Good for what ails you…

One of the most difficult kinds of questions to field as a yoga teacher is “What does yoga do?” Or, “How is it different than …?” The benefits of yoga – the asana, pranayama, meditation – are both permeating & subtle. 

“Research shows that reflecting on a personal value controls cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress.” ~October ’08 Self  Magazine

So it’s heartening when even such a cursory summary of research throws itself in my path. Cortisol, as you may know, is one of the multitude of compounds our body releases when in “fight or flight” mode – aka, stress. Cortisol impacts vascular health, ability to concentrate as well as appetite and what our bodies do with food. The very compounds our bodies release to deal with the stress also perpetuate it.

We need to break the cycle. And that can be accomplished as simply as “reflecting on a personal value.” And that’s precisely what we’re practicing every time we return to our breath (focus on the present, remain present), find the fulcrum between striving and ease, meditate, read and study and ponder inspiring ideas. When we practice yoga (this is why we refer to it as practice), we’re practicing for that moment when the person assigned to help us is less than helpful & kind, or when we just plain don’t get what we want or think we need. We’re even practicing for when we do get what we think we want. Our personal values are always a breath away.

And as I was in the venipuncture waitng room, reading this quote on the “happiness!” pull out in Self, I wondered “Which personal value will I remember and reflect upon when I feel stress?” Who was I kidding? I’d received run-around answers from everyone I’d dealt with getting into this cramped waiting room where I was perched on an end table because there were so many of us sickies huddling together, and whenever one of us was called prematurely out of order, a rather pressed-looking woman who presumably was not much in front of me cursed and slammed small objects. All this so I could allow a disinterested stranger to poke a sharp stick in my soft vein, and probably I’d faint. I needed to reflect on my personal value, pronto.

Thing is, even when you practice at regularly scheduled times in comfy surrounds and seats, it’s still a stretch to remember in the waiting room. But stretching is what yoga teaches, so I grounded, reached, adjusted my gaze and relaxed into reflecting on my personal value. Glad I knew what it was.

Embrace, Empower, Evolve

I asked Hillary to guest blog on the occasion of releasing her first DVD, Yoga Foundations, because I’ve loved taking her podcast class at HillarysYogaPractice.com. Her spirit really shines through and her class themes have integrity and depth.

When I chose to step into the process of making my first yoga DVD earlier this year, it sweetly reminded of how my life’s challenges have brought me my greatest gifts. In 1996 at the age of 24, I was seeking a way to become more of myself when I was presented with a huge challenge and gift – a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. With this diagnosis, I thought life was over for me, but there was a call to the yoke, to begin my practice of yoga. Early on in one of my yoga classes I heard for the first time that my blessings were hidden in my challenges. At that moment my journey of healing began, there was no turning back – I chose to embrace my situation, commit and connect to my power through the teachings of yoga.

Like any practice it takes time to find our way and stay focused. In yoga the body forms with breath, attitude, alignment and action and grows every time you come to the mat. Yoga has prepared me to see that all of my experiences are part of my foundation (good and bad); they are all there to support my process to uncover my authenticity. One of the best gifts my diagnosis offered me was the choice to shift from working in the fashion industry in New York City to study and then teach yoga in Los Angles.

After a few years of teaching, I took on a new challenge and expanded into producing my Yoga Podcast, Hillary’s Yoga Practice – this totally was scary for me. I had to take on the obstacle of learning the technology but then discovered hidden in this challenge that yoga is also technology. Now after almost 2 years of producing my podcast, yoga helped me once again to embrace this next challenge to produce the DVD. While in pre-production, production, up to the day of shooting, I was living on the edge, holding steady, doing my best to not retreat from the fear of the unknown.

At this point I am able to be grateful for all that I have learned over time.  As I moved through my obstacles more would appear and by embracing them, it becomes easier to use them as a roadmap for my own growth into becoming more of myself.

Here are 3 steps you can use to begin to discover the gift in your challenge and become the best you.  You are invited to do this daily, weekly or monthly.

Please keep a journal by writing lists or creating some other visual image as a way to help the mind and body connection.

1. Embrace your challenge by practicing gratitude.

  [Ex: I embraced my diagnosis of MS and was grateful that my body was calling for my attention]

2. Empower yourself by asking what you can learn from this specific challenge.

  [Ex: The first time I asked this what came up was honoring my boundaries.]

3. Evolve into the best you and uncover the gift. 

  [Ex: The gift was to love myself and to be kinder to myself. Over time I had to work on this and    discover ways (empower) to create those boundaries I me. ]

 

Hillary Rubin , a certified Anusara Yoga teacher has taught nationally and internationally including Yoga Month 09 Tour , Agape International Spiritual Center’s University/UTSLA, Paramount Studios, City Yoga , and the Mind Body & Beyond Expo.  She is passionate about sharing her story to inspire others to become empowered through life’s challenges and has been featured by Fit Yoga Magazine, Conscious Choice Magazine, Whole Life Times, Lime.Com , Yoga Mates, and Yoga Peeps

 

 

 

It's all material….

Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing, life itself reveals again and again the opposite: that letting go is the path to real freedom.” ~Sogyal Rinpoche

Letting go is so pleasant and effortless while you’re on vacation. I’ve been cataloguing the things that seem to make it more difficult in my everyday life.

I’ve been back for a bit more than a week now, and I love that post-vacation, seeing it all with new eyes feeling. The freedom of vacation allows me to set new patterns and renew commitments to myself; the transition into daily life tests those patterns and provides new food for thought, new material for learning not only who I am and who I want to be, but how I construct who I am, and how I encourage or discourage the person I am becoming.

Surfing was transformational.  The morning of my 40th birthday we were wet-suiting up and toting our longboards on our heads behind a man who embodied “surf movie” but cocked his head and smiled blankly at any question we asked in English. While the contact at Pacific Surf School certified he was “fun and has awesome dreads”, no one vouched for his teaching skills, and we were soon to find out why. (btw: if you’re looking for surf lessons on Mission Beach, check out Surfari, avoid Pacific).  So we paddled and he held our boards for the waves for an hour or so and what I most learned was that I loved trying to surf.

My husband was better able to stand on his board than I was, and I loved that he was loving the experience. Sharing this with him was the ultimate birthday gift.  We would take turns, hours a day,  for the next six days with a short board we bought used and a rented long board, one in the water, one out, watching one another, watching the surf, tumbling in the surf, paddling, waiting for the swell, pressing into the board to rise and take our stand, tumbling mostly, sometimes easing down with intent, always turning right back around and paddling into the waves. (bts: the short board was fun and light, but we had our best rides and most fun on the long board. Yeah, it advertises that you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ll do that when you’re out there. Just stick to the long board. It’s cheap, it’s easier. We sold our short board on the way out of town and bought a wetsuit for our next trip. Oh yeah, there’ll be a next trip.)

There was yoga on the beach, and we took a cheap efficiency a block off the beach so we could just flop barefooted and swimsuited from bed to coffee to beach to bed to food. I only made it up on the board a handful of times, and those were thrilling, but not even the best moments. It was the “-ing” of it all, the mind clearing toss in the surf, the being there, the doing without thinking and the needlessness of words. The broad smiles and exhausted drops into bed.

Never once did I feel like I’d “failed” to do something. True, I could see on “Fabian’s” face that I was not his star pupil, but his utter lack of interest in me was what made it easy not to internalize. I was loving every salty, roaring, push you under gasp for breath go do it again moment. Disappearing into that moment was all that mattered. Could it be that that’s all that ever matters?

Practice for the life you want

Practice for the life you want.

 
I think a lot about what makes yoga different from other forms of physical fitness. My gym routines, daily dog walks and hiking also incorporate mind, body & breath and have tremendous benefits to my overall life & health. A well-timed walk can change my whole perspective.
 
So how is yoga different?  Yoga is a practice. And it’s not practicing for more yoga. Today’s yoga practice isn’t about tomorrow’s time on the mat. It’s about everything I do, because more than whether I bring my nose to my shins any time soon, more than whether I can clasp my hands behind my back, my time on the mat is about the present moment.
 
And that’s why yoga is different: while I can be present-moment in any or all of my activities, every part of yoga has as its aim this paradoxical state of being, which is itself beyond means & end thinking. The present moment is both every moment – and so different across time and people – and it is one moment, so it is the stable core of our being to which we can always return.
 
This is the paradox of eternity & the infinite: it is not a moment repeated forever, or a series of discrete moments following one another without end. It is a way of being from which we can see time. It is the way of being which allows us to take us a stand, or remain above the fray. And while walking and lifting and hiking bring me joy, connect me to my breath and occasionally bring me into the flow, Yoga is all about this. Yoga is preparation for meditation, which is to say it is a meditation on meditation from a beginners point of view – the very point of view to which most meditators are trying to return.
 
Yoga is a practice, and as such has profound consequences off the mat – not just on my ability to sustain a heart rate or walk a set of stairs, or even let a feeling go. My time on the mat is where I explore and create the structure of my life.  I investigate my mind while I hold poses, feel emotions, strive for goals. The poses, emotions and goals are but tools for the point of the practice which supercedes them all.
 
So what are you building and cultivating with your time on the mat? Where do you practice? Do you practice in a place & manner that reflects the life you are crafting? Are you fitting practice in or intentionally carving out the minutes for your mat time? 5 minutes on purpose without stealing from your other priorities is better than an hour and a half stolen from your sleep or other needs.
 
Knowing which is which takes a great deal of compassion and care in watching your own mind. Your mind is not only your thoughts but your emotions and what you might call your “almost thoughts”… the ones that flit beneath the radar. And of course this takes – you guessed it – practice: mat time.
 
So consider where & how you practice and the kind of relation with your mind that it cultivates. Plant the seeds of your best life on your mat, nurture them with your presence and a little bit of sweat and maybe even tears. And watch your mat – and your practice – grow into your best life.

Abundance

Having made some pretty drastic changes to my career life this year, I’m reflecting daily on what abundance and success mean to me. For real. I’ve been part-time as a Paramedic now for a few months, focused on building a practice as a teacher and a business as a yoga camping retreat facillitator.  My two careers are remarkably complimentary and the life I’m crafting is pretty much what I used to imagine when I was a girl. Pretty Cool.

I knew I’d move slowly, deliberately in my building. I knew that like learning yoga, building a practice and a living is best done one brick at a time. I don’t know about the rest of you teachers out there, or entrepeneurs of any stripe, independent, free-thinking crafters of service and beauty, but one of my most determined demons is named “Enough.” Is there enough, do I have enough, do I do enough, do I know enough, Am I enough, will there be enough? Enough knowledge, classes, time, strength, patience.

And the answer every day has been “yes” and that shrinks the demon a bit, but this demon drinks from a deep well, the well of emptiness that is at the center of being a human being, the one we identify with our fears, traumas, shortcomings and failures until we learn that it just is and that that’s Ok. But it really is part of being human, so it remains. And by sitting with it, calmly and persistently I’ve learned the meaning of abiding and of love.

And today I got to dance with it in the park, and we both forgot it was a demon. I’m working on building an outdoor yoga class in a park near my house, so Tuesdays at Noon I go the park and practice. So far it’s been alone, which is only a problem if you were hoping it to be different. I’m promoting it and have garnered interest, but so far I’m alone. More experienced teachers tell me this is part of the building experience. I wonder if I should make it earlier (Albuquerque is rather warmish at Noon, and it’s monsoon season, so it’s what passes for humid in the desert), should I go to a park in a more upscale neighborhood ( we are decidedly working class here in my ‘hood), should…. I should do yoga, I decide.

And I’m about to flip my dog on the second side when I look up and my eyes meet the lovely grey eyes of a little girl watching – she later tells me she’ll be 10 in September – one arm tucked behind her back, hand wrapped in front of her opposite elbow, legs entwined, head cocked to the side. We both smile. I flip & ask if she’s ever done yoga. Once. She joins me in downdog and we laugh at the name. She follows me into pigeon and her sisters and friend join us. We’re all doing pigeon, except for the youngest who is bouncing into people and grass like the park’s a mosh pit, giggling all while, and we join her as I teach them what to call pigeon in Sanskrit, our heads bouncing from side to side as we sing-song through “Eka-pa-da-ra-ja-kap-o-ta-sa-na”, little mosh darling falling down among us.

And I think, “This is IT. This is what I want, this is what I do. This is enough. This is more than enough. This is everything.” And even my demons laugh and all fall down.

Re-Imagining

Yoga allowed me to re-imagine myself.

I realized this today practicing with one of my old faves, Shiva Rae’s Solar Practice CD from 1999. It was one of my first home practice guides, and even today when I need another voice in my head, someone else’s metaphors and images to bring freshness to my Warrior, I slide this one into the player.

And I realized, her metaphors became my own. Her voice helped me re-imagine my body and re-connect to the way I related to my body when I was a girl. I remember squinting my eyes to make haloes and fireworks as I balanced my arm, perpendicular to the earth in its socket, so perfectly that I could imagine it wasn’t mine. It stood there on its own. And I was the earth.

And when Shiva Rae used the metaphor of “wings” for the shoulder blades today (well, the recorded sound of her voice…) I realized, that was the first time I re-imagined my body as an adult. Imagined it wasn’t set in stone as it sometimes felt, or in mud or even bound in cotton as it sometimes felt I was insulated from the world. That my body could become a conduit for energy and images and power. That I could live differently.

I had just delivered my last academic paper about a year before when I was practicing with this CD for the first time: Metaphor as the structure of Truth. Having received much interest, many plaudits and requests for reprints and further investigation, I vanished to the desert. My name had changed (returned to home), my profession, my location, my possessions (mostly left behind), and I had some radical re-imagining to do. I didn’t know it at the time (I had come here to be a Paramedic) but yoga would be the vehicle for my to realize the deep truth of that last talk. And Shiva Rea’s voice would plant a seed in my heart, a seed of wings and of roots.

The structure of metaphor is a container and yoga helps us explore how we contain our breath, and so how we express our meanings and truths. I still believe the basic tenants of that last talk, that sentences are derivatively true, that when we seek truth we are never ultimately looking for statements and that what makes statements true are neither facts nor objects nor worlds but states of consciousness.  Yoga helped me not only realize the truth of what I discovered, but to re-imagine it and myself in ever more revealing ways. That’s why I practice yoga. Every Day.

Intention

Intent. It changes everything.

But what is it? It’s not a thing, not something added on at the beginning or end. It’s an underpinning, a condition of the act being at all. Intent, or lack thereof, is constitutive.

Intention and Attention are related, but not identical.  Attention is the conscious presence that maintains the space for things & relationships to reveal themselves. In my view, this makes it sacred: it is an ontological, or constitutive, condition for other things, relations and conditions.

Intention is specific attention. Focused Attention. Focused attention, or the lack thereof, is how we create meaning and the lack thereof. There are many different levels on which to focus your attention, and it is characteristically Western to focus it on a thing or an event: a goal.

Often, I think, we think “goal” when a teacher asks us to “set an intention”. Open hamstrings, clear heart chakra, world peace, love in my life.

When we create intention at the beginning of yoga class, we are invoking sankalpa. The usual translation is merely “intention” or “resolve”, but we are really invoking a second order of intent: conscious intention, or intention about intention. What do we want to want?

I suggest we think of intention as a clear, quiet, neutral place to stand. Imagine a platform in the deep, deep forest. Like that from which a biologist might watch. But we are scientists of ourselves. We need a clear, quiet place from which to watch the thoughts frollick. Our sankalpa is an expression of why we practice,  a touchstone to which we can return when we get lost among our thoughts and desires.

But how to find our Sankalpa? How to set an appropriate intention? Well, think of what you’d like to have. Even an old fashioned goal or egocentric desire. Be really honest. Good. Now, what conditions have to be present for this gift to manifest? And what quality would you ascribe to these conditions? It’ll take a few moments to let the mist settle and see what emerges like an island from the surf.  But that quality, the quality of the conditions which enable the manifestation of your deepest desire, that’s a good candidate for your Sankalpa.

Now that’s an intention worth your attention.

energy, doing, service & mudras

Yes, it’s true. Sometimes the yoga teacher feels too tired to teach.

Feels. But here’s what I’ve learned: If I’m blessed to have people to teach, I will also feel better when I’m done. When I’ve dug in, scooped up and given what I thought I didn’t have and needed.

How does that work? Well, for one, what I give isn’t mine in the first place. It’s just hard to remember that when I’d rather draw a bath than get in my car & drive cross town, open the studio, set the mood and invite the magic. But it’s true & it’s real: it isn’t mine & giving it doesn’t diminish me. It feeds me. As long as I’m taking care of the pathways that allow energy to flow into and through me. Which sounds really woo-woo. It’s really about laying the foundation: enough sleep, enough greens, enough gym time (yes, I still love my gym time!).

The other thing is to love, passionately, fervently and without reserve love what you’re doing. I giggle internally whenever a student asks if I would teach a class if only one person showed up. Ok, externally. YES!  In the past when I found myself showing up to a job that seemed to do nothing but rob my energy, you know what the problem was? It was a job I thought I should love, but – you guessed it – didn’t. Prestigious in the field, well-rewarded, feather in the cap. Didn’t love it.

And when I’ve had too little sleep, too few greens and not enough time in the gym and I’m wondering how I can shed my thoughts to welcome my people to their practice (because it’s theirs, not mine) sometimes I call on mudra. Today it’s a dharma mudra. Now, I try these things out quite a bit before I recommend them, because I’m a bit skeptical by nature. I won’t claim to know for certain how they work, but I bet it’s at least two fold: I think they probably do connect up pathways in the body, because the ones I keep change how I feel within moments of first use. Also, after using them in related situations over time, I know I associate taking them with focusing on an intent, and this is powerful.

The one I used today was featured in a Yoga Journal article this month. Join the thumbs to the pointer fingers of each hand. Left palm toward heart, Right turned out, tip of middle finger of Left hand touching thumb of right. With this, I ask myself (as suggested in the YJ piece!) “What is next?”, “How may I be of service?” Words may not appear (or they might!), but mental dust settles and clarity dawns.

From there, anything is possible.

Brahmacharya as Energy Independence

Brahmacharya is one of the Yamas, or Suggestions for a firm foundation for practice. Brahmacharya means conserving your life force. As I was listening to folks discussing our current gas prices and “Energy Independence” on the radio, I realized that this is another application of Brahmacharya. 
When we are aware of where and how we expend our life force – our precious time, energy and resources – we can make choices that reflect our deepest values.
Energy Independence begins with not using our life force carelessly. So if we’re sitting in front of the TV it’s because we mean to, and we’ve chosen the images we’re taking in. Or, if we realize mid-activity we are involved in something that doesn’t reflect our deepest truth, knowing we can choose differently any time.
The other part of Energy Independence is choosing the most efficient methods for moving through the world. On the mat this might mean being aware of whether we’re gripping in a pose, and releasing areas of unnecessary effort. A good rule of thumb is not to reach out further or with more vigor than we are reaching in.
In relationships, everyday interactions and helping others, our practice on the mat is really practice for respecting our own life force and the energy of everyone we meet. That’s why, though yoga makes us more flexible, healthier, thinner and happier, we have so many more reasons to find our feet on the mat.

Roam the Hub of All Sacred Places….

“The light which shines above this heaven, above all the worlds, above everything, in the highest worlds not excelled by any other worlds, that’s the same light  which is in you.” ~Chhandogya Upanishad

What if all the thinking, all the words, ideas aren’t our minds? What if they’re the covering over our minds? Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools. But what’s overseeing the job site? They’re not the tools you’ll need if you’re looking for your true self or for a steady place to stand.

Science tells us our minds are decentralized in the body. Yoga helps us settle into our heart, where wisdom and intelligence reside. Of course when we talk about heart in yoga, we’re not just talking about the juicy pumping muscle to the left of center in our ribcages. There are a lot of bits housed around there – chemoreceptors, baraoreceptors, lungs, thymus, arteries, lymph nodes, spine, circulating blood and air, esophagus, diaphragm. When we bring our attention to this area, when we just feel what comes up, we are contacting the heart of yoga. Our yoga.

Bringing ease to the muscles and joints around this area can be the beginning or development of this process. This is where many of us Western Yogis start, with asana. Maybe a little breathing practice. Then we might start calling that pranayama. Maybe we meditate for stress reduction. Somewhere along the way we realize these pesky emotions are less pesky, the aches are less achey, the mind is less muddled.

“The heart is the resting place of the pranas, the senses and the mind. It’s your true self, which is identified with intelligence and which finds repose in the space within your heart.” ~Nikhilananada’s Intro to The Principal Upanishads

So then we explore pratyahara – sense withdrawal. But then, where do the senses go? Niky above, says to the space within your heart, your true self. Makes some sense – it’s quieter there than the head or stomach. The feelings come up, but maybe we’re in a place where we can uncouple them enough from the words and judgments to just let them be a bit.

Now we’re practicing saucha in our hearts. Saucha – cleanliness, purity. We don’t often think of it in regard to our hearts, but after we’ve gotten glimpses of the Love that lives there, it makes sense not to store our crap on the porch. If we keep the windows clean maybe it will shine more brightly. The Sanskrit word for this place – Anahata – can be translated “unstruck”. “The space within your heart  is omnipresent and unchanging.” (~Chhandogya Upanishad ) Always with us, always available for us to touch and feel is a place that is unstruck by the blows of life, unmoved by the compliments and criticisms, the lost jobs and the awards. It is always what it is. We are always who we are. Sometimes we just cover it up with judgments, which are really old experiences in new clothes. Film on our windows.

Maybe this is the impetus to poke our noses into the pesky ethical side of yoga.  But if you’ve been cleaning your windows all by yourself, and someone gives you a step ladder and an extension for your sponge, you’ll be pretty glad to pay attention. And they’re pretty simple, deceptively so. Love, Truth, Conserve your energy, Be quiet, Be fierce, Stay Open, Be present, Learn you’re not in control, Study your experience, Respect Others’ Boundaries. But Wow! try to practice ’em all at once! That’ll give any college Ethics Professor a run for her money.

So you keep coming back to the place of quiet stillness to which your mat has become the doorway. “The heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam.” ~Bhagavan Nityananda