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Being a good guest (why not to drink bottled water)

In The Yoga of Discipline, Swami Chidvilasananda says that we should eat in such a way that the earth is happy to have us as a guest.  (See Thanksgiving blog).  As I get ready for the holiday season — a time of being a guest and receiving guests — I continue to contemplate this exhortation.  We’ve all had the house guests who seem to ravage our homes and our larders without any apparent appreciation for our hospitality, leaving us exhausted after they are gone.  We have other guests, who make us feel gracious, whose way of relating to our home and our hospitality makes us want to invite them in further and helps us enjoy our own home and food more.

My favorite guest is the one who makes herself at home, helps herself, and is delighted with offers of specially prepared meals or touches to the guest room.  The ones who invade private spaces and make a mess and, on the opposite side, those who tiptoe around and refuse nearly every attempt to make the visit special, are equally difficult.

How can we be a good guest of the earth?  Not only should we be grateful for what we are given, but we should not take more than is offered from the heart.  Here’s a practical example:  it takes about 60 ounces of water to bring you a 20 ounce plastic bottle of water.  The earth cheerfully offers the 20 ounces of water as nourishment.  Taking the 60 ounces, when 40 ounces is waste and destruction and only 20 ounces is for nourishment, is like being the kind of guest that exhausts you rather than enriches you by honoring your hospitality.  I’d love to hear other practical examples from you about how to be a more gracious guest of the earth.

Hanuman — Adamantine

When I prepare to teach a workshop, I usually do a fair amount of background reading in addition to preparing the asana practice and contemplating the theme.  Right now, I am getting ready to teach a workshop on the hidden powers of hanumanasana (See Workshops page for more info).  A few weeks ago, I came across a tattered 1987 edition of an Indian publication of the Ramayana by Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. I was planning to read other works about Hanuman, but thought that I must be meant to read this one.

It is an interesting little book.  Chakravarti, also known as “Rajaji” was the first Indian governor-general of India and a close compatriot of Gandhi.  The work is interesting from a historical perspective.  It was first published in 1951 in Tamil and then translated from Tamil into English.  The purpose of the work was to make the Ramayana accessible to those who were not educated in Sanskrit and philosophy.  Although purportedly for children, it obviously had appeal for a wider audience (the 1987 edition I found was the 25th).  Rather than a translation, it is a retelling of the story, filled with homilies and somewhat paternalistic commentaries. Although because it is faithful to the story it still has the relentless sexism of the original, Rajaji does tell his readers in his commentary that the commonly held belief (supported by the language of the Ramayana, which is regarded as a religious text) that a woman has sinned or is shamed if “a villain behaves like a brute” to her is just wrong.

What was most interesting to me about this particular telling of the Ramayana, aside from its historical and social context, was how it resonated with my Anusara studies.  When Hanuman first battles the demons, Rajaji says the demons “showered missiles on him which mostly glanced harmlessly off his adamantine frame.”  Rajaji uses the word “adamantine” to describe Hanuman elsewhere in the work. Here, Hanuman is adamantine because his devotion and steadiness make an energetically impermeable boundary.  Hanuman is able to love deeply and to engage in battle fully, but is protected from the inside out by his practice and his devotion.  John Friend speaks often of using one’s practice to become “adamantine.”  He suggests that the practice of opening to grace, and then pulsing a perfect balance between drawing in and reaching out energetically (muscular and organic energy), gives us an adamantine core that enables us to be open to a full range of experience without being harmed by negative things.  I have experience myself from six steady years of Anusara practice, how the principles can indeed help me be open, while keeping negative energy from invading my space.

A used copy of this edition would likely have been around when John Friend was traveling in India when he first went to the Siddha yoga ashram.  Did reading this particular edition lead him to use the word “adamantine” in the context of his teaching of the energetics of asana?  I do not have an answer to that question, nor should I conjecture.  What I do know, is that regardless of how I feel about some of the exterior social influences and teachings of the great Indian texts (think how I might feel about the Spanish Inquisition as it relates to the Bible), there is much to learn about meditation, yoga practice, and personal integrity interwoven in the stories.

Other readings:

The Concise Ramayana of Valmiki by Swami Venkatesananda (much more scholarly — the translation you would read if you were taking a university course, but didn’t know Sanskrit)

The Ramayana retold by William Buck — easy to read; like reading a novel-length fairy tale rendition for adolescents (changes the ending to make what happens to Sita more palatable)

The Ramayana — A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon.  Great novel.  Cannot recommend highly enough, but probably won’t resonate as much unless you are familiar with the Ramayana and other Indian epics and philosophy.

The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz, trans. from the Spanish by Helen Lane.  From the back cover:  “Hanuman, the red-faced monkey chief and ninth grammarian of Hindu mythology, is the protagonist of this dazzling prose poem — a mind journey into the temple city of Galta and the occasion … to explore the nature of naming and knowing, time and reality, and fixity and decay.”

Food, family, friends, life (and leftovers)

Yesterday I celebrated the bounty of Thanksgiving with my friend Pat and her children, which was just delightful.  The food was bounteous and delicious, but not to the point of groaning excess.  While I was at the yoga fundraiser in Takoma Park, Pat and the children were cooking.

Jonathan, who is eight, made the cranberry sauce.  Being the superb cook that she is, Pat said it’s just the recipe on the back of the bag (one bag cranberries, one cup sugar, one cup water, cook until the cranberries are split and liquid starts to gel), except that she replaced the water with apple juice, replaced the sugar with brown sugar and halved the amount, added currents (nice touch), and then put in orange rind, cinnamon, all spice, cloves, and powdered ginger.  Only a true cook would think that is just the recipe on the back of the bag, but I know what she means.  As long as the proportions are right you can vary anything to taste.  The addition of the dried fruits and spices were just right for the latin-influenced cooking of the rest of the meal.

Rebecca made the mashed potatoes, which we had because she wanted them.  They are amazing, they are miraculous, she claimed, mashed potatoes.  All you do is mash them and then they are amazing.  Ordinary potatoes completely transformed, just by mashing them.  Rebecca also offered grace, giving thanks for “food, family, friends, and just for being alive.”  Simply said from the heart; no more needed to be said.

I was sent home with the leftover vegetarian rice and peas, which Pat had specially prepared for me to honor my preference to eat vegetarian.  As is traditional in her family, I brought home the leftovers with the understanding that when I returned the container, it would have within it a food offering in return.

Pat did cook a turkey as part of the meal.  When we were cleaning up (I was carving the rest of the turkey to store for future meals), I asked Pat whether she would be making stock with the turkey bones, so I would know the best way of carving.  She said she did not have time, so though I am mostly vegetarian, I took the bones to make stock.  I had, then, the leftovers one would never have if you’ve long since stopped roasting birds, and Pat felt more content knowing that we would be using all of the bird that fed us.

Today, when I am home cleaning and cooking and enjoying a precious vacation day, I will make turkey stock.  With the blessing of these particular leftovers, I can make what would be traditional to a Thanksgiving meal that I would have cooked:  roast winter squash and stuffing (using the turkey stock, the remains of a loaf of bread I baked last week, dried mushroom, and celery).  My delicious meal of stuffed roasted squash, will be enhanced by the lingering (not leftover) energy of the friends with whom I shared a delightful meal and the knowledge (that by minimizing what goes uneaten) that we are eating in a more sustainable manner) [yes, it’s all about balance; my vegan friends would no doubt be compelled to remind me that eating vegan would have been more sustainable].

Many thanks to Pat and her family for welcoming me and for sharing.

Abundance and Gratitude

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.

Thanksgiving

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.

The Lantern

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.

Looking for the Good

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.

Music for Asana Practice

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!

“No-Knead” Bread

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

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.