Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An Attitude of Gratitude

An Attitude of Gratitude
It is November; the month we take time to give thanks and remember all the good in our lives. But, giving thanks is something we can do everyday. Some of the most successful people I know always seem to live in an attitude-of-gratitude, and its this mindset that makes them happy and successful. They don’t find success and then get grateful, they were grateful for what they had, however little, and through their gratitude opened up to receive more.

According to the yogins of yore, we have come into this world with everything we need and nothing at all that we don’t. There is no need to go out and find some missing piece of ourselves (No, Jerry Maguire, you do not complete me!)  Nor do we need to cut off any part of ourselves or fix anything, because nothing is wrong and we are not broken. The yogins called this purna, which translates to fullness, completeness or perfection.

However, it is our human nature to forget this. Though tragic life circumstances, family and culture that inundate us with messages of being “wrong” and the deep emotion that comes from being in a body and world that is constantly changing, we forget. In forgetting our completeness, our natural luminescence is cloaked. This cloak is called a mala, specifically, anava mala. The skill that our attitude-of-gratitude friends have to throw off the cloak, is to remember they are not missing anything fundamental and nothing is inherently wrong with them. All of them also have tools to practice. They keep gratitude journals. They say thank you regularly and mean it. They let go of feelings and actions of being a victim, regardless of what they’ve been through. They commune with nature, go to church, and find the Divine in everything. They give charitably and without need for acknowledgment or recompense.

Moving Forward
The interesting thing about the malas is they are an inherent part of the system that keeps us moving forward on our yogic and human path. When we feel cloaked, it is impetus to make change. We get uncomfortable, the cloak gets too heavy and it inspires growth. Anava mala creates a desire for more; to learn more, study more, have broader experiences, open up to different people and circumstances. But taken to an extreme it becomes grasping, trying too hard and a general sense of lack and unworthiness.

You’re Normal
Know that when you feel lacking, empty, unworthy or you begin to force things, it is anava mala at work in you. And know that you are normal. Recognize the signs of what is happening and re-align; that’s doing yoga. Turn those feelings to motivation to evolve and then put on an attitude-of-gratitude. Look around and see what is good in your life. Be grateful you don’t have to think about breathing or beating your heart for them to happen. You have the free time and a computer on which to read this. You have friends who love you. And, you’re normal. Nothing is wrong with you and you have all the tools you need to live a fulfilling life.

And if you need a little inspiration, here is some from my beloved climbing world.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Off the Mat; Learning to Change

Change has continued to dominate my life lately. I am so glad. I needed this growth spurt, but in some ways it has not been easy for me. On the outside, the change is obvious: I live in a different city, I live with my significant other (and two other adults who have a baby!) when before I lived on my own. My teaching schedule is almost non-existent when I used to teach 15 classes a week.

On the inside, though, it's less obvious. I’ll catch myself living from some old paradigm, you know acting like a “me” not a “we” or something, and I wonder, how long have I been doing that? Shit!, I think, totally didn’t realize I was doing that. No wonder I feel all agitated and uncomfortable. When I bump up against that old part of myself that no longer fits, that part of me that needs to change, my body actually feels it. First I’m agitated or busy or distracted. Then I’m physically uncomfortable, my muscles feel tight and I can’t relax or get settled. Finally I feel pain, frustration, and anger.

Despite being painful, it is so familiar that I fear letting go of what I know. That’s the part I never  seem to get any more comfortable with. Sure it has gotten more familiar, I understand it better and recognize what is happening, but its not much easier. Through sheer will power and mental effort, I push the fear away, let go of what is tying me to the past and realign to the current situation. Then, I think, wow, I feel a million times better now!

The crazy part, of course, is that this evolution is constant. We can’t stop change, we can’t stay stuck and expect to be happy and healthy. So it takes courage to even notice when that ragged edge is present and go into the discomfort long enough to make an internal shift. The outside world reflects the inner landscape, and vice versa, I believe. Outside changes, the inside may have to catch up. The inside changes and the outside begins to look different.

Its really important to make space for myself, to be quiet and to be (at least, mentally) still so I can make those changes. In that space I welcome my feelings even if they are painful and I hate having to feel them. Its that space that allows me to purge old hurts, heal old wounds, and overcome fear (the things that usually tie me to the past). I stop judging myself, stop putting myself down, and stop hiding behind the comfort of who I used to be, the familiar. This doesn’t mean I have to go sit on my meditation cushion, though that helps and I do. I do this while I’m washing the dishes, or while walking on a trail or anytime I have the wherewithal to do so.

I get really honest with myself, like, hey I was being really bitchy to Aaron just then and he isn’t doing anything to deserve that, so what am I really upset about and why am I projecting it on him? So, this has taught me to be a better partner in relationships. I know how important that space is for me, so I’ve learned to better hold it for my students, my family members, and of course, my beloved. I practice being less judgmental and more compassionate. I practice saying nothing and just listening while the other person does his or her own work. I practice not taking it personally and remembering that the other person may be projecting and reacting just like I do.

I practice. And I practice yoga. 

Of course I practice asana. Bending and twisting and arching feel amazing, but its really just a tool to notice my ragged edge and to continue to evolve where I might be a little—or a lot—stuck. Yoga is really just one more of those times where I create space to be present with myself and learn to be a better person, to learn to change.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

10 Ways to Lower Your Electric Bill

1. Use The A.C. Less

Seems like common sense, right? But we get hot and uncomfortable and we drop the temp another couple degrees on the thermostat and the electric bill climbs. During the day, to regulate the temperature—making it more efficient to cool later—and to protect your pets, keep the AC on but turn the thermostat up. We usually keep our daytime temp around 80ºF and close vents in rooms, we aren’t using, like guest rooms. During night and evening hours most power companies charge a significantly lower rate for electricity because the demand is lower. So go ahead and cool your house at night when the rates are cheap. 

2. Dress The Part

If you are at home during the day, wear fewer clothes. Get your hair up off your neck and wear lightweight, comfortable things and as little as possible. Take off the T-shirt and get into a sports bra, ladies. Guys, we don’t mind at all if you parade around in your boxers. Who knows, it might even lead to a little hanky panky! 

3. Let Mother Nature Do The Work

When you do the laundry, wash on cold water whenever possible, then skip the dryer. Instead, install a clothes line. Here in the desert in August its regularly over 100ºF. I’ve put up two clotheslines in the garage (because it’s too hot outside!) Yes, it does take a little more effort to hang and then pull down each individual article of clothing, but its worth it because you’re not heating your house unnecessarily.

4. Eat Smart

There are two ways to do this. My favorite is to eat cooling foods like cucumbers on cold salad. A cold deli sandwich or some yogurt topped with granola and ripe, refrigerated fruit. Or how bout a home-made popsicle? I made the most recent batch by blending a watermelon into juice and freezing it with a few leaves of mint in each popsicle. Iced and cold foods will keep you from heating up from the inside out. The second way—the one favored by many nations that suffer constant high heat conditions—is to eat spicy food. The food makes you sweat and then your body’s natural cooling system is kicked into effect.

5. Cook Smart

Oven less, grill more. Try not to use the oven, wait for cold winter days for that. Instead, invest in a grill and take the heat outside. Grilling isn’t just for hamburgers and hot dogs, you can also grill up a pizza, or peach halves for dessert. When you do cook inside, make an effort to minimize using the stovetop. For example, if you just have to have noodles, buy rice noodles (available in the ethnic foods section of most grocery stores). To cook them you need only boil water, which you can do in a kettle, then pour the water over them and let them sit for a minute or two.

6. Reduce Unnecessary Usage

When you aren’t using an electronic device, unplug it. Even if your phone isn’t connected to the charger, the charger is still drawing power from the outlet. Keep what you have plugged in to a minimum. Things like televisions pull tons of power. Plug the whole TV/movie setup into a power strip and unplug the strip when you aren’t watching. Lights are another big power drain. Make it a habit to turn them off when you leave the room. My dad who used to follow us around and do this when we were kids would be so proud. We have track lighting in our bedroom and we recently took out half the lights on the track. Its not enough light to read by, but its plenty to light the way. I don’t read standing in the middle of the bedroom anyway! There’s a light next to the bed for that. 

7. Adjust Your Water Heater Setting

When its hot outside, its likely you won’t be taking a really steamy shower. I want mine almost cold to keep from overheating. You can easily adjust your water heater’s setting to a cooler temperature. Most have some form of knob or dial you can turn by hand, no screwdrivers or handyman prowess necessary. And if you’re going out of town for any length of time, simply turn it off. Why heat it when you aren’t there?

8. Escape To Cooler Climates

Speaking of going out of town, give yourself a break from the heat by going somewhere colder. You don’t have to fly to another country to do this, but you do have to leave the house. Take a trip to the beach, sit under a big shady tree in a breezy park or travel to a mountain stream for a refreshing dip.
Of course, it will cost you a little money to get there (in fuel, if nothing else) but you’ll be happy you got out. If you really can’t afford a trip, you can always go to the mall or the movies or even the public library. Let them pay for the AC, just remember to turn your thermostat up before you go.

9. Go Low-Tech

Haven’t you noticed how hot your computer gets when it runs for an extended period of time? Lighting up that monitor creates heat. Same for the television. Go low-tech and read a book instead, or draw a picture or practice cooling yoga poses or listen to music on your ipod, that little screen won’t be nearly as hot as the big ones.

10. Open Up

Windows and doors that is. If you live where it cools off at night, take advantage of it. Open your house to the chill air, get a fan or two and circulate it. Fresh air also decreases the chance of catching a cold. Instances are higher in summer and winter when we are boxed into buildings with no fresh air. At home, when it starts to heat up during the day, close up the house again and consider closing the blinds and curtains to deflect the heat from hot sunny windows, too.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Baby, You Fugly.

Most babies are cute, right? Most of them—even if you aren’t a fan of the little ones—inspire oohs and ahhs or, at least, a deepening smile from on-lookers. And I had just such an experience recently when I saw a sweet little girl in the airport. She was smiling and giggling and looking right at me with an unabashed grin of enthusiasm at meeting another human. “She’s so cute,” I said.

And then I looked at her, I mean looked right at her, and I tell you, she was ugly! Not just ugly, but really ugly; she looked like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings. Big ol’ pumpkin of a head with thin straggly hair hanging over her broad forehead and big ears that stuck dramatically out to the sides. I looked at her parents, neither of whom was terribly ugly, and it seemed that she had gotten the worst traits from them both. Yet they were all just happily loving each other, a little family in the midst of a crazy airport, smiling, talking together and completely unconcerned about the busy world around them. They loved each other, it was obvious.

Baby Gollum leaned her way over to me, inch-by-inch against the row of seats. The whole way she looked at me, she just looked at me and smiled. Not a half smile or a smile of uncertainty, but a giant, ear-to-ear, drool-filled smile. 

She had no insecurity about herself or her actions. She had no fear of being rejected, no thought of what I would think of her and she definitely wasn’t concerned with how she looked. She was simply content in her own little skin, making friends with anyone who was interested. This, I thought, is what makes her so beautiful. It made me grin right back at her and even smile at her parents.

Confidence is beautiful. Confidence is sexy. Confidence can get you a job or a date. Really, it can help with anything. A friend of mine once told me a story. He was tying his boat up to dock when a confident, well-dressed man walked up to the boat next to his. As he started to untie said boat, my friend asked if he’d like help shoving off. The man said yes, they exchanged pleasantries and off they went their separate ways. Next day at the dock my friend was approached and asked if he’d seen anyone or anything unusual at the slip next to his because the boat that docked there had been stolen. Seems confidence can even get someone to help you steal a boat!

Beauty, really, occurs naturally when we truly accept and honor who we are. Sexiness is when we love ourselves so much that we are confident with how we look, even if its not the norm that society or media tells us is beautiful. (And a little reminder, societies differ in their thoughts on what’s beautiful and what’s ugly. One of my friends always says that if you begin to feel your age is making you unattractive, it would be better to spend the money on a trip to Italy—where age is thought to be beautiful and sexy—than on plastic surgery.) Nothing is a bigger turn off than someone repeatedly complaining about themselves and their problems. That makes anyone Fugly!

Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But, for a beholder to see the real you, you have to reveal the essence of who you are. Each of us has an inner uniqueness, an essence that we can’t change no matter how hard we try or how many surgeries we have. Some of us are just plain quirky. Who me? Match the color of my clothes to the mood I’m in? And sometimes change three times a day? That’s not strange. It’s just who I am. You have to have swagger enough that says Hey, world, I love who I am, take it or leave it! Actors and models have been doing this for ages. Think J. Lo’s booming posterior, Madonna’s gapped front teeth or Brooke Shields’s thick eyebrows. The quirk, when loved and preened to perfection, becomes a trademark.

To be true to your quirks and true to who you are is one of the most confidence-inducing things you can do. It is to live out your purpose here; be yourself and be happy. That’s your dharma. Most definitions of dharma include some sort of wording about right action or living a proper life. For me, the most “right” thing you can do is just happily be yourself regardless of the most demanding situation or the rudest a-hole. One of my traits, part of my essence, is I am an incredibly loving person. To live my dharma requires me to be the love-bug that I am even when some jerk cuts me off in traffic. When I react in hatred it goes against the fiber of who I am and all I’m left with is feeling terrible about myself and angry, while he drives away to cut someone else off.

What if all of us were as open as little baby Gollum? What if we stopped being so overly-concerned with what other people think of what we are doing or how we look? Wouldn’t we be more open to meet strangers and make friends? If we could be comfortable in our own skin and turn all of our scars into marks of beauty and honor them, wouldn’t we be more happy?

I know you have funny quirks and cool birth marks. I know you have traits that make you unique. I’d love to hear about them, I’d love to hear about your swagger and your dharma. What do you do that is true to you? How do you show off your marks of beauty? What makes you, well you?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Watch out for the 2 x 4!

My good friend Daryl once said to me, “Whatever is in front of you, use it.” Use it as a means to open up to something unfamiliar, uncomfortable or ignored, as a way to know yourself better, to see the world more clearly and to know what you are creating as your day-to-day experience. Whatever is before you is a mirror and an opportunity to learn. Learn regardless of the circumstance. Meditate on the metro not just on the perfect zafu. Practice yoga outside when its hot and windy not just in an environmentally controlled yoga studio. Have a conversation with a stranger instead of only people you know. The point is to learn, to grow and to enrich ourselves. Now the fun part, the creative part, the part we can manipulate and mold is how we do it.

I don't know about you but I spent years—no, decades—learning from challenge, from hardship, from suffering and sadness. I do believe that events and experiences that create distress and discomfort can be great motivators for change. When I feel like shit, there is only so much complaining I’ll do before I get off my derriere and do something about it! In fact, for many people, including me, this is the the first step on the path of personal growth.

Maybe it doesn’t resonate with you to have learned from hardship and struggle. Maybe you had a hunky-dorey childhood, two parents who loved you and each other and nary a care in the world besides doing homework and finding a great job upon graduating from a prestigious university. Ok, yes, I put on my Sarcasm Super Hero suit there for a minute. No one has a perfect life, I realize that. Everyone can remember times where they felt free and alive and everyone has experienced suffering, too.

Cancer, heart attack, death, divorce, job loss, bankruptcy, miscarriage. Suffering. That’s when we are at a crossroads, the crossroads of who we were and who we want to be. Cataclysmic events demand that we grow. Evolve and grow or stay stuck and continue to suffer.

When faced with adversity and feeling stuck, I’ve learned to ask myself, “If I had to stay stuck like this for the rest of my life, what skills, traits or characteristics would I have to cultivate in myself?” Usually the answer is the very thing I need to get me through the stuck spot and into a new version of myself.

Every time we find ourselves at the crossroads we are giving ourselves a little push to move forward. Growth is getting out of our comfort zone and it always means taking responsibility for ourselves and our feelings. We have to stop and look at the problem and notice how we feel. And then instead of the why-me’s what if we asked “What can I do differently next time?” And you ask that question again,
If I had to stay stuck like this for the rest of my life, what skills, traits or characteristics would I have to cultivate in myself?” 
Its just another way of taking responsibility for our feelings and our reality. Of learning to deal with things differently instead of repeating the same old thing over and over again until you are pissed the hell off!

I was at that moment several years back when my inner world was cracking apart. I was at the nexus of all my issues; they were colliding inside me and I was at a crossroads. So I made a choice. Enough with this learning through hardship and suffering! Time to be responsible for my own happiness. At the crossroads I chose to learn from love, laughter, joy, peace and happiness. It was a choice, nothing more complicated than that.

Many people are used to suffering and it has become familiar and comfortable. Yet inside they struggle with feeling unhappy and, yes, they are learning, but the little voice inside their head is asking “Why is this happening to me?” If you have that voice, that question, then you are coming from a victim attitude. I know because I was too. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of course difficult and terrible things will continue to happen, but so will good and amazing things. Some people are obsessed with doing anything they can to avoid their feelings of discomfort and unhappiness, they are often unwilling to learn and grow on a personal level. But, the Universe has a funny way of upping the ante until we pay attention. First we get the pixie dust (you and your husband don’t seem to connect like you used to do). Then we get the magic wand (you’re irritated and aggravated by your husband because he works all the time and never comes home to have dinner with you and the kids). Next, you get the 2 x 4 (he’s having an affair). 

All the while, your body is telling you the same little parallel story. Tired leads to exhausted, leads to tense, leads to headaches, leads to migraines, leads to, well, you get the idea. Your body will show you the disharmony in its level of discomfort if you stop and pay attention. If you have pain and discomfort, whether the pixie dust or the crack of wood upside your head, you are at a crossroads. And you can acknowledge that you feel like shit and DO something about it. (Your relationship is over, use the time alone to refine what you will do differently next time and to think about what you really do want in your life, because that wasn’t it and you knew it as soon as you got sprinkled with pixie dust). 

AND you can realize you don’t have to keep feeling like shit by being a victim. You can make  dramatic changes without cataclysmic life experiences. You can make a choice or a series of small choices to learn and grow from positive experiences and still be open to learning from the challenging ones, too.

There are things we can’t control, but, (you knew I was going to say it) we can control our reactions to them. If we resist change and growth, if we resist the dynamic flux of life, which contains both challenges and love, then all we do is create disharmony. So its time to make a shift, maybe subtle, maybe huge.

Here is a practice I use to transition away from unnecessary suffering and to attract more of what I want. Of course I acknowledge the challenges and the dark stuff, they can be incredible teachers. But I start consciously looking for what I want in my life in the people, locations and things around me. When I see that amazing couple holding hands, laughing and in love, I whisper “thank you” to the Universe. “Thank you for showing me that so I know it exist and it is possible.” Thank you is what we say after we are given something for which we asked. So if you say thank you its as if you already received it, and you begin to build a new pathway to creating something positive instead of being a victim.

Whatever is in front of you, use it. But you have to look in the mirror. Are you truly happy with what you see? In what areas do you feel less than fulfilled? Where are you feeling stuck? If you had to stay like that for ever, what would you need to do or how would you need to act differently? Do you tend to learn from challenges or from love or from both? 

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Lovers, The Dreamers and Me

I’m a dreamer. I'm talking dreams at night, every night when I sleep. Big dreams, colorful dreams, dreams full of action and suspense and love and fear. I fly in my dreams, flap my “wings,” land in tree tops, soar over oceans, the whole nine yards. In one of last night’s dreams—the inspiration for this post—I found a crystal sword. The handle was wood and it joined the to the base of the crystal, which was incased in steel burnished a warm copper color. I inspected the metal and found a subtle embossing to it. There were faces of many humans there, not people I knew, but kind, friendly faces. The crystal was emerald and I laid the side of my head on it, squinted one eye closed and peered from handle to tip with the other eye. The “blade” was true. That’s it, the whole dream. And I knew, even when I was sleeping, exactly what it meant. In fact, in the next dream I was actually telling one of my dearest friends about the emerald sword.

Dreams used to have me searching endlessly for understanding, trying to interpret the complicated landscape. Nearly twenty years ago when I was going to a really wonderful psychotherapist it started to make sense. She was trained predominantly in the style of Carl Jung and a style I adapted in my own work. Jung took a stance on dreams that relates what is happening in the dream with the persons or situations in the dreamer’s real life. Unlike his mentor Sigmund Freud, who believed that dreams only related to our past, Jung saw dreams as indicators of changes in the individual and signposts to the future. He saw them as part of the process of the dreamer learning to have a more healthy relationship with his ego, one that allows for growth and evolution. 

Once I started paying attention, the relationship with my “dream self” naturally grew. I learned how my unconscious would cycle into deeper and deeper conversation with my conscious brain. There would be dark phases of my dreaming where I would not be able to remember what I was dreaming, just that I had dreamed. Then would come the phase where I could feel the emotion of the dreams, the raw feelings without much relation to anything, and no understanding at all of what it meant.  I started to recognize recurring symbols, like the ocean, which mirrored my inner emotional landscape, or certain people which stood as icons for certain eras in my life, like high school. 

All along I believed in the power of positive thinking. I would daydream, too, about what my perfect world would look like. I would set my mind to thinking about what I wanted as if I already had it and do all the Law of Attraction stuff. I would think and pray and meditate and speak only “positive” thoughts. Thoughts that coincided with the life I daydreamed about, the life I wanted as my future. I chose more carefully who I surrounded myself with, what music and news (none!) I listened to and kept my sights set on my own north star.

And I ended up exactly where and how I didn’t want to be. What the fuck?! I was angry, frustrated and unhappy. I felt trapped in a life I thought I wasn’t creating. I thought I was doing all the right things. I ate well, practiced yoga, got outside in nature, even went to therapy, but my body would ache and I felt very sad. On the outside, things looked pretty damn good, the car was clean and shiny, but under the hood, the engine was about to explode! I talked and prayed and was selective and focused on the positive ‘til the cows came home but nothing changed. So what went wrong? 

My conscious mind knew what it wanted, but my unconscious was programmed with conflicting information. And the result was stress! Stress, we all know (even the Lululemon bag says it, so it must be true!) is the cause of 99% of all illness. So what happens if on the outside we try to create the life of our dreams, but on the inside we are programmed to believe we are not worthy of it? Stress! Stress, in short, is the fight or flight mechanism activated. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenals engage and send the majority of the blood supply to the limbs to either fight or run. Meanwhile, the viscera get shunted and are strained. If we have chronic stress our organs are taxed and eventually we get sick. If we are living from this reactionary place, the place of survival, it is impossible to expand and grow no matter how bad we want to.

So, what to do? How do we get out of this strange loop? I use multiple tools. Of course, I use my dreams to uncover what is stirring in my unconscious mind. I compare that to what my conscious mind wants and see where the misalignment is. I notice who is showing up in my dreams which tells me from what era the unconscious programming originates. I also pay attention to signals from my body. When I feel stressed, run down, achey or if I have pangs in certain areas (like around my liver or low back) I know something in the present has triggered programming from my past. The stress is showing me the disagreement between what my conscious brain wants now (where I think I should be or where I want to be) and what is holding me back from it (unconscious programming that I have outgrown or doesn’t fit with my new/desired vision).

The unconscious mind is the hindbrain, the part of us that is related to survival, to reflex and instinct. It is trained through our experiences (I burned myself on that hot stove last time) and learned from our environment and parents (you are too emotional, stop crying.) Imagine driving down the freeway at 70 mph hour with one of your friends in the car. Your unconscious mind is the one that is driving the car, moving through repetition and instinct withut really having to pay that close of attention, while your conscious brain is the one having the conversation with your friend. The forebrain or conscious brain, which is the part associated with reason, choice, preference, self-awareness, etc. can direct the hindbrain to stop reacting to things unnecessarily and can reprogram it completely. Thus, the two working in tandem can relieve you of unwarranted stress and open the doorway to a life in which you want to live.

When we bring those triggers and old programs to light, when we have the courage to look at them, then we have the chance to rewrite our inner computer. I love using my dreams for this. I love being familiar with what the symbolism. I love having the free will to choose where I want to be, to live the life I dream of, not a life of survival and fear. I feel empowered to be able to reprogram the owner’s manual my family gave me and make it match my life now, not their life then. I love carrying an emerald sword, green for the color of the heart chakra, for love, abundance and growth. I love seeing all the other amazing beings—the lovers, the dreamers and me—do the same. It inspires me to no end! I love bringing light to the shadow and being blessed with the opportunity to grow and evolve, not to stay trapped in the past but to courageously make dramatic life changes and go forward, leading the way with crystal sword in hand. Has anyone seen my cape?

Monday, May 21, 2012

True Health

Every practitioner, hands down, if you asked her would tell you there is one reason why she practices yoga. Its simple, really, the reason we all practice yoga is the same. Whether it is Ashtanga, Yin, Iyengar, Bikram or any other style, we are all in it for one reason; it makes us feel good. Every person on Earth, on some level or another, wants to feel good. Whether the sense of well-being is derived from getting out of physical pain, from having a clear mind, from improved relationships or even from a toned and fit-looking body, we all want to feel good. Pan back a bit and this idea of feeling good sits in a bigger context, that of health. According to the World Health Organization health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

So how does yoga help us improve this sense of well-being and live a happier, healthier life? My pondering on this started, of course, when I wasn’t feeling healthy at all—coughing my brains out in bed with bronchitis—and wanted to get healthy again. It was then that I stumbled across the sanskrit word swastha. Swa meaning self and Stha meaning to be established or steady. So, yogically speaking, true health is to be established in your self.

What the yogis mean is to be established in the part of ourselves that is unwavering, steady and stable. This is the part of us that can observe what is happening in our lives. The part that can witness our feelings, emotions, reactions, relationships and so on, without getting caught up in the roller coaster ride of their wild pendulum swings.

All of these experiences and our ensuing emotions are constantly in flux. One thing is for certain, what you experience and feel today will definitely be different tomorrow. We gain weight, we change jobs, get married, have babies, move to a new town. This churning whirlpool of change is like a shell, an outer layer, but underneath, there is a stable part of each of us that never changes. To identify with those changing and shifting parts of ourselves as the only thing we are is to live in samsara or endless suffering, trapped in the spinning whirlpool, as it were.

We need our minds to survive in this world, to know hot vs. cold or empty streets vs. those full of speeding cars. But the mind wants to keep things the same and resists the changes we must endure if we are to live in a human body. This causes a friction, an internal battle which, if left to rage, will turn first to agitation, then to discomfort, then sickness and finally to dis-ease.

Yoga to the rescue. On the yoga mat we move and stretch, we heat our bodies and our minds begin to relax. We breathe deeply and evenly in the victorious ujjayi breath and a miraculous thing happens; we feel good! We return to the seat of the witness. We watch our minds, our reactions, our feelings and practice embracing them fully, even if they are terrible and uncomfortable and ugly. And we learn that we are NOT our minds or those uncomfortable feelings we are watching and experiencing. Instead, we establish a seat inside all of the change. We push our bodies and practice staying present to our breath and noticing the emotional reactions to things like balancing on our hands in the middle of the room or dropping over backwards from standing into a full back bend. When we learn to stay calm despite the intensity, when we stay established in the unwavering part of ourselves no matter the circumstance, then we take a seat in true health.

Remember that regular practice is a type of housecleaning. If we clean a little every day its easy to keep up with, but if we wait weeks to clean, the dust piles up and more effort is needed to get in there and make it shine. To truly shine, we must be established in ourselves. Regular and consistent practice over an extended period of time and we become a little more familiar with the inner, unchanging landscape. The more time we spend there the more established we become and the easier it is to engage in the world while still being internally rooted.

Get to your mat and practice. Practice taking the stance of the witness. Breathe deeply and watch your breathing, especially when its challenging. Watch your mind’s reactions, notice your emotions and know that you are much more than them. They are a valuable part of you and your time here, but you extend well beyond the whirlpool of change. You are a naturally vibrant and healthy being, go and be established in your self.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taking Off My Shoes

I walk out to the concrete slab and remove my shoes. I’m not trying to keep my feet OR the concrete clean, or for that matter to make either of them dirty. Taking off my shoes as I step onto the slab represents a conscious step, one where I am listening, observing and meeting myself anew. This is a way for me to claim sacred space, to say to myself; This is important, pay attention.

What I didn’t mention about my sacred space is that its actually a helipad. There are four tie-downs embedded in the concrete and the pad is a hexagon about thirty feet across. The mounds of sand around it support healthy and wonderful smelling creosote bushes. Off to the west I hear the whirr of blades at the nearby windmill farm, a white noise, like the ocean, playing background to the calls of birds or, if I’m out late enough, coyotes. And above me is the vast, open sky. Its my very own outdoor yoga studio; walk out the front door, cross the driveway, take off my shoes.

To the owner and builder of the home it was a helipad, but as a helipad it is of no use to me. What good does it do me when I don’t own or know how to fly a helicopter? By knowing what things do and how I use them, I give them meaning and importance. By the act of removing my shoes I claim what could be useless as a meaningful and sacred space. Further, that barefooted, naked approach is a little statement I make to myself that I come open-minded, open-hearted and ready to learn.

As yogins and yoginis—whether you call yourself one or not—we strive to grow and learn by engaging ever more deeply in the world and in our relationships. We acknowledge that it is our beliefs, opinions and our ensuing actions that help us define the very world and relationships with which we are engaging. It is our beliefs and opinions that help us to see what is important or sacred to us and for what we have no use at all. And to make it more interesting, everything is always changing and evolving and so, too, must our opinions, beliefs and interactions with the world.

What follows is to examine the very source of our beliefs and opinions. Where do they originate? Are they the product of our society or our religion? Or a rebellion against them? Could they be from the owner’s manual that our parents were using that clearly doesn’t fit this newer model? Are they truly ours, gleaned from observing the world, our experiences and from times of deep reflection?

Often our personal identity, according to poet David Whyte, “is actually more of a function of our ability to pay attention to the world around us.” As we look out into the world we determine what is sacred and what is useless, what is important to us and what doesn’t really matter. When we look at  at our experiences and all those things which seem to be separate or different than ourselves, we define what we are not, thereby, in some way, defining what we ARE a little better.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you begin taking your shoes off everywhere and acting like everything is just as sacred as everything else. We all know that just plain isn’t true. Would a composting, stinking trash dump be a sacred place from which to serve your finest meal? I don’t think so. But I am suggesting that you start paying better attention. Pay better attention to what is meaningful to you, to what your beliefs, opinions and even preferences are. Notice if they are, in fact, true to who you are and what you want today. Pay better attention to how you interact with things and people so you can refine your view of the world. Pay better attention to the part of you that is having all these emotions, experiences and opinions so that you may better know yourself.

One of the ancient yoga texts, the Shiva Sutras, reminds us that “The senses are spectators.” When we use our senses fully to pay attention, we can spectate rather than get caught up in the drama of our unfolding universe and our reactions to it. Our beliefs and opinions are refined by our ability to pay attention, by re-defining who we are and what matters to us in each moment. This state is a paradox of both feeling our feelings more deeply and simultaneously knowing that we are NOT our feelings, but something much greater than them. From this clearer view of ourselves, one that isn’t muddied by our emotions, we start to notice that certain places, people and actions seem more sacred to us than others (as they should!) And whether we are on a helipad barefoot or not, we begin to see that we, too, are sacred, and that we have the courage to pay attention and reveal that naked and vulnerable part of ourselves that is always learning and growing.