Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Polishing the Mirror

I keep coming back to yoga as relationship and as the mirror in which we can see our reflection more clearly. When I say relationship I don’t just mean with a lover or a sibling, or any specific person. And, more to the point, it isn’t even about the other person. It is about the way in which we relate to anyone or anything that is before us. And even more specifically it is about how that relating reveals our own true essence.

Whether we are relating to a friend who asks for help or to our car that just blew a tire, the way in which we respond or relate to a situation is the relational side of yoga to which I am referring. These people and experiences act like mirrors because they elicit a response from us. Through the reflection of how we react and respond we can better see who we are. I’m not suggesting that there is a right or wrong way to respond nor that we will always have some simple, peaceful, centered reaction to everything. I would hope that if we won the lottery and if someone near to us passed away we’d have completely different reactions to those two experiences. I am, however, suggesting that how we respond and react is an excellent way to better step into relationship with oursleves.

Who and what we are relating to, what is going on around us, even our feelings and reactions are always in flux. Seasons come and go, breaths rise and fall, careers start and end, even our bodies change daily based on simple things like food and sleep. With so much always in evolution, how then do we know exactly at what we are looking in this mirror of life? How do we know who we truly are when so much is always changing?

The experiences and the ever-changing scenarios of the world are sign posts that point to our Truth. Often we find ourselves stuck staring dully at the sign post—getting caught up in the emotion and drama of our reactions—and forgetting that the sign is pointing to something much, much deeper. Through yoga we practice seeing the changes as part of our transformation and refinement, but also we look beneath them. We train our eyes to see the beauty in it all, we train our hearts to feel the connectivity between seemingly separate experiences and we train our minds to know the unwavering Presence that sits as the foundation of it all. When we practice looking at our experiences and relationships in this way, then we begin to see the outer fluctuations as well as the inner Truth. We can distinguish the two from each other and begin to know that though we have feelings and emotions they are not who we are, and though we have experiences and hobbies, they are not our identity. And so through the practice we polish the mirror and start to see ourselves more clearly.

On our yoga mats, the poses can always lead us both to the rich ever-changing texture as well as to the stillness underneath the flow. We practice a whole slew of poses, we re-visit them frequently and yet they feel different every time. We change and the poses reflect that our bodies are changing too. The poses offer a chance to bump up against our tight spots, sore muscles, injuries, fatigue and the accompanying emotions and thoughts that correlate. In the process of feeling those edges and having time to self-reflect we go deeper into our very center. When we meet this center the object to which these life-experience-signposts are pointing is revealed.

Another means to polishing the mirror and seeing ourselves more clearly is the oft forgotten limb of yoga that is the hallowed ground of meditation. We close our eyes and sit still so that all that change and flux can be felt and we can learn to differentiate between them and the vast other part of ourselves that is stable and unwavering. The world beyond our closed eyes continues to go on and to change—we are not trying to stop it—and we learn to look within and become familiar with the still and quiet part of ourselves. This is the part that exists in unconditional love, that can sit back and witness our reactions and our feelings without judgement, that can see the beauty in any situation and can surrender into the change and even learn to enjoy the process

Friday, April 15, 2011

Relationships of Yoga

These days I am more and more coming into the awareness of yoga as relationship. We start with the premise that everything is alive with sacred energy and so the yoga becomes about engaging consciously with what is around us. We enter into relationship with whatever is before us and a triad is born; you, me and the space between us. It is this mid-line or center space that is the doorway to deeper connection and the true yoga. The question, then, is never are we doing yoga, but how are we doing yoga?

I find myself stepping into that center and my response varies. The mid-line is always shifting and sometimes it is elusive, while other times it seems to smack me in the face. Sometimes I am patient with the process and sometimes I am frustrated because it makes no sense at all to my linear and rational mind. In either case I always find that a return to my mat makes me feel exponentially better. And this is the deeper seed of why we keep coming back. Over and over we step into relationship with the poses and the practice and we uncover more about ourselves. Yoga becomes a reflection, a mirror of what is in our hearts.

What I know about myself is that I love to laugh and that I also take things too seriously sometimes. I am clear and then completely confused. I am full of love and then frustrated to the point of anger. And to all of this yoga has taught me to say “yes.” Yoga has led me into deeper relationship with myself, where I see my contrasting emotions and the sweet space between them where I am a human being instead of a human doing. In this reflection, I see the unwavering essence that sits in the mid-line and I experience union. A glimpse, and then practice to make that revelation more frequent, more consistent.

Know that when we engage mindfully in what is before us, it helps us to see that beautiful space of the center. When we look to our own center we always have the opportunity to see ourselves with love. The center will likely be filled with contrasting emotions and maybe even conflicting feelings, and yoga would have us honor them as part of the texture of the relationship with ourselves. As Rumi said, “Go there and roam.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yoga Butt to Enlightenment

Yoga butt. Yes, we all want one. Yoga arms, yoga glow, yoga high. We want it, we're addicted to it. But we also know that yoga as union is always about making deeper connections. So how does touching our toes, getting a tight yoga butt or sweating on the mat relate? How does putting our feet behind our heads help with the process of enlightenment?

Whether we want a toned body, weight loss or to be more limber, the physical aspects of yoga are the reason most of us start practicing. I am often asked if it is possible to be toned and fit and healthy from yoga alone. This is not a stupid question as the body and the mind are intimately connected and ultimately lead us to our hearts. When you effect one, you influence the other. The body is the meeting place of the inner and outer world. We, literally take in air, food, sights, sounds and smells through our body. As we assimilate them, they become us and the inner and outer worlds merge. If nothing else, the physical practice gets us in the metaphorical door and at some point we realize we feel much better because of it.

Being physically fit is a crucial aspect of the teachings of yoga. Yoga helps to purify the body by sweating, bending, twisting and literally wringing out the organs. As each part of the body is addressed through the physical practices, homeostasis is achieved. It is like maintenance of your vehicle; taking proper care of your body will extend its life. Not to mention that if you feel good, you will be happier and both those things will make you look good, too, so yes, you can have that yoga butt!

This body is the vehicle we ride in through life and just like a car, we want to be comfortable in it. Yoga, on the outer layer, addresses the aches and pains that we get from being active, from sleeping funny, from being out of balance or simply form aging. The physical practice keeps the joints well oiled and brings muscles into balance to support the bones. But the truly amazing thing that happens along the way is we become much more aware of how we feel and who we are. And over time we become more comfortable with that, too.

There are two main purposes of practice. Initially it is to reconnect with the spark of Divine light that lives deep within each of us. When we remember that connection and begin to live from that place of confidence, a sense of joy and ease arises. Simply by living from our truth, we stumble into the second purpose for practicing, which is to celebrate and glorify this universal light of good that shines through all of us in our own unique way.

As the kinks are ironed out through the physical practice there is a purification happening, a cleansing of the mirror to better see our own reflection. In that clearer state, we step back and see the bigger picture. Yes, touching our toes starts to feel good, but it also makes us become really present in the weaving together of the inner and outer worlds. We start to unveil that intrinsic light and engage with the world more deeply from that place of celebrating who we are.

Often when we begin our yogic journey, we discover that we have been checked out of our bodies and our emotions for a long time. For the first 6 months of my yoga life I cried every time I stretched open my throat in full wheel. I thought something was wrong with me until I consulted my teacher. "No," he said, "this is normal." At first, we may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of stretching parts of ourselves that we have been ignoring. But yoga asks us to be patient and allow the journey to unfold in its own time. Yoga reminds us not to force things, if we rush too quickly or are out of alignment we may pull a muscle. The body, through the physical practice, becomes teacher. "No, you don't have to be anything other than who you are," it says. "Relax, breathe, let go.”

As we twist, turn, balance and sweat, we tap into vast stores of power we may not even know we have. We push the edge and challenge our bodies to stretch. I didn't believe I'd ever get past that phase of weeping out all the old emotion in deep back bends. And then one day the tears dried up and my edge changed. I could hold the poses longer, I could breathe more evenly and ultimately started doing more challenging postures.

We think we know who we are, then we hit the edge and the edge shifts. We store our emotions and memories bottled up in our bodies and when we face them, stretch them and move them, there is an outpouring. The mirror gets cleaned and the light becomes brighter, we see it more clearly and naturally begin to celebrate it.

My back bend journey evolved and one day, while holding a pose I leaned my head way back and saw my own foot! It was like looking in mirror. At first I was sure it wasn't my foot, then when I tried to move it, it seemed to not even respond. When I finally came out of the pose I was forever shifted. And that is what the practice does for us. It shifts our reality, it shows us our own light, it allows us to celebrate and it even makes our butts look good!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Concealment and Revelation

Yesterday I woke up in a slump. I felt out of whack, angry, sad and grumpy. I was lying in bed and found myself getting angry that I was angry, which only made me feel more angry. Off for a run I went, in my agitated state, still frustrated.  I just wanted to push away from the intensity I was feeling. Ironically, the more I pushed and ran from the pain and discomfort the worse I felt!

Suddenly, a hawk burst out of the bushes next to the trail and began a languid circle a few feet above my head. I froze, immediately recognizing this angel as the harbinger of a message. A rush of tears welled in my eyes and I doubled over. Thank you, I whispered, for bringing this signal to stop running. The reminder allowed me to pause long enough to feel the discomfort with which I'd awakened.

My perspective panned back, as if I was seeing through the eyes of that beautiful bird and I saw all of myself, the light and the shadow. I saw myself as whole and I knew this simply to be a key aspect of my human experience. This was the cosmic game of hide-and-seek that God plays by contracting herself into a body. It is natural; sometimes she forgets who she is and I recognized that this forgetting happens to everyone. A sense of solace washed over me and the light inside me grew a little brighter, matched by the depth of the strength lying in the last place I would look, inside the shadowy cave of my own heart.

In yoga language we call this the process of concealment and revelation. Vilaya, or concealment, is the perception of separation. In order for the One to engage, embodied, in this world she has limited her unbounded state. Through her choice to limit herself, she has created the fabric of space and the objects in it, the opportunity to have rational thought and linear time. Through these condensed forms of the One the world unfolds; it creates a sense of you and me, then and now, here and there.

This is contrast at its essence. When there is contrast we can more easily distinguish the whole. God does this so she can see and know herself more clearly. Light brings the objects of our perception into focus, but without the dark—as if staring directly into the sun—we see nothing at all. We need the dark as a place of rest and a place to reconnect with the power of Grace that exists within us and everything.
Grace is not bestowed as payment for right action or some extra good karma. The power of Grace is Divine will itself choosing to constantly contract into all of this. If we do not receive Grace it is not because it isn't being offered, it is because we are not open to it.

The revelation of Grace, or anugraha, for me was the hawk. It is often birds and feathers for me, but it could be anything. It was a reminder to reconnect and see the whole, to see the One, even in the intense discomfort of the emotion with which I'd awakened. The more you look for these revelations of Grace, the more you see them. These special messages from the Universe are constantly being sent direct to you. There is no need to convince someone else that 1:11 on the clock has some life altering message, because the message is for you and you alone.

The next time you find yourself running from the shadows, pause and breathe it all in. The concealment is part of the process and the shadow is often where the very peace you are seeking lies. Pause long enough to hear and see the messages being revealed to you and honor this flow as another magical part of your human experience.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Growing Wings

I'm standing on this edge, a cliff actually, and I've been walking towards it for years. I’m here now only to find this monstrous edge I thought I would have to climb is actually a vista, a jumping off point. Its open space here, desolate, in fact, and there is nowhere to hide. The winding path that brought me here drifted through dark forest, churning ocean, dry sand and the way back is no longer open. And so I sit down, cross-legged, right here on the edge to think.

I see the history that came before, the experiences that shaped me. They well up as images seared in my brain. I have them memorized and sometimes I answer from that place out of habit, and I laugh, because even I don't buy that I fit there anymore. And, yet, it plays out before me, again and again. So, my cross-legged stance of patience holds me. “What is the story showing?” I sit back and watch it like a movie, and I sense this greater context beginning to unfold and budding wings itching just beneath my skin.

The movie shows me countless scenarios, skipping backwards, forwards, sideways, and I see the thread that weaves this particular story together. My leaders, my guides, my family; they were all asleep at the wheel. The abandonment and invalidation I carried like a black sack of bricks was never mine. It was theirs and they didn’t know what to do with it either, so they went to sleep. I sigh with relief as I watch the thread beginning to unravel. I hear a child’s whisper escape from my own lips, “You mean it wasn’t me?”

“What a lack of trust we develop when our elders don’t know they have fallen asleep and don’t even know they don’t know,” I murmur to myself.  I look up and notice a scattering of other watchers, seeing their own stories play out, and I relax a bit. My eyebrows go up in surprise, “Maybe its not so remote here,” I think, and I turn back to the show.

On screen, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. A child without the skills to truly navigate the ocean of humanity and society, waiting for direction—asking for it, even—and finding out she’s maybe more than a little lost. “Hmmm, that explains all the fear.” Confidence lacking in those around me, responsibility squarely on my shoulders and a looming sense of blame. Another thread emerges, this one tinged with the color of overwhelm, anger and self-doubt. I reach back and scratch between my shoulder blades.

I watch giant after giant fall leaving gaping canyons of open space. I see myself picking every means of filling them: I stuff them with self-pity, I spakle over them with I-can-do-it-alone, I back fill them with I can’t. “Holy Shit!” I jump up and stare blankly past the screen and into the space of open memory. “I’ve been asleep too!” Refocusing my eyes, I look at the wide canyon floor beneath the cliff, then sit back down. I pick up a white feather sitting next to me and stroke it along my again crossed legs.

Movie’s back on. Color seems different now, as if what I’d been watching before was in black and white. Each giant that fell is still echoing in my mind and in the story the earth is vibrating with it. “Yes,” mother earth says, “Good.” And I see how she had been trying to wake me up all these years. The breeze blows, it lifts me up a bit and I flex my shoulders to sit back down.

The story shows a little baby bird, so exhausted with being invisible. She hid and hid because she did not trust, she did not feel safe, she did not ever learn her own voice. I see her now, cradle her in my hands, stroke her softness. Tears of love and understanding overflow and I pinch my eyes shut. “All she wants is to be seen,” I think, “All she wants is to be true to her own unique and beautiful nature and converse with the world from that place.” I open my eyes, the screen is gone. The soft breeze caresses the last tears from my cheeks. I stand up take two steps and fly.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Agents of Change

Yesterday was the holiday celebrating one of the greatest leaders of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every year on this holiday I watch video of his inspirational “I Have A Dream” speech.  He was an incredible activist for social change, someone who stood for moral virtue, for freedom, equality and for leaving the world a better place than he found it.

As humans I believe we are all seekers and agents of change. We are naturally curious and want to understand how things work. We want things to be better, easier, happier and healthier. We want to know how to play sports, to be better parents, to learn to read and write or to sing. I believe we are hard-wired to grow and hard-wired to survive. We come to this body and this life and we are met with challenge as well as joy. And whether we seek to understand why we are here or how the engine of a car makes it go, we are all filled with some level of seeking, wanting to understand and the capacity for growth that invites change.

The world is transient. Seasons come and go, our bodies age, our hearts swell with love, and then get broken open. And it is these very challenges that often inspire the most transformation; there is no way around the friction of it.

For more than half of my life my mom battled cancer. We loved each other deeply, and as I watched her fight five different bouts of cancer our lives went to many extremes. From the onset, she refused to think that cancer would be her end, and I do believe this was much of the fighting spirit that had doctors in shock at her survival. And, yet, from my perspective, there was an unwillingness on her part to dig into the reality of what was happening. Even after years of fighting, she left no will, no note, no goodbye and no closure for those of us still on earth.

Watching her denial in the face of such extreme conditions was one of the catalysts that motivated change in my life. I experienced the suffering and ultimately chose to honor the gift of grace that my life is. That response wasn’t immediate, but the end result was my commitment to live a mindful and present life. Her tragedy taught me to honor the temple of my body by loving myself, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and surrounding myself with people who support and nurture me. And it was largely because of this childhood that I became an activist.

For years I turned the word activist around and around in my mind, seeking to relate to it in my life. The word, itself, conjures up angry freedom fighters, motoring a tiny raft before giant whaling ships or marching in Tiananmen Square. But that's not me, I thought, I'm no activist, I'm not risking being arrested or endangering my own life to stand for a cause.

But over time I realized I am an agent of change. I do take a stand on my beliefs. I'm not picketing with signs or throwing molotov cocktails, but I’m still an activist. I'm an activist for radical honesty. I'm an activist for unconditional love, both for myself and others. I'm an activist for living a spiritual life, not just talking about it. Every day I get up committed to loving life even in the face of its friction, even in the face of tragedy.

I recently watched the award-winning documentary The Cove, about the senseless and brutal slaughter of dolphins in Japan. The lead character and agent of change in the film is Ric O'Barry. For the  popular 1960’s TV show “Flipper,” which was all about a dolphin who befriends humans, Ric O’Barry was the head dolphin trainer. He worked with five female dolphins who shared the role of Flipper. He spoke emotionally in The Cove about the suicide of the main dolphin, Kathy. Dolphins have to breathe voluntarily and Ric said that Kathy swam into his arms, took a breath and let it be her last. She died in his arms, then sank to the floor of the tank that had been her prison. The very next day Ric was arrested for trying to free dolphins that were in being held in captivity, rebelling against the very source of his own livelihood.

Just like Ric, none of us plan to be activists. But we are going to be riled to anger, we will be filled with love. We are going to have strong emotional responses to experiences. Life is going to ask us to grow, to change and to evolve. What catalysts have sparked change in you? Have you welcomed those moments of intensity and become an activist of change in your own life? What do you stand for on which you are unwilling to bend? It doesn’t have to be angry, it doesn’t even have to be beyond your back yard. Each of us is an activist of some sort. Whether you save water by turning it off to soap up in the shower or you bring a reusable bag to the grocery store, you stand for something with the choices you make every single moment.

I am grateful for people like Ric O’Barry who when asked, “How many times have you been arrested?” respond, “This year?” And I am grateful for you for standing up for what you believe in, for being an activist and an agent of change.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Art of Listening

I’m a talker; I can’t help it. I love life and it excites me. I want to dissect it, understand it, feel it, dance with it, know it and most of all, share it with others. I get so inspired that words just flow. And sometimes they flow, and flow, and flow. I don’t mean to, but it must be the inner tantrika in me coming out. It is our way to savor all that life has to offer and to then bring that experience back to share it with our community. In the sharing we really develop deeper understanding and the whole group can rise up together on the shared knowledge. Talking is great, but so is listening, and the two definitely need to be in relationship with each other.

Tantra is always about relationship, whether global, communal, interpersonal or with our own self. In tantric philosophy, relationship will always be thought of in threes. You, me and the space in between us. In yoga, we talk about this in-between space as the mid-line, as the place where the God and Goddess—Shiva and Shakti—become one. This in-between space is where the two halves connect and wholeness is remembered. Tantra sees the relationship between things as paramount, because at the core, everything is Shiva-Shakti, and the goal is not only to see the Divine beauty in everything but also to bring the two in balance as one.

The sweet pause between the two halves of the whole is a place of stillness and silence. Think about it as the moment between the exhale and the inhale, between night and day or as the eye to eye and heart to heart connection you share with your beloved right before you kiss. These are quiet moments, indeed. And, yet, we frequently fail to pause and listen long enough to make a connection.

If tantra is about relationship, then yoga is always about connection. To put it simply, when we fail to make a connection we are creating suffering or dukha. When we make strong and deep connections then we create ease or sukha. To create strong and deep connections, listening is essential.

For a talker like me, this skill has been one I’ve had to learn and one I continue to practice regularly. About a year ago I began video taping myself teaching yoga classes. The first couple videos I watched, I was shocked at my talkativeness and kept thinking to myself as I viewed them, “Stop talking already!” By editing what doesn’t really need saying, I’ve learned that fewer words have a much more profound impact. I hear myself breathing with my students now and it gives them the time to reflect in their practice and it also helps me be more present with them. But what has most helped me to be a better listener and less of a talker is having people in my life who actually listen to me.

Funny thing is when I finally felt heard by someone who loves me, I stopped having so much to say! I realized that we all have the power to give this gift to each other. When we listen with an open mind and a courageous heart that is free of judgment we are showing the person speaking that we care about them. We value what they think and what they say by hearing them. We are noticing them and stepping into this middle space of listening that not only creates relationship, but also connection.

So what can we do to practice being better listeners? First, stop talking so much. It sounds easy, but if you get excited about life and want to share like I do, it can take a bit of practice. When you do talk, don’t just talk about yourself. Try to meet the person you are conversing with where they are. Ask them questions about themselves or their day that you have an interest in, then give them the space to answer. And, please, make eye contact. Put down your phone, your ipod, your book, your utensil. Turn the TV off, close your computer and be present. Create the space for connection that could improve your relationship and foster ease, instead of suffering.

At first it may feel uncomfortable. There may be silence that you aren’t used to, but be patient and don’t try to fill it. In the silence there is still much being “said.” In the silence we hear what our own heart is whispering to us. In the silence we pause and experience beauty without labeling it or putting it into some kind of box. In the silence we reconnect with the Highest. In the silence we feel love.