Mother Nature has certainly let herself be known in the last weeks, giving us an elemental extravaganza of howling winds, pouring rain, vivid sunshine, spacious blue skies, and the sweetly re- awakening earth. Like any system, our natural world thrives by using the energy of creation to spark rebirth and avoid stagnation. The season of Spring carries this vibrant and fresh energy, and the elements around us encourage our participation, interest and delight. Every day we can look outside and see change and growth, enticing our senses to get us out and play. And everything seems new and animated in the space outside after the winter- the lively touch of the wind, the vividness of the colors, the deep smells of the newly turned earth, the clear taste of food and water. As we enjoy this generosity that Mother Earth abundantly gives, let us consider how we can best interact with these elements that comprise both our inner and outer environments.
Let’s begin with our external environment, and use our senses for what they were designed to do, experience and appreciate this glorious world and season. Let that spark in nature inspire a renewed appreciation in us to connect with her and ourselves. Read or write poetry, sing, take a walk or nap outside (without our phones), get messy in a garden, go jump in a lake, eat farm fresh fruits and veggies! And in return for this beautiful gift, consider what we can do to be a true steward for the earth and her waterways and airways. She needs protection now, and it is only where she is healthy that we as well can thrive. We can serve by fighting the current legislation that removes protections and allows further industrialization in delicate eco-systems. We can work to sustain and replenish her well-being by cleaning up our own neighborhood parks and open spaces and moving outward from there.
We can take a cue from Mother Nature in our internal environment as well and institute our own spring-cleaning, as the spark of transformation within us is also strongest in Spring. We, too, are comprised of the elements, and because of the distribution of each element in our major organs (air in the lungs, water in the kidneys, earth in the spleen and stomach, fire in the liver, and space in our hearts), the elements form the emotional environment of our bodies just like they often set the mood of the outside world. The elements together give us a map (or mandala) of our emotions that allow us to see where there are vital seeds of growth and creativity to nurture and where there is the stagnation of our internal “waste dumps”. The good news is the map gives us some clear trail markers so we can better identify the places leading to positive growth and the places overrun by poison ivy or quicksand. Just as when we observe the natural environment we can see what is pristine and what is polluted, we can do the same in our internal environment with these markers.
The markers are organized around the elements and their corresponding emotions, with each element having a positive essential emotion (a nectar, or path to sweetness) and a negative essential emotion (a poison, or path to suffering). The nectars (or sweet spots) to watch for are the places where we feel generosity/ease (earth), stillness/calmness (water), passion/interest (fire), trust/confidence (air) and wisdom/wholeness (space). The poisons (or toxic zones) to watch for are where we feel pride/intolerance (earth), anger/impatience (water), attachment/distraction (fire), jealousy/anxious (air) and deliberately ignorant/fragmented (space). We all recognize some things on the list as familiar! As much as we can at the beginning, we simply notice the ones of interest, “mark” them as nectar or poison when we feel them, and move on.
To develop this a bit more, we can focus on one marker for a few days. It can be either a nectar or a poison, and watch for when that emotion arises in us. If interested, we can make a note of it, and what caused it, if we know or can guess. Also, we can note what we did or thought when we felt it, and how it influenced our mood. Track the one marker for a time (journaling is great here), and then move to another. In this way we can start to fill out our own map of what situations and choices bring each of us to feel sweetness in our life and which brings us toward trouble and suffering. As we do this with more markers, we can refine our internal map so we begin to more quickly recognize paths and processes toward harmony and freshness in our life, and the detours that get us stuck and down-in- the-dumps before going so far off-track. With this caring and consistent approach, we can become stewards of our own well-being, as well as the world around us, working toward returning both to their natural state of pristine beauty.
The Elemental Emotion Mandala (Map) is adapted from the teachings of Parvathi Nanda Nath.
The backbend series Bhujangasana (Cobra), Shalambasana (Locust) and Dhanurasana (Bow) include backbends that allow us to explore heart-opening in ways that can be safe for the trickiest low back if we stay close to the earth or expansive and free as we lift higher off the ground. Remember, the strength in these poses comes from the inner core and moves outward, and not from pushing and pulling yourself to where you want to be. Develop grace, strength and flexibility as your heart gently opens to what is!
Lie on your belly with your arms resting alongside you. Bend your knees and reach back with your hands to grab hold of your feet or ankles. Be sure to reach both hands back together (not one at a time) to avoid twisting your pelvis. Spread your toes to activate the muscles of your legs. Resist your shins in toward each other to avoid splaying your knees. Press your feet (or ankles) back against your hands to lift your thighs away from the floor, and lead with your chest (not your chin) as you rise up into the backbend. Broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum, and allow your head to follow the movement of your chest, lifting it slightly but still maintaining length in the back of your neck.
If you can’t reach your feet or ankles, wrap a strap around the fronts of your ankles (or feet) and hold on to the ends of the strap.
How do we stay open-hearted and effective in an increasingly confrontational world? In discussions with people from many points of view these days, it is apparent that pretty much everyone has a heightened level of uncertainty about the future. “Feeling what we feel” has long been taught as a valued practice in yoga, but what do we do when those feelings begin to overwhelm us? We want to stay present, yet get lost in the emotional smokescreen produced by the escalated tension, callousness, and rhetoric that is the new norm. Pema Chodron, in this month’s focus, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times cuts through the smoke to the clarity and reason needed to stay strong and united right now.
Methods for working with tough emotions have been taught in the Buddhist tradition for thousands of years, and are expounded upon in this text. We train, sometimes for years, in developing the skills to access courage, compassion, and clarity through our yoga practice. Now, on the playing field of life, we are called to embody these skills, not as concepts but as our tools as conscious individuals, and communities.
Boddhicitta, the space of the awakened and courageous heart, acknowledges the pain and fear, and yet holds the transformative space that allows us to move through fear to the presence. We uncover the strength of boddhicitta by holding a mirror to our fear and seeing what in us is afraid, and starting there. We are given instructions on where to look for our fear by examining the eight dharmas which show us how we get constantly caught in a never-ending ping pong game between our likes and dislikes. We learn how to feel and sit in our fear with more steadiness through tonglen, a meditation practice in which we connect directly with suffering that all beings have. And we develop strength and resilience of mind by practicing the six paramitas which allow us a non-moralistic way to courageously act with an open-heart and unrelenting focus.
As a lived process, our exploration will allow us to feel our fear, while bringing a new perspective on how our opinions, language, and reactions can contribute to more aggression if we are not careful. It will show how we can spiral when “how we want it to be” or “how we thought it was” smacks up against the cold-edged reality of “what it is”. It will reveal the places where we want to be heard and respected, but find it difficult to fully listen and remain skillful in communication with different viewpoints. Ultimately, it will demand that the smokescreen of fear be dispersed in us to find what is relevant, practical, and efficient in bringing the strength we need to light.
The teachings and practices we will explore this month are not easy, yet either are these times. They ask us to dive into the undercurrents of emotions we may have spent many years avoiding. As bodhisattvas, warriors of light, it is necessary to exchange our crutches for the finely- honed tools of courage, integrity, clarity and steadiness. Feeling fear in difficult times is natural; the space of boddhicitta is vast enough to hold the fear, understand it, and use it to guide us to where our presence is needed the most.
“There is force in the universe, which, if we permit it, will flow through us and produce miraculous results.” Mahatma Ghandi.
In December, let’s open to the miraculous healing forces in the universe. We will use the healing poses of yoga that help restore steadiness and soundness to the body and soul. Supported and restorative poses, as well as extended savasana, allow us to touch the stillness our bodies yearn for this time of year to move forward together into the new year with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose. Remember to support yourself completely so that you are comfortable in these asanas, then relax deeply!
The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy? The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human.—Terry Tempest Williams
As a nation we have spoken about healing in the last weeks- healing from the divisiveness, the sense of loss and disillusionment, the acerbic atmosphere in general. The kinder and gentler ideal of democracy based on human decency and caring seems to have given away to aggression, rhetoric and isolationism. We’ve seen increased incidences of hate crimes both locally and nationally, and a general worldwide disregard for the welfare of millions of people that have been displaced by war, terrorism, and lack of the barest necessities of life. As a community that is rooted in wisdom teachings of compassion and kindness, this can be especially shocking and cause deep dismay. In order not to get stuck in the overwhelm or hopelessness, it is necessary to heal enough to hear the call to wake up to what each of us can do to have our voices be heard and our actions be counted. The process of healing requires one thing to begin and as yoga practitioners we are familiar with it- the willingness to see things clearly as they are and accepting what is. This is the only approach that allows for movement toward wholeness.
When we remain in denial or avoidance of current events and their underlying causes as they come to the surface, we delay healing and remain stalled. In a medical diagnosis, once we hear and accept what is there, only then do we become knowledgeable, and much more skillful in making our decisions. Healing does not guarantee a cure, or allow the illusion that it will be easy if it is a deep wound. It doesn’t mean we get it the way we want it. It means we begin to want to work with things the way they are simply because that is the only way that makes any useful progress toward a change that can be significant and make a difference. In the current state of our society, once the collapse of our illusions brings the shadowy places to light, we begin to see that this place was not created by any one happening or person, yet a series of patterns and events that were allowed to accumulate for a very long time. A humility sets in as we realize our own blind spots and vulnerability, how we have contributed to the current state of affairs.
Accepting “what is” does not mean giving up or succumbing to this as the way it always has to be. As a matter of fact, when we wake up in that moment of seeing it, we have a singular chance to use that jolt to remain engaged enough to have the energy to sustain the fight toward goodness. We can use this energy more efficiently in choosing our battles, and our methods once we have seen what is wrong. Only when we see the darkness, do we have a chance of dispelling it. But it’s not easy. We need to listen more, ask the right questions, and remain vigilant and committed so don’t allow ourselves to get lulled to sleep again.
Author Parker Palmer gives 5 steps to a sustainable heart-centered process toward establishing a just, kind democracy in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy (2011, JosseyBass). “Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy” written for the Global Oneness Project distills this to its essence (https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/articles/five-habits-heal-heart-democracy). The steps he lists, and which are expounded upon in his writings, are: an understanding that we are all in this together, an appreciation of the value of “otherness,” an ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, a sense of personal voice and agency, and a capacity to create community. Perhaps we can begin our own healing by inquiring what these steps mean to each of us, and in each of us?
We will set aside time in each class to explore practices including healing mantra,mudra, gentle pranayama, nyasa, Yoga Nidra, guided relaxation, loving kindness meditations to facilitate healing and connection.
LOOKING TO AWAKEN YOUR HEART? DON’T GIVE UP, GROW UP!
The Buddhist Lojong (mind-training) slogans have been on my mind quite a bit over the last months as the nation has become increasingly reactive and divided on many fronts. It seems hard to feel that we are one community, one nation, or even one human race when so much has pulled at our deeply held concepts of right and wrong, and propelled us on the wild search to find fault. There is plenty of blame to go around, yet blaming can’t mend the damage this chronic cycle of corruption has caused. Corruption is the result of repeated misuse of power which quickly deteriorates trust, communication and respect between all involved. Whether in a societal relationship dynamic or a personal one, the misuse of power propagates more and more division, blame, harm, resentment and superiority. It sets a pattern that causes fragmentation in society as we have seen, yet also in ourselves as individuals. Our mind can provide a very good place to start if we are interested in becoming more responsible in our own use of power, and this is where the lojong teachings focus. If we apply the teachings and do the work, we will feel less hopeless and move toward growing up into fully present beings.
In the lojong teachings, forward movement is never about blaming or shamIng ourselves or others. We use practical slogans, or training methods, to “re-mind” the mind of what its natural function is. These are necessary and compassionate teachings, whether they are prompting us to be accountable, to be kind, or to be curious in discovering where life may be leading us if we clear out some of our junk. They instruct us in how to practice watching our thoughts carefully in order to reclaim the counsel of our own clear, unbiased intelligence and reflect its radiant light out to others. Just as young children often fail to fully see (or care) how their actions affect others, our untrained mind can lead us to hide in the shadows of irresponsibility and complacency or bake in the glaring spotlight of unchecked ego. We never pause to consider how we use our mind, or how we might better direct its power of attention. The lojong slogans are not “brain-washing” in the usual sense, yet they do serve in ultimately clearing a whole lot of junk from the mind that clogs up the works! All we have to do is pick one, be attentive, and practice, practice, practice!
This month get ready to watch the wily mind as it goes through its twists and turns, like a cartoon villain that sets off the fuse of the gunpowder trail far from the dynamite yet still gets burned each time! Through lojong, we practice redirecting the thought patterns of the mind from constant focus on needs of the individual self to the clear wisdom of the universal Self. This is a broader perspective that recognizes our needs but is not controlled by them. Pick one slogan to work with each day, each week, or all month. Practicing even one of these slogans can help us follow our patterns back through all the permutations to the source. There, we can begin to see what drives our mind and how to reclaim our power from unhelpful habits (and avoid lighting a few fuses that may explode in our face along the way!) Practice in this case may not make perfect, but it can make sure we don’t give up before we grow up to our full amazing potential. That is where we will discover our awakened heart <3
Pema Chodron has recommended 19 lojong slogans out of the 59 as representative of the essence needed in our training routine at http://www.lionsroar.com/dont-give-up/. It’s a great reference with just enough explanation to be clear without confusing! Scroll through the list, when one grabs your attention, start there. More in-depth discussion of Lojong, can be found in “Start Where You Are” by Pema Chodron as well as many other resources on shambala.org and Buddhist texts.
For our pose of the month in October, we are letting the dogs out….all and any of them! The 1/4 dogs, 1/2 dogs, supported dogs, up dogs, down dogs, flip dogs, twisted dogs , three legged dogs- any or all are will be integrated into our classes with emphasis on proper alignment as usual. In addition to fine-tuning your physical practice for these asanas, use the opportunity to explore the many energetic differences in the subtle body as you move from one dog pose and another.
To maximize the experience of the subtle body in each pose, Erich Schiffman in his well-known book “Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness” relates three cues we can give ourselves to increase the energetic openness in a pose:
- Be as relaxed as possible – once in a pose, check for areas where we are “over-doing”. This can be evident in a tense jaw, locked knees or elbows, over-engagement of large muscle groups and competitive or harsh thoughts. Having enough support through proper engagement of physical body strength, modifications or props so we can relax into the structure of the asana increases the capacity for opening the physical body and releasing tension. This relaxation immediately activates the subtle body.
- Find the desired intensity – once we have relaxed enough to realize there is a spectrum of intensity available, we can increase and decrease levels of activation in small increments until we find a place that feels right (energetic/involved yet relaxed). Do not strain, or collapse. This desired intensity will be different for every student, every day in every pose.
- Alternate the current- allow the energetic flow in the body to pulsate with the breath. The most common way to feel this is to activate or enliven the energetic current on the inhale, and soften or relax it on the exhale. Another way to experiment with this is to lengthen/extend outward on the inhale, and deepen/move inward on the exhale. The idea is to not push for too much or fade into too little. Allow small shifts to fine tune the shape of the body, and once in a supported, relaxed form, allow the energetic body its full play.
This approach increases strength, flexibility, endurance and vitality. The practice of yoga is uniquely designed to open the physical and subtle body yet we will limit the benefits if we approach it like a competition, to see how many or how far we can get as the primary goal. Moving into the stillness is the way we “win” as the wholeness of the practice here allows for true self-exploration and knowledge.
The Subtle Body ~ October 2016 Subject of Month
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious – it is the source of all true art and science. ~ Albert Einstein
The idea of the subtle, or energetic, body takes some getting used to for many people. If you came upon yoga as I did- for strength and flexibility, to unwind, or even to learn to quiet the mind a bit- it wasn’t hard to get a feel for these benefits of yoga with just a little time invested. I noticed I was stronger, more flexible, my mood was better, and intellectually it all made sense! But when teachers started to talk about the seemingly mystical energetic blueprint of the subtle body, I, as many students, didn’t know where to turn for a reference point, or what to make of it. Resistance came up in the places this practical, comforting science met a kind of “yogaspeak” that made little sense to me.
As a story or a metaphor, I could understand how the map of the subtle body was useful as a tool. Even as the idea sounded fantastically appealing, this vast system with channels of light, vibrational vortexes, sheathes and spirals, its actual existence as a highly developed structure was foreign to me. Coming from a background of hard science, I was used to not accepting something I could not validate through proven research or experience, and I didn’t have enough of either at this point to get past my skepticism. Resistance came up as I didn’t know what I had to believe in this. Luckily for me, my wonderful teacher, Parvathi Nanda Nath Saraswati, allowed me to put the whole dilemma aside with one precise statement: “You don’t have to believe anything I say about anything, as a matter of fact I much rather you question it all and find out for yourself!” Ahhhh…something a research scientist could get to work on!
As any good scientist, I began my exploration of the unknown with what I did know, my asana practice. It is said the asana practice is not to be underestimated as a tool for strengthening and opening the channels of the subtle as well as the physical body. When I experimented, I found it is exquisitely designed to do just that, and that it does it well and we can feel it. Each asana shapes the physical and energetic body into a unique yantra, a full body experience that opens us to prana, the force in the breath that vibrates with consciousness. It is truly a marvelous practice that includes but is not limited to the physical body, and through it I discovered my direct connection to the subtle body. Many can begin here, simply by feeling the rasa (loosely described as the mood or atmosphere in the body) during each asana as well as the physical shape. Becoming curious about the physical or mental shifts that deepen the rasa and the ones that diminish it can constantly inform of skillful directions of movement. This connects a practitioner more deeply to their relationship with the underlying force field of the subtle body.
As I continued as a student of yoga and began more diverse practices, I became even more curious about the noticeable shifts in my demeanor, mood and outlook on life. I felt different, and others said I looked different. Still far from perfect, I was evolving in a way that allowed me to feel more aligned with this mysterious energy that lightened life and provided support and clarity when needed. It became apparent that what were once the mystical practices that I resisted, were in fact now fueling this transformative relationship between body and mind, allowing both to be more clear, resilient and strong. In retrospect this is not surprising as these ways in which to clean, strengthen and expand the subtle body and their profound effects have been described by many texts and teachers from many different traditions of yoga for thousands of years. Still, experiencing is believing in yoga and in the experience I gained my understanding. I have become content to let some of it remain mystical to me. The sweetness is better assimilated by the wholeness of the luminous mind, not endlessly analyzed. The mysterious indeed had become to me the most beautiful part of the art and science of yoga.
Enjoy learning about the different ways we map and describe the subtle body this month. Through the koshas, the channels, the chakras, and the vibrational field of the body. simply feel what you feel and remain curious. Explore the practices in asana, pranayama, kriya, visualization, and meditation that point toward your mysterious subtle body. Take it all in, and by all means, don’t believe a word anyone tells you about what you have to feel or think about it. Find out for yourself!