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Observing Another Storm Pass without Raining (and a moment of truth)

The third front in a row.  It is starting to be a long while not to rain in the summer.  It is a tough gardening year:  extreme drought conditions all winter, overly cool and wet spring, now no rain again.

Watching how the erratic weather patterns are impacting my garden, I am reminded that I am not a purist about gardening or food or my impact on the earth.   As much as I enjoy tending my garden and eating its fruits, there is no hesitation in my mind that if my garden does not produce, I will buy more food at the farmers’ market.  If the pickings are slim at the farmers’ market because of local conditions, I am in no doubt that I will buy food from whatever source, even if I try to make sure it is first local, then humanely picked, then organic.

When I write about gardening and eating and yoga, I am sharing what I enjoy, what makes me feel healthy.  I do not think of myself as trying to set an example.  In some senses, my yoga practice is similarly about what works for me personally and no more.  The yoga teachings are fairly clear that the design and purpose of aligning with the subtle energies, including living in a more peaceful, less destructive way, is for the enlightenment of the individual practitioner and not for “making the world a better place.”  If by seeking to live in a healthier, more aligned, more peaceful and compassionate way ourselves also brings more global benefits, that is a bonus.

Looking at our lives from this perspective could cause discouragement.  I hear this question all the time:  “why should I change what I am doing [consuming/eating/driving]?  My behavior is not going to change the world when there are all of those billions not changing.”  In some senses, looking at shifting our behavior from a completely selfish perspective makes it more accessible and meaningful.  If we see our choices having the possibility of making ourselves healthier, happier, and more at peace with ourselves and the world around us, why would we not want to try to live more consciously?

Shiva — By Almost Any Name (Summer Session Theme)

This summer, we will be exploring a very few of the names of Shiva and how they can draw us to a better understanding of ourselves on and off the mat.

According to the sources, Shiva has either 108 names or 1,000.  Each name has a different meaning.  All of the meanings point to aspects of our own being that are worthy of contemplation.  Some aspects will resonate more deeply for us.  Some less so.

For me, besides my almost childlike delight in of lists, words, and myths, contemplating the various aspects is of deep usefulness in exploring my understanding of myself on and off the mat.  The various names describe different aspects  human nature and how we relate to others and the earth.

The multiplicity of the names also highlights that each of us names and experiences spirituality in a unique way and should have the freedom to do so.  (As an aside, I think this multiplicity of forms of worship could be seen as a kind of rebellion within a rigid system of religious laws, but that is a whole other set of thoughts).

In using these forms of meditation as part of our yoga practice or otherwise, whether we meditate on highly abstract notion of “Shiva” representing the auspicious nature of all beings or on one of the names that points to individual aspects of personality, contemplation on any aspect or name can be used to deepen our relation to our best self so that we can be more aligned with our world inside and out.

For class this summer, we obviously cannot get to more than a very few.  Feel free to send to me your suggestions about names to highlight.

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.

Prana+Yama or Prana+Ayama (and Global Climate Change)

The other day a friend commented that it seemed that a major contributor to global climate change is how we have set out to control our environment instead of aligning with it (my paraphrase).  So much, he said, of what contributes to global climate change is how we heat and cool and light our homes and work places.  For example, instead of honoring the change of seasons, we overcool in summer and overheat in winter, so that we can wear the same clothes and eat the same foods year round in apparent comfort.

This comment resonated with me deeply.  It brought to mind what I have been taught about possible approaches to pranayama — the yoga practice of conscious breathing.  Pranayama usually as translated as breath control or restraint.  This assumes that the conjunction in sanskrit is of the two words “prana” and “yama.”  Prana here refers to the subtle energy of the life force in general, which we can understand best through the breath.  Yama means restraint.  If, however, we think of pranayama as the conjunction of “prana” and “ayama,” which is a reasonable way of looking at the way the word is formed, we can understood pranayama to be the practice of expansion or alignment with prana.

When we seek with our yoga breathing practices on the mat or with our technology and lifestyles off the mat to restrain and control nature at the expense of listening and understanding, we will be at war with ourselves and the earth.  If, however, we seek to align better with nature on and off the mat, to expand and enhance our relationship with the life force, rather than to restrain and control nature, we will expand our awareness of the subtle forces of the earth and live in a more life-affirming way.

Guru Purnima (without a “guru”)

A yoga teacher acquaintance once said rather dogmatically to me that it was not possible to be a true yoga teacher unless one had a guru.  He meant having a guru in the traditional sense — being devoted to a particular person as the embodiment of the divine and of the true teachings.  I did not engage on the issue, thinking (perhaps unfairly) that he would not listen to another point of view.

I do not have a guru in the technical sense.  It would be unlikely.  I was raised attending unprogrammed meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers), where services are premised on the idea that there should be no preacher or minister because the light of the spirit shines equally in all and that each person is equally able to connect through his or her own faith and practice to the spirit.  My first major exposure to the teachings of yoga was through the writings of J. Krishnamurti, which a teacher in an alternative program in high school I attended gave us to read, along with the classic yoga texts.  Krishnamurti believed that all change comes from within and eschewed devotion to a guru.

Although I do not have a particular guru to whom I give my devotion (bhakti), I strive to honor and recognize that our true teacher is the light and spirit that is within all beings.  The first line of the Anusara invocation — om namah shivaya gurave — resounds with truth for me.

On this guru purnima, the full moon of July, I honor the teachings that have so shifted my life, my teachers, especially John Friend and Suzie Hurley, and all of my students and friends, who shine with light always, and who inspire me to try each day to live more aligned with the ideals of yoga.

Mailing List Challenges (FYI)

Just wanted to let you know that the last two newsletters I’ve sent have had significantly more returned mail than usual.  If you have changed your email since you first subscribed and you wish to continue to receive occasional e-mailings about workshops and other happenings, please go to the website and re-subscribe.

I am also getting returns from a few regulars.  Please check your spam settings (especially if you are an AOL or Gmail user) and make sure to add my e-mail to your address book.  If you haven’t gotten the July newsletter I sent today and wish to receive it, please email me directly at rosegardenyoga@gmail.com, and I will forward it to you.

I remind myself that I would not have these minor tribulations without having the joys of technology.   I think it is worth it.

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.

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.

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?

Vinyasa Krama (and Anusara Sequencing Principles)

Vinyasa krama — the art or essence of sequencing is meant to help us align in space and time, so that we experience being and practice in the most optimal way.  Last time I was with John Friend, he gave as a homework assignment, writing down Anusara sequencing principles.  What I found wonderful about thinking this through, was it was not just about how to sequence a practice to reach a particular apex pose (though that is an important aspect of designing a class or practice).  Here’s the list I came up with (not in any particular order and I am sure I’ve left some out):

First principle (open to grace always comes first)

Attitude, alignment, action

Open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy

Set the foundation of the pose first (for teaching and observing this also applies to looking to the foundation first)

Breath leads the way

Stabilize the periphery, move from the core

Root to rise

Major principles before applying refinements (i.e., open to grace, ME, IS, OS, OE before loops)

Sensitivity, stability, adjustment (for hands on/therapeutic adjustments)

Curvature before length (spinal alignment)

Shins in, thighs out

Initiate actions from the back body

I could blog about these for weeks and how, although they are simply articulated physical alignment principles, they would apply to actions off of the mat.