feel more comfortable practicing it?

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Simulcast, Drama, and Perception

Last night I went to see the National Theater UK’s  simulcast (tape-delayed) of Helen Mirren performing in Ted Hughes’ translation of Racine’s Phedre at the Shakespeare Theater.  The tragedy of Phedre is misinformation, misguided helpers, and passion that has gone beyond sweet engagement to maddened attachment.

A stage production is intimate and designed for the small audience of those present in the theater.  When it is merely filmed (instead of being turned into a movie), it sometimes feels forced because it is watching a film of a stage production, instead of being invited in as one is when one is either at the stage production or the filming is done as a movie, which is designed to include the viewer in a manner for the film.

What was hard about watching the filming of the stage production, was being forced to have the camera’s and director’s perspective; there was no ability to turn my head and shift which part of the stage to give my attention.  At the same time, I felt appreciative of the miraculous offerings of technology:  the filming made something that is usually limited to those who can afford theater of that extraordinary quality and who are able to be in a certain place at a certain time available to tens of thousands around the globe, including me and my friend.  In that way, the filming both took away the intimacy of being physically present, but simultaneously created a unifying experience for a much bigger group of people.

I was inspired to think about the limitations and differences among the perceptions of the characters, of the critics (talking about the play and the film), of the smaller, elite audience (the actual theater goers’ — I’ve been at that theater in London), of the technologically broadened audience, and of mine in response to the essence of the tragedy, the story and substance of the play, the delivery of the play, and my own life as informed by the play.

It seems an interesting lesson on many levels on how we can choose to live with our passions, how we can react to limits and changes in our ability to perceive our own selves and the world around us, and on how and what we invite in through the doors of our perception.

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In Watermelon Sugar (Starting Each Day Anew)

I have in my library books in which just one phrase or just the very beginning is most resonant.  It is this time of summer, when the light seems endless, and the heat just setting in as if on a permanent basis, that my thoughts turn to watermelon in food, and again in literature.  I think of watermelon differently each summer from the perspective of having lived another year, and the same in having experienced the taste and the thoughts of the taste so many times before.  When it comes the time of year when thoughts of watermelon spontaneously arise,  I revisit these words:

“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.  I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.  Wherever you are, we must do the best we can.  It is so far to travel, and we have nothing here to travel, except watermelon sugar.” (R. Brautigan, In Watermelon Sugar).

Refreshed, I put the book back on the shelf, look forward to eating watermelon from the fresh farm market, and set the intention to start each day with open, receptive, and unjaundiced eyes, ready to learn and experience the same old things as glorious new ones, and to do the best I can.

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Gardening, Cleaning, Cooking (and Vinyasa Krama and Kali)

Vinyasa krama is the art of sequencing.  How a yoga practice or flow is sequenced can determine whether it is uplifting or inward going, exhilarating or calming.  When we are trained and attentive, we start to know the most optimal order to open our bodies and our focus to align with the time of day, the season, the weather, our mood, and our health.  This incredible art helps us be positioned and aligned in a way that we feel free in time and space, rather than being constrained by time and space.

This morning while I was out in the garden, I was thinking a lot about vinyasa krama and the goddess Kali — goddess of, among other things, time and change, and thus, of sequencing.  I woke very early, brought to consciousness by the long light of the solstice even through closed curtains.  As I went about my morning, rinsing the sprouts while heating the water for my morning coffee; cutting back the greens and herbs before starting breakfast; doing the major pruning and clean-up before doing more decorative garden work; finishing cooking before taking out the recycling; applying a facial mask before starting to vacuum; never walking up or down the stairs empty-handed; waiting to gather the bills until after I was clean and waiting for friends to arrive, etc., I realized how important sequencing is to the richness of my days.  By knowing the best way to order tasks for my needs, my day is simultaneously productive, unhurried, and enjoyable.

By the time my friends arrived around noon, I had meditated, taken care of the garden, gathered food for my own breakfast and to share with friends, talked to neighbors, cleaned the house and myself, done a little asana, written in my journal, and sorted the mail.  Had I not known from long experience and conscious attention how to sequence all the different elements, knowing which ones went together, which took longest, which ones if done earlier or later would create double clean up, etc, I would have been tired and the tasks unfinished.  Instead, after brunch, I came home to a tended garden, a freshly made bed, and time to enjoy a quiet evening.

These sequencing principles also apply for me on major projects at work.  If ordered one way, the work is exponentially harder, the deadline a fearsome thing; if ordered another way, everything comes together mostly as it should when it should.  When I order my work with attention (this assumes others cooperate with this endeavor), I have time to do a good, careful job and still take breaks, eat well, and leave the office in time to take or teach yoga class.

Whether you are doing your home yoga practice or cooking or working, choose to sequence the elements of your practice, your activities, or your day, with attentiveness, reverence, love, and respect, and Kali will support you and not show you her most fearsome face.

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Eagerness (and cherry tomatoes)

I am looking forward to going out to the garden to forage for things to bring to work with my lunch.  I know there will be at least four or five tomatoes, and I am expecting a small cucumber.  The greens and fresh herbs are a given.  Having exquisite fresh food and making sure I take at least 15 minutes to savor it always makes a hectic day a much better one.

Don’t have time to garden?  Try joining a CSA.

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Ganesha (Deity of the Marines?)

A senior colleague and I spent several hours today working together on a very challenging aspect of a long-term project.  When we were wrapping up for the day, I showed him a murti of Ganesha that another co-worker had brought me from the Norton Simon Museum when she had gone on a business trip to Pasadena, where our Los Angeles office is located.

I said that I do not believe in the Hindu deities as gods, but find them helpful for contemplation as archetypes (in the Jungian sense).  I said that being on this project has taught me much about yoga and about Ganesha.

“Ganesha,” I explained, “is not so much the remover of obstacles, but the one who places obstacles in your way to teach you the wisdom to grow and find a more enlightened path from having confronted the obstacles.”  “Oh,” said my colleague, “like the Marines:  adapt, improvise, and overcome.” “Well, sort of,” I replied, enjoying that we found a way to share laughter after our difficult afternoon.

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“I’ve Got My Life Back”

I was at a business meeting yesterday that started with people introducing themselves around the table.  The participants were all either members or staff of a prominent lobbying group or government officials.  One of the men said that he was now a consultant.  “I used to be general counsel of [lobbying group], and now that I am consulting,” he said, “I have my life back.”  The introductions continued around the table.  The new general counsel, when he introduced himself, claimed, “it’s my life he has taken to get his back.”

I found this all interesting in light of my blog yesterday.  These men are very successful.  They both are married with families.  They seem to be pleasant and smart.  Their definition of “not having a life” was not having failed to be fully engaged in doing what society expects them to do — they have clearly done very well indeed — but not having time to play golf or hang out in addition to being “successful.”

Is the difference between being male and female?  Or were the two different contexts of the same social, linguistic tic just exemplifying a the view point of a superabundant and privileged class that we are not living fully unless we do and have everything the collective society admires and we simultaneously feel like we have lots of leisure time to enjoy as we see fit?  It’s a hopelessly unrealistic standard.

Every moment we breathe and our heart beats, we are living.  One of the keys to tantric yoga is to come to a place where we are living fully and abundantly whatever we are doing, whether it is working or playing, being challenged or relaxing.  When we can do that, we realize we “have a life” and one worth living, no matter where we are in our journey.

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