Tuesday, March 22, 2011

OK, Rumi, let's dance.

Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbera/ Flickr Creative Commons
We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance.
~Japanese proverb

Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth.
~ Rumi

Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests just made his second anniversary post. Happy blogiversary, Nathan! To celebrate, he posted his first post from the blog. It isn't my anniversary, but I thought I'd go back and look at my first post anyway. Here's a piece of it (from November 2, 2008):
If yogis discovered the secret of happiness thousands of years ago, why do we now still live in a culture of so much suffering?! And to put it more personally, since this is to be my personal journey, why do I still suffer so much? Why do I forget to practice in my daily life, when I know that it will not only make me happier and healthier, but also decrease suffering in the lives of those around me?

In June, I started a Masters in International Education at the SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont. I chose the school because I believe the SIT philosophy is highly compatible with my attempts to increase the practice of yoga in my daily life. In formulating my learning plan, I stated as my second learning objective "Explore ways to bring my career into harmony with my yoga practice." In fact, this is one of the key reasons why I am doing this degree - to give myself the training and the tools to adjust my working life to facilitate my practice - and yes, cheesy cheesy, to do more good in the world.

It's interesting to look back on because I don't feel that way any more. It's not that I don't suffer, but that the quality of my suffering has changed. Back then, I was suffering in the dark. Now, I feel like I can at least suffer with the light on. I have a consistent daily practice, not only of yoga and meditation on the mat or cushion, but also taking these practices into my life and applying them to running, eating, working, and personal relationships. Through this, I've not only physically transformed but I've begun to shine the flashlight of mindfulness into all sorts of dark corners.

In the beginning, this blog was about bringing my career into alignment with my yoga practice. I had forgotten that. Back then, I was working a challenging administrative job and struggling to practice yoga in the workplace. I was reluctant to admit that I was struggling so much because it wasn't the right place for me to be. It was a job that worked with my strengths and which brought out all the worst in me, too. I suffered in many ways at that time: emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. The suffering had to get really bad before I was really willing to look at the forces that were holding me there and ask myself: Why? Why fight? Why not just let go?

I was clearly looking for the light switch, even then. I'd started my Masters program because I was already seeking. I wrote those things in my learning plan and started this blog for a good reason. I've even had a Rumi quote up on my computer sidebar, probably since before I started this blog: Let the beauty you love be what you do. It took me all this time to really see it, to look Rumi in the eyes and reply, Yes. OK. I know why you are here. Let's dance.

When I started shining that flashlight around, mostly what I saw was fear. When I looked more closely, I realized that fear is always worse than the thing I fear.  I know this is not a new concept, but the more I sit on my cushion in silence with my eyes closed, the more I have to make friends with it. I began to wonder if I ever had any other motivation for action in my life besides avoiding fear. I began to wonder what would happen if I did something for love. Would the world end? Would the boogieman in the corner come out and get me? Did it matter?

There's never any map for these journeys we take, or rather, I'd say there are many maps - the experiences of others who have taken their own journeys and lived to tell the tale - but they're cryptic and incomplete, and sometimes we flat out refuse to believe that they could really be telling us to leap off that cliff into the darkness. Over the past three years, I've been evolving. I feel like the same person, but when I look back to that first post, I know I am not. I'm teaching at Community College now, and it's scary and difficult and fulfilling. I just started Yoga Teacher Training this past weekend. I'm finally ready to take the necessary risks in order to make sure all the pieces of my life really fit. I've learned to feel gratitude for the fear and suffering, because I've realized that they were the map and directions. They were the flashlight. I'm ready, finally, to really love what I do.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Making choices in practice: limbs, branches, and paths

Yoga texts and articles, ancient and modern, abound with metaphors for the choices we make in our practice. The eight components of Astanga Yoga are often referred to as the eight "limbs", while the different approaches we can take to practice are often called "branches" or "paths" of yoga. (Different sources list varying numbers of "branches" - raja, karma, bhakti, and jnana are usually included, and then many modern descriptions include hatha, tantra, kundalini, and various others). These metaphors obviously resonate with people because they have stuck around. The metaphor of the journey is one that I have always connected with personally, hence the name of this blog. My practice is not static, but evolving. It grows and changes, depending on my needs. The deeper I go, the more committed I am to practice, but also the more willing I am to take detours and walk different paths for a while.

I'm beginning a yoga teacher training program in less than two weeks, so I've been thinking a lot about my personal practice and what kind of a teacher I will be. It's definitely important to me to be flexible in my practice and to learn about different limbs/ branches/ paths/ [insert metaphor here] so that I will be aware of my choices when my needs change. It's also important to try different styles of yoga to find which you connect with most strongly. Any path can be a road in.

If yoga is a journey and there are many paths in the woods, I think these paths intersect in various places, so there's no need to pick just one. There have been times when reading and studying the philosophy of yoga has been how I've really been able to connect. Sometimes, I just want to do asana, and other times I want to meditate or chant or help others. I am grateful for all these choices because they allow me to remain engaged with my practice no matter what is going on in my life.

However, I also think it can be useful to explore the paths that seem a little darker and less inviting to you. You may decide not to stay on that path after all, or you may discover that it was something within you that was blocking your path and perhaps you were meant to walk it for a while after all. Sometimes it is exactly the practice that challenges us, the one we resist, that is the one we need the most. Sometimes, I think it's possible to use the concept of "different paths" to avoid exploring an aspect of practice that scares us or promises to be difficult.

After a long time practicing mostly off the mat, I am coming home to hatha yoga. I say coming home because, like many so-called Westerners (we really need to find a better term for that), hatha yoga is where I began. I must say it feels like home, and I'm happy to be practicing mostly hatha at the moment. That doesn't mean I'm sticking with one style of asana practice, though. Some days I do a lot of pranayama and meditation, and other days I just want to do a million vinyasas. I'm enjoying exploring different styles in my home practice and in the classes I attend. I think it makes me a better person, and I think it will make me a better teacher too.

On the other hand, I'm aware that this might just be a personal preference. Some people probably prefer to commit to a path and follow it deeper and deeper. There isn't any one "right" way to do it. Each yogi has to find - or make - his or her own road.

If you practice yoga, what has your path been? Have you focused on one or more limbs and not others? Have you picked a branch and gone way out, or are you swinging from branch to branch as you go along? Do you feel like you've found "your path"?