Sunday, August 16, 2009

Hood River- Day Four

Today the theme will be contemplation. We'll do a walking meditation followed by our asana session, then lunch, and our afternoon discussion. As I sit here with this beautiful scene before me I have such a range of feelings: excitement, anticipation, hope, faith, connectedness, sadness, and yet somehow, more than anything, peacefulness. Will I be able to return to my life with everything I've learned and be able integrate it, to apply it?

More on today's session later.


The theme for our morning was contemplation. We walked about a mile and a half (I think) through the morning traffic, around the marina, past the park, to the little sandy beach where we put our feet in the Columbia River. The feeling of expansion was overwhelming to me. A little too overwhelming, and so I had to take a step back with my awareness and snap a few pictures of the scene. First, one of us walking toward the beach (I didn't actually photograph the group standing in the water, in Tadasana, taking it all in; seemed too sacred a moment):

Then, a shot or two of the surrounding area:

And finally, the walk back:

After the three long days of asana, satsang, kirtan, and so much more, which brought my emotions very much to the surface, even just a quiet walk was enough to bring tears to my eyes. Once we returned to the training room, our asana began again, this time with the theme of courage, which brought me back full circle to my realization on Day One. It's hard to convey the sense of beauty that I experienced on my trip to Hood River. The connection I felt to the group and to the lessons learned will be with me forever. I now know I have the courage to allow myself to be connected to people in meaningful ways, regardless of the risk. I know I have the strength of wisdom and the beauty of inner happiness to withstand any outcome.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hood River- Day Three

Today was all about joy. When do we remember feeling true joy? What was that experience like? What do the Sutras and the Gita say about relieving unhappiness, pain, stress, and suffering? Today's training might have been called Yoga Psychology.

Lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu- may all beings everywhere know freedom and happiness; and may my own actions, words and deeds support that freedom and happiness.

The cause of all suffering, according to the Sutras and the Gita, are obstacles (kleshas) : ignorance (avidya), egoism (asmita), excessive attachment to the pleasurable and impermanent (raga), excessive aversion or hatred (dvesa), and fear of death (abhinivesa); and distractions (antaryas), which cloud the mind and interrupt our self-reflective awareness and mental clarity. These antaryas are disease, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality (relying on sense encounters), false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from ground gained. So even back before the time of Christ, people were looking for ways to cure the human condition. This is why I feel that it's time for the world to learn yoga (note, I am not talking about asana here; I'm talking about the practice of yoga off the mat as well as on). Our lives are so much more complicated now and we have so many sense distractions and means by which we come disconnected. And we see every day on the news the result of that disconnectedness.

is a big issue for me. Recognizing ignorance (note, ignorance here does not mean stupidity, it simply means lack of knowing or understanding) is a constant battle. When am I reacting to a situation I need to ask myself, am I seeing things as they really are? Is the person who's offending me really coming from a place of unhappiness, pain, stress, and suffering?

The way through suffering towards real joy is through our attitudes (brahmavihara): through friendliness towards the joyful (maitri), simply being in a positive place with a joyful or successful person; compassion for those who suffer (karuna); celebrating (even delighting in) the good in others (mudita); and healthy detachment from those who have harmed us through word, action, or deed (upekshanam).

So rejoicing with kind and happy people, viewing that person who suffers from the obstacles and the distractions with compassion, and putting up healthy constructive boundaries to honor ourselves in hurtful situations are all ways that we can reduce suffering in the world as we and others experience it.

I realize I am boiling this down a lot, but it's all very important stuff in the study of yoga and I want to get it all down now so I can remember it. The ideals described in the Gita and the Sutras are all ways to help us achieve true freedom and happiness, and they are meant to be seen as a work in progress. They recognize that we are all to one degree or another limited by one or more of the obstacles and distractions; it's our duty (dharma) to work toward a more enlightened state through the practice of self-reflective study (svadhyaya). It's perhaps most important that we remain compassionate toward ourselves during this process.

Our asana today focused on opening the hips. We store a lot of emotion and stress and pain in our hips, and being seated for long periods only serves to lock in tightness in that area. We practiced surya kriya again, a long lunge sequence, and several advanced poses including eight angle pose (astavakrasana) and one foot to head pose (eka pada sirsasana). I really enjoy hip openers- they're my favorite- so this was my favorite sequence so far.

We also prepped for headstand by trying it near a wall, and for the first time I held tripod headstand (salamba sirsasana) away from the wall for close to a minute (I think). But I'm learning not to celebrate success in asana too much; every day is different, and tomorrow I may have a different level of strength, balance, or flexibility. And for me, watching my neck is really important because of my history with injury to that area. So even the physical practice of yoga teaches us to regard ourselves with moderation, compassion, and respect.

After lunch, we invited 20 or so folks from other trainings to participate in chanting (kirtan) which was wonderful... 50 plus people of all races and ages singing variations on Om, om mani padme hum, il alaya al alayhu, shantih, shantih, and gloria in excelsis deo. It sounded like a symphony. Some people cried.

My most joyful times are when I'm honoring those things in myself and others. So if I continue to practice it, every moment has the opportunity to be my most joyful moment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hood River-Day Two

Today was all about love-- not in the romantic sense, with all its striving, ego, and attachments; today we talked about and tapped into universal love. (As I'm typing this my roommate Tami is dancing in front of the window so if I'm all over the place with my thought process, please forgive me.) Om mani padme hum-- may the jewel in the heart of the lotus within me shine and illuminate all the world.

We began our day with a nearly three hour practice honoring the heart energy center (cakra) and celebrating openness, compassion, and connection. We were guided to stretch our arms outward in mountain pose (tadasana), warrior one (virabhadrasana eka), and one legged king pigeon (eka pada raja kapotasana).

Our practice contained several flowing devotional movements (kriyas) including a sun dance (surya kriya) and a flowing sequence honoring joy, peace, love, and gratitude. I cannot express in words the emotions that came forth during these times. All I can say is that feeling the devotional energy of 35 amazing men and women at one time can cause one to shed quite a few tears!

So our practice was transformational in so many ways. My automatic reaction to an opening like this is to want to run home and share what I have experienced with all the world. But I understand that not every person is willing or ready to hear it and accept it and so I will keep some of the feelings to myself. I know that they will infuse my classes with a renewed sense of spirit and I am thankful for that. I hope that my "off the mat" yoga will also be re-energized with love, joy, peace and gratitude.

About yoga and religion...

We here in the "west" as it's called have such a tendency to want to put things into little boxes, categories, this is "good," that is "bad," so on and so forth. It's a linear, or dualistic, way of viewing the world and results in all sorts of disconnectedness. Even choosing not to believe is a category into which we place ourselves. The so-called "eastern" traditions have a more holistic view of things. Rather than place ourselves at one end of the spectrum, the traditional yogic view is to reside in the center of a circle and remain balanced or harmonious within ourselves and others, or to put it another way, to live in a state of grace.

Where does that leave people who do traditionally subscribe to a particular religion? It absolutely allows for any belief system. For example, if you are a Christian, one teacher (guru) to which my group receives guidance, Anand, says, "Your love lies in Christ and it creates union between yourself and Christ. Your practice of yoga {which is, after all, seeking unity, not division} allows that union to grow stronger." There is room within yoga for every religion. As one of my classmates said, "The ocean refuses no river."

And if you're an atheist or agnostic or simply have a more scientific view, yoga even can be meaningful because the asana and pranayama (mindful breathing) and pratyahara (sense withdrawal) are all intended to simply awaken you energetically-- creating space in the body and mind and an awareness of connection. No faith required in either case!

Does this mean that there is no good or evil in the world? No, absolutely not. Ignorance (avidya) creates all the obstacles. An "evil" person who reacts in violence or anger or hatred does so in part because he does not allow himself to see the connectedness of everything and everyone. On the other hand, a person who reacts from a place of universal love, sees that the source of everything and everyone is the same. In that way, we are not the same, but it's our choices that make the differences.

We add names and attributes and associations to our true inner nature to help us make sense of the world, but oftentimes, we mistake those things for the inner nature itself. What is the first thing a person asks you when they meet you at a party? "What do you do?" Why is that so important? Even our language contains evidence of how much we identify ourselves with things that are added to our true nature. For example, when we're hungry, we say, "I'm hungry." But you're not hungry; it's your body that needs food. You're you. "I'm 35 years old." No, your body is 35 years old. It's a small thing that says so much about our culture. More about this later.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hood River- Day One

Today was a challenging day emotionally. Simply waking up after only in five hours of sleep (in a strange apartment with new sounds, not to mention the anticipation of what lie ahead stirring my restfulness) left me in a vulnerable state.

Yoga Fit Level Four (out of Five, for folks not familiar) is a 40-hour training centered upon the primary texts and philosophical traditions of yoga, which are alluded to in previous levels but are not studied in great depth. We read from and talk about the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita as well as delve into the origins of Sanskrit posture (asana) names and their pronunciation, chanting (kirtan), devotional movement (kriya), the meaning of Om, and share personal experiences and feelings surrounding our own self-study (svadhyaya). Yoga instructors from every background travel from all over the country to join and learn from one another. Each level is charged with its own raw testimony, but so far this is the most intense for me personally.

Even our morning introductions brought me to tears. The first woman who spoke, named Diana, was a long time Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma patient who talked about being weak and fearful in her early trainings and wondering whether she'd have the strength to face the emotional and physical demands they placed on her. The safety she found in that environment let her know she was where she belonged. Another, Louise, lost her mother in June to ovarian cancer and the emotional wear and tear of the event was easily apparent in the crack in her voice. She described being acutely aware of her mother's final suffering as she drove from her evening yoga class and looked at the clock precisely at the moment of her death. Still another, Teresa, spoke of a troubled yoga studio she and her husband had purchased and were now using the space to assist individuals with disabilities experience the beauty and power of yoga.

My own personal story involved a little family history (alcoholism) and the resulting fearful nature instilled in me from a very early age and how that fear had influenced every decision I had ever made (or had avoided making, to be more precise) in my life-- from jobs to relationships to education. A year and a half ago I left a job where I had been stagnating for some time, even moving past stagnation to decay, to an unknown future. Someone familiar with my decade-long sporadic personal yoga practice suggested that I teach, and though the idea frightened me somewhat, I felt ready. A year ago to the day, almost (August 15, 2008) I began my first training. I met Tami, who became a dear and close friend who has supported me every step of the way and whom I'm rooming with here in Hood River. {Side note: While most of my friends are on their own equally challenging paths, I truly feel that Tami "gets" where I'm coming from. And although she moved to Portland six months ago, I feel that our friendship has bloomed in a way that I felt was not possible at this stage in my life. It had been quite a while since I felt that closeness to another female. Not only does she have all those wonderful qualities, she is completely goofy and helps me relax and be goofy too.}

I shared my experience the past six months working one-on-one with Cherryl, an early onset dementia patient who had been a lifelong dancer and yogini (having trained with Bikram himself in the 70's and 80's) but who now was unable to attend regular group classes. One day as we lay in salambha setu bandha (or supported bridge) she told me that whenever she's experiencing a stressful situation, "I breathe in love, and breathe out fear." Having hidden in a place of fear my entire life, this moved me in ways I can't explain. Teaching yoga has opened me up to receiving lessons from everyone I encounter-- my students are no exception to this. They continually remind me how connected we all are and how much strength we possess. Other people in the training said that my sharing helped them to open up. I am so grateful to them.

Our two and a half hour morning practice, led by the wonderful Kristen Mabry, had a theme, "Discovering Our Truth (Satya)." We were guided to peel away the layers of judgement, expectation, and competition, of attachment and aversion -- not only of and with and to each other, but also ourselves-- and see what truth lies beneath it all. Our practice was to reflect that truth. I realize that my truth is courageousness. I have the courage to be honest about who I am, what I'm afraid of, what I need to do or not do to support my best self and reflect that courage for the world.

Mahatma Gandhi said "We must be the change we wish to see in the world." Someone in the training today said that when we're honest with ourselves about who we are, we subconsciously invite others to do the same. That courageousness, then, is a link to other people and their own personal truth. For so long, I held myself at arms' length from people or avoided true intimacy in relationships across the expanse of my life. I think in a way I have recognized the path to start to overcome this.

So in the spirit of that courageousness I earnestly tried poses that are physically and emotionally challenging for me: side crow (parsva bakasana) firefly (tittibhasana), and bound one leg angle (baddha utthita parsva konasana). I am glad I was reminded to listen to my body and honor the truth of the pose-- meaning, only attempting advanced versions of poses if the basic alignment remained intact. Sometimes being courageous means letting oneself not know it all...

Our discussions the rest of the day involved Yoga and Religion. Is yoga a religion? How does a dedicated yoga practice affect whatever religious affiliations we may have (or choose not to have)? How do the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita regard the observance of spiritual practice?

In tomorrow's blog I'll go into greater depth about this. So much was said that I'm still processing it. Suffice it to say that I feel so much more comfortable addressing the subject with people who ask me about it now. That's what these experiences do for me-- they demystify the world of spiritual practice and help me connect my own experience to that of others around me. And after all, yoga means union (yuj).

I chased the sun westward across the sky to find that the light I was seeking is inside.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Vegetarianism, Part Deux*

I was "vegetarian" for a time in my high school years. I put the word in quotes for several reasons: I totally lacked both the knowledge base to provide myself with the nutrients I needed and the family support to make it happen; worst of all, I lacked the discipline. It was too easy to be distracted from my goal and if I was hungry enough I'd pretty much eat anything.

Things are different now. I'm in charge of the food purchases in our household, I worked for a long time at a local health food store, I have the internet with its vast resources, and best of all, I have a supportive husband who will eat anything I cook!

The reasons I've decided to take this challenge on again are many. Meat, and red meat in particular, has a negative effect on my body. My digestion slows and I feel heavy after a meal where meat (and for that matter, dairy) is the main offering. I don't enjoy meat dishes any more than vegetarian ones. I have seen so many videos of the violent and inhumane treatment of animals in factory farms that have brought me to tears. I know that the safety regulations around the production and processing of meat are often ignored or abused. I know the potential for negative health effects of meat-rich diets. The chemicals and antibiotics that must be used to keep animals healthy enough for slaughter have a cumulative effect on our own health and the strength of our immune systems. There are so many reasons to not eat it anymore that it is time for me to finally listen to my own heart.

Recently, though, due in part to my dedication to my yoga practice and study of the traditional philosophies surrounding it, not being vegetarian feels unnatural and out of place. The first two limbs of Astanga (the eight limb path) are the Yamas or moral restraints. The first Yama is ahimsa, or nonviolence (also sometimes translated as nonharming). I had begun to feel some time ago that I needed to cross this hurdle before I could even begin to work on the others... additionally, the mindfulness that yoga affords me lets me think before acting, so if I do see a temptation here or there, I may be less likely to give in.

Please note that I don't suggest that being vegetarian makes one superior to another. It's a choice that makes sense for me. Ideally we could all embrace a life path designed around a desire to eliminate suffering and harm to others, but I recognize that the change has to start within me, first.

*For now, I'm still allowing seafood in my diet, but with time that will go, too. My friend Carol said I'm a Pescetarian. Works for me. It's been two weeks since I started... more later.