Latest Posts

What is Beauty? (and “Ankle Loop”)

When I was meditating this morning, the last lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on A Grecian Urn’ welled up in my thoughts: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  How odd, I thought, for this to appear, as if out of nowhere.  I have been contemplating this week on what it means to be refined, but not in the way of an aesthete.  Rather, as I have been concentrating on the Anusara alignment principle of “ankle loop,” I have been thinking about how deepening our practice with repeated exploration and study we are able to refine our understanding and the flow of energy within us so that we can be more connected to ourselves and each other.

As I understand the essential structure of the Anusara principles, the “loops” are really tertiary principles.  The primary principles are those of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which are the principles of how we practice.  The secondary principles are the fundamental physical and energetic principles — “opening to grace, muscular energy, inner/expanding spiral, outer/contracting spiral, organic energy.”  The loops serve to refine the secondary principles.  Ankle loop, for example, which starts at the base of the shin bone, travels down the back of the heel and then back up through the arch, energizes the foot, lifts the arch, supports our stance and helps us focus muscular energy.  When we are feeling challenged finding as much muscular energy in our feet and legs as would be optimal for a full expression of the pose, we can use ankle loop to refine our understanding and practice of muscular energy in the legs.  Keeping in mind the primary principles of practice, though, the refinements should also always lead us towards the heart and not just get us into details.  Getting more sophisticated and refined, likewise should not lead us to disdain for that which is unrefined.

Funny, then, that the aesthete’s call to beauty should arise in my meditation while I have been consciously thinking about refinement.  What does it mean to appreciate and study refinements, but still honor and delight in a novice’s full expression of “attitude, alignment, and action” as much as an impeccably aligned and skillful pose that does not reveal a yearning for spirit?  Beauty may be truth, and truth beauty, but what is “beauty?”

Nail Soup (and reminders)

One of my favorite fairy tales is the one about the traveler who teaches the old woman how to make “nail soup.”  It is a cold, wintry night in the forest, and a traveler comes upon a hut.  He knocks on the door and asks for shelter.  The old woman who lives in the hut says he can sleep in the shed, but she cannot give him any food.  The traveler thanks her for providing shelter.  He says he does not need food, but if she lets him in by the fire, he will show her how to make soup from a nail.  The woman, who is rather miserly, is excited by the idea of being able to make soup from a nail, so she lets him in and puts a big soup pot filled with snow to melt over the fire.  The traveler puts the nail in the soup and says, “what a wonderful broth we will have from this nail.  If we only had a potato or two, it would be even better.”  The woman roots around in her hoard and puts a potato in the pot.  “Now it will be even more wonderful,” said the traveler.  “If we only had an onion to add, it would be the most savory soup you have ever tasted.”  The woman goes to her winter stores and finds an onion.  The traveler sniffs the soup, “mmm, how wonderful it smells, if we had a carrot or a parsnip, it would be gracious enough for any guest.”  The woman, trembling with the excitement of creating soup from a nail, adds both a carrot and a parsnip.  At this point, the broth is starting to take on thickness and color, and the hut is redolent of bubbling hot vegetable soup.  “Oh for some salt and a little meat,” cried the man, “and this soup would truly be fit for a king.”  “From only a nail, soup fit for a king!” exclaimed the old woman, “that I must have.”  She added a precious pinch of salt and some meat dried to last through the winter.  The soup, of course, was delicious, the traveler well-fed, and the woman happy to share (even if she was tricked).

Sometimes we need a reminder of our abundance, both inner and outer, to be invited to bring out all we have so that we can better serve.  Just as the traveler with the nail reminded the isolated old woman of how to share her abundance, sometimes we need to remind ourselves of what we have rather than what we are missing.  I find that when I am feeling more empty than full, coming to my mat and my meditation cushion and practicing gratitude quickly helps me remember.

A Day to Myself

green lightLast week, when I said to a colleague, “see you Tuesday,” she replied, “where are you going?”  It was as if simply to enjoy where I live or rest or quietly take care of house and garden was not within the range of possibility.  Is it that I am somehow not worthy if I have not planned to do something I could talk about when I returned to the office?  Or is it that pervasive societal sense that happiness lies only in finding new and more experience?

I think that it is important to have episodic time away from doing.  I used to get sick when I’d been running around non-stop with work and errands and exploration, etc.  Now I try to take some quiet time at decent intervals.  It does not need to be a full day.  Just a couple of solid hours without engaging in a planned activity every couple of weeks makes all the difference in my mood, my health, and the quality of my work.

On the Bus

on the bus 2Shortly after I took this picture, a young couple came and sat down in the two seats in the photo, which are at the back of the bus — they were the only seats together.  The couple just sat down quietly and held hands; they weren’t even talking.  The woman in the corner immediately sat upright and began cursing at them.  She threatened them with calling the police because they were harassing her by following her.  The bus driver, who was having a hard enough time dealing with cars cutting in and out of lanes in the stop and go traffic jam created by the Marine Corps Marathon street closings, advised her to calm down.  She got louder and louder.  The woman in front of me kept turning around to stare.  I sat quietly, trying to send soothing energy.  The bus driver suggested to the woman that the police were located just around the corner.  He said he’d stop so that she could go get the police.  “No, no,” she cried, “we are almost at my stop.  I’ll be quiet,” and she became completely still and quiet.  At the next stop, she stayed on and a few other people got off, so that the couple was able to find a seat elsewhere on the bus.  For the rest of the trip, even with people standing, these three seats stayed open.  Later, I went up front to ask the driver what exactly was the route for the marathon detour.  It turned out to be a good detour for where I was going.  I commended the driver on how quickly he calmed down the woman, acknowledging what a challenge it is to be a metrobus driver.  He obviously appreciated my simple gesture (mostly people just criticize bus drivers) and shared a few recent stories.  When I got off, I thanked him and wished him a good day.

When to Bring in the Tropical Plants (and stress v. distress)

From late September through the first week when there either are two or more nights forecast to below 38F or one night below 35F, I assiduously watch the 15-day weather forecast to determine when to bring in my tropical plants (orchids, bromiliads, a night-blooming jasmine plant (now 8 years old), a bay tree in a 24 inch pot (now 12 years old)).  I also bring in the lemon grass and lemon balm I have in containers so that they can be the perennials they would be in a warm climate; here, left outside, they are annuals.

When I first had a few orchids — over 10 years ago now — as soon as there was a hint of cold weather (below 45F) I rushed the plants inside, believing that if they were tropical, they needed to be inside.  In one of the early years, the first night below 40F was in late September.  The plants really suffered from a full seven months inside.  I have since learned (by studying and personal observation) two things about my tropical plants.  The first is that they are a lot happier outside than inside (when inside is not a properly humid, sunny greenhouse).  The second is that they like cold weather as long as it is not near or below freezing.  They especially like cold rains like we had the other weekend.  The stress of a few weeks of nights in the 40sF, in fact, seem to help the orchids bloom.  Now, by waiting until the last possible minute, and bringing them out as soon as it seems like the danger of last frost (for my backyard, which is very early) has passed, the orchids are outside at least seven months of the year.

Thinking about how the orchids flourish with the stress of some chill, but not too much, reminds me of what my teacher John Friend talks about in yoga practice of the difference between stress and distress.  Some stress actually strengthens us.  This is why one of the best ways to avoid or at least slow the process of osteoporous (according to the general medical literature to I’ve read) advocates weight-bearing exercise.  Putting weight, i.e., stress, on our bones and muscles strengthens them.  Too much, too fast, however, will injure our muscles and bones.

So, especially for those of us with injuries (prior or current) or physical challenges such as arthritis, it is optimal to exercise, to seek our edge, to put ourselves under stress, mindfully and intentionally.  We need to be aware, though, of the subtlety of the edge between stress and distress so that we are strengthened not injured, just as exposing the orchids to some fall weather invites them to bloom, but actual freezing or near-freezing temperatures will harm or kill them.

What is “really” yoga?

Gopi Krishna, in this book The Awakening of Kundalini, writes:  “Yoga exercises can also be directed toward worldly objectives.  There are exercises that are conducive to the health and efficiency of the mind, others that lead to psychic gifts, and still others that strengthen the will and improve the ability to deal with problems.  However, no single achievement of this kind — or even several of them taken together — is Yoga.”  He continues to state that “Yoga is a transhuman state of mind attained by means of the cumulative effect of all practices combined, carried on for years, and supplemented by grace.”  Other texts say enlightenment comes to some just by “grace” with no need for the yoga practices.  Others need various amounts and types of practices.

Me, I have no idea what is a “transhuman state of mind” but I want for myself and those around me being healthier and stronger, with an improved ability to deal with problems.  (Imagine, for example, those gifts applied in the context of providing universal health care, while simultaneously educated and shifting our society to a healthier way of living).  I don’t think anyone can judge or determine whether one’s self or someone else is truly enlightened or can lead others to enlightenment (whatever that means).  But I am certain from my own experience that yoga helps me to be more grounded, more centered, more intentional, stronger, and healthier.  Thus served by steady practice, I am more content and find it easier to be kind.  I’ll take that for now.

Pratyabijna Hrdayam Sutra 17 (and organic energy)

The 17th sutra is “madhya vikasha cittananda labhah,” which is translated by Swami Shantananda as “the bliss of Consciousness is attained through expansion of the center.”

Madyama, in our physical embodiment is the central channel, the sushumna nadi that runs vertically in the space of the spine.  One of the key actions of Anusara’s organic energy is expansion from the midline.  It is, in its essence, using the body to physically explore the bliss that comes from the expansion from the center.

If we can get bliss just from expanding, then why would we first draw in?  In applying the Anusara principles, we use muscular energy first.  We hug into our core before reaching out.  This parallels the yoga texts.  If, for example, one already embodies the perfect bliss of consciousness, one doesn’t need to study the sutras or to practice yoga, one would just live from that place of perfect bliss.

The way I think about it in terms of the Anusara principles, if one were perfectly open to grace and lived being fully open to and expressive of grace, there would be no need to explore, learn, or study any of the other principles.  That’s a rare being though.  Most of us, and definitely me, need practice to discover and embody even a glimpse of perfect bliss and grace.  So the expansion from the center comes after consciously softening and opening, after intentionally drawing in to strengthen and embrace, after making with discrimination further expansion, and after drawing in to contentrate mind and body with honed intensity.  With ever more refinement and practice, we then can experience and make offering a deeper bliss when we expand from our center.