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Plugging into the Source (on and off the mat)

John Friend talks of “plugging into the source” when we need more power to serve, to offer, to fulfill our responsibilities, and also to find our own connection to the greater consciousness in asana practice.  I understand this to mean to understand that we are not alone, that when we tap into the strength of community and spirit, we are empowered to do more.

In asana, as in anything else we do, I believe this means moving and acting with integrity and deep integration, rather than just powering through things for the sake of ego or other external goals.  This means softening and opening to a greater purpose before moving or acting (opening to grace).  We then use the other Anusara principles of alignment — especially muscular energy — to integrate muscle and bone into our core, so that we reach from an informed place of strength.

These principles help us stay healthy when we engage physically outside of ourselves, whether it is offering someone else a hand, lifting and carrying, gardening, or doing housework.  When we slow down and steady ourselves with purpose and then plug in by using our own power as leverage, we will not only be healthier ourselves, but will have more to offer.

Plugging into ourselves in this context means not reaching out before stabilizing ourselves, moving from the core not the periphery — not “telescoping” to some goal without staying grounded and steady.   To plug in mentally, we remember our ultimate purpose and stay connected no matter how diverse the issues.  To stay plugged in physically when we are doing physical activities off the mat such as gardening or housework, we start aligned and stay there and then use our own body as leverage, for example, bracing one arm against our side or thigh before using both hands together before moving, pulling, or shifting something.  If we can keep with this practice with whatever we are doing, we are not guaranteed to be free from injury, but we are much more likely to stay healthy and strong.

Prakriti, Purusha, and the Three Gunas

After the five mahabhutas (great elements), the five tanmatras (subtle elements), the five karmendriyas (organs of action), and the five jnanendriyas (organs of cognition or sensing), come the three antahkaranas (internal organs).  The antahkaranas are manas (mind), buddhih (intellect/intuition), and ahamkara (ego, sense of self as an individual).  These 23 tattvas describe the objective world and our place in it as manifest physical beings and as beings who sense and think about our place in the physical world.

The next two tattvas are more in the subjective realm:  purusha (nature) and prakriti.  In the classical system, the 23 described above plus purusha and prakriti are the sum of the tattvas.  In that system, prakriti, is interpreted as “spirit.”  It is not the world spirit or the transcendent spirit, but more our individual spirit.  Nature is divided from spirit and all of the objective world and individual spirit are different from “Atman” or “Brahma” what is real.  In Kashmir Shaivism, there are another 11 tattvas — the six kanchukas (cloakings or coverings) and the five suddha tattvas (pure elements) that describe the relationship between the individualized, diverse, perceptible and perceiving realm, and the purely universal.

Purusha (nature) is a name or way of looking at the 23 earlier described tattvas and prakriti describes the sense we have of there being something more that is unifying and universal among all that is manifest, but still from the perspective of our own individual perception.  When we look at nature (purusha) from a more universal perspective, we look at it from how it behaves generally, how it moves, and what moves it, as we look at the laws of nature of physics.  In yoga, nature is described from the perspective of the three gunastamas, rajas, and sattva.

Tamas is dark, dormant, inert, and heavy. Rajas is fiery, energetic, and impassioned.  Sattva is pure, clear, and light.  From a classical perspective, tamas is a state we need to transcend to connect to spirit, rajas is the motivating energy that helps us move past tamas to a sattvic state.  From the tantric perspective that underlies the Anusara principles, we recognize that tamasic qualities are part of nature and we embrace it where it leads us to a place of balance.  At night, for example, it is better to be still and dark for optimal sleep.  In this latititude, gardens need a period of dormancy in winter to thrive.  When we are sick or exhausted, restorative postures may be more healing and balancing than would be power flow or even meditation.  When tamas is out of balance, though, we are sluggish and slothful.  We can be stuck in our ways — ways that are unhealthy for ourselves or the planet.  We then need to cultivate more rajas.  We use fire and passion to transform, to find new ideas, to shift our behavior, to find discipline.  If our bodies are weak or inflexible, rajas helps us activate our practice to build power.  The rains and warmth of spring make the garden grow.  From this perspective, being light and pure based on particular dietary and behavioral strictures is not necessarily the ideal.  Rather being sattvic is being in optimal balance; it is knowing ourselves well enough to know when darkness, earthiness, and stillness or light, activity, and “spiritual” practices best serve ourselves, other beings, and the earth.  Being sattvic is being clear enough in the multi-faceted relationship between the world around us and our own mind, body, and spirit that our sense of spirit in all things and ourselves is unsullied, and illuminated.

Walking and Shopping in the Neighborhood (and brahmacharya)

Yesterday afternoon when I came home from teaching I wanted to be out for a walk in the neighborhood more than I wanted to be alone in the garden, but I also wanted to be serving the garden.  I combined the two by walking the ten blocks to Gingko Gardens — our wonderful Capitol Hill nursery.  It is a little more expensive than some of the nurseries out in the burbs, but I know the owner and have friends in common, I always bump into neighbors when I am shopping there, and they are experts in what grows and works in our little urban gardens.  I was thrilled when they opened a number of years ago and want them to continue to thrive, so I make a point of shopping there.  I bought some seeds and some planting medium for starting seeds indoors and ordered a few containers and organic potting soil for delivery.

In addition, after having done a bunch of research on rain barrels over the week, I also asked whether Gingko would deliver and install rain barrels from Aqua Barrel, which is located in Gaithersburg.  Answer, “yes.”  (For those of you in the suburbs, Amicus Green also carries and installs them).  It took me a long time to assess what style barrel would work for me and where it should be placed.  I was hoping to support a local manufacturer to cut down on wasteful transportation.  I also know that given my circumstances it is critical that it be installed correctly with a good diverter system.  It is good for me to do the research but then bring in a professional to make sure it is right.  I made an appointment and am looking forward to being able to align a little better with nature (by using rain water run-off instead of scarce, potable water for the garden) and to support the neighborhood (by buying locally and hiring resident professionals).  And I bumped into a fellow yogi and gardener while I was shopping; inspired by the chat, she, too, made an appointment to discuss rain barrel installation.

To me, this is one way of bringing yoga off the mat.  One of the key principles in Patanjali’s yoga sutras is the practice of brahmacharya, which literally means aligning with Brahma.  The classical translation is celibacy.  Many modern translators substitute “moderation.”  This way of living, is of course, moderate.  It is living a western lifestyle on the grid, but choosing to consume in a way that supports friends, neighbors, and manufacturers who use recycled materials to create products that will help us all to be a little kinder to the environment, while nurturing my home and self.

Yum — Fresh Sprouts

Unable to wait another 3-4 weeks before the first baby greens can be picked, I’ve been sprouting indoors.  In 2-4 days, with just a little attention, you can have the taste of spring in the smallest and darkest of spaces.  I had a good on-line experience getting spout supplies from the Sprout People.

Tonight I made sprout slaw.  I chopped some red cabbage, minced some onion, added an equal volume of  “French Garden” sprouts (clover, arugula, cress, radish, fenugreek, and dill).  Dressed the slaw with sherry vinegar, dijon mustard, unsweetened soy milk (if you drink it, you could substitute milk or yoghurt — I just like to cut the amount of mayonnaise), vegan mayonnaise (you can make your own if you like–sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t), and sea salt.  Went fabulously well with rice and beans (yes, my diet is still under the influence of the trip to Tucson).

Yoga for Gardeners Workshop — Call for Questions

Next Saturday, March 14th, 2:30-5pm, is the Yoga for Gardeners Workshop at Willow Street Yoga Center’s Takoma Park Studio.  A portion of the proceeds will go to the benefit of the Youth Garden at the National Arboretum.  It will be a most enjoyable way to prepare for the gardening season, especially after having been inspired by this weekend’s incredibly spring-like weather.   Advance registration is appreciated, though not required, and all levels of yogins and gardeners welcome.

You can come just open to what will be offered — I’ve got lots to share — but if you have specific questions about how to use yoga alignment while gardening, how to address various challenges of embodiment in the garden, or even yoga philosophy or other gardening/yoga topics, please feel free to send them to me as a comment to this entry or by separate email.  I may not be able to get to every question right away, but I will try to address common questions in the workshop and here on the blog and am also always available after class to discuss individual questions.

Knowing Your Garden (and svadyaya)

This will be my 20th season in my garden.  I know that my back garden — where I grow my herbs, flowers, and vegetables —  is easily 4-5 weeks earlier than the gardens of my friends’ in Potomac and Silver Spring and the outer suburbs.  It is even almost that much earlier than my front garden.  I have a brilliantly sunny, south-facing, protected back garden with a brick patio that is against an unpainted brick house and a densely shaded, north-facing front garden.  Not only is the back garden sheltered from the wind by the house on one side and the fence on three sides, but the bricks retain enough heat to change the temperature by a a couple of degrees.  I have a special micro-climate.  My climbing rosebush (pictured in the header) is already in leaf.

What does this mean?  While my friends in the suburbs or those with east/west facing houses are starting seedlings for kale and spinach indoors, I can put seeds into outdoor containers in the next week or two without compunction.  The seedlings I would need to start (if I don’t instead choose to purchase them from the organic farmers at the market) are peppers and tomatoes for planting in mid-April.  If I start with strong 8″-12″ plants in mid to late-April (depending on the 15-day forecast), I can have and have had for at least 10 of the past 20 years, cherry tomatoes in May and peppers in early June.  My greens, obviously, bolt earlier.  I’ve figured out that certain varieties of chard do better in these conditions, and that spinach and lettuce do better sheltered by the fence where they get afternoon shade, so that I can have them farther into the season.

This kind of knowing by combining general book and teaching knowledge with personal observation of my little space, is much like the yoga practice of svadyaya (self-knowledge), which is the fourth niyama of Patanjali’s yoga sutras.  Svadyaya is literally study of the self through the scriptures.  Implicit in that is the guidance of a teacher or guru.  Ultimately, though, self-knowledge or awareness must be experiential.  We make the effort to study and we listen to our teacher, but then we practice.  We soften and open to who we (or our garden) truly are — another way of practicing and experiencing the Anusara principle of opening to grace — and then in the context of the teachings, accept who we are.  As gardeners, that means accepting what zone we are in, how much shade, water, space, and sun we have.  As yogins, it means accepting our strengths and our limitations.  We can shift our zone by treating certain plants as indoor/outdoor or as annuals rather than perennials; we can enhance our water flow by storing it in rain barrels, but that is merely expanding the edge rather than making a complete change.  We can expand the edge of our practice, but still need to accept the bodies with which we were born.

Pre-Season Gardening (and diksha)

In yoga practice the concept of diksha — initiation or threshold — carries with it a sense of right timing and conscious understanding of readiness for the next level.  For example, knowing I was not yet strong enough, this past weekend I chose not to try to jump from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to svanasana (headstand), but instead concentrated on doing the poses one at a time, even though I was surrounded by people who could do the transition with ease and my ego was challenged.  Until I am stronger and better able to hold the alignment in poses at that level, I would be too much at risk of hurting my neck and shoulders.

In the garden, it is easy to be fooled by a beautiful weekend to move right to activities that are still 3-4 weeks premature.  Even though it will hit 70F this weekend, it is not time to plant (other than perhaps an experimental row or pot of kale, chard, or beets, which like the cold).  The best gardening you can do in the beginning of March when the weather is swinging wildly from below freezing to unseasonably warm is to read and plan and start seedlings indoors, just like it is best to warm up and work on strength, alignment, and flexibility before going for harder asana in your yoga practice.  It will be tempting to get out this weekend, but do the prep stuff and the clean up.

Here are some favorite books of mine to get ready for planning.  It is mostly more practical stuff (rather than the super glossy, beautiful garden as splendid art and architecture picture book reading) with some food and yoga overlap and a bias for small urban gardens.

The Yoga of Herbs — An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine, D. Frawley and V. Lad (Lotus Press, 2d Ed. 1988)

Gardener Cook, C. Lloyd (Willow Creek Press 1997) (OK — this one is kind of cooking, gardening porn)

The Edible Container Garden — Growing Fresh Food in Small Spaces, M. Guerra (Fireside, 2000)

The Bountiful Container, McGee and Stuckey (Workman Publishing Co., 2002)

Small-Space Gardening — How to Successfully Grow Flowers and Fruits in Containers and Pots, P. Loewer (The Lyons Press, 2003)

Kitchen Herbs — The Art and Enjoyment of Growing Herbs and Cooking with Them, S. Gilbertie (Bantam, 1988)

The New Kitchen Garden, A. Pavord (Dorling Kindersly Ltd., 1996) (Also pretty and glossy, but still practical)

Pressure Cooking

I admit it.  A couple of years ago, when a friend was waxing poetic about the virtues of pressure cooking, I was skeptical.  Shortly after the second or third conversation on the topic in a short space of time, I came across Lorna Sass’s “Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure” at the Lantern (used bookshop).  Seeing it as a sign, I bought the book and a pressure cooker (an Aeternum — pricey, but sturdy and easy to use).

What I like best about the pressure cooker is that it cuts the cooking time of beans or soup from 1-3 hours to 20-35 minutes.  Kitcheree (indian rice and lentils) cooks in 15 minutes.  I’d estimate that in the two and half years I’ve had my cooker, I have saved over 200 hours of cooking with gas time.  Not sure how much cooking gas I’ll have to save before I’ve made up for the energy to manufacture and ship the pot to me, but I should cross that at some point in the life of the pot.  Even better is that I can come home after a full day at work and cook dishes with dried beans or slow to cook grains without staying up all night.

Once you put the cooking ingredients in the pot, get it up to pressure, turn down the flame, and set the timer, there is no need to watch the pot.  So today, for lunch, with only about five or ten minutes of prep time, I have rice (with saffron and amaranth made in the rice cooker) and pot beans (coco rubico from the Dupont Farm market, seasoned with celery, onion, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, dried chiles brought back from Tucson, and dried bay leaf, epazote, and mexican oregano from my own garden).  Start to finish about a half hour (I did presoak the beans).  Able to continue working except for the minor prep time.  Wonderfully content to have nourishing, delicious food to warm and inspire my day.  I do better work (I do work better) when I eat well.

Native Seed Search

One of the delights of my trip to Tucson, was visiting the Native Seed Search’s shop.  Native Seed Search works to gather, safeguard, and distribute native and adapted seeds to farming and gardening communities, and to educate farmers and gardeners about the uses of those seeds.  When I go to Tucson, I make sure to visit the shop (so much more fun than shopping on-line) to buy unique varieties of peppers and beans for cooking.

The first time I went — three years ago — I did not buy any seeds.  I was not certain that I should be bringing seeds from the southwest to DC for planting.  This year, after the last two years of heat and drought, I bought a few varieties of southwestern greens and some pink green beans to try in containers.  I had a good chat with the workers in the shop about shifting what we plant as the climate changes even as we might otherwise try to avoid bringing new species into the area.

I went small with this experiment.  As long as I do not let the amaranth (to eat as greens not grain) go to seed and pick the beans to eat or replant, nothing will spread.  It will be interesting to observe if these plants require less water or tolerate more heat here than the greens and beans we are more accustomed to planting.

It was also wonderful, on this icy cold day, to take the seed packets out of my bag in anticipation of spring.  Planting season for cool weather greens, etc (etc meaning beets, turnips, and radishes) is only a couple of weeks away.

Home (and sauca)

It was wonderful to visit another city, to enjoy a change in climate and scenery, to see friends, and to study.  I am happy to be home, though, even with the responsibilities and obligations.  That I am always happy to come home from a trip away (even when I have gone to places perhaps more spectacular or interesting than where I live and met people who are able to do things that are outside of my reach) is one of the things that reminds me that my unassuming life suits me well enough.  Part of this delight in coming home is my having for the past decade steadily practiced the principle of sauca or contentment.

I remember having a talk with a friend a number of years ago about practicing sauca.  She expressed surprise that contentment could be a practice.  She said she had always thought that happiness was something that just came to you.  Happiness may come more easily to some than others, just as some are born with physical beauty or material comfort and others are not.  It is my experience, though, assuming our basic needs are met, that by practicing sauca, we will be happier both with what we have chosen and what we have been given.