Monday, January 24, 2011

The Niyama Challenge, Week Four

This week's challenge is svadhyaya. In The Living Gita, Satchidananda defines it as "reading scripture; spiritual study." Rolf defines it in Meditations from the Mat as "education of the self, or self-study."

It's very interesting that this week's challenge is the one I have dreaded the most, because despite all my studies in psychology, yoga, and religion, and being married to an English teacher, and loving the written word, I am not much of a reader. Or should I say, my brain has become accustomed to not being disciplined enough to read. I find that sitting down to read becomes an experience fraught with many of the difficulties that yoga students and meditators alike face: a very, very busy mind indeed. And even when the subject is a topic I am interested in, my mind wants to personalize the information, take me off track, and send me in a zillion directions. So my reading is usually limited to short bits of text that I can really allow to sink in and simmer rather than try to cover a lot of ground at once. Because of this, it may take me months to finish a book. Or, I may read something and have a really hard time connecting to the material, but want to know more, and become a bit frustrated by the process.

So I was happy to read the following today from Rolf and start to realize I am doing just fine in the area of svadhyaya:

"As in every other aspect of the yogic way of life, there is a magic to this process of seeking out and reading those works that speak to our true nature. The words of our teachers slowly work their way into our consciousness. Often we find that statements or concepts that we couldn't understand, or had no use for when we first read them, come alive days or months or even years later, as the circumstances of our lives confirm their messages. There is also magic in the ways in which our teachers eventually speak through us. Our thoughts, words, and deeds are informed by the writings of our teachers. It is a magnificent experience to see the beauty of our teachers' souls become manifest in our own lives, to see the loving hands that have touched us touch others through us. Through spiritual reading we gain communion with the divine power on which our hearts are set."

It's so true that I find myself recalling and saying things that Rolf has said to us at different times, and realizing I am saying them in my own voice. I know the process of integrating what I read and hear is an ongoing one that will change and evolve and that space will be made for new information and influence to take root. There's a great power in learning how to allow and disallow what information we will assimilate into our experience. We start to learn so much about ourselves in the process, and ultimately that it's just another way in which the human being is really a vessel for divine expression. It's a great unfolding for which I am so grateful to be present.

More later in the week.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Niyama Challenge, Week Three

This week’s challenge has been Tapas, or fiery dedication. I feel lately, as I mentioned in my last post regarding santosha, that the tasks required of me lately have not afforded me the time to be less than contented. If I am to be successful in my goals, it’s counterproductive to make the time to regret, worry, over-project or over-speculate.

That same situation applies to the observation of tapas. My dedication to this chosen path (to be a business owner, a student, and a teacher) definitely feels fiery at times, and most times, cannot feel otherwise. The moments that I allow myself to entertain another way, all I can envision is the people who I already teach and my fellow students and what we have to learn from each other in order to grow as people. I can’t imagine my life without them, without this discipline I have chosen. It’s that steadiness that allows me to walk through even the most challenging times with relative ease.

Where I have noted a lacking is in my practice. I have become adept at practicing “off the mat” most of the time, but sadly, sometimes that’s my only practice all week. This week I resolved to change that, and freshen my practice by attending some classes with some new-to-me teachers or ones I hadn’t practiced with in a while. I went to Randi Weiss’ Flow class at the Jewish Community Center, where I also teach. I actually attended the class that she and I share teaching on an alternating basis. She has such a solid foundation in the Ashtanga tradition and such a lovely voice. It feels great to be a student, and I am getting a little better at turning off the “instructor control panel” when I attend a class. It’s in those moments when I do, that I really connect to the practice and then walk away feeling stronger, more balanced and centered, and rejuvenated.

Last night I went to Sue Agee’s Power class at Om On, where I also teach. This was my kind of power! Her teaching style is very grounded in knowledge of anatomy (which I have to admit, I have become a bit of a geek where anatomy is concerned-- talk to me about pelvic and shoulder girdle stability!) but her delivery is very elegant and soft.

My intention was to get up and go to Peggy Boon’s 6:30 Sunrise class, but alas, tapas took a long winter’s nap. :)

Still a day and a half to observe tapas (and continue if possible-- I contentedly report that santosha and sauca are still in effect-- Day 20 no caffeine!)...

I am also including one of the quotes from my fellow teacher trainees about tapas that I think is beautifully put (I may post others)-- Thanks to Chris Yax of Hot House Yoga in Virginia Beach:

Tapas: It seems to me that tapas is the energy that gives life to the fulfillment of intention. It's fascinating to me that the energy needed to commit to an asana practice, meditation practice, or writing a book is the same energy required to take better care of yourself, to be more compassionate, loving and open hearted. It is the energy of discipline. I've been conditioned! I hear that word and immediately feel it means I have to do something I really don't want to do, but I should. I can honestly say that anything that I've felt I should do, but would rather not do, has never stayed long in my life. Rolf turned that on its head last weekend (or the one before) when he said to be disciplined is to be a disciple of that which I seek to have in my life. To rather be doing nothing else than what I'm doing. To rather be with no one else than who I am with. I am a disciple of my meditation practice. I am a disciple of my asana practice. I am a disciple of taking care of myself. I am a disciple of love. And when I forget, I am a disciple of forgiveness. Love Always in All Ways!

Aren't I lucky to have such wise people to study with?! Namaste!

Here's another post on Tapas and Svadhyaya, Week Four's Niyama, written and submitted by my teacher, Rolf Gates:

A friend and I were sharing the mellow moments in the parking lot after a 12 step meeting. The day had been warm and the evening around us gentle and fragrant. We talked for a while about family and sobriety and then the conversation drifted to surfing. We talked of good days on the water and bad and at one point my friend called another surfer “salty”. This is high praise. It means the surfer in question stays on the water. She’s out there everyday sometimes twice a day. She embodies tenacity, consistency, a passion for practice. It is the salty surfer who trains so hard on the small days that when the waves get big and courage and skill are called for she shines.
In the days following this conversation I reflected on the quality of “saltiness”. In Yoga this is called Tapas, zeal in practice. Tapas and being salty are not about a pumped up moment. They are about long-term commitment. They are about putting in your ten thousand hours in order to earn the right to be truly excellent at something. As I reflected on the nature of this kind of commitment my thoughts turned towards a personal inventory. Where in my life have I been willing to pay the price to achieve excellence? Where have I not? What is the nature of the price of excellence? What is the nature of the price of settling for less than excellence?

This does not feel black and white to me. "Salty" can also be obsessive. "Low sodium" can mean that someone has chosen balance. In either case there is Karma, cause and effect. sat nam Rolf

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Niyama Challenge, Week Two

So last week ended magnificently. I feel I have successfully conquered my caffeine addiction. Honestly, just taking deep breaths and remaining focused on the idea of sauca (and also remembering what horrible withdrawal I went through on Day Three... never want to experience that again!) and staying in sync with my fellow trainees... it all helped. I feel that sangha (or community) is so important when you're focused on accomplishment. Reading everyone's posts and having people keep my spirits up made such a difference. I had one glass of wine, and a tiny bit of feta cheese, at a memorial service I attended.

On Tuesday I found out that my former private student, Cherryl, had passed away from Alzheimer's complications the previous Sunday. I wasn't surprised, but glad she was relieved from her suffering. I also began to reflect on how working together changed me as an instructor. She was so content in her situation, and seemed to really enjoy our time together. I remember her words, "I breathe in love, I breathe out fear." I still talk about that, because it made such an impact on me. I have ever had such a profound experience like that with a student, not before and not since. At her memorial on Saturday (which was day one of santosha or contentment, how appropriate) the people who spoke talked about what a dancer she had been. I can totally see it. She was this lovely, tiny little lady with this bright smile and beautiful eyes. She was still so flexible even as she moved into the later stages of her disease. I think the saddest part was her inability to get up and move on her own. I can't imagine not being able to step onto my mat, let alone practice a sun salutation on my own. So I dedicate this week to her.

I can't say I have had a choice in the matter in terms of santosha. I have to practice it because I am too busy not to! With many classes and private lessons this week, and three meetings: for Project Yoga, for my grandmother's estate, and at one of my teaching venues. All that, along with planning a workshop I am conducting on Saturday. If I don't have steadiness and balance in my attitude, navigating this week skillfully would not be possible.

Here is what Rolf says about santosha.

"Come into any posture-- Warrior Two will do-- rest your eyes at one point, and just breathe into every cell in your body. Listen with every cell in your body. Experience the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands, the length of your spine, the sensation of air against your skin. Allow the posture to bring you deeply into the moment and you will experience contentment-- not as resignation but as the vibrant experience of all living beings, as the song that is sung by a world that is sacred."

Two more days of santosha, then onto tapas, or discipline. I plan to attend a yoga class each day or at least practice at home with a Yogaglo class. I may even take in a cycling class. I know I need to sweat more often, so that will be my intention for the week.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Niyama Challenge, Week One

So as you may know from previous posts, in my 500 hour teacher training we are split into smaller groups of 3, 4, or 5 and each weekend our groups present on various topics... either something from the Sutras, or something around teaching (class formats, theming, focus). One group this past weekend presented on the Niyamas, which are the second limb mentioned in the Sutras. The Yamas are moral restraints for living an honest and authentic spiritual life (non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, non-hoarding). They are mostly concerned with how we conduct ourselves in the outer world. The Niyamas are their counterparts. They are observances for sustaining spiritual growth. They are sauca, or purity; santosha, or contentment; tapas, or discipline; svadhyaya, or self-study; and isvara-pranidhana, or devotion to higher power.

The group that presented (amazing ladies, all) challenged us to start 2011 by observing and focusing on a different Niyama each week. We are to connect with each other via a private Facebook group page where we share our journeys and support one another. The first week's challenge is sauca, or purity. Here is what Rolf says about sauca in his book Meditations from the Mat:

"Practicing sauca, we keep ourselves clean on the outside through ordinary means, and we keep ourselves clean on the inside through asana, pranayama, right eating practices, and right attitudes... Sauca is not about what we eat but about the cleanliness of our choices... It is the observance of loving-kindness in thought ... On the mat, begin to experience the asana and pranayama as purifying your body as well as strengthening it. Off the mat, cultivate consciousness and care around the choices you make concerning your mental and physical environment. Begin with your physical cleanliness... and then work outward. How are your surroundings affecting you? ... Ask yourself, how are my thoughts creating my emotional reality? Think of five things to be grateful for in this day, and then ask yourself this question again. Over time, as you apply the principle of sauca to your life, you will find that a peace settles over you."

So today, I awoke to the New Year by lying in bed, imagining all the ways I planned to observe sauca in my day. I did a little pranayama (and by that I mean, a very little bit), got up, drank a big glass of water (one of the ways I am choosing to practice sauca is by purifying through hydration- 72 ounces a day!), had herbal tea (instead of coffee as is my normal habit), made a delicious organic breakfast of steel-cut oats, apples, pecans and cranberries, then started cleaning up the house with Ben. We did laundry, vaccuumed, cleaned the dust from behind the furniture, put away clothes and tidied up our holiday decorations. I made a walnut-arugula pesto and we had whole wheat pita pockets and tomato soup for lunch. I am cooking black eyed peas and stewed tomatoes (Hoppin' John) for good luck this New Year.

In a little while I will practice some asana and pranayama and then meditate for a few minutes. Before bed and then again in the morning, I'll use my neti pot to clear out the sinuses.

As for the inner work, I know there are a lot of less-than-pure thoughts that pop into my head and affect my emotional reality. I tend to over-reflect on past mistakes, which makes me feel sad and guilty. I tend to over-project into the future about what might come, which makes me feel nervous and inadequate. I also tend to place pretty unrealistic expectations on my plans and how much I rely on other people to live up to what I expect as well, which creates all sorts of problems. It's a bit of a trap, seeking the highest but unwittingly judging self and other. I take a small degree of comfort (and indulge in letting myself off the hook a little) in knowing that it's probably the human condition, stated right there in the first couple of lines in the Sutras, to make these mistakes, to let thought patterns muck up the consciousness and keep us from peace. Sometimes, I wonder if it's a bit of a curse, having done so much work on awareness that now I am hyper-sensitive to my own thoughts. Hmmm.

Here are five things I am grateful for today:
~my loving husband, who likes to do the dishes, vaccuum, and do yardwork.
~my two dogs, who keep me from taking life too seriously.
~my friends that I have made along this journey who support me and who ask the right questions when I have a problem to discuss.
~my dad who I think doesn't really understand my yoga path but who tries to listen and give advice anyway.
~my aunt, who was brave enough a month ago to pack all of her things in containers and leave her unhappy marriage in Wisconsin and live here in Virginia.

"When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness, needed to realize the inner self, also comes." Yoga Sutras

More later on my week long journey with sauca.


Update. It's day 4. Yesterday was terrible. I had the most debilitating migraine which I attribute to caffeine withdrawal... and I only drink one or two cups of strong coffee in the morning, not all day. I felt nauseous, weak and had terrible pain all over my head like it was being squeezed in a vise. It is very hard to focus on anything when you are going through that. I was checking out at the grocery store and the clerk asked me a question and it was like being in a movie and the sound gets messed up. I had three classes scheduled yesterday. I realized in a very intense way how the mind and body are connected, because with all that going on it was very hard to be positive. I felt angry at myself, confused, depressed, and especially fearful that I would not be able to teach or teach well. Somehow, though, I got through it, and feel a little better today (although missing that morning cup). One of my friends said yesterday that some studies show that a little caffeine is good for you. So perhaps after this week is over I'll allow that back into my routine.

I have also given up alcohol and dairy products and junk food (I already don't eat meat). So for snacks I am eating nuts, apples, carrot sticks dipped in hummus, arugula pesto with whole wheat crackers, things like that. I did allow myself one tiny piece of dark chocolate with fruit in it last night as a reward for getting through the day.

I am trying to focus on the great things going on in my life right now. Also, coaxing myself to feel good about the not-so-great things because, hey, it's all about perspective. Sometimes when we're going through things we can't detach easily and the weight becomes seemingly unbearable. Once we're on the other side we're able to look back and compare and contrast. I've just got to stay focused on the goal because tomorrow, the week is half over and santosha or contentment lies ahead... right?