YSP: "Or the mind can also find peace by contemplating the luminous light, arising from the heart which is the source of true serenity." tr, Stiles

The Sanskrit name for the heart chakra is “Anahata,” translating as “unstruck.”

The first time I let this sink in, I could feel my world slightly shifting to take in the implications and the truth. The heart chakra designates more than a literal or even metaphorical heart, it refers to a “region” and a process of being. In one of the Upaya ZenBrain lectures I referred to yesterday, one of the scientists speaks of his struggle to make sense of the yogic system of koshas, or layers of being. The problem with the notion of  “layer” is that it’s spatial, and things extended in space should be detectable & interact with other things extended in space in way recognizable with visual, or at least wave detecting, technology. The same problem comes with our language about chakras, but what resolved the conflict for this scientist was to recognize that the spatial references designate processes and ways of being that describe the spatial phenomena from different experiential perspectives.

Anahata is a way of being accessible to any person with a heart: unstruck. Unstruck by the things that strike us and occasionally knock us down. Our original nature never left and is not covered over or lost, it arises from our heart in each and every moment.

Satchidanda’s reflection on this Sutra is simple and challenging, because its often the obvious things we gloss over in pursuit of accomplishment.

“You can imagine a brilliant divine light which is beyond all anxieties, fear and worry – a supreme Light in you. Visualize a brilliant globe in your heart representing your Divine Consciousness. Or imagine your heart to contain a beautiful glowing lotus. The mind will easily get absorbed in that, and you will have a nice experience. In the beginning one has to imagine this Light, which later becomes a reality.”

Nice experiences are important. If getting on the mat or cushion was a drag every single time,  you might persevere, but human history says that without any signs of progress or pleasure or effectiveness you’ll turn to something that seems more worthwhile. I would. So the experiences we have along the way are important. But the being there is the real game, and it’s what we’re learning to be, and so I would go so far as to say the Light is always a reality, but before training in being present our most subtle way of interacting with the world – our bodies, our experiences, feelings, & others – is imagination, so we start there. As you enter the space of your Anahata, or unstruckness, or original nature, through imagination or visualization, you learn new ways of interacting and recognizing the world and the light becomes more stable because you are better able to apprehend it.

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Cool Media to Inspire Your Practice & Your Life

Yogis need yoga, teachers need teachers and bloggers… need bloggers!

Here’s one I discovered today & I just love Davidya’s title “In2Deep“. “Basic Skills” is an extended reflection on attention & intention, but what grabbed me was the opening. She spoke to me where I am, reminding her readers that when our influences feel unsupportive, our attention can change our influences and that support is a breath away.  Speaking of a seemingly unsupportive “culture,” she says “it’s more a boogy than a monster.” Indeed, our focused awareness contributes to our culture and our support.

This next one is my current obssession: The Zen Brain Lecture Series. Time to get your geek on, and I mean seriously. If you’re not scientifically minded or not in a space where you can concentrate, pick something else. These are some smart people – neuroscientists, pathologists, researchers, journalists – reviewing recent research and making hypothesis and reporting on results of experiments with meditation. It’s about way more than Zen, or Buddhism. It’s about being a human being. This gathering in January was influenced by the gatherings initiated by the current Dalai Lama, during which leading lights come together to discuss the intersection of science and mindfulness. Goldmine for inspiration as well as confirmation that your yoga mat & yoga butt are “worth it” as well as some ideas to expand your notions of “mind” & “body.”

And finally, this on HumanKind this morning over our local public radio station, KANW: An interview with Bernard Lown, a Nobel Prize winning doctor speaking out for healing as part of the medical “model”.  His voice, stories and wisdom regarding the role of compassion in well-being are deep and touching.

Yoga Teacher, Heal Thyself

What happens when the yoga teacher gets gimpy?

Well, denial is a great first shot. Right? Isn’t it? I mean, I’m healthy, I have healthy habits, aches & pains – phww! These things come & go, the practice goes on. Right? Right? Anyone?!?

OK. So the practice is to cultivate awareness of what is, which includes the aches & pains. Paying attention to the space between the feelings is a great way of taking perspective, but if I forget to be with the feelings, then I’m just avoiding, not meditating.

In practice, we can vacillate between poles, diving deep into a contemplative bent and swimming back to experiential, just to find how the currents mix & mingle and are never seperate. I tend to dive in deep, at least, and maybe you do, too. It’s one of the reasons that I keep a little bit of yoga mat (active yoga asana & pranayam) and a little bit of yoga butt (sitting meditation) in every day.

But even with such habits as safeguards, fear, pain and my inner control freak easily override my best intentions at times… because my “best” intentions aren’t the only ones I have. In my case, chronic hip pain is one of the little beasties that dance around my campfire and whom I befriend. But sometimes I slip into thinking my practice should safeguard me against aches & pains, keep the beasties at bay. There’s some Protestant Calvinist strain of virtue dispelling sin & pain spilling from sin that tells me all the good things I’m doing should prevent injury, pain & discomfort.

So I “address” the pain, practice relieving asana, stay “aware of” the pain. Instead, I aim to seek pure, clear awareness, with pain, without pain, in the moment. Sometimes the hardest thing is to dive in, and sometimes even when I think I’m diving in, I’m dog paddling away like a golden retriever. How do we ever know???

Certainty isn’t what I seek. Just the ability to recognize what’s in front of my face. I help people who are in pain, seeking relief from pain whether from lifestyle, spinal stenosis, tightness in the hamstring or the heart. I have gained this ability and priviledge as a result of having worked with my own, studying, seeking guidance, integrating.

And so have all the other yoga teachers &  meditation masters. So why have we built up a culture that damns pain, scowls at injury and tsk-tsks those who dare to acknowledge all the shadings of their experience? Maybe its just the circles I’ve frequented, or maybe it’s a “studio” culture: those with the “right” to teach are those who are able to cover any trace of their struggles with the smooth, even facade of a socialite emerging from a spa.  

One of my lessons from this current emergence of my little beastie called pain is to find a way of being who I am in any given moment without hiding under seaweed entanglements of guilt & shame that engender fear and running. One of my lessons is rest.  One of my lessons is to recognize when I’m exceeding my limits. These are heady, exciting, invigorating times of growth & learning, with deeply rewarding accomplishment and pride in re-learning old ways of being. And, such exciting, invigorating times require the roots to go as deeply inward as the leaves are reaching out.

More restorative practice, more meditation, simply breathing with the pain- not to make it go away, but simply to be with it. It’s true that it & “I” will change – such is the nature of time dwellers. But the change is not to be sought or resisted.  Observed, smiled upon, witnessed. Inhaled & exhaled.

Inhale, Exhale. Maybe pain isn’t the enemy. Maybe the notion of opposition is part of the pain. Maybe the glossy studio notion of yoga as skillful facade is as much running as other Hollywood excesses.  Maybe healing comes not in never limping, never falling out of headstand, never feeling let down by your practice. Healing thyself comes from truly embodying well-being, which translates “eudaimonia” from the Greek. A more literal translation is well-demoned. Time to practice with the demons 🙂

Yoga Sutra Conversations I.35: "By regular inquiry into the role of the senses we can reduce mental distortions."

What is the relationship between our senses and our minds? Whether this is a bottom up or top down system differentiates millenia of philosophers. One thing is for sure, though, the more we take in, the more we must digest, and the excess becomes mental fat. The “vrttis” – vacillations – aren’t of themselves mental fat, but any unprocessed intake gets stored – whether its Twinkies (do they still make those any more?) or Desperate Housewives, cross words or imaginary what-ifs we call “worry.”

Sensation – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – the information we bring in from our embodied existence, makes up our being & life as much as the greens in our salad or the tofu on our forks. By using time on the mat to simplify and observe our sensations, we get to know ourselves better. We can recognize patterns in how we relate to this information, and even the systems we use to buffer it.

One key when observing the role of the senses in my life is to note the double edged sword that is recursive consciousness. Recursive consciousness is this ability we have to have “second order mental events.” Mental events can be thoughts, ideas, concepts, feelings, emotions, whole stories even, or just attitudes towards first order senses, thoughts, emotions. Our ability to be aware of the fact that we are aware of something is precisely what gives us the option to be present. It’s also what gives us the option to “space out” or worry or plan or… do whatever we do that is not being present.

We can event have eleventh order thoughts! Thoughts about thoughts about feelings about what-ifs about imaginations about …. you get the idea. The point where the thought or feeling has grabbed you by the intestines and you’re off to the story-telling races with the what-ifs and not-that!’s, that’s the stickiness that I’ve learned from listening to Pema Chodron is called shenpa. My husband & I love this word: it’s so economical. Rather than getting caught up in the stories when one asks the other “what’s up?” or “where you at?”, we just say, “oh! I was having some shenpa!” It’s fantastic to break up the story and bring us back to the present.

What does this have to do with the role of the senses? One of the ways you can break shenpa – or unconsciously having thoughts about thoughts about… also called “living in your head” – is to come to the nitty gritty of our senses. What am I feeling right now? Seeing? Smelling? Hearing? Tasting? Feeling?

You may have heard the word “Pratyahara” in yoga class at some point. Pratyahara – or sense-withdrawal – is one of the eight limbs, or components, of yoga . Sometimes the best way to investigate is to simplify. Short of a sensory deprivation tank – which is way cool if you ever have the chance – intentional withdrawal from sensation can be a great way to investigate how we relate to sensations. There are many ways to go about this, from simply turning off the TV or radio, to going to a quiet place like the woods or a chapel or a yoga room, to more specific withdrawals. Brahmari Pranayam is one way of experiencing pratyhara: you fill your consciousness with the vibration of your own breathing even as you close off your years, eyes, mouth and to some extent your nose. Meditation after Brahmari, or Bumble Bee Breath, can increase your sense of clarity.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Sri Swami Sachidananda’s Commentary, because I think it’s sweet and true:

“One example is to concentrate on the tip of the nose. Do not strain or you will cause a headache. Do not actually stare at the nose; it’s as if you are looking at it. Keep the mind on that. If the mind is really one-pointed, after some time you will experience an extraordinary smell. You may even look around to see if there is any flower or perfume nearby. If that experience comes, it is a proof that you have made the mind one-pointed. It will give you confidence. But in itself, it will not help you to reach the goal. It’s just a test, that’s all. Don’t make concentrating on the nose and getting nice smells your goal.”  ~SriSwami Satchidananda, Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga Sutra Conversations I.34: "The practice of breathing exercises involving extended exhalation might be helpful." ~T.K.V. Desikachar, tr.

I recently dowloaded and listened to a meditation course that was recorded during a retreat with the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron, and I’m taking it again. She is endlessly kind and unflinchingly firm, difficult qualities to simultaneously embody. When I meditate, I’m also deeply aware that I’m trying to embody qualities that don’t always go together in my everyday life.

Chodron is quite clear that meditation is training. Just like marathoners or weight lifters, meditators are training. Instead of watching TV and training to be consumers,  cushion sitting geeks train for mindfulness. I like to think of her as coach, because just like my track running days, I now wonder when I’m in doubt “What would PC say?” instead of “Would Coach Bode approve?” Unlike my errant highschool days, however, I’ve internalized a number of PC’s ways of describing and relating, so I’m more likely to heed the advice.

I used to wonder how much you could usefully say about meditation. I mean, it’s watching, right? So, um, watch. But of course the purpose of this observation is to become familiar with all the tricks you will use to squirm out from under the scope. And to become kind with the squirmee, because if you can’t be kind to you, it won’t be sincere with anyone else. And in this way, we might, with some luck, learn compassion. So instruction is endlessly helpful when it helps us catch ourselves before we’ve run too far amock.

And one of PC’s standbys is to direct us to our outbreath. The instruction is to follow the breath, of course. But sometimes, the simple must be simplified, and for those times, Be Breathing Out. Two parts to notice: first, it’s not describe or control or think about breathing out. And second, it’s the exhalation.

Now there seems to be some magic about breathing out. The Yoga Sutras are delightfully practical in giving us options for enlightenment: try this, & if not that, try this, and see how that works. The empirical nature of the Yoga Experiment is one of the reasons it works. It looks like self-improvement, so it appeals to the ego. But once you’re there, you realize that there is here and here is really the only place to be, so Be.

Now why would breathing out be so magical? Proper exhalation is necessary to maintain the acid-base balance in the body, it’s the first line of defense, in fact. Exhalation has long been recognized an equivalent of letting go: witness, the sigh. Is there any more potent signal of surrender, whether welcome or overdue?

And let’s not neglect the fact that what we’re dealing with are obstacles to self-knowledge. So often when frustrated with an obstacle of any kind, we push – emotionally, figuratively or literally. The last sutra gave us ways of meeting many things that look like “Others” in our daily lives – the virtuous and unvirtuous, the happy and unhappy. Here we are told that if discipline fails, it’s ok to just let go. Let the reins drop a moment. Exhale. Sigh. Release.

Sure, there’s more to advanced pranayama and practices of Kumbacha, or retention. But as Sri Satchidananda points out, Patanjali isn’t writing a Pranayam Manual. It’s an enlightenment manual. How to allow yourself to be yourself in your day-in-day-out. Why you should care and why if you care you will train. And why, if you put in just a little bit of effort, your motivation will grow in ways you didn’t earlier forsee.

Sometimes all it takes is one sigh, and sometimes, it takes exhaling over and over again, feeling it, being it. It depends on what you’re up to. But if you train in the over and over on the cushion or on the mat, you’ll be far more likely to remember to exhale when it really counts, just before those words you can’t take back spring from your mouth. Just one break, one gap, one pause between breaths, and obstacles can lessen or disappear.

Jenni on this Sutra: …”Bouanchaud writes that traditionally the exhalation and suspending breath after exhalation symbolizes humility and sacrifice. … to let go into the exhalation, and experiencing the rich filled emptiness afterwards – humbling in the best of ways. And “I” don’t have to do it – if “I” wait long enough it gets done through me :-)”

& Kate on this Sutra:…” Since mind was the problem, her solution was to give the mind something else to play with. Instead of attending to the sensations in my chest, she advised me to pay attention to the sensations of breath in my nose, the coolness of the inhale past the septum and the warm humidity of an outward breath on the upper lip.“…

Yoga Phrases that Befuddle & Bewilder

Poll time! What’s your pet peeve yoga-ism? Some phrase you’ve heard in yoga class that makes you go “Huh? Are you Kidding?” And of course they aren’t – that’s the funniest part 🙂

Have you been asked to “Bloom your sitting bones” and thought you’d rather Bloomin bloom bloom, if you only knew what it meant?

Leave your favorite – or least fave! – yoga-ism in the comments below and I’ll do my best to de-mystify or at least de-sanctify it! Sometimes, we just need to take it all a little less seriously, so we can get on with the parts that really matter.

Yoga Sutra Conversations I.33: "By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice, thoughts become purified, and the obstacles to self-knowledge are lessened."

“This week’s sutra ought to be emblazoned in all public places.” ~Dharmayoga

I’ve been given the power to delegate 🙂 and so I do. I delegate: reading the newspaper to my boyfriend, big bosoms to some of my girlfriends, eating sugar to my kids, enjoying hunting to the hunters and giving the kids a cat to my ex. (at his house).
What I get out of this practice, is SERENITY. If I really believe we are all one – than I truly can enjoy soo many things.
~Jenni

If there was any doubt that yoga is more than what happens on the mat, here’s the antidote. The first time I heard this quoted,  I wrote it down and soon thereafter was digging in the Sutra like it was a life raft.

Sounds so simple: be friendly to happy folk, compassionate toward unhappy, take joy in good action and try not to get to het up about the bad stuff. Yoga is about the path, the everyday, every breath, every moment, what am I getting so excited about, where’d all my energy go, what’s it all about and how do I figure it out path.

Simple is not easy, though. I wrote this on the clipboard I carry everywhere at work and when I felt my heart skip or my dander rise, I’d look at it. So much of behaviour is reactive and what this Sutra asks us to do is choose how we respond. Don’t react, respond, and do that with consideration… for your own peace.

One of the things I admire about the translation above from Mukunda Stiles is that where other translators state these responses will bring us peace or quiet mind, he states they reduce obstacles to self-knowledge. In Sanskrit, the claim is “Citta prasadanam” which has overtones both of purification and calmness  regarding the mind. “Lessening obatacles to self-knowledge” reminds us we are discussing the path that leads to yoga, which happens in the mind that isn’t identified with its disturbances. We can, little by little, step away from all our identifications, the things we act like matter even when we would say they don’t if asked point-blank, but we react to them as if they were everything, and so make them into our world.

Peace comes from self-knowledge. In such a state we are transparent to the truth of our own being. How to reach this state? Start taking the veils off the dancer: the obstacles to self-knowledge must fall. But like any drunken reveller, when the veils start to ripple and fly we want to get caught up in them: Ooooo, look at how they catch the light! look at how they ruffle over the surface! smell how they catch the heady scent! We forget that the veils aren’t what they cover over, or we tire of the effort steady abiding, and we settle for the ruffle and sparkle, running off in the direction of the wind.

In this sutra we are aksed to tend to our own responses to our worlds and in return, the world to which we respond will reveal itself as different than we’ve previously experienced. Not sure changing the world can be so simple? Try it. Practice your equanimity when buffetted with derision or insult. Practice being undefended and friendly when you are around happiness. Practice being undefended at all. Undefended and compassionate in the presence of Sadness? How do you keep your heart open and your boundaries clear? Yoga is a razor’s edge and you walk it with your heart. When you truly open your heart in experience, the world you experience transforms, and so do you.

Where to start? In your next human interaction, your next breath. Heck, have you practiced compassion and undefendedness with your own precious self? Be friendly toward your own happiness, befriend and cultivate it. Have equanimity when you catch yourself in bad behaviour – no self-derision, no guilt. Steadiness, abiding breath and choice, whether in line or Ardha Chandrasana, these are the things that build our practice.