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.

Savasana is the hardest of all

Sometimes savasana is the last thing I want to do. I rarely miss asana in the morning, and like I was reading in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga this morning, I find meditation in the union of breath, body & mind. Even if it’s 10 or 20 minutes after walking the dogs & before donning the uniform, me & my mat meet and movement and meditation are one.

And there are some mornings, like this one, when, after my last downdog or urdva danurasana, I am tempted to grab my glass of tea and head for the door, beyond which errands, pagers, sirens, and dogs await, their calls silent but insistent in my mind.

And I manage a turn and a grab before…. I realize, I’m already ahead of myself. Not coinciding with myself. What is all this about if not that, that feeling of coinciding with my body, my idea of myself and my feeling of myself. Deep breath, back to the mat – back on the mat, looking up, eyes close, hands release. Lists. Notice the lists, ahhhhh…. slip instantaneously into the space between the lists and the noticing, bliss.

Sitting, breathing, “Oooooommmmmm….” My body absorbs and becomes the sound, as if thirsty. “Ommmmm….” So worth it, all for this.

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.