The Feet of the Guru

While studying in India, we had chanting classes three mornings a week. I was particularly fond of this part of learning. Though there were some I was completely familiar with, a few were new to me. The Guru Ashtakam was one. I loved it’s meaning, sounds, and intention. Devotion comes from the teacher within. It’s not just what we do, or learn, but what we take within us. The lotus feet are sometimes said to be spiritual wisdom itself, or pure consciousness.

My Teacher, M, left this week to study at KPJAYI for the next two months in a teacher intensive study. The training is sold out as well as a new offering. Though I will miss her guidance, I’m very excited for her as well. I hope this time of study and immersion will enhance not just her capabilities as a teacher, but also as a practitioner, a person. I wish her joy, wonder, wisdom, love and relaxation!

I think M has a phenomenal practice already, not just because of the beauty and strength in her asana, but because of her dedication. Her voice as an instructor is thoughtful, compassionate, and astute. There is no question of her expertise. Yet, what truly makes her a fabulous teacher, is knowing she doesn’t have all the answers and that there is always more to learn.

At our shala, we have been left in very capable hands. M has brought in another level 2 certified instructor to watch over us this summer, so far so good! S is a highly proficient ashtangi, with a focus on alignment. Something everyone needs reminders in maintaining and striving for more. Parampara and all that, but even so, we each teach it with our own personality coming through.

My first teacher told me a story a while back about a student who went to a weekend workshop with a highly regarded instructor, and came back exclaiming that so and so finally taught her the right way to do a downward dog! It was obviously a pose that our teacher had worked with her on and adjusted her just about everyday she practiced. There had already been so many changes in that dog since her very first one, some incrementally, others more obvious, yet this particular weekend, under someone else’s guidance, it all clicked. Don’t get me wrong, that is awesome, and I’m sure whatever occurred did help better align her down dog but ultimately it’s the whole process that gets you there, not just the last piece of the puzzle.

I have no idea what pieces of the puzzle will finally fit for me this summer, as I come to the mat and get advice from a new set of eyes. S has already picked up on my need to RELAX….more. I guess there is no need to even share with him, that I’ve improved greatly in this endeavor, to unmask that my innate temperament is so tightly wound? Do I so readily forget my biggest challenges like not noticing the stain on the rug until company is coming over? Its funny because it’s not that in either instance I don’t want to work on it, but sometimes distractions and other challenges seem to get in the way and then I lose track of my inner to do list. I chuckle writing this as my defense mechanisms come into play logically explaining my shortcomings. Hopefully someday, I won’t feel that urge, and then maybe I will relax!

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My teacher once asked me what my favorite asana was, I didn’t answer her, because I had never really thought about it, but to answer her, it’s not just one, it’s the whole closing sequence, probably because I sometimes relax in it;-)

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Judgement…can we ever let it go?

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.” Albert Camus

Damn…how true is that? I read a great article today on cognitive biases. Here it is in full! Please take a look. As I was reading through all of the different ways we humans rationalize everything, I couldn’t help but think of the five kleshas, or obstacles: ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and clinging to life. Each of the biases stems from at least one of these. I’d love to say I’ve conquered these foibles in myself, but alas I must be truthful, I fail, epically at times.

Though much commonality exists in being human, the differences that make us unique also give rise to judgement. I mean really, what is normal? Normal upbringing, normal social constructs, normal what exactly? I can attest as a child, I knew what normal was in my family. It was not exactly traditional. There was a bible on the coffee table, church choir on Sundays, but we also had beautiful sensual charcoals on the walls by Betty Dodson, my mom read astrology charts and palms at the kitchen table, and five siblings working as child actors mostly in commercials and on broadway. Opening night parties at cabaret clubs were par for the course for the 8 year old in my house. I admit it did not help me make friends in my peer group at parochial school. Judgement, fear, only seeing the differences, jealousy, I don’t know the rationales, nor does it matter anymore. I learned a long time ago, not every one will like you, but you won’t like everyone either. Be compassionate and kind, but not a doormat!

“I ask myself, is it a sin, to be flexible, when the boat comes in?” Depeche Mode20140624-165824-61104011.jpg

With that lovely photo, David posted on Yoga sutra 1.20: Others follow a five-fold systematic path of 1) faithful certainty in the path, 2) directing energy towards the practices, 3) repeated memory of the path and the process of stilling the mind, 4) training in deep concentration, and 5) the pursuit of real knowledge, by which the higher samadhi (asamprajnata samadhi) is attained. By utilizing those principles in our gestures, can we stop the other nonsense? Maybeūüėä

We spend an inordinate amount of wasted time trying to be alike, striving for perfection, judging ourselves and others. Yet, in that we lose sight of how alike we are, very much so, all human, experiencing joy, love, wonder, pain, and sorrow. We each require sleep, nourishment and protection from the elements. The journeys are different. What we choose to take from the journey is different. Even if the goal is the same, and ultimately contentment, with who we are and what we are, feeds that purpose, we will go about it with our own choices.

Sutra 2.2 introduces the subject very clearly: ‚ÄúThe goal of Yoga is not to obtain something that is lacking: it is the realization of an already present reality. Yoga practice removes the obstacles that obstruct the experience of samadhi, or the state of complete absorption.”

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The ripple effect

While studying in India, part of the after morning practice routine was a well needed stop at the coconut stand. Most mornings I was just spent and blissed out greedily quenching my thirst, not taking in much around me other than the fact that there were others in the same transfixed state of needing to replenish some lost fluids with this amazing gift of nutritious coconut water gloriously and skillfully machete chopped open right before my eyes.

Certainly as a place of congregation there was always snippets of conversation floating about. Though many spoke of details of practice, struggles, or bragging rights, there was also just some getting to know each other. I made a few friends by the stand. I overheard a conversation where someone was discussing something about his astrological chart, he mentioned that the astrologer had told him, in this life he wasn’t meant to do anything great or spectacular. I couldn’t help myself, but to turn, and say, wow, that wasn’t a very good astrologer, because how could they possibly know the full ripple effect of your existence? Maybe you won’t be the next Gandhi, but who’s to say that you smiling at a random stranger didn’t change them, or something you said didn’t inspire someone else to start a revolution of peace or kindness or just getting back on the right path? I mean it’s like past life regression, not everyone was Joan of Arc or Confucius, but maybe, if you believe in it, maybe you were the person who gave Da Vinci his first paper and charcoal or read Shakespeare his first poem? Who knows how fully our actions effect this world around us, and why wouldn’t just showing compassion be great enough? The gift of love is liberating and inspiring. We became friends.ūüėä

This morning, my son was telling me a story of his experiences doing community service in Sicily two summers ago. He was working with a group of teens helping build and refurbish a community center and orphanage. As they were only there for two glorious weeks and all aspects of this work was done in stages, his stage was part of some of the finishing touches around the main home. The home was already completed but a courtyard still needed to be made and construction debris, which was basically stone, that had to be moved to a safer place or where it could be used. So much of their work involved literally picking stones up from one side of the road and bringing them to the other side. One of the other boys, my son explained, complained that this work was boring and didn’t seem as grand or noble, to just pick things up and put them down again. The counselor in charge shook his head laughing stating it might not seem like much, but that each facet was just as important to making the project a success. I was thrilled my son understood this. That all the work to make this project safe and welcoming was needed, that the cherry on top came from the effort and the process may not always be glamorous but that the little things matter.

Who will come from that home? Who will be raised there? Will they change the world? Will they have a better life? Will my son? Will I? I have no idea, but I will try to appreciate and love this journey of life. With everything, it’s about the process, not the product. The Bhagavad Gita states in 12.12 “Give up the belief that inner peace depends on results of action. That result-renouncing state is pure inner peace.” So lovely to think, yet I know how hard that is to maintain, hence 99% practice!

Did you know the coconut is a drift nut?
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Excuses, excuses

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Let me start by saying I read a fabulous article called Ashtanga:aging and fatigue, this week by Chad Herst. Please read it here. So much of what he talks about is valid and compassionate, as a practitioner who didn’t start practicing until I was 43, I can attest I know what an aging body feels like! Yet, like with anything, it can lead to a rationalization to just give up. Kind of like cheating on a diet, then deciding to binge because you’ve already had a piece a cheesecake.

Obstacles will always arise in our path, that is just the way life works. I swear, everyday, yes every single day, I have very specific reasons come up inside me telling me what I can’t do. My brain is very good at telling me how tired I am, my back is tight, my shoulders are sore, my thumbs hurt, my allergies are kicking in, my balance is off, my ankle is numb, etc. Many days, during my first few sun salutations, I am fighting the urge to just curl right into child’s pose and give up.

You know what? The majority of the time, it’s nothing but blah, blah, blah. I am no masochist or sadist for that matter, I can usually differentiate between discomfort and pain that leads to injury, there is a difference. I promise I’ve never had a day saying I wish I hadn’t practiced today. Not once. Granted as Chad stated in his article, practice isn’t always pushing it to the next level either, but I will add, balancing it, with an honest assessment is key. Cliches abound all about this phenomenon. “Most things in life are difficult before they are easy.”and “Pain is your friend.” Both come to mind, and yet I hate cliches and overuse them…oh the irony.

I’ve come to the mat with chronic discomfort, fatigue included. I subjectively don’t call my past rheumatoid arthritis damage pain. It’s not that it can’t be hurting on any given day, because, sometimes it just does. No rhyme or reason, (another cliche!) just waking up and there it is. Sometimes it’s my back, many days it’s my thumbs, rarely my ankles tweak just to mix things up a bit. Each time the pain is significant, of course I fear another bad flare. Combined with that is just the regular aches and pains of being human like sleeping funny on your neck. These are not injuries to be concerned about per se, and though, I fully get my brain telling me I’ve got an ouchie, it’s not something to throw in the towel about. (More cliches, sigh) I wonder sometimes, what part of me is so resistant? Is it fear? Is it knowing how intense a specific asana is? Is it being lazy? Is it frustration? Impatience? Disliking the asana I’m struggling through?

I’m sure it’s all those things with a dash of ego thrown in to the recipe just to make it all the more dramatic and all about woe is me. (Another one! ) Let me stress, I abhor pain, it’s vile and simply hurts. I try to avoid it like the plague. (I like that one) However, I know that laying in bed all day, (a onetime fantasy for me) barring being very ill, actually is not beneficial to me, or anyone. I’ve done it, on chemo. Laying waiting to have energy does not give you energy. I know this as a fact.

Use it or lose it. (It’s true, but I really dislike this cliche) I have felt like I couldn’t move, seriously, I’ve been so severely flared in my RA the only way to get downstairs in my house was to sit on the stairs and scooch down one step at a time, crying because it hurt to just get myself in the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Looking back, I empathize with that sickly soul, but wish I had been given advice to pick my ass up and try a little harder. Yes, tough love( more cliches really?) and I’m not sure I would have taken it before I was ready to, but alas I know better now. This does not in anyway mean, that I would push through a true injury, assessment, rest as needed, and modification if necessary. Work with a trusted instructor as well as medical intervention if needed.

As crazy as it sounds, movement makes the worst of that pain of discomfort go away. Even when I had to bump my way down those steps, by the last one it was always a little better than the top! It also creates more energy. Movement can not straighten my middle fingers back to normal, but for the most part, action gets the circulation going, which ultimately gets me feeling better. By no means should you practice to a point that you are too exhausted or injured to function. Practice is a support to living as well as a foundation to a lifestyle. The foundation must be tended too, or it starts to slowly crumble away. That does not mean catching your ankles at all costs, but it does mean giving your best effort, in any given day, for that day. It also means that some days you will be sore, but in that sweet way. My quite winded point is, yes pay attention, avoid injury, if not the aging process, but don’t let your mind stop your potential, as all this babble arises, just acknowledge it, see what’s real and then let it go and practice to the best of your capabilities.

The smell of love

Ok so maybe, the smell of an apple blueberry pie baking isn’t your idea of love but to me the smell of any yummy goodness in the oven signifies comfort, nurturing, home and love. Yesterday was the first day I felt human enough to try and be me again! I went to practice for the first time since coming home, and doing a Mysore primary felt great while doing it, but I have paid the price in soreness last night and today..baby steps are a good thing. I need to remember that advice sometime! I painted, did the mommy run around and made some favorites for dinner ( baked ziti, salad, warmed buttered naan bread and pie for dessert)

I know it sounds silly, but the domesticity made me feel better, as if the week of recovery was now behind me and I am strong and well again. ( minus the sore triceps, quads, and hammies)

My pie was inspired by the new Honey Maid graham cracker campaign. I highly suggest you watch to see the response to ignorance, it’s quite beautiful. I made a graham cracker crumb topping for the pie, indulgent and homey at the same time. Worth trying!

Blueberry Apple Pie

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

1 bottom pie crust in a 9″ shell ( I make them occasionally, but I used store bought, organic, by Immaculate, fine for speeding up the process and mess)
4-5 large Fiji or Gala apples peeled and sliced into about 1″ chunks
1/2 pint blueberries washed and picked over
3-4 Tbs sugar
1tsp cinnamon
2 Tbs corn starch or flour
I tsp vanilla

Mix together gently and place in pie shell

Topping

1/2 C graham cracker crumbs
1/3 C brown sugar
4 Tbs melted butter
1 tsp vanilla

Mix together and crumble on top of pie filling, feel free to make more topping to your tastes. Bake on a baking sheet for about 40 minutes until bubbly and edges golden. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

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Same old same old

It’s the end of my first week of practice in India. Angst, missing my family, all the unknowns and cultural differences abound. My acceptance to being here for this small chunk of time sinking in. Any new enlightenment? Any specific change? I’m too overwhelmed to really know that yet. However, I chuckle, because of course, I get the same message repeated to me that I’ve heard since just about my first yoga class, years ago. Chill out. Be lazy. Stop trying so hard. Yes this week Sharath and a few assistants in the shala told me mainly above any other minor adjustment to my practice to relax. Relax. As soon as I heard the word come out of Sharath’s mouth all I could think of was the old Frankie Goes To Hollywood song Relax. I then experienced a classically cringe worthy moment where I actually said through my intensity, in a rather snarky tone, “Easy for you to say!” Yeah, so here I am working on all this good mindfullness, deepening my practice, spirituality, etc. and I basically get defensive and sulky. Nice. I’m chuckling at myself, at my frailties.

Relax. Well, my constitution is not wound to relax, not naturally at least. I had a phenomenal ashtanga teacher, who openly admitted his past students in Hawaii had nicknamed him devil teacher in Japanese…let’s just say he’s well known to take you to your edge and find your potential. Soon after starting to practice with him, he came up to me and told me to be lazy in my practice. He said these words were not something anyone would believe he would say to a student. I believe him now, after he tortured pushed me to my limits and transformed my practice, really showing me how strong I am, if I don’t let my fears and speed take over my breath. I can even sometimes remember to relax, I sure want too, it would be nice to do, in practice versus theory..

When I was pregnant 19 years ago, with my oldest, I was put on bed rest. In my naturally fidgety state it was so hard, but I chose to read every last parenting book I could get my hands on. When my daughter was born, I was going to be an expert. Yep, that was the plan. I thought I knew everything, how the birth would go, no tv ever, feeding, sleeping, diapers, you name it, I was confident.

Well naturally nothing went as planned, except of course the best part of having a beautiful heathy baby, and by some miracle easy breast feeding. I’m pretty sure I was in a state of shock for much of the first month or so and vividly recall my husband getting home from work one night and I was in tears. He asked me what happened, what was wrong? I told him that all the baby books had claimed by this state in development I should be able to discern the different cries of my precious infant, hunger, tired, diaper, cuddle, burp, all the baby’s needs by the subtle changes in her cries. I all heard though was crying, loud and from mid afternoon on, relatively consistent. I felt like a failure as a mom, and my child was only 2 months old. Alas so much for all my expert reading. My husbands advice was to throw away the books and just love her:-)

By the time my son came along two and a half years later, and every noise he made bizarrely spoke to me, cry, I’m hungry, cry, I’ve got gas, cry I’m tired, cry, hold me. I laughed remembering my earlier feelings of failure. Either I had gotten better at it, or my son was just wired more like a text book baby. Regardless, I had quite a bit more practice at this parenting thing that no book could have taught me without the practical experience. I think I was more relaxed:)

Hopefully for led primary with Sharath at 4:30 am I will be relaxed, at least I know I will be spent if not relaxed when it’s done!