Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to Make Your Resolutions Stick, aka I Think I'm Catching On

"There's a push and another push, the necessary dyings, the ground crumbling that lets wildflowers come up." - Rumi

The last day of January seems fitting to talk once again about resolutions or intentions, whichever you prefer, since by this time, folks have either tucked them away for another day or are making some headway.  In my last post on looking back at the gifts received in the previous cycle, I indicated that while my resolution-setting process looked much the same as in previous years, the outcome was actually quite different.

Much to my surprise, instead of dutifully making a list of all the projects I’d like to embark on, both ways to “fix” myself and things I think I “should” be doing (both of which turn out to be forms of self-loathing in a not so brilliant disguise) in the quiet aftermath of contemplating the previous cycle, a new question arose from within.  What’s next?  What is emerging?  What qualities are wanting to be more fully expressed in me?  I could feel these starting to bubble up from deep inside weeks before as the next natural direction in which to turn my attention.  There was no question, it was obvious. And so what next arose, effortlessly, was a very short, precise list of practices to support the emergence of these nascent facets of my being. For me these qualities are softness, easefulness, receptivity, and even (especially) vulnerability.  And the supporting practices: staying at home more and making my home a place I enjoy settling into, making more eye contact with folks – really seeing and listening, and establishing a longer regular meditation practice.  Now, staying at home more (and the attendant disciplines of eating less, drinking less, and spending less) and a regular meditation practice have been on my resolution list for years, YEARS, which obviously means something wasn’t working.  And yet, all of a sudden something is working, and these things have been mostly easy and even joyful; I haven’t even had to set an alarm and I’m up for meditation practice!  I’m shocked, truly.  What I’ve also noticed one month in is that at the times that I’ve not quite done what I’m wanting to do, there’s been simple observation and recommitment, no guilt, no self-flagellation, no giving up until next year, no drama. Geez, what a freakin’ relief. 

And the practices are having their desired effect.  Even though I’m as busy (and by that I mean engaged) as I was before, it feels easeful most of the time.  I even ran into someone I don’t see often in the grocery store the other day and she commented on how soft and grounded I looked. Wow.

So, what has been the difference?  How has the shift occurred?  I stopped trying to fix from the outside in to conform to what I think I should be doing and started working from the inside out, listening to this bigger flow of energy that is moving in me, as me, for me.  For the Anusarans among you, this is precisely why Open to Grace precedes Muscular Energy in our alignment principles.  First, get soft, sensitive, receptive, then the efforts that you apply will be loving and serving of the highest, not hard and punitive, and they will be more skillful and therefore more effective. You can do more and better with less. But isn’t that first principle the hardest to really get and teach, since we are so used to doing?

Even though these what seem to me to be seismic shifts appear to have happened all of a sudden, overnight, they actually have happened all of a sudden, overnight, after sixteen years of practice.  It’s been the sixteen years of practice, of internal investigation of the physical body, and then the energy body, and then thoughts and habit patterns, that have set the stage to hear the true voice within, to become sensitive enough to even be able to ask the question “what is wanting to arise from within” and then to hear the answer. In his book, Meditations on the Mat, Rolf Gates says that “When you do yoga, your bad habits drop you.” And in Christina Sell’s recent book, My Body is a Temple, she says that yoga invites us to a timeline that we are not generally familiar with. “This will take some time,” in other words.  Yet the time it takes is not most effectively nor efficiently spent in trying to rip out everything we think is unseemly about us, but rather in being dedicated to showing up to any practice that invites you into relationship with yourself. Then, when you get even a glimpse of who it is you really are, your natural impulse will be to say “yes” and those things which prevent the sweetness within from emerging will begin to fall away.
Freedom by Zenos Frudakis
Brent Barnidge
I have always loved the image of the sculptor faced with a new block of his raw material.  They say that the material actually contains within it the complete work of art, and that their job then is to see that form and simply carve away all that is not that.  That is exactly what yoga does for us, over time, and sometimes all of a sudden - it removes all that which is not really us, the calcified structures of conditioned personality (arthritis of the psyche, anyone?), in the words of one of my teachers, Christopher Wallis.  If you’ve not checked out his work, you should! He describes the work in this way:  Give up the self-improvement project, ground down into your essence nature, and then "self-improvement" will happen out of love, in service to the highest, as an inside job, and the process will mostly be joyful.  I think I'm catching on.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Letting the Ocean Instruct, Part II: Receiving the Gift of Life

Despite my intentions of slowing down the pace a bit this year, so much has been going on! So, this is my new year’s blog, a few days late, and hopefully better for the percolating.
I am a person who really likes to mark time; I love the rhythm of the year, the celebration of holidays, the thresholds, the in-between times, the moments where you sense that something new is possible.  Every moment is a threshold moment, containing the possibility for revelation and change, truth be told, but it seems that certain moments present themselves more obviously as such.  And so, not surprisingly, I relish the end of the year, and even look forward to this contemplation and intention-setting time for weeks ahead.  It helps that I’m usually able to nestle in to this process at a cozy coffee shop in Chapel Hill, NC, outside of my normal routine.  This place has a back porch that meanders out into the woods and invites lingering.  It is lovely on a winter’s day.
Before rushing into listing all of the things I’d like to do differently in the year to come (which turns out isn’t what happened at all this year!), I spend ample time looking back on what gifts the waning year has given.  There have been many, there always are.  They have come in the form of friends and challenging folks, opportunities and roadblocks, teachers and students, beginnings, endings, changing forms, great music, glorious food, sunlight through magnificent live oaks, the ocean.  I have been able to actually receive all of these gifts of the previous year because of the supreme gift of yoga, and of Anusara yoga in particular, and all that has been received has brought me to a place of a deeper engagement with life, a deeper responsibility for the freedom that is mine, and more cohesion and steadiness to the powerful light that shines within.  For me, this time of reflection is crucial to actually fully receive what is being offered.  The nature of the universe is that it’s always offering itself to us, always, and always in more ways than we can possibly imagine.  Yoga has taught me how to pay attention and acknowledge more of what’s being offered than I had before, to see the old and familiar in new ways, to penetrate to the essence of the moment, at least some of the time!  And in that attention, acknowledgement, and appreciation that what is being presented is a precious gift, even if it does not seem so at first, I am actually able to receive even more fully what is being given, and in that space of full receptivity, I can make the most of those gifts and even grow them into something greater.  This is the yoga, to apprehend the threshold that exists in each moment, enter into that seam and make of it something only we can.
I was reminded of the lavish giving of this world and also of how easy it is not to pay any attention to it during our trip to the beach (see the last post) right before Christmas.  The town was mostly deserted, deliciously quiet, and we were staying in a condo with the balcony overlooking the ocean, overlooking the ocean!!  And still, I forgot.  There it is, this vast, magnificent sea, right outside my door, the waves always coming in and going out, at once dependable and wild, and for long stretches of time I get caught going in circles in my head about something or other, caught in busy-ness, until my dear teacher of a husband reminds me that there’s an ocean out there.  And, every time, as soon as I pay attention, my breathing deepens, my mind drops into my body, and I am myself again.  This experience is being presented to us all the time in the breath itself, which is giving us our aliveness unconditionally always.  There is no obligation to pay attention and we will continue being breathed. We don’t actually have to receive the gift, but we find that when we do, we’re not only alive, but lively, more of who it is we already are. 
If you’ve not already, I invite you to spend some moments acknowledging what you been given this year. What is that you are always being given?  If you are a yoga practitioner, what specifically have been the gifts of the practice for you?  There’s no obligation to receive them, but if you do, it’ll be worth it, I promise!  Enough for now…I leave you to linger on this side of the threshold before offering my experience of intentions for the new year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Letting the Sunrise and Ocean Instruct - Myrtle Beach, SC, Dec 23, 2011

I have always loved the ocean, I suppose in part because my family spent their annual vacation there throughout my childhood.  I loved being in the water, letting the waves carry me to shore and plunging back out again. I could play for hours on end; what delight!  My parents now live on the coast and I am often only back for the holidays, and I find each year I’m drawn more and more to the solitude of the beach in the winter time. This year we had an unexpected invitation to spend some time in Myrtle Beach, SC, away from everyone’s regular schedules and holiday busy-ness. Very grateful for the slowed pace of this interstitial time, I was able to enjoy a few walks on the beach, finally waking early enough to see the sun rise on my last morning there.  Amazing how forty-five minutes can be so incredibly full.  Following are some observations from the morning; I’m sure I could ponder them for the whole of next year and not be done.

    •     I was out on the shore just as light was first beginning to show, the waters were still dark. The morning was quite cloudy, with just one strip of clear sky in which to see the changing light.  It was magnificent to watch each moment pass offering something different, the colors in the sky and the reflection of the light off the ocean waters. In every moment, a great gift is being offered, a seam or gateway into a revelation that can change us forever, and this gift changes, moment to moment.  Am I attuned enough to apprehend what is being offered and present enough to receive it?  Each moment is so precious, so gorgeous, I don’t want to miss a moment of it.

    •    This slow attendance to the changing of the light was a quintessential experience of purna, or perfection and completeness. Each view was spectacular and then the next one even better.  Having thought I’d “seen it all”, I turned toward home facing a much darker sky.  At some point I got the urge to turn and look back once more, only to realize that the view had become even more magnificent.  I saw the first touch of the sun appear ringing the clouds below in gold.  I then stood there transfixed for another ten minutes or so as I watched the sun make its way through the clear patch of sky into the next layer of clouds.  The perfect becoming more perfect. This urge to turn around, to look again, was for me such a clear moment of what we call grace, “anugraha” , that which grabs hold of you, that which reveals to you what was hidden in plain sight.
    •    And how is it that I was so fortunate to be a part of this experience?  Because I woke early, I set my intention to be up in the early morning light, I set my feet in the place where it would be possible to see such a thing.  It wasn’t easy!  I had stayed up with my family late the night before and could have easily slept through it all, but I was committed to take advantage of what the last day of this place out of time might offer.  It wasn’t easy, but it was so worth the effort.  Because I had stepped with intention and attention into the moment, I became capable of receiving the grace that was pouring forth.
    •    It is interesting to me that what makes the sunrise and sunset so beautiful is just the right amount of clouds in the sky.  It is the contrast of light and dark, of clarity and opacity, that weaves together the stunningly beautiful tapestry of all the brilliant colors. 
    •    People often say that being in the grandeur of nature like this, oceans or mountains or canyons or limitless sky, makes them feel small.  That’s not the way I see it; it’s humbling for sure, but not because I feel small and insignificant, but because I somehow feel so much bigger, knowing that the same creative energy that is shining the sun and moving the tides is forming and reforming my body and breathing me into life in each moment, and is actually looking through my eyes to see another aspect of itself.  Yoga teaches us that the only way any of us has the capacity to recognize such splendor is because we ourselves are splendid.
    •    And there, amidst the changing light, was the constancy of the ocean, as steady as the breath.  Stillness in movement and movement which contains such constancy.  I could learn this lesson for years.
And here is a favorite poem of mine from one who is an expert in allowing nature to be her teacher.

Why I Wake Early -- Mary Oliver

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety –

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Engaged, or Just Busy?

One of the things I often say in my yoga classes is that I’m only ever talking to myself, instructing my students on what it is I need to learn.  Sure glad they’re there!  So, true to form, my last blog entry was about slowing down and turning inward during this season, making these weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas a sacred time by paying attention.  Mere days later, I was rushing out the door on a Sunday morning (supposedly my day off) to hear one of my teachers, Douglas Brooks, even saying to my husband, “I’m trying to do too much at once.”  I’m walking towards the door of the studio right at the start time, walking and texting at the same time, taking care of one last piece of business, when the notoriously untrustworthy sidewalks of New Orleans rose up to make sure I was indeed paying attention.  I twisted my ankle fiercely, so fiercely that after listening to Douglas for a few hours, I still needed to cancel the rest of my appointments for the day…remember that day off? 

In one crystalline moment of Douglas’s lecture, he was talking, as he often does, about how yoga is an invitation to engage our lives purposefully and skillfully.  He made the statement, ”It’s easy to be busy; it’s hard to be engaged.” Convicted.   

So I’ve been circling around those few words for a couple of weeks now asking myself how to tell the difference. How can I know in any given moment if I’m engaged or just merely busy?  I mean many of us have lives in which it is important that we get things done, move projects forward, take care of family, and the list goes on.  Indeed, this teaching came forward in the midst of a lecture on the Bhagavad Gita in which one of the primary messages is to act. I am realizing, though, that so much of what I “have to do” is distraction from that which truly deserves my attention and engagement.  What I’ve come to, at least for now, is that in busy-ness, my mind is disconnected from the body and the breath.  Often we have so much skittering around in the mind while the body is doing its thing, whether working out or running errands or just sitting there. Air sign that I am, I tend to be very mental and also very much in love with my own ideas (thankfully, a great gift of yoga is that most of the time they’re uplifting ones!), I can go huge periods of time without any idea that I’m in a body and breathing.   

The genius of the yoga asana practice is that it is a very effective way for bringing the three all to the same place and time, though it doesn’t necessarily happen that way.  We can still bring all of our disembodied and distracted habits to the mat if we insist, but that’s another great benefit of the practice, that it reveals to you the ways you are and aren’t with yourself.  If however, we come to the practice with intention and attention, then true engagement follows. What I so love about Anusara yoga particularly is that the body is seen as sacred, equal in glory to the mind, the breath, the heart, and seeks very deliberately to bring all into harmonious engagement. The slower pace and precise alignment give me the time to move the light of awareness through the entire body and feel very present and engaged there.  When my mind, body, and breath are together, I find that my actions seem all at once slower, more deliberate, and yet more efficient and sure.  I am better able to ascertain what actually needs doing, what my heart is longing to do, what will move me towards freeom, and what is mere distraction.  Come to think of it, it’s after these contemplations and practices of the type described below, that this blog moved from lots of ideas skittering around in my head for years into a more grounded and concrete form.  Finally, I’ve engaged this particular calling of my heart, and it is freeing indeed! The world needs your attention, intention, and engagement much more than it needs your busy-ness; it needs you to spend your time and attention on what really matters to you.  In the next cycle, what one distraction can you drop to make space for true engagement? 

(For the Anusara yogis reading this, a great practice to move you from busy to engaged is to focus on the lower body loops, moving the mind into the densest form of consciousness in the legs.  Feel how your energy flies up and out of the body when you move from engaging the lower body loops to hyper-extended knees. Keep the loops going and root into fronts of heels as you move from tadasana to uttanasana and back. Utkatasana, Garudasana – really ground down into feet to stand up, Handstand with Garudasana legs.  Stay low in the lunges, especially during transitions, try moving from Warrior I to Warrior II and back again staying deeply committed in the front leg.  Also, notice any tendencies of unnecessary movement and adjusting. Let me know what you think!) 

Right now, I am keeping a much more sane pace while spending some time at the beach.  The ocean is a great teacher on this topic and many more. More on that later!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

'Tis the Season

This is my favorite time of year.  I love the cloak of the early-descending darkness which invites a turning inward as nature is moving into a state of dormancy where so much is happening under the surface.  In the Christian calendar, the Sunday after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the season of Advent.  While I no longer practice in this tradition, this time of preparing the way for the Light that comes in the midst of darkness resonates strongly with me.  For me it is a time to look back at the year gone by, to take an accounting, so to speak, of all of the blessings, challenges, opportunities (often all rolled into one) that I have experienced, to give thanks for it all, to clear out the residue, and to make space for what will unfold in the year to come. Interestingly in our culture, we have turned this time into a very external and distracted time, with shopping and parties and lots of time spent with family and friends. For many, the busy-ness, the weight of obligation, or perhaps painful circumstances past or present, make this time anything but joyful and peaceful.  We run at breakneck speed through the next weeks and breathe a sigh of relief when it is all over, and then we resolve to do things differently next year. 

The invitation of our yoga is to make our meaning, to turn what is being presented in each moment, whether mundane, challenging, or glorious, into something sacred – something worthy of reverence and respect, highly valued and important. How each of us does this is our choice entirely, but we start by paying attention, and by paying attention to what we are paying our attention to. Simply paying attention slows us down and turns us towards a place of quietude. What can you do to make this season sacred and meaningful for you?  One of the ways that I do this is to extend the season of thanks giving by writing and sending a note of gratitude each day to someone who has supported, inspired, or challenged me in the previous year. You might decide to be more intentional about the gatherings you attend or the shopping you do, purposefully choosing how you spend your time so you can be more fully present. Maybe making time to be in nature more, paying your attention to the way the light is changing now, will help you slow down and prepare for a fresh start and new growth.  Maybe you take time to look people in the eye as you shop and exchange gifts so you don’t miss the greatest gift of all, that of presence. Maybe you read inspirational words each day or commit to even a short daily yoga, meditation, pranayama or mantra practice. Maybe you simply pay your attention to your breath, to your incredible aliveness, for five minutes each day.  Maybe you let go of old resentments and make peace with your past so you move into the new year freed of the residue from years gone by.  So many choices!  When we use our attention and intention to turn each moment into a sacred moment, then we prepare the way for that which is sacred, unassailable, inviolable, and light within us to shine more brightly.  How will you pay your attention during these days?