LIVING IN BALANCE

by Lynn Theodose

Enough is Enough

The Holiday Season is upon us again! Does that make you smile or cringe? Do you happily anticipate peace, fun with family and friends, joy, gratitude, light, warmth and hope? Or does it portend exhaustion, depression, gluttony, anxiety, overwhelm, and financial strain? Perhaps all of it? Welcome back to the annual paradox. In some warped way, we’ve been sold a simple, serene Norman Rockwell version of Thanksgiving and Christmas that can only be achieved through great effort and expense. (I am purposely excluding the winter holidays of other faiths here, as they seem to have escaped the worst of commercialization…for now.) I recently heard a morning radio DJ discussing the rumored “Turkey Shortage.” She’d witnessed a wild-eyed woman scramble to purchase FOUR frozen Butterballs, careening her cart through the aisles in a mad dash to Save Thanksgiving!!! And I actually felt frightened when I read that the newest I-phones will be in short supply this December. It triggered suppressed memories of the Cabbage Patch and Tickle Me Elmo Wars of Christmases past. Dark days indeed. Tidings of comfort and joy have been replaced by fear of January credit card bills. My normally cheerful husband is beginning to grimace as we await the children’s dreaded Christmas Lists.

I hope that we can all cut ourselves a break this holiday season. Remember that as bastardized as the story is, the first Thanksgiving tells of starving colonists being grateful for what they had. And whether you view the birth of Christ as historical fact or potent parable, it’s ultimately about the light and hope that accompanies the arrival of unconditional love. Maybe if we can just relax, simplify, and stop trying to make the holidays perfect, we might actually be able to enjoy them? (I’m talking to myself here!)

The first limb of Astanga Yoga is the Yamas, our guidelines for how to behave in society. The third Yama is Asteya– Non-stealing. Simply put, you don’t take what isn’t yours. Nor do you take more than you need. Those three extra turkeys you don’t need aren’t yours. The purchases you made on that VISA you can’t pay off aren’t yours. That mythical perfect Christmas portrayed in Hallmark movies probably isn’t yours either. Like all of the guidelines in the Patanjali Yoga SutraAsteya is designed to help us remove agitation from our minds and unnecessary suffering from our lives. How much time do you spend locked in desire – wishing for things you don’t have, coveting the possessions, experiences, and lifestyles of other people? How often does the myth of “lack” lead you to take what does not rightly belong to you? We steal from society by hoarding more than we need. We steal from the earth through greed and carelessness. We steal from our children by burying ourselves in work and mindless distractions. We steal other people’s ideas, energy, parking spaces, precious time, and joy. What if we could eliminate the endless desire for more, work hard for what we truly need, and learn to be happy with and thankful for all of the blessings we already have?

According to the Yoga Sutra, we’d be given the keys to the kingdom. When one is firmly established in Asteya, all gems present themselves as gifts. (PYS II.37) This refers to the gifts that come from surrender and acceptance. Is it possible that all of this longing for more/better/perfect is actually creating the illusion of lack? If we could stop measuring ourselves against everyone else would we finally be able to appreciate how blessed we are? Comparison kills our joy and convinces us that we desperately need something we were fine without a moment ago. Unchecked desire is a bottomless beast with tunnel vision that can lead to morally questionable behavior. (See: the College Admissions Scandal.) As always, yoga wisdom encourages us to turn our gaze inward. Sure, it might feel good for a moment to get something you want but didn’t earn…as long as you can quiet your nagging conscience. But the greater gift is the satisfaction of working for what you have, and living within your means and according to your principles. The most precious gem of all is unwavering gratitude for whatever life bestows upon you.

I was 14 that first Christmas after my Mom moved out. Luckily, my Dad, sisters and I recognized that the illusion of the perfect nuclear family was no longer ours. We decided to forgo the traditional family meal, make a couple pots of chili and host a neighborhood party instead. Friends trickled in all afternoon, relaxed and relieved to unwind after all Christmas morning fanfare. We moved the furniture aside, danced to American Pie, and laughed, laughed, laughed. It is a cherished Christmas memory that became an annual tradition.

As we roll into “The most wonderful time of the year”, I encourage you to relax and let the holiday cheer come to you in whatever way is organically yours. You don’t have to run yourself ragged or into the poor house to emulate some narrow idea of Holiday Perfection. Eat some chocolate, look at some pretty lights, and be grateful for all of your blessings. And if worse comes to worst, I promise you that one day in the future your children will look back fondly on the year they ate hotdogs for Thanksgiving.

The Poses You Hate

My husband likes to pose the intriguing question, “ Do you think it’s more important to feed your strengths or shore up your weaknesses?” As an Economist and a musician who’s spent many years playing in bands, he understands the value of specialization. Obviously, to optimize the music, you want to put the best singer on vocals, the virtuoso on lead guitar, the established drummer on the kit…etc. I recently unearthed a recording from April Fools Day, 1980, where the members of the Grateful Dead switched instruments for a pretty terrible version of Promised Land. It was a fun prank, but one song was more than enough! Certainly, when it comes to collaboration, it pays to place everyone in the slot where they shine the brightest. But what about when we’re by ourselves?

Most of us tend to gravitate towards the things we are naturally good at. It’s fun to explore our strengths, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. But when we only engage in activities where we excel, we miss out on the feeling of accomplishment that comes from mastering something we never imagined we could. And we rob ourselves of the lessons of patience and perseverance gained through struggle. As an example, my husband and I, who are both sorely lacking in the handy man department, recently purchased a sectional couch on Marketplace. It was only when we picked it up that we realized it was unassembled. And only after we got it home and unboxed that we discovered there were no directions. So, armed with an Allen wrench and an overblown sense of optimism, we set to work trying to put that beast together. It was a comedy of errors, and it took forever. There were missteps. There were bad words. There was blood. But now it sits boldly in our living room, providing comfort and that unique feeling of pride and self-congratulations that comes from being able to say, “I did it!!”

One of the many benefits of led yoga classes is that, as students, we don’t choose which poses to explore. A good yoga teacher will lead us into all different parts of the body through a variety of asana…some we enjoy and are “good” at, and others we might absolutely hate or dread. But what poses are you practicing at home? Mostly the feel good ones? I get it. I have naturally flexible hips and a pliable pelvis. I LOVE hip openers and back bends. They utilize my natural strengths and feel really good. I see major improvements in a short amount of time. The pay off is great! Conversely, my hamstrings are short, tight, and remarkably resistant to change. I have a sacral imbalance exacerbated by forward bends that requires presence, care, and precision. I’ve also discovered that something dark and toxic lives in the back of my thighs – something really fun like shame and deep feelings of unworthiness. Unsurprisingly, I have strong urge to avoid forward bends. It all seems like a lot of work, with a high likelihood of physical and emotional discomfort, for very little reward. It’s so much more fun and satisfying to stick to the hip openers I excel at, and the backbends, that feel great to my body and make me a little bit high.

But fold forward I must, because yoga is all about shoring up the weaknesses, or more accurately, going into the places we tend to avoid. Holistic health is a matter of balance. If I only follow the good feelings, my pelvis will continue to open while my hamstrings only get tighter. It takes discipline and restraint to move into the unexplored shadows of our bodies. Presence, precision and refinement are vital. We have to take great care in our asana practice not to defer to our bendy places. We can fool ourselves that we are moving further into a pose by recruiting flexibility from our naturally open areas without even realizing it. Do you arch your back in all of your standing poses, or turn your toes out in backbends? Do you even know? This is why it is important to have a teacher who will keep us honest in class, and exacting standards of refinement and alignment at home. Maybe it makes sense to experiment with props and modifications in certain challenging poses. We must be willing to take a step back, counter the ego, and practice poses in a way that might look less impressive, but actually takes us deeper into closed off areas. The next time you find yourself feeling envious of the super flexible “Bendy Wendys” in class, remember that they have it harder than the rest of us. They must vigilantly stabilize all of their overly flexible places in order to access somewhere new.

Pay very close attention to the poses you tend to avoid. Chances are good they are the ones you need the most. The poses we don’t like show us the weaknesses we try to ignore, and the strengths we have yet to cultivate. They grant us entrance into our hidden physical and emotional limitations. They bring that which cowers in darkness into the light where all can be healed. They are the poses that will make you feel a little…or a lot…uncomfortable. They might produce tears, frustration and agitation. Hooray!!! Keep Going!! Discomfort is often a harbinger of impending breakthrough. Should you feed your strengths or shore up your weaknesses?? YES!

 

Cleanliness and Holiness

Yoga is Distillation – the process of extracting the essence of base materials to create something pure and refined. On this path, WE are the base material. As a holistic lifestyle practice, yoga removes the impurities that prevent us from dwelling in our natural state of peace, joy, and clarity. It is an undoing…a peeling away of the layers of distortion that keep us trapped in a cycle of suffering built around the myth of separation. Yoga is the ultimate cleanse. It encourages us to search for the hidden dirt and grime in our bodies and psyches, and discard or transmute whatever fails to serve us. It asks us to hold up every aspect of ourselves, and ask the $64,000, Marie Kondo question, “Does this spark joy?”

The Sadhana Pada, chapter two of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra, is our How-To manual. It’s the nuts and bolts of the practice. It includes the Niyamah, the personal practices that lead to success on the yogic path – cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender. (PYS 2.32) Cleanliness, or purity (Saucha) comes first, and sets the stage for all the others. We need to clean the slate and get rid of the junk before we can create something beautiful. We don’t want to build a temple on a pile of rubble. So let’s roll up our sleeves, empty the closets, sweep under the beds, and clean out the garbage that’s burying our light.

It starts with our Environment. We all know how great it feels to walk into a clean, bright, fresh-smelling home. Clutter is distracting and anxiety producing. Less is often more, and there is true freedom found in releasing objects we don’t need. We can use Feng Shui to encourage peace and balance in our homes. We can open the windows when the weather permits to bring fresh air in and prevent stagnation. We can smudge with sage to remove dark energies. As an added bonus, cleaning is an excellent outlet for nervous energy, and eases feelings of depression by creating a tangible sense of accomplishment.

Exercise, clean food, fresh air, basic hygiene, healthy sex, caring touch, bodywork, deep breathing, and play all help keep our Bodies clean and healthy. One of the best ways to purify our bodies is through Asana. The physical practice of yoga creates internal heat that helps flush out toxins. It strengthens the lungs to purify the breath, and massages the organs to optimize detoxification and elimination. It dislodges old, stuck energies in the muscles and connective tissues. Saucha of the physical body also includes what we consume. Fresh, wholesome food, prepared with love, help our bodies thrive, and gives us the energy for life-affirming pursuits. Ingesting toxins makes us tired, depressed, anxious, and unmotivated. Our bodies are vehicles for spirit. When we treat them with care and respect they will take us wherever we want to go.

We cleanse our Minds through observation and meditation. Our unexamined minds are full of rubbish! Meditation teaches us to slow down and sift through the thousands of thought that race through our heads everyday. Once we can identify them, we can learn to silence the toxic thoughts and encourage the positive ones. Chanting mantra purifies us on a vibrational level. We must also maintain vigilance over the thoughts and ideas we consume…what we watch, read, listen to, and tell ourselves. Perhaps that hour of doom scrolling would be better spent reading spiritual texts, listening to calming music, or watching something uplifting or funny.

We disinfect our Hearts with forgiveness and honest expression. Both holding grudges and refusing to apologize gunk up the gears in our emotional bodies. Our determination to be “Right” blocks the natural flow of love and keeps us mired in stagnation. All emotions are valid, and they are meant to move through us. When we hold onto negative emotions, instead of giving them voice and healthy expression, they fester and poison the entire well. Cry if you’re sad, scream if you’re angry, and move on. We keep our hearts pure when we follow the Love. Look for opportunities to extend kindness, gratitude, generosity, and service.

Our Relationships are purified through honesty and integrity. We tell the truth, to others, and ourselves, and we take care that our words and actions reflect our deepest values. We keep our relationships clean by avoiding toxic and negative people. We steer clear of energy vampires, and refuse to use gossip as a shortcut to intimacy. We set clear, healthy boundaries, and protect them unapologetically. We lovingly release the relationships we have outgrown, and practice loving from a distance. We share our feelings openly with those we trust, and try to listen with our whole hearts. We keep the promises we make.

Saucha is its own reward. Cleanliness and purity in every aspect of our lives sets the stage for joy, serenity, vitality, harmony, and spiritual advancement. Patanjali tells us “When the body is cleansed, the mind purified, and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realize the inner self also comes.” (PYS 2.41) When we keep our side of the street clean, contentment is the natural result. We feel better, have fewer distractions, and pave the way for continued growth and blessings. Our internal and external housekeeping creates a beautiful and calm oasis – a welcoming home for spirit.

Collection

The classic definition of yoga is “Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah” (Yoga is the calming and quieting of the turbulence in your personal energy field. –PYS 1.2) Okay, so what exactly is a “personal energy field?” It sounds like some vague, new age hooey, “Back off, Man! Your negative vibes are polluting my personal energy field!” But, further study reveals that the Yogis, as scientists, were actually quite clear and methodical in breaking down the components of chitta.  Let’s take a closer look at the chitta– all those things that make us who we are, and inform how we perceive and move through the material world.

Chitta comes from the Sanskrit word “cit”, which means “to collect.” In the Yogi’s Roadmap, Bhavani Maki writes, “The chitta is our personal energy field, the individuated field of consciousness, and the repository of every experience we have ever had.” Its four distinct parts are forever intertwined. Knowledge is power, and understanding the “technology of consciousness” can help reduce unnecessary distortions and suffering in our lives.

ManasThis first part is all about intake and output. How we draw in information from our surroundings, and the way that we respond to it. The jnanendriya refer our senses. The five sense organs of eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and skin are how we acquire information about the material world…what we bring in. The karmendriya are our organs of action – what we use to put things out into the world. They are the hands, feet, mouth, sex organs, and organs of elimination.

AhamkaraThe EGO. This part of our consciousness is like a toddler – or teenager…completely self-absorbed. The ego spends its time looking for what makes us special and unique. It’s the internal critic, as well the bravado. Its very survival depends on convincing itself of its separateness. It is completely one-sided. It is the lower mind that’s caught up in the illusion of separateness. It is concerned only with self-preservation. The ego is a vital part of our make-up, but gets us into trouble when it’s left alone, unchallenged, to run the show. It’s the ahamkara that grasps and clings to our beliefs and resources, often at the expense of everyone else. It can be incredible persuasive and is excellent at rationalizing. Yoga teaches us to look beneath its knee-jerk selfishness and tap into a deeper lever of understanding.

BuddhiOur higher state of consciousness. The buddhi views the world through a panoramic lense. It is our deepest knowing, our conscience. It recognizes the connection between all things. It is that wise little voice that whispers beneath the loud proclamations of the ego. It is the part of us that sees the truth underneath the lies we tell ourselves. It is our intuition and our loving compassion. It’s that part of us that always knows the right thing to do.

ChittaThe subconscious mind. This is the deep, dark swamp that conceals every experience we’ve ever had, the hidden judgments we hold about them, and the habitual patterns we’ve adopted in response. It is the repository for all of our latent beliefs and thoughts about the world, and our place in it. Yoga contends that we cannot question or challenge the biases contained here until we bring them out into the light of our conscious awareness. If you’ve ever overreacted in a situation, and then looked back and wondered, “Where the heck did that come from?” chances are good that your subconscious has been tickled.

Let’s explore an example of how this all comes together. Imagine you have a disagreement with a friend. She defends her position by saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Suddenly you blow up, yell hateful things to her, and storm out. You feel self-righteous, attacked, and angry. Later, after you cool down, you’re embarrassed and regretful of your outburst, and recognize that perhaps you didn’t have enough information to state your opinions as fact.

What happened? You heard her say that you didn’t know what you were talking about. (Jnanendriya– senses). You forgot that your mother used to say the exact same thing when you were young. It made you feel unheard and unimportant. (Chitta– sub-conscious mind). You felt the need to get loud so you could be heard and acknowledged (Ahamkara– ego). So you yelled and marched off. (Karmendriya– organs of action). Once the dust settled you were able to consider her point of view, and admit where you may have been confused or off base. (Buddhi– higher consciousness)

Yoga is self-exploration. It demands honesty and compassion. If we are curious and motivated, we can gain wisdom from the above situation. We get to see the ego at work, uncover a hidden trigger, and explore a habitual response to feeling unimportant. With this new information, we can honor our friendship, offer a heartfelt apology for overreacting, save an important relationship, and weaken the pull to react the same way in the future. Otherwise, we can dig in, convince ourselves that we are right and she’s a jerk, and sacrifice a valuable connection in our lives…and it probably won’t be the last. Yoga practices encourage self-examination and personal responsibility. They help us untangle our “stuff” and clear our personal energy fields of distortion. Then we can be present and open in every situation, see each interaction for what it truly is…an opportunity to connect, and respond in a way that increases peace and harmony in our relationships.

The Other Shoe

“King Solomon once searched for a cure against depression. He assembled his wise men together. They meditated for a long time and gave him the following advice: Make yourself a ring and have thereon engraved the words ‘This too shall pass.’ The King carried out the advice. He had the ring made and wore it constantly. Every time he felt sad and depressed he looked at the ring, whereon his mood would change and he would feel cheerful.” – Israel Folklore Archive # 126

This too shall pass. These wise words have often been a towrope when I’ve found myself off the road in an emotional ditch. When I fall into a deep pit of despair, or get caught in a self-perpetuating spiral of worry and fear, this simple truth can remind me that if I just hang on, eventually things will shift. How encouraging!

But, these days I feel happy, grateful, peaceful and calm. I am strong and healthy. My marriage is supportive and sweet. The kids are thriving, and my parents are alive and in excellent health for their age. I am financially secure, and my home is comfortable haven. My mood is bright and I am able to see and appreciate my many blessings. Everything is really great right now…and there it is, softly whispering in my ear “Don’t feel too happy…this too shall pass” In what could be a time of pure grace, gratitude, and expansion, I catch myself glancing up to peer at the underside of the other shoe, dangling by a lace – ready to drop.

I know, of course, that challenges will arrive again before too long. My parents won’t live forever, and chances are good I will outlive my dog. Things can change in an instant, and my mood has been known to shift without a recognizable cause. And so, I’ve developed the habit of tempering my joy and bracing for impact…as if I can shore myself up against future hardship, and rehearse for grief. Even though I know it doesn’t work.

And of course, I don’t always realize that I’m doing it. I just experience an underpinning of grief even in the midst of great happiness. Our patterns and habits can be incredibly subtle. (PYS 2.10) The very same thought that can ease my pain in one moment, can rob me of pleasure in the next. I can convince myself that I’m just being realistic, pragmatic, and mature. Yes, inevitably this too shall pass. It’s one of the great “TRUTHS”, and aren’t I so advanced to remember it? Sure, but instead of leaning into whatever the “IT” is that’s guaranteed to pass, my mind races into the future, where things are so much better – or worse.

The way I utilize this “truth” in good times and bad reminds me of something my teacher often says, “Same-Same, only Different!” Whether I am gritting my teeth and waiting for the darkness to pass, or attempting to grasp onto a moment of joy before it slips away, it’s all just contraction. Either way I am abandoning the reality of the present moment and attempting to jump into the future where everything is so wonderful or terrible. In both extremes I am missing the opportunity to unfurl into the NOW, and blocking the natural cycle of emotions. The nature of emotions is to move through us. Like the Hindu trinity of Brahma – the Creator, Vishnu – the Sustainer, and Shiva – the Destroyer, they arise, linger a while, and dissolve. When we are open, receptive, and surrendered to their waves, emotions organically pass through us, leaving behind lessons and insights. They can be signposts to where we are out of alignment or tangled up in distortion. We cannot think our way out of feelings, not if we truly want to be free. It’s the very mind that Yoga practices work to tame that keeps us enslaved. When we attempt to resist or manipulate our emotions, through rejection or grasping, they can become trapped and toxic. That’s how the natural sorrow of loss morphs into sustained depression, or passing fears become perpetual anxiety.

Yoga encourages us to trust in the difficult and relax into discomfort. It’s certainly more comfortable to feel happy than sad or frightened. And it’s natural and understandable to try to avoid or eliminate “bad” feelings. But we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. I’ve always assumed that if I can practice relaxing into joy, it will better train me to surrender to sorrow. But maybe I’ve got it backwards. Maybe when this good moment passes and I find myself laid low once again, I can practice giving into the dark, painful feelings, free from the shadow of that damn shoe. After all there is inherent relief in knowing that you can’t fall off the floor. When sadness or worry returns, I will try to be present for it. I will try to be brave and curious, and maybe even thankful. And perhaps, by allowing my sorrow or fear or anger to just move on through like a trio of mighty gods who refuse to be ignored, I might find myself, sooner than expected, empty and open and barefoot in the peace that follows. I’ll keep you posted.

“Others may be saying Oh No, but you will be opening out like a rose, losing itself petal by petal.” – Rumi

Lost in Translation

Many years ago I got certified to teach English as a second language. Our ESL teacher shared a story I will never forget:

One year, the owners of a large indoor shopping mall in Japan, enamored by all things American, decided to erect an enormous US-style Christmas display in the mall’s center. Local Japanese artists and contractors bid on the multi-million dollar project. The chosen winner worked in secret around the clock to design and build his homage to all things Christmas. Finally, the day of the Big Reveal arrived to great fanfare. Thousands of excited shoppers flooded in to discover a fat and jolly Santa Claus…nailed to the cross.

The point of this story is that, while we can learn another country’s language, culture doesn’t always translate. Even when all the information is available, it’s easy to get confused. It’s no wonder that here in the West we often miss the point of Yoga entirely. Yoga originated in India, a slow-moving, deeply spiritual environment. Even with access to the original texts and teachings, it makes sense that our fast-moving, productivity-loving culture might get caught up in the aspects of the practice that jive with our societal values. Yoga is ultimately about letting go. The “goal” is to slowly and methodically peel away our past experiences, biases, and thoughts of the future so we can fully experience each moment as it unfolds. It’s about how to BE in the present –open and clear, free of judgment, comparisons, resistance, and fear. And it promises that this is where true peace and freedom lie. But here in the States, we are overly focused on appearances, and more importantly, we are DOERS. We love making lists and crossing things off. We thrive on setting goals and reaching them…the next degree, promotion, expected step on life’s path (graduate-find a job-get married-buy a house-have children-retire). The Next Pose. We feel the need to measure and track our productivity, and thus our basic worth, by acquiring things and accomplishments. How in the world do you gauge Release? And what are we letting go of anyway?

Physical –Yoga helps us let go of the tension we hold in our bodies. We stockpile tension through unconscious repetitive patterns. Oftentimes contraction is a protective barrier built around past bodily injury or emotional trauma. Unexplored grief lives in the lungs and upper thoracic spine. Latent fear tends to inhabit the psoas. Tight hips might simply come from too much sitting. When we use asana as a forensic tool, rather than a tally of our progress, we can not only identify and release lifelong tension patterns, but we can flesh out and finally heal the underlying causes that keep us locked up inside of our bodies.

Psychological – Our thinking minds are undeniably brilliant. They can analyze enormous amounts of information, devise thousands of possible scenarios, and instantly sort mountains of data into tidy compartments. They are loud and bossy. And studies show that a huge percentage of the thousands of thoughts our minds create everyday are repetitive. Yoga practices teach us to observe, examine, question, and ultimately quiet the incessant mental chatter. Asana, mantra, meditation, pranayama etc… help us let go of our tendency to evaluate and categorize our experiences as they occur. When we can get out of our heads, and into our hearts and bodies, every moment becomes holy.

Emotional – Do you ever feel like an unwilling slave to your emotions? What if most of our emotional responses are habitual? I once had a therapist suggest that only 40% of emotional responses are based on a current situation. The other 60% are conditioned responses to past events that, over time, have become sneaky, ingrained patterns. I think she was being conservative.  Consider your “triggers”, those innocuous comments or situations that illicit an out-sized emotional reaction. I recently had a neighbor read me the riot act when my dog vomited up some grass in the weeds by her driveway. I cried a little after, and felt rattled and scolded the rest of the day. Safe to say we both WAY overreacted to a rather minor incident. I think our wounded inner little girls were acting out. Yoga has helped me examine the situation with perspective and compassion. I practice sending forgiveness and light into her home every time I walk by…even though I’m still sometimes tempted to flip it off!

Spiritual – The Yogis believe that all of our suffering originates from a mistaken belief that we are separate from God (Spirit, Love, Creation, The Universe… or whatever term resonates with you.) Yoga works from the outside in to dismantle all that keeps us trapped in this basic misconception. As we slowly strip away the limiting patterns in our physical, mental, and emotional bodies, we become still enough to feel our connection to everyone and everything. We get quiet enough to hear the soft whispers of our souls. And we grow clear enough to see the divinity within ourselves, and everyone else.

Ultimately, when we become truly proficient at letting go, we even lose interest in the goal of “enlightenment”, and instead, find ourselves reveling in the peace and freedom available every step along the way. (PYS 1.15) Then (or Now, if you prefer), we can finally cross “Find Serenity” off of our to-do lists.

 

Touchstone

 

Pre-Covid I was teaching yoga twice a week to a dedicated group of regulars. When the health club that hosted my classes closed due to the pandemic I took my first real break from teaching since I started in 2009. The gym re-opened with new safety protocols last June, but I chose not to return in order to safeguard vulnerable members of my family. And although I considered it, I never felt called to transition to online classes. So, my class at In Balance last month was my first time teaching in 16 months. I was both excited and nervous as I prepared to return to the front of the class. It felt great to be back. But it also felt surprisingly DIFFERENT.

Like most of us, I want to be liked, respected, and possibly even admired on occasion. I learned about Yoga and how to teach it from the best (Thank you, Bhavani!), and have always felt confident regarding what I have to share in the classroom. And after more than a decade, I feel like I’m pretty good at it. When I recently returned to teaching I knew my knowledge base was intact, but I was surprised and intrigued by how very vulnerable I felt. Exposed. You see, somewhere along the way, during all of those months tucked in with my loving husband and dog, safe from prying eyes, I had removed my mask…that mask we all wear to project the image we have of ourselves…the mask we don to hide our insecurities, to impress others, to gain acceptance. We wear them so long and so constantly that we begin to fool ourselves. As I returned to the familiar role of “Yoga Teacher” I realized that I had forgotten to put my mask back on! In fact it seems that I might have misplaced it. And in that moment of unexpected vulnerability I understood that my job is less about imparting knowledge or wisdom, and more about holding sacred space for exploration and introspection. My willingness to feel vulnerable, and do it anyway, can create a pocket of permission for my students to do the same. Yes, as the Teacher I am there to lead and guide and correct, but more importantly, I am there to SUPPORT. And within that realization I noticed that I cared so much less about what anyone thought of ME, and simply felt thankful that we were all sharing this experience together. My return to the practiced role of “Yoga Teacher” pointed out the hidden personal shifts that I had failed to fully notice.

You can google “Benefits of a Regular Yoga Practice” and watch a long list appear…strength and flexibility, mental clarity, stress reduction …etc. But, perhaps one of yoga’s greatest untouted gifts is that it serves as a TOUCHSTONE on the journey to self-actualization. Whether or not we see it, we are always changing, growing and healing. When we come to the mat often, and interact with the same postures again and again, we get a snapshot of where we are in the moment. We can gauge the condition of our bodies, the quality of our breath, and the state of our monkey minds. Then we can take this new information and compare it to how we felt in the exact same pose yesterday, or last year. Much like birthdays or anniversaries, these moments of repetitive stillness provide an opportunity to reflect upon where we are, how far we’ve come, and what direction we are heading. Our yoga practice offers us a regular peek beneath our masks, and a moment to reconnect with our authentic selves, the unchanging source of contentment and wisdom that gets buried beneath all the noise. The practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation also provide a still point from which to observe how and when our egos pipe up to negate, excuse, and explain away the perceived flaws of our basic humanity. We may notice that when we slay one ego dragon, it often clears the way for another to slink out from deeper within the cave of our unconscious…in endless layers of distortion.

Yoga philosophy points to the Ego (Asmita) as one of our greatest challenges and teachers on the path. We constantly confuse the vehicles of consciousness – our minds, bodies, emotions, and senses – with consciousness itself. (PYS 2.6) We forget that our true selves are divine and sublime, encased inside the profane cage of the body/mind/personality complex. Not only does a regular yoga practice give us glimpses of the flawless life-spark beneath, but it helps us chart the progress of our journey towards embodying it, make any necessary refinements, and boldly peel our masks away, one liberating breath at a time.

One Moment at a Time

Summer Time, and the livin’ is…Busy?? Ok, so here we are, coming out the other side of a pandemic that forced many of us to slow way down, or even come to a complete stop. That was weird, right? Remember the uncomfortable and alien sensation of being asked to Sit and Stay, especially at the beginning? Many of us stopped working for a time, limited our social interactions, cancelled travel plans, and made any number of alterations to our hectic schedules. And now that the world is opening back up, it feels like we’ve got to make up for lost time. Get Busy, Folks…There are places to go and people to see and fun to be had!!! There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the things.So in a misguided attempt to do it all, we turn to the doomed art of multi-tasking, too distracted to notice the hole in the life raft.

I know some of you are saying, “Wait! I’m an excellent multi-tasker!” Most of us have been functioning this way for years. We can ride a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling chainsaws, chatting into a headset, planning the dinner menu, and making huge life decisions, without messing up our hair. We are masters of efficiency, super heroes of productivity, and damn proud of it. The problem is, as we furiously check things off our to-do lists (two or three at a time, Thank You!) we are also starving our relationships, churning out sub-par work, eroding our health….and missing out on life’s sweetest blessings. How’s that for multi-tasking?

According to the ancient wisdom of the Yogis, we can cure the distress, depression, anxiety, and confusion born of our overburdened lives by focusing on one thing at a time. (PYS 1.32) When we slow down and lend our complete attention to whatever task, situation, or person is in front of us, every aspect of out lives improves and flourishes.

Trying to do too much at once damages our HEALTH by overtaxing our nervous systems. We take on way too much, thinking it’s still not enough, and end up overwhelmed and exhausted. Our self-care often drops to the bottom of our to-do lists. We skip exercise because we are too tired or don’t have time. Or when we do find time we over-do it, trying to get more bang for our buck. We reach for toxic convenience foods instead of preparing healthy nourishing meals. We fail to make time to rest and recover from all of the business. Constant distraction leads to carelessness and avoidable accidents. Our furiously busy brains never quiet down enough to hear the whispers of brewing dis-ease in our bodies, so eventually our bodies start to yell. Something as simple as taking a long walk in the sunshine, noticing the feel of the breeze and the beauty around you, can deeply nourish, calm, and invigorate your body and mind. (Leave you phone at home, please!)

While it may seem counter-intuitive, multi-tasking causes our WORK to suffer. We try to frantically knock out tasks, convinced we are getting somewhere. But when we are running on fumes, we make unnecessary mistakes. We will never do our best work when we have half a mind trained on everything else that needs to be done. The Yoga Masters did one thing at a time and were notoriously prolific. The calm energy they created through loving attention to their yoga practices gave them unlimited clarity and vitality. Sri Krishnamacharya, for example, studied Sanskrit, mastered and taught all aspects of Yoga, practiced Ayurvedic Medicine, wrote several books, and earned advanced degrees in Philosophy, Logic, Music, & Divinity. Inspiration germinates in stillness and silence. Try slowing down and fully engaging with one individual task, before thinking about what’s next. Not only will your work improve, but you might even start to love it again.

Multi-tasking is particularly detrimental to our RELATIONSHIPS. When we are in a constant state of overwhelm, eventually we either lash out or shut down. We only half listen to our partners, children, and friends…with one eye our phones or computers, and end up missing important cues and subtleties. Our distraction leaves our loved ones feeling rejected and unimportant. We sacrifice precious time with the people we love in the quest for greater “success”. If you want your relationships to thrive, give them your complete attention. We can all feel when someone is fully present with us. Attention is love’s currency. Spend it freely, and watch your investment pay off in deeper intimacy, understanding, and trust.

We will never be able to do everything, but we can make ourselves sick trying. The nectar of life is found in its individual moments. What if, for one week (or day, or hour) you experimented with pouring your full and loving attention into whatever is before you. What if you just tried on the belief that your worth is based not on how much you can get done, but rather who you are in each individual moment. You might be amazed to see how fully your life blooms. Beautiful gifts are everywhere. We find them when we stop the frantic search and offer ourselves completely to the moment we’re in and the people we’re with. Step off the hamster wheel, take a deep breath, and love whatever and whoever is in front of you with your whole, undistracted being. Your joy is waiting for you there.

The Royal Path

Yoga is everywhere theses days, and it’s Big Business. Yoga studios, online classes, apparel, yoga accessories, books, magazines, podcasts, trainings, retreats, workshops …etc are ubiquitous. It is wonderful that millions of people are discovering this ancient healing art, and I have no doubt that it has helped improve the health and lives of countless practitioners. But here’s the downside…as yoga has moved out of the caves and into the mainstream, it has, sadly, become watered down to make it more palpable for the masses. In today’s western culture it seems that Yoga=Asana. The physical yogic postures are an important aspect of the yoga journey. They can lead to increased health and vitality, awaken subtle body energies, and help us become aware of our thought and tension patterns. But they are only one small piece of a bigger holistic puzzle. So here is a quick refresher on Raja (Royal) Yoga, also known as Pantanjali Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga– The Eight Limbed Path.

Yama (Moral Codes) – The first limb is all about right relationships. How do we interact with the world? It includes five simple codes of conduct. Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Moderation of Energy), and Aparighraha (Non-hoarding). When we live by these principles, we reduce the potential for drama in our lives. By eliminating unnecessary conflict and creating an environment of harmony, right action and intention smooth the way for a deeper exploration of our true nature and connection with spirit.

Niyama (Personal Practices) – If we want to advance on the path, we must diligently apply ourselves. The five-part prescription for success demands that we practice Saucha (Purity of Mind and Body), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Passion & Discipline), Svadyaya (Self-Study) Ishvara Pranidhanani (Surrender). These principles help us proceed along the path without getting off track or distracted.

Asana (Physical Postures) – The physical practice of yoga is designed to optimize our health, and open and align our bodies so we can sit comfortably in meditation. By reducing the tension that limits our breath, Asana also helps us access Prana (Life-force) for greater vitality. Pain, illness, and exhaustion are incredibly distracting. The ultimate goal of yoga is to quiet the mind enough to connect with our deepest knowing. A healthy body becomes an asset instead of a hindrance to stillness.

Pranayama (Breath Restraint) – The act of marrying movement with breath in asana leads us to the next limb. Much more than “breathing exercises”, Pranayama refers to the manipulation of Prana. We learn to access universal energy to help quiet our minds and regulate our moods. There are practices to calm and invigorate, awaken the subtle body, and harmonize our inner landscape. According to Patanjali, Pranayama prepares the mind for the meditative limbs (PYS 2.53),and lifts the veils between the seen and unseen (PYS 2.52), bringing us ever closer to universal wisdom and guidance.

Pratyahara (Purification of the Senses) – The previous four limbs comprise the list of things we DO. Pratyahara is the bridge between the external and internal limbs. When we dive deeply into Pranayama, our senses become less distracting, allowing us to turn inward. We may no longer hear the dog barking next door, or feel the niggling discomforts in our bodies. As the outward disturbances begin to dissolve we move into the meditative aspects of the practice. Our efforts of acting right, adhering to the personal practices, physical postures, and breath work crest the hill, and we begin to glide on their momentum.

Dharana (Meditation) – The meditative process begins with Ekagraha (One Pointed Focus). We home in one specific thing – our breath, a mantra, a candle flame – and practice returning our attention to our chosen anchor again and again. Like training a puppy, we catch our minds wandering off, and gently but firmly, direct them back to our focal point. Through consistent vigilance and effort, we slowly train the mind to remain where we’ve placed it.

Dhyana (Immersion) – When we focus on one thing consistently, without interruption, eventually the boundaries between “us” and it begin to blur. If we come into stillness and attach our attention to our breath long enough, and without interruption, we will start to embody it. All awareness of the body ceases and we are no longer separate from the act of breathing. We are simply breath, a living host to the cosmic dance of inhale and exhale.

Samadhi (Communion) – Once we experience communing with one thing, we are moments away from communing with everything. This eighth and final limb is yoga’s ultimate gift. We lose all self-consciousness, and fall, like drops of rain, back into the ocean from which we came. We remember, if only for a moment, that we are not alone, or separate from Life, Love, God. Instead, we are all invaluable threads in the intricate tapestry of life…held and guided by benevolent universal love.

For most of us, Asana is the doorway…our first taste of yoga’s potential. My hope is that this door opens wide to reveal the full picture of what is possible when dive into the “other 7 limbs” of Yoga. The deeper we look, the more we will discover. If we are willing to travel a bit further down the path, it might just lead us home.

Good Intentions

A popular proverb says, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I respectfully disagree. I understand the sentiment behind it …the idea that what you actually do is ultimately more impactful than what you meant to do. But, I feel certain that if there is a final judgment awaiting us at the end of our lives, the jury will weigh the contents of our hearts along with the results of our actions before rendering their final verdict. Intention is the essential seed for implementing positive change in our lives…and that change is pretty much doomed without it. Sadly we don’t generally stumble into greater health, happier relationships, clarity, and peace of mind without deciding and determining to create them. Intention is the vital first step in creation. The problem is, without consistent action to back them up, these ideals rarely breach the realm of thought to produce measurable results in the material world. You can fully intend to become a concert pianist, but you must actually sit down and practice, again and again, to learn how to play.

The Sanskrit word Bhavanam translates to “dwelling in the mind”, and refers to the magic of intention fused with action.The powerful union of the two is how we create miracles in our lives. First we decide that we are going to pursue a chosen goal…a healthy body, a calm, clear mind, a deeper relationship with spirit…and then the practices of yoga give us an opportunity to put these powerful intentions into concrete, step-by-step action. It is through bhavanam that our goals are manifested. The inspired visions conceived in our minds travel out of the confines of our thoughts and solidify into real world experiences. We can intend all day, but without putting our money where our mouths are, we just end up treading water, bemoaning our unchanging fate. We can run around frantically doing all the things we think we should do, but without a clear intention behind them, we might be surprised to find ourselves exhausted, even as we experience little real change. The measurable actions we take and the sacrifices we make at the altar of our dreams are what breathe them into life. The sacred marriage of a clear and pure intention enacted with methodical precision and consistency makes the previously impossible possible.

This is why yoga is so valuable. It is both practical and sublime. If you practice asana with the unwavering goal of greater physical health, you will pay close attention to the needs and limitations of your body in every moment. If you come to the meditation cushion with a crystallized intention to corral and learn from your unconscious thoughts, you will be better able to notice when you’ve gone off track. If you embrace the yogic practices as a ticket to an intimate relationship with your personal vision of divinity, every effort becomes a prayer. You absolutely must keep practicing, but sincerity is everything. One fully present sun salutation performed in the spirit of devotion will yield far greater rewards that a hundred done mindlessly without the full participation of your body, mind, and heart. All the striving the world will not lead the un-aimed arrow to the target.

There is a Zen teaching story that tells of a seeker who travels far and wide in search of a teacher. When he finds the teacher, at long last, sitting quietly by a river, the seeker pleads his case as to why the teacher should instruct him. The student talks a good game, but the teacher can hear beneath his words. ‘Here is your first lesson,” the teacher says, as he grabs the student by the neck and plunges his head into the river. The student struggles and flails. After what seems an eternity, the teacher pulls the student, gasping and sputtering, from the water. Finally, before walking away, the teacher declares, “When you want a relationship with God as much as you wanted that next breath, come back and see me.”

Yoga always comes back to balance. To progress on the path you need a heart and mind pure and clear in their desire, and then you must do the work to make your desires come true. Intention is the handlebars, and action is the pedals. When they work together, you are certain to reach your destination. Patanjali tells us, “For one who is deeply invested, success is close at hand.” (PYS 1.21) Practice, practice, with your eyes on the prize. Make your yoga practice an offering to your best self, as yet unrealized. Manifest the health, peace, love, and joy you desire in your life through your sincere efforts. Take heart, Dear Yoga Seeker. The recipe is tried and true. Get clear about why you are on this beautiful, challenging path, and do your work. The yoga will take care of the rest.

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we need to do it keep on walking”

– Gautama Buddha-

1512 N. Main Street

Blacksburg, VA 24060

@ VTCRC: 2000 Kraft Dr. Suite 1204

Blacksburg, VA 24060

#540.961.1030