1,2,3,4,5 senses working overtime.

Yoga is the restriction or stilling of the changing states of the mind. Yoga Sutra 1.2. Yes the second sutra defines what yoga is meant to achieve, but stopping thoughts popping into your head is about as easy as stopping a tsunami or hurricane. ( the wise words of Prof. Rao) I’m pretty sure as soon as someone even says to me in a guided meditation, “Clear your mind, ” I end up immediately filled with everything around me and inside me. I start hearing traffic, wondering if my foot will fall to sleep in a minute from its semi uncomfortable placement, and a multitude of the subconscious thoughts bubbling to the surface, fears doubts, nightmares, my kids, my responsibilities, work, illness, do I have enough gas in my car to get to the station, the wafting smell of something yummy or too much perfume, am I warm enough…and so much more. So I ask, is it possible?

I would have said no five years ago. I was trying to meditate then, but I just didn’t have the right tools or enough compassion for myself to be patient and not judge what arises. A gazillion inane, insane, obscure, trivial and important thoughts are just there, pretty much all the time, that is the human condition plain and simple. Just get over it, seriously, get over it. Nothing will make your mind a blank canvas, not even asana, however, the reaction you have to what pops in your head can be altered. Just as asana most certainly wasn’t at all stabile when I started yoga, why would I think meditation would be any different?

Sitting still has never been one of my gifts, at least not without something to focus my mind intently on on such as a book I’m reading, or a painting, or writing. I think that’s one of the reasons I was so drawn to Ashtanga, the intensity of the asana with dristhi, breath, and bundhas, allowed me to figure out how to calm my mind and body just enough to attempt sitting quietly without wanting to fidget, at least for a half an hour. (If I’m lucky!) Like with anything else, I fail…frequently

I meditated this morning, at points it went well, and that is the best I can achieve for now. Trying, again and again, no judgement or annoyance at what decides to be present with me, just acknowledge and move back to my breath or whatever focal point I’ve chosen to help me stay grounded. If the thoughts were important enough, I can get back to them later, let’s face it those thoughts just won’t go away…

Do your practice, all is coming

I went to my first of a weeks worth of led classes with Sharath this morning in NYC. So many people, so much energy! I was in the later grouping, starting at 8:30, we were all talking and fussing about noisily until about ten minutes before we we due to start and then complete silence took over the room. Sharath made a joke, stating not to be quiet on his account, but we were all in that anticipation mode.

Eddie Stern, of AYNY, got up and spoke to kill the time while Sharath drank his much needed coffee before starting promptly at 8:30. Eddie told two jokes…the first: How many Buddhist monks does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, one to change the lightbulb and one to not change….we all laughed though he said most people don’t. 🙂

The second: there was a priest and a rabbi at the Vatican trying to settle once and for all which faith was better, the rabbi only spoke Hebrew and Aramaic while the priest only spoke Latin and Greek, so they could only use sign language…first the priest held up his pointer finger and spun it in a circle, the rabbi answered back with a firm one pointer finger, next the priest held up three fingers, so the rabbi answered with taking his one finger and pressing it down into the outstretched palm of his other hand, finally the priest held up a fish, so the rabbi in turn held up an apple. At that the priest said, fine, you win, I’m done. He went out and explained to all first I showed him God is everywhere and the rabbi answered distinctly he is here, next I explained God has come to us as the father, son, and Holy Spirit, but he answered there is just God, finally I showed him the miracle of Jesus feeding hundreds from the gospel yet he answered with the original sin of which without, we would have never needed miracles, I had no more to top that. The rabbi came out next and spoke, saying first the priest told me to round up all the Jews and get them out of here, so I responded give me a minute, next he said I give you to a count of three, and I answered, no, we are staying right here. All of a sudden he pulls out his lunch, so I did too, then he shrugged his shoulders and left…we all laughed, and if was again reminded of the lovely lesson that everything and anything can be misunderstood.

Sharath led us beautifully of course, then spoke afterwards about the practice. He said many people confuse the yoga sutras meaning, that chitta vritti nirodahah is not stilling the mind to have mind control, but to calm the mind. That we all flit with our thoughts like a monkey but we should strive to be still like a kuala bear, calmly sitting in the tree. He reminded us it’s all practice. Practice first and formost, 99% practice and 1% theory. It’s never just the reading or even the asana, it’s putting all of it into practice, that is what’s spiritual about it, the yamas and niyamas. As an example he said someone can know their religious texts and go to temple, or church or their mosque regularly, but if their daily life encompasses doing bad things, all their theories mean nothing without practicing trying to do right action❤️

All the people tell me so, but what do all the people know?

“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
― Rumi

My mom had a dream a few weeks ago about existence. It stuck with her, and she asked me if I thought we are humans trying to live spiritual lives or are we spirits trying to live as humans? I quickly responded, I believe in the latter, we are spirits trying to live as humans. She was surprised I didn’t need to ponder it, and I laughed saying I’ve thought about this already many times in my quest for understanding life.

I don’t call myself a spirit, but a human with a soul. As I think about expressing my definition of it, I find it difficult to put into words. It’s not in any one particular book or dogma of faith, but an awareness of more, not more ego, not individuality, but of energy and stardust, of each life force being a minute, but integral, piece of the universe.

I’ve pondered faith and religion far too frequently than most. My beliefs have wavered, faltered, doubted, and questioned in so many different ways. Growing up Catholic and attending parochial school in an era where fear was a tool to enforce my allegiance backfired. I couldn’t grasp Jesus’ message of turn the other cheek with the concept of purgatory much less judgement day. I personally think people mess things up by trying to put too many rules and definitions in such concrete terms. How could pure compassion and the miracle of existence be part of religions that condemn nonbelievers? I’m relatively certain I can find similar mixed messages in just about any religion. There is no one size fits all, or best for everyone, in reality, there is more than one road to the same end. “Let each man take the path according to his capacity, understanding and temperament. His true guru will meet him along that path.” Sivananda Saraswati

In conference with Sharath, while I was there, someone asked a question about faith and guidance. Sharath stated simply to gain knowledge of faith and spirituality, not to follow his faith of Hinduism, unless of course that was also your path. Ashtanga yoga most certainly can have a spiritual aspect to it, but so can almost anything that is your yoga, whether your yoga is prayer, music, dancing, running, meditating, or mountain climbing. Conversely, those same things can have no meaning to some, or different ones. The choice is not meant to be enforced or judged.

In one of my favorite translations of the Yoga Sutras, by Sri Swami Satchidananda, he states in the introduction , ” Sri Pantanjali was the epitome of acceptance of all methods and of broad-mindedness of approach. He did not limit his instruction to one particular technique, to members of any particular religion or philosophy, or in any other way. He gave general principles and used specifics only as examples. For instance, in delineating objects for meditation, rather than saying, ‘Jesus is the only way,’ or ‘Krishna is the highest Godhead, meditate on Krishna, ‘ or ‘ Only meditation on a sound vibration, or mantram, will bring the Yogic results,’ he simply gave various possibilities to choose from and then concluded, ‘ or by meditating on anything one chooses is elevating.”

Personally, I had a tough week. My husband was deathly ill in the hospital, and thankfully is now home, but not out of the woods yet. Of course I was by his side and present to his needs and doing the best I could to assist him, help the medical team, and take care of my family. I still practiced yoga throughout it, and devoted my energy to his healing. My soul, my energy, my ability to give, absolutely was strengthened by my practice. For someone else, maybe that would have been reaching out to their clergy, or sitting in prayer, or meditation, or some other positive concentration of faith, even just faith in the best infectious team of modern medicine. My soul, my spirit, was soothed by a vigorous practice of stilling my mind through asana. I wouldn’t assume that would work for everyone, just as I wouldn’t assume a piano is the only way to play music. It’s a rich, lovely sound, but this world gives an orchestral beauty of different instruments and voices, who am I to decide which chord strikes your heart and soul best?

Snapshots

I was looking at some old photographs this morning with my youngest daughter. She was remarking that some of the pictures looked photoshopped, super imposing my face of now onto a small child. I laughed as I’m still me, still that child, just with more life experience and responsibilities.

The majority of the shots were candid, running around at the beach, Christmas with my grandparents, some were goofy, some I’m sure I wanted to tear up at some point. They are all lovingly, comically and, yes, even painfully part of my history. Why is it that we want to edit and revise our less than perfect snapshots? There is a sweet French expression, “Esprit de l’escalier.” It literally translates as “The spirit of the staircase”, which refers to all the things you realize you should or could have said after a conversation has ended. I laughed when I first learned this idiom, and thought of all the many times I felt that way. However, hindsight only offers help if we learn not just from the best of what we do, but from our not so pleasant moments as well. Beating ourselves up in self criticism won’t change anything.

Depending on the translation of the yoga sutras you may read, there are a plethora of different word choices coloring the meaning. I particularly like this version of Yoga sutra 3.52 or 3.53. By self-control over single moments and their succession there is wisdom born of discrimination.Let go of the ego, forgo the shame as well as the pride and learn to accept, positive change comes after acknowledgement and compassion. Can there be such a thing as picture perfect? Food for thought….

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? Maybe😊

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: “The 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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Intentions

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I have thought many times about different perspectives and interpretation of the Yoga Sutras. Certain passages or sutras are relatively straight forward, others much more subjective and open to different viewpoints. Why even the most basic and inherent foundation of the sutras, 1.2 yogah chittavritti nirodahah, stilling the mind. Iyengar’s interpretation is, “yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” This cessation or stilling, of course, has the possibility of variable meanings. Is the intention to make a blank canvas or to allow the mind clarity over impulsivity? Maybe both or neither? Enlightenment versus letting go of fears? Freedom from ignorance? Stopping the ripples to see your soul? All of the above? None? Something else entirely? As the sutras are ultimately a code of conduct and a guide for aspiring to see your true Self, the message and intent is of spiritual development and enlightenment.

In classes at the Shala in Mysore, my teacher, Lakshmish, had me write on the white board a string of letters all next next to each other as if one word. The letters were GODISNOWHERE. He had us all then look at it and asked what we each read. I saw, God is now here, but a few saw God is no where. The difference in meaning is profound. Lakshmish explained that Sanskrit had that same subtle ability to vastly alter the meaning based on who saw which specific words in the strings as well as the philosophical intent behind the specific sutra. In studying, he said it was important to keep a positive mindset, with the intention of purity and positive thought.

Truth exists when we believe it to be true. Self fulfilling mindsets can effect not only our belief of capability but of either a positive or negative outcome or perspective. Impossible versus improbable or possible versus certain. So much is in the approach.

A long time ago, I read a book on identical twins separated at birth,
Nature’s Thumbprint: The New Genetics of Personality
Peter B. Neubauer, MD, and Alexander Neubauer. The psychologists were trying to see the differences of nature versus nurture. How alike were the twins raised apart? A quality control flaw was noticed based upon perspective. There was a set of toddlers whose mothers were each asked simply, is your daughter a picky eater?

As the authors state. “When the twins [separated in infancy] were two and a half years old, the adoptive mother of the first girl was asked a variety of questions. Everything was fine with Shauna, she indicated, except for her eating habits. ‘The girl is impossible. Won’t touch anything I give her. No mashed potatoes, no bananas. Nothing without cinnamon. Everything has to have cinnamon on it. I’m really at my wit’s end with her about this. We fight at every meal. She wants cinnamon on everything!’

“In the house of the second twin, far away from the first, no eating problem was mentioned at all by the other mother. ‘Ellen eats well,’ she said, adding after a moment: ‘As a matter of fact, as long as I put cinnamon on her food she’ll eat anything.'”

I’m curious to know, as these girls are now women, how they each feel about cinnamon as adults. Does it still entice and smell yummy? Does Shauna feel guilt over her infatuation and obsession with it, based on how she was raised? Does she have an eating disorder? Conversely, does Ellen laugh over lattes with friends and her heavy hand of sprinkled cinnamon on top, saying, when I was a baby I teethed on cinnamon sticks? I have no idea, but I hope they are both enjoying it now. Ultimately, we cannot change anyone, just our perspectives. Having a positive outlook influences how we interpret all that we come in contact with, ultimately in how we live our lives…I’m really craving cinnamon buns now!

Just breathe

Yesterday morning, after led primary, the woman next to me asked, “Where did you learn to breath like that?!” I smiled, and thought of my teacher, and told her it’s taken hard work. Someone once said to me breathing is the most intimate relationship we have throughout our lives. The very first thing we do in this body, as well, the very last, is take a breath. Coming to terms with and surrendering to our breath, or fighting it, is a daily battle for many of us. You would think, as something we usually take for granted and in most parts of our days, the breathing process is just automatic and therefore we are experts. Throw activity, irritants, heat, cold, anxiety, fear, pain, laughter, hiccups, sickness, deviated septums, and choking among others I’m most certainly forgetting right now, into the mix and breathing can go haywire. However learning to control your breath can completely change your life, bringing relaxation, calm, mindfulness, and serenity.

I admit, I wasn’t very good at it. Health issues, fear and just my basic constitution had all inhibited my ability to breath right. I’m still no expert..everyday brings it’s own new struggles and moments to learn from.

Ashtanga yoga is all about the breath. When I first started ashtanga, I could barely keep my mouth closed, that was enough of a struggle, and yet I was also trying to control my breath count as well, in led classes I would even feel as if I was just holding my breath, and never could get enough back inside. It was an immensely masochistic activity. So much intensity and effort went into to each and every inhale and exhale. I shudder at the memory, yet I kept coming back to the mat. I had moments where all went well for a nanosecond but backbending and the traditional pachimottanasa afterwards were a combo one two punch for all the good work I had done leading up to it. My past impressions of fear of suffocation would seize my brain making me hyperventilate..I cringe feeling sorry for whomever was practicing nearby me in those moments.

I had teachers always working with me on it. To me, I felt It was the weakest link of my asana practice. No prana no true asana. Sometimes if I let myself get too quickly paced, which I’m naturally inclined to do, I still can lose it in parts of practice, but I’m usually able to reset back down a notch or two. A favorite thought is imagining my breath as calm but powerful waves on the ocean, ebbing and flowing. Melting in an asana and staying until there is equilibrium between inhale and exhale helps, but the key for me is exhaling fully, enjoying the natural pause, then inhaling, ideally, as deeply.

Getting there has been a physical as well as mental part of practice. Aristotle so wisely said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Stop believing the false impressions. Surrender, faith, letting go, and ultimately relaxing in the knowledge that the worst case scenario is that I’d pass out so my autonomic function could reset, in a computer like reboot..I’m quite happy that has never actually happened! But all learned from practice, from guidance of a highly skilled teacher. I was taught to practice sutra neti as well. (Don’t mock it till you try it!) The intimacy of breath and vulnerability of the fear that losing your breath can bring forth are intense aspects of the practice, at least for me. I can say now, I’m immensely grateful for all those assists, by every teacher, past and present, more so than for help in any asana. The power of breath, and learning to control it versus being controlled by it, is central to practice. Yoga Sutra 1.34 prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama. The mind is (also) calmed by regulating the breath, particularly attending to exhalation and the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice. I’m grateful for the meditative state and calm it brings to me everyday, especially when it works!

Lotus of the Heart

As I have always been fascinated by the subtleties of different word choices, particularly in translations. Our perceptions can change just by how we define a word, or in sentence structure. I’m taking a class here on the Yoga Sutras. I have no less than eight books on the sutras at home, all giving subtle variations as well as some in depth analysis of the meanings behind each thread. However, there is something to be said in hearing, even the same words, that you’ve read out loud. The inflection in someone’s voice can make a world of difference. I really like the teacher at the shala, he has not only a vast amount of knowledge on Sanskrit and the sutras, but a great way of telling stories to explain what he means in a clear and entertaining fashion.

As an example, we were going over The Yoga Sutras 1.33-1.44, describing how it is not easy to keep the mind happy, in undisturbed calmness, and the various possible ways to go about it. One in particular struck a chord in me:

Sutra 1.36 Meditation by fixing the mind on the inner light, which is beyond sorrow, the lotus of the heart.

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He explained it as a baby lotus in the center of the heart, blooming in deep meditation.

“The light within the heart is always there, no matter what you do, no matter where you go in consciousness.”

Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami

I made the mandala above when I came home from sutra class. I love the process of painting and drawing, regardless of the outcome, it is definitely one of my meditative states. I only brought some water colors and a silver brush pen here to India. I am excited to head to the market and get some of the powdered pigment paints to experiment with! Maybe if I’m ambitious a class on kolam design.