Monday, November 8, 2010

The Empty Bowl

Mind is a funny thing. She is always looking for separation, difference, quality, inequality, right and wrong. And I am grateful, because it is this discernment that let’s me know hot from cold and my house from yours. (Imagine if we just walked into any old house!?) But if mind is left unchecked she is no longer useful but instead problematic. If she looks for difference so much that she cannot see love, beauty and compassion, then she is simply creating separation, isolation and suffering.

Whenever I go through a big internal or emotional transformation, the shift often leaves me grappling with this feeling of difference and separation. The old me was comfortable and the ground around me was familiar. I knew how to respond to the vicissitudes of life and I could easily observe the mind when she would slip in obtrusively. The new way, while still settling in, feels awkward—like a sore thumb—and uncomfortable. When I am acclimating to the new me, I can’t always easily differentiate between what is in my mind (ego looking for separation) and what is in my heart (spirit seeing unity).

Having just undergone a huge shift I was in the confounded state and really wanted to get back to me, so today I employed a couple of new techniques. In meditation, I sat with a beautiful raku bowl in my hands. Into it I poured all of the thoughts of confusion, separation, frustration, contracting, irritation and sadness. Anytime a thought, person or image arose that was, for lack of a better word, messy, I would drop it into the empty space of the bowl.

Held by the Goddess Kali on my altar, this bowl has the ability to absorb and transmute anything and everything that I place in it. And as such, this practice became sacred as a returning of thought back into the vast formless space of Source. A key distinction is the placing of these chitta vrittis (confusing and fluctuating thoughts) as an offering rather than as a way to purge something that is wrong. There is no wrong part as the essence of each of us is good, it is Divine. There is nothing absent from any of us, nor is there something that we must excise. We are, in this practice, not trying to get out of this earthly and embodied existence, but simply allowing the fluctuations to happen, letting go of control and stepping into the currents of grace.

I let go more and more in my practice, allowing the dross to float to the surface and leaving the new, more refined me clearly in the cross hairs of my heart’s vision. And here I began the second technique; I focused on unconditional love. Not love coming from me, not my personal preferences for things I love and things I don’t (that would be mind again, it has its purpose, just not here) but love coming through me. Two ways I tap into this greater love are through gratitude and through service.

So I started to recall all of the things, events and people for which I am grateful. At first it felt a little canned, full of more effort and less feeling, and I was seeing broad sweeps of information. I am grateful for all the people who love me, I am in gratitude for the roof over my head and the food in my belly. As I continued, the feelings began to flow freely, warm and true, and the gratitude became more specific. I am grateful for the family who hosted me on my trip to New Mexico, I am grateful that my body is beautiful and healthy. 

The more I looked for the gifts in my life, the more gifts I saw. The more gifts I thanked the Goddess for, the more empowered I felt to serve. A natural transition occurred out of the effulgence of love in the form of gratitude. With so much to be grateful for, how could I not share it with others?

I returned the bowl to the altar and opened my palms towards the sky. Floating them above my legs I held them open to direction, suggesting to mind that she remain open to the conversation with Love. How best to offer my unique and personal gifts to the world? I was reminded that this conversation exists in every moment. The gift of life or grace is the empty bowl, our bodies and minds the vessels through which love collects, empties out and is offered.

Making the body-mind a stronger vessel is a key practice of yoga. To make the bowl cleaner, more able to weather the transformations and able channel Love will just give the Love a bigger and brighter place to collect. Unconditional Love, for me, is just another name for God and it lives through and as each of us. When we open the flow on the faucet and allow it to run, we can dam it up over here or let it flow freely over there. We direct the flow in service, in making offerings of love and expressing our love through gratitude. For God-Goddess to live in this world He-She must move through us.

How we connect, what fills us and how we channel the energy of Unconditional Love is totally unique to each of us. It is our freedom to decide what to do with it, if anything at all. There are so many means available to us, so many ways to have sadhana (or spiritual practice). I just learned two new ones today simply by letting the process unfold.

May you recognize the gifts of your life, your heart and body-mind and offer a place for the Love to reside and move through you. May your bowl forever be both empty enough to hold more and yet always full of the ever-flowing Divine Unconditional Love.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Grace & Karma

Grace, in the classical or dualist definition, is something to be dispensed by someone other than us, namely God. God has it, we don’t. In this model we pray for it, sing for it, ask for it, beg for it and hope that we have done well enough or asked nice enough to receive it. By reaching out to something or someone external to ourselves and being granted grace, we escape from and transcend the suffering and problems of life.

In this model, we are trapped in a never-ending cycle of death and re-birth (as simple as inhale and exhale) and doomed to live out past ‘bad’ behavior through the punishment of yet another life (or yet another breath). To most, this is the understanding of karma, as in Radiohead’s famous song ‘Karma Police.’ We did something ‘wrong’ or are inherently flawed and life is a punishment from which we can be freed only through God’s gift of grace.

The teachings of the tantra, take these words anugraha or revelation of grace and karma in completely different ways. First and foremost in this monistic system is the belief that the whole universe is God; there is nothing that is not God. From this stance, if everything is God, then there can be no wrong, because the essence of God is good. Sure we can make choices that are not aligned with the qualities of God within us—with our true selves—but we are not inherently wrong or bad. We are not being punished in this life for some wrongdoing in a previous one or because we are lacking in some way.

From the tantric belief, grace is the gift of embodiment, it is the miracle of life. We have not fallen from grace, we have fallen as grace. Grace is not something we can inherit or earn, we cannot buy it, sell it or give it back, we cannot lose it nor can it be taken away. Even if we know nothing about or completely ignore grace, it is still present as the gift of our lives, as the very breath that breathes us.

In this model, how we experience grace is directly related to how much we open to it. Our goal is not to transcend life by gaining some enlightenment or gift beyond what we came with as we came complete and whole. It is not about getting back to God, but about seeing God in everything. Grace is being offered constantly. When you get in your car, drive 80 miles an hour and arrive safely (every day!) that’s grace. If we don’t stop to realize how lucky we really are, then we miss grace completely, despite that it is always totally present. When we begin to look for God in every moment and every experience then we begin to feel gratitude for the gift of life and our actions begin to change.

Back to karma; the root of the word comes from the sanskrit kri which means to do or to act. In this paradigm karma mala (see post from 9/11/10 for more on malas) creates the capacity for an individual to act and it unites our actions with purpose and heart. Karma as the capacity to fulfill our desires and intentions brings a sense of fullness and completion. Seeing the Divine in others brings a fullness of heart, an openness of mind and a realization that there is nothing to get. Our lives are already the gift.

Douglas Brooks says, “If the gift of grace is life, then yoga is its blessing.” Yoga is our union with the world, our relationship to it, to God. The question then becomes one of how we are acting, how we engage the world, not in judgment from an external standpoint of measuring up to receive grace, but from a sense of aligning to the Divine essence that is woven through and as all of this existence.

When an individual is open to grace she is aligning to the vast expression of the Divine. She is honoring and receiving the gift of her embodiment, knowing that her life is no accident or penance. When she steps into ever-present grace she begins to see the deep connectivity between all things as aspects of God. The tantrika realizes that she is already enmeshed in relationship with God and that all she really need do is breathe.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Tune-Up

Last night I was flopping around in bed like a tuna, unable to sleep. There I was in bed, it was dark and quiet and yet my body was humming and restless; I was in a state of agitation. For most people it seems to be the mind that is busy, but for me it is usually my body as a result of the physicality of my job. But then they are inexorably linked. We use both body and mind all day in our jobs, our relationships and in engaging the world, then we lie down at night and just expect them to shut off. But it sometimes isn’t that easy, especially if you spent the afternoon doing a bunch of deep back bends or pouring over important paperwork.

After about two hours of this, I finally got up, broke out my eye cover, considered doing head and shoulder stands but instead got back in bed and put on some really soft, sleep-inducing music. In my mind I began to observe my breath and count backwards from thirty to ten, counting only the exhales. Next thing I knew it was morning and the prism in my bedroom window was shining a rainbow throughout my room.

There are certain tricks that usually work for me, but isn’t it interesting that it took two hours before I employed them?! And that’s just it, we wait and wait when we know we should do something. The truth is we knew what to do long before and just had too much fear or laziness to respond. So we wait some more and then get frustrated and even more agitated with ourselves, the situation and sometimes those around us who have nothing at all to do with how we are feeling. By then it takes more effort to undo the stress that has now increased!

The reality is we have to start paying better attention before it gets to this heightened state. If we notice feeling ragged or run down, we have to respond. We can stop and take five deep breaths to reconnect with ourselves. We can make that phone call to the massage therapist that we keep meaning to make, go for a walk outside or write in a journal. Anything that will bring us back into connection with ourselves is going to help and to do it regularly is going to be even better.

The body is one of the best teachers for getting us to pay attention, when we feel pain or fatigue or a cold coming on, its the body trying to tell us that we are out of alignment somewhere, that we are disconnected from ourselves. When we start to pay more honest attention, then we step into an empowered state and out of the role of victim. We start to know who we are and what is best for us to do in any situation.

Recently a good friend taught me how to change the oil in my car. We made a day of it, going to the store to buy the oil and filter, driving my car up on the ramps, him instructing me about what to look for and to make it safe and efficient. It was so rewarding to learn how to work with this vehicle that I drive all over town every day and to know I can actually take care of it. But first we had to pop the hood! The body-mind is really no different, sometimes we have a stock pile of emotions and memories under the hood that agitate us to no end. Its no wonder we are too afraid or lazy to respond, not only is it a lot to process if it is stockpiled, most of us were also taught not to express our feelings or that it was bad, wrong or impolite to do so.

But, when we pay attention to our bodies and stop long enough to hear the voice in our hearts we get instant instructions to return to a state of truth, which will always feel at ease (at least once the emotion has subsided). The body and mind respond well to regular tune ups, practices like yoga, jogging or sitting down to meditate. When these become consistent in our lives the body will be more at ease and the mind will be less agitated.

Isn’t it time for a tune-up? Isn’t it time we all made the conscious choice to stay connected to our authenticity and take the time to pop the hood? I know you are worth it...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Heart vs. Mind: Staying Inspired

I teach 12-15 yoga classes a week, including private lessons and public classes, plus at least one workshop a month. By any standard in this industry, this is full time. To remain dedicated and inspired in anything you engage in full time takes commitment, consciousness, vulnerability and integrity. Doesn’t matter if it is parenting, marriage, skydiving or beekeeping, it is very easy to get bored or uninspired and let the business of what you do become mundane.

I am frequently asked how I come up with inspiration for my teaching and how I keep it from being routine. In Anusara yoga I am not just teaching poses, I am teaching philosophy and life-affirming, inspirational and spiritual lessons that go well beyond the mat. I weave these thematic lessons into postural alignment that makes the heart of the teaching tangible on a fundamental level. We feel it in our bones (which we happen to be moving in our practice), it resonates in our souls and some sort of spine-tingling, hair-raising deeper connecting occurs. We don’t understand it but we sure revel in the delight of how we feel as a result.

“Where does this stuff come from?” I am frequently asked. “How do you decide what to teach?” Truth is, it is not coming from me, but through me. Sure I am observing the students and feeling their energy and, yes, I am personalizing the information to make it more understandable. But mostly I am tuning in to a higher frequency and getting the hell out of the way!

You could say that I am listening more with my heart than with my mind. Mind will want to tell me all sorts of lies. You aren’t good enough, no one else has ever had that experience, no one wants to hear this, you don’t really know what you are talking about, don’t trust yourself, it says to me. In reality, I need my mind to weave these themes into a class, oh yeah, and to navigate the world of form, like remembering when I teach, where I live and what my name is.

Ego, mind, or shell, in this line of thinking, is my uniqueness, my expression of source and my ability to interact with the world around me. I am not trying to denounce or cut off this part of myself. The problem is when I identify with it, its divisive thoughts, my feelings or my experiences and believe them to be who I am. When I forget my connection to my heart and live only in mind, then, Houston, we have a problem. 

To avoid this dilemma, I return to the unwavering essence of being that exists beneath the mind, beneath the level of form. When I connect through my heart to my essence or source I tap into a whole other dimension of myself and to the higher vibrations that begin to move through me, not from me.

How do I know essence from ego, heart versus mind? When it is mind-driven I feel confused, distrusting, alone, without answers and defensive. When it is heart-driven I am certain, clear, connected (even when I am by myself) and at peace. That’s not to say that I don’t feel a lot of emotion, because I do. In fact, I often feel more emotion when I step into the cave of my heart. But then I am not identifying with or as the emotion so I am not thrown about or trapped in them; I can simply witness and allow them to flow through me.

Let’s also remember we are beings gifted with free will and choice. Every moment we make choice after choice. And it is really as simple as knowing that each choice takes you closer to or further away from your own heart, your own integrity. So I make conscious choices that align with and reveal my essence. I cultivate situations, relationships and experiences that encourage her revelation and choose not to emphasize those that don’t. My practices become about seeking the authentic Presence inside myself and that the more I do things I love that are in integrity with my essence, the more connected I am. I practice differentiating between mind and heart, between changing form and unwavering essence and I move through the world from this authenticity as best I can.

I am not this way only in class when I teach and another way in the rest of my life. To step into the classroom and teach is just a continuation of that on-going conversation. Therefore it becomes easy to pull themes together and easy to be inspired because I am always practicing it, always living it. This is the real me and this is the conversation I am having every day, no different in my career than with the checker at the grocery store.

So, the question then is; Are you being authentic? Are you connecting with your heart and letting spirit flow through you? Are you letting yourself do what you love and what keeps you connected and inspired?

Saturday, September 11, 2010


I had a wonderful exchange a few days ago with two lovelies after a class, much of which was the motivation for this blog. We were chatting and one of them, so cute, holding her pen like a microphone, leaned in and said, “Obviously, you aren’t in the same place now that you used to be. How did you get where you are now? How did you come to yoga? What keeps you motivated, do you read books or…?” Basically she wanted to know my story.

We chatted—well mostly I chatted with a few strategic questions from my ‘interviewer’—for a good 20 minutes. They were enthralled and I thought to myself, how strange that they are interested in me and my story. But through their reflection I saw that this could be valuable for others, too, and that it is sometimes good to see just what your journey has been. So I'll begin here with what we talked about and a little bit of my story.

What has motivated me, kept me studying and evolving has, honestly, been the desire to get out of pain. In the tantric teaching this is anava mala. The three malas are usually described as cloaks or dust on the mirror of our hearts. But I like to think of the malas not as substances, but as a continuous act of will by the Divine, in this case, to contract herself and become embodied. As a result of this act of will, svatantrya or unlimited freedom becomes maya or illusion. The illusion here is one of differentiation, one of forgetting her essential nature as whole, as One.

When the Goddess cloaks herself in the form of embodiment she limits her capacity to feel perfect, whole and fulfilled. As she has diversified into the many, she forgets where she came from, and so she feels suffering. She feels lack and unworthiness, the very things that ultimately drive her to merge back into the perfection of her essential nature. It is a circle, you see. The One divides into the many and ultimately just want to merge back with the One.

And here is where I came to Anusara yoga. I had taken two different classes, one of them with John Friend, and I still did not ‘get’ it. After the class with John (save that story for another blog) my body got the awakening but my mind didn’t. And in that distilling out of bringing my body-mind to meet the kundalini that was now streaming through me I faced a lot of challenges. Some the beginning of unraveling much emotional baggage from earlier in my life and some just plain physical injury that moved in like a resident guru.

All of this, especially a ruptured disc in my neck, had me at my wits end. I was in massive physical pain, extreme fear—this was my life and my livelihood after all—and facing the possibility of surgery. I felt completely broken. Later during the period of self-imposed rehabilitation I realized that I had been feeling broken for decades and this injury was my body’s way of getting me to pay attention and to heal.

I knew nothing about anava mala, nor the tantric teaching, so all I could think was I must have done something wrong or that something was wrong with me. And this shadow, this cloak of victim, became so heavy that I began seeking to get out from underneath its pain. This was when I finally ‘got’ Anusara yoga. I learned from Desiree Rumbaugh that nothing in me was truly broken. Even if my body was broken, I was not, and my spirit never could be. She was the first person who showed me what it looked like to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. She was the first person who told me nothing at all was wrong with me and who actually believed it about herself too.

Eight months later, after re-learning my body and my yoga practice and NOT having surgery (yay!) I really came into the true practice of yoga. I was beginning to see the reflection of the Divine in my own heart. It was just glimpses at first, but they were there. The window has grown wider with practice and I see my own beauty for the first time now. And when I feel shadowed by the cloak of lack or unworthiness, most of the time I don't believe that I am wrong, at fault or a failure. Even when I default to that old patten of feeling less-than I remember anava mala and I don’t linger there very long.

I remember, the Goddess chose to wake up as me again today. It is no accident; I am no accident. She came forth with not one shard of her freedom, heart, love or power missing. Contraction is just another part of the unfolding and so I don’t need to be so critical of myself when I feel it. I Open to Grace, first principle in Anusara yoga. I just soften and I cry — a lot. And this, to me, is my courage, my reconnection to the whole. I am motivated to reconnect with the One. When I feel Her I know I am supported, loved and safe, and that is my motivation.