Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sages and Shoemakers

Astavakra was aware that he was a philosopher and a scholar from almost the moment of his conception.  When his mother was pregnant with him, he would listen to his father chant the Vedas, and he noticed that his father often misquoted the sacred text.  One day he could stand it no longer and from his mother's womb he called out to his father correcting a mistake.  His father became enraged and cursed him in the womb, causing his body to bend in 8 places, and Astavakra is hence born with a disfigured body (asta­ means “eight”, vakra means “bent” in Sanskrit).  When he was grown, still considering himself a scholar, he decided to go to the court of King Janaka to learn from the famed Vedic scholars who were rumored to study in his assembly.  Because of his disability it took him many days walking with a cane to get there.  When he arrived, he was greeted with laughter at his deformed body. At some point the King observes that the sage appeared to be laughing harder than anyone else – he approaches Astavakra to ask why and realizes that he is actually crying not laughing.  The king asks why he is crying and he replies that he is utterly disappointed.  He tells the King "I came in search of scholars and philosophers of great wisdom and found only shoemakers."  Janaka, offended, asks "Why do you think there are only shoemakers?"  Astavakra replies “because these men only see skin, not the soul.  They only see the surface and base their evaluations only on the outer appearance. Coming here has been a waste of time.”  Recognizing the truth of his sentiments, King Janaka bowed down to Astavakra and became his loyal student in the science of the soul for many years following.

This story begs the question of each of us as to how much we identify with the outer form of our bodies.  The body is the temple of the soul and should be respected and treated with reverence and care, yet we are so much more than just our physical appearance.  Yoga is a tricky spiritual practice – the reason it is so transformative and powerful is that it incorporates the physical with the deeper levels of who we are as humans – the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects that make up the soul.  Yet because there is a physical practice involved we can get caught up in just the flesh and forget the spiritual piece that is the true goal of the practice – to unite us with our transcendental soul and the source of all creation. The upsurge in "yoga porn" on social media has in some ways exacerbated this problem.  It's so hard to draw the line of where inspiration crosses over to gratuitous self-indulgence or self-promotion.  The line of where sharing a pose or a practice you love with those around you simply because you love it (there is value in that - much like a musician performs a song) shifts from spiritual practice to bowing down to the goddess of youth, beauty and flexibility.  I have struggled with this question for years - I don't know exactly where that line is.  I try to only post photos that exemplify a teaching I want to share.  But if I'm being totally honest, some of those posts are entirely dependent on how I feel about the way I look in a pose and what the scale read that week.  Sigh.

What this story really says to me is that each time we put a label on someone or something we limit it and our own understanding of the true nature of whatever it might be. We fail to see the soul, the spirit, and the unique light of an individual. My 8-year-old son was diagnosed this year with ADHD and although it was not at all news to me, I still cringed that he would be put in the box that a diagnosis can build around and inside a person.  To my amazement, the opposite happened - instead of it limiting him, it opened countless doors and he has flourished under the guidance and care of amazing teachers.  (For more of Kiran's story, see this video.)  I am choosing to see his “diagnosis” as just another way of understanding my child, to meet him where he is and move him forward with the hand he has been dealt.  There is nothing “positive” or “negative” in it, it just is.  I think if we can see all our attributes this way, not allow them to box us in but rather to open new pathways of learning and experience, we break through that skin barrier and move closer to the ever-present light of being within ourselves. 

When Astavakra walked into that room, the scholars immediately put him in the “disabled” box – it is simply human nature to label and categorize because on some level it makes life easier, helps us deal with our own insecurities and discomfort around what is different than we are. We all do it. And it is possible, like my son's teachers did this year, to choose to use that label to help see deeper to the true nature of a person. In the non-dual tradition, we understand that all life flows from the same source, whether we view it on the outside as “beautiful” or “ugly” or “misshapen” or “broken” or any other label we can put on it.
Yoga practice is ultimately the practice of uncovering our true nature, hidden beneath the surface of our flesh and skin and bone.  What we do with our bodies does influence the inner experience and can be part of the bigger whole of who and what we are, but it’s not the whole picture.  What we do on the mat should be in service of a deeper connection to our Source .  When we make that connection within ourselves, we see beyond the costume of the skin to the true essence of each and every being.  How we see and experience the world is always a matter of perspective.  I like to think of it as a beautiful tapestry – looked at from the back it’s a muddled mess of strings, from the front a stunning picture. It’s the same tapestry, but which side are you looking at?

Off the Mat:
From your barista at Starbucks to your babysitter, your spouse, your child, your mailman, your tollbooth operator, try to see the beautiful picture rather than the mess of strings first, regardless of even how someone might be behaving.  Recognize the divine light present in every being you come in contact with, see beyond outer appearance, behavior, attitude to the inner soul.  In every interaction remember that we all flow from the same source. 

On the Mat:
Practice with eyes closed as much as possible.  Have the inner experience of the pose more than the outer.  Let the poses evolve from the inside out.
In my advanced classes we worked of course towards astavakrasana, a tricky arm balancing pose in honor of Astavakra and his 8 bent places. In beginner classes we worked towards astangpranam or knees-chest-chin pose. To prep for the arm balance, work on opening the hamstrings, upper body strength as in caturanga dandasana, and some core cultivation to help lift you up.  Above all, don’t judge the pose by what it looks like!  If it doesn’t seem possible to you right now, work all the prep poses and (if you want to) eventually you will get there.  Take yourself out of the “I’m too old, weak, big, small, inexperienced, scared, (fill in the blank)…” box and see what opens up for you.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace: Soften to the broken places inside yourself, the places that feel bent or even disabled.
Inhale and feel the inner body, the soul, fill the outer form of your body.
Claw your fingers to the mat, grounding in all your bent and twisted places.

Muscular Energy/Shins In: Embrace your bent and broken places.
Hug from the outer skin to the inner soul.
Feel the muscles tone beneath the skin, connecting to a deeper layer of your bein.
(In prep for astavakrasana) Hug knee to shoulder embracing all your twisted, kinked parts.
Hug elbows to midline (in caturanga & arm balances) celebrating the bent places that move you deeper into your pose and yourself.

Shoulder Loop: Move the HABB and open your heart to your crooked places. 

Organic Energy: Shine the light of your soul beyond the physical form of the pose.
Be radiant in your bent places.
Fill your physical form with the radiant light of your soul.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Lessons from a Tortoise

A Cliff Notes version of the story from the epic Mahabharata that explains Vishnu's appearance in his tortoise-like form as Kurmavatara, inspiring the yoga pose kurmasana:  During a war against the Asuras (demon-gods), many of the Devas (demi-gods) perished.  As a result, the Devas sought out Vishnu's help in producing amrita (the nectar of immortality) by churning the cosmic ocean.  The Devas decide to use Mount Mandara in the center of the ocean as the churning rod and Vasuki, the king of the serpents on whom Vishnu rides, as the churning rope.  The giant snake wraps himself around the mountain and the Asuras hold the head and the Devas hold the tail and they pull back and forth.  As they begin to churn the mountain begins to sink into the ocean.  As always when things go awry Vishnu manifests into the world, this time in his tortoise form as Kurmavatar.  He climbs under the mountain and holds it up so the churning can continue. This process churns up a number of things from the depths - one was the lethal poison known as halahala, which Shiva swallows to save humanity from certain death and forever turns his throat blue.  The goddess Lakshmi also arises from the divine stirring, as well as jewels, nymphs, and a divine cow.  Eventually amrita is produced, and the Devas drink to immortality.  

A beautiful depiction of the Churning of the Milk Ocean at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bankok
Vishnu represents the sustaining force of the Universe, which is why he is the one to show up when life starts to fall apart, and there are many yogic practices associated with his mythical tortoise-form. The hard outer shell represents our practice-born ability to stand strong beneath the churning of life, to support the often-turbulent processes that we have to weather in search of a long and meaningful existence. It represents the strength and stability we need to stay steadfast on our spiritual path. 

Kurmavatar also epitomizes the fifth step on Patanjali's ashtanga (eight-limbed) path: pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.  Just as a turtle draws its head and limbs into its shell for safety and protection, we yogis develop the ability to draw into ourselves to protect our emotional and mental well-being.  In a world increasingly filled with sensory overload, being able to bring awareness inwards to a subtler, quieter, more refined state of being is essential to living with authenticity. I know for me, the more I allow myself to be bombarded with epithets, slogans, memes and hashtags, the more drawn out of myself I become.  I get sucked in by the pretty noise and lose my center, meaning the decisions I make are less a reflection of who I actually am than the person I’m being told I should be. 

Pratyahara gives us the ability to draw our senses away from outer distractions so we can begin to tap into what Sally Kempton calls “the meditation bandwidth” without interference. As we draw our senses inwards, like a tortoise retreating into its shell, we can access the more subtle layers of our awareness, and come closer to our divine essence.  Although is traditionally practiced as a beginning or lead in to meditation practice, it is related to mindfulness practice and helpful in many situations in our daily lives. For example, if we are watching TV or reading a book or surfing our phones when we are eating a meal we are not tuned in to our bellies and when they are actually full.  See any one of the numerous studies that have shown that people who eat in front of the television overeat and make less healthy food choices.  In relationships, if we can be aware of our inner voice we can respond in the present situation from a place of connection and calm. In asana practice, if we are tuned inwards to our own physical and energy bodies we can feel the subtle movements and alignments that will bring us deeper into our poses - the ones we miss when our minds wander off to how lovely a fellow practitioners pose looks, or the adorable baby geese walking by the windows.

The most obvious attribute of the tortoise that can inform our yoga
practice is to simply slow down.  Spiritual practice, meaningful living, learning and growing take time and practice.  The tortoise way is represented by our continual dedication to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, sometimes staring at the backs of the ones who we feel have pulled ahead of us, seemingly absent of the glory of the leader of the race, and yet the only way to get there.
Off the Mat:
Take time this week to practice drawing inwards.  Some ways to do this: designate a time each day where you can spend 5 minutes with your eyes closed, allowing the breath to draw you inside.  Really, just start with 5 minutes!  If it is working for you, gradually extend the time each week and let a meditation practice begin to flourish.  Or try eating a meal with minimal distractions - no radio, TV, newspaper, phone - and chew each bite 20 - 30 times.  

On the Mat:
Practice forward bending postures which allow us to turn inwards more easily. Do some good hamstring lengthening (like Adho Mukha Svanasana, supta Padangusthasana, and ardhahanumanasana or ardha gomukhasana) as well as shoulder openers (garudasana arms work particularly well) working on creating a long spine before a gentle turtle-shell curve in kurmasana.  If full kurmasana is too deep, upavista konasana or paschimottanasana sitting on a blanket with a strap are good alternatives.

For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Fill the inner body with life sustaining breath.
Breathe in and fill yourself with all that supports and holds you steady in practice and in life.

Muscular Energy: Draw from skin –muscle-bone and draw awareness from surface distractions to inner peace and tranquility.
Hug legs to the midline, into a still, calm, quiet place inside.

Organic Energy: Lengthen the spine by expanding away from the focal point, then create a gentle curve.
(In seated forward bends) Root from the PFP down to the earth, and rise up through the spine expanding your inner quiet state through the whole pose.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Waxing and Waning

There is a story in Hindu Mythology about the phases of the moon came to be.  As usual, there are numerous variations of this story, but the basic gist is that Ganesha (the elephant-headed deity) was returning from a great feast at a palace where he overindulged his sweet tooth and was feeling quite full as he teetered atop the mouse he rides upon (kind of like me at Mother’s Day brunch on Sunday…). In the moonlight a snake slithered onto the path and startled the mouse, knocking Ganesh off his mount.  When he fell, the impact caused his belly to split open and all the sweets to spill out (“Like a piƱata!” as one of my students said).  Dismayed that he lost his delicious meal, he crawled around picking up the delicacies and stuffing them back into his belly, tying the snake around his middle like a belt to keep them all inside for good.

The moon, known also as Chandra, watched this scene unfold beneath him to great amusement and was laughing quite raucously. Ganesha, like most people, did not like to be made fun of, so he cursed Chandra that his light would never shine again. The moon immediately realized how much he had hurt the sweet and normally quite jolly deity and became very contrite and apologetic, begging Ganesha’s forgiveness.  Ganesha of course accepts his forgiveness, but tells Chandra that unfortunately he is not able to rescind the curse.  The moon is distraught – his beautiful, auspicious light would never shine again!   Ganesha realizes that although he can't abolish the curse, he can modify his harsh judgment: for the first half of the month the moon’s light will get smaller and smaller until there is only one day with no light, then gradually get bigger and brighter for the second half of the month until he is returned to his full glory. Chandra is placated and slips easily into his new rhythm of life, and Ganesha goes home, happily full again.

Often in yoga we draw on the wisdom of nature to guide us, and the phases of the moon give us insight into the human condition.  The moon is the moon: a giant hunk of rock circling the Earth.  It doesn't change, it is always there, and no matter where we are on Earth, we see the same moon.  But our experience of it is different - sometimes we see it at night, sometimes during the day, sometimes huge and full and sometimes not at all. One of my favorite Sanskrit sayings is "Ya drishti sa srishti”, which means “As your vision is, so is creation.” or in other words "The world is as you see it.”    

Our “reality” is as we see it – just as our experience of the moon changes based on the position of the Earth and the Sun, our experience of the hidden beauty of the universe shifts and changes based on the circumstances of our lives. Some days are half moon days, some days are full moon days – some days we remember clearly our wholeness and freedom, and some days we can only access a sliver of it, or none at all.  As the moon phases remind us, although the light is smaller as the moon waxes and wanes, it is no less brilliant.  The moon reflects its radiant light no matter how big or small it appears in the sky, and even on a new moon day when we can’t see it at all, we can always remember that it is there and hopefully that is enough to get us through until the next phase.  And just as the moon is tethered to the Earth through the pull of gravity, our practice can help tether us to what keeps us in orbit in our own lives – the “giant hunk of rock” that is the core and truth of our true nature: radiant, illuminative grace.

Tantric philosophy tells us that the sun and moon, light and dark, are simply opposite sides of the same coin. Just as we can’t have an inhale without an exhale, they are inextricably linked and one is not “better” than another, they just “are" (like the sun and the moon).  Our yoga practice helps us to find as much joy in the shadows, the lunar side, as we do in the bright solar places in our lives.   No matter what cycle of life we find ourselves in, yoga helps us to connect to fullness and shine as bright as we can whatever phase we find ourselves in.  We always have the choice to be as radiant and full as the moment allows for. 

Off the Mat:  
Make it a point this week to notice the moon.  Observe its subtly shifting and changing form.  Each time you see it, remind yourself that it is the same moon, only your limited experience of it has changed.  

On the Mat:
Warm up with a Chandra Namaskar  or Moon Salutation - there many variations found online and work towards Ardha Chandrasana in your practice this week.  If this is a pose you have already mastered, try a more challenging caritation such as Ardha Chandra Chapasana, Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana, or Baddha Ardha Chandrasana.  The moon represents cool, quiet, calm energy, so even if you are doing a vigorous practice work to invite lunar qualities to all you do.  Finish with Chandra Bhedana pranayama to seal your practice.

For the Anusara junkies:
Open to Grace: Open to your breath and open whatever phase of your life you find yourself in with acceptance.

Muscular Energy: Drawing in (to FP) and connecting to that which is ever present and constant and holds you steady as a rock.
Draw muscles to bones like the moon is drawn to the Earth.
Standing strong and firm in whatever chapter of your story you are living today.
Like the pull of the moon on the oceans, draw into that which is heavy and strong in your life.

Organic Energy: Shine brightly in whatever phase of existence you are in.
Root (from FP to floor) and ground yourself in your true nature of freedom and joy.
Shine and radiate luminescent lunar light from the core of your being.