Saturday, October 10, 2015

Don't be surprised when it shows up

If I have been quiet on this forum, it is because this past year I dove deep in relationship with my local students, in two different towns, fifteen of them at a time, in an intensive format. It was my first year attempting this, and I experimented with it in several different settings: some 6 week courses focusing on fundamentals, and a 6 month course where one-on-one meetings were a large part of the experience. What I learned was this (again): Yoga is relationship.



Yoga happens when we are vulnerable, afraid, angry, devastated; Yoga shows up when we reframe the experience, and rather than flaming the fires of self-pity, indulgence, or castigation, we open the lens to include EVERYTHING into the experience. Yoga is SHOWING UP to look at it all.

I spent the past year tending the roots of my tribe: each morning, driving the winding roadway bleary-eyed, the moon of the previous night hanging low on my left and the redwoods abound, peaking the summit of the hill with the caffeine buzz slowly waking up my senses. The descent down toward the mysore room still stirs me awake; soon, I will be there. The butterflies in my belly have not yet stopped their beating wings. The room feels at once like a precious cocoon, holding many people's tender hearts in its soft folds, and a cauldron where we are cooked and transformed, somedays, even burned.

What is my role here? Why me? 

I ask myself these questions often. Who am I to teach these people? What do I know? How can I rise to meet their particular needs, their particular sorrows and pains, on the mornings when I have an unspeakable sadness in my heart, crippling anxiety in my belly, and my own afflictions galore? 

Yet, unfailingly, walking into the room transforms me and my experience: the 'I' gets smaller until it merges with the 'They'. My breath synchs with theirs, my movements slow down to match their pace. My heart rate speeds up when the energy of the room builds to a crescendo; my spine finds a subtle arch when they bend their backs. I find myself grinning on the particularly potent days, thinking: I will be happy if I spend the rest of my life in mysore rooms. I get in the car and ascend the green hill, in the bright morning light, exhausted. On the other side of the highway, people are taking furtive sips out of their coffee mugs, checking their rearview mirrors and thumbing their phones, heading into work in slow-moving clusters of metallic pods. My work for the day is mostly done, save for my own practice, and a second teaching session in the evening, closer to home. Soon, it will be me and my mat, working out the kinks of lifting and shifting 40+ bodies, all the while staying open to what may arise: pain, sorrow, joy, heartbreak, loss, love; the whole lovely mess of human-ness.


***

My teacher came to town this past week to teach me and 40 of my students. How strange to walk into that room and roll out my mat, stand at the top, and draw my attention inward! How strange to be a student alongside my students! The first day, the excitement in the room was so intense that by the second sun salute, I was pouring sweat. The vulnerability of exposing my practice to my students was a big catalyst for change. Here I was, sweating, suffering, struggling with them, and here was my teacher, seeing my weaknesses and counting them out loud. That first day, I felt turned inside out, as if I was wearing my organs on the outside of my body, skinless, unbordered, unhinged; it was difficult to make eye-contact with the people I love, including my teacher. Day two, intensified this nakedness, and by three, I was tempted to turn the car around at the summit, make up an improbable story about why I couldn't be there that morning, and hide under the covers till the dust settled, until he left, until, until... Fight or flight, you say? Ha! I recalled all the times I have reminded my students of the role of the nervous system in the asana practice, the importance of working with our shadow side, the potency of practice when things get difficult. The importance of doing things that are particularly challenging for you. I wanted to go back and tell myself to shut the fuck up. What the hell do I know?

Nothing.



But slowly, slowly, the runner, the avoider, and the controller sat quietly and observed the process. Slowly, the hungry student emerged to accept the love, the gifts, the trust. The perfectionist and the realist had a meeting, and somewhere along the way, some form of integration had taken shape; some innate intelligence was rising up. Would this have happened without the external 'stressor' of a teacher as the seer? I highly doubt it. Does the teacher have to be perfect? I sure hope not. David often talks about the 'allies', these checklists that we must run through when we're practicing in order to orient ourselves: ground in foundation, breath, mudra, and the central axis, the senses drawn inward. I think the biggest ally is a skillful, honest, and compassionate teacher, somebody who has a healthy interest in your growth and wellbeing. Someone who gives a shit. The very thing that the 'avoider' in me (and possibly you) wants nothing to do with for fear of dissolution. The person who knows exactly when to turn over the stones, and which ones, to reveal the truth.



David's dharma talks in the afternoons followed an intense guided pranayama sequence. He spoke about how he believes the yogi to be a shaman, a conjurer who stirs up energy, induces an altered state, and embarks on a journey of 'truth-making'. He spoke about Yoga as the conscious decision to look, to interact. He told us that anything that is honest, reveals the true nature of suffering. As if reading my mind, he said: coming into the moment despite wanting to escape it is a form of tapas. He spoke of halahala, the poison of conditioned existence; he said that we are asking for it by practicing, so don't be surprised when it shows up!



He followed these talks with chanting so haunting that at times the entire room was sobbing. I'm still trying to decipher what exactly happened in those moments; I know enough to know that the thinking mind cannot make sense of it. The best way I can describe the experience of the week is this: my students and I walked through fire together, guided by a fiercely loving teacher. For the moment, the answer to the question of why me is this: because I've been fortunate enough to have received the teaching from my teacher, and because there is nowhere else I'd rather be than in the space of truth-seeking, with people who are courageously showing up to see.


Friday, December 19, 2014

On gurus and other perfect storms

If you are in the yoga world, you have by now heard about the horrendous and truly nightmarish accounts of the victims of the Mangrove Ashram. There were stories of people signing over their parental rights to a charismatic guru, who would then rape and violate the children with the promise of spiritual ascension, allegedly with the implicit knowledge of the community. There were gut-wrenching stories of an abused woman who then became an abuser herself, providing the charismatic guru with girls to destroy, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and betrayal.

I read the accounts in a thick haze of an unexplained fever, my eyes barely able to focus on the screen, my mind incapable of unimagining the nightmare of it all.

How do we lose our agency? Why do we give our power away to predators and sociopaths? What are we running from that makes us blind to what we are running toward?

I fell asleep to the eery nightmare of Mangrove; When I awoke, it was to the memory of a book I read years ago, when I was thinking about applying for a fulbright to India. The book was Jung and Eastern Thought, and I recalled how surprised I had been at the time to learn that Carl Jung had strong opinions against Europeans practicing Yoga, particularly since I found many of his theories/practices were compatible with Yoga.

I say to whomsoever I can: "Study yoga--you will learn an infinite amount from it--but do not try to apply it, for we Europeans are not so constituted that we apply these methods correctly, just like that. An Indian guru can explain everything and you can imitate everything. But do you know who is applying the yoga? In other words, do you know who you are and how you are constituted?"

***

I had just returned from the woods, where we had taken retreat. There had been a storm, a recent death, disheartening encounters with former teachers. We retreated into a stone lodge--a sturdy, unshakeable fortress--, and around us trees fell and winds bellowed and water poured from the sky. We sat every morning. We moved and breathed. We observed silence, though our eyes found each others' and we couldn't help but smile and communicate in hushed whispers. We ate roots and greens and colorful, lush fruits, and indulged on fats. And we laughed. We laughed at the mundane, the taboo, the grotesque, and the absurd. We laughed until we held our sore-from-laughter-cheeks, held our aching bellies, and we felt full. A sangha is a powerful, healing thing. A common desire to know and grow around a practice and a teacher can knit people into a strong fabric. A sangha reinforces intimacy. For four days, we reveled in it. 

I was surrounded by a small group of people who refer to me as their teacher. On the last day, we stood in two unwieldy concentric circles and we looked each other in the eye as a meditation on seeing the person behind the eyes. The idea was not mine, but my colleague's, and I may have openly groaned when she suggested it. Nevermind my resistance, I wept from the first person to the very last. Every single person I looked at, I saw them as a small child, deserving of all of my love. Every single person looked at me with grateful eyes, loving eyes, trusting eyes. 

Overwhelmed, I drove away from the lodge back to my seaside city. En route, the world was cleaned of its accumulated dust, and the earth looked like a well-fed baby: soft and lush and calm. I saw the eyes of my students before me in quick succession. I meditated on the responsibility of being a teacher: the ego trap, the potential for confusing their gratefulness for my own greatness. The potential for taking ownership of their growth. The potential for abuse, for deceit, for taking advantage.

Later that night, fever shook my bones awake. 

***

Over the years I have thought about what Jung might've meant by 'do you know who you are and how you're constituted?'. The ironic part is that many of us credit yoga for learning more about who we are and our constitution. 

This is how I am, partly, constituted:

I have always considered myself an outsider. I was a child of a christian man and a muslim woman; I did not identify as either, and in each circle, I felt as the other. My formative years were spent in a beautiful and ancient, culture-rich country that was run by an authoritative, patriarchal, fundamentalist regime. The same regime from whom we had to hide the fact that my father was a christian, because that made my mother an apostate, whose 'crime' was punishable by death. So we lied, and we were scared. A lot. 

In school, my parents requested that I be exempt from all religious classes. Even as they had a common enemy, the state, and neither were devout, my parents each feared 'losing' me to each other's religion, to each other's tribe. Their love was not devoid of complications; fear was a driving force, as well as anger.

I lived with the outside world mirrored inside our home. 

I grew up with a strong sense that belief systems were the reason for much of what was wrong around me. Everywhere I turned, someone was trying to convince me of the righteousness of their particular belief system.

The muslims called me Najes, which means unclean and is a term used for animals.

The christians said, you are one of us, because of your father. Nevermind that you have your mother's eyes. In time, you can erase her from your face. 

All of this aside, I was a child of a revolution and fiercely independent. I said no a lot. 

***
A bright-eyed student of mine on retreat asked me to speak about the philosophy behind the practice. Normally, I would've been overjoyed that a young student would show interest in anything other than asana. On this particular day, I was filled with dread. Why? Because I don't want to mislead her, give her a false sense of why we practice with a clumsy turn of phrase or left-over, stale magical thinking handed down from an imperfect lineage of teachers. I don't want to affect the fake indian accent and speak in aphorisms. I don't want to say a lot of words that mean nothing in the end.

Because I don't just trust that what I read is true.

Because I am a teacher in a tradition that frequently gets boxed in, defined, not only by outsiders, but by the members of the tradition.

Because some of the boxes make me cringe and make me want to scream no.

Because I find myself in a position where many look to me to teach them something, and I am in, as Adyashanti poetically coins it, a spiritual winter of sorts. I cannot convince you of the relevance of the yoga sutras in our modern day practice, because I am questioning a lot of what I've been taught, and I'm not quite sure that we've been looking at them through an honest lens.

Because I cannot pretend that doing a sequence of postures, in a particular way, everyday, is a superior way of gaining knowledge over ourselves; I know that it is a way. I know that for now, it's my preferred way. I cannot in good faith tell my students that I have some idea of what their way should be.

Because I want them to ask the questions, and then stay quiet for a long while.

Because I don't know if there is a god.

Because singing the praises of gods I did not grow up with tastes like cold wax in my mouth.

Because I feel no connection to hindu deities, no part of my being lights up at the mention or image of them. To me they are statues, dolls, paintings, metaphors. I find them beautiful, but not spiritually stirring.



because a cathedral of redwoods moves me to tears; I find nature, children, literature, acts of political resistance spiritually stirring.

I cannot undo the feeling that much of what I see in the yoga culture is unexamined and unconscious renderings of christianity, dressed up to look more 'exotic' and not so loaded for the practitioners. I don't know if this is necessarily a destructive thing. I know this may be a judgement.

I don't think all judgements are bad.

Protests are on my mind these day. Protests are a form of judgement of what we don't want and a demand for what we want.

Maybe in comparing the sex abuses of catholic priests to the abuses at Mangrove to the conscription of young boys into ISIS and Taliban, the common denominator is that we get in trouble when we operate in the realm of absolute belief systems, because often, someone at the top is selling us the beliefs for their own benefit. Someone at the top appears to us like a god, or, our idea of a god, and we give up our own internal ideas of who we are and what constitutes us. Perhaps, Jung was talking about this: know what your ideas of god, of self, of religion, of morality are before you enter into relationship with a guru. So if a guru is by definition, heavy and they draw you in, you do not lose your sense of self.

Or, get rid of the guru. Have teachers. Be in a mutually respectful, reverent, horizontal relationship with them. Read books. Have open, honest dialogue in a functional sangha that allows for open dissent. But most of all, seek and trust your direct experience. Listen.


***

We came out of the womb of the retreat, and the world is caught in a frenzy of lists and commerce and exhaustion. It is the time of the year when we stubbornly practice not listening. Because if we actually listened, we'd know that it's time for introspection, for hibernation, for silence. But alas, there are items to be checked off a list and we like doing this, dammit, because this is part of what constitutes us: the pavlovian response to the scent of pine and sugar, the temporary rush of acquiring more, and the less than satisfied feeling the morning after.

Listen: I know I may be bringing you down. That's not entirely my intent. My intent is to say, hey, let's define this thing that we love, yoga, as we go, so it does not reinforce our cultural and personal patterns and blindspots. I love asana for its quick ability to show us to ourselves. I am not an 'orthodox' teacher, and I have always chosen rather unorthodox teachers, those who respect their teachers but have done things their own way. So it boggles my mind when I see students say things like 'but that's not ashtanga' or 'but that's not the pose' in response to modifications, to different approaches, to softening their practice. I say this to remind you that we all have the fundamentalist teacher inside of us; we all have the perfectionist, the punitive, the unworthy inside of us. We practice with all of these 'selves'. We teach to all of these parts of our students. For the most part, we do not come to yoga unscathed by conditioning. We do not come to teaching with all of our parts fully in the light and integrated, loved.

Do you see how perilous and how sensitive this teacher/student relationship is, how ripe for planting seeds and suggestions and enacting spiritual derailments? What are we going to do about it?


Listen: this has never been done before: this many people, outside the Indian subcontinent, practicing yoga. It's an exciting time; it's a delicate time. It's an opportunity, and we are bound to make mistakes. It's also time to dismantle some of the structures that do not serve us. Not because they challenge us--I'm all for being made uncomfortable--but because they are rife with the potential for abuse. We have fallen too many times.  

(Jung later changed his tone about yoga in the west. Harold Coward notes in the same book that Jung believed that yoga was just another method for self-awareness, and so the emphasis should not be on it specifically but on its purpose for being. A Western form of yoga should then be developed. )

How attached are we to our image of Yoga? Are we ready now to get to work?




Monday, September 22, 2014

The Arc of Human Change

 For many years now, I've been toying with the idea of going back to school (again!). This time instead of completely changing course, I'd like to gain the skills that would enhance the work that I already do. I've been reading up on somatic psychology and specifically the Hakomi method. What intrigues me about this work, perhaps, can be summed up in this paragraph:

The Hakomi Method of Experiential Psychology offers an elegant, comprehensive and highly effective approach to human change. Hakomi combines mindfulness, unique and powerful somatic techniques, and a focus on present experience to access and transform deeply held, life-limiting core beliefs.

Sound familiar? This is the work we do in our Yoga practice: dismantling our self-limiting beliefs one by one. The beauty of it is that for the most part, this process happens spontaneously; the work arises when we are ready. Sometimes the work hits us over the head like a hammer, and other times, we recognize it in hindsight, as a slow and gradual shift in perspective. It's what keeps me interested in both teaching and practicing, this noticing and dismantling of patterns and conditioning. And of course, when working with the emotional body, the terrain can be rocky at times. I think at some point, having more specific training in the ins and outs of the human psyche will be hugely beneficial to me and my students. For now, I'm in the research phase...


***

Speaking of the desire to be an eternal student, I recently came back from working with David Garrigues for the second time in four months. I went back because I knew that he could spark a fire in me so bright, that it would enable me to shift my own stubborn 'life-limiting core beliefs.' Every great teacher has a very specific gift, and I found David's super-power to be his ability to empower his students through intense and difficult work. Being a home-practitioner, I NEED this kind of work. I need enough heat a few times a year to carry me through those cold, winter mornings when everything aches, and the last thing I want to do is get on my mat. I need it when, like a few days ago, I get on the mat and all I hear, before EVERY pose, is the taunting voice coming from parts of me I do not recognize, saying 'YOU cannot do this'. I need the fire when I've given all I've got to my students and am sitting empty, in a puddle of self-pity. That's why I went back to David. And I am not being melodramatic when I say that the way he worked with me in backbends changed me.

*photo taken on 9/12.


Let's get clear about this: the poses are mere symbols. On my deathbed, I will not be proud of my backbends. But I may reflect on how I related to someone important to me, or, took some risk that went against the grain of my conditioning. This is how I see it: if I get stuck in the idea that my backbend is the end point, then the process of 'human change' has in a way, been aborted. But if I come up against what I believe about my backbends, and with an open mind and a whole lot of hard and sincere work, challenge my 'self-limiting' beliefs, then maybe I will set a new imprint, a new precedent, a new possibility for change. And maybe the next time I am in relationship, and I see myself as this, and I see them as that, something inside me will know to not take my position so seriously. 

That is the hope behind practice for me. Which is why I believe in Yoga as a transformational practice, beyond the physical.

For the longest time, I believed that my backbends were as deep as they were going to get. That because of my long legs and short torso, my body had no room to bend more. That I had tight hip flexors.

That my backbends were just fine.

That I was doing my best.

Until, David got to working on them. In a space of one week, my body was transformed. I'll let these photos speak for themselves. What is even more exciting than the arc of my back here, is that I have had no pain! No sense of cranking, no pushing, only a wonderful sense of moving into space. It's as if this is who I've always been, and I've just decided to step into it. I had to allow for the possibility that maybe, I could create space in a new way. That maybe, I didn't already know everything that my body is capable of doing. In order to open, I needed to let go of my own self-image, my same-same way of doing things, my rut.

And this is why I love this work: David did not do my backbends FOR me, he gave me the tools and the inspiration to work at them, and I made the choice to practice them. Transformation is mostly intentional, hard work. No one else can do it for you; there are no saviors, no heroes, and most of our gurus are dead. We can light each other's fire, but in the end, it's up to us to keep it aflame, through practice.

As hard as the work is, the payoff is priceless. There's an incredible feeling of relief when we inhabit the space inside of ourselves, and no, I am no longer talking about backbends.



*The first photo was taken on August 17th, and the second photo on September 22nd. Look at how the curve has moved out of my lower back, and how my legs have become more involved. I think I even look taller!






Sunday, August 3, 2014

When the sky is falling

Not too long ago, I was a graduate student whose Master thesis was a little novel called 'The Unsettled Dead'. I spent two years writing 300 pages, and then I spent the next three years, rewriting and reworking it, because frankly the novel in my head did not match the novel I produced. Like many a writer before me, I put the words and pages that had been etched in my brain in a virtual box, and I moved on to other things. I told myself and everyone who asked that I needed to be much older to write the book that I want to write. That I am practicing patience and discernment. That the time is not right.

In a lot of ways, my reasons were all valid. My subject, or rather my obsession, is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. This is something that I know on a visceral and emotional level; this is the backdrop to my entire childhood: missile attacks, red sirens, basement hideouts, panicked adults, crying children, the sounds of explosions that still make me hate fireworks and fourth of July and even thunder, fallen and still smoldering buildings with people's random belongings obscenely on display, the news of the dead and the wounded, the captured relatives, the widowed and the suddenly child-less and their screams into the night, and the utter normalcy of war when it's your everyday reality. I wrote that book: raw, emotional, honest, but also clumsy, reactionary, and a bit overdone.

To understand this story better, you have to come back with me to even before I wrote the book. You see, in my early twenties, I was a scientist and an assistant researcher working for a pharmaceutical company formulating cancer treatment medications. I calculated, measured, and observed without an agenda. There were clear boundaries to the experiments, and an order to the process that calmed me. Naturally, 'the scientist' part of my brain watches me as I lose myself in emotion, in reflection, in story, and beckons me to look at things differently: without an agenda, objectively, and without getting too involved. This part of my brain is, as a new friend recently called, my 'bullshit meter'.

So you could say that my 'bullshit meter' convinced my idealist romantic side to use time to her advantage. Why am I telling you this? Because I feel as though some wounds are coming undone again, and I have gone back in the past few days and reread passages from 'The Unsettled Dead' and I feel as though we repeat the cycle of violence when we place more importance on empirical reason and less on empathy, compassion, and emotional honesty.  If you've taken my classes you know that I am allergic to talk of 'open hearts,' because my 'bullshit meter' has always gone off the charts when I've heard others talk in this way. But lately, all I want to do is go around the world and beg people to open their hearts to the suffering of others, and particularly, to the suffering of those they don't agree with, those they have historically (read: samskara) considered as other.

Needless to say, for the past three weeks, with the world falling apart around us, I could care less about my asana practice. This is rather inconvenient when you are a teacher, and your job is to help others move in their bodies in a way that makes them better people. And this is what I've been grappling with: how does putting my leg behind my head in increasingly absurd ways (I'm looking at you Durvasana) helping the world? How is it making me a better person? How is it relevant to what is happening now?

I guess you can call this doubt or lack of faith. I call it reality, and healthy skepticism. Truth is, even if I am dragging myself onto my mat everyday, it is helping me in tremendous ways: I am less likely to snap at those around me, I can read and hold the information that is coming my way these days without completely losing my mind and getting sucked into oblivion, I am able to challenge myself to think about this 'same story' in a new way. Also, I get to sit with the terrible feeling of being powerless, of knowing that even if I suddenly became enlightened mid-jump-through, bombs will still fall and children will still die. I get to sit with what is, as despondent as that may make me.

If you've read this far looking for answers, I am sorry, I have none. What I have are even more questions: how can we, yoga practitioners, help with the dualist mentality that is at the root of many of these violent conflicts in the world? What do we practice when the world is falling apart around us, and is asana just an analgesic, a numbing agent that we either indulge in or escape to? And, how can we do better? Is it, like my shelved-novel, a question of time? That with time and with more people 'awakening' we won't keep repeating this mess? Is that terribly naive? This last question from my bullshit-meter, of course...


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

On Dynamism and Faith

This is a post about asana, but first, a confession: I wake most mornings surprised that the world has not fallen apart around me. I expect the worst outcome of every situation, and do not change my mind even when the evidence suggests otherwise.  When walking in the woods or driving my car, I constantly think that I am going the wrong way. This leads me to stick to familiar trails, and even then, I often question whether I missed a turn and am bound to spend the evening alone, in the woods. Regardless of how much my students tell me that they enjoyed my classes, I stay awake for hours, breaking down everything about the classes I taught that day and thinking about ways I could've done better. I routinely beat myself up for not being a better teacher, even when I know that I am showing up with everything I've got; even when I see indisputable change and growth in my students; even when they flat out tell me.

I am a child of war: the skies were falling when I was young, so it is difficult to accept the perpetual california sunshine and air of optimism, no matter that I've now spent half of my life here, in this abundance of...everything. It is difficult to trust it. It is difficult to accept.

I am a child of revolution: the changes were constant, and the path kept shifting, so of course I don't trust that someone did not carve a new path in my favorite woods to throw me off. If I get lost, there is no one to find me; the work is mine and mine alone.

I am a child who was fed on a steady diet of high expectations and generous punishments; I do a great job of providing both for myself these days. As much as I am aware of this pattern, it takes a lot of work to interrupt it.



But this is a post about asana, remember? How does my list of patterns and samskaras relate to postures? It's simple: I approach my postures anticipating failure, ready to turn around, ready to dole out punishment in my head. This all came to surface when I studied with the King of Dynamism, David Garrigues...Up until then, I had carefully covered my patterns in the cloak of 'moving mindfully' and 'listening to my body.' Up until then, I  had grown expert at allowing my self-limiting prophesies to run the show of my yoga practice. Up until then, I kept taking the same familiar trail, for fear of getting lost in the woods.

David, in his enthusiastic and firm way, pushed me out of the woods into an uncomfortable territory of NOT KNOWING. I did not know what my postures looked like, and that terrified me. I didn't even know half the time why he wanted me to change them, but I did not ask. It really didn't feel important. Biomechanics aside, what he was asking me to do was have faith, believe, keep going. Not faith in him, or even the method, but in myself. Faith that my body is not as fragile as I think it is. Faith that it knows the way, even if I get lost a few times. Faith that the process is always more interesting than the outcome.

Dynamism is not about moving faster, it's about moving with confidence, with dispatch. It's about not wasting mental energy over whether I'm going the right way, whether the earth will open and swallow me whole, whether I look good while doing it, whether the world is falling apart around me. It's to get there (wherever 'there' happens to be that day), and then stay long enough to become fully alert, awake. As he said, to practice is to say Yes, day after day. I am learning how to replace the No with Yes. 



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Perfect Conditions

It was a perfect day today in the mysore room for practice, and not in the way that you would imagine. Not many people showed up, of those who showed up, several were dealing with injuries from minor aches and tweaks to intense, debilitating pain. Of the ones who did not have physical pain, a few were dealing with intense emotional upwellings and changes. Did I mention that I've been dealing with an ongoing, non-yoga related, physical sensation as well?

So why was this a good day, you ask?

Because all of us, including me, could have said fuck this and left. Because all of us, including me, could've not shown up at all. Because all of us could have chosen ways of not-seeing, of not-feeling, of not-knowing. Because we showed up, and because we felt, there is no way that we can unknow now. I've long believed that you cannot call yourself a yogi, certainly not an ashtangi, until you have dealt with an injury, used the practice to learn about the patterns that may have caused it, and in the process developed more compassion and patience, a different perspective on the why of practice. I am not advocating a deliberate drive towards aggression that will cause said injury--one of the students in the room had slipped on ice in Atlanta and hurt her wrist, yet she showed up to see how she could practice in her new body--my point is that as embodied beings, it comes with the territory that our bodies will not always cooperate. It is our practice to accept the limits, while compassionately pressing against the edges of possibility. The practice is not there to coddle us and deepen the grooves of our existing patterns; rather, it is meant to bring us face to face with our tendencies, with our desires, with our doubts and insecurities and fears. It is meant to expose our mind and heart until we can't take it any longer, and precisely at that moment, we practice by staying, by saying yes, by being with all of the discomfort and the ugliness.

The practice is not separate from us. It is not a place to hide. It is not an indulgence of our senses nor of our ego. The practice will expose our wanting ways, our petty and valid desires: to be seen, to be heard, to be loved, to be touched. To be the best. To be perfect. To be somebody else.

When this unbearable, stinking bouquet of 'self' is presented to us, we know the practice is starting to take root, that it's starting to work. Until then, we are raking and digging our way to the core of our being.

I want you to hear this: to practice only when the conditions are perfect is missing the point. To wait for a rested, open body, to wait for a calm, steady mind, to wait until your life is not overwhelming you with its many demands is like waiting for Godot. He ain't coming. So get on your mat, stay on it, and practice! I don't mean postures; I mean practice seeing, practice compassion, practice radical acceptance of what is. Practice being truly in the body you have today, with no preconceived notions and no expectations. Practice staring at your fear of dying, at your fear of not being good enough, your fear of stepping into who you really are. Practice the big things and the small also: how you think about yourself, the language you use in your head when thinking about others; practice deep, ruthless honesty. Practice opening your eyes and your mind and your heart to everything around you. There may be other options. But chances are you will not be able to undo the knowledge of where your true work lies. Consider this a profound blessing. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

A few of my favorite things (about practice)




It occurred to me yesterday, as I was taking a solo hike in a forest overlooking the sea, that what I've taken away from my yoga practice can very well be applied to ANY practice. It also occurred to me, that as the year is coming to a close, many will resolve to start a yoga practice. If that is you, hooray! I have many students who came to classes in a January and are still around, practicing regularly, and I would venture to say that their lives are better for it.  You want to know what is required to make your resolve more than a January fling? It is less about physical alignment and more about attitude adjustment. Here are some of the absolute non-negotiables that you'll need in order to build a lasting relationship to your practice:

1. Sincerity: if you come to a teacher and by extension to a practice, be sincere about wanting to learn. Often what we think we know gets in the way of deeper knowing. This goes for those of you who don't have a teacher and like me, practice at home. Every time you step on your mat, sit at your piano, or talk with your family on the phone,--whatever your practice may be at the moment--sincerely open to learning, to not knowing, to receiving. There is tremendous freedom in not knowing, and yes, when it comes to learning, you get extra points for enthusiasm.

2. Curiosity: don't lose it. The quickest way for your practice to become stale and take a backseat to everything else in your life is to lose your curiosity. If you get bored in your practice, the chances are you are not paying attention. How can you stay engaged? How can you find ways to want to know more? How can you practice presence when learning?

3. Consistency: You want results? Practice often and with consistency. Repeat what is really difficult for you. I took my first yoga class at 17, then didn't go back until 19. I went through periods of being really excited about practice that would last a few months, and then letting it slide because life got crazy. It wasn't until ten years later when I was desperate enough to be long-term consistent that I saw the effects of practice in my life and in my body.
Want more proof? I live with a musician. When he is learning a new tune, he will play it over and over and over for hours, day after day. How else would he learn it? If you are posturally-driven in your yoga practice, how do you expect to learn the fancy moves if you don't put in the effort? If you are spiritually-motivated, how do you expect to learn patience, become calmer, and have an appropriate response to the situations in your life if you don't put in the time for practice? To expect otherwise is simply crazy.

4. Boundaries: We need them. We thrive in them. Anything-goes and do-anything-you-want-anytime-you-want can be dangerous, as they fan the flames of well-established habit patterns. Whatever your practice is, create a container for it: a set time, a set space, a certain level of ritual to get you in the proper head-space. You'll find that there is abundant freedom to be found when the edges are clearly marked.


5. Love of practice: chances are if you love what you do, you'll have no problems maintaining it. Examine your definition of love to include the practices that are difficult, that force you out of your comfort zone, that ask of you to be a bigger person, that scare the shit out of you. Love the process of practice rather than the results of it. Read that last sentence again.


6. Commitment: don't be afraid of it. Or, if you're afraid of it, notice it, examine the why, and make a conscious choice to give it importance in your life. Recently I was talking with a bright sophomore in college who told me how he notices a glorification of lack of commitment among his peers. It's in our culture to window shop, to look for something else, to not stick with any one discipline. Why? Because we can. Ask yourself if it's serving you. Ask it often.

7. Perseverance: If the practice gets difficult, and if you're lucky it will, choose to practice showing up. Choose to practice consistency, commitment, and respect within your set boundaries and practice letting go of negative self-talk. Yes, things can be hard. What you've been working toward may feel really far away, while for others, the same thing comes rather effortlessly. No one said life is fair. Get over it, and, practice. We're all in this together. We all have our own set of grievances, our own limitations, our own strengths. Comparison may be inevitable, but it doesn't help anything. Also, if you slip up, keep coming back to it. It's not all or nothing.

8. Flexibility: Hopefully you know I'm not talking about putting your legs behind your head, rather, redefine practice and its boundaries. Be open to practicing when conditions are not perfect (they rarely are), be open to practicing when you don't feel at your best, be open to practicing when the world around you is falling apart. In fact, be open to practicing all the time. The time on the mat is play compared to all the non-controlled practices of your life. Enjoy the play! It's a luxury.


9. Respect: have respect for what you are learning, who you are learning it from, and the tradition that it comes from. Have respect for the time that you are spending in practice; don't waste it. For whatever reason, you may not have that time again tomorrow. Have respect for the people you are practicing with, near or far, and make it less about yourself and more about those who really need it. It doesn't have to be a verbal show of dedication. Quiet gestures go a long way. At least in the yoga practice, where we become attuned to energies, less talk is more.

10. Compassion: figure out the difference between compassion and self-indulgence. Compassion is kindness in thought and action, self-indulgence is to give in to negative patterns and repeat them. Example: to not practice when you have a fever is practicing compassion toward yourself and others around you; to beat yourself up for not practicing is to indulge patterns of self-flagellation that probably extend to other parts of your life.

11. Patience: to learn something new takes dedication and time. A big part of any practice is developing patience: plant the seeds and do not hover over them until they grow. Give it time. It goes hand in hand with enjoying the process rather than counting and picking the fruits before they ripen.

12. Sense of humor: when all else fails, laugh. When all else feels like a burden, feels like crumbling walls inside and out, feels like the world has turned against you, open your mouth and laugh a great big laugh as if you were mad. Let the sound be catharsis. Let your breath move in this new way. Laugh and move on. Feeling sorry for yourself is fun only for a short while; unstuck yourself as swiftly as possible, and get on with, you guessed it, practice!

Here's to a new year filled with enthusiastic, heart-felt, sincere, dedicated practice! Onward! (and don't be afraid to fall!)