Tag Archive: Open to grace

Beginner’s Mind

The other day I was doing a computer search on contact improv jams in the Bay Area to see if it was possible to fit one in during my upcoming vacation in San Francisco.

The website for one of the jams said for a class that preceded the weekly jam that beginners and advanced practitioners with a beginner’s mind were welcome. I loved that statement.

The idea of beginner’s mind is one that is mentioned often in the yoga world and was taught as an integral part of the principle of “opening to grace” in the Anusara system.

What I think is meant by practicing or bringing to the mat or to the dance a beginner’s mind is approaching each practice, every step, every pose, every aspect of alignment and technique with wonder, openness, and an ever-growing willingness to learn.

When we are new to a practice or a style, discovering our own capacity to express and experience the form is exciting, as is a growing mastery of body and mind in the language of the form.

Being advanced, though, is not just about physical or intellectual prowess. It is about developing a nuanced relationship between ourselves, the practices, and our fellow practitioners. Being freshly open to new insight and learning even from beginners helps us deepen our practice and experience ever greater enjoyment (bhoga).

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

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Unexpected Rain (and Opening to Grace)

I thought perhaps that I was still dreaming when I heard the soft patter of early morning rain. It has been so unfortunately dry. There was no rain in the forecast–only impending blistering heat–for days to come. But a cool rain it was indeed, nourishing the garden and giving temporary relied to my soul, anxious about drought.

As I enjoyed the unexpected rain, I thought about the practice of opening to grace. We cannot make it rain, though we might pray or dance for it. We can, though, make the ground and garden ready to receive it, even as we simultaneously plan and prepare to live as mindfully as we can with drought.

When we simultaneously open to the gifts of grace and work in recognition of challenges and limitations, we can experience and offer the most joy and fullness of being for ourselves and others.

Peace and light, E — Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

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108 Sun Salutations and Four Two-Minute Handstands (more or many fewer) and Samskara Revisited

Last night at group practice, after doing a centering focused on using yoga to dissolve samskaras (see yesterday’s blog post on this topic),  I told the group how I had been inspired by a Facebook exchange between Noah Maze and Desiree Rumbaugh — stalwart beacons of inspiration to the Anusara community — about the benefits of doing 108 sun salutations with four two-minute handstands interspersed in the practice.  I then had everyone come to the front of the sticky mat, hands in front of their hearts and began.  For the first five  (surya namaskar A), all I did was call out the poses and the breathing and count, though I almost never teach sun salutations without enough breaths per pose to be able to think about alignment.  For the next few salutations, I started throwing in some variations.  As we continued, I started asking the students to notice their alignment.  Were the places where they are challenged with alignment starting to show up?  (Yes, most definitely so.)

After the 16th salutation, I revealed that we could not possibly fit in 108 salutations into the practice time.  I advised that we will do handstand  at 16 instead of 32.  We then went into handstand, with students having the option of half handstand or full handstand.  I remained quiet for the first 45 seconds and then started calling out the time in 15-second intervals.  For students who needed to come down, I suggested they try to go back up until the two minutes were over, even if it took multiple tries.  The timed handstand generated all sorts of groaning and commentary, but it all had a light-hearted enthusiasm for being invited to a challenge.

After the handstand, we got going again.  “Are your knees hyperextending?” I asked one student for whom that is a tendency.  “Kidneys full?” I asked of another.  “Root your index finger knuckle; shoulders up in chaturanga” was a good reminder for those getting tired.  I threw in more variations to slow things down and to give more time to be careful with the alignment.  There is no point in an elective challenges if it is going to cause injury.

It was becoming progressively more obvious that the more we pushed ourselves, the more the places where our bodies most habitually misaligned were starting to go (just the way our less than optimal emotional tendencies start coming into play when we are faced with upheaval and loss if we do not stay conscious and try to remain in alignment with spirit).  “Are you still opening to grace?” I asked after a few more rounds.  Everyone laughed and found renewed strength to stay in alignment and to keep up the practice.

After several more, with only 15 minutes remaining for the class before allowing time for meditation and savasana (final relaxation), I took the class from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to balasana (child’s pose).  What a rush of relief and ecstasy!  “Just enjoy,” I suggested.  “We need to be able to take the moments of grace, of respite, of sweetness, of pause, and not fritter them away worrying about what just happened or what is to come.  Knowing how to do that is one of the blessings of yoga and one of the ways we can prevent samskaric build up.

We then moved into a cool down.  With the various challenges of embodiment with which this group was working and the time limitations, a full 108 salutations with the corresponding handstands would not have been appropriate for this particular practice.  But everyone left both exhilarated and more relaxed for having mindfully challenged themselves, seeking to stay aligned while not knowing just how much of that daunting number the teacher would ask of them.

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The Breath Leads the Way (and Atha Yoga Anusasanam)

I was reminded the other day of a principle of reading the great Hindu philosophical work:  all of the meaning of the text can be understood from not only the first sutra, but the first word.  The first sutra of The Yoga Sutrasof Patanjali’s is “atha yoga anusasanam” — now begins an exposition of the practices of yoga.  Implicit in the “atha,” the now, is that something else has come before.  The translations I have speak of previous study and preparation; the studies offered by Patanjali are not for the novice, but for one who has already been practicing.  If we read Patanjali’s first sutra with the implicit understanding that the first word contains all of the exposition to follow and that we do not need the rest of the explanation and practice if we truly understand the first word and sutra, then I think more must be meant here by “atha” than just this exposition now comes after previous study.

In this latest contemplation of mine what the word “atha” must hold within it for the practitioner, I thought about the Anusara axiom of practice “the breath leads the way,”  which has been the alignment focus in my classes for the past week.  What does it mean to have the breath lead the way?  At its highest level, it serves to bring us back to “first principle” of “opening to grace.” (As an aside, I note that I  believe can apply to the Anusara principles of alignment the same method of understanding:  the principle “open to grace,” and even the first word “open” holds all of the other Anusara principles.  All the other principles and axioms are explanations and methods for living “open to grace.”)

When we let the breath lead the way, we start each pose by a deep listening, an openness to something greater, an openness to the pulsation between the universal energies and our individual self.  We invite the subtle energies to support us and lead us like a great dance partner.  We actively surrender to the dance, while still bringing our own skill to our part of the dance, the way the partner being led in a waltz is skilled both in the dance and in being led.  In letting the breath lead the way in our yoga practice, we come to the very fullness of the present moment even as we move through a sequence of asanas in time and space.  Being open to grace in each moment, in each part of the pose, and allowing our self to be led by the pulsation of the breath even as we move with it, brings us to a recognition that in each moment, we are both part of the sequence of time and space and more than time and space (akrama krama).  We come to the  atha of samadhiWe use the practice of letting the breath lead the way to teach us to open to grace, to find the exquisite timeless fullness of being itself in order to illuminate all of our practice.  If we are already in that atha, that now, then we do not need any of the other practices or explanations, but if we cannot find it on our own, then again and again, the study and practice begins now — atha — so that we can experience in our very heart the fullness (purna) of our selves and better illuminate everything we do on and off the mat with the blissfulness of  that fullness.

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Sunchokes (and Anusara “first principle”) (a bit out of date, but not really)

I realize that this blog entry was in my drafts page; I never hit the publish button.  As I ponder the few intervening weeks of snow (in some ways it feels as if time just stopped, except for the work that piled up and the lengthening of the light of day), I treat this as a reminder to myself to come back to “first principle” to respond with the most light — even in this unusually harsh winter:

On my way to Friends Meeting yesterday, I stopped at the Dupont Circle Fresh Farm Market yesterday to buy whatever was fresh.  When I got in line with a daikon radish, a bunch of turnips, and a couple of leeks, I noticed the way the woman in front of me in line was holding her selection:  sunchokes.  Her hands were held as if she had just received prasad — the offering sometimes made after a puja so that the fruits of worship may actually be tasted and injested, incorporated with our senses and our whole bodies into our being.  “Your hands and those sunchokes are so beautiful,” I said, “may I take a picture and use it for my blog?”  “Sure,” she replied, “and shifted her hands a little so that it would be easier for me to frame the picture.”  We talked while we waited in line about potential ways to cook sunchokes and how happy we were that the farmers (these particular farmers’ must be incredibly good at working with cold frames) were out all year.

Seeing this offering of the earth itself, the farmers who tended the earth and grew the vegetables, the workers who made and repaired the vehicles that enabled the food to be brought into the city, the city and neighborhood for allowing the market to block off a street, the shoppers for supporting it, brought me back to my contemplations this week of what “first principle” means to me.  I mentioned in an earlier post that my focus for winter classes would be Anusara sequencing principles.  No matter what else we are doing or focusing on, it always starts with “first principle.”  The “first principle” is what we call in Anusara “opening to grace.”  For me, a large part of “opening to grace” is a recognition that all the nourishment we receive is a gift.  When we practice such a recognition, then we practice receptivity, openness, gratitude, courtesy, respect, delicacy, and reciprocal desire to serve and make offering.  How could one mindfully receive nourishment such as this fresh, beautiful food on a bitterly cold winter day, and not want to celebrate it by giving thanks, nurturing the earth, supporting the farmers and the market, learning how to prepare it as tasty and healthful as possible, and share it and other things with those around us?

gift

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“First principle” (and akrama and krama)

When I think about the Anusara alignment principles in the context of the tattvas (see earlier posts), I think about “opening to grace” appearing in two places on the tier.  As “first principle” it is the first among a larger sequence about how we come to the mat, rather than just the first of the physical principles.  “First principle” not only starts the practice and the dialogue, but is already there. It is, in this sense, so fundamental that it is not part of the sequence, but is sequenceless (akrama).  If you are fully conscious of “grace” and can embody it in all aspects of your physical, energetic, and mental day to day existence without further instruction, study, or practice, then there is no need for other practice or instruction (this I think is a very rare being, and certainly I’m not such a being).

The next set of tattvassuddha vidya, ishvara, saddha shiva, and shiva-shakti (see link above), correspond to the Anusara alignment principles of “attitude, alignment, and action,” which although they are themselves described in sequence, are fundamentally sequenceless as they happen all at the same time and are more elemental than the practice of the physical/energetic alignment principles in sequenced practice.

In this way of understanding the play between the sequenceless and sequenced, we have a universal “first principle” that embodies the purpose of all we do on and off the mat.  It is followed by how we want to practice, described in a way that becomes less of just a concept (which as a universal concept is akrama) and more of a practical understanding (which applies when we are in space and time and therefore in the krama of embodied existence).  As we dance in this play between the sequenceless and the sequenced, we come to practice (or to do any activity) with the “attitude” of wanting to live the “first principle,” to know and experience what is fully present and not bound by time and space.  We then (because we must) study and practice specific “alignment” to try and express this attitude with our “actions.”

The physical/energetic alignment principles then come in as a the way of better refining, studying, and practicing the desire to recognize with mind and body the “first principle.”  The sequence of “open to grace, muscular energy, inner spiral, outer spiral, organic energy” comes then at the level of physical and mental practice to return us back to “first principle.”  “Open to grace” is first in this sequence, too, but as “first principle,” for me, it is something more than the first of the alignment principles.  “First principle” is not just the start of how we practice when we practice Anusara yoga, but the whole reason for practice.  It is the universal, overarching, blissful element of being that draws us to the practice because of our yearning to know it.

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Shiva-Shakti Tattvas

The shiva-shakti tattvas, the two highest tattvas, are completely subjective.  The shiva tattva is, according to the philosophy, the ultimate reality, the pure “I,” undiminished and undifferentiated consciousness.  As something purely subjective, it is both everywhere and nowhere, in every being and simultaneously beyond them.  It is not dissimilar to Hegel’s Absolute (though I believe Douglas Brooks, who knows far more than I in this area, might disagree with me on this one), which “is and is not,” or Kant’s “unmoved mover.”

Shakti tattva is power — the power to tranform, create, manifest, diversify, cloak.  Shakti is the power to become embodied in objective form.  Shiva and shakti tattvas are thus inseparable.  Ultimate unbounded consciousness and freedom (shiva) only has meaning to the extent the power to move, create, and diversify (shakti) pulses and transforms the subjective into the objective, the unimaginable to the observable.

In our yoga practice and meditation, we seek to use the practices to reveal to ourselves the ultimate pulsation (spanda) between the objective and subjective, the observable and the unknowable, the individual and the completely universal.  One way I experience the first principle of Anusara yoga (open to grace), is taking the mat or my seat with an openness to sense and experience this ultimate pulsation (spanda) and play (lila), so that by using my body, mind, and will, I can better recognize the spirit that shines in all of us and use that recognition to inform how I relate to myself, society, and all beings.

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Ether (the Mahabhuta akasha)

Ether (akasha) is the fifth of the mahabhutas.  In science and perception, it is the space between the other elements, it is that in which the other elements reside.  It is to some degree, the critical element of how we are able to perceive the other elements.  I find focusing on the Anusara alignment principle of “open to grace” is the best way to experience the element of ether in myself.  By softening, opening, and inviting spaciousness, I can better experience the subtle elements and appreciate how it is that I experience them.

The subtle elements or the panca tanmattras are smell (gandha), taste (rasa), form (rupa), touch (sparsa), and sound (sabda).  The subtle elements are not what we sense (which is composed of the mahabhutas) nor are the tanmattras our sense organs.  Rather the tanmattras are, as it were, the space in which perceptions arise, the ability to be perceived.

The next sets of elements are the panca karmendriyas, the organs of locomotion, which correspond to how we physically move, digest, and change in the physical world, and the panca jnanendriyas, the organs of perception or cognition, which correspond to our sense organs themselves.  Our movement in and perception of the world bridges the physical elements, the perceptability of the physical world, and ourselves as physical beings, beings who move in the physical world, and beings who perceive the physical world.  All of this, I think of as needing space or residing in space.  As I consciously think of space giving a place for the world, my movement in it, and my perception of it, I become more conscious of consciousness.  The physical practice of “opening to grace” and experiencing the element akasha makes possible for me in my practice knowing or experiencing a greater consciousness.

To start discovering your own understanding of akasha, try this meditation:  listen to the sounds beyond the room without trying to analyze or change them.  Appreciate how far in space your senses and consciousness can be.  Then bring your attention into the room and hear the sounds in the room.  Then open your ears to the sounds within you — your heart beat, your breath.  Then open to all the sounds (don’t try to change or analyze them), both those physically far away and those within your own body, and be aware of them as all residing within your own consciousness.  Appreciate that your consciousness is as spacious as the world around you and within you.  Rest in the space of consciousness.

See whether spending a few minutes using this meditation technique helps you when your day has gotten too busy with work, errands, family or other demands.  I find it very helpful.

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