Posts Tagged With: Ashtanga

The Yoga Assembly

I remember how exciting assemblies used to be. All that Rah! Rah! Rah! stuff. When I was growing up, my school would have assemblies for the big rivalry match of all our school’s major sports. They were usually on a Friday and we would be released from class early so that we could attend. The requirements were to wear our school colors and bring your team spirit. The marching band and the cheerleaders would guide us through the school motto and school song. There would be speeches, positive affirmations and some group chanting of the school motto. This doesn’t sound that different from a  gathering at an Ashtanga yoga studio. But instead of using the word assembly, yoga calls this a satsang. By the end of a good old fashion school spirit assembly and a modern-day yoga class you have achieved the same goal, which is to have a group of people resonating the same idea – team spirit, or “We are all in this together!”

I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to teach yoga on Friday evenings and that the people I get to teach are some of the most dedicated people I know. I always joke with them by saying I love my friday peeps way better the monday people, even though a lot of the time they are the same people. The friday crowd has passed on all other possible friday night invites, so they can get their yoga groove on. I mean, it is Friday evening after all, right? The class starts at 5:30 which seems to align with the assembly idea. They have to release themselves from work a little early so that they can assemble with their yoga satsang. We have so much fun in this class. By the end we feel united in the belief that yoga is a great way to start the weekend and a great way to let go of the past week. This group of people seem to support each other like no other.

Second series at The Practice Space, March  2008.

Second series at The Practice Space, March 2008.

I’m sure we could look at the word assembly and see it synonymous with congregation, or a collective. That whenever you gather a large group of people together hopefully the undertone is that you realize you have something in common. Which naturally raises the energy vibration of such a gathering. I have taken many trainings with my teacher Tim Miller over the years. People come to his trainings from all over the world. I have practiced alongside people from Sweden, Japan and Australia, as well as Florida, New York and Oklahoma. By the end of these two-week trainings I’ve made many friends, comrades in the journey of ashtanga yoga. One idea unites us all. Once in the yoga room practicing together, we become like one gigantic lung, one breathing vessel. Creating prana for all of us to share. Prana is called the life force so when people make the joke, “Let the force be with you.”, it’s actually a true statement. In a mysore practice with 30+ other ashtangi’s, no-one is talking, there is only breathing and movement. Yet it feels like we are having a conversation. This must be the language of love. Our love for ashtanga yoga, is our unspoken language. No one is talking, everyone in the room is working hard, but yet there doesn’t seem to be a shred of animosity or jealousy, even though the skill level in ashtanga yoga can vary greatly. There just seems to be harmony. This is the same thing the football coach, track coach and school principal were trying to get us to embody at that school assembly. We are better united, then we are divided. We can get further when the company we keep has a unified philosophy.

There is another interesting element to this type of gathering that I recently stumbled upon. I was picked to serve on a criminal jury trial. The experience was rather sad and depressing but ended up providing me many new insights. One of those was this: strip people of all their identifiers like suits, degrees, jewelry and coiffed appearance, and you realize that you can always find you have something in common with each other. As I was at the  gym where I teach most of my yoga, a few weeks after the trial I noticed the prosecuting attorney, as well as the judges clerk, working out at the gym. What I realized was this… the gym is a great place to join people together even though in our outside responsibilities we are very different. As I saw the prosecuting attorney exercising in her plain white tee and black pants, I realized in this environment, we have no labels. We are all just congregating for our better health. In a yoga room there are no mothers, brothers, housekeepers, landscapers, lawyers, rich, poor, infertile, adopted, fashionable, smoker, alcoholic, and so on and so forth. It’s as if the playing field were leveled back to the most basic truth. Which is we are all human and we mostly all have the same parts. That without labels and identifying responsibilities we are equal.

If your teacher is a good teacher, he or she has learned to teach a great class, no matter the reason that each student is there. They shouldn’t teach a better class to a lawyer, than to a housekeeper. You don’t favor the tall over the short and you don’t draw attention to the mother, over the motherless. We are a satsang; a community of people who ultimately  agree that yoga is good for us. Which is why each person wakes up in the morning and packs their bag with yoga clothes and a mental commitment to get it done, whether they struggle or float gracefully thru the sequence, whether they can do headstand (sirsasana), or sit in lotus (padmasana), whether they can stay the whole hour and a half, or just an hour. Take off the make-up, the fancy or ragged clothes, jewelry, pull back the highlighted or dull hair into a ponytail, with your beach towel or your yogi toes, no phones, no degrees, for the most part no apparent differences, and no openly different opinions (no doubt the opinions and labels vary widely). These things aren’t necessary to practice, you never need to know them. All you know is the person to the left of you wanted to do yoga today. The person doing backbends behind you, wanted to do yoga today. The person taking early savasana, wanted to do yoga today. So yoga has done it’s job, it has united us, yoked us together. It has assembled us, in more ways than one. We have congregated under the same roof, under the same sun, and under the same belief that yoga is good for us. Wether practicing in Japan, Portland or a tiny town in Boardman, Ohio, yoga works. If you have ever wanted to be apart of something that has no prerequisite, this is it. You can be a Democrat, Republican, Buddhist, Episcopalian, third child of eight, high school drop-out or cancer survivor. All accepted and invited, no questions asked. Really. The only underlying question is “Are you willing?” Because when you are “We are all in this together.”  We are all the same.

So, atha yoganusanam. Samastitihi!

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Bruce Lee would have loved Ashtanga yoga.

Surrender and come out with your hands up. That would be some great advice for how to begin a yoga practice. Surrender…ekam, inhale! There’s a lot of talk about surrendering in yoga, but I find that it is a concept that people can’t seem to grasp the meaning of. I have seen two very different types of people in yoga – those who try to force the body to surrender , with inappropriate effort, while paying no attention to their mind. Then you have those that seem to walk through the door already surrendered. These are the one’s that move their body around like limp noodles in yoga, while also paying no attention to their mind. Surrendering in yoga is not a physical act, but a mental state.

Yoga sutra 1.12 says “a steady practice, with non-attachment will stop the mind from fluctuating.” –   Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. Bruce Lee, a great Martial Artist said that exact same thing this way:  “Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.” Or he said it another way  “learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle.” He is saying, let go of everything you know, be open to what you don’t know. Now, there is this other  suggestion that is a short cut,  sutra 1.23 ” Isvara pranidhanat-va” – Or the goal can be obtained by surrendering. But sadly, the problem with surrendering is people take it to mean giving up, which seems negative. To give up, means that you are no longer moving forward. Stagnation is not the answer. Surrendering still creates movement, just not in a predetermined way.

I think of surrendering as giving in. Giving in, in yoga, is like going down the rabbit hole in Alice and Wonderland. The garden is a representation of your mind, your “citta vrtti”. You must go into the garden/mind to explore what is in there. Yoga is the exploration of the mind. The mind has a lot of contradictions. Remember, at first Alice was too big to fit through the tiny door to the beautiful garden, so she drank from the glass and shrunk. But then, she was too small to reach the key on the table to unlock the tiny door to the garden. Too big/too little, too tight/too loose,  too strong/too weak; in one yoga class you might experience all of these contradictions. The way to not be plagued by these contradictions, is to be like water, to surrender.

Surrendering in Ustrasana.

Surrendering in Ustrasana.

Giving in, is what water does. Bruce Lee said “Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” By going inward with our attention, outward things start to make more sense. But, if we look outside to understand what we feel on the inside, it doesn’t translate. If you approach yoga this way, it becomes dangerous. It’s what happens to people when they take everything that their teacher says to heart and they never question it. That is just regurgitated information. You have to question what you hear, and look inward to see if it resonates with your truth. You must always stay individualized in your practice and never surrender to someone else’s information. Surrender to the translation of  the information. Take what you hear and feel, then dissect it until what’s left has been authenticated. Authenticity in your practice is when the truth has been established. Keep this yoga sutra in mind 2.36 “Satya pratisthayam kriya phala asrayatvam” – For one established in truth, the result fits the action.

The steel inside of  buildings has to give, the tires on our car’s have to give, the clothes we wear have to give, the trees in your yard have to give. If things don’t give, they break. To surrender, or to wave a white flag means that two opposing entities want a truce. It’s time to negotiate. I’ve always said that in yoga, your breath plays the role of negotiator. The breath is aways trying to be neutral to the opposing energies. We tend to come to yoga fairly exhausted because we are constantly being pulled in opposite directions, like when our work responsibilities butt up against our desire to play. This will create a feeling of conflict. So what better way to resolve conflict than to call a truce, to surrender and negotiate. Yoga helps you figure out what it is that will make you feel at peace, no longer conflicted. The physical practice of yoga will take your body back and forth between flexion and extension, between inhale and exhale. With this, you will start to find the balance point. Not contraction, nor relaxation but the two energies in harmony. Having both energies in harmony gives the body adaptability; fluidity like water. Water adapts to the shape of a glass, bottle, or bucket that its contained in.  You can either do the asana, or you can BE the shape of the asana.

Surrendering is also the process of letting go. Bruce Lee said ” In building a statue, a sculptor doesn’t keep adding clay to his subject. Actually he keeps chiseling away at the essentials until the truth of its creation is revealed without obstructions. Thus, contrary to other styles, being wise in Jeet kune-Do (or Ashtanga) doesn’t mean adding more; it means to minimize, in other words hack away the unessential.” Eliminate your preconceived ideas of yoga, eliminate how you think your practice will go, eliminate what you think a pose should look like, and surrender to how fast you think you should be progressing. Surrender doesn’t mean to give up, too quit, or to walk away. It means to let go of thoughts that limit you. Yoga is the practice of subtraction, learning to listen for the truth and eliminate everything that doesn’t align with it. In order to really call a truce,  you have to be willing to hear new ideas, and to be open, and receptive. If your going to surrender… you have to let go.

On a yoga journey not everything seen or heard will make sense. But if you take a rigid mindset into yoga, it will break you. Another great Bruce Lee insight is ” The softest thing can not be snapped.” Be willing to give in to new ideas, be willing to take out old ideas. Where there is a will, there is a way. If you are not willing to be any different than you already are, then don’t unroll your mat. Bruce Lee would have been a great ashtanga student and teacher. It’s no surprise to me that some of his greatest insights align with the yoga sutras. He was a disciplined man, a student of adaptability and a master of his craft. He realized that “A teacher must never impose this student to fit his favorite pattern; a good teacher functions as a pointer, exposing his student’s vulnerability (and) causing him to explore both internally and finally integrating himself with his being.” Keep it in mind that “The height of cultivation” whether cultivating awareness, flexibility or skill, “always runs to simplicity.”  So stand at the top of your mat and start by surrendering. Keep it simple. As Bruce Lee would  have advised “Be water my friend.”

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Having the time of my life.

Pattabhi Jois, or affectionately called Guruji!

Many would agree that the Grandfather of Ashtanga yoga was Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, or affectionately called, Guruji. He kept time for Ashtanga for over 80 years. According to the stories my teacher tells, at age 13 Pattabhi ran away to take up study with Sri Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was the keeper of time for yoga before Guruji. If you take to Ashtanga yoga now, you are then keeping time for the system. The Hindu Goddess Kali, the mother of time knows that we all want more of it. Why then do we treat time so cruelly? Wasting time? Some people keep time with grace and ease. From all the stories I have heard of Pattabhi Jois, he did just that. At 80 years old, he looked just as strong as 20 years earlier; assisting the many yogi’s that would line up at his door in Mysore, at all hours. So why are so many killing time, running out of time and forgetting that time can be on their side?

Yoga reminds me to appreciate the time I have and to choose more wisely how I use it. It helps me to slow down and be more present. When we are present we are using our time the way it was intended. When we dwell on the past, or worry about the future, we are trying to manipulate time, to control time, or steal time. The best way to understand time is to know that time has a rhythm. It’s that perpetual tick, tock that time functions on, an even swinging motion that allows time to stay balanced. So, if it is balance that we are looking for, then maybe we should learn more about time.

Pattabhi did so much for Ashtanga for 80 years. He was steadfast in his teaching. His presence in the community reached all corners of the earth, and when he spoke of yoga it was clear and precise. Now the job falls on the fathers and mothers of ashtanga yoga, which would be people like my teacher ,Tim Miller. He has been teaching what he learned from Pattabhi for 32 years. This time line falls on me as well because of the 12 years I have studied with Tim.

Some yogi’s these days are taking up with new teachers and new styles of yoga every few months. Not seeing any one thing through for very long. That would be like a child being relocated to a new home every few months, breaking up the opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than him or herself. What’s bigger then the individual self? Family. Family becomes a network of people that you can go to, to help you feel your roots, for what grounds you. The great thing is we are born into a family, but we can also make a family  by the company we keep. The Ashtanga community does this very well. Whether we take study with Richard Freeman, Eddie Stern or Tim Miller, we still feel like a family because all these great teachers studied with the grandfather of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois. I am reminded of the family that I am a part of every time I go study at Tim’s studio in California. As I am surrounded by so many dedicated yogi’s. We are sharing our struggles and triumphs together.

Pattabhi was such a good teacher and such a good man that the one thing he really seemed to bring about amongst all his students is respect. All the great teachers of Ashtanga yoga seem to respect each other. For the 12 years that I have studied with Tim, I have never once heard him speak ill of another teacher. If anything, he almost always seems to give props to other teachers, especially in their differences. I think this kind character is why I continue to study with him.  I think this is partly a side effect of Tim having had such a great teacher himself. From all the stories I have heard and books and articles I have read about Pattabhi, he seems to have been a man of impeccable character and grace, with an amazing sense of humor and lightness of being.

I think Ashtanga yoga has this whole time thing pretty figured out. It takes time and lot’s of it to see the pay-off of yoga. I never understood my teachers statement that “Nobody should teach yoga until they had at least practiced consistently for 10 years.”. Now, I understand this statement. The amount of growth I have experienced in theses 12 years would be hard to show you. But I remember my struggles, and they leave me in a state of gratefulness. Grateful to have such great teachers, grateful for my health, and grateful to be wise enough to not take time for granted.

If time weren’t such a great teacher, I think the practice would be only 30 minutes or 40 minutes long, instead of an hour and a half. But I think the sequences were set up in such away to wean out those who aren’t willing to make time for their practice. Now that’s not to say that you can’t and won’t occasionally need to do a 30 minute practice. Most Ashtangi’s know what they have to sacrifice to roll out their mats. Time also teaches us by how our body changes over time.

Baddha Konasana.

Times greatest lesson is probably exposing impatience. Through my journey there have been several poses that I have become very impatient with. They were not progressing for me quick enough, which naturally pushed me towards aversion. Because these poses were so difficult and confrontational, I would rather not practice them. But I am grateful for my early wisdom to know that the only way I was going to improve in these poses was due diligence. My greatest teachable moments have come from  difficult postures like , baddha konasana, Marichysasana D, virasana and kapotasana. These poses marked milestones. Baddha konasana took 9 years to get my head and knees down. Marichysasana D took 3 years to bind, and somedays it can still be elusive. Virasana took about 4 years and kapotasana took about 10 years just to touch my toes. My teacher likes to call poses like this speed bumps, necessary intrusions to slow you down, to expose your grasping (aparigraha). I could have walked away when it got hard, but I didn’t. Time is what I have available and I’ll make good use of it.

It’s annoying that some poses come and go. The body is always evolving and changing. Some poses that were once easy become hard, and hard poses can become easy. These moments always make me chuckle. As we age through our practice, poses are bound to change. I find that I practice much slower in my home practice now compared to when I was 28. That is why Patanjali gives us the secret to the longevity of a yoga practice, sutra 12 chapter 1, ” Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” STEADY practice, with non attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Steady like time. Not when it’s convenient. Not when it’s easy! Everyday consistently. Pattabhi knew this, Tim knows this, and I know this.

I heart Guruji!

It’s going to take me time to become half the teacher Pattabhi was. It’s kind of like marinating; the longer you soak in the juices, the more flavor you’ll have. All these great teachers are making the practice rich with history. Ashtanga has been around for almost 100 years, fairly unchanged. Each person that carries the flame of ashtanga in their heart is adding to the well spring of authenticity and history of this great practice. Each time we practice, it’s a way to say thank you to all the teachers of the system. Thank you for keeping time with such grace. Thank you for making our Ashtanga community a family that we can feel part of, even when we are rolling out our mats 3,000 miles from Tim’s studio, or 9,000 miles from the birth place of ashtanga yoga, Mysore, India. I feel connected to each and every person that is doing their part to keep Pattabhi’s work alive. I feel honored to be carrying this torch that has been carried by many. We are a family of great students and teachers. The light of this torch is dispelling darkness, with just a little yoga. I’m having the time of my life studying and teaching yoga. Light your flame, and don’t waste anymore time.

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We’re getting the bandhas back together!

Ugh Bandhas! For a yoga teacher, they are one of the hardest things to teach. For starters, you cannot show them to people. So You’re left with trying to explain something to people that on a day to day basis fluctuates a bit. Also, in the yoga world there’s this talk that you should be doing bandhas  24/7. That’s a tall order along with everything else we have to do. But they are interesting, and once you start to figure them out for the first couple of times, they actually become very intriguing. If you can execute them properly, they will make things easier. Maybe “easier” isn’t the right word. But instead, they will make things more accurate. Or an even better idea is they will direct your energy. When I do them to the best of my ability they seem to keep my practice on track, kind of like the way trains follow rails. But there definitely seems to be a learning curve to them. At 13 dedicated years of Ashtanga yoga practice, I think I’m still on that curve.

Chaturanga Dandasana. Holding it is a good bandha check.

It seems like with every new pose I take on in my yoga journey, there is a new process of learning how to use my bandhas properly. They are not as easily executed in every pose. Yes, for the most part they are an energetic movement that is inward and upward. I think of their engagement a lot like the way a suction cup engages to a surface. That when you engage your bandhas, in essence you are creating a sealing effect of keeping your energy secure, stationary. Once this seal or mudra has been executed, you then can work to direct your attention to the innate lightness we all are capable of. It’s as the yoga sutra’s say, Sutra 46 chapter 2, ” Sthira sukham asanam; a yoga asana should be steady (sthira) and at ease (sukham) at the same time.” But the most truthful part about that sutra is its order. Sthira is first, because you can not be at ease if at first you are not steady. A seal or mudra happens when two things come into agreement or alignment. Right? Your front door won’t seal closed if the door is not aligned?

I know if you translate the word “bandha” you actually get the definition as a lock, like a lock at a dam. A dam couldn’t work effectively if it didn’t seal properly. In my opinion “to seal” would be more appropriate definition. So how do you get this alignment to take place, to create this sealing sensation? Let’s be real. The bandhas are more sensation then they are an anatomical action. I mean don’t get me wrong, there are specific muscles involved. But even if you know definably which muscles to contract, does that then make bandhas automatic? Absolutely not. Especially interesting is that even when we do know which muscles to activate, we don’t tend to be the most adept species at things that are subtle. We are definitely much more in tune with gross movements. But that’s the beauty and the mystery of the bandhas. Which is that they, more than anything else in yoga, are teaching us about the subtle, sensitive, and more mysterious side of the practice.

Here’s another way that you can try to understand the use of bandhas in your practice. Have you learned yet how to drive a stick shift car? Just a sidebar: You should, because you never know when or why you might need to drive a stick shift car. What a process it is, right? Intimidating and yet so liberating once you master it. Well, bandhas are a lot like the clutch in the stick shift experience. You must learn how to operate it to get the car in gear and maneuver your way through traffic. Seems like it should be an easy enough process, but using two feet and one hand, all coordinated together turns out to be a lot harder then you would think. Sounds like the things we do in yoga. Sometimes yoga and stick shift driving have that feeling of trying to pat your head and rub your belly at the same time.

You first have to take your foot off of the brake to get anywhere. In yoga, for some of us that means getting the “I can’t” thoughts out of our way. Doing yoga thinking “I can’t” is a lot like driving your car with your foot on the brake. Then you have to push down on the accelerator while easing off the clutch smoothly at the same time. If not, you will bounce the car forward or stall out completely. They are subtle movements, it requires a sensitivity of how much to release the clutch and how much to push the accelerator. You might think of the clutch as the mula bandha and the accelerator as uddiyana bandha. They must work in unison. You can’t have one with out the other, and you must first engage the one before you can effectively engage the other. In yoga, mula bandha is sometimes called the roots and uddiyana bandha is called the wings. You could say then that mula bandha is the element of sthira and uddiyana is the element that creates the ease of execution, sukham. Just like you have to ease off the clutch and push down on the accelerator.

What’s interesting, is when you first learn how to drive a stick shift car, you are taught on a flat surface because it’s easier. But then when it’s time for you to refine your stick shift driving skills, you have to try it on an incline. It is a whole lot harder to know what degree of effort to apply to the gas and how much to release the clutch, all at the same time while  worrying about drifting backwards. The smaller the hill the easier to figure out. Just like the easier the yoga asana, the easier it is to activate your bandhas. But the more things in an asana that you have to pay attention to, the harder it seems to be to remember to engage your bandhas. You put people upside down in yoga and it seems that the last thing on their radar is bandhas. Lucky for them, bandhas automatically engage a bit when inverted, not completely though. Asking people to engage their bandhas when attempting a new, more advanced asana is a lot like trying to ask the driver to take their foot off the brake when sitting on a steep hill, in a stick shift car.

Sometimes we might accidentally let our bandhas out, and then our energy flows but without any guidance. However, we need to have the ability at a moment’s notice to activate the bandhas and get our energy and attention back on track. First, learn how to find and use your bandhas in easier poses, then as you advance you will know what to do with them. Bandhas are much more fun when we know how to use them to make our practice freer and lighter.  Bandhas are most effective when activated together.

You may not remember this cartoon from the 1970’s; The Super Friends. It had these two characters named the Wonder Twins. According to wikipedia “The Wonder Twins powers are activated when they touch each other and speak the phrase, “Wonder Twin powers activate!” This phrase is unnecessary and just a habit of theirs. Physical contact, however, is required. If the two are out of reach of each other, they are unable to activate their powers. As they are about to transform, they would each announce their intended form. “Shape of…”, “Form of…”” Our Bandhas are a lot like that. They need to operate together .And when we do activate them, they allow us to take on new forms and shapes.

Me and my brother just before releasing the fish I caught the summer of 1980.

I’ll give you one more story of how I see the bandhas operating before letting you run off and experiment with the cause and effect of bandhas in your asana. Have you ever been fishing? When I was young and before many years of being a vegetarian, I went fishing a few times from a shore of  Lake Pymatuning, in Ohio. Nothing fancy. We used the worm, weight, and bobber system. In order to catch the fish we needed the worm to dangle below surface, so we put a tiny weight on the fishing line. Nothing that was too heavy that would cause the line to drop to the bottom of the lake, but enough weight to give the look of the worm dangling. Then a foot or so above that on the line we attached a plastic red and white bobber to allow the line to float so that we would be able to see when the fish took the bait. The weight on the line is your mula bandha and the bobber giving the line buoyancy  is uddiyana bandha. We must be grounded, but buoyant in our asana’s. Just as it can be tricky to catch a fish, it will be tricky to catch your lightness of being. As my teacher, Tim Miller says “somethings in yoga can be taught but other things must be caught.” Go fish for your bandhas. Be patient, be sensitive and don’t be too attached to your results. Sutra12, Chapter 1, “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah; Steady practice, with non-attachment, will stop the mind from fluctuating.” Just as I let go of all the fish I did catch, we need to learn to let go of our expectations. If you always want to go fish for the biggest fish out there, you might miss out on the beauty of the little one’s.

So let’s get the bandhas back together and make another great album. Maybe we’ll call this bandha album,  THE ROOTS and WINGS, or THE CLUTCH and ACCELERATOR, or  The WONDER TWINS, or The WEIGHT and BOBBER? But no matter what you know or think you know about the bandhas, they are definitely worth your consideration and examination. Whether you think of them as a suction, clutch, roots, wings, super hero powers, weight and buoyancy, or anything else creative you have heard, they are a necessary tool to the practice. Before you know, it you will be reeling in your bandhas. They will help create a greater mastery of the mystery.

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Pump harder, you’ll go higher!

During a yoga practice, I will move back and forth between opposite forces.  I like to think of this work in opposing forces as a swinging energy rather than a teeter totter. When I was little, I never liked the teeter totter quite as much as I did the swings. Maybe it was because the teeter totter  needed two people to make it work. Those two people needed to be of equal weight and desire, otherwise the one who felt the need to be controlling could take the fun out of the exchange of the back and forth. Remember those times when your friend could pin you at the top of the teeter until you either jump off, or they let you back down? The other element I never liked much about a teeter totter was the thumping that could occur between the shifting of sides. The swing though, is smooth and was operated solely on the amount of effort that I would put into it. All I needed was a desire to swing higher, to fly upwards, evenly in both directions, by pulling with my arms, and pumping with my legs. Hanging on to those two chains in my hands and the leather strap saddle for a seat. On the playground, that was what I enjoyed the most.

I think it’s the pulling of opposing forces that draws me into yoga. I like the singular responsibility of managing these opposing energies while on my mat. During one Ashtanga yoga practice I will experience this back and forth in many different ways. It’s this duality that helps us find a feeling of contentment, where we are not conflicted by the energies, but comforted by both the light and dark side of things.

On my mat… I will go from being cold to hot.

On my mat… heaviness will teach me to create lightness.

On my mat… contraction will facilitate expansion.

My strength’s show me my weaknesses.

Movement leads me to stillness

Exhales draw in inhales.

Tightness gives way to looseness

Emptiness gives me a great feeling of fullness.

Laziness is transformed into energy.

Silence is gained from a noisy mind.

Relaxation is cultivated out of tension.

Give it a try and see what happens. If you do, and you were like me when I was young, you’ll feel compelled to jump off the swing set with wild abandon, and free fall for a short time through space to feel the weightlessness that is possible. Only if we are willing to embrace that everything has a risk. Remember everything has an opposite…the risk you take on your yoga mat does have a reward.

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If Old McDonald had a yoga practice…

I recently read an interesting book called The Dirty Life, by Kristen Kimball. It’s about farming the natural way – no engine based machinery, no herbicides, or pesticides just good old fashion hard work. I’ve always loved the idea of owning a farm but I just don’t enjoy playing in the dirt. I enjoy hard work. I love the simple task of cutting grass with our electric lawn mower. But I just wouldn’t be very good at natural farming because you have to pull the bugs that are eating your plants off by hand and squish them. When it comes down to it, I’m too girly for farming. But I’m not to girly for the work that’s required for a good yoga practice, thank goodness! In this book, the author was writing about her love of farming and I realized her words perfectly described my love of yoga. No surprise, really, because farming and yoga share some similarities. She writes ” I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices to bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it.  I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic. I felt my body changing to accommodate what I was asking of it… I had always been attracted to the empty, sparkly grab bag of instant gratification and was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.”

Even if I just took that last line to describe my love of yoga it would suffice, ” I was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.”  Yoga is infinite, there are still poses and breathing techniques my body is still not ready for, nor is my mind for that matter, even after having my practice established as a 6 day a week Ashtanga practice, for the past 12 years. But every word in that farming description fits how I feel about yoga.

Downward facing dog, Adho mukha svanasana
Sullivans Island sunrise!

The author says, “I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. ” Downward facing dog is just that, connecting to the ground, drawing my attention downward and inward. I have always found yoga to be very primal. For starters, you are barefoot the whole class and you’re mostly on the ground with all four’s, or more. How your body is interacting with the ground determines the success or failure of your yoga practice. Headstand is a great yoga pose that can easily help you understand the line that says ” For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences.” And because students are usually forced to slow down and deal with what some of the consequences are in yoga, such as injury, or embarrassment from falling down, they are forced to grow and to feel their body changing to accommodate what they are asking of it.

There is also no short cut. A dedicated yogi, one that has stuck with it consistently, knows that the only way you achieve some of the bizarre postures we do, is good old fashioned hard work. The author also says of farming, ” Question: Why is farming like a relationship? Answer: Because you do not reap what you sow. That’s a lie. You reap what you sow, hill, cultivate, fertilize, harvest and store.”  In yoga, you reap what you face, repeat, lift, tuck,sweat through, and breathe into.

But brute strength can only get you so far. There has to be a degree of finesse and a nice increase of knowledge (vidya) with each practice. Yoga is cumulative in effort. The more effort you put forth the more return on your investment. And what are you investing in anyway? Only the greatest gift you have ever received…your health. I recently saw an infomercial for a Pastor selling a book about taking care of your body with exercise, I think they called it “Bod for God”. It’s premise was, the best way you can thank God, and show your appreciation, and devotion to God is to take care of the beautiful body he/she gave you….DUH! I’ve known this for years. The greatest show of thanks I can give to the divine everyday is treating my body well. Just as a farmer has to treat the earth well.

The really good farmer knows what hard work is. A good farmer knows that to produce a crop, a healthy crop, it takes attention to detail. From the grounds composition, to the weather patterns, to the hours of daylight and to the critters/invaders that try and eat his crop, he knows and does it all. A day off means a day that a bug or disease can get a jump on him and destroy his whole crop.  Farmers know their land, they know how to see the smallest change in environment and how that might effect his/her outcome. We all need to become more like farmers. We need to pay attention to the details. We need to know our environment and how it’s effecting our mental and physical well being. If we want to live a productive life, as much as a farmer wants to have a productive crop, then we need to tend to matters.

It starts with the soil. In the case of the human body, your soil is your mind. It’s where all thoughts begin. It is the point of creation. Your mind needs to be open in order for creative thoughts to flow through. Just like the ground that a farmer wants to plant, it must be loose and fertile, with out rocks, weeds, and bugs. Ground that is compact and dense will suffocate the life right out of any seed. So it starts with the soil, it needs air, nutrients and moisture. Which is why farmers till the soil, over and over until its ready for the seeds. Your mind also needs air and movement, it needs to be fertile for the right things to grow. A yoga practice can do just that. Sutra 1.2 says “Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah”; yoga can make the mind less fickle, that’s my personal translation. Yoga is a moving meditation. The movement, opens things and the meditation part is like the sun, shining light onto things that need to grow. Meditation is simply the process of observation, which will expose the things that would pull you away from a productive and fruitful life. A yoga practice is equivalent to the farmer walking his acres every morning and seeing what has transpired over night, knowing his land and keeping a handle on the things that can get out of hand quickly.

Weeds can quickly take hold and suffocate a plant. How many weeds are there growing in your head. A great example of a weed in your mind is a repetitive, negative thought where you are putting yourself down. That will suffocate anything good that’s trying to grow in your mind. Where a narrow mind is like dense soil, the density will not allow anything new to come into your perspective, leaving you stuck in repetitive patterns, that are producing the same results (this is the hala hala, poison). The bugs are like other peoples thoughts and opinions that have come in and tainted your view point, especially if you haven’t formed your own well thought out opinion first. Too much rain will drown the crop, because too much of anything is bad…moderation! Too little light, rain or nutrients is also bad. Just remember this, in yoga it is the terrible two’s that will get you in trouble; too much, too soon, too fast, and too little rest. It’s all about balancing opposing forces (dwandwa, twoness – duality).

Be the best farmer of the crop you are trying to produce in your life. I know and believe Old McDonald would have been a great yogi, had he had the time. Who’s to say he wasn’t a yogi, just without the asana’s? Keep this last thought in mind from The Dirty Life ” Of course we have a chance, he’d say, and anyway, it didn’t matter if this venture failed. In his view, we were already a success, because we were doing something hard and it was something that mattered to us. You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure, he said. Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you thought you were moving in a direction that was right.” Just like sutra 1.12 says “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah.” ; steady practice with non-attachment, steady practice with non-attachment,  steady practice with non-attachment, worth repeating because that one is tricky.

And one last thing to keep you steering the plough in the right direction is this line from a documentary I recently watched called Enlighten Up,” It doesn’t matter what you are doing, but why you are doing it.” We can so easily forget the why because we are so focused on the what.  For me, when I’m on my mat it goes back to what the Author, Kristen said which is “I knew why I was doing, what I was doing, and I BELIEVED IN IT.” Well said.

Old McDonald had a yoga practice E  – I – E  – I  Ommmmmmmmm!

I believe in yoga, enough said.

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The dog’s in my yoga practice.

Me, Bruce, Ginger & Traylor, Sullivans Island, SC.

I am a dog owner and have been for about 16 years. I have found dogs to be great companions. They do a great job at not expecting much, but being grateful for everything they receive. We could probably learn a thing or two from them. What is it we could learn? We could learn to always stretch after lying down, we could learn to protect our home from intruders, to play more, to love with out conditions, to be present, to hang out in packs with like-minded people, and to fetch a ball. Ok, well maybe not the last one.

Yes, we should stretch after lying down. Dog’s instinctively know that after their spine has been in flexion they should stretch it into extension. That’s why after your dog has been curled up in a ball for a while they will usually do one good downward dog and one good upward dog, before they carry on. Don’t believe me? Just watch your dog get up after his next nap. It is best to do yoga in the morning, after you’ve spent several hours lying horizontal and fairly still. Most people however roll right out of bed, down some coffee and carry on without ever addressing their bodies needs. Time seems to be one of the greatest available excuses to NOT do a little yoga. Is that an excuse? For years, I have seen people make time for what matters in their life. So the question is, does your body and mind matter?

What about protecting our home? I know people who have high-tech alarm systems for their homes, as well as a loyal dog, who will stand and deliver protection, if necessary. But the home that I’m speaking of is your body. This is where you really live. You experience life through your body. People are not protecting their bodies from intruders. They are allowing poisons into their bodies every day with things like pesticides, fried foods, polluted air, too much sodium, sugars and chocolate (oops, not chocolate, thank God someone discovered that chocolate is a good source of antioxidants). Toxic things come into our mind through, media, negative people, and negative thoughts. The body is abused with not enough rest and sleep. Dogs know to sleep with their ears standing guard, listening for any sounds that might alert them to danger. We have this same ability in our bodies. Our gut instinct is a great example of a warning system. The human body does give us warning signs to when there has been an intruder, such as indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea, congestion, or fever. But what about the subtle discomforts we ignore for far to long, like the ache in our feet, or the twinge in a knee, or the tightness in our neck? Only once my dog knows that the thing that alarmed her will do her no harm does she relax and accept the thing she felt threatened by. Our inner guard dog instinct seems to have gone off duty. Marketing plays on the notion of telling you all the great things about a product, golden promises of happiness if you consume, wear or apply their product. They know that if they told you its flaws, or dangers you wouldn’t buy it. Yoga should help raise our hackles, so to say. To become more sensitive to things that come into our space, that will impact or body and mind. Sensitivity is our tool for refinement. Just how sensitive can we become and how well do we trust what it is we are feeling?

Tonka and Indy rolling in the sun.

Tonka and Indy rolling in the sun.

How about the idea of play. Dogs love to play. They will take the initiative to start a play session by either bringing you a ball, or by bowing down into downward facing dog pose. Downward dog is the universal dog sign for “game on”! Sometimes when left to their own devices they will play with their own tail, or as my silly dog does, she has learned to play with her own leash. They won’t be denied that release they get from playful exertion, nor should you. I have found yoga to be very playful. I found that some yoga poses are similar to things I was thrilled to death to try when I was seven. Handstand is one of my favorite postures in yoga that automatically makes me feel invigorated and happy. There are  gentler postures too, that have a child like behavior to them. Downward dog reminds me of when I played wheel barrel with friends, walking around on our hands. Rabbit  pose reminds me of tucking into a ball to jump into the pool yelling, “CANNONBALL!”. Standing straddle poses remind me of jumping jacks. Locust pose reminds me of playing airplane on top of my brothers feet. Triangle pose feels a lot like the movement into a cart-wheel (which I still do in open grassy spaces). Frog pose takes me back to when I played softball and I was the teams’ catcher. Lunges take me back to stepping into a sprinters block when I ran track. Child’s pose is a lot like the shape I would sit in making sand castles, at the beach, for hours. So every time I go into these yoga poses, as a 40 something adult, it connects me into the aspect of play that keeps me feeling youthful and nostalgic. Which I would guess lowers my blood pressure, balances my mood and overall makes me feel jovial with myself and others. Play is definitely important to our overall health.

Dog’s love without conditions like no other being. I have seen this 1st hand with dogs that are living in squalor, with neglectful owners, and they still love their owners despite their circumstance. They don’t say “I’ll love you more when you brush me”, or when you play fetch with them, or if they get a steak dinner. They love whatever they get, period! We however say things like “I’ll love myself when, I am 10 pounds skinnier”, or “when, I have a college degree”, or “when, I have the husband that loves me back”. We are always waiting to love ourselves more, later. We seem to not be able to love ourselves today, or even tomorrow. Maybe we will in a week, or a year, or in the right, town, house or car. Why the stipulations? It’s like we are building up to some great big moment in our lives. What happens after we hit that pinnacle point, when all of our ducks are in a row? Will we then love ourselves as we are, or love our husbands as they are? Sometimes you are not going to reach this pinnacle, so what then?

Dog’s live in the present. My dog’s love their twice a day walks. They know they are coming because if by 5:00/6:00 they haven’t gotten the second one they begin to ask us with displays of dog behavior that says “Hey, what’s up?” But even if they still don’t get that walk they just wait, patiently, in the moment. The other best example I can think of to show you their amazing ability to be here now, is;  they might meet a new dog and have a 30 second scuffle establishing some terms to their new relationship and then they move on, there is no grudge holding, or revenge planning. They accept and go!  They don’t dwell in the past with remorse and anger, they don’t rush out into the undetermined future with planning the next attack to settle their score. They just let it go and go back to enjoying life. We have got to stop hanging on to things that are unchangeable because they already happened. We should learn to be content, in the moment, even if it’s doing something hard, or confrontational. This too shall pass, just wait for it. Dog’s scuffle, I know this because my dog has what people call a greeting disorder. Even with these run in’s that seem like they should be life altering, she let’s it go and moves on, even to the point of being great dog friends with some of the dog’s she initially put her guard up for. Things that are uncomfortable will pass. Yoga is a great place to practice strengthening your ability to see it thru and get over it. It’s likely, you will be uncomfortable in about 70% of every yoga practice you show up for. We are putting our bodies in some very awkward positions, but if you just BE with the sensation, listen to your breath, and your body you will find that the sensation is changing, and is no longer as uncomfortable as it once was. This can happen even within the 5 breaths of an ashtanga yoga pose, in just 5 breaths! This is what’s so nice about the memorization of the ashtanga yoga sequence, is that once it is put to memory you can get down to the job at hand of being present with each stretch because you are no longer worried about the future.

The best things dog’s do, if allowed to these days, is they hang out in packs. Spend a little time at a dog park and watch this at work. Dog’s like to be around their own species and they know that there is greater success in numbers. They learn how to work together, and they know how to honor each others strengths. If you are having hard time meeting some of your goals, then start hanging out with like-minded people. Let them support you, inspire you, and help you achieve greater success. This will always be the argument for why yoga works in a class room environment. We are there to support, inspire, and strengthen each others assets. It is good to have a home practice for more personal reflection but it’s also important to have a place to go to for inspiration, and even accountability. When I practice with my teacher, he holds me accountable for my results, there is no finger-pointing, no excuse making, there is just what I am doing in the present. Some days I need help holding my feet to the fire, and that’s what I get when I am practicing yoga in a roomful of other yogi’s. The collective energy of it makes us all a little better, more hardworking and better at being team players. We are strengthening our pack, our pack of downward facing dogs.

Now, the whole fetch the ball thing… well believe it or not we can learn from dog’s in that regard too. The only way you can catch a ball is to keep your eye on it. So whatever it is you want from yoga or life you must keep your eye on it; one pointed focus, one pointed dristi. Where we gaze and what we focus on determines a lot. Dog’s have two more feet than us, and we have thumbs, but we all just have two eyes. So look at your dog’s next time a little more closely for all the lessons you can learn from them. Take those lessons to your yoga mat and out into the world. Focus on what feeds your soul more than what feeds your belly. Besides your soul is going to out live your body.

So the advice from my four amazing dogs is…stretch more, protect your home, play more, love more. NOW! With people around you that support your goals and you will catch what you keep your eyes on!

Me, Indy, Tonka and Ginger, Columbus, OH.

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Samtosa vs. Samadhi

Samtosa vs. SamadhiI would like to challenge your thinking about the pinnacle stage that yoga is supposed to lead us to samadhi. Samadhi gets the top rung on the Ashtanga ladder.  Seems to be the inspiration for all our expiration, frustration and conversations, this one included. Yogi’s love to flaunt their samadhi around to people who seem not to know how to pronounce it, let alone experience it. Some yoga studio owners are even bold enough to name their yoga studio, Samadhi. Which, I would believe implies that if I practice there, I would receive my bliss way ahead of all those other hard-working students of yoga. But is all this sweating, bending, breathing, meditating and chanting really going to make me blissful or take me to a super conscious state?

I’m not so sure I want bliss or a super conscious state. I have found the thing that I experience the most from yoga is samtosa (pronounced Saam -to-sha) Just saying the word for me seems to put me linked right into its meaning, via feeling. Samtosa means contentment. Sutra 2.42 says “Samtosat anuttamah sukha labhah” translated simply as contentment brings supreme happiness. I find that because I do yoga, I am more content, more often and more easily. I sometimes think that samtosa should be given more respect and attention. Right now it’s just tucked into the second limb of yoga; the niyama’s. (which are methods for how I interact with myself) Where-as the first limb; the yama’s, bring’s me into my relationship with the world. (everything outside myself)

I feel like people are grasping for this eternal bliss in many of their activities in life. It’s kind of funny, because if I read up on samadhi, I find that there is not that much mention of this state of bliss. It is said as such ” The bliss OF samadhi”, because samadhi is actually where the mind becomes one with the object of its attention. Samadhi is a heightened state. Or it could be said that it’s a heightened state of dhyana – meditation, which is an unbroken flow of awareness. Somewhere along the way, people just started to say that the end goal of yoga or that the meaning of samadhi is Bliss. Bliss to me is happiness with euphoria.

We seem to be a society craving happiness more than anything else. Advertisers use this happiness desire on us endlessly to get us to buy more, do more, eat more and overall MORE of anything. I have read a book called “The Happiness Project”, and “The Geography of Bliss”, (by the way, good book) “Stumbling on Happiness”, and “Hector and the Search for Happiness”. I’m sure there are many other books out there touting their promise of achieving greater happiness. Campbell’s Soup has a whole ad campaign currently around the notion that “You can bring your happiness to work.” by bringing Campbell’s Soup to work for lunch. If all I need to do is eat Campbell’s Soup to be more happy, then why am I doing all this bending, sweating, twisting, and breathing to try to achieve it? Seems like there might be a short cut? Can soup really make me happier? Can reading all those books get me there quicker? Can doing all this yoga really lead me to Bliss?

If happiness was so easy to achieve, then there wouldn’t be such a large percentage of the population on antidepressants. I find that contentment comes way easier for me then bliss or happiness does. When I am content, I am at peace with what I am doing, or where I am, or who I’m with, or even if I am all by myself, no where in particular, doing nothing of great importance. I can find myself content walking my dogs. I can find myself very content reading a book, or right in the middle of my yoga practice, or even while raking leaves.  In order to achieve samtosa I must not want more than what I have in that moment. Which would mean, I am not grasping for MORE! Aparigraha, or non-grasping is another golden nugget from the great limbs of yoga. It also falls under the niyama’s.

To me, I like that when I am content I don’t feel pressure. But when I am happy, I sometimes do feel pressure. Happiness’s dark shadow would be sadness. The expression that  “the higher you go the further you fall” says to me the risk people take with all this bliss seeking. I figure that if I am content, I am neither sad nor happy but equally established in my reality. It’s not that I don’t want to be happy. Happiness is fun and joyful, and I like feeling that way. It’s just that I don’t need all my moments in life to be off the Richter scale. I am comfortable with the mundane, familiar and the dependable parts of my life. I know these moments of samtosa/contentment will be interrupted with moments of great joy and sadness but I’d rather have my life 80% of the time be where I am at ease and steady in my attitude, mood and energy. Being content does makes me happy, not euphoric, but happy. So does that mean happiness, a.k.a. bliss really is the top rung?

Samadhi is becoming one with what I direct my attention towards. When I’m content, my attention is no where in particular. I think that’s the difference between samadhi and samtosa. I think samadhi is for a higher form of spirituality but santosa is for daily practicality. To grow into being content more often in my life on a day-to-day basis would then probably help me create more room in my life to experience samadhi. So I think this a great example of chicken or egg? Cart or horse? I need samtosa to experience samadhi, without it, it’s not possible. I first need to learn how to become content with the mundane, necessary moments of my life before I can experience the bliss OF samadhi. So Samtosa is the egg and samadhi is the chicken that’s born from the egg. So does samtosa need more attention brought to it? I think so. I think if you were pitting the two against each other, as which is more important, it would definitely be samtosa.

Ding, ding, ding! So in this corner, we have the heavy weight of contentment and in the other corner we have the lightweight samadhi. I first need to  learn to become content with the necessary things. Contentment is like the drill work a boxer must do to win a fight. The repetitive, day-to-day work that prepares the fighter to get in the ring and to go up against his/her challenging opponents of life. I must first become content before I can experience that one pointed focus necessary for samadhi. When a boxer is in the ring he/she is thinking of one thing and one thing only. If he/she separates from that one thing for even a moment he might take a hit that could take him out of the fight. He can only get to that one pointed focus by first becoming content with doing the humdrum, redundant, but unavoidable skills of his craft.

So my advice: enjoy the moments you are neither happy nor sad, with people or by yourself, busy or bored. Become comfortable in the familiar, necessary patterns of your day, you’ll stop swinging so drastically between extremes and find that the place in the middle is a very nice place to be.

So the winner of this competition samadhi vs. samtosa is… yep you guess it, SAMTOSA!

Now be content with that.

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The elusive perfect yoga practice.

Poolside yoga in Roatan, Honduras.

What makes a good yoga practice? If you are still practicing yoga, that means you have experienced at least one sublime practice. As it is human nature to be pleasure seekers and masters at avoiding pain, it makes sense to seek that which we have enjoyed. It’s that one practice that hooked you. It’s what keeps bringing you back onto your mat time and time again. But among the good practices lie a few awful one’s too. Why is that? What is making your practices so different from one another?  It even happens when it is a set sequence of postures like Ashtanga yoga. You would think that if you are doing the same poses day in and day out that you would be having a ground hog day like experience. But it’s not so.

All life has an ebb and flow. The proof is all around us. Yet we become so accustom to the changes that we don’t acknowledge their impact like we should. We are very sensitive beings. Even though its seems as if we pretty much do the same thing day in and day out, we don’t. And it’s the little things that are changing our experience on our mats. I think that’s the fun of yoga. It’s like chasing down the elusive big foot – that notion that you have seen something once, but can’t prove it. I have done some amazing things on my mat. And as much as I try to recreate all the elements that were in play the day my practice was easy, smooth and effortless, it can seem like I’m chasing something that’s a myth.

Have you ever found yourself recreating all the environmental elements that were in play that day? But yet still no luck at recreating the elusive perfect practice. You know what I mean right? You put your yoga mat in the exact same place, you practice at the exact same time of day, wear the same clothes, make it the same temperature and you try and do the poses exactly as you did that day. Hoping that when you lie down in savasana it was everything that it was the epic time before.

If we were all to describe what a perfect practice is, we would find it’s not the same between us. You might consider a perfect practice to be where you finally held crane pose with out falling on your metaphorical beak. Or it’s when you never once looked at the clock. Or there was no presence of struggle. Or you finally felt like you engaged your bandhas the whole practice. The way that I have experienced it is there was a quietness in my practice and a nice heaviness and ease in my savasana. Where it felt like I wasn’t thinking at all, I was just doing yoga for the joy of it. There is a yoga sutra that tells us out right, that if we want to have a great experience with yoga, then take this simple advice… Sutra 1.12 ” Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah” Practice yoga with dispassion. Or more commonly said : practice without attachment to a particular outcome.

Recently, I took a vacation with my husband to the lovely island of Nevis. It was my kind of vacation, lots of relaxing by the ocean and plenty of time to roll out my mat and practice. Where ever I go, my yoga mat goes. So after we settle in, I went down by the swimming pool and rolled out my mat and proceeded to practice. I didn’t follow the ashtanga sequence. I ad-libbed some researching postures into the mix. So as I was moving along, I popped right up to a hand stand on my first try, with both legs at the same time and stuck it, then came down and carried on. I did that twice more in the practice and comfortably got into Marichyasana D, and came up out of backbends fluidly. When I finished, I was purely delighted with my practice.

Then the next day, I came out by the pool to practice. Again, I tried doing many of the same things I did the day before and it just wasn’t working. There’s a simple answer why. I’m hoping you have already figured it out. The first day that I practiced, I had no expectations. I just wanted to do yoga. But the second day, my expectation was that I wanted it to be as easy and joyful, as the day before. In a sense, I wanted to control the outcome one day and the other day I did not. I would accept the outcome. Which to me means, I was open. Open to things that I can not control and open to whatever the universe had in store for me.

There will always a percentage of the practice that you do not control. That’s the time where it is appropriate to surrender and accept. Without acceptance there is conflict. You are pitting yourself up against something, and you will usually apply force to achieve the result you are trying to control. This is usually the best teaching opportunity. What will happen is you will fail. You will be humbled, you will learn and grow by defeat. I like to say to my students when I’m teaching, that surrendering is not giving up, it’s giving in. There is a big difference between those two things. One, you walk away, the other you walk towards but peacefully, and without struggle.

Now, I’m sure being on a tropical island, under a beautiful blue sky that was filled with the intoxicating rays of the sun at the equator, and with the ocean as my backdrop, did assist my overall experience. But the real reason, that practice, was one of those knock your socks off kind, was because I wanted nothing. That doesn’t mean I was without desire. Because desire is what gets you to your mat. But once I stepped into Samastitihi, I gave into God, grace, time, whatever you want to call it . I didn’t want to stick handstand, I didn’t want to bind Marichyasana D, I just wanted to move my body as freely as it would, or could that day. It happens with running, too. On the days I head out the door for a run and I’m predicting that it has all the makings of a perfect 6 mile run, it usually turns out to be a heavy leg, slow stepping, long agonizing run. But on the days I head out the door to run and nothing else, it turns into a light, easy 8 miler. Because I had no expectation for the outcome.

There’s a great quote out of the book Born to Run. ” Think easy, light, smooth and fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless. Like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you have practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.” This great quote can be applied to yoga up till the fast part, as speed will not help our cause. But you can change the word fast to meditative or blissful, and this bit of advice will work just the same.

Having expectations is like predicting your outcome. There is a general societal skepticism about predictions. Right? We don’t believe someone can predict the end of the world, or when Jesus is coming back or lottery numbers. We tend to think these people that make such declarations are kooks. Yet when you step on your mat, believing that you know exactly how things are going to go, then you might as well set up shop as a fortune teller. Our past experiences do give us knowledge to how something might turn out. But to make assumptions or generalizations, will ultimately get you into trouble.

There is one other element missing for the make-up of the perfect practice, and that is belief. To believe in something means you have no doubts. That you know and trust that what you are doing is right and that it will work out. When there is still doubt, you will still be doing your practice as a study in removing your doubts. Have you ever met someone who believes in something that you think is far fetched – let’s say like big foot? What divides you, is he/she has no doubt it exists, and you do doubt that big foot exists.  If your doubting the practice of yoga, then you haven’t done enough yoga yet. Tim Miller, my teacher says “Experience removes doubt.” This is true. When you have done enough yoga, you will believe in it. You will stand in that belief with conviction

I always know that the day I utter these words, “I have to do yoga today.” I have already laid the ground work for a struggle. Instead of saying “I want to do yoga today.” You need to have the desire to get there, but you need to have the grace to embrace all possible outcomes. If you step on your mat as a form of punishment or control, then you are using your body as an object instead of a vehicle. Going into your yoga practice with doubts is like driving your car with your foot on the brake and the accelerator at the same time, not trusting the vehicle and your ability to maneuver it. Take your foot off the brake, practice with abandon. Abandon your expectations, your control and your doubt and you will probably have more experiences with that elusive perfect practice.

Now, Samastitihi!

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Get out your shovel.

Tim Miller said to me back in 2001 – “You can dig one hole deep or many shallow holes”. This, at the time, made a whole lot of sense to me, and lucky me, it still does to this day. The hole that I’m digging is Ashtanga Yoga. I’ve been at this manual labor for 12 years now. I’ve got a pretty deep hole. Just like the earth having many different layers, so has my yoga journey. I guess this is why archeologist love what they do. They find dirt exciting! I find yoga exciting! But it’s more then that, it’s a loyalty thing. There is a sense of pride that comes with sticking with something. Learning about it from all sorts of sources and experience. I was recently inspired to give loyalty some more thought because of a movie I watched called “Hachi” starring Richard Gere (that was easy):-). I googled the title, and found that this movie was inspired by a true story.

The story goes: In 1924 in Tokyo, Japan, a professor in agriculture took in an Akita as a pet. At the end of each day, this Akita, named Hachiko (means 8 in order of it’s birth), would greet Hidesaburo Ueno, his owner, at the train station. They did this for 2 years, until in 1925 when his owner had a cerebral hemorrhage. He died and never made it back to the train station where Hachiko was waiting for him. What the dog did next just seems to speak the truth of at least what I have always felt. Which is, animals do have souls. I know I can be accused of anthropomorphism, but I don’t consider that to be a bad thing. Which is where we project human emotion on to animals. Well, I think we would all be better off if we projected more animal emotion into our own behavior. But I won’t digress right now.

For the next nine years, Hachiko punctually showed up at the train station waiting for his owner/companion to return. Nine years, in a dogs life, is 63 years of longing for his owner, or for understanding of his loss. People today can’t stay married longer then 72 days. (I know I shouldn’t have gone there) But this is true, people jump ship when things get hard, or confusing or not self serving, instead of digging one hole deep. Why do we have the attention span of a puppy and not of a loyal adult dog? We seem to be the only species sometimes that can’t seem to come to terms with doing something repetitively and seeing where it takes us. A common expression that is used to describe a lack of loyalty to yoga is “I got bored”. Another word for bored is routine. What’s so bad about a routine? We all have them, like the way we start our days, or prepare our meals or dry ourselves off out of the shower. Routines should give us comfort. But some routines, like ashtanga yoga, will take us out of our comfort zone. If practiced diligently and correctly it should constantly change your comfort zone. That might be the problem?

The other amazing thing about Hachiko’s story is that under what would seem like apparent grief, was the amazing force of hope. I recently read a quote, nonetheless from a yoga book about Krishnamacharya, which said ” Failing isn’t as bad as not trying at all. Hope is the last thing we can lose.” This dog had hope that his owner was going to return. That the best place for this reunion, was the last place he knew he went. Most of us lose hope too quickly these days. If something doesn’t go just as planned or happen on our predetermined timeline, we lose hope and quit. You know the expression “cut your losses”. Somewhere in the course of those nine years that dog could’ve taken to a new owner. All the local commuters had seen him every day perform this ritual, and had become quite attached to him. Hachiko could’ve cut his loss and moved on. From the way the story sounds, the commuters began to take care of Hachiko with treats and pats on the head. These commuters where able to be empathetic to this animal because they saw his suffering. But they also saw his loyalty. Now in Japan, the word Hachiko symbolically means loyalty. The country erected a bronze statue of Hachiko in 1934 at the train station where he waited for his owners return until 1935, when he was found dead in the streets of Shibuya. Maybe, Hachiko knew his owner was not going to return, but did this ritual daily, as a tribute? What would we be willing to do daily, for 9 years?

Usually, for something to become significant enough to become a ritual it needs to have a high emotional value. The bigger the loss, the greater the tribute. As we just past Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we proved that with the new monument dedicated to him. It stands 30 feet high. It has two mountains: one symbolizing “a mountain of despair” and MLK stands carved in the middle with the other side of the mountain symbolizing a “stone of hope”. Those two lines are taken out of his “I have a dream” speech. Why is hope so hard to handle? It sometimes seems like chasing down a greased pig. But if we lose hope, then what moves us forward? What inspires us to try again? What will make us take another shovel full of dirt, of our hole that we are digging?

Cathy & Ginger, Sullivans Island, SC.

The quitting, cutting your losses, or losing hope happens when we can’t see the outcome. If you look up the word loyalty it describes it as faithful. Faithful! To have faith, is to blindly trust. Akita’s are bred to be loyal to one owner, they were used to protect the king. The loyalty lied with the King. If you have never experienced this breed or it’s other closest relative, the Chow Chow, which was bred with similar attributes, but was to protect the queen, I have. My current dog in my life is mostly Chow, and first hand, I can tell you that this loyalty thing is true. When I first took her in she had no interest in me what so ever. No surprise as I was now her second owner. Her first one didn’t want her any longer, but she was staying loyal to him. I had to keep her name “Ginger”, as it was the previous owners name for her, because it was the only way I could get her to pay any attention to me at all. We now have a pretty amazing bond but it took time and my loyalty to her. Why would I say this? Because when I decided to keep her I had found out she was dog aggressive. I knew that if I gave her up, she either had a future of being disowned again and again from this behavior, or she would be euthanized. I was the best chance she had at a good life. My decision to be loyal to her eventually gave me a very loyal dog. Is loyalty something that has to be earned? Is loyalty a two way street? Should anything be a two way street? Unconditional love is the greatest example of a one way street, no conditions. Again dogs excel at this.

Hachiko couldn’t have known the outcome to his circumstance, yet he did it anyways. He must have had faith in his actions. An interesting thing about having faith, is most of us attach an expectation to faith, that we will have faith, IF it produces the desired outcome we want. See, that’s not faith. Faith is releasing control, accepting whatever comes. I’m sure Hachiko had hope that his owner would return, but had faith that this was what he needed to do. No matter the outcome. And he did, till his death. I always say I am going to be a little 80 year old lady doing yoga. I have made the commitment to it “till death do us part”. I find that making a commitment to another human being is harder then it is to my yoga practice. But what I’m realizing from my yoga practice, is a thing or two about loyalty. I am loyal to my practice. I am loyal to my teacher. I am loyal to the style of yoga that resonated with me 12 years ago and I am loyal to hole that I am digging. I have been shaken in my journey with injuries, finances, relationships, etc., but I still keep digging. Just as I am sure Hachiko dealt with cold, hunger, illness, etc., but for nine years, precisely at the time of their train station ritual, he would appear.

I figure that if I can stay loyal to yoga, then I am practicing staying loyal to other people and things. So I have faith that this hole I am digging is taking me somewhere, even if I don’t know where. I hope that this is the right thing to do. I have these things because I have made my yoga practice ritualistic. Important enough for me to do it as a tribute to my teacher, and to his teacher, and to myself, as I am my own best teacher. Each day, when the train of yoga pulls up, I hope that the passenger coming off that train is a better one because of my dedication, and faithfulness. That the ritual of my yoga practice is a tribute to my journey, my teacher, my husband and my dog. I highly doubt that anyone is going to  make a statue of me at the end of this experience, but if all goes well, I won’t know if they do, because I won’t be around any longer. I will see this through to the end. I figure at the end, that the hole I am digging won’t be a hole any longer, but more of a tunnel that took me through the mountain of despair, to the stone of hope.

Do I think we all need to become more dedicated, loyal and willing to do things even if they are not self serving, easy or transparent? Yes, I do. But since I can only be accountable for my own actions, then all I can do is hope that they are inspiring. To lead by example. I realize the holes we dig will not be the same. I do wish that the people that are digging their hole in the path called yoga, that they will stick with it, one shovel full at a time. That they won’t get bored and that they’ll never feel the need to cut their losses. I started yoga at age 29. So if I’m lucky enough in life to get 63 years to practice my loyalty to yoga, then at a young age of 92, I’ll still be digging in this hole. A dog inspired me. My teacher inspires me. And you just might inspire me? Start digging, have faith and show your loyalty.

My Hachiko, Ginger.

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