Many thanks to all who came and participated in the yoga fundraising class for Oxfam. Special thanks also to Suzie Hurley and Willow Street Yoga for making the space available. True gratitude for the practice of yoga itself. Together we raised $935 for Oxfam, sharing our own abundance with those who are needier. Many blessings on this holiday weekend to all of you.
As I prepare to lead the annual yoga fundraiser for Oxfam and then celebrate with friends the abundance of my life and my gratitude for all I have, I contemplate this writing of Swami Chidvilasananda:
Revere food as God. Revere your own body as a temple. Observe restraint and practice reverence. There are so many great treasures and miracles within you, so many magical possibilities inside you. Through discipline, you can make them manifest for you, and in this way, you can make the earth a greater paradise. Give this earth the opportunity to feel that she is blessed, that she is happy to have you, that she is grateful for your presence on this planet.
The Yoga of Discipline.
I wish all of you the happiest of Thanksgiving days. May you feel abundant and may you share your abundance.
Today, I go to work my one Sunday a month at the Lantern Bookshop. I have been volunteering at the Lantern for over 15 years. My volunteer work there is service, but it is not selfless. The Lantern serves the community in a variety of ways: (1) it provides a place for like-minded community members to meet; we’ve had the same customers and workers for decades; (2) it provides creates scholarship funds for deserving young women to go to college, when they otherwise would not be able to afford to go; (3) by participating in the cycle of don’t throw away and reuse what we don’t need, it is good for the environment; (4) it creates a safe space for older workers to continue to be useful; (5) it keeps open an independent bookstore in a time when small businesses are hard-pressed to survive. The work is not selfless for me because I adore books. I like reading them, looking at them, exploring lightly ones that are far enough from my usual interests that I won’t commit the time to sit down and read. I like being in an environment where all the talk is of books.
I started at the Lantern as a way of giving back to my college. My scholarship came from the proceeds of the New York companion to the Lantern. Having limited my work to just one Sunday a month, I was able to keep at it. If it had been a bigger commitment, I am sure I would have found it too much after a period of years, given all the other things I do. Because I could manage the time commitment, and I enjoy the work, I have kept at it. It is not my only volunteer work, but it is a steady component of my place in the community.
A couple of years ago, I was with a group of yogis who were discussing a potential requirement to engage in seva or “selfless service.” A number of people argued that unless the work made you uncomfortable, unless it stretched your emotional and personal boundaries, the work somehow did not count. I have done volunteer work that has made me uncomfortable. I’ve done work with the elderly sick and the institutionalized neglected. I’ve served on a community board of directors where the focus was on a contentious neighborhood issue. I have grown from that work, but I was only able to do it for a year or two or three before needing to move on to something else.
Is work more “selfless” if it is difficult? Is it less selfless to do work that one frankly enjoys than work from which one derives the satisfaction of “doing good” because it is difficult and dirty? I don’t know the answer. The yoga texts would seem to indicate, I think, that if one does service for any form of gratification then it is not selfless. I would argue that it is best to do the work — with commitment — and forget about whether it also pleases. If the community benefits, the work should be done.
As I read the blogs and commentaries about the transition, I’ve been thinking a lot about John Friend’s exhortation that we should always start by looking for the good. This is a very unsettling time — economic and environmental crisis, two wars, etc, etc. I may disagree with some of the picks for cabinet, but not only am I not in charge, I neither have the desire nor the skills to be in charge. I often have an opinion about a way to enhance action, and then I try to take action to have my voice heard. I am saddened, though, by the onslaught of negativity. Hope for change does not mean instant transformation before even taking office. Why not look for the good, and then raise our voices for what else we think could make things even better. This works, too, for our own personal growth. I’ve personally experienced that when I stopped habitually criticizing myself, came to a level of acceptance and nurture and then worked for progress, that not only did I feel better, but I did change more because I wasn’t wasting energy on both the criticizing and the feeling bad.
Yesterday the mysterious beeping was beeping again in Studio 1B. I have all sorts of approaches to teaching with the beeping. One of them is to switch the attention of the ears to music. We flowed to Now by Bhagavan Das (because it was already in the CD player and I like it well enough) and listened to selections from Love Reigns by Diana Rogers during final relaxation. Monty asked me after class to give a list of some good music for home practice. Here are some of my favorite “yoga” cds in no particular order:
Krishna Das — Live on Earth; Faith of the Heart
Wah! — Hidden in the Name; Jai, Jai, Jai
Jai Uttal — Kirtan (this double CD also has a useful spoken background piece on what is kirtan)
Deva Premal — Love is Space; The Embrace
Ragani — Best of Both Worlds
Dave Stringer — Mala; Japa; Divas and Devis
Shantala — Sri; The Love Window
Many of these are available at the Willow Street Yoga Center shops. Most should be available on-line directly from the artists. Dave Stringer also has other music available for download. The rest can be obtained from Amazon. Also great listening is Invocation, which was put together by Ty Burhow. It is a collection of different artists offering versions of the Anusara invocation. Willow Street work studies are raving about MC Yogi’s Elephant Power, which is rap music telling the stories of various deities — funny and delightful.
Mostly, I prefer to teach and practice without music, but I was a dancer and find music helps to lead me into heart and body simultaneously. I find bringing music into a practice session especially helpful when I am having trouble getting settled on my mat. I do not just play “yoga” music, but play whatever gets me into the spirit of play or relaxation and contemplation as I am moved. My bias is towards chamber music (especially Bach) and Indian classical music for a late evening quiet practice and for an upbeat daytime practice anything that would go with being outside on a grassy field on a bright sunny day with frisbee players around. Alice Coltrane is also wonderful if you haven’t discovered yet her discography.
Play what enhances rather than what distracts. Also, check out the artists when they come to town: Wah!, Dave Stringer, and Shantala (Heather and Benji Wertheimer) all come to town. Enjoy!
In November 2006, the New York Times published a recipe adapted from Jim Lahey’s Sullivan Street Bakery for “no-knead”bread. I immediately adapted it further (as did many of those who commented on-line). Many thought the NYT adaptation benefited from more salt. I also have made it much more energy efficient (the NYT recipe expects the dough to rest in a 70F room and for the oven to be pre-heated for at least a half hour). In the winter, I keep my house at 62F, and pre-heating for only 10 minutes (or baking something else first that doesn’t need pre-heating) is much better for the environment.
As I was baking a loaf (whole wheat, flax seed variation) this week, I thought about how much this recipe teaches about skill and steadiness. The reason the bread doesn’t need to be kneaded, but still yields a crusty peasant-style loaf, is the high liquid content of the dough relative to kneaded breads and the very slow rise time. That one can achieve the results of active labor by mere patience and an understanding of the science of the process recalled for me something I learned at a Rod Stryker workshop a number of years ago about having a steady practice. Rod Stryker was asking students at a week-long intensive whether they had a steady meditation practice. One woman raised her hand and said that she had sat and meditated every day for 30 years. We were all thoroughly impressed. Rod Stryker asked her how long she sat. I think she said three minutes a day, it might have been five. I don’t remember exactly. I was still impressed. Not because she would claim to have a 30 year practice when it was just a few minutes a day, but that she had the self-knowledge to set an amount of time to practice that she could keep. The daily few minute sit was obviously not her only practice or she would not have been at a relatively advanced yoga workshop. It is easy not to develop a home yoga practice, a good home-cooked diet, a garden, or anything else that needs steadiness, if we set the bar too high at the beginning. We don’t want to set it too low either, but finding what we can do with steady commitment and then allowing growth to be spontaneous is the way to keep at it without feeling burdened.
Every once in a while I bake bread that takes attention every day for seven days in a row and then involvement multiple times on the day of baking. It is my having spent the time making more difficult breads that has enabled me to create variations the “no-knead bread” and know it will still come out well. The “no-knead” bread, only modestly varied, I can make whenever I’m out of bread whether I’m busy or not. It just takes throwing a few ingredients in a bowl on a night when I know I’ll be at home the next afternoon or early evening for a three-hour block of time (doing other things almost the entire time).
The basic recipe is as follows:
3 cups of flour. (At least half needs to be bread flour; you should add a tablespoon of wheat gluten for each cup that is not bread flour, e.g., whole wheat or rye.)
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
2 teaspoons salt (NYT had 1 1/4)
1 and 5/8 cups water
cornmeal or wheat bran for dusting
Day one: mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. If you store your flours in the freezer (which helps keep them fresh and lowers electricity usage because a full freezer is more efficient than an empty one), let them come to room temperature before making the dough. Dough texture is sticky. Cover bowl. Let dough rest for 15-20 hours depending on room temperature.
Day two: dough is ready when the surface is dotted with bubbles. When dough is ready, lightly flour a work surface, place dough on it, sprinkle dough with a little more flour, and fold dough over once or twice. Cover loosely and let rest for 15 minutes. Using just enough flour to keep it from sticking to work surface (I have a cutting board I use only for baking) or hands, shape dough into a ball. Coat work surface and a kitchen towel (not terry) with flour, bran or cornmeal. Place ball of dough, seam-side down on work surface and cover with floured towel. Let rise for about two hours until doubled in size and dough does not readily spring back when poked with your finger. If dough is slow rising because of cool room temperature, put near radiator or put it near stove when cooking something else and when starting to pre-heat oven.
Pre-heat oven to 450F with a 6-8 quart covered pot (cast iron, enamel, pyrex, or ceramic) in oven while pre-heating. When pot and oven are hot and dough is ready, carefully put dough, seam-side down into pot and shake pan to distribute dough more evenly. Don’t worry, it will straighten out as it bakes. Bake covered for 25-30 minutes. Then remove lid and bake for another 15 to 30 minutes until browned. Cook on rack.
Variations: Use just 1/4 cup rye flour along with bread flour. It will taste like a classic french bread. Incorporate a teaspoon or two of olive oil. Semolina flour works well and turns the loaf a beautiful shade of yellow. You can add constituted cracked wheat, but you have to know what dough should look and feel like, because it changes the moisture content. Same for oat bran. I’ve taken to adding flax seed meal into most of my baked goods for the nutritional benefits. Because flax seed meal can be used as an egg replacer, you cannot replace it one for one with flour, but if you replace a quarter cup of flour with a third cup of flax seed meal, and keep the liquid the same, it has worked for me. Try it without a variation first. Practice, enjoy. The more you know about bread-baking, the more options you have. I’ve done it with beer and molasses as part of the liquid and mostly a mix of whole wheat and rye flour to make it taste like pumpernickel. Not my favorite, but it worked.
Play in the same kind of way with your yoga practice at home. Start with a favorite pose you you learned in class. Start small. Start simple, and then let yourself get inspired by the desire to create your own variations.
11-11 is the eleventh day of the eleventh month of our calendar. It is Veterans’ Day (still on 11-11 and not on the nearest Monday). It is a day to contemplate what I, as a citizen, can do to invert a National policy of creating war and turning our young people into soldiers and then neglecting and abusing them when they come home wounded physically and psychologically. Surely, it should be the reverse: we should be doing everything we can to avoid war and then do everything we can to take care of the health and welfare of those who have served.
11-11 is also a day for me to honor my own ancestors; it is the anniversary of the day my beloved Grandmother Rose left her body.
11-11 is a day of celebration; it is my mother’s birthday. She has said that when she was a littlge child, that she thought the parades and the day off from school were for her birthday.
11-11 is also a delightful treat of relative leisure (Federal Holiday in the middle of the week).
It is rare for me that a single day has so many different personal imports. Each day, though, indeed each moment, impacts all of us so differently depending on our life circumstances. Some of those impacts just happen; some are chosen; some are how we react both to what happens and what we choose. I’ll be enjoying my day off to the fullest, but will also be sending loving energy to those in need, especially those suffering from current and past wars.
Yesterday (latest in the season ever — see interesting articles in the New York Times last month about Thoreau as a climatologist) I spent the morning bringing all my tropical plants inside. Part of the reason it was later is that I have learned that the orchids and night-blooming cyrius like nights in the low 40s and can tolerate the occasional single night in the high 30s, but most of it is that it is a warmer season than any in the decade I’ve had a significant number of tropical plants. I also bring inside the lemongrass and lemon verbena (annuals here; perennials where they are native). I also like to bring in rosemary in a container. Also, what were once small plants in growers pots are now a huge jasmine and a bay tree. When I bring all of this inside in the winter, I transform the house into a retreat. When I bring it all outside in the early spring, my tiny yard is full and lush before the annuals start flourishing.
Once the tropicals were all inside, I cleaned up, tended the beds and containers, and strew some more winter kale and baby spinach seeds (no frost in the forecast for the next 15 days — so I could have new kale and spinach through December; also, some of the seeds will wait and be the early ones that come up during that warm week we always have in February).
Putting the garden to bed has a sweetness to it. I prepare for next year, but also engage in tending what will flourish best when the days are coldest and shortest. It is a going inside, knowing that there is a need to go inside and let some things be dormant in order to flourish fully when the sun is bright and hot and calls me outside.
This type of gardening is stressful for the lower back, hips, and shoulders. Throughout the hours I am gardening, I like to engage my alignment by intermittently doing some poses, strongly integrating my shoulders, hips, and core: working strong “shins in/thighs out” I practice uttanasana (standing forward fold), utkatasana (chair pose), and adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), and maybe even handstand. It is critical to make sure not just to bend from the knees, but also to make sure you have a good lumbar curve and your tailbone is tucked, when picking up containers or other heavy objects.
At the end of several hours of gardening (bringing the tropicals inside also entails vaccuuming), I need to realign, stretch, and reintegrate, but I’m tired. I also want to practice in a way that honors and celebrates the sweet inward nature of the work I have just done. This is what works well for me:
1. Seated foot massage.
2. Balasana (child’s posture) with arms stretched out, palms, forearms, and armpits lifted. Inhaling lift underside of arms to strenthen, exhaling soften between shoulder blades to integrate.
2. Chakra vakrasana (cat/cow breathing).
3. (putting the garden to bed sun salute): Table pose (if you make sure you have good lumbar curve, table is one of the best postures for making sure hips, back, and shoulders are aligned well); Downward facing dog (play in the pose to integrate and stretch the legs and arms and strengthen your core); Palakasana (plank);Table pose; Balasana;Table.
Repeat the series several times. Add in lunges (coming into the lunges from table). Add in twists from table, threading one arm through and coming down onto that shoulder). Add in pigeon pose (with a forward bend).
4. End with legs up the wall, a supported or seated forward bend or two, and savasana.
Enjoy how this practice nourishes and realigns, but generally draws the attention inside, getting you ready to enjoy the inside while waiting for the next growing season.
ps While I was practicing, I had a big vat of tomato sauce cooking from the last (perhaps second to last) harvest of cooking tomatoes.
Now the real work begins! That is what President-Elect Obama, the headlines, the pundits, the commenters, all said, hardly pausing to savor “victory.” Unlike 1992, no one is suggesting that it is now time to party like it’s 1999. I am elated by the result, but personally most encouraged by the earnestness of the reaction, the call for selflessness and effort to begin.
In yoga, one of the primary practices is seva or selfless service. I think a critical aspect of seva is joyousness. This is not a call to knuckle down soberly as a puritanical denial of pleasure. Rather, it is a call to discover the pleasure in giving of oneself without asking anything in return. I begin, this morning, by giving financial support to certain groups that are hard at work to end war and torture and support the environment, but in dire need of support because of the financial crisis. I have celebrated this morniong with heart-opening asana, and plan to take a lunchtime walk in the neighborhood and prepare delicious food from the garden, while most of my day will be devoted to working and teaching.
Each day, as this new path opens and work continues, I will strive to remember the words of Hafiz: “[Spirit illuminates] the affairs/ Of the whole universe /While throwing wild parties/ In a tree house — on a limb / In your heart.” (The Subject Tonight is Love, 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, Versions by Daniel Ladinsky).
I was first taught that adhikara meant “studentship.” Although that is not a literal translation, adhikara implies a dedication and steadiness in the student that makes the student worthy of receiving the teachings (of yoga). As I was steadying myself during this momentous time and working in the garden, I was thinking about how the principle of adhikara applies to so many aspects of life, including gardening and being a citizen.
One of the literal translations for adhikara is “competence.” What is the competence one needs to have in order to participate in the study? As I harvested the last of the peppers and eggplants and pulled up the plants, making room to sow another round of greens (not too late in my sunny, protected yard in the city), and decided to leave the orchids out for another week, I thought about how I knew what to do when in my garden. By being present and observant for two decades in my yard alone, I have grown competent to know what will likely grow in my little patch of earth and for how long into the season, depending on the year’s weather. My initial competence, when I started this garden almost 20 years ago, was some basic training in other gardens, reading technical books, and enthusiasm. My consistent efforts to learn yielded results delightful to me from the beginning. As I have continued my studentship in the garden, my appreciation grows. The same is true for me also with cooking, relationships, and my participation in the community (not necessarily in that order).
The fundamental competence of a student is having the basic skills to participate at the level of the teachings. For a gardener, it is recognizing our climate, our space limitations, and our soil, and being open to learning what can be changed in a particular space and what must be accepted. For a citizen, it is knowing basic civics, what are the most relevant issues for us and society at large, and what we can change and what we must accept (I think knowing the subtle differences between what we can change and what we must accept is incredibly difficult). For yoga, it is much the same: we must know what are true limits and what are false ones and be consistently present, practice steadily, and be ever open, not only to studying, but to the fruits of study (expected or not).
I cannot change the weather, nor guarantee how other voters will vote, but I can continue to maintain the adhikara necessary to be a fully engaged student of this life on all days and not just the days it is fun or gratifying. The yoga, on a day like today, is to act fully, accepting, and perhaps even appreciating, the limits on what I can control.