Thursday, March 2, 2017

There are no coincidences

Although there seems to be a randomness to the world, unexplained occurrences that can leave us breathless either from joy or heartache, I don’t believe in coincidence. All that I have read and studied and practiced in my own life coupled with my life experience have taught me that  even though some things seem arbitrary to my limited human brain, there is a bigger picture of the universe that I am not privy to that lines things up in seemingly coincidental ways.  Like those 3D posters that were popular in the 90’s where you had to blur your eyes to see the hidden picture – the pattern seemed random, but when you focus the right way the picture would reveal itself.

Grace (or God or the Universe or whatever you want to call that which is bigger than yourself), is in a constant state of contraction and expansion and we are part of that.  We can participate with it and in doing so align ourselves with her shakti and flow so things tend to move generally in the direction we want them to go in, but as we are in relationship with her, and with so many other beings, all of whom have their own karmic imprints and cycles that they are a part of means that sometimes they line up and sometimes they really don’t. These can come in the form of “aha” moments: expansive epiphanies, beautiful happenstances, mind-blowing realizations, as well as mere “coincidences”….but can also come in the form of unexplainable devastation, heartbreaking loss, and debilitating illness. But when we are in the flow of Grace we realize that all of those are part of the same cycle.  We take responsibility for the choices we made along the way, but realize that for better or for worse we are not all-powerful or omniscient, and the way things go are not ultimately up to us alone.  
More than anything else, my training with Todd Norian was a huge lesson in spotting moments of grace in all experiences, and after years of practice these moments happen to me constantly – usually several times a day.  I don’t think they happen any more often now, I just think I’m tuned in better.  Most of these are small daily sweet little alignments, but one of my biggest “aha” moments was in Chicago in 2010.  I was at a crossroads in my teaching – I had been contemplating pursuing full Anusara Certification, had been studying a lot of Anusara and wanted to move forward.  At the same time, I became very involved in our synagogue as a result of my rabbi really taking me under her wing and reawakening my interest in Judaism.  I had started teaching a “Jewish” yoga class which was very well received but was very torn about the ways it drew me away from my Anusara studies and work.  In the midst of this my Rabbi called me into her office and told me she wanted to pay for me to go take a training in Yoga and Jewish spirituality.  It was quite costly but she was going to pay for the entire thing.  I walked out in a sort of daze…it was totally unexpected and I had to give her an answer within a few days as the program started soon and I had to arrange childcare, etc. for the 18 months I would be enrolled. 

The next morning I went for an early run, which is when I do my best thinking.  It was dark out and I was very much absorbed in my own thoughts about this process.  We had moved to Chicago for my husband’s work, yet my career was exploding.  I was getting numerous opportunities to expand professionally and I was reflecting that perhaps it was my shakti that brought us to IL not my husband’s, even though I went there kicking and screaming.  I was reflecting on the decision I had to make that would clearly shift my path away from the path I thought I wanted to be on.  I was feeling like someone was offering me a beautiful gift and when you are offered a gift you can’t say no…but it was so not in the plan.  The thought in my mind was “maybe the universe is sending me a sign that this is really my path I just hadn’t been aware of it until now”.  As that thought came into my mind I rounded a corner and in the dark, saw 2 figures standing on the corner directly in front of was my rabbi and her husband.  I was so shocked I almost fell over, I actually stumbled…wished them a good morning and ran off in utter shock.  Now, admittedly, she lived a few streets over from me in my neighborhood.  But in all my years there (almost 4) and my 5-day-a-week runs at approximately the same time, this was the one and only time I ever saw her.  I did enroll in the training and it did change and expand my life in amazing ways and I know it was the right choice. 

In The Alchemist, (Shree book club's pick of the month - join us March 12th to go deeper!!) Paulo Coelho tells us "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." When we align with our choices fully wholeheartedly Grace feels that alignment and answers in kind.  When we come onto the mat, move with our breath, align our bodies with our hearts, our energy with those in the room, and in doing so with the whole yoga community who aligns with these teachings, amazing shifts can happen.  When we are open to the push and pull, give and take, expansion and contraction of the universe we see beauty and meaning in every experience, however random or coincidental they may seem. Sometimes the most random acts turn out to be the most pivotal - and it's not that they are happening more often now. When I am sensitive, attuned, aware I simply notice them more. 

Off the Mat: Take time this week to notice "moments of grace" - seemingly coincidental events that pop up without rhyme or reason.  Look for them, be open to them, seek them out, and revel in the joy of connection.

On the mat: In my classes this week we worked on the complementary expansive and contractive energies of shins in - thighs out to build to poses (depending on level) such as Eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon lunge), agnistambasana (fire log pose), padmasana (lotus pose), eka hasta bhujasana and eka pada koundinyasana

For the Anusara Junkies:
Heart quality – stepping into the flow, being with what is, being open to the seeming randomness, aligning with coincidence

Open to Grace: open to the myriad of possibilities any moment offers you

Muscular Energy/Shins In: Hug shins to midline to engage with the current moment
Engage with the flux and flow of the Universe as it pulses in contraction and expansion (SI/TO)

Inner Spiral/Thighs Apart: widen sit bones and open to the uncertainty of life
Widen inner thighs and make space for the seeming arbitrariness of human existence

Outer Spiral: Sink tailbone and tone belly, affirming your place in the bigger picture that we are not completely aware of and yet an integral part of

Organic Energy: Celebrate the freedom that allows us to choose how we see every experience that presents itself.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Pull of your Heart

“A desire is anything but frivolous. It is the interface between you and that which is greater than you. No desire is meaningless or inconsequential. If it pulls you, even a little bit, it will take everyone higher…every desire is of profound importance with huge consequences, and deserves your attention.”
- Mama Gena

Desire gets a bad rap in yoga.  In some yoga schools it is considered to be what draws us away from our spiritual practice, but in Tantric philosophy desire is what can draw you in, because every longing, urge or impulse comes to us from the Divine.  On the the tattva chart, Tantra's "map of creation", willpower or desire is second only to Shiva and Shakti, the masculine and feminine aspects that make up the Absolute at it's absolute highest.  The Divine, Unmanifest's first impulse to bring anything and everything into creation comes from this deep level of being, and so do all our desires and impulses even in the physical realm where we live our day to day lives.  Sadashiva is one of the Absolute tattvas, making up not a place, but, as Christopher Wallace in Tantra Illuminated says: "the Divine Reality that pervades the whole of the manifest universe.... The five absolute tattvas [of which sadashiva, or desire, is the third] are essentially a description of the Divine Source of all Being."  

36 Tattvas of Tantrik Cosmology - from Christoper Wallace's book Tantra Illuminated

So…from this we learn that desire is essential. And all our desires, every one we have, flow from that part of ourselves. If you take the time you can trace every one of them back.  Now, when we trace them back we see that not all of them lead us in the direction that we want to head in in any particular moment.  We acknowledge that at any given time many aspirations may be arising and of course we can't act on all of them.  When we want to live a life of meaning and sustainability we have to be discerning about which passions we choose to pursue, and we have to inquire deeply into what the real impulse is behind what we are going after.

So allow me to share a process I recently went through in trying to decide whether to make a certain purchase. Out shopping one day I happened to see a pair of boots that I immediately decided I really, really wanted. I longed for these boots. Showing some rare self-restraint I didn't buy them on the spot  because of course I most decidedly did NOT need these boots, but I did go home and look them up online, tried to find them cheaper, and kept visiting them on the store's website for a few days. As I agonized as to whether or not to buy them I did a little exercise.  Why were these boots so important to me?

The week before, a friend was wearing a pair just like them at an event we were at together. She looked really good in them, very stylish, and I admired them. At this event were also some other women I happened to not know as well as she did, and she seemed so comfortable and at ease. She fit in so beautifully and I admired her poise and grace.  I was not feeling particularly comfortable or at ease. File it in the mental Rolodex.  When I was out shopping the next week and saw this pair of boots, the file gets activated.  Boots = fitting in, ease, poise, feeling comfortable. On the superficial level what happens is – I have to have the boots!!  But deeper…what did I really want?  Connection.  Yes, again on a superficial level connection with the other women I was with, but intrinsically what I want is to feel connected on an unshakable level, I want to know it as the truth of my being, that I am intimately connected to all of creation by the thread that weaves us all. To feel loved, feel at ease…that’s what I want.  Which of course has nothing to do with a pair of boots.

If you know me, you know I indulge my boot (and clothing, handbag, jewelry...) desires more often than I should.  If I'm being particularly mindful I avoid buying unnecessary items and seek out the deeper connections I am looking for in the form of yoga practice or a walk with a friend or date night with my husband.  But I also recognize that these desires are part of what makes me who I am, which is someone who deeply believes in the joy of self-expression and adornment as a way to connect to and celebrate the beauty of the physical Universe, which is also part of Tantric practice.  As always it’s a delicate balance. 

Yoga gives us the opportunity to tune in to our hearts, to get in touch with our desires and the impulses behind them. When we attune ourselves to our highest we remember that the Universe chose to embody and become each and every one of us to feel Itself through the vehicle of our bodies and spirits. If you deny those impulses, the deepest longings of your heart, you deny the Universe the experience of YOU. You were made manifest to shine the light only you can shine.  Every desire you have fuels that flame and urges you to burn brighter, so indulge them when you can in a meaningful way, choose wisely, and shine on!

Urdhva Dhanurasana with feet on a chair

Off the Mat:
I'll invite you to the following exercise: Close your eyes.  Where is your heart pulling you?  What do you really want right now - it can be anything at all - there is no right or wrong answer to this. Once you're clear on where your heart is pulling you, begin to trace that impulse back to its source.  Why do you want it? What benefit will it bring you?  What is the feeling associated with having whatever it is?  Let this be the intention for your practice this week – to follow the pull of your heart.

Dragon Catching its Tail

On the Mat:
Desire is the pull you feel in your heart towards something.  In Anusara-speak, Shoulder Loop is the physical expression of that pulling.  When we move the tops of the shoulders and head back, and bring the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the back of the heart, the chest opens and lifts and we feel an openness and liberation.  We literally feel the heart pulling us forward and we just have to follow it.  Work on poses like Ustrasana, Dhanurasana, Purvottanasana, Dragon catching its Tail and Urdhva Dhanurasana.  I worked on UD a lot this week with my feet on a chair to get my upper arms really vertical and my heart way out in front (if the chair feels too high you can do this with feet on 2 blocks at the wall, or feet on a step). 
For the Anusara Junkies:
Open to Grace: Set your hands/feet to reflect your desire to align with your highest intention to connect.
Ground yourself in what you long for.
Line up hands/feet and line up with your yearning for your highest self.

Muscular Energy: Engage your muscles and engage with the part of yourself deep inside from where all yearning flows.
Firm muscles and ignite your craving for _____________ (whatever your desire/intention is)

Shoulder Loop: 
Bring bottom tips of shoulder blades into your back and let your heart be pulled in the direction it wishes to go.
Feel your longing like a tether hooked to the bottom tips of your shoulder blades pulled forward through front of your heart.

Organic Energy: Shine the light of your passion from your deepest, transcendent heart.
Spread the light of devotion from the seat of your desire out to the world.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Power of Practice

 We've been watching a lot of America's Got Talent in my house, and although much of it makes me somewhat nauseous (there was a professional regurgitator on the last episode - I didn’t even know that is officially something you can be since spell check can't even seem to figure it out…), the level of dedication it takes to achieve success in your chosen talent is inspiring to watch.  As we watched last weekend, my 2 older children commented on what they were seeing - my 12-year-old saying things like "His parent must be a musician/diver/dancer", or "That level of talent is so rare".  My 9-year-old says things like "How much do you think they had to practice?" And (for the younger talent) "Do you think they have time to go to regular school too?"

This is so who they are - the older off the charts book smart, has a nearly eidetic memory, and doesn't have to work very hard to do really well in school.  The younger is emotionally intelligent, wildly creative and artistic, and has spent his life constantly trying to "live up" to his older brother.   I'll give you one guess which one is the harder worker.  And as much as this dynamic makes me cringe sometimes as a parent, I also recognize that in terms of qualities that will ensure success, the one who knows how to work really hard to get what he wants (even if it happens to be approval) will always come out ahead.  He knows how hard he has to work to be a rainmaker.

In researching the traits most conducive to success in a given field I found numerous studies that followed people that are leaders and innovators in their chosen field, the elite “achievers”.  Intelligence and talent only shows up in a couple of these studies, and never at the top of the list. The leading qualities that the most successful people in the world have are dedication, deliberate practice, self-discipline, perseverance, conscientiousness, and passion.  Blogger Raymond T. Hightower, president of WisdomGroup, summarizes a study in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: “In the early 1990s, a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany studied violin students. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?” By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.” To quote Thomas Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

In yoga, we call this quality tapas. One of the definitions of tapas is “discipline”. It’s the choice you make every day to get on the mat, to commit again and again and again to your practice.  It's the discipline of saying no to late nights out because you want to get up early and meditate.  It's what gets you on the mat after a long day when a glass of wine and mindless TV is so much easier.  It's the "no excuses" principle. Tapas is also related to heat or fire.  It’s the heat that builds by doing over and over until you get it right, in spite of frustration, roadblocks, challenges. It's the fire that stokes your passion to pursue a single-minded uplifting goal, that gets you back up after falling down again and again.
One fascinating point of the study referenced in Outliers: No “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, we would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.

What is natural or innate is the impetus of the desire, the passion for whatever it is you are passionate about which arises from a place deep inside yourself.  Tantric scripture tells us that any thought you have, any desire for greatness flows into you from the One Source of Being.  It's not natural talent that starts us on a particular path, but the will of the Divine to experience life through you as you. Whatever you want to achieve in your life is the same as what the Universe wants for you. Tapas is the burning desire to connect to your highest, it is the heat of transformation. It's the passion in your heart to live to your fullest. Heat facilitates your evolution by burning away your self-limiting patterns and false identities. When these "impurities" are burned away, your authentic radiance shines through.

Last week we talked about the power of the Shakti, how we are innately powerful beings and have the choice to use that power on our own behalf in ways that lift us and those around us up, or otherwise. In the Hindu myths, the demons don’t get rewarded by doing “good” or “evil” – they become powerful because they practice tapas – they are single minded in their focus. Nature rewards success. Danny Arguetty says: “We are free beings living in a stream of potentiality – how we participate in the world, make connections and align our intentionality allows us to harness this power to either build or destroy.”

So that’s the good news and the bad news.  You are immensely powerful. You can partner with the Shakti to create whatever it is you want for yourself.  But you have to do it.  During this challenging week when I have found it particularly easy to feel helpless, remember that your actions matter.  Your tapas can move you in whatever direction you choose as long as you are willing to put the time in, to dedicate yourself fully to what you are passionate about. And when others are using their own power – the same power you have - to move things in a direction you aren’t happy about it’s all the more important to do just that. May the light of awareness shine through all of us, and may our dedicated practice help shift the world around us in the direction we wish to see it move in.