Subject of the Month ~ Nov 2017 Maitri and Tonglen Practice

Practices in Yoga and Buddhism have been used for thousands of years to stabilize reactive thought patterns so that we are better equipped to deal with life when times are difficult. Why are these so useful now? The human mind processes information in a way that amplifies the effect of anything we perceive as a threat to our well-being, and also prioritizes input that supports the viewpoint we have already established. With the continual reactionary feed of news and social media in the electronic age, it is easy for our nervous system to get looped in a high stress state of alarm, with its resulting overwhelm, irritability and energy depletion. This month we will explore one way toward balancing our emotional and mental states so we can stay informed, involved, and appreciative, without feeling constantly stressed out.

The essential practices of Maitri (Loving Kindness) and Tonglen (Giving and Taking)  establish steady ground in us by instilling clear-seeing, gratitude, and compassion. In recognizing that our suffering in all its guises is only alleviated when we reach beyond our own concerns, these practices align our intention with the greatest good and allow us to see all the places we do have enough. In these meditations, we touch our own humanity at its depth of love and of fear to understand and connect to what others are experiencing. The connection is not made (as we usually do) by assuming that we know another’s experience by relating it to our own, but rather by connecting at the level of equanimity, that all humans have the same basic needs and wants and by starting from there.

In removing the separation caused by our pre-conceived notions, we become less likely to diminish and judge another person due to the problems brought on by their unique set of circumstances that we couldn’t begin to understand from a distance. As we begin to listen, we have a chance to move through our assumptions and prejudices, and to bring ourselves side-by-side others in true compassion. We do this first in these meditation practices, yet once the connection is established, it spontaneously overflows into our daily thoughts and activities. We shift from being consumed with how it all threatens “me”, allowing tension to release from our nervous system. We free up energy to serve, and can do what we need to do with more calmness and grace. We embody gratitude, and abundance in any aspect of life becomes a great gift, the opportunity to extend to others what can be shared, taught or given.

Our aim in each class this month is to include a Maitri or Tonglen practice. They are simple in approach, and no prior experience is necessary. You can also set aside a few minutes each day to practice on your own at home as we build a community of compassion. If you come up against resistances, be gentle with yourself. Begin with the first link to strengthening a loving relationship with yourself through Maitri practices if you are newer to these.  If you have some experience, either Maitri or Tonglen will be wonderful as a daily practice as you can.

Give it a try…as they say ( and with Thanksgiving coming up)…the proof is in the pudding!

Sraightforward steps to follow from Pema Chodron through links below (there are also many Youtube videos of Pema on these topics):

Maitri: https://theheartofawakening.wordpress.com/tag/pema-chodron/

Tonglen: http://www.meditationplex.com/how-to-meditate/tonglen-meditation-compassionate-practice-pema-chodron/

Extended Maitri: http://www.mindfulnet.org/Loving%20Kindness%20Practice.pdf

Pose of the Month~ Nov 2017 Urdhva Dhanurasana and Setu Bandhasana

Let’s approach the Holiday Season and colder weather with open hearts, shoulders, and hips! These poses are backbends with an inversion quality, thus having a positive effect on our whole physical bodies, while uplifting our emotional and mental state as well.  Upward Bow in particular is an extremely energetic pose, having a huge opening effect on the shoulders, chest and entire front body. It should be moved into with an understanding of proper core engagement,  shoulder rotation, and hip alignment. Shoulder and chest openers are essential in preparation, as well as hip-opening sequences.  For those newer to Wheel Pose,  modify by using blocks under the hands, the blocks should be supported against the wall. Students who are not ready to lift into Upward Bow Pose can find Bridge Pose is a great alternative, bringing arms into yoga mudra to increase the chest and shoulder opening capacity once in the pose. In Gentle Level classes, or for those who have significant low back, wrist or shoulder issues, please explore Bridge or Supported Bridge Pose only.

 

 

One reference for guiding into these poses is below:

https://www.ekhartyoga.com/more-yoga/yoga-poses/upward-bow-pose-or-wheel-pose

https://www.ekhartyoga.com/more-yoga/yoga-poses/bridge-pose

Downward Dog ~ Pose of the Month October 2017

As one of the most recognizable poses in Yoga, Downward Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana, is also one of the most misunderstood as far as alignment and orientation. Tightness or hyper-flexibility in the body require different approaches to this common pose, as do shoulder, wrist or low back conditions. The good news- there are modifications or adjustments for everyone in approaching this pose that allow an expression of downward dog that reveal the strengthening and flexibility for the body that is inherent in the pose. Approach your dog this month with curiosity and awareness, wiping the slate clean of what you think you know, and create from the ground up a presentation of downward dog that reflects where you are in your practice today! Even if you have been practicing for many years, you may be able to teach your old dog a few new tricks!

 

The Subtle Body~ October 2017 Subject of the 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!

Pose of the Month~ August 2017 Hip-Openers featuring Hanumanasana

 

Using the heat of the summer toward gently easing more openness into our hips is a great way to get that spring back in our step. Just as our hero Hanuman had many misadventures before his famous leap after which this yoga split is named, often in our exploration of hip-openers we meet all sorts of obstacles along the way.  For many, a tremendous amount of patience, care and persistence is necessary when approaching even moderate hip-openers, which is a very different approach to success than what we see in the world around us. To move toward an advanced asana like Hanumanasana, a level of devotion toward the self is of paramount importance and can teach us so much. Whether we build up our props, or move into the pose unsupported, the ease and joy is in the uplifting of our spirit to meet the courage and grace in our hearts.

A reference for getting into Hanumanasana is found here: https://yogainternational.com/article/view/hanumans-pose-full-splits

Always warm up properly for any advanced hip-opener, and keep your practice within the limits of what your body can safely and happily manage.

Subject of the Month~ August 2017 Ramayana

“When I do not know who I am, I serve You and when I do know who I am, You and I are One”~ Hanuman to Ram

Though the protagonist of this epic tale is Ram, the heart hero is undoubtedly Hanuman, the mischievous monkey who only finds his way from endless distraction to presence through devotion. This level of selfless service can be difficult to manifest. Hanuman turns from riches, praise, safety and comfort to serve Ram, the embodiment of love and wisdom as consciousness itself. As an idealized concept in movies and fairy tales, we are regaled with the extraordinary things people do for love. In a lived experience, however, serving love is not so easy when it clashes with the need of the self to be front and center. In yoga philosophy, we are asked to consider all beings as one, and taught that none can be truly whole until all are free. In many religions, “loving everyone as you love yourself” is a central theism. Yet what does it take to continually serve until all beings are free from pain and suffering? How often do we get frozen on the edge of action where the needs or judgements of our “self” clash with what is necessary to uplift another? Hanuman is a manifestation of love and devotion that overcomes the distractions of the monkey mind and the self-centric ego to provide what is needed to take the leap of faith toward universal love.

In the course of any life, circumstances will bring us again and again to this edge of action where distraction meets presence. When we are called to fill out our dharma (the necessary actions of our particular life) and to serve in ways that challenge us, many times it is because an upheaval has occurred. We are frantic, our sense of order has collapsed, we are left reeling, what we have counted on has failed us!  We waver, unsure if we have what it takes or if we can make a difference. Right at the edge of what is necessary, we hover. If our dedication and trust collapse at this point, we find a million reasons why it is better simply to step down and leave it to someone else. In samsara, this creates a dynamic where fear and ignorance constantly usurp wisdom and love to gain a foothold in our karmic expression. Hanuman, as an avatar of the Divine, shows us a different way. If, as Hanuman, we take a leap of faith in the service of another, we exponentially increase the capacity of our hearts and mind to open to the sweetness and strength inherent in devotion. We melt into the very matrix of universal consciousness when we align with love. Our actions determine whether we cultivate wisdom or ignorance in our karmic field, and love or fear in our hearts. The choice is ours.

We may not have the physical super powers of Hanuman, perhaps we can’t physically grow huge, or shrink, or soar across oceans, or carry mountaintops in our hands. Yet in the story of our unique life and time, presence can lend us the very qualities that are needed in our own battles and challenges as we strive to meet the standard of Hanuman: showing up fully in the service of love. Even in the norm of samsara where we identify with the self, to act in service of the divine and others creates a beautiful path of devotion that becomes our way to liberation and wholeness. Like Hanuman, once committed, we can’t go wrong as each act of loving service transcends the self and brings us closer and closer to the divine. In the presence of this love, we realize through service to others, we always have been serving the truest and most eternal part of our “Self” as well.

Subject of the Month~ June 2017~ Rasa – All the Tastes of Life

“And so I fall in love just a little, oh a little bit, every day with someone new” ~ Hozier

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A friend recently asked if I had heard this song by Hozier and quoted the lyric. I hadn’t but the lyric caught my interest. I began to wonder if in my travels each day, it were possible to make that level of connection to a person I did not know, to “fall in love a little bit”. Without differing my approach due to who they appeared to be, if I were relaxed and open, smiled, said hello, met their eyes and moved along, would it be possible to have a shared moment of truly seeing each other? After all, isn’t that what falling in love is?

I’m generally a friendly person, yet this consistent approach to truly meet another through a greeting dramatically opened my eyes to how we set the mood for many interactions, even very casual ones, simply by the care taken (or not taken) to be genuinely present in the moment of connection. I will leave it to you to experience the different feeling tone that arises when moving through the world like this if you choose to give it a try. It’s a very different taste of life, or rasa, I can assure you.

Rasa (rah-sa) is a Sanskrit word that carries the essential emotional characteristic of an experience as a mental state. It translates imprecisely as juice, sap, or fluid but perhaps can be better understood as the taste, mood or atmosphere. It is perhaps best described as the all-encompassing felt experience of an interaction. It is traditionally applied in Indian art, literature, music or any creative dynamic between subject and object to evoke mood. It can also be applied to a person’s relationship with an aspect of themselves or the world around them that is deeply influenced by an emotional response.

Each Sanskrit letter of the alphabet has a unique rasa, which in different combinations form unique vibrational matrices of consciousness (liberated emotions) in the space they are recited. To simplify however, we can consider the eight rasas that are outlined in the Natyasastra by Bharata Muna: love/eros, humor/joy, disgust/pity, fury/anger, compassion/sadness, heroism/bravery, terrifying/fearful, marvelous/awe-inspiring.

The ground of our exploration is how we feel when consumed by one of these rasas in a creative interaction. Rasas are not just suggested or contrived, they are literally formed in the space of the body/mind by the experience so that the “one who experiences” is immersed to the point that analysis and judgement dissolves and pure experience engulfs. Where at this point does the rasa begin and the experiencer end? Can we learn to deeply feel the intensity of emotions in an orchestrated creative space so that we can better hold it in a personal interaction? What do we need to drop so we can fully experience the essence of a life experience, a true connection, even for a moment?

Traditional Indian music, poetry and dance are specifically designed to connect the participant to one or more rasas through precise vibration, rhythm and subtleties of language. Similarly, we often use elements of music, language, literature, mantra and skillful sequencing in a yoga class to create a specific mood or theme so that instead of thinking about it, we are immersed in the wholeness of it. This is what allows us to be fluid, responsive and open in the physical and energetic body during class. This is also why we often feel good, and sometimes we cry, during or after class. It is in the non-thinking mind that the experience arises, and the rasa holds our attention here in the experience so we can more fully feel it, not separate from it.

Some achingly beautiful examples that convey rasas exquisitely are the stringed instruments in ragas and much classical music, poets of the Sufi tradition, Pablo Neruda, and many vibrationally precise kirtan recordings of Krishna Das and Jai Uttal. There are many, many more examples of art, music and experience that don’t merely touch the heart, but encourage and even dare it to expand to its fullness and beyond. If we allow our hearts to remain just a little bit more open each time this happens, maybe we can fall just a little bit more in love each day.

Pose of the Month~ April 2017~ Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) and related poses

These lovely poses bring the energy lines of the body back to life after a more dormant feel in the winter.
We will be teaching how to safely approach openness in many of the joints of the body in our monthly pose, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon), and related asanas such as  Gomukasana (cow face pose), Agnistambhasana (Double Pigeon or Fire Log Pose). These poses can be challenging on hips, knees, low back and even shoulders and ankles, so please take care to support yourself, and listen to the suggested modifications if they apply!
Also enjoy the variations in our flow classes that allow you to twist, open the heart, and even fly!
You can read more about getting safely into the Pigeon Pose series at : https://yogainternational.com/article/view/one-leg-king-pigeon-pose
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Subject of the Month ~ April 2017~ The Elements and Emotions

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.

 

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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.

POM- February 2017 Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Related Backbends

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!

https://yogainternational.com/article/view/bow-pose

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.

Modifications

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.