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An Example of How One Door Closing Opened Another (and Article in Yoga Journal)

I think snow can be beautiful and enjoy the hush when it first falls, but it’s not my favorite thing, which was one of the reasons I settled this far south (yes, DC is pretty far south for a native New Yorker).  Last winter with its record snow falls felt at times as a seemingly endless exercise in looking for the good and trying to respond in the highest.  Among other fallout of the snow, the February blizzard grounded my flight to San Francisco where I was supposed to go to celebrate the start of John Friend’s 2010 workshop schedule and to visit friends.  Instead, I was home shoveling.  With the arthritis in my spine and some other old injuries to groin and shoulder, I had to be extra careful with my alignment so that shoveling could be an enjoyable work out instead of a dreary and potentially debilitating task that I was doing instead of playing with friends and yogis in San Francisco.  Being grounded at home and needing to be in alignment with the shoveling, led me to blog about Anusara alignment for snow shoveling.  Putting this advice out there led to an editor at Yoga Journal discovering my blog and interviewing me for a short article that (I haven’t seen it yet–waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail, but a friend who was reading the most recent edition at Willow Street’s Silver Spring studio gave me the heads up last night) is in December’s magazine (page 22).

While missing out on a vacation due to weather is not exactly a momentous disappointment or life challenge, this story is an example of how we never know what life is going to bring our way.  We cannot choose what life gives us, but we can choose how we respond, and how we respond will change how the path unfolds.  I persist in the yoga and meditation and share my teachings and experiences because it has been so helpful in opening my perspective and finding more delight and opportunity in life.  In that regard, one of the reasons I challenge myself on the mat, inviting myself into places of discomfort and effort and staying with them until I find ease and even delight, is to help me be able to see the good and to respond in the healthiest and most optimal way on and off the mat.  While I love sometimes just to do the easeful poses, what has brought more strength and joy to all of my life is going deep into the hard places and staying with them.

Some Books About Gurus

As I have discussed with a few of you, I have been contemplating deeply and for a long time the questions of what is a guru and who is a guru.  In the context of this contemplation, I read to enhance my background and understanding, deepen my contemplation, and give myself food for thought or additional exploration.  Here are some books that I have in my library about gurus or those who have been labeled gurus (in no particular order).  Some are written with loving devotion by disciples.  Some question or comment on the interrelationship between the status of guru and the sometimes all too human foibles of the guru and his disciples.  Some are of the guru’s own experience of practice and his relationship with his own guru.

Be Love Now, Ram Dass, HarperOne (New York, NY 2010)

Miracle of Love — Stories About Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass, E.P. Dutton (New York, NY 1979)

Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Self-Realization Fellowship (13th Ed., reprinted 2001)

The Golden Guru — The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, James S. Gordon, The Stephen Green Press (Lexington, Mass. 1987)

My Guru and His Disciple, Christoper Isherwood, Penguin Books (New York, NY 1981)

Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY 1970)

Great Swan — Meetings with Ramakrishna, Lex Hixon, Shambhala Dragon Editions (Boston, Mass. 1992)

Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa, SYDA Foundation (South Fallsburg, NY 1996)

The Buddha from Brooklyn — A Tale of Spiritual Seduction, Martha Sherrill, Vintage Books (New York, NY 2001)

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, Stephen Cope, Bantam (New York, NY 1999)

At the Eleventh HourThe Biography of Swami Rama, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Himalayan Institute Press (Honesdale, Pa. 2001)

Play of Consciousness, Swami Muktananda Paramahansa, SYDA Foundation (Oakland Ca. 1974)

The Great Oom — the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, Robert Love, Viking Press (New York, NY 2010)

ps Jess–Yes, the widget for Library Thing is coming for the website.  I just need to add more books, so that it is a decent start at a representation of at least the yoga-related portion of my library.

Using Technique to Express the Virtue We Wish to Embody

I got a ride home from the John Friend workshop in Bryn Athyn with my friend, colleague, and student Jen.  Jen’s husband, who is a dance professor at a local college, and her three-year old daughter came up to Philadelphia and visited friends during the day while we were at the workshop.  For the initial part of the road trip home, we sang several rounds of “if you are happy and you know it clap your feet,” a days of the week song, a counting song that involved a wiggle (or was it a wriggle) and a jump, the alphabet, and I think maybe “loop-de-loop,” and had some snacks, after which Jen’s daughter moved into silence and then sleep.  Before moving into silence ourselves, we spent some time talking about what we had learned and experienced at the workshop.

“Do you have any good sound bites from the weekend?” Jen’s husband asked.  I said I did not have any particular sound bites per se, although there were a few things that would definitely provide inspiration for teaching and blogging.  “I have a good one that I think will make sense to you,” said Jen.  “John said that we can use technique to express the virtue we wish to embody.”  What I liked about the statement is that it put in universal terms that would appeal to a dancer and dance professor, or anyone who understands how technique assists the clarity of artistic expression, an essential element of the yoga philosophy and Anusara principles without requiring prior knowledge of the philosophy or principles.

The statement is an encapsulation of the “three A’s of Anusara” — “attitude, alignment, and action,” which are the essence of practice (also see my previous post on how these principles correspond to the tattvas).  We always seek in every part of our practice and in every pose to open to grace, to soften and receive, to be open to the fullness of life and love, to see and reveal the good.  This is our “attitude.”  The universal principles of alignment are technique.  They are not just technique for the sake of perfecting technique, to discipline ourselves, or to make ourselves or our practice “correct.”  Rather, learning and practicing the alignment principles in an ever deeper and more refined way enable us to express more clearly and elegantly our attitude — in a word, embody the virtue of being open to grace.

The songs we were singing in the beginning of the car ride, with an attitude of delight, also can serve the purpose of helping a child naturally to embody virtue.  Jen’s daughter was having fun with the sing-along toy.  She wasn’t singing because she needed to learn numbers, days of the week, and the alphabet to pass a test or to make sure she was right or to please her parents.  They were cheerful and fun for her.  When she sang along, it was out of delight.  She was, though, learning beginning language and arithmetic skills that will help her communicate and get on better in society.   As she grows older, in the absence of these skills, it would be hard for her to express her joyous spirit in a way that deepens conversation, relationship, and ability to participate fully in the obligations of society.   When we learn technique — in whatever area — we will be furthering our ability to embody virtue if we use the technique to enhance our skills to work for, offer, and express peace, love, nurture, and growth, rather than learning technique for the sake of accomplishment, worthiness of praise or remuneration, or needing to be correct.

A Helpful Reminder

At the weekend workshop in Bryn Athyn yesterday, John Friend reminded us of the scientific fact that our energy flows to where we put our mind. As a physical matter, if we think about our little toe or our tailbone, for example, we will be better able to access it.

As a mental matter, if we think about something we just did or need to do or think we should do, our energy will be diverted to that place.

There are even more profound implications with respect to where we let our mind dwell when we are practicing. Our practice deepens and helps us embody intention (sankalpa). If we dwell on something that is making us angry or suffer while we are practicing, we will actually etch those emotions more deeply into ourselves.

This is not to say that we should not practice when we are suffering or in conflict. Nor does it mean that we should beat ourselves up when “negative” emotions or thoughts arise during our practice. Rather, the awareness of the repercussions of dwelling on and feeding what does not serve is a reminder of the benefits of turning our minds towards the good — perhaps a yearning to be at peace or free from suffering or other positive intention while we are practicing when we are feeling challenged. We use the practice not just to release what does not serve, but choose to refocus our minds so that through the practice we can embody a state of mind and body that better serves us and helps us to respond from a higher place to those things that are painful or hurtful. Ideally, we turn towards what is light, nourishing, and balanced (sattvic), not out of compunction, but because it is more delightful.

“Hugging to the Midline” (and discipline/discipleship)

Last night in group practice a student asked what she could do to keep her standing leg upper thigh/outer groin from cramping in ardha chandra chapasana (sugar cane pose).  I responded that she probably was not using her inner thighs enough; she need to hug more to the midline.  Another student pointed out that it is very challenging to hug to the midline in an asymmetrical pose.

Anyone who studies Anusara yoga has heard the teacher say “hug to the midline.”   The physical instructions most often given to help the student do so, are “shins in” (coupled with “thighs back and apart”) or “isometrically draw your heels/feet together” (or hands in an arm balance or elbows/forearms in pincha mayurasana or sirsasana).  “Hugging to the midline” is one of the three aspects of “muscular energy,” the second of the five “Universal Principles of Alignment” in Anusara yoga.

To help find the midline in an asymmetrical  pose, I invited the students to do a partner exercise in ardha chandrasana (balancing half moon pose).  One student went into the pose.  The other student stood behind the one in the pose and place a hand or forearm underneath the lifted ankle of the student in the pose.  The student in the pose then pressed down energetically into her friend’s support.  The student was then able to find how to do “shins in” with the lifted leg.  What all the students discovered was that by working with far more enthusiasm and power to the midline, it was much easier to open the heart into a deep back bend in the pose.  As it was a backbending practice, we also explored the principle in various one-legged backbends, including eka pada ustrasana (one-legged camel pose) and eka pada urdva danurasana (one -legged wheel pose).  The students who might not otherwise have been able to find these poses, discovered that if they hugged with heartfelt enthusiasm to the midline, they found an ability to do a pose that they might otherwise have thought beyond their reach.

This alignment principle was a perfect way to illustrate the theme of the practice, which was discipline as discipleship to the light (see yesterday’s blog post).  All of the alignment principles in Anusara yoga are designed to get us deeper into our hearts; it is an added benefit that they make us stronger, more flexible, more secure in our bodies, healthier, and more energetic.  Hugging to the midline will definitely help us engage our core muscles, thus giving us more strength and tone.  As an energetic matter, hugging to the midline draws us into the central channel, the sushumna nadi — the place of grace where the kundalini energy rises.

When we are practicing sincerely, we are not just seeking to achieve a pose or get stronger or even to have kundalini experiences.  We do not discipline ourselves for some external goal.  Rather, out of the deepest longing to connect, we engage the principles to align our energetic and physical bodies so that we can be more in the flow and find more capacity to soften and expand our hearts and carry that into our lives, lifestyles, and relationships.  The physical practice can show us how this works, and then, when we are aware, pulses us back to our true desire.  More than the physical act of hugging to the midline makes it easier to do a heart-opener (backbend) and the energetic act of drawing to the midline may stimulate the flow of the kundalini energy, the discipline of drawing in to find the light will help us soften and expand the heart center so that we can reside more deeply there, and thus experience and share more joy, love, and compassion.