In Anusara yoga, one of the ways the first principle of “opening to grace” can be experienced and practiced is as a radical expansion of the capacity to receive and appreciate the very wonder of being. During my visit to India with Professor Douglas Brooks, I found myself repeatedly thinking of the concept of radical expansion and also the preamble to the Isha Upanishad (long a favorite of mine; Shantala on their first CD, Love Window, have done an exquisite rendition), which can be roughly translated as saying that adding fullness to fullness is itself fullness (fullness can also be translated here as perfection).
What I believe this is saying that being itself is infinitely full; thus, we cannot make it more infinite by adding to it. Human consciousness of the infinitude of being, though, is limited by the filters of space and time. One of the key reasons to practice yoga (including meditation) is to expand both our capacity to appreciate the fullness and to receive its full wonder by uniting our own consciousness with the infinitude. When we can appreciate ever more the wonder of our being, we will naturally be more joyous, and I believe, led to be more compassionate and generous with ourselves and others.
Day after day on the India pilgrimage, just when I thought my heart and mind were already full to bursting, there were yet more experiences of the beauty and extraordinariness of life and creativity and nature. I found myself chanting the Isha Upanishad—purnamadah, purnamidam, puranata purnamudatacyate. Fullness and fullness is fullness. “Let me expand still more to appreciate to its utmost yet more beauty,” I thought to myself again and again. Though I already thought I’d developed a fairly full understanding of the concept through study and practice, I thought, “this is what John Friend means when he is talking about radical expansion.” I look forward to studying and practicing to experience and share ever more beauty.
Webster’s On-Line Dictionary defines a “weed” as”any plant growing in cultivated ground to the injury of the crop or desired vegetation, or to the disfigurement of the place; an unsightly, useless, or injurious plant.” At first blush, this might seem like an easy concept, but if we start breaking down the definition, we can see how much our education, assumptions, and prejudices come into play in deciding what is a weed and what is not. We need to recognize individual plants (when they first come out of the earth and when they are in full leaf or flower) and what they offer. We need to know how to foster growth of what we choose to plant, including knowing what will thrive in our location and bring more health and beauty to ourselves and the planet, and we need to have a sense of aesthetics that will cultivate not only our connection to spirit, but optimize the shining through of spirit in all that surrounds us.
Several years ago, I bought a sprig of epazote in a two inch grower’s pot. It went to seed and came back all over my little garden. It grows wild beside highways where it is a native plant. I really like the taste, and it is hard to find here, so I give seedlings away to friends who want it for their own gardens (locals just ask, and I’ll give you some). It is one plant I know I do not have to replace; it will come back every year if I let it go to seed. If I had not controlled it by taking it out of prime planting spaces and either using it right away or replanting it someplace nothing else will grow, though, it would be crowding out other plants in a way that is less than optimal. It is thus both a desired plant and a potentially invasive weed depending on how it fits in with the whole.
I have seen neighbors using Roundup to kill purslane and dandelions that have grown up between the bricks on the sidewalk in front of their houses. Although I think both purslane and dandelions are pretty plants and perfect for spots where nothing else will grow, I can appreciate wanting the front of the house to look tidy. Why not pick the free edible plants instead of spraying toxic chemicals? I let edible wild plants come up between the crevices and then either relocate them or treat weeding as harvesting, getting incredible flavor and nutrition from something that most are taught to try and eradicate.
There are other plants that are sufficiently invasive or poisonous, though, that I do my best to eliminate them from my space (though I do not use pesticides). The other day, I was walking down East Capitol Street after teaching the William Penn House class and saw some English Ivy climbing up a beautiful tree in one of the sidewalk tree boxes. I stopped to pull it all off because English Ivy left unchecked will kill a tree. While engaged in this activity an older couple who lived in the house next to the tree walked up to me and my fellow yogi who was helping me with the ivy removal. The woman thanked me, saying that she had been meaning to pull the ivy. Ivy is an example of a plant people think is pretty and appropriate to plant, but it does not belong in our climate and is incredibly destructive. By my lights, it is a weed, even though I can buy it in most nurseries in the area. I am blessed not to have poison ivy where I live, but it should be removed. It is too hard to live with it.
What does determining whether a plant is truly a weed, whether it causes injury or interferes with what is desired or is unsightly, useless or injurious have to do with the “first principle” in Anusara yoga of “opening to grace?” The first principle invites us to be ready in the first instance to recognize the auspiciousness of both what we seek out and what we encounter. In teaching meditation and related practices of Blue Throat Yoga, Paul Muller-Ortega speaks of this as “the highest first.” As we study and practice (jnana/vijnana), we approach the same and new things with ever more refined technique, knowledge and understanding. The progressive refinement from our efforts helps us then to open up to a deeper perception of the best of our nature. We keep repeating the cycle of studying and practicing, always remembering the first principle, and we, despite and because of ourselves, shift our relationship with the world around and inside us. To be open is a softness, a spaciousness, a willingness to see that is without effort. We temper what gets in the way of effortless opening with the fire to study and to practice with the intention learn how to be more effortless in understanding how things are part of the whole.
How do we apply first principle in knowing what to weed from our garden (or, for that matter, how to address in ourselves a physical, mental or emotional characteristic or pattern of behavior that may or may not serve us or both–our individual “weeds”)?
Is the “desired” vegetation a desire that would help align the gardener and the garden with nature or is it something that was taught that comes from an unsustainable aesthetic and social paradigm (for example, a perfectly green lawn with no plants other than grass)? If the crop is one that truly nourishes (so worth preserving from injury or interference), does it just mean that the “weed” needs to be relocated so that both the crop and the “weed” can flourish simultaneously? In other words, is the “weed” beneficial in its own way, but just needs to be shifted so that its inherent good can truly be appreciated and honored?
Is a determination of injuriousness, uselessness, or unsightliness based on ignorance or true discriminative wisdom? We cannnot know unless we both sweetly open to recognize the potential for discovering the good in what seems most harmful (perhaps one day scientists will find an extraordinary benefit from poison ivy, just as the deadly poisonous plant digitalis is also a powerful heart medicine) and continue to study and practice with an intention to open ever more deeply.
From left to right: volunteer epazote, lemon balm, purslane and dill. Dinner: black beans flavored with epazote; greens, including purslane. Lemon balm (aka melissa) makes a delicious and quieting evening tea.
One of the yoga practices in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is sauca, which means cleanliness or purity. It does have a basic aspect of physical cleanliness, which has lead me this year to do an especially vigorous spring cleaning. I think following the principle of saucra also applies to the clarity of our intention for the practice of yoga: are we seeking to experience and act from a place of deep connection to spirit (or good or oneness or divine or whatever you name it)? In practicing sauca, I think the most basic question is whether we have dust on the mirror that reflects the good in ourselves obscuring our vision, whether there are blockages to the energy flowing to bring us to optimal physical and emotional health, or whether anything is getting in the way of our manifesting our intention?
When it has been too hot to go into the garden over the past month, I have been reorganizing and sorting through old papers. As a once every five or ten years spring cleaning, it is lasting longer than usual. I tend to be good about keeping on top of these things, but there are crevises of old records of my life that seem to just get stuck back into a folder to be decided on some other time. This afternoon I came across intimate letters from a friend who, not long after we went our separate what had become cross-continental ways with regret on both sides, discovered he had brain cancer. There were a few notes not in envelopes. I reread those, but did not open the envelopes. Back into the miscellaneous file until the next time. The same with the print-outs of emails to and from Peru right after 9/11. It wasn’t avoidance. Over time and distance, regret and grief have faded. I did not have the need or the time to read them now. They went back into the file because I am curious what will be my reaction to these documents when I am 87 should I be around in this body then. I find that when I see them after again more years have passed, I can see how much the yoga (asana and meditation) as a steady practice over time has shifted how I relate to my past, to all the decisions better or worse that brought me here today. I am more at peace with the various detours and convolutions for the teachings and the good at the time, even if they do not appear to have been squarely or most efficiently on the path.
Just as most of us have pieces of paper or things that for some reason get saved, but spend most of their time in a drawer or a file cabinet or a closet, we have thoughts and emotions around past experiences that can emerge into memory at what can seem to be the oddest of times. With a strong meditation practice, it can sometimes feel like we are cleaning out the closets of our mind. With a therapeutically focused asana practice, it can seem as though we have found old energetic entanglements, and it may feel that it would have been easier never to have practiced at all. If we stay steady and keep coming to class and our own practice, we witness how much change can be wrought. When we remember to bring our clear intention to the yoga mat, the meditation cushion, the garden and the kitchen, the laundry, work and commuting and everything we do, then we in an ever more refined and deepening way open to grace, the fundamental AnusaraR principle.
I am happy to let you know that I am now E-RYT 500. My spring cleaning on the physical level motivated me to do the paperwork with Yoga Alliance. My carrying the designation E-RYT 500 means that teachers taking my classes and workshops can get Yoga Alliance continuing education credits, in addition to Anusara study hours.
I am looking forward to studying with Christina Sell at Willow Street Yoga next weekend. Come join fellow yogis for what promises to be a joyously challenging weekend of classes. The following weekend, I head up to Vermont for the Anusara Grand Gathering. If you are going, let me know and we can try to connect.
Special June Location Information for William Penn House Classes: June 14 and 28, William Penn House will be completely taken over by conference groups. Class will be held at the house location. RSVP’s are required. For those who have been regulars, but who have been full up with other things in life than class, it is a sweet way to get back.
Hope to see you soon.
Peace and light,
A student and friend sent me a link to an article posted by the Center for Consumer Freedom alerting consumers that excessive levels of heavy metals have been found in the reusable bags being sold by some of the big box retailers and supermarket chains. The analyst reached the conclusion that consumers should be allowed to use disposable plastic or paper bags [environmental consequences ignored] so that they are not forced into the untenable position of having to use bags that are manufactured with unacceptable levels of toxic ingredients.
It is fantastic that the folks at CCF advised people of the potential hazards associated with the manufacture and use of certain types of reusable bags. What I do not follow is the absolutism of the “either or” choice presented: poisonous bags (forced on you by environmentalists) or disposable plastic or paper bags (with all the attendant hazards to the environment). Why does the bag you use have to come from the grocery store? The types of retailers identified might have seized another retail and advertising opportunity to make cheap, hazardous reusable bags in nations with cheap (i.e. inadequately paid and treated) workers in countries with lax environmental and consumer safety standards. But this is just another example of how corporations prosper at the expense of the health of the planet, as if the worth of the stock of corporations — the part that is separate from the world in which the corporation operates — in itself is the highest good (that’s a discussion for another day).
I write about this article because it seems to me to be a perfect example of how staying within paradigms, choices, and societal constructs presented can keep us in the kind of ignorance (avidya) that prevents us from being in alignment, from seeing the good, and from responding in the highest. I am sure you, as can I, can think of far too many other examples of how if we stay with the question as it is framed, can prevent us from finding a peaceful, loving, healthful solution. The choice here is not bad for the environment and your kids (or pets) reusable bags or bad for the environment disposable bags. The choice is between bad for the environment bags and reusable bags that made by you or someone you trust not to use poisonous materials.
I have been carrying my own bags on a progressively more consistent basis since I was inspired to invite people to participate in Earth Day when I was in junior high and high school in the 1970s. The photo shows some of my favorite carry bags. From left to right: (1) the day pack I bought in 1984 to carry my law school books, which were very heavy; it cost maybe $20 and it is still going strong; (2) cute organic cotton bag with “make love, not war, haight-ashbury 1968” silkscreened on it; I get complimented on it whenever I use it, especially when I turn down super cool disposable bags at fashionable stores in NYC (“no thank you; I have my own bag”); freebie canvas bag from Barney’s Coop; cannot be sure that it was made with union labor, but am pretty sure it isn’t one of those toxic bags described in the article.
Next time you are struggling with what seems like an choice between Scylla and Charybdis, invite yourself to soften, to open to the bigger picture, to open your heart and mind as wide as the widest space of meditation, and ask whether you are asking the right question.
When we are on our mats, being open to grace — the first Anusara alignment principle — includes being open to the teachings so that we can receive and act on them in a healing and loving way. Adding to that muscular energy by lovingly embracing skin to muscle to bone in a conscious embrace, drawing into our center to recognize our inner spirit, and drawing from periphery to the focal point brings us into optimal balance. This pulsation serves as a way off the mat to open, inspire, and engage us in progressively more intentional and uplifting ways of living.
Being open to inspiration from friends and about town, open to learning new ways to be kind to the earth and to ourselves, is a way of bring the principle of “opening to grace” off the mat. Actually keeping the intention and acting on it has the attentive embrace of muscular energy, which draws us onto our inner light in a loving embrace so that we can better serve.
I was thinking about Anusara principles off the mat, yesterday when I went visit a friend in NW one of whose roommates fosters cats. There is a community garden in the back and the house is warm and friendly. In the bathtub were two buckets filled with water leftover from showers. Instead of using fresh, potable water to flush the toilet, when it is time to flush (honoring the drought axiom about yellow mellowing, etc), the house residents fill the tank with the gray water from the shower.
Find it too complicated an idea to shower with a bucket in the bathtub with you? You can still save water by filling your watering can or bucket when you run the water to warm up enough to get into the shower. That will save a few gallons. Not up to using the water to flush the toilet? Use it to water houseplants or for cleaning floors, etc. Or take it outside to water potted plants.
First step is opening and witnessing the possibilities and understanding where you are ready to expand. The second step is to try to more consistently live your inspiration. I know when I see people living with such intention I take better care to move in that direction, even if I am not ready to go as far.
I took this picture the other day when I was walking to work. I have seen TV cameras set up at this spot dozens of times to film news interviews. I have seen tourists galore photographing each other. I’ve seen a couple of photo shoots of brides and grooms dressed in their wedding clothes. I’ve seen the fountain full of ducks or gulls. I’ve seen it empty of water, with rain pelting on it to eliminate any reflection, in a blizzard, iced over, full of algae, as a play spot for dogs who like to swim, in fog, in beating down sun, with cherry blossoms floating on the water, and with waves from a strong wind. Although (or more likely because) I’ve walked past this view hundreds of times in the 25 years I have lived on Capitol Hill and the 18 I have worked for the Department of Labor, I have never taken out my camera and photographed this incredibly photogenic spot.
When I took the photograph on this day when the reflection just happened to be perfect, it led me to see the spot the way tourists see it: full of freshness and wonder, beauty, and excitement to be in this place that represents a certain mind-blowing type of power. Reflecting on the act of taking the photo from my perspective as a resident, led me to think about the Anusara alignment principle of “opening to grace.”
One of the many aspects of “opening to grace” is having a “beginner’s mind.” What does it mean to have a beginner’s mind on or off the mat? I think it means being open to new insight, to a sense of joyous discovery, to a feeling of fresh intoxication and wonder, no matter how many times we have done or seen something before. How many times have you done lunge or downward facing dog? Eaten a green bean or a potato chip? Petted a dog? Turned on a light switch? Filled a glass with potable water out of the tap? If it is the “same old, same old,” then you will lose the desire to practice and the possibility of growing. But most of what we do, especially as we get older, is a repeat of something we have done before. Grasping at new experience as a cure for boredom or jadedness will only make us unhappy. If we can see each day with newly opened eyes, then we can find fulfillment in each moment and be better able to grow. We will be open to ever deepening refinement and exploration within the space of our existence.
A samskara is generally defined as an impression left in us by a past action or experience. I found myself thinking about the process of samskara yesterday, when I went with long time friends of my family to watch their son taking class at the summer program at the Kirov Academy of Ballet.
I have not watched a ballet class (except on the occasional film) since I was actively studying ballet as a teenager and young adult. I have long been conscious of how ballet imprinted my body image and way of looking at myself, but have not found a space before where I was able to look at this aspect of my history with fresh eyes.
What was different yesterday, was that I was observing with openness. I was sitting with people I have known all my life, sharing their warmth, love, and parental pride for their son, rather than concentrating on my own history. It brought back memories, but not in the same way that sitting by myself or with a girlfriend, watching a documentary has done.
In this open state of reflection, I witnessed something that I knew at some level, but had not given much thought to before: how much having taken thousands of hours of ballet class has informed the way I teach. My tendency in my own practice and in my teaching to see the details of alignment and to try asanas repeatedly until it seems that I or my students have experienced the alignment in the most optimal way for the day is straight out of my experience in ballet class.
Softening and witnessing instead of feeling or judging from past experience gives the possibility of shifting from samskaras, even ones that are very deeply etched into body and mind. Being with my friends yesterday, of course, gave me the joy of seeing the spectacular dancing of these young men and the delight of connection. It also gave me the unexpected gift of a moment of understanding how the Anusara principle of “opening to grace” allows us to shift. When we are open, nonjudging witness consciousness (an aspect of “opening to grace”), that is when we have the possibility with each thing we repeat, to experience it new without being bound by our samskaras.
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.