Subject of the Month ~ November 2016: Lojong Teachings

                                     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.

Pose of the Month Oct 2016~ Dog Poses

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

Subject of the Month Oct 2016 ~ The Subtle Body

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!

September 2016 – Pose- Warrior Poses

The Warrior Series as shown below depicts the classic yoga love story of Shiva and Sati. As happens in oral tradition, the telling of this tale has many versions, yet all attest to the universal and eternal force of attraction between the space of universal consciousness in Shiva, and the myriad of forms which consciousness takes in Sati. When they are together and in harmony, all is well in the universe, and when they are separated, all goes into disarray. As related in the story, fierceness is needed to stand against the prejudice and manipulation that conspire to keep the lovers apart.

Warrior poses

Explore the stories of yoga this month, and truly take the form of each asana as well in class.  Embody the rasa- the mood, energy, taste and feel of each one. The warrior poses are an in-road into exploring one famous myth of yoga,  enjoy this story and many more as we discover the relationship asana introduces between the physical and energetic body through the heroics and foibles of these mystical beings.

For one version of the Shiva and Sati story, look here: http://www.naturallyyoga.com/files/shiva_sati.htm

September 2016 – Subject- Myths of Yoga

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B. K. S. Iyengar said that the study of yoga is not about mastering posture; it’s about using posture to understand and transform yourself. Myths can be a portal into understanding our inner worlds and our potential for transformation. These wonderful stories of enlightened beings, human, animal, god and goddess, provide a source of inspiration and precise information so we can learn from those that have striven against injustice, soared beyond their known, and fell down only to rise again- bigger, stronger, smarter and faster.
The beautiful language, expansive imagery and larger-than-life feats in the stories of yoga encourage us to truly embody the asanas, both physically and energetically. We get a deeper feel for what is required, delving into the taste, touch, form and shape of them through the stories of how they were born. We feel the fierce strength of a warrior rising in justice in defense of a woman, the courage of a friend taking an impossible leap for one whom he loves, the exquisite compassion of a wise healer and teacher who declines being released from suffering until all beings around her do not suffer any longer. Through these myths, we connect to the shared and deep human yearning to immerse in something greater than our own needs and wants. Once we touch this yearning, we can begin to transform our energies more and more into creating a personal map toward service and our own leaps of faith, courageous stands, and beautiful dances of love.

Enjoy story time for September as we head into class to be schooled by the ancient rishis. The encoded lessons in these myths are truly allegories for what it takes to fully fill out our poses on the mat for sure, but more importantly, they point to what it takes to fully fill out our place in our life.

August 2016 – Pose – Forward Folds featuring Marichyasana A

Good news! Our pose of the month teaches us to stay cool, internally and externally! Forward folds featuring Marichyasana A and variations will be explored in our classes. Honor and cultivate the wisdom necessary to slow down, move skillfully into and pause in this class of asana, finding in the stillness all the information that is needed to guide you!

From Yoga International https://yogainternational.com/article/view/sage-marichis-pose:

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Setup and Key Actions
Sit with your left leg long on the floor, bend your right knee and place your right foot on the floor, a good distance from your inner left thigh. Press the back of your left leg, the sole of your right foot, and your palms or fingertips into the floor to first lengthen your spine upward, and then tilt your pelvis forward, bringing your torso between your right thigh and left leg. Wrap your right arm around your right shin. Work your arm around your bent leg and behind your waist, and bind your left wrist with your right hand, or clasp the fingers of both hands together. With your hands bound press your right arm into your right shin. Your right hip will lift off the floor, but continue pressing your foot into the floor. Lengthen through your spine as you fold, keeping your shoulders level and the back of your neck long.

Modifications
If you’re unable to hold your wrist or clasp your hands together, hold a strap between your hands, or press your hands into the floor to help move your torso forward over your leg. You can keep your hands on the floor as you press your right arm into your right shin, working all of the other parts of the pose without the bind.

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August 2016-Subject- Bhagavad Gita, Yoga for When “I Just Can’t” Isn’t Good Enough.

THE BHAGAVAD GITA ~ YOGA for when “I JUST CAN’T” ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH

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At a local festival the other day, I watched, along with thousands of other music lovers, as one of the featured artists came out on stage and rather than singing, began a rather convoluted, disjointed and extensive rant. To paraphrase, he asked what the bleep was going on, how the fans could even be there at the show supporting entertainment (which he classified as stupid and meaningless) with all that was going on in the world. He questioned the intelligence of those that bought his songs and snapped at those that clapped in response to one point by telling them they should not applaud, to just try listening for once and taking one moment to try to understand what was going on around them. He left the stage after half-heartedly piecing together a couple songs, not staying even half the allotted time, saying “I’m sorry, that’s all I can do today.”  The perplexed crowd stood in a mixed state, some disparaging, some sympathetic and some wondering what just happened. At the heart of it, whether performance art, breakdown or genuine angst, it was an emotional display most of us can relate to these days as the world ignites around us and tension escalates in ourselves. The question becomes, as we are confronted seemingly everyday with news of more violence, hatred and ignorance, how do we find what we need to show up in matters of life, both big and small, when we feel that it’s just too much, we just can’t.

This dilemma is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, the Bhagavad Gita told the story of an archer named Arjuna, who froze on the top of a hill, overwhelmed by the task at hand that was his alone to do and said the very same thing to his charioteer, “I just can’t”. Racked by despair and confusion, and even though thousands were relying on him to act, no action seemed possible in the enormity of what was going on around him. Lost in the endless cycles of a mind steeped in doubt and controlled by fear, he enumerated the reasons eloquently and convincingly as to why he could not do what was needed of him that day.  As it happened, his charioteer in the story is Krishna who, as an avatar of Vishnu, is wisdom and divine love embodied. Krishna listened, and in response to Arjuna’s litany, provided the reasons why “I just can’t” is not good enough when life requires us to act. The teachings in this epic poem have become one of the most renowned works of philosophy in the world, providing the framework for how we can find what is needed to act skillfully and decently in accordance with our dharma and the flow of consciousness under the most difficult of circumstances. The practical applications can be learned as we consider three of the aspects of yoga detailed in the text-  jnana, karma and bhakti yoga.

Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge. The ultimate knowledge is understood to be the realization that the universal Self is eternal, unthreatened, unchanging and divine. However as this is not our experience in the messiness of everyday life, we get caught and confused in the constant chatter and urgings of the unchecked mind which always focuses on the “I, me and mine”. How do we step through this self-serving chatter to the strength needed to stand against the ignorance, violence and intolerance that is gaining more of a foothold in the world, especially when those actions require us to look and move outside the comfort of our familiar views of ourselves and the way the world is.

The Bhagavad Gita tells us the most important thing is to be vigilant in watching what our thoughts are telling us when we are despondent, afraid, overwhelmed or feel threatened. We have more than enough to work with here in the current world – watching our thoughts escalate when we see or hear a political viewpoint with which we strongly disagree or agree. Seeing the thoughts behind our different reactions when something tragic happens to someplace or someone with which we identify, as compared to when it seems far removed from our own life. In being vigilant, we can begin to see the tricky ways our own story lines and fears can supersede and obscure any clear and legitimate understanding of what is needed. We may not know immediately what to do, but at least we understand that when we are reactive, we do not have the state of mind necessary to be clear in our next step.

Karma yoga is the yoga of action. We may not always feel we have a divine charioteer to guide our actions, but we do have vast access to knowledge and support. We can educate ourselves about the issues so we know fact from rhetoric. We can connect with those that have made a difference in an area we care about, and ask what we can do to help. We can take one small step outside our comfort zone to act or speak in support of those people that are dismissed or diminished because they are not deemed important enough. Inaction when our action is needed is said in the Gita to have major karmic repercussions, and any effort and action on our part that increases love, justice, decency and unity is never wasted. This becomes our ground, we do not have to succeed in our efforts, but we do have an obligation and karmic responsibility to show up fully and try.

Bhakti yoga is a celebration of selfless service of the divine. It cuts the chatter of the “I””, me and mine” mindset right out of the process. See the divine in anything that you know uplifts the capacity for kindness, justice, equality, and respectful communication in yourself and in the world and orient your actions toward moving closer to and serving that. With a commitment to watching the mind and skillful action, answer the call to move beyond your known comfort zone when it breaks through the chatter. It is often not easy, but you may find what your divine charioteer is guiding you toward if you stay the path. We will never know what we are capable of doing unless we are courageous enough to recognize and step through those mind moments of “I just can’t” and actually try.

July 2016- Subject of the Month- Sat-chit-ananda, Freedom of Choice(lessness)

We are what we choose!
Janis Joplin sang “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”. From a yogic perspective, she is on to something! In our life-long search to feel happy and free, we strive to add on many things, but the real freedom comes in when we begin to let go.
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When we are very young, most of our choices are controlled by others. This is for safety, for convenience, and to adhere to the norms of the family, culture and society in which we are raised. Without realizing it, we are deeply assimilating many belief systems on how we should act, look and think. And we begin to fear that we have a whole lot to lose (at least in terms of approval) if we don’t make choices that align with these early lessons, some being beautiful and useful, and some not so much as we continue to grow as individuals.

As we reach our teenage years we begin in a natural way to want to separate from this control, longing for liberation, to be free to choose for ourselves. In the process to establish our own identity, we make some good choices and some bad choices and we begin to understand that with freedom to choose comes responsibility for our choices. This supports growth when we let these lessons inform us and do our best to be accountable for what we have set in motion with our thoughts, actions and words. But many times we find it difficult to fully make or own our choices even as adults, especially when what we truly want clashes or gets buried by these internalized belief systems of what it means to be successful, attractive, intelligent, talented, worthy. As we mature as beings of consciousness, our deeply ingrained desire for approval constantly collides with our longing to experience a self not so defined by expectation and societal/cultural norms.

Far from feeling liberating, freedom to choose now can carry a lot of weight if we keep selecting more and more of the same life experiences that support  how we “should be” over who we “really are”, or not shifting our course when some choices no longer serve. This fear-based process can have us feeling trapped in aspects of the life fabric we have woven for ourselves, and not feeling very happy much of the time. So where do we find that freedom for which we long? Use the getting tired of this constant struggle as a juggernaut to choose a new way of doing things.

Ditching all our responsibilities (though perhaps appealing!) will not give us the long term ease and happiness for which we yearn. As yoga practitioners however, exploring where we  fully show up in life by examining and owning our choices can begin to give some ease in this dynamic as we learn more and more about ourselves and our fears. Defending “my truth” becomes more informed in the space of a more eternal, universal truth. We learn how we might operate more fully present in our lives if we use each choice as an opportunity to learn what scares us, what excites us and what bores us and by not dismissing any of these out of hand. We can simply begin to examine each choice as an opportunity to move closer to what we truly long for, and make that a priority again and again in our words, actions, and yes, even which of our our thoughts we listen to.

It is often not easy as we challenge the constant chatter of these ingrained belief systems, but it is necessary for any true individual growth.  It takes commitment, honesty and maturity, but it is doable as a life game-changer as we identify the fears that limit us, and courageously choose something else that allows us to move toward a fresh and responsive way of living, and ultimately less conflict and more happiness.
Freedom of choice eventually dissolves into the freedom of choicelessness. This liberated state comes as we practice making conscious choices (and seeing where we don’t)  so consistently, that it becomes natural in us. Like a top athlete or musician, seemingly without having to decide, we simply and effortlessly know and do what best serves in the moment (from a yogic perspective, what is most highly aligned with consciousness and serves the greatest good). We still may not get the result we want every time, but we know we did our best in that given situation and are content in that.
Seems impossible? We have all had the experience when in that one certain moment we have instantaneously known just what to say or do and it was exactly what was needed! We all have the capacity in us to operate like this and  share a basic human longing to join these moments in life to a sustained state of happiness and freedom, of sat-chit -ananda. This is loosely translated to be a kind of “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” a pointer to our natural state of being whole, eternal and one with consciousness, free from the fear and struggle from which we used to make our choices. In sat-chit-ananda, we have nothing left to lose …the fear of knowing and expressing ourselves as we are is gone, and our natural radiant state is shining brilliantly through, inclusive, undefended, open-hearted, clear and loving.  We do not merely feel, but truly are, free.
Om Ananda Om Ananda Om Ananda Sat Chit Ananda

July 2016 – Pose of the Month – Lizard Pose (Uttan Pristhasana)

Welcome to the heat of the summer! As with all things, when it gets a bit too hot for our taste, we can meet things with resistance, or with the willingness to see how we can work with this added energy in our lives 🙂

Luckily, our yoga practice gives us lots of choices in utilizing the heat skillfully as we move deeply into hip-openers this month, featuring Lizard Pose, or uttan pristhasana. So many choices (and fortunately so much time!) for all levels of this pose which frees the hips, hip flexors, hamstrings and groin. Use props to build flexibility as you progress, explore your edges and find your capacity to soften and deepen as you liberate physical and energetic tight spots in the hips. Have fun in your favorite variation,  maybe even staying there long enough to fully appreciate how your body responds your choice!

Lizard

From Yoga International:

Position both hands to the inside of your left foot. Shift your left foot about 10 inches to the left so you can nuzzle your left shoulder to the inside of your knee. Keep your back knee lifted or slowly lower it to the floor, pressing the top of your back foot down. Let your left thigh hug your left ribs, which requires work from the left inner thigh muscles. Place your forearms on the floor or on blocks.

Can you stay steady with this giant hip opener? Try not to zone out or do the opposite and aggressively bear down. Listen to your body and watch your mind. Whatever you notice is interesting, choose to be curious!

June 2016 Pose of the Month ~ Arm Balances and Strengtheners

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Arm balances are one of those areas in yoga we can quickly convince ourselves are just not for us! Or maybe they are second nature by now, seemingly a quick way to instantaneously boost Instagram likes 🙂  As many yoga asanas, arm balances are complex positions and require that a lot of things come together correctly in order for us to achieve them! Yet the path toward arm balances is not as difficult to navigate as we may think as long as we don’t get caught up in the final goal. How we approach this- with discipline,  effort, patience, generosity and focus goes a long way in giving us that feeling of brilliance and accomplishment in our progress, whether or not we ever sustain a full crow, scale, peacock,  handstand or any arm balance.

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The benefits of arm balances and their preps are many. Enjoy the preliminaries that strengthen the arms and open the shoulders, elbows and wrists. Enjoy the core work that allows a focused lift toward your goal. Enjoy that lift itself when it comes for even a split second to somewhere you weren’t sure you would ever go. The veil of maya (see subject of the month) lifts every time we reach beyond what we think we can do, but do not push ourselves there to compare to or impress others. Use the steps toward and into arm balances this month to build the prajna, clear seeing, that allows you to move into your own brilliance each and every time you practice, and see through the doubts and delusions that limit us. It’s not how it looks to others at end of the day, it’s how it feels to you as you learn and fly!

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