Posts Tagged With: halahala

I sea life is urching you.

I feel giddy with excitement whenever I find the skeleton of a sea urchin that has washed ashore. This is such a big deal to me that I actually have a little sea urchin dance that I do that my husband just shakes his head at. I think the fact that their shell is less than a millimeter thick and is delicate beyond measure leaves me feeling blessed to have found it. It’s quite a miracle that it managed to wash ashore in one piece when you think about the power of the ocean and its constant rhythm. Wave after wave thrusting into the sandy surface with the yanking force it has of pulling all back out to sea that don’t resist. I feel like each and every one I find is a sacred gift from the earth, something to be cherished. I have a bowl filled with their little delicate bodies. When I stare at this bowl I always come back to this one thought “What yoga does for me is a lot like what that urchin has gone through in its life to end up in my hand.”

A sea urchin skeleton, Sullivans Island, SC.

A sea urchin skeleton, Sullivans Island, SC.

This tiny little creature when it’s alive moves about the bottom of the ocean seeking just one thing – algae. It’s their version of “samadhi”. Nature has a beautiful way of giving all creatures a fighting chance against their natural predators. Sea Urchins are covered in sharp, pointy spines similar to a hedgehog. They are sometimes called the “hedgehog of the sea”. They move about by these tiny feet that suck water in and out creating their locomotion. They don’t like to be ruffled too much by the ocean, so they tend to like tidal pools. Their life goes on until they are caught by a predator or captured for food, as they are consider a delicacy in some circles. But if their life continues and they die of other causes, they will eventually make it to shore looking nothing like their original, living, breathing form. Their spines are gone, their body hollowed out, and they are an exquisite beauty of perfectly balanced geometric patterns. The lightest touch could break them, yet somehow they manage on occasion to make it ashore in one piece. Their demise allows them to become beautiful art in the eye of the beholder. All are not so lucky, some wash ashore and bust into pieces, looking like tiny remnants of a broken christmas ornament. This skeleton was their home, it was their castle, it was their place of knowingness.

Photo by Julie Wynne from Oceanic National Geogrpahic.com

Photo by Julie Wynne from Oceanic National Geogrpahic.com

I feel like I’m starting to look like the living breathing form of sea urchin with spines sticking out of me warning all to stay back. Then I head to a yoga class. After I practice I end up feeling like the washed ashore skeleton, what once was prickly, with spines clearly telling all to stay back is now transformed. Yoga has a way of removing the spines I feel like I am arming myself with. It has a way of gutting me of my insides and leaving me open, spacious, and beautifully balanced.

Life has a way of making us feel like we need armor, like how the sea urchin has its coat of sharp spikes protecting it. We tend on occasions to mumble and grumble through life shooing away opportunities for friendship, or adventures based on our perceived threat that these will disturb our comfort with the status quo. We can either prickle our way through life, or we can give in to being more porous, delicate and light. We are creatures of habit and always will be for the most part. We aren’t going to buy a different brand of toothpaste every time we run out, we don’t tend to go to bed at a different time every night, nor do we change habits like how we brush our teeth, or what our morning rituals are. We like routine, we fall comfortably into patterns. However, not all our patterns are working for us. Some of these patterns can start to look a lot like those prickly spines. Keeping out opportunity for growth.

As the opening invocation of Ashtanga yoga says the “samsara halahala”. Not all our patterns are worth keeping not all our cycles are worth repeating. The sea urchins know that in order to go on making an impression in this world even after they die, the best way to do that is to change. It leaves behind a very unique and different version of itself. We are able to do the same. Shed off your layers, your patterns and expose the most minimalist version of who you are: not so weighed down with pins and needles, but light and balanced. Next time you chant the opening prayer see the sea urchin in your mind as it is in life, and then as it is in death. Let it inspire you to quit being so bristly. Keep yourself open and try to become comfortable feeling hollow. Keep trying to stay whole, instead of shattered. Hold strong to your essential self and discard what isn’t essential. Remove the halahala – the poison, like how the poisonous spines of the sea urchin do not wash ashore with it, they release and let go of its old form, so should you.

Try to be delicate, but invincible. Be light, but solid. Be beautiful, but humble. Let others appreciate your beauty, but don’t be attached to your form. Be focused on the one thing that drives you, but don’t be threatened by those that might try to take it away. Move with the current, but be just as content to settle in one place. Be willing to release, so that you can change. Be comforted by the fact that your true self is always there, it is the shell. You are unique, different and beautiful. Stop letting life urch you. Quit being so prickly. Trust me, I have seen the beauty of what yoga can do. It can cleanse you of your history and leave you feeling washed ashore, restful and hollow. But being hollow isn’t bad, things that are hollow let the light shine through.

Categories: For the beginner | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sisyphus has nothing on us Ashtangi’s

Day in, day out, day in, day out, day in, day out, rest day. Day in, day out…get the idea. This is the life of an ashtangi. For most of us, it’s an accurate portrayal of our daily lives, too. On a day-to-day basis, there usually aren’t big changes, but just little ones that pop up. Most of our days have some consistency, or so it appears. But if you do Ashtanga yoga, you know that there can be big differences day-to-day. Because of the sequence being the same, it helps you to realize just how different you really are each day. With the practice having the same format, it’s sort of like a painter always starting with a white canvas. Or you could think of it as being similar to the story of Sisyphus, a character in Greek Mythology.

Sisyphus was condemned to a life of suffering, by the Gods, for his deceitful ways. He was to push a large boulder, up a mountain, every day, just to have it roll down again. Same boulder. Same mountain. Every day. For eternity. He’d find himself standing at the top of the mountain watching the boulder roll back down, and it is believed that on his way down he was left to think about his situation. * It is said by Albert Camus, in the book The Myth of Sisyphus that “when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance.” Camus also says that “[t]here is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” It is that statement, that makes me say Sisyphus has nothing on us Ashtangi’s. Because unlike Sisyphus, we choose to push the boulder up the mountain in what our daily practice. Every morning we wake up and see “the boulder” waiting for us at the foot of our yoga mat. We dutifully accept our fate, without scorn. All Ashtangis know there will be some dukha along the way, as well as some sukha. We accept that, and practice anyway.

I just read a book called The Dude and the Zen Master, by the actor Jeff Bridges, in which he implies that Camus was trying to say that Sisyphus was a hero. Jeff interprets Sisyphus feelings about his fate as such “Instead of just saying, Oh man, what is the use, he [Sisyphus] finds some interest in his job: Oh look at what happened this time! Funny, I never noticed that little shrub before. The rock sure raised a lot of dust this time when it rolled back down, wasn’t that interesting? Oh here it goes again. Oh, there it goes. Watch it.” If Sisyphus were attached to his outcome of getting the rock to the top then his suffering would be great. But IF he was able to do his work without expecting his outcome to become any different, then he would be free to enjoy the process, instead of the result.

Ashtanga yoga is a process, not a result. That is why Pattabhi Jois said “Practice and ALL is coming” the word WHEN, IF or HOW are not in his statement. Because it’s not about outcome, it’s about process. If you do the practice there is bound to be many different outcomes, but any particular outcome never removes the need for the process. The process of ashtanga yoga is till death, or until we can no longer move our bodies. The Ashtangis that I know celebrate the big anniversaries, 10 years, 15, 25 years of daily practice. All the way to Pattabhi who had over 70 years of practice to see what the ALL was about.

Janu Sirsasana C, day-in, day-out.

Janu Sirsasana C, day-in, day-out.

The practice is the boulder. However, it is up to you whether you push it up the mountain. It’s also up to you whether it feels like a burden, or a blessing. Pattabhi was always saying “You do”. Some say it was his limited/broken english that made him say it that way, but maybe he just didn’t see the need to say it any other way. Such as “You have to do this…” or “When you do that…” or “If you do this…”. He knew, for those of us that do, “You do” is enough. Sisyphus did, but he had no choice. Maybe he eventually realized that the God’s meant “You do” and not “You have to do this.” One statement carries burden, while the other sets you free – Jivan Mukta. The God’s probably thought this work would be good for Sisyphus, so that he could see the error of his ways. We yogi’s understand this. Our practice helps to get rid of our samsara halahala.

* Excerpt from Wikipedia.

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Staying a float

They say that if a rip current is pulling you out to sea, relax and let it pull you, then swim parallel to shore until it releases you and then you can swim in. This is counterintuitive advice but it is life saving. In most cases panic sets in and people who find themselves in this dire situation behave more like salmon and swim aggressively against the current exhausting themselves and putting themselves in greater danger. There are moments in life where we will feel like we are getting pulled out to sea, losing sight of the shore. We all need to find a way to stay afloat at different times in our lives, to stay on the surface of the disturbance and not get pulled under. This is a lesson in life worth learning, because there will always be things that pull at you this way and that. You can exhaust yourself fighting it, or you can let go and float. I see people all the time in yoga that practice like salmon, working hard and throwing themselves around the room. I feel as though people don’t watch enough nature shows, because if they did, they would realize that salmon die at the end of this journey. There is a better way to practice yoga and a better way to get through the rip currents of life.

Staying afloat in Urdhva Padmasana - upward lotus.

Staying afloat in Urdhva Padmasana – upward lotus.

Yoga is supposed to look effortless, not just for those that have done it for years but for every student beginner to advanced. Imagine if flying didn’t look effortless to a bird or if running didn’t look effortless to a cheetah. Yoga doesn’t have to look like a struggle, nor feel like one. It’s as simple as stop fighting. But don’t you hate when people take complicated things and make them sound so simple? Which almost seems like an insult for those that are struggling. I know first hand those people don’t mean to make it sound so simple, but in a lot of cases it is. You just need to get out of your own way.

We human beings are natural graspers. That should be an obvious truth because we have thumbs. All the grasping (Aparigraha) we do eventually becomes a pattern. It’s these patterns that we need to break. Those patterns are the rip current. Negative patterns pull us further away from the person we are capable of becoming. The shoreline symbolizing where we are at peace, with two feet firmly planted. What’s the first thing we do when we are knocked off our feet? We grasp, we reach out for anything to stop our fall. In the Ashtanga yoga invocation the chant speaks of these samaskaras (mental impressions/ patterns) and the halahala (poison) they can become. One of these patterns of grasping I find in yoga is this inability to drop our heads back physically, as well as mentally. In order to float you need to be able to just drop your head back. We don’t seem to trust our necks. It’s as if the neck symbolizes the connection from our bodies, to our minds. When energy doesn’t flow through the neck freely in becomes a holding pattern. I find it always helpful to take into consideration that we are mostly water. So why is it so hard to behave like it? Water can cut through stone. Given enough time and repetition the stone will yield. All the more reason and proof to make yoga a lifelong commitment. To give your body enough time to yield, you must repeat an action you wish to change.

The danger of a rip current lies in the fact that they can not be seen, but they can be felt. Not everything we do in yoga can be seen to the eye, but everything we do can be felt. I always say you need to approach all poses with a greater-than and lesser-than approach. Do I need more of this sensation or less? Yoga needs to be about the sensations that arise and our abilities to be sensitive and responsive to them. To not overreact, nor do too little, but to find the current of energy most productive that will carry you down the river of progress. To stay afloat in your yoga practice for years and years to come, it’s about adapting to where the body is on a daily basis. Not to how you wish it was, but to its current state. To stop fighting up-stream against what’s not and embrace what is. So many students over look the daily state of their practice because they are too busy looking at how they wish it was in the future. It’s sort of like wanting to have a baby but not wanting to be pregnant. Things take time. If students would remember to look at how far they’ve come, they might be able to see that this current they are fighting against might actually be moving them in a better direction. So maybe they should go with flow and just see where it takes them. Relax and realize that swimming upstream is only for the salmon. Just go where your practice takes you.

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A to-do list.

I made a to-do list today. It had your normal things on it like: go grocery shopping, pay the bills, wash the dog, and buy stamps. Sometimes those lists can seem daunting. Now imagine  you had to put on that list “remember to breathe”…Thankfully, we don’t have to remember to breathe, or do we? Life begins on an inhale and ends on a exhale. You never have to tell your body to do it again, and again, and again. Can you imagine what life would be like if things in our body needed our attention for them to happen? What if you had to think when you wanted to put a shirt on: “I need to move my arms up above my head to put my shirt on.”,or  if you wanted to smile at someone: “I need to contract my facial muscles to smile”, or “I need to digest lunch now.”? You would be a wreck, trying to do all those things and everything else you are responsible for. Thank goodness, for the things that were ingeniously designed into our survival like breathing, and digesting, smiling and getting dressed. But oddly enough, we do forget to breath, not for long extended periods of time, but enough to interrupt our prana. Prana is our life-giving force.

Have you ever experienced having the wind knocked out of you? It’s frightening and terribly uncomfortable. It strongly invokes panic. You grab at your chest, and bug out your eyes while trying to engage everything you know about breathing as quickly as you can. But the reality is we don’t know that much about breathing. It’s instinctive. Or is it? Instinctive means it is an unconscious skill. This would explain why no one had to or could explain to you how to inhale at birth. It’s already written into our life manuscript. Even though it’s already written into to our behavior, we still can lose sight of its necessity and take on bad habits like shallow breaths and short, incomplete breaths. Sometimes we even go too far the other way where we are breathing too quickly and forcefully, like when we are scared. Our breath is strongly influenced by outside experiences. Which is why we have the ability to impact or breathing from the outside in, even though it happens from the inside out.

There is this expression that goes “Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away.” Now why would we want our breath taken away? Because when those moments happen it means we have stopped, we have become fully present. You are never more fully present then when you stop your breath! Which is why yoga practitioners do their pranayama exercises. One of the exercises is to stop your breathing, briefly, but then overtime try to increase stopping it for longer periods of time. This stopping of our breath draws our attention very quickly to the here and now, allowing us to reflect on what’s really going on in that moment. What thoughts are going through us and what effect are they having on us physically?

But what about the moments in life that are more mundane and repetitive? And the way that we breathe into those situations. Those are the moments that are probably more detrimental then having the wind knocked out of you. Because those moments that you are not breathing fully, living present, those moments are like leaving a faucet dripping. You are just wasting your nectar, your ojas, your prana right down the drain.

It’s funny, because as I have been sitting here brainstorming and trying to write this, I have noticed that when I am deep in concentration, I stop breathing. This happens periodically and at other times I was breathing very shallow. If I do not become aware of these moments, what might happen? Well I think the most apparent physical response in our body to bad breathing is feeling tired, dull, maybe even depressed. To me, that’s why yoga and running feel so good. Because they are all about the breathing and my involvement with something that is unconscious in behavior. Both of those exercises take my awareness inward instead of outward. I feel after yoga and running, that I have cleared my head and that I am awake, vibrantly awake.

More moments in life should be like that. With our yoga practice we have the opportunity to take something that is instinctive and make it interesting. My teacher, Tim Miller says that “to be bored, is just a lack of interest.” So let’s make our breathing interesting. The breathing you do in a yoga practice should be done similarly to the way a scuba diver comes to the surface. If the surface of the water represents our mind, then we want to disturb it as little as possible. Breathing needs to be done slowly. You can not rise to the surface quickly in scuba diving or you’ll experience the bends, which is life threatening. Your very own breath begins to poison your blood. Is it possible that our poor breathing habits are poisoning our mind with, laziness, inertia, illness?

The sutra’s talk a lot about breathing, but there is that one that mentions the poison’s of our mind, the “halahala” of our life. Sutra 30, Chapter 1. Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya aviriti bhrantidarsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitatvani citta viksepah te antarayah – the obstacles that distract the mind are illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, overindulgence, illusion’s about oneself, lack of perseverance, and instability. Breathing with awareness has the ability to impact all of these afflictions. Breathing with awareness exposes things that might be subtle and constantly ignored by lack of awareness. As sutra 12, Chapter 2 says, “Klesa mulah karma asayah drsta-adrsta janma vedaniyah” – Acts stemming from mental disturbance leave imprints that always show themselves in some form or other, visible or invisible. That should probably say conscious or unconscious. Yoga takes us to what is unconscious, to the things that are buried deeply and very subtle. So what we are looking for in our breath are the things that cause the breath to shift in any way, shape, or form. So in a way, you do need to put breathing on your to do list. Or at least put breathing practice on your list each day, to reflect on the things that might be disturbing your prana. If you make time for this it will give time back to you by giving you more energy, health and stability.

Urdhva Padmasana.

Yoga is the best way to do a breathing practice. To push your body in and out of postures a few times a week and to watch closely the fluctuations that come up, like the bubbles that come to the surface from the breathing tank of a scuba diver. Our mind ripples easily. Luckily yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind through pranayama and meditation/observation. A scuba diver must wear a heavy tank of air to breath underwater. But this is not how we should feel when walking around in our body. Let’s not get to a place where breathing feels difficult and tiring. Let’s let our breath be liberating. Let’s make breathing our lifeline to the here and now. When ever you are feeling overwhelmed, let you breath draw you inward to the present. Let’s not add anymore then what we already have on that to-do list. Be grateful breathing happens without your thought, but that when you do bring it to your attention you are forever reminded to live a life that is taking your breath away. Away to the now, which is where life IS happening.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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