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Why Study Yoga? (and Pete Seeger’s 90th)

In the session yesterday, in discussing the Siva Sutras, Paul Muller-Ortega said that the whole of the teachings are in the very first sutra, even in the first word (caitanyam — consciousness).  For students who, on hearing the first word from their teacher,  say “got it, I understand fully,” no further teaching is necessary.  For the students who say, “please explain further, what does it mean?” more elaboration is needed.

What does it mean, though, to “get it?”  What do we do with the teachings of yoga?  How do we integrate them into our lives?  I practice and study yoga because it is teaching me how to be stronger, more flexible, more grounded, and better able to serve.  Some people I know already have that.  They are already living the yoga, so they do not need the details and the practices.

As a reminder of one who has been living a rich, full life of service and love, enjoy this video of Pete Seeger in honor of his 90th birthday.  (If you cannot see this link, please just do a search for videos, using your favorite search engine.)

Balasana (child’s pose)

Whenever I am studying with John Friend, and we are invited to move into balasana I recall as story he told of seeing Gurumayi move into the pose.  He told us of the reverence with which she did the pranam — the bowing forward to touch the earth as she went into the pose.  I like to start my asana practice with balasana because it reminds me to honor the teachings, the history of the practice, my teachers, and myself for coming to the mat.  I think of the name of the pose, and I am reminded of the wonder (abhuta) of being embodied.  I think of how children marvel and delight at everything they encounter.  It is all new for them, but we can cultivate the sense of everything being new and wonderful.  When we cultivate a sense of wonder, it brings us to the other meaning of bala, which is strength.  For our lives will be stronger and fuller, if we can approach each pose on the mat, and each moment on and off the mat, with wonder and interest.

Balasana is also a good way to start the practice because it is a sweet, gentle way to open up the hips, groins, low back, and shoulders.  It is a good way to shift from more active poses towards savasana because, as a forward bend, it is inward-going and quieting.

Icarus? (and a sense of wonder)

I still have the sense of the miraculous that I could have woken up in my own bed at a reasonable hour and then had lunch in Denver with my friend Robert on the same day.  I am not sure that flying itself has the hubris of Icarus, but not marveling at it and complaining of relatively minor delays and discomfort to be able to shift one’s place in space so quickly, that is a different story.

In another world or time, most of what we take for granted would be thought magic.  My sitting here at the computer and sending these words out is its own magic, as was turning on the lights and taking a hot shower in my room.

What will seem magical and wondrous for you today?

Scary Asana Poses (and how they can serve us)

It is a good thing, I think, to do what one can to prepare for eventualities, to take reasonable precautions.  It is not optimal, though, to allow fear and anxiety prevent us from living fully each day.  I choose to continue to face fear and discomfort in my asana practice, as well as just doing the poses for which I have an innate affinity.  I practice poses that bring up fear, dislike, discomfort, and general aversion.  I do not ignore my fears and discomforts.  I learn why I have them; I practice more assiduously the preparatory strengthening or stretching poses that will give me more support in the deeper poses, so that I can be in a place where I know when my fears are appropriate cautions and when they are unnecessary anxiety.

By practicing the poses that are scary and uncomfortable and learning how to stay grounded, present, and even joyous while doing so, I have learned a lot about how to live in away that optimizes my health (physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial) and the health of those around me, without letting fear, worry or discomfort about dangers, limitations, and pitfalls limit my ability to live fully and generously with a care for the suffering and joys around me.  Yes,  I took extra care to wash my hands last night right before I started teaching a pre-natal class, but I cannot stop going out and enjoying the spring days or getting my work done for fear of swine flu; I am currently healthy.  I am not going to stop supporting local businesses because there is a recession; I still have a steady job and have no reason to curtail my spending, and I have always lived within my income.

Why Practice; Why Teach

Last night in class, I asked why people continued to come to class.  “To see how I can expand,” “for the community,” “for the delight,” “for relaxation,” were some of the answers.  Orie asked me what led me to teach.  The first reason I gave (and the one that was the primary reason for entering teacher training) was that I had been so inspired by what yoga had offered me that I wanted to share it.

The second reason I gave was that teaching helps keep me disciplined about my practice.  I cannot abide hypocrisy, and so, I feel compelled to try my best to practice what I teach.  I do not always embody fully the teachings in my own life and practice, but I am always trying.  Knowing how the teachings and practices have shifted me and witnessing how the teachings inspire my students, leads me to continue to study, to practice, to try and align better on and off the mat.

Today, with a day of stressful meetings and phone calls ahead, it will be a good day to try to live the practice.

“Jiva is Shiva”

The inside book flap on Jaideva Singh’s translation and commentary on the Pratyabijna Hrdayam, say “Jiva is Shiva.”  Singh notes that “pratyabijna” means recognition.  The tantric philosophy underlying this work holds that by have acted from absolute freedom (svatantriya) to become embodied (jiva), Shiva has forgotten his true nature.  The point of the teachings in these 20 sutras is to help us, as embodied beings who have forgotten, to remember our shiva nature.  What does this mean from a practical perspective?  I think the point is to teach us to try to act and live reverently, to try not only to choose to seek the good for ourselves and others, but to see it.

Savasana

When I first started teaching, one of the things I found most inspiring was seeing my students in savasana.  It is such a rare and precious things to see a group of people deeply relaxed, especially for someone who came to yoga essentially restless and who inhabits a workplace that is, so to speak, rather caffeinated.  For me, the practice of savasana has been transforming.  After 10 years of steady practice, my sleep has deepened and become more consistently restful, which has enhanced my ability to come from a yogic place off the mat.

Savasana is in some sense for me always the so-called “pinnacle pose” of practice.  The pinnacle pose is not necessarily the most physically challenging pose in terms of combined strength and flexibility, although it is an essential component of the sequencing of any good practice to have the poses gradually open all the parts of the body needed to do the most physically challenging pose.

When thinking about any practice and determining whether a cooling or heating, expanding or inward-going, playful or serious practice would be most appropriate, I ask whether the practice will lead to a place where is will be possible to be completely free and relaxed for 10-15 minutes?  Will the practice enable the body feel open and released, strengthened and supported, integrated and aligned, so that lying on a hard floor will seem like being on the finest bedding?  Will the focus of the practice help simultaneously free the mind of thought and burden and yet keep it focused and alert so that body and mind can surrender to the full, blissful of conscious being in the moment?  Will the practice serve to align the koshas (or sheaths) so that the outer body is soft and relaxed, the energy body full and bright, and the mind and intuitive bodies one with the anandamaya kosha (the bliss body)?

Some teachers have said that savasana is one of the most advanced of yoga poses.  I would agree.

Okra Germinated; First Roses Opened

First flower on a cherry tomato appeared overnight.  Peppers are budding.  They all like the heat.  Dill is going yellow around the edges already.  It does not like the heat.  One of the things I love most about gardening is noticing what thrives to excess and what struggles, depending on the weather patterns.  With the right balance of plants, there will always be a bumper crop of something (both edible and ornamental).  Eating locally, with consciousness acknowledgement of the limits of space and time in an affirming way,  requires accepting what are the crops of the year and being creative with them rather than finding a recipe and insisting that the ingredients be available to the detriment of flavor, pocketbook, and environment.

Fostering such a relationship to my garden and my food helps me also accept that although I can grow and shift, I ultimately cannot change certain fundamental things about myself.  It is better radically to affirm what I have been given than to try and contort myself into something that it seems society (Heideggerian “they”) would prefer.

Ready or Not Here It Comes (Summer Heat)

This morning when I stepped out into the back garden, I heard the sound of clippers on the other side of the fence.  It was my back garden neighbor of over 15 years.  “Is that you?” I asked.  “Yes,” was the reply and we both walked up onto our decks so we could see across the fences.  “It must be summer,” my neighbor said, in acknowledgment of it being the first morning of the season we coincided in the garden.  “I am so ready,” he said, and we caught up with the winter news and discussed what was going on in our gardens.  I told him about Becky, marveling at her wonderful long life of 21 years.  “It was time, then,” he commented.  “I still miss her, though,” I replied.

Yesterday, several people said to me that they were not ready for summer.  Whether people were ready (or not) for the 90 degree weather seemed to depend a lot a preference cold or warm weather.

It hardly matters whether we are ready for a shift in the seasons, the loss of a precious being, or the arrival of gray hairs and degenerative arthritis (I am finding myself  not ready for any of these, really).

Life comes to us, ready or not.  We can use our yoga practice, especially asana, to help us expand and shift and be prepared for whatever comes, by inviting all of our practice and our growth (which includes both expansion and contraction) a rich exploration.  We can experiment with where is our edge, listening to both ourselves and our teachers to discover not only what we are ready for, but also how we react when confronted with that for which we think we are not ready.  By seeking the subtle knowledge of when our mind is ahead of our body and when our mind is holding back our body, we can enhance our ability to respond to what comes in the most open, sensitive, discriminating, flexible, and thus, life-enhancing way, on and off the mat.

In the meantime, I give in to the premature summer heat.  This morning, I picked spinach and herbs to go with mushrooms from the fresh farm market for breakfast and made a posy of pansies for the altar.  Why leave them in the garden if they will just wilt in the heat?  It was a great afternoon for a siesta and a treat to be out in the city in the morning unencumbered by sweater or jacket.  For my evening practice, I will emphasize deep, cooling forward bends and pranayama.  Will I be ready for the cool days to come back at the end of the week?  I do not think I will have a choice.