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Spirituality and Politics Do Mix (but maybe not at the Thanksgiving meal)

Yesterday I received a rather negative email in response to my posting a suggestion on a list serve connected to a religious organization that people write to their elected officials about the health care bill pending in the Senate.  I sent the email because my contribution to this group is to serve as the designated liaison between a lobbying group that was established by the religious organization and the religious organization.  Once of month or so, I highlight issues that are the focus of the lobbying groups email campaigns.  The email took me to task for thinking that politics has any place in connection with spiritual practice and therefore the on-line discussion should never be about politics.  The person assured me that our political views were different, although I did not actually suggest what people should write; I only said that they should write.  I have been pondering this deeply as it is a topic I have thought about, taught about, and wrestled with deeply over the years, especially during the Presidential elections.

As one who believes that body, mind, and community are inseparable from spirit, I am unable to separate political action from spiritual action.  I believe that I have a duty to be knowledgeable about the issues challenging society as a whole, to take action within the framework of society to seek the embodiment of my spiritual beliefs (grossly oversimplified, that the rules, commitments, and support networks of society should recognize the light of all beings — human and not — and foster the seeking of that light by all), and to challenge the very framework of the discussion and rules when they obscure the light and its recognition.

One of the reasons for discussion is to explore, to learn, to be challenged, to expand both knowledge and understanding.  That can be a hard process.  I certainly do not expect people to agree with each other at all times, but that is not the point of discussion. While I think this sort of discussion perfectly appropriate in the context of a spiritual discussion, it might be less welcome where what is being sought is an immediate sense of peace and harmony in the connection of a particular practice.  For example, if it is known that family and friends have strong disagreements about “political” issues, it might be disagreeable for digestion and the day to bring up the issues at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Thanksgiving Week Sequencing Gift (and Kidney Loop)

My students this fall and those of you following the blog know that I have been teaching the basic Anusara physical principles of alignment in sequence as the focus of my weekly classes.  I did not set out to do so at the beginning of the session, nor did I pick it just for this week, but it just so happens that using my session theme and sequence brings us to “kidney loop” for the Thanksgiving week.

John Friend’s  Anusara Teacher Training Manual explains that kidney loop  starts in the core of the abdomen, just below the navel.  It flows up the back body to fill and open the kidney area to the bottom of the shoulder blades, moves forward through the top of the diaphragm (heart focal point) to the base of the sternum, and then down the solar plexus to just below the navel.  The act of opening the back body at our core before engaging the front body helps enhance and refine the physical aspects of the fundamental Anusara alignment principle of “opening to grace.”  By opening the back body, we open to the unknown, to that which is greater than ourselves, to untapped sources of power.  Opening in this way, draws in and strengthens the front body and helps us find our own inner power.

Among other things for me to give thanks is the very beauty of this magical sequencing moment:  What better way to celebrate and honor the tradition of Thanksgiving than by recognizing that we are not fully in charge, by opening in such a way that we are not hardening, demanding, or constricting ourselves, but rather are seeking an opening of the spirit that can bring us to a place of recognition and empowerment.

“Holiday Madness” (and the Yamas and Niyamas of Patanjali)

When I googled (that should not be a verb) “holiday madness”  this morning, I got one million three hundred thousand hits.  Yikes!  Most relevant websites are about surviving shopping, over-eating, family, and travel.  Madness in such a situation is a choice.  We can choose what to consume, how much, when, and with whom.  It is a choice whether “celebration” requires consumption beyond what our financial, physical, and emotional means permit.

The yamas and niyamas as revealed by Patanjali provide beautiful structure for thinking about the holidays.

Yamas:

Ahimsa–non-harming.  Don’t consume more than is harmful to yourself, those who have created what you are consuming, and the earth.

Satya — truthfulness.  Be honest with yourself about what is right for you to celebrate and observe and what brings meaning to you as a holiday celebration.

Asteya — non-stealing.  Consuming beyond your means, especially financially, is a form of stealing (look at what generated the recession).

Brahmacharya — moderation (aligning with Brahma).  Enjoy the offerings of the earth in a way that uplifts rather than sickens or detracts from spirit and self.

Aparigraha — non-greediness; non-covetousness.  Enjoy what you have without coveting or trying in a detrimental way to have what others have and you do not.

Niyamas

Sauca — cleanliness, purity.  Consume in a way that is healthy for yourself and the planet, that does not create illness, refuse, and waste.

Samtosha — contentment.  Wherever you are, whatever you have, whatever is going on in your work and family life, think of that for which you are grateful, that which brings you happiness, and focus on what you have.  Contentment is a practice.

Tapas — fire, ardor.  Be on fire to practice, to shift, to make this a life-fulfilling year of generosity and compassion.

Svadyaya — study of text, self-study.  Take the holidays as an opportunity to deepen your understanding of yourself, society, and your spiritual beliefs and how they interrelate.

Ishvara pranadhana — surrender, recognition of the spirit.  Let go a little.  Surrender to a sense of fullness.  Allow the abundance and recognize it as a wondrous gift. Remember the word “holiday” is really two words:  “holy day.” Make this time holy, whether or not you observe a particular religious tradition at this time of year or any other.

Vegan Pumpkin Walnut Quick Bread

This is dense, moist, sweet, and fairly healthy as Thanksgiving type treats go:

1.  Beat together:

1/4 cup walnut oil (or safflower or canola if you are avoiding nuts)

1/2 cup sucanat

1/2 cup maple syrup

dash of salt

2.  cream 2 cups of pureed pumpkin into oil/sweetener mixture

3.  mix together:

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

2 1/2 tsps baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

dried powdered ginger, allspice, and cinnamon to taste (1/2 to 1 tsp each)

4.  incorporate dry ingredients into wet until just blended

5.  stir in chopped, toasted walnuts (optional)

The batter will be thick.  Spoon into two oiled loaf pans and smooth the top with a large spoon or spatula.  Bake for 30-40 minutes at 325F until a skewer or knife comes out clean.  The bread will not rise much, but will have more of the appearance of a coffee cake.  If you like, you could make a strudel topping.  Let cool for about 10 minutes in the pan and then cool further on wire racks.

At Your Request (Grown Up Cranberry Sauce)

I was first taught how to make cranberry sauce in 3rd or 4th grade.  We made the recipe off of the back of the bag, which recipe I am fairly certain is still on the bag of “conventionally grown” cranberries.  The recipe is:  One bag cranberries + one cup water + one cup sugar.  Bring all ingredients to a boil.  Maintaining a vigorous simmer, stir continuously until most of the cranberries have popped and the liquid has thickened.  Allow to cool.  OK to make in advance; store in refrigerator.  From that time on, we did not eat cranberry sauce from a can, which was a big deal in the late 60s, early 70s.

This year’s variation is organic and uses some local ingredients.  Three generous cups (this is about the same as the typical bag of cranberries) of cranberries + one cup apple cider + 1/2 cup sucanat + a splash of cognac or brandy.  Maintaining a vigorous simmer, stir continuously until most of the cranberries have popped and the liquid has thickened.  Allow to cool.  Optional:  add another splash of cognac while cooling.  OK to make in advance; store in refrigerator.

Variations:  (1) use pomegranate juice instead of cider; include a vanilla bean and a sliver of lemon rind while cooking.  (2) replace cognac or brandy with Calvados and include a cinnamon stick while cooking. (3) replace the cider with orange juice, the cognac with triple sec, and use turbinado sugar instead of sucanat.  The variations are many.  Just have the types of fruit, flavorings (spices and liquor) meld with eachother, and make sure there is enough sugar to gel the sauce.

Affirmation and Iccha Shakti (Pelvic Loop 2)

Instead of being able to walk into the office with the first thing scheduled a regular 10am conference call, this morning I have to be across town to appear on a panel discussion with the Director of my Office.  This means I have to leave the house at least an hour earlier than I usually do.  As I am heading into a more stressful workday than a typical one, skipping meditation and my morning walk would not be optimal.

I made sure I was out of bed the minute I got my wake-up call (currently Vedic chanting).  It was the will to practice (the embodied, stepped down version of iccha shakti, which is the ultimate will to being) that got me into meditation cushion.  It will be getting out of the house 20 minutes earlier that will give me the time to walk to a more distant bus or metro stop so that I feel invigorated and refreshed before the talk.

Sometimes we do not get into poses because we lack the will to do so.  Keeping pelvic loop engaged requires will.  Some people naturally love the feeling of keeping the buttocks engaged, the pelvic floor lifted, and the belly toned.  Others (myself included) have to develop a keen sense of will to keep the lower torso engaged, to keep with and enhance the intensity of sensation and concentrated action.  The more I practice, the more will I have to stay engaged because I have experienced that the challenge of staying intensely engaged is worth the lightness and freedom that ensues.  For me, this is true in my yoga and meditation practice and in nearly everything else (which includes, sometimes, having the will to rest and relax).

Pelvic Loop (and self-affirmation)

I contemplated long and hard about how to teach the Anusara principle of pelvic loop.  If students are already tending to bring the tops of the thighs forward, without doing enough inner spiral enhanced by thigh loop (which together take the tops of the thighs back and apart and brings curve to the lumbar spine), it would not be helpful to invite them to engage in an action, which if done as a primary movement, will tend to take the curve out of the lower back and bring the tops of the thighs forward, making movement even more limited.

Even if we have the tendency to tuck the buttocks and tailbone too much, we are not necessarily engaging out core, and pelvic loop, when done in proper sequence, really helps us to affirm and find our own strength — and no one should miss out on the opportunity to do that.  So crucial to thinking about pelvic loop (especially being myself a reformed  “tucker”) are the following:

1.  The loops are bilateral and can move separately.  This means it is not just bringing the whole of the pelvis forward by a single, central big movement of the tailbone, but using the muscles on each side of the pelvis independently to engage pelvic loop.

2. Although ultimately, all of the principles are done at the same time, they are also done sequentially.  A student said last night that doing pelvic loop in a seated position made her feel “lifted up away from the ground.”  Once I said to remember that part of “opening to grace” is settling and getting heavy, and we always do “open to grace” first, she was better able to understand how to refine her seat with pelvic loop.  Instead of lifting her thighs and pelvic bones, she left her bones heavy and drew her muscles in to firm the buttocks, tone the pelvic floor muscles, and lift the belly to support up-rising energy in the spine, which gave her a sense of power and upliftment, even as she kept a feeling of being rooted to the earth.

3.  Last week I wrote and taught about using “thigh loop” to get out of our own way, to choose actively to tip the longest bones in our body into the back plane of our body so that we have more range of movement, freedom, and flexibility in our pelvis and low back.  Only after we have made the physical and energetic shift of thigh loop can we really tap into and affirm our own power.  If we are still jutting forward (literally and metaphysically) then when we try to tap into power, we will just get more in our way.  When we have gotten out of our own way and moved into the back body, then we can better find our power.  We still start in the back body, but we affirm the spaciousness and freedom we have created and are able to find a place of empowerment and soar.  For example, it is my experience that taking the thighs back and apart is a big part of what gets us into arm balances, but firming the buttocks and engaging the pelvic floor and lower belly muscles that keep us up and give us the ability to choose where to go once we get there.

4.  Off the mat, it may be nice to get out of our own way, but then what?  Shedding or moving what is blocking or inhibiting us is not for the purpose of having nothing, but so that we are then able to affirm the worth of our own being and find our own power so that we can be more joyous and more generous.