Monday, December 6, 2010

Change the Channel

This week we experienced the first snow of the year. Everything (except the roads) received a beautiful light white dusting. There was excitement in the air and we found ourselves periodically just gazing, quietly, out the window - not at anything specific, just the view. Somehow, a change in the environment can alter one's inner landscape, which changes everything. That's also what happened to me this past week during a Yoga retreat.

Upon returning, I felt a little lighter and began seeing things differently, unstuck from some particularly worrisome thoughts. It's as if I'd just changed the channel.

It's not unlike the affect that our Yoga practice has on our psyche. People come to class sometimes with worry on their faces, having something heavy on their mind. During the hour and a half, they decide to suspend their preoccupations and commit to practice. At the end of class, there is usually a lighter look on people's faces, as the group takes cohesion and absorbs into a more peaceful space.

It takes faith in the process, a belief that we each have limited control, and a knowing that connecting with our breath, our bodies and our peaceful spirit, will lead to greater insights on the other side. It's not all up to us. We can access a broader knowing. Yoga can help you to alter your internal environment, as if a light dusting of snow had just fallen on all the surfaces and made everything bright and new.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mindfulness

It's almost two weeks into my daily mindfulness practice. Although I've taught and practiced mindfulness for years, I've often accessed it only 'as needed' and not as a way of living, every moment of every day.

This doesn't mean that during the past two weeks I've been completely present. Daydreaming and editorial commentaries have been rampant. Setting awareness as my intention means that when I catch my mind wandering, I return to the present.

The impetus for this change started with a recent Harvard study which found that people who live in the present moment are happier. Perfect timing for me as I was preparing to teaching a mindfulness meditation class - nothing like a little scientific research to provide motivation and credibility. As a result, one of my Chair Yoga students decided to take on the practice as a way of living in order to handle her negative thoughts - and it was working. Ultimately inspired by her, I jumped on board.

It's still early, but here's a little from what I've learned...

* Mindfulness becomes easier with practice. Think of it like learning a new musical instrument. It needs daily and regular practice to feel comfortable. Unlike a musical instrument, practice does not make perfect. That's just the way it is. When you need motivation, remember the reward - a happier life. A wandering mind tends to be critical and negative. The present is neither good nor bad. It just is. Keeping your awareness on the present is like placing the mind in neutral.

* Mindfulness makes life more vivid. You'll notice things you've never noticed before. You'll be more aware of what's going on around you, as well as the subtle sensations that occur in your body and their pure intelligence.

* Sometimes mindfulness is boring. When this happens you'll notice the mind creating stimulating thoughts or 'drama' so as to avoid any semblance of boredom. Since the state of boredom is short-lived when you're being mindful (as are all mental 'fluctuations'), be patient and it will soon shift. This technique is abundantly more healthy than enduring all the waves that occur from drama.

* Mindfulness requires an awake brain. You will begin to notice the affect that food, stimulants, sleep, activity and thoughts have on the strength of your mind and that a weak or dull brain has trouble being mindful. As you begin to strengthen the mind through meditation, mindfulness, physical activity (circulation) and good nutrition, the mind becomes clearer and can more easily stay present.

* Mindfulness gives a more 'real' view of the present. Unaware, we tend to downplay some actions and lift others to higher importance, thus giving a skewed view of reality. In addition, our habitual negative commentary slants the truth. Mindfulness offers a more honest landscape and an opportunity to respond in a proactive (as opposed to reactive, based on previous events) manner for more real interactions.

* Since beginning the practice, I haven't lost or misplaced anything ANY THING. This is huge!

* And, mindfulness reduces the amount of mind yacketty yak (chatter).

There are times when all of us need to bring your mind into the past or future - to plan an event, for example. A mindfulness practice means that you purposefully engage the mind in this manner as needed and then return to the present.

As I'm still on retreat, off to my noon-time meditation. Peace.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Back to the well

Like clockwork, it's day 4 of my Yoga retreat and I've finally smoothed out. When I'm on retreat, it often takes me 3 days to iron out the static and connect with the flow. During my first day in particular, the silence feels loud as the mind is exceptionally chatty. It's almost as if the brain knows it's about to be quieted for an extended period of time and therefore throws it's last hurrah.

But today is different. The mind is on check and my energy vibe has flattened out.

All of us have our ways of connecting and finding our peaceful center. And although my regular practice of asana, meditation and pranayama create the space and time for me to be mindful, a periodic retreat allows me to deepen and broaden my connection to wholeness.

And all my layers know when I haven't gone down to the well in awhile, as my center begins to feel a bit parched. But that was yesterday.

And today is different.

Now back to a bit more ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Putting the Pieces Back Together Again


You know how it is when you wake up on one of those mornings when your head feels foggy from not enough sleep or too much, or after strange dreams whose meanings preoccupy the space in your head.

It's these mornings when I lie down on my Yoga mat and hug my legs, rock gently back and forth and connect with the feeling of my back on the floor, that I begin to feel myself coming back together again.

This simple and self-nourishing form of Yoga literally feels as if the scattered pieces of some abstract and complicated puzzle are finding their way back to a complete and whole picture. Thus begins my personal practice, enticing me to return soon and regain my wholeness anew, ready to exchange some good vibes.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Humility

I heard one of my students (a retired Methodist minister who's always singing others' praises) say that I had learned humility from working in a church. Whether that's true or not, he got me thinking again about my relationship with humility.

The first time I came smackdab face-to-face with my lack of it was during my Yoga teacher training.

The Ashram was full, as usual, with more than 300 guests from all over the world. The last program of the evening, called Satsang (meaning teachings), always ended with everyone on their knees bowing down in worship. Every one, that is, except for me who - out of fear, stubborness, and perhaps a whole host of other things - would instead sit upright surrounded by a sea Yogi backsides.

I thought the whole process of bowing down before teachers, statues of gurus, and in worship, strange. These were not my Gods. And at the same time I was not the religion-practicing kind and frankly, was afraid of it. Afraid that I might get roped into something that I didn't believe and before long I'd be walking around in a white robe, shaved head, selling flowers at airports.

But my resistance was also as much about humility.

I remembered watching an Asian woman at the Ashram bowing at the feet of one of the Swamis. In my misguided mind, it somehow seemed more appropriate for an Asian female to exhibit humility as their culture, I thought, demeaned the value of women.

For me, humility meant putting myself in a place of vulnerability and weakness. And as I already had plenty of weaknesses, I for one was not going to tack on another during my trip to India.

It seems my Independent American Woman training did not include humility. I thought that to take care of myself in this male-dominated world required me to be independent-thinking, strong, and always watching my back (which can't hardly be done when you're facing the ground).

Nevertheless, during my stay I slowly began to bow during ceremonies, though only halfheartedly. The biggest crack in my superficial thin shell began the night of our graduation. Having passed the exam, we all sat down on the the floor for our celebration meal, which included an unexpected special treat. One-by-one, our meal was served to us by the three Swamis who had been our teachers. They bowed on their knees before each of us and waited on us individually.

I was so filled with emotion that I could barely contain it. Being treated with such humility by my revered teachers taught me in my bones that humility is not so much about strength or weakness, but is more so a recognition of our interconnectedness and respect for the journey.

Independence had kept me secure, but also separate, and in that way it actually encouraged certain weaknesses born of safety.

In Yoga, there is a pose similar to that of bowing in worship that is called Child's pose. It can be done with complete surrendering, head to the floor, relaxing all the muscles in the body, trusting. It's a nice way to remind myself of the beauty, strength, soft nature of humility. I now go there often on the mat.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Original vs. Photocopy

Recently, I re-saw some footage from Ram Dass's documentary Fierce Grace. He was talking about the time that he first met his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba. At the time, Ram Dass had been taking hallucinogens as a means of experiencing spiritual ecstasy. His Guru asked to see the drugs, as he'd never taken any, and then he swallowed the bottle whole. Ram Dass watched as the drugs had no affect on him. For Ram Dass, the message his Guru was sending him was that spiritual ecstasy is within and so it was time for him to let go of his methods.

This thought struck me, as we humans love our well-worn methods to get what we want, usually based on what's worked in the past. It reminded me of an interview with Jeff Bridges as he talked about the trap he some times finds himself in whenever he acts a scene perfectly. After congratulating himself, he begins thinking – how can I do that again exactly as I just did it? And that's the trap. Thinking along those lines is like creating a photocopy of yourself, instead of living authentically and spontaneously.

To come to a place in which you admit that you don't know the best way, takes courage. It also takes mindfulness to see our methods, unload them and remain present.

Yoga gives us an opportunity to practice mindfulness in a structured manner so that we can more easily integrate the practice into our everyday lives. The process of watching the breath and feeling the affect of the poses allows us to drop down from our analyzing minds and into our bodies.

So start while you're in a yoga pose, like down-dog, and notice your method:

Pushing: “I need to be able to get my heels down on the floor - just try a little harder.”

Criticism: “Why is it that I cannot get my heels down on the floor? I'm not strong enough or limber enough to do this right.”

Checking-out: “What should we have for dinner tonight?”

Then unload it and move to mindfulness. Feel your body in the pose. Feel how the breath moves your body. No judging, just being. Allow the newness of each inhale remind you of the uniqueness of each moment.

As you practice presence/mindfulness in Yoga, you'll automatically use it in other situations off the mat. You'll notice things differently and with more fullness. And you will respond more appropriately to the uniqueness of each situation, instead of reacting to a previously run tape.

So start offering your authentic self and let Yoga's mindful approach ingrain the practice in your body. After all, a photocopy is always less vibrant and valued than the original.