Hurricane Sandy, Saucha and the surprising Practice of “Cleanliness”

Hurricane Sandy has left her mark on so many lives here in the Northeast. The degree to which this storm has turned lives upside down goes from loss of power, loss of homes, to loss of lives. It has left our region with a big mess on many levels. When everything is out of place, when we lose access to the things we depend on (heat, electricity, running water, help from others) we quickly lose our balance and scramble to find some equilibrium and to return to our “home”. It is clear that the physical “home” represents a sense of place- with deep emotional roots, very much attached to our sense of self.

Observing all this, and having had friends and family affected by both Irene and Katrina, I have been reminded that my body is my home; and how well I care for this body and mind determines whether this “home” will be my refuge or a source of despair. Talking about the niyama Sauca seems a little silly or lacking in compassion- in light of a disaster like Sandy. Why worry about cleanliness when things are upside down? Yet on a deeper level, the practice of Saucha can be profound. (A niyama is considered an “observance” and it’s one tool in the enormous Yogic toolbox to help us to live a more ethical life.)

On the surface, Sauca is a no-brainer. When our environment is clean and in order, we feel better, we function better, we are more at ease and life has balance. But if we use Sauca as a metaphor for how we get our internal house in order- both our emotional and our physical house, that’s when “cleanliness” gets more interesting! Donna Farhi in her book “Bringing Yoga to Life” says “…unlike so many traditions that have viewed the body as something to be transcended, the Yoga tradition tells us to make the house of the body a fit place to live”.

 Through our practice we learn to work in postures by organizing our thoughts, organizing the angles of our hands, limbs and feet, by placing things “where they belong”. We use the breath when things get out of balance and we bring ourselves back for another try. Sometimes we literally find ourselves being challenged to hold ourselves upside down and then work to find ease and lightness there. We stand on one leg when we might prefer to be standing on two.

All of this brings focus and attentiveness to the present moment. There is an orderly process that unfolds on our mats which leads to its own kind of Saucha. We are caring for “the house of the body”. This care can lead to other side effects like kindness, compassion and a growing capacity for calm. When we extend this kind of Saucha to the world we live in, others benefit from our attentiveness. How I extend myself to others, how I speak, how I act are all ways that order my life. How we step onto our yoga mat matters, this practice is our home.

Sauca brings with it an intention of purity. In an imperfect world, as a perfectly imperfect being, this practice helps us to find ways to act from the better part of our humanity. When we practice Saucha on the mat, we keep the house of the body in order. Over time, we are better able to be at home anywhere and everywhere even in the midst of chaos and hurricanes and in doing so, help others to feel the calm within the eye of the storm.

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Fact-checking and Satya (Yoga’s yama of Truthfulness)

The elections are upon us and that’s got me thinking about Satya, or Truthfulness. Satya is one of the yamas  (yokes or restraints) in yoga philosophy. The yamas give us guidelines for right living, showing us ways to look at how we treat both ourselves and others in our world. Politics seems to be a Satya-free zone these days!

Gloria Steinem said this: “The truth will set you free- but first it will piss you off!”

So I don’t really want to try to tackle truth in politics… it’s just too big for me. But I think we really can’t begin to work deeply with embracing truthfulness as a personal practice until we understand the profound importance of being truthful with ourselves first and foremost. Without allowing ourselves to see our own motivations and habitual reactions to life, we will always “tell the truth” through the filter of what we cannot or are not willing to see clearly. This filter of “not seeing” prevents us from knowing ourselves for who we are. I guess this is why they say “the truth hurts”… it isn’t always easy to face something that is uncomfortable and that’s why we choose to look away and not see. If we are continually willing to blame our discomforts or dissatisfactions on the behaviors of others or something outside ourselves, we will find ourselves stuck in a loop of “untruth” or wrong perceptions and never learn what it is to be our authentic self.

What do we mean when we talk about the elusive “authentic self”? The definition of authentic: of undisputed origin; genuine; trustworthy, reliable, dependable. The word origin really resonates with me, as it is the origin of our thoughts that create the habits of our behaviors that become our personality. Then it seems that when we are “honest” with ourselves at a core level, the side effects of practicing this honesty are that we become trustworthy, we learn to depend on ourselves and find a reliability within us that allows us to make good choices. We treat ourselves as we would treat someone we trust and we treat others in the same ways.

Yogi Michael Stone says this:” In order to be truly free, you must desire to know the truth more than you want to feel good… Given the choice, anyone would choose to feel bliss rather than sorrow. It simply means that if the desire to feel good is stronger than the yearning to see, know and experience reality honestly, then this desire will always be distorting the perception of what is real while corrupting one’s deepest integrity.”

I’m the first to admit that facing a truth sometimes requires more of ourselves than we think we can bear. I have experienced this hand-to-hand combat with truth for myself. When the truth is too hard to bear, the method of choice is often avoidance. I’ve observed times in my life when I would get just a scent of the pain in store for me, when facing an emerging truth and have found the most surprising ways of retreating from that pain. Denial is the thing that lives in our heads as a means of protecting our hearts. It is also the thing that can keep us from experiencing clarity and therefore keep us from ultimately transforming our lives.

Yoga for me is my “fact-checker”. As I practice I am given many opportunities to see what is true. When I fall out of a balance posture 3 times in a row, I could try to blame the teacher, a slippery mat, distractions from the street… or whatever is convenient. But the simple truth is that today may not be my day for balance. In yoga we learn to be ok with that and take our truth as it unfolds moment to moment on the mat. Yoga can be humbling and it’s a brilliant opportunity to practice honesty on a smaller scale, so that we can take that practice into our lives and test out our practice of Satya in more and more meaningful ways.

Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal says this: “We can’t make ourselves humble- but we can make ourselves honest. Humility occurs when the love of truth is greater than the love of self.”

 Why can’t we get more politicians on the mat?!! Yoga mat, that is!

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Yoga, Jazz & Theodore Roosevelt: Do What You Can With What You Have

 

My husband is a jazz musician and plays the drum set. He is an aficionado of sound- especially when it comes to his cymbals. He uses a technique of hammering an existing brass cymbal in order to alter its sound. Hammering can change the highs and lows, creating a more pleasant sound by adjusting the sympathetic harmonic vibrations. (Right- sounds like yoga, doesn’t it!)

He had a Turkish cymbal (Zyldjian) in the closet that he had “over-hammered” and had given it up as a lost cause. Recently he re-visited that same cymbal and “reverse-hammered” it. Now it’s become a much-loved addition to his collection. This is especially nice for him as he lost an opportunity to go to the Zyldjian factory and buy one first hand in Turkey on one of his travels last year. When he excitedly told me how he’d transformed his cymbal from a lost cause to a prized possession, I thought… “Dharma Talk!!”

 

This story brought to mind one of my favorite quotes from Theodore Roosevelt“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” This quote is like a mantra to me, reminding me to continually look at my own resources- both internal and external to evaluate what can be created from what I already have.

 

For me, yoga has been a proven tool for transforming what I already have, into something ever more “valuable” than I had originally perceived it to be.­ Through movement I have honed my body to become stronger and more flexible. Problem areas -like low back issues- have been transformed to a point where what once was a source of chronic pain is now strong and easily maintained. For 2 years I’d practically put my body in the back of my own “closet” due to chronic pain.

 

Through the breath I am offered a way inside myself- to delve beneath the skin, investigating what’s “in there”. I’m encouraged to always look inward before placing my faith in something outward in hopes having something external dictate my ease or happiness; I’m reminded again and again that “what I have” is likely exactly what I need; resource that leads to transformation. At any given moment I can use the breath as a tool to stay in the present moment no matter what unfolds in that moment. The philosophy of Yoga helps me to understand myself in a way that allows me to have a more pleasant, sympathetic, harmonic vibration with the people in my world. Yoga really does teach us to look at what we have, to do what we can with what we have- right where we are, right now.

 

In ever deepening ways yoga asks us to continually assess ourselves- mind, body and spirit; offering tools to reshape and rebuild. Our hammer is a gentle one, but the results can bring about something as beautiful and shimmering as a treasured Zyldjian cymbal- and often, we discover we don’t have to travel to some place outside ourselves in order to experience that transformation.

 

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Dogs, Yoga and the “Wisdom of No Escape”

Last week it was time to bathe my dog Pearl. She hates baths and it’s always a bit of an ordeal for both of us. Pearl is 12 now, so I wanted to find some small way to take her anxiety level down a notch. So I decided to eliminate some of her “escape routes” leading off the upstairs landing where the “dreaded” bathroom is. There are 3 doors that represent an escape for Pearl… but I had closed them all, leaving her with only one option- the one open door leading to the source of her anxiety. The bathtub. Having no other choice, with a baby-gate at the stairway, she was more easily and quickly coaxed into the room of dread, cowering and shivering all the way… but still willing to enter and face her fate.

This made me think of Pema Chodrin’s “The Wisdom of No Escape”. Life is sometimes like this for us. There are so many doors to “exit” when we are faced with something difficult or something we’d prefer not to look at. We like to keep these doors open, even if it’s just a crack, in case we decide to bolt. We would far prefer to default to “what’s behind door number three” than face the truth of what is. Yet there are times in life when the winds of fate blow all our doors shut and we are reduced to fewer and fewer options. Sometimes we prefer to just check- out or act-out like cowboys and bust down the baby gate- fleeing for whatever we perceive to be easier or more pleasant or that best keeps the wool over our eyes.

The other choice of course is to stay put, gaze into that open door and see what is truly before us; to stick with the discomfort and look at what is and in this effort find a way to transform ourselves. Pema says, “It’s the only way we finally experience our experience; it’s our only entrance into the self-existing sacredness of the world.”

Over time, we can begin to recognize when we need to do the hard things in a softer way. Over time, with practice we can decide for ourselves to close the doors behind us that we have learned lead to avoidance; knowing that once we get washed clean, we might just end up running through the house shaking and dancing and wanting to play- because it just feels better to come clean and to grow. It feels better to be able to eliminate the options behind door number three before the doors are all slammed in our face because we understand these options are not necessarily the healthy ones. Our perceptions of what “escape” is and isn’t have changed. We can actually “experience our experience”.

Yoga offers this opportunity in lots of ways. I’ve run kicking and screaming from postures like Pigeon, Locust and Camel. Because my tight hamstrings, tight hips and resistant psoas gave me that “anxiety before the bath” feeling; so many parts of me were not ready or willing. I have met these poses with dread. But the beauty of being in this practice is that we are given the opportunity to close those doors, “buck up” gently and with compassion, and allow ourselves to step into that open door, merge with that edge of discomfort, that edge of fear, the edge of no escape. Sometimes it is not the physical postures that make us shiver and quake- it can be the stillness of Savasana that makes us want to kick and scream. Gently stepping or leaning into our edge, is a way of softly clicking a door closed behind us; so that we can merge our way into our edge, so that we can melt ourselves into discomfort. Over time, with practice, we find ways to support ourselves in these postures, to modify and develop them so that next time we can go deeper. Eventually we may stop running from these postures and finally we can actually meet ourselves there at our edge.

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Ego: The easy way out… (or not). The yoga Klesha Asmita

 

One of the five Kleshas or hindrances in Yogic philosophy is Asmita, or egoism. The word Klesha is derived from the sanskrit root Klish which means “to suffer, torment or distress- to cause trouble”. The Kleshas are the Hindrances. They are the five factors that lead us into suffering. (Avidya-Non-seeing, Asmita-Egoism, Raga- Attachment, Dvesha- Aversion, Abhinivesa- Fear of Death)

 

Yogi Michael Stone calls Asmita the “I” maker; “I am a mother, I am an artist”and our ego identification “stories of self”. We identify with our jobs, our perceived roles in life, mother, wife, breadwinner, teacher, artist, caregiver and though having an ego is not a bad thing- (even Buddha had one I suspect) we pretty much need our ego to organize our mind and navigate through life, but to over identify with and cling to these labels ultimately brings suffering. Life is guaranteed to bring change, and when it does, often times these changes affect our identity. If we are over-attached to these labels, change can place us on pretty shaky ground. We suffer because we believe we have lost an irretrievable part of ourselves when we lose some part of our perceived identity.

 

Stone relates that“We think of ourselves not as stories wrapped around other stories, but as fixed and somewhat permanent entities… we are constantly overlaying each moment with a story of self, preventing a direct experience of reality, creating a case of mistaken identity! Furthermore, compassion, listening or the ability to take in others is always superseded by the aggressive mechanism of the “I’-maker.”

 

The Ego generally chooses the easy way out. The ego has such an aversion to pain that options look pretty much the same all the time. ‘Is this gonna hurt? Then I’m outta here!’

 

If we choose to always cave in to the ego- change never really comes to us. We make choices that lead us down the same paths in life. The flowers or street signs along the way may look a little different on those paths; but when we arrive at the destination- things look (and feel) pretty familiar. We get stuck in a cycle of choices that appear to be the easy way out at the time, yet bring unhappiness at the end of the day.

 

When I begin to wrestle with my choices, when I begin to suspect that the ego has it out for me… this is happy making. It may feel pretty uncomfortable in those moments of introspection, but the fact that I now have some awareness that the ego is not necessarily the “boss of me”, I open myself to change. In these moments of struggle- “what should I do?” the opportunity to change, open and grow are present.

 

As I begin to cultivate awareness that I am not my ego- I begin to understand that there is more to me than my “ego identity”, something larger than myself. I can also hold the recognition that my stories and the stories others present to me are not fixed and permanent; our stories can change or even dissolve and I can remain ever flexible at my core. This offers me a more honest experience of what is unfolding in these present moments. Seeing the ego for what it is and what it isn’t cultivates the ability to see clearly what is.

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Svadyaya: Yoga’s Niyama of Self-Study

 

Of all the topics out there to study- why is Self-study one of the most important subjects we can tackle in order to transform our lives? I don’t use the term “tackle” lightly either!

Study of self inherently comes with challenges. It’s suggested that in Svadyaya we study the works of great sages. This requires us to question our motives, observe our behaviors and responses to life then discern just how well we are doing compared to say… the Dali Llama or Desmond Tutu. What we uncover and learn about ourselves (warts and all) can sometimes be surprising and oftentimes painful. The painful aspect of self-reflection is frankly the thing that keeps many of us from looking too deeply into our own personality. It takes courage to be honest, embrace truth and confront our selves head-on. It’s scary.

So the nature of our investigation needs to allow compassion to take the helm. When transformation is our goal, not only must we learn to know ourselves well, it is essential to learn to love ourselves well. As easy as it is to avoid our own truths, it is also easy to get stuck in the past or stuck in the perception that the past has a death-grip on the present. Behaviors that are hard to change can feel like permanent parts of our psychological make-up and keep us stuck, living in service to a past that we can’t change and over time, we have given too much power to that past, allowing it to shape our lives in unskillful and unhealthy ways.

Yoga is unique in the ways that it encourages us to “be” in the present moment. After all, the physical body is always present in the moment. The body never lives in the past; the body is always about the Now. It’s the mind that wanders! The mind can dwell in the past or fling itself far into the future, creating concerns about things that cannot be changed and things that cannot be predicted. The rub is that what we think can directly affect the body. We know that when we perceive stress, the nervous system kicks into the “fight or flight” response and the body automatically responds in negative ways. So it is in our best interest to investigate our mind and cultivate ways to take responsibility for the way we relate to our thoughts.

In the practice of asana the mind is drawn again and again to the present as we work through movement and alignment, challenged to become our own witness as we breathe and move. Our strengths and weaknesses emerge as we learn to take complete responsibility for what is unfolding on the mat. We are able to tune-in to what is authentic about both our physical and emotional experience. Then the intention is to practice Svadyaya off the mat- using life in all its aspects as ground for study.

Gaining physical strength and flexibility, we de-bunk the myths created in our minds about our limitations; we let go of the past. Or perhaps we discover limitations and we learn to accept and understand them. As we thirst for growth and transformation, we begin to not only embrace truth as we discover it; we actively seek truth. We begin to see who we are and who we ARE NOT. Over time, clarity comes in glimpses or profound revelations. Over time, with practice, Svadyaya helps develop the courage and confidence to make better choices based out of seeing ourselves more clearly.

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Pratipaksha Bhavana

Dwelling “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of”. This instruction from the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit breaks down as Prati- other, opposite; Paksha- wing, half; Bhavana- dwelling, mansion, being.

I love the visual image of walking into a different wing of your mansion; a place more peaceful and calm than the wing you are dwelling in now. With lots of practice we can use this tool to shift moments of negativity and change our thoughts and thought patterns.

Generally there is a sliding scale of how badly negativity can really hook us. The trick about Pratipaksha Bhavana is that it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Some thoughts arise out of a deep wound or series of experiences that manifest as a reactive habit of regularly churning out negative thoughts. Negative thoughts can have a way of unreeling like a movie that we play over and over for minutes, hours, days, weeks or a lifetime. Defaulting to the pull of negative thoughts can become an ingrained part of our personality. Negativity can work like a pesky uninvited visitor who barges into your beautiful mansion, eats your food, wrecks the furniture and smokes in your bedroom…and never leaves. I’ve had that chronic visitor in my life… I even gave her a name- “Lucy the Looser”! Lucy was a composite of all my fears, attachments, ego identifications and preconceived ideas that kept me from seeing clearly when life presented its self to me over and over again.

In my version of Pratipaksha Bhavana, I worked to bring my mind out of it’s looping reel, into the present moment and nip these thoughts in the bud by escorting Lucy to the door, sending her off to rehab (again) and locking it. I worked to understand that I am not my thoughts. I worked to know that I could choose to dwell in a mansion of serenity and calm and that this is my natural home. I also learned that I don’t need to spend countless hours validating and justifying my dark thoughts or rooting out the deeper sources of my pain. I just needed to choose to shift my attention away from this churning “thought storm” and diffuse its power over me in the moment. From this place of calm, it is much easier to make better choices or solve problems.

Walking from darkness to light is a choice that we all can make if we have the courage to put one foot in front of the other, stepping away from these thoughts, thereby diluting them and not giving them a chance to catch hold and continue to wind up within us. We work to not struggle so much by resisting our thoughts, but gently restraining them, not offering them attention and subtly changing them by replacing or substituting them with positive thoughts. Over time, with practice, the thoughts that return again and again come back in more and more subtle ways, the seeds of negativity becoming smaller and smaller- replaced with positive ways of moving through our life while thoughts arise- as they always do- in more graceful and peaceful ways. We learn to disassociate ourselves from our thoughts in order to be more present in each moment, seeing more clearly what is unfolding before us.

On the mat we can use this tool to stop the mind from judging our performance, our body image, our lack of progress or perfection. Today while you practice, imagine your movements from posture to posture or even alignment to alignment as passing from a dark room to one filled with light. Remind your self that the cultivation of a healthy response to life happens in the brightest chambers of your own heart.

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