Saturday, October 3, 2009


"Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained - these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles. Accompaniments to the mental distractions include distress, despair, trembling of the body and disturbed breathing."

-- Patanjali, Yoga Sutras I:30-31
Even once you have begun to practice yoga and have experienced the amazing effects it can have on your life, there is still the tendency to backslide. Patanjali was well aware of this problem and acknowledged it in the Yoga Sutras. In the past month or so, I have come up against most, if not all, of the mental distractions he described... and their negative effects. When the backsliding happens, I tend to fall off the wagon hard: eating badly, skipping asana practice and other physical exercise, indulging stress and anxiety, and lashing out. I guess if it happened to Patanjali, it can happen to anyone!

To the degree to which practicing yoga regularly can transform your experience of daily life, not doing yoga is like a slow poison, eating away at your happiness. Suddenly you feel dull and lifeless: mentally, emotionally and physically. Luckily, there are signs which wake us up and remind us to practice: pain, despair, distress in the body and breathing. Even more luckily, the ancient yogis determined a number of techniques that can help us get back on track. Through meditation, pranayama, and asana practice, we can return our mind to a calm state. Patanjali suggests that wee can also "cultivate attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion toward the unhappy, delight toward the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked."

Patricia Walden and Jarvis Chen suggest that one can use "tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara-pranidhana (surrender) to overcome the obstacles." They also quote the Bhagavad Gita, which says that "No effort on the path is ever lost." This is one of the most comforting aspects of yoga for me. You can fall off the wagon a few times - everyone does - but you always have a choice to practice in the present moment, and it is your choice right now that matters. Sometimes the real world is not that forgiving. You can make mistakes in the real world that can alienate others or close doors forever. But the practice of yoga is forgiving because what counts is your willingness to continue to practice right now.

Sometimes when you can't see the road clearly it is easy to lose your way, or to take a turn too quickly and end up in a ditch. But maybe, just maybe, the next time you see the "blind drive" sign, you might remember and slow down a little, or stop the car and get out and walk. You can't undo the last slide, but you can hope that your previous effort was not lost. It will be easier to get back on track again, and to avoid pitfalls in the future, because you practiced.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Releasing your Expectations

September 18, 2009
Finding Joy in Life's Surprises
Releasing Your Expectations

As we endeavor to find personal fulfillment and realize our individual ideals, we naturally form emotional attachments to those outcomes we hope will come to pass. These expectations can serve as a source of stability, allowing us to draft plans based on our visions of the future, but they can also limit our potential for happiness by blinding us to equally satisfying yet unexpected outcomes. Instead of taking pleasure in the surprising circumstances unfolding around us, we mourn for the anticipation left unfulfilled. When we think of letting go of our expectations, we may find ourselves at the mercy of a small inner voice that admonishes us to strive for specific goals, even if they continually elude us. However, the opposite of expectation is not pessimism. We can retain our optimism and free ourselves from the need to focus on specific probabilities by opening our hearts and minds to a wide variety of possible outcomes.

When we expect a situation, event, or confrontation to unfold in a certain way, it becomes more difficult to enjoy the surprises that have the potential to become profound blessings. Likewise, we may feel that we failed to meet our inner objectives because we were unable to bring about the desired results through our choices and actions. Consider, though, that we are all at the mercy of the universal flow, and our best intentions are often thwarted by fate. As you grow increasingly open to unforeseen outcomes, you will be more apt to look for and recognize the positive elements of your new circumstances. This receptivity to the unexpected can serve you well when you are called upon to compromise with others, your life plans seem to go awry, or the world moves forward in an unanticipated manner by granting you the flexibility to see the positive aspects of almost any outcome.

The further you distance yourself from your expectations, the more exhilarating your life will become. Though a situation in which you find yourself may not correspond to your initial wants, needs, or goals, ask yourself how you can make the most of it and then do your best to adapt. Your life’s journey will likely take many unpredicted and astonishing twists because you are willing to release your expectations.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Fear of falling

"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive -- the risk to be alive and express what we really are."
-- Don Miguel Ruiz

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do."
-- Eleanor Roosevelt

Arm balances and inversions are classic ways to work with the emotion of fear in hatha yoga. I've recently been re-visiting both after years of avoidance. These poses raise in me, as for many people, a sense of impossible challenge - both in terms of strength and skill. I was content with my sun salutations, but recently I've been encouraging myself to confront my fears and work on these postures. I've learned a lot in particular from bakasana (crane pose) and salamba sirsasana (headstand) in recent weeks. Both poses evoke fear in me - but that has come about in different ways for each pose - and in both poses I have recently begun to overcome my fear of falling.

I was introduced to bakasana several years ago by a teacher I liked and trusted. I had been pursuing a lot of gentle and restorative yoga during that period, which was helping me cope with a stressful job change. As I returned to more faster, flow-based asana, I discovered that I had built a lot of strength and flexibility working in the gentler traditions. When this teacher demonstrated bakasana, I believed her assertion that I could accomplish this pose. Like a child who has not yet learned that the world holds dangers, I went into the pose innocently and fearlessly. I soon lifted into the beginner variation of this pose, feet lifted but arms not yet straight, and I loved how it felt to balance there.

So where did my fear of this pose come from? In researching for this post, I found this about arm balances on Mark Stephens' web page: "They involve fear and ego while bringing about self-confidence and humility." I was about to experience the ego and humility part of things. Eager to show off this new arm balance one day, I attempted it at home without warming up, went into it too quickly, held it briefly, and then crashed hard onto the bridge of my nose. It hurt! I was wearing glasses at the time, which bent quite badly but luckily could be repaired. My ego and my innocent fearlessness, however, took more permanent damage and for the next two years or more I was unable to lift even one foot off the ground in this pose.

Headstand is different. Inversions terrify me (with the exception of shoulder stand, which I think I went into early enough in my practice that it didn't occur to me to be scared). Of course I can't do that, I tell myself. I'll fall and/or smash my head on the ground! Whenever headstand has come up in class, I've done the preparatory exercises, which were scary enough. Working with my fear in the preparatory poses was hard; it never occurred to me to actually try to kick up into the full pose.

Several weeks ago, I was practicing at home and I just kicked up into headstand at the wall. I have no idea what made me do it. There's no question that I had the ability to do this all along. I could tell that my alignment was good in the pose; my weight was in my arms, and I was comfortable there. All the fear just melted away, and since I've been able to continue working in the pose. It has done wonders for my self-confidence!

Bakasana is harder. I wonder if this is because my body has a painful memory to go along with the fear. I am just beginning to trust the strength of my arms again, my ability to know how the weight of my body should be distributed. It takes me a long time to find the courage, but I'm finally able to lift my feet off the ground again. I hope that one day I'll be able to straighten the arms.

I'm starting to recognize how often these two types of fear come up in other aspects of my life. Sometimes we're afraid that we'll fall (or fail) because of a previous experience; sometimes we're just afraid because of what lurks in our imagination. It's important to acknowledge that fear is a legitimate response to many things. After all, falling heavily on your head or neck is dangerous. Having your heart broken is devastating. Losing your job can put you in dire financial straits. The list goes on and on. But fear is so often paralyzing, and it can prevent us from experiencing our true potential, from continuing to learn and grow. We have to learn to assess our abilities and strength; to know when to go further; to have faith in our own resources and in those who support and encourage us; and to know what is and is not a serious consequence. Whether it's an inversion or love, the results of that trust can be exhilarating.

Let yourself take flight.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Love is powerful stuff

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
-- The Dalai Lama

"I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon."
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
This morning, I was early for an appointment and stopped at a cafe. I was reading about compassion in The Joy of Living. As I walked to my appointment, I was doing a casual version of a loving-kindness meditation. Last night in yoga class, we had worked on backbends, all heart opening postures. In savasana, I had experienced a momentary breakthrough to a very calm place of connection with everything. So as I walked, I was remembering this moment and thinking about what I had been reading. I began to practice focusing on my heart while thinking about someone I love, and then visualized that love and openness radiating out to all the world around me.

I paused to wait for traffic at a crosswalk. I imagine I had a smile on my face as I waited there. An elderly man walking by stopped and stared at me and then said, in an odd tone of voice, "Thank you."

I looked at him. He must have realized it was somewhat strange because he explained, "I was having a depressing morning, and then I saw you standing there, and I don't know why but you changed my perspective somehow. Thank you."

You can be skeptical about his intentions if you want, but that gave me a chill - the sense that this man had actually received the love I had been sending. Love is powerful stuff, and it's contagious. And I have to warn you, the primary symptom is happiness. Look out - you might catch it!

Who am I kidding?! We all want happiness. Well, here's some loving kindness. Pass it on.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

All phenomena proceed from the mind

I'm currently reading The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. (Thanks Stephanie. xx)

Here is a video of Mingyur Rinpoche teaching. The analogy of the watch is one he talks about in the book.

Today I was struck by his description of one of the Buddha's teachings. In it, a young man comes to a great master seeking a profound teaching. The master agrees to share one - after the young man has a cup of tea. As he's about to drink, the tea transforms into a beautiful lake. The young man stands looking at the lake, and a girl appears. They fall in love at first sight and he goes home with her. Her parents also like him, and the two get married and have two children.

In his teens, their son falls ill and dies, and their daughter is killed by a tiger shortly thereafter. Overcome with grief, the man's wife drowns herself in the lake. Her mourning parents stop eating and starve to death. Having lost everything, the young man goes to the lake to drown himself. As he's about to throw himself in, he suddenly finds himself back in the master's house, holding the cup of tea.

Though he had lived an entire lifetime, harly an instant had passed; the cup was still warm in his hands and the tea was still hot.

He looked across the table at the teacher, who nodded, saying, "Now you see. All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness. They do not truly exist except in the mind, but they are not nothingness. There is your profound teaching."

As I read the teacher's words, I felt a kind of liberation as a whole lot of fear fell away. I'm still not entirely sure that I know why, but as someone who has despaired after loss, this story gave me an incredible feeling of space and hope. Doesn't this story speak to something we all fear - losing everyone we love? This unspeakable pain... it is definitely not nothingness. But our experience of it arises in the mind, sinks back into the mind. And most dangerous of all is the fear of pain that has not happened. Sometimes we make that into something so solid, so real.

All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness.

Meditation teachers often use the analogy of the mind as the sky, and thoughts as clouds that arise from it and pass through it but are not permanent. (I've also heard the analogy of leaves on a stream, and I particularly like the sense of movement I get from that image.) You can sit and watch those thoughts arise, drift across your mind, and float away without attaching to them. Sit and watch the fear of incredible loss with identifying with it.

All phenomena proceed from the mind, which is emptiness.
Happiness is our birthright.
We all have monkey mind. Watch it chatter. Let it go on and on.
Let the big sky of the Self be still.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

I am the mover of the tree of the universe.

"I am the mover of the tree of the universe. My fame rises high like a mountain peak. My root is the Supremely Pure Brahman. I am the unstained essence of the Self, like the nectar of immortality that resides in the sun. I am the brightest treasure. I am the shining wisdom. I am immortal and undecaying."
-- From the Upanishads

Friday, August 28, 2009


I practice now not so much with ambition as with gratitude. And I ask myself frequently, ‘How can I express kindness right now?’ whether I am in a headstand or washing dishes.
-- Judith Lasater

Many people think of yoga as a workout, but in the yoga sutras, Patanjali described eight limbs of yoga, of which only one was physical poses. The eight limbs are:
  1. Yama - yoga ethics, ways of treating the world
  2. Niyama - principles of self-discipline and spiritual practice, ways of treating yourself
  3. Asana - physical poses
  4. Pranayama - breath control
  5. Pratyahara - withdrawal from the sensory world, inward focus
  6. Dharana- concentration
  7. Dyana- meditation, focus
  8. Samadhi - transcendence, enlightenment
Of course, like any other ancient sacred text, this is open to many variations in translation and interpretation. But my point is that the full system of yoga is much more than just a workout.

I am devoted to yoga. There's no question that I have been practicing constantly. My practice has been helping me to grow, to be happier, to manage stress better, to maybe be more compassionate in my interactions with the world. To let go of what I do not need to carry. Over the past few months, I have been working mostly with the first, second and fourth limbs.

In the past two weeks, I've returned to a more regular asana practice and feel like I'm ready to experience it in a new way. I've been making some discoveries, however, about the gap between how I see myself experiencing asana and my actual experience. For instance, I've begun attending a new studio, which I love except for one thing - the mirrors along the wall of the main room. For the past few years, I've been practicing yoga in rooms without mirrors, learning to experience the poses from the inside. Confronted with the mirrors, I can't help looking at myself. And suddenly, that judgmental voice that I thought I had exorcised comes back and says she doesn't like the way I look. And then I'm consumed by this voice. I'm suddenly just battling my self-hatred.

Next week, I'll set up away from the mirror. But that's not the point. My point is that there's still practice to be done. And the tricky thing is not judging myself for judging myself, not hating myself for hating myself. To observe the thoughts passing through without identifying with them, attaching to them. Without letting them take me over.

Here's another one. Last week I did my first headstands (by the wall). I've never been competitive with asana, and I've always had a fear of inversions, so getting upside down is a new experience for me. I learned something unexpected from all this: that the phrase I've never been competitive with asana is not truthful. It's how I would like to see myself, it's the yogini I want to be. The truth is, I was proud of getting up into headstand and I boasted about it all over the internet - and the deep motivation for that was to be praised. I was hungry for others to validate my achievement.

This became really obvious when a friend commented that she was surprised that I hadn't done a headstand before, since I always talk about how important yoga is to me and she's been doing headstands herself, without the wall. Now, I realize there's a chance my friend will read this post, and if she does, I hope she will understand that I do not write about this with any malice, but simply to examine my own reaction to her comment. Because my initial reaction was angry, defensive, indignant. At first, I wanted to reply, all holier-than-thou about how yoga was more than a physical practice to me and it wasn't a contest. Ironic, right?

If I look at my reaction more deeply, I realize that she challenged the core of my identity. I also realize that I am still clinging to all the self-judgments that are floating around in my brain. I see that I am holding so tightly to these notions of myself that I am almost willing to violate all the principles I profess to be defending.

So I did not reply to this comment, until this blog post that is. Is that progress? Maybe. It's not as easy as it sounds, to be a good person for the right reasons. Not because you want praise and validation for doing what's right. Not because it fits with your self-image. But because it really flows from the heart.

One of my teachers starts every class by suggesting that we release our expectations. I think that's a good goal to strive for. I am grateful to my friend for her comments. Like a mirror, she held my image up to me, and it was not what I expected to see.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Requesting a favor

I'm currently working on my MA in International Education (IE). One of my personal goals for this program has been to find a way to integrate my yoga with my IE background. I'm excited that I am finally conceptualizing a way to do this through my final project. My initial idea is to create a program that will integrate yoga techniques with a view to helping students cope with stress from culture shock and exams in an international education project. As this develops, I may decide to do a research study instead of designing a program; I'm not yet sure what final form this project will take.

For the time being, I'm doing a small study with American college students for one of my classes in order to begin to explore some of these ideas. The aim of the study is to investigate how college students use techniques and practices learned in yoga classes outside of class in order to cope with stressful situations. There's lots of research that suggests that yoga does have both short-term and long-term effects on stress (something which yogis know intuitively) but little to no work has been done on how students use specific practices such as pranayama. This is something I've become very interested in in my own practice and would love to explore formally.

For my current study, all I require is college students who also study yoga - preferably at their college but I would also accept participants who study yoga off-campus. Participants will simply have to respond to a two-page questionnaire, which should take no more than ten minutes. I'm looking for students who study in the US, although they do not have to be Americans. I would consider participants who study in Canada. I'm having great difficulty finding participants because it's summer, and my study is in danger of being a total failure. Please help!

I'm hoping someone will see this post who teaches at a college, studies at a college, or otherwise has contacts with people who would fit my participant requirements. Please e-mail me at if you think you can help.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tremendous confidence

Life has taken me away from this blog for a while - which overall is a very good thing, since life is much more important than blogging! What brings me back is a mantra I've been considering recently, something that one of my teachers says: Have tremendous confidence that you can. She usually says this right before we do something the mind warns is impossible, like standing on our heads. I love this mantra because often confidence (or lack thereof) is the only thing standing between me and what I want. I love it because the phrase tremendous confidence acknowledges how challenging it can be to believe, how much effort is needed to act on faith. I love it because I can feel the difference it makes in my body, in my mind, in my breath.

Recently, I viewed myself in a video from Jason Crandell's workshop at the Ojai Yoga Crib in 2007:

It's amazing to watch myself practice as I was two years ago. Almost from the beginning, I've loved Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and have felt at home in it. Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) was a whole different story. Around the time of this video, I was referring to this pose as "my nemesis." The video features me falling in Ardha Chandrasana... on both sides. I'm struck by a couple of things when I see this video. First of all, by how different I now feel in my body when I do Ardha Chandrasana - sensations of ease, grace, lightness. And secondly, by the fact that in this video, it is visibly clear that I had learned to take myself into a posture in which I knew I would probably fall, to practice with joy in the face of great challenge. But I had not yet learned to have tremendous confidence that I could do the pose without falling, in spite of past history and rational or irrational fears.

I feel myself sometimes at this same crossroads in my life off the mat: willing to face challenge with a smile, but at the same time, lacking the confidence to just act without fear. In trying to break old patterns, whether it's falling in Ardha Chandrasana or holding your truth back in a relationship, sometimes you can spend too much time examining the pattern - and the more you look at it, the more it repeats itself. Sometimes the key might be to forget about the pattern, forget that you have ever been in a similar situation before, tap into that tremendous confidence, and step into the pose. With grace. And breath. Breath never hurts either.

When I see myself falling in 2007 and then feel myself lifting into Ardha Chandrasana in 2009, it gives me hope. Maybe the things that seem challenging now in my life will be second nature to me in two years. On second thoughts, I'll drop the "maybe." The things that seem challenging now in my life will be second nature to me in two years. I have tremendous confidence that I can.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Retreat and renewal

In a few short hours I'm heading east. My first stop will be the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. I'll be there for about five days on the Retreat and Renewal program. I'm looking forward to a lot of yoga, meditation, learning, eating healthy, and relaxing in the outdoors. I'm particularly happy to see that I can close my retreat with a kirtan session.

I have been a bit surprised to note my anxiety about being "unplugged" for these five days. It is my intention to turn off my cell phone and my computer until I leave Kripalu. I have become so used to being consistently available for work and school online and by phone. I'm amazed that I am so worried about not being in touch with my regular world. Of course, at the same time I'm excited about the opportunity to just be. No internet connection, no cell phone connection, but plenty of connection to the heart and the universe I live in.

See you all in a week. Namaste.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Be happy

You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.
-- Albert Camus

You can never get enough of what you don't need to make you happy.
-- Eric Hoffer

Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times.
-- Aeschylus
I'm probably too tired to be blogging right now, but I've been thinking about how I keep returning to the same struggle: to be happy with what I have. There are many blessings in my life, and no reason to keep looking around the next corner for something that is missing. There is always something missing, but happiness only exists in the present moment. I am trying to just allow myself to be here now with what is, not in the past or the future, but right here. I have all that I need.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Letting go of the past

"Do not seek to have everything that happens as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."
-- Epictetus

Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure."
--Rainier Maria Rilke

This morning in class, we worked on Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hang-to-Big-Toe Pose). I know the lovely lady on the Yoga Journal site has a big smile on her face, but this is one of those poses that pushes all my buttons and makes me lose my cool. Between sides, Nikole asked us to let go of our struggles on the first side and start the pose on the second side with a fresh and open mind. She said, "We spend so much time living in the past, don't we? Even the things we worry about happening in the future are just things that happened to us in the past. Just let it go."

Fear is a useful thing when you're being chased by a bear. It's much less so when you're trying to balance on one leg with your foot in the air or considering changing your job or moving to a new city. And there's a fine line between learning from past experience (arguably good) and assuming that because things did not go the best way possible last time you tried something that it will be so again in the future (arguably bad). The question is how to know when fear serves to protect us, and when it holds us back from reaching great treasures.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Sipping the rainwater

Just because you can’t drink all that falls
doesn’t mean you give up taking sips
of rainwater. If the nut
of the mystery can’t be held,
at least let me touch the shell.

-- Rumi

Today is a rare misty day in San Diego. This almost-rain makes me nostalgic for the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I want to put on some gortex and go sit under a big fir and look at the ocean. Thinking about rain led me to this Rumi poem. This life is such a mystery, but one we should dive into with our entire beings, even though we cannot see or comprehend all that there is. We don't have much choice, really. We are part of it all. We can close our eyes and our ears and our minds to the unknown, or we can open our hearts and try to hold a sense of it: Life! Without fear, try to taste what you can.

Rumi also wrote:
Do you pay regular visits to yourself?
Don't argue or answer rationally.
Let us die,
and dying, reply.
The mystery is within us as well as outside. I'm not even sure there is an inside and an outside. Yoga and meditation take me to that place where the two meet. So do the tops of mountains, and the forest, and the ocean. So does wild weather: the wind and the rain. Poetry. Music. That moment on a run where thoughts end and you become part of the trail, part of the world.

I think that Rumi means that in the moment of death, if we have regularly lived life from the heart, we will accept this too. The final mystery. The last merge. And that our readiness to connect cannot be argued rationally but can only be known in that moment. I have no idea what it means to die, but maybe I am starting to understand what it means to live. To feel the nutshell, rough under my hand. To turn my face to the sky and taste the rain.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Making decisions

"Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love."
-- Rumi

So this theme has been recurring in my life about the decision-making process. It's an impossible process really; every issue has multiple sides and there's always so much unknown. In the end, there's nothing for it but to turn inward and see what is in the heart, to commit to a choice and the consequences of that choice, no matter what those may be.

I'm someone who could agonize over something as unimportant as a menu for hours if I thought people would put up with it. So often, when asked by my dining companions what I'm going to order I'll say, "I'll see what comes out of my mouth." It's not unusual that what I ask for in that moment is not at all the dish I thought I had decided on.

It's odd that a menu can cause me so much anguish, but at work on a daily basis I make quick, sometimes ruthless decisions without hardly a thought. That's not to say I take workplace decisions lightly, but I think that in that context so many of the contributing factors are simply ingrained; I have a wealth of experience that gives me a pretty good idea who these decisions are going to turn out. Add to that the fact that it is my job, my responsibility, to make these calls. People are relying on me. A similar force to that which makes me finally choose a dish from the menu when the server comes to the table, the need to follow procedure and hold up my end of the deal.

In this article from Seeker Magazine, Susan Kramer talks about the idea that yoga practice can help us become aware of tension in our bodies as we make a decision. Paying attention to the sensations in the torso can help you to become aware of when considering a course of action brings increased stress and when an alternative creates a sense of relaxation. In other words, the physical body may communicate to us when we are making a decision that goes against our instincts. It's good to have tools!

I think there is more to this than just tension in the body, but maybe I'm wrong. For me, the hardest decisions are those that could hurt other people and those which have a lot of unknown elements, as well as those where the results don't really matter (such as ordering a meal). That's probably pretty typical. Sometimes I can get paralyzed in these situations, completely bogged down in a state of inaction. All options generate tension. But yoga offers us a solution: get quiet, connect with the breath, turn inward... and then act. (Yes, Erich, I hear you. "Googling the Internet of Infinite Mind" again.)

I've said here before that I believe what happens on the mat is just practice for what happens off the mat, and this is another example. If you have a home practice and you create your own sequences, there's only one way to decide what pose to flow into next, how long to hold it, and what adjustments to make. You guessed it. Get quiet, connect with the breath, turn inward... and move. From the core, from the heart, from the energy within. I think any creative process is like this: music, writing, art. You might know a lot about the mechanics of yoga, music, writing or painting - but when it comes down to the art of it, decisions are not made with the head but rather with the heart, or maybe by a higher power. Sometimes it's as though the poems or music or asanas write themselves.

If you are not used to listening to your instincts, it can be difficult to trust yourself to make decisions from the heart. If your logical mind is arguing one way and your heart another, it takes a great deal of faith to go with your instincts. This reminds me of something I was told when I was about 15 (by a boy I had a crush on incidentally - you'll see why.) He said, "If you flip a coin and then do the opposite of what it tells you, you'll know that's what you really wanted to do all along."

Flip a coin. And then do what you really wanted to do all along. You know what that is.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Satya - To tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about satya, or truthfulness, one of the five yamas (ethical restraints) proposed by Patanjali. The concept is deceptively simply - be truthful in your words and actions. But in reality, it is an extremely difficult precept to follow.

For one thing, satya comes into direct conflict with the restraint of ahimsa, or non-harming. The use of the word ahimsa is an interesting one. Yoga does not simply ask us to be kind to others, it asks us specifically to restrain from causing harm. That is a much broader and more difficult practice. When it comes to satya, the trick is to tell the truth without causing harm to others - or to ourselves. Another challenge is that satya includes not only our words, but also our actions. We must always act in such a way that our behavior expresses our true thoughts and intentions (and don't forget ahimsa.)

Perhaps the most difficult thing of all is the fact that so many of us spend so much time being dishonest with ourselves. It's very difficult to know if your words and actions are not truthful when you are not even consciously aware of your own truth, what you really think and feel in any given situation. For many of us, the fictional stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we want have become such an integral part of the fabric of our being that we are unable to recognize the lies we tell on a daily basis. The tricky thing about truthfulness is that it refers to the absolute truth - so the embroidery and exaggeration that we may be used to using, all of the fish stories and half-truths and white lies that have become second nature to us - these too are not satya. Just because something closely resembles the truth does not make it true.

I admit it - lies perform some very important functions in my daily existence: creating my desired fictional sense of self, preventing hurt to myself and others, avoiding uncomfortable situations, etc. The thought of trying to unlearn these behaviors is pretty daunting. I'm relatively determined - but still, overwhelmed. For one thing, speaking the truth might mean that all of those lovely defense mechanisms would go away, leaving me vulnerable to those classic demons What Might Happen, and worse, What People Might Think. I'm a pretty private person (which you might not know from this blog, but blogging is not real life), and I'm also a little bit introverted by nature so the thought of speaking my truth on a daily basis is way up there with skydiving on my list of terrors. (I'm also pretty afraid of heights.) But I've done a pretty good job of doing things that terrify me, and I'm not totally ruling skydiving out of my future either. Speaking the truth to strangers is a pretty good practice.

An interesting system of speaking truthfully to others without causing harm is Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication (NVC), which I think I've mentioned here before. I've dabbled in NVC and it's one of those practices that I believe in but have trouble implementing regularly in life. For one thing, it goes against our entire ingrained culture of expected communications. The idea is basically founded on the expression of universal and specific emotions which result from universal needs. It's a very non-judgmental way of communicating the truth without blame.

The tricky thing is that when the processes of lying, exaggeration, embellishment, and unauthentic action are ingrained, how do you become mindful of the process in order to stop it? I believe that some yogis will even take a vow of silence in order to facilitate the process of awareness of the thought patterns that lead to dishonest and/or harmful speech. Unfortunately my work will not exactly allow me to do this. I'm trying to just work with awareness, but it's a long slow process. I don't exactly have or easy answers on this one.

I'm half-Japanese and have a little Japanese cultural influence, and I think this is something that causes me particular challenges in this area. So much of Japanese culture is based on creating smooth and harmonious social relationships, and communication patterns tend to be very indirect. I've noticed that if someone asks me the right questions, I'm often able to speak truthfully, but if not, I have a tendency to leave the truth implied or completely unsaid. I've been accused of expecting others to read my mind, and there's probably some truth in that. I also sometimes act the way others want or expect me to, rather than in a truthful way. I've noticed that the result can be that my needs are not met in my relationships with the other people in my life or that the relationships are not completely authentic - and sometimes things build up to a point where the truth comes out suddenly in an unpleasant and hurtful way. I don't intend to mislead anyone ever; very often I am not even aware of the truth myself.

So this all sounds really awful - but it's honest. And don't get me wrong - I'm not beating myself up over it. I think it's a pretty common experience - and great practice. Adopting the practice of satya is like unravelling an enormous knot. Something that takes patience - but which I happen to be pretty good at. We'll see if the skill transfers. Like everything else, satya comes back to mindfulness, back to the breath, to the present moment, to tapping into instinct and figuring out what the truth even is.

Like living itself, satya takes a big dose of courage. I'm giving myself a big pat on the back for even trying. Maybe one of these lifetimes, I'll get it right.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More on the online community

On March 17, I posted some affirmations here. I'm pleased to report that I've made some progress towards many of the things which I named as making me feel alive. I'm actively seeking connections with people who can support me in these endeavors. One tool which I've found useful is this website. In their FAQ, they describe the site as follows:
People have known for years that making a list of goals is the best way to achieve them. But most of us never get around to making a list. 43 Things is great for that! Make a list on 43 Things and see what changes happen in your life. Best of all it’s a way of connecting with other enthusiasts interested in everything from watching a space shuttle launch to grow my own vegetables. So the next time someone asks you, “what do you do?” you can answer with confidence, “I am doing 43 things!”
Basically, once you create an account, you use the site to list goals. If others share the same goal, you can access a page for that goal, see who else is doing it, and see who has completed it. Those who have completed the goal can write about how they did it, share resources they used to help them, and let others know if they felt it was worth it and why.

Also, while you are working on the goals, you can write entries about your progress. Others can then comment on your entries or can cheer on your goals or entries - and you can cheer them on in return. This is such a simply concept, but since I joined the site about a week and a half ago, I've made some really noticeable progress on many of those goals I listed back on March 17 and did not do anything about for two months. I think this is due in part to the support of the (unknown) online community.

I am a list maker by nature and by nurture, so this site works really well for me.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


I recently talked in this blog about being open to messages from the world around us. Sometimes these messages take the form of animals that come into our lives and seem more meaningful than chance encounters. This is akin to the idea of a totem in shamanistic traditions, a guardian animal or spirit that watches over an individual, family or tribe. Whether or not you believe in the existence of totems, I think that it is worth considering what we can learn from the creatures that come into our lives.

Some of you know already why I call myself "dragonfly". When I lived in Japan, I had a significant encounter with dragonflies one fall day in the mountains. At that time of year, the dragonflies are always around - but this day I had a spiritual experience that was particularly significant to me, and when the dragonflies appeared, I had the distinct sense that they were there to guide me forward in my life. They danced around me in the air with such joy, and I felt drawn to their energy. It was much, much later that I read about the significance of the dragonfly totem. This source looks at dragonflies a bit more scientifically, and this one is a bit more metaphorical. Common elements of the dragonfly totem are:
  • Change and transformation
  • Seeing through illusion; seeing things from different angles
Learning about this amazed me because I had already decided that the dragonflies appeared to me that day to teach me: to reveal some truths and to guide me through a significant personal transformation. Ever since the dragonflies have been with me, there's no question that I have been through a pretty major metamorphosis. (I know that many, many people, especially women, are drawn to dragonflies, and normally I try to avoid popular symbolism. ;-) However, the dragonfly experience was so significant and personal to me that its popularity does not dissuade me. Given the symbolism of the dragonfly, it does not surprise me that many people rely on its energy, as transformation and true seeing are key goals of this life on earth.)

In the last few days, I've been visited by a different creature. Each time I leave my apartment, there is a hummingbird sitting outside my door. When it sees me, it flies up, hovers in front of me intently, and then takes off. I tried to tell myself that it's a coincidence, but I can't help but feel that the hummingbird has been waiting for me. I tried to take a picture of it, but it declined to be photographed, so here instead is the plant where it has been sitting:

This view is literally one step outside my door!

This bird was waiting for me so many times that I became curious about whether it was trying to tell me something, so I looked up hummingbird totems. Wow! Among other things, hummingbirds are associated with:
  • Renewal and resurrection
  • Awakening to the beauty of the present moment, to joy, to the five senses
  • Achieving balance
  • Independence and courage
There is no question that these four things summarize where I am on my journey right now. Hello, hummingbird. Thank you for reminding me that I have everything I need right now, to rise up and hover in this moment, in this moment, in this moment, joyful and open.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Words to live by

In October, at the end of a 6+ year relationship, I knew there were things I had to remember if I was to survive. I wrote them on blue Post-Its and stuck them all over my apartment. I have since taken many of them down, but two remain. When I put them up, they were just words - but I knew they were the keys to recovery and that I would need to believe them and live them in order to find meaning in life again. After seven months of looking at them every day, I know they are the reasons why I am filled with peace and joy on this Saturday morning.

This one is by my front door. I look at it every time I leave or come home. It's also in front of the only space big enough to do yoga in my apartment.

This one is in the kitchen.

Trust and celebrate. These are the words that help me through. (These, and Stephanie's email on my kitchen cupboard with Rilke's quote: "For all that is unresolved, try to love the questions themselves." Stephanie, your emails and blog have kept me going through some dark days. I am so blessed to know you. Namaste.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Waiting for a Sign

If you let it, the universe leads you. Sometimes, it's hard to let it ~ not because I don't want to but because I'm clinging on to something futile. And because over the years, I've forgotten how to listen. Like everything else, it takes practice to connect, be still, and wait for the answers to come. Erich Schiffmann calls it "Googling the Internet of Infinite Mind." (Gotta love Erich.)

Because words are so important to me, I think the universe helps me out in times of particular denseness by putting things in plain English. One example of this took place when I was living and teaching English in Japan. I was in the midst of a particularly unpleasant work situation - an unethical and possibly slightly insane boss was making things difficult and my coworkers were quitting rapidly. In spite of my deep commitment to my students and remaining coworkers, I was growing more and more uncomfortable with my boss' behavior and the effect it was having on our work environment and our ability to provide consistent quality classes. I was only 23 and had never encountered a situation like this before.

One day, I was walking from the train station to the school along my usual route, which took me into an underpass under the main road. As I came down the stairs, I could see that the underpass was completely empty. Then a lone male figure entered the underpass from the other side and walked towards me. He was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with large black lettering that said, in English, "QUIT YOUR JOB."

He stopped me in my tracks. The message couldn't have been clearer.

Or another example: last Wednesday was my birthday. Wednesday is not a great day for birthday celebrations anyway, and with everything else going on in my life (and my friends' lives), I ended up celebrating my birthday as I've been spending much of my personal time: alone. I had a divine (pun intended) vegetarian lunch at Jyoti-Bihanga and was feeling rather reflective as I considered all the changes in my life over the past year. I was deep in my past when I heard the voice of another diner ring out, clear as a bell. "Where are you going from here?" she asked. I was so sure that she was talking to me that I turned around.

Where am I going from here? Of course I have no idea. But if I get really still and wait, I'm pretty sure the universe will let me know.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Healing Those Who Are Broken

At the conclusion of this evening's yoga class, my teacher Joshua Graner told us that he has been doing some work with the US military teaching yoga to veterans and soldiers with PTSD. Problems with PTSD and other disorders have reached crisis levels, and the military, not knowing what else to do, is paying for clinical studies using yoga, acupuncture and other treatments from Eastern medical traditions. Click here for a recent article on the subject. While the writer is skeptical about some of the treatments the military is trying (I'm trying not to be offended by his use of the term "wild-sounding" to refer to some of the techniques authorized), he does support yoga for vets. Click here for a Yoga Journal article on yoga as treatment for PTSD. Joshua is a great person to be doing this work. Not only is he an amazing teacher and healer, but he started his career as an army medic. I'm excited to see the military taking these steps to find healing for those who have been traumatized by battle - maybe some day we will actually be teaching peace, love, and mindfulness to prevent war itself.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Virtual Sangha?

To practice right mindfulness we need the right environment, and that environment is our Sangha. Without a Sangha, we are very weak. In a society where everyone is rushing, everyone is being carried away by their habit energies, practice is very difficult. That is why our Sangha is our salvation. The Sangha where everyone is practicing mindful walking, mindful speaking, mindful eating seems to be the only chance for us to succeed in ending the vicious cycle.

And what is the Sangha? The Sangha is a community of people who agree with each other that if we do not practice right mindfulness, we will lose all the beautiful things in our soul and all around us. People in the Sangha standing near us, practicing with us, support us so that we are not pulled away from the present moment."

-- Thich Nhat Hanh, from Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities in A Lifetime of Peace edited by Jennifer Schwamm Willis (p. 280)

It is so important to have a community of people who support your practice. Waking up is painful - changing habits you have followed for your whole life is not easy. I fail more than I succeed; time and time again I lost track of the practice. I often long for more of a community to practice with, especially at work. I have friends who practice yoga and meditation, but few I see regularly. I go to yoga classes for the sense of community support, but don't see the other students outside of class, and most of the people I see during the day do not follow the same practices. I know that there are lots of yogis and meditators in San Diego, and that I can go out and find them. But my life is consumed by my work and my studies, and I have another year to go at least before I obtain my MA. It is all I can do just to get all the work done, but I am concerned by the fact that there will always be excuses like this and I really do feel like the more yoga there is in my life, the better I feel.

I don't think it is for everyone to drop everything and go live in an ashram or other practice community. I want to practice engagement in my work, not leave my work behind. Sometimes, I do question my career choice. I wonder if I shouldn't be teaching yoga. But I'm halfway through an expensive degree - and in fact, I'm excited about what I do. I still hope that International Education can contribute positively to the world.

And besides: I'm worried about the illusion behind the idea that changing my career will make my life better. I hear this too much in the world: If I was just doing something different, if I could just find Mr. Right, if I lived somewhere different, I would be happier. I'm suspicious of it. There's lots of stuff to work with, whatever I'm doing, and I suspect that the path will be much the same, no matter which fork I take.

So there's still the question of community - How do I find one? Do I need to? I'm not sure what the answers are, but I do know that the internet has brought an interesting dimension to this search. I hear a lot about the evils of the internet - and I'll be the first to admit that I spend way too much time on it, I allow the internet to bring me out of the present moment every day, to steal attention from the breath, to lull me out of reality and to dull my attention. But like any tool, the internet is not inherently evil, and one gift it has brought me is a kind of virtual sangha. Through this blog, I have discovered a wide-ranging blogging community of like-minded folks - and I thank you for reading, for commenting, for supporting my practice. I hope that I am supporting yours. In the absence of a warm, human, local community, the virtual sangha may be the next best thing.

Now here's the rub: blogging, reading blogs, and commenting is not really practice. Getting practice ideas from the internet is only useful if you follow it up with the actual practice. Talking about yoga and meditation is not at all the same as doing yoga and meditation. I would hate to quit the internet cold turkey - but I would like to learn how to use the internet more constructively and less as a distraction. I'm grateful for and excited about this community, but I'm curious about ways the internet can be a better tool to support my practice in the real world, to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative influence it brings to my life.

I'm putting it to the commmunity. Any ideas?

Friday, April 10, 2009

Yoga Poems

I've been wanting to write the poetry I find in yoga. I did a quick search to see who else is doing this, and found Yoga Poems: Lines to Unfold By by Leza Lowitz. Here's a sample:

Virabhadrasana II
Warrior II

Here there is nothing to fight
except willfulness.
Some lean too far
into the past.
Others stretch way out
into the future.
The true warrior
stays in the
burning deeper
into whatever comes,
or sometimes with
even more difficulty,
what doesn't.

It's not earthshattering poetry, but I like it. Might be worth checking out the whole collection. Might be worth starting a collection of my own.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bus meditations

I stubbornly continue to ride public transportation rather than buying a car. I am repeatedly told that it is not possible to survive in Southern California without a car. What people mean when they say this is: It's not easy to live in Southern California without a car. We are so used to hyperbole in our culture, so used to hearing anything that requires the slightest effort or patience referred to as impossible, we have begun to believe it.

It is ABSOLUTELY possibly to live in San Diego without a car. That's not to say it's easy, but I believe that we can only change the world through our own actions. We cannot be responsible for the actions of others, but by acting with integrity ourselves, we can inspire others to follow suit, we can create movements of many individuals acting with integrity. Peace is possible only through enough individuals acting peacefully. We cannot change someone into a peaceful person, we can only change ourselves. The April page of my 2009 Thich Nhat Hanh calendar bears this quote:
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

So I choose not to eat meat most of the time because I do not wish to support financially to the evils of the American meat industry, and I choose not to own a car largely because I see many benefits to choosing public transportation including:
  • Reduced cost to me
  • Reduced cost to the environment
  • Reduced traffic
  • More exercise (I walk a lot)
  • Controlled consumption (I think twice before going to the store and I only buy what I can carry)
  • Opportunities to engage with the realities of my community, to practice yoga on a daily basis out in the world

To be completely honest, there are other factors which speak less to my good moral character such as the fact that I am totally intimidated by the whole car shopping experience.

Call me crazy, but I am getting along fine without a car. Given, the public transportation system in San Diego is appalling and getting worse, carrying on a fine California tradition of overreliance on private motor vehicles. However, if everyone keeps driving cars rather than riding transit, there will be no motivation to change the system - so I have persisted over nearly five years. It does limit where I can live and where I can shop, but not necessarily in a bad way. There are a few things that I regret not being able to do, but every few months I rent a car and take care of a lot of these chores. I rely on friends for rides and sometimes I feel guilty about that.

Anyway, I wanted to address my last point in the above list (opportunities to engage with the realities of my community, to practice yoga on a daily basis out in the world) because I think it's an aspect of riding public transportation which is not usually discussed. A friend recently reminded me about the red light meditation, which got me thinking about bus meditations. For example:

  • The waiting for the bus meditation - see the red light meditation (link above). Unlike the red light meditation, though, the waiting for the bus meditation is tricky because it can go on for a pretty long time and you never know when the bus is going to arrive. By nature, monkey mind wants to go back to thoughts of When is the bus coming? Where is the bus? Why is it late? I'm so hot/ cold/ tired/ bored. My feet hurt. etc. What a gift, to have a built-in exercise of bringing yourself back to the body, the breath, the present moment. (By the way, when will the bus come? When you are ready for it!) I also like to do tadasana and pranayama at the bus stop.

  • Slowing down - In our world, we are always going, going, going nowhere fast. What a gift, to have pauses built into your day! When you are waiting for a bus, there is nothing to do that will make the bus come faster. There is nothing to do but exist at the bus stop. When you are on the bus, there is nothing you can do to arrive at your destination faster. (By the way, there is really nothing you can do when you're driving either - but people usually try and it's usually dangerous!) So you can experience complete freedom to allow things to unfold as they must and there is this amazing opportunity to just sit, open the heart, slow the mind, focus on the breath. You also have an opportunity to just experience how you are feeling going into your day, or in the evening, how your day has affected you. So often we don't give ourselves a chance to connect.

  • Loving kindness meditation and/or compassion - On public transportation, you are in the midst of humanity. You see a lot of suffering. People cry on the bus - I have cried on the bus. People laugh, people sleep, people stare blankly out the window. People hobble in physical pain, they are destitute, they are ill, they are drunk or high. People suffer from mental illness, and people are angry, with or without good reason. People criticize strangers. People are selfish and they are generous. People express sympathy, they reach out to help others for no particular reason other than that it is right. Sometimes, particularly if one is fortunate, there is a tendancy to isolate oneself from those who are less fortunate, from how things are in the world. (Is this, in fact, the reason why many people are so glued to their cars? Avoidance?) On the bus, you see it all. Sometimes, it is all I can do to open my heart to it all and keep breathing. What better place to experience the same-ness of all people, to practice loving the world?

Leave the car at home. What practices do you come up with? Ride the bus. Open your heart.

Friday, April 3, 2009

More on suffering - I get it!

OK, I wrote that last post and I still didn't feel like I was "getting" what I was writing about. I was writing about my pain and what causes it, but I wasn't really understanding how to work with it. I guess I was mostly writing about my faith that the pain was there to help me wake up because lots of yogis say so!

I'm still reading Stephen Cope, and this morning I read something that helped me "get" it.
It is important to understand that in the yogic view, the phenomenal world is not seen in itself as unreal. It is just seen as the tip of the iceburg. Our delusion is not that we think of the gross phenomenal world as real, but that we miss the hidden depths that underlie it. We miss its interiority. And thereby, we reamin oblivious of our deep and subtle connectedness to the whole realm of mind and matter.

... The goal... is not to disengage from the phenomenal world, but to turn to embrace it more and more deeply - to discover its hidden depths. And in order to do that, paradoxicaly, we do not reject the vicissitudes of the embodied life. We do not reject suffering. Rather, we turn and go thorugh the doorway of suffering. We turn to embrace our neuroses, our conflicts, our difficult bodies and minds, and we let them be the bridge to a fuller life. Our task is not to free ourselves from the world, but to fully embrace the world - to embrace the real.

OK, now that is something I can work with. I've experienced this paradox before - when you open yourself to the pain, it diminishes. Over the past couple of weeks, I've actually been admitting to people - and most of all, to myself - that I'm in pain: talking about it, exposing it to the air, experiencing it fully and seeing how it felt. Today, for the first time in ages, I feel like myself again.

Aha! It's interesting to me that I used a phrase at the end of my last post about "the path opening inwards" but I only just realized what I meant. The yoga was there, in my heart, all along.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


He who suffers much will know much.
-- Greek Proverb

The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.
-- Ben Okri

I've been sitting on this blog post for a long time, trying to find my way into it. It's hard to write about suffering, but I've experienced so much loss and change in the past year that it's getting so I can't write about anything else. Yoga philosophy refers to five kleshas, or afflictions that cause our suffering. This article is a discussion of the kleshas in the context of difficult losses, including suggestions for practices that work with the kleshas. In it, Bo Forbes provides the following useful description:

AVIDYA: The inability to see things for what they are; this causes you to mistake transient, ego-related matters for permanent, soul-related ones.
ASMITA: The tendency to overidentify with your ego; this keeps you from connecting with your soul.
RAGA: The flame of desire that causes addiction to pleasure; this discourages you from leaving your comfort zone for more evolved territory.
DVESHA: The aversion to pain; this creates a quicksand-like cycle of misery and self-hatred that sucks you under and suffocates your will to evolve.
ABHINIVESHA: The fear of death or a clinging to life; this dilutes your focus and interferes with your ability to experience the spiritual freedom that is the goal of yoga.

I've been reading Stephen Cope's book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. In it, Cope describes four erroneous beliefs that underlie the delusion of the kleshas (p. 64):

  1. The belief in the permanence of objects
  2. The belief in the ultimate reality of the body
  3. The belief that our state of suffering is really happiness
  4. The belief that our bodies, minds and feelings are our true Self

So here we are again: loss shatters our belief in permanence and forces us to examine our delusions. It awakens us to the nature of our suffering and drives us in the search to realize the full potential of our being. Cope suggests that pain, loss, and disappointment can be key motivators in leading people to release their attachments to past, future and sense of self, and to progress in their spiritual practice.

He also quotes Bhagwan S. Rajneesh's commentary on the Yoga Sutras:

Yoga means that now there is no hope, now there is no future... Total despair is needed... A moment comes to every human being when he feels total hopelessness. Absolute meaninglessness happens to him. When he becomes aware that whatsoever he is doing is useless, wheresoever he is going, he is going to nowhere, all life is meaningless - suddenly hopes drop, future drops, and for the first time you are in tune with the present, for the first time you are face to face with reality... When you are not moving into the future, not moving into the past, then you start moving within yourself - because your being is here and now. You are present here and now.
You can enter this reality.

So with each disappointment, with each departed friend, with the end of love, with each death, I am trying to find my way into yoga, into the here and now. I am suffering, but I feel the path opening inward and I have a lot of faith.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


I used to have a shirt that said "Make up your mind to be happy." I believe happiness is a choice that I sometimes forget to make. Here's what I know about what it means to me. (Try this yourself.)

When I ____, I feel truly alive... I am completely myself, and can allow myself to grow into who I want to be!

1) Travel.

2) Do yoga.

3) Spend time in nature.

4) Write.

5) Spend time with close friends.

6) Walk/ hike/ run.

7) Create beauty.

8) Work for the good of others.

9) Am part of a community.

10) Take care of my body, challenge my mind, nurture and express what is in my heart.

Therefore, I want to:

1) Take an extended trip and visit my friends all over the world.

2) Go on a yoga and/or meditation retreat.

3) Take a yoga teacher training course.

4) Explore career options.

5) Live in a new city/ country.

6) Write and publish more.

7) Get out in the wilderness.

8) Volunteer in another country.

9) Eat better all the time.

10) Run more and start racing again.

11) Cultivate friendships with people who have similar interests and goals.

12) Buy a new camera and take amazing pictures.

To make this happen, I need to:TAKE THE FIRST STEP!

I will live the life I've dreamed of, with joy and humility, every day.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Set Yourself Free: Letting Go of Perfection

"It is good to remember that one of our goals in life is to not be perfect. We often lose track of this aspiration. When we make mistakes, we think that we are failing or not measuring up. But if life is about experimenting, experiencing, and learning, then to be imperfect is a prerequisite. Life becomes much more interesting once we let go of our quest for perfection and aspire for imperfection instead.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be our best. We simply accept that there is no such thing as perfection—especially in life. All living things are in a ceaseless state of movement. Even as you read this, your hair is growing, your cells are dying and being reborn, and your blood is moving through your veins. Your life changes more than it stays the same. Perfection may happen in a moment, but it will not last because it is an impermanent state. Trying to hold on to perfection or forcing it to happen causes frustration and unhappiness.

In spite of this, many of us are in the habit of trying to be perfect. One way to nudge ourselves out of this tendency is to look at our lives and notice that no one is judging us to see whether or not we are perfect. Sometimes, perfectionism is a holdover from our childhood—an ideal we inherited from a demanding parent. We are adults now, and we can choose to let go of the need to perform for someone else’s approval. Similarly, we can choose to experience the universe as a loving place where we are free to be imperfect. Once we realize this, we can begin to take ourselves less seriously and have more fun. Imperfection is inherent to being human. By embracing your imperfections, you embrace yourself."

From - March 11, 2009

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Compassion starts with yourself

If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.
-- Jack Kornfield

Sometimes I write things here just to remind myself of what I know but have forgotten. Practicing loving kindness towards myself is a big one. I'm quite sure that babies don't lie there and say to themselves, "Oh no, I wet my pants again. I am a horrible person!" So when does all this negative self-talk start, and where does it come from?

Yesterday I taught a teacher training workshop on classroom management. If you talk to teachers about their problem students and the issues that come up in their classrooms again and again, the emotions that come up can be powerful. As a teacher, student after student, year after year, is pushing your buttons. That one cell phone user is carrying the baggage of all previous in-class cell phone users. No wonder it is a high burnout profession! We all need therapy.

I guess any job is the same though. As a manager, I catch myself reacting inappropriately and all out of proportion because of that proverbial last straw. Because over the years, I've heard the same thing again and again so many times that I've lost my ability to see it for what it is. The student standing in front of me has no idea that he is the 300th student to wait until after the deadline to ask to change classes, but I react as though this particular student has done this 300 times. And then, I beat myself up for it. I'm angry at this student, therefore I'm a horrible person. Thus begins the self-flagellation.

In the workshop, we discussed the myth that teachers are not human. Sometimes we complain about the lack of empathy others show towards us. Students often seem oblivious to the fact that we might have our own concerns. We might be sick or heartbroken, we might be waiting for the results of serious medical tests or have a family member who has just passed away. We may suffer from insomnia or have debts we can't pay. But if we don't deliver impeccable service at every moment, we become a Bad Teacher.

It's easy to blame the student for this state of affairs, but the fact of the matter is that things are rarely one person's fault. I think that we - teachers, managers, professionals - often perpetuate the myth that we are not human. We present the hardened, professional, infallible front. We hide our weakness, afraid to be culled from the herd and put out of our misery. Because of this, we might think we are the only ones having this particular problem. We might start to think that we are less than human!

The practice of yoga is very forgiving. We all suffer and we all contribute to the suffering of others - we are not perfect! However, we have a choice, something that can be learned: we can have compassion for the imperfections of ourselves and others. I'm not saying this is easy. There's a reason why it's called practice. Sometimes, when I am gentle with myself and open my heart to my own suffering, I learn that situations are not as bad as I imagined them to be!

I encouraged the teachers to try a practice that I myself have been working on. Whenever tension arises, stop and ask yourself why. Why does this student make me so angry? What are my issues surrounding this situation? And then Why is the student acting the way he is? What is really going on? Marshall Rosenberg's system of Non-Violent Communication has a lot to say about how this kind of thinking, considering universal needs and how they contribute to emotions, can remove tension and build peace.

When I remember this practice (which is only some of the time), I find that the tension in the situation usually goes away. At best, there are these moments of insight and connection that take the breath away. At worst, the problem simply becomes a non-issue. Either way, everybody wins. I don't think this practice is possible unless we can learn to see ourselves kindly and with great compassion. When I can fully experience my own suffering with tenderness, I am filled with compassion for all other beings who are also suffering.

To quote Saul David Raye's opening words in a workshop I took with him at the Ojai Yoga Crib in 2007:
It is not easy being a divine soul in a body on Planet Earth in the year 2007.

Have compassion for yourself. It is difficult exisiting the way we do. Open your heart, see yourself and let yourself be seen.

Namaste, friends. The divine in me sees the divine in you.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why do I do this?

A photographer gets people to pose for him. A yoga instructor gets people to pose for themselves. ~T. Guillemets

I am often amused to note how teachings often come at me from all sides, again and again until I notice them. It is comforting to feel that I will continue to have opportunities to learn until I get it right. For example, I stumbled across the above quote this morning, and I also read this blog entry, and suddenly my mind was off, making connections between recent events and thinking about motivation in teaching.

Sometimes it is hard to take the ego out of teaching. In my day job, I manage a staff of ESL teachers. I believe that a teacher is there to motivate, support and empower students to learn for themselves, whether it be yoga, English, math, or patience that is being taught. A good teacher acts completely in service of something much greater than herself. However, I suspect that a lot of teachers, myself included, are guilty of teaching for themselves, at least some of the time. Sometimes I observe a teacher, and I see ego holding forth in front of a captive audience, enjoying the attention. Sometimes I step back and look at myself and see the same thing. Sometimes we forget the students are even there, except to admire me, me, me. Their successes are there to make us feel good, their failures plunge us into the depths of self-loathing.

Sometimes students say things like, "You are the best teacher I've ever had," and we get that warm feeling inside. There we go again, attaching that comment to our image of ourselves, attaching to that image. Positive feedback is like junk food - once you've had a little, there's that craving eating away at you again. You get one compliment, and then you look for more reinforcement ~ how many students are coming to class, for instance, how do they react when you speak to them? Suddenly, you're teaching just to get more of that, and not for your students at all.

The same thing can happen just in asana practice. Have you ever had someone compliment you on a pose? Then suddenly, you are practicing for the compliment. Suddenly, instead of being in the pose noticing how you feel, you are standing outside trying to see how cool you look.

Or blogging, for instance. Why am I doing this? I am documenting my learning, sure, trying to assimilate teachings I receive from everywhere... but I could do that in a private journal, so why here? Why in a public forum? I am amused to observe how discouraged I become when I don't receive any comments. Suddenly, the little girl in me is stamping her foot, screaming, "Nobody listens to me!" Conversely, when I do receive feedback, I get that glowing feeling. When I see that email in my inbox ___ has commented on your post I feel like a child opening a present.

Hello ego!

Of course, it is not all ego. In this public forum, I have the opportunity to inspire others (as the quote and blog I opened with inspired me) to take a new step in their own journeys. And of course, I have witnesses ~ which helps me to stay the path rather than forgetting about my own realizations.

It turns out that teaching, like everything else, is an opportunity to practice. No surprise here. This article is a great opening discussion about the delicate balance of the ego in yoga teaching. I think the concepts here can be extended to other types of teaching, and even beyond into everything we do.

Why am I doing this? This question is worth considering from time to time. Also, one of my teachers always uses the phrase Where can you let go? throughout her classes. In every pose, in every moment, there is something that does not serve us that can be released, there is something that can be given and something that can be given up.

There is of course much, much more that can be said about ego. Swami Krishnananda takes a stab at it here. I particularly like this part:
The ego is trying to practise yoga. Oh, what a pity! The ego cannot practise yoga, because the ego is to be destroyed in yoga. So how can it practise yoga? Here we have a strange difficulty, and it has to be overcome with a strange technique; that is yoga itself. Yogena yogo jñātavya yogo yogātpravartate (Y.B. III.6), says the Yoga Bhashya. Yoga is achieved by yoga itself; there is no other means. This is what yoga tells us.

Ahhhh, you've got me, Swami Krishnananda. What a pity! And back to the practice I go.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

-- Rumi

Staying Grounded

Here is the Daily Om again from February 13. (Sometimes I send these things to myself and then forget about them for a few days until they surface again in my inbox, delicious!)

Staying Grounded in a Big City or Busy World

1. Live simply and live deliberately. By choosing not to get caught up in the details of this fast-paced world, you are doing your part to slow down. You will also discover that you have more time to enjoy being alive.

2. Stay in touch with yourself. Soul searching, meditation, and journaling are just a few of the many activities you can take part in to stay aware and learn as much as you can about your emotions, reactions, likes, dislikes, dreams, and fears. Having a solid sense of self gives you a firm foundation for living in this world.

3. Support or teach others as often as you can. This can help you form connections with people while also giving you an opportunity to make the world a better place.

4. Consciously choose what you will allow into your being. The media bombards us
with visions of hate, war, and pain. Be judicious about what you read, watch, and listen to.

5. Acknowledge the beauty that resides around you. Whether you live in a sprawling metropolis or a stereotypical suburb, there are natural and man-made wonders just waiting to be discovered by you.

6. Nurture your ties to your tribe. If you don’t have one, create a community that you can belong to. Modern life can be isolating. When you have a tribe, you have a circle that you are a part of. Its members – loved ones, friends, or neighbors - can be a source of support, caring, guidance, and companionship.

7. See the larger picture. Remember that the way that you choose to live is not the only way to live. Widen your perspective by exploring other modes of being through research, travel, and discussion.

8. Embrace the challenges that life presents to you, and challenge yourself often. After a time, even the most exciting jobs or lifestyles can seem routine. Never stop assimilating new knowledge about whatever you are doing, and your life will never seem dull.

9. Move your body. In this busy world, it can be easy to live a sedentary life. Movement reacquaints us with our bodies and connects us to the earth in a visceral way. It also restores our vitality.

10. Make time for stillness, silence, and solitude. The world can be noisy, and we are subject to all kinds of noises nearly every waking hour. We are also often "on the go" and unable to relax. Being alone in a peaceful place and making time for quiet can help you stay in touch with yourself.

I came back from my last trip a month ago feeling incredibly grounded, but it didn't take long for me to start feeling disconnected and uneasy again. I have lived in the city for years now and I kind of like it ~ until I spend some time away and I realize how insane the pace is. These ideas for staying grounded are important. The blog helps. The yoga practice helps. The meditation helps.

But somehow, so often, I feel that most of the day passes me by, in a blur. I like living in the city, or at least I have come to like it. But recently I feel like the city might be stealing my soul. It doesn't help that most of my tribe has departed in the past couple of years. Perhaps it is time for me too to depart, to seek new surroundings. But this too, I want to do slowly and deliberately and right.

I don't have any answers, not today, just many questions. And a list of practices that could be helpful, if I can find the dedication to follow them.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anything is possible

If you don't know ODE Magazine, I highly recommend it as a source of positive, inspiring news. Last night I was looking through the January/February 2009 issue and I saw this article. The quote accompanying the story reminded me of my last post. "Without impermanence, nothing is possible." "When you have nothing, anything is possible." Hmmmm. This makes me think of my recent stay in a poor Panamanian village, where the people had very little in the way of money or possessions but were rich in joy and community. What does it mean to be happy, to be free?