Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Experiments 2013

I really don't like the idea of "New Year's Resolutions;" to me they are the equivalent of a moral Hail Mary--"gotta do something, and I know this won't work, but hereagoes."  I also don't dig on "goals;" they feel like I'm waiting to fill out a year-end performance review that doesn't really mean anything yet is an amazing self-esteem killer.  Instead I'm going with "experiments."  Experiments require thought, observation, activity, and failure is an option and a totally acceptable result--a win all the way around!

This year I will be conducting 3 experiments:
1. Begin to write my re-telling of The Ramayana, the stories as I have told them to my son and in classes.  Certainly not a translation, nor a scholarly rendition, nor necessarily a complete narrative.  This is my theme, my prompt to get me to write more. "Begin" is a loaded word, however, I like the act of telling the stories so I do not want to focus on ending the project.

2. Reduce my attachment to asana practice. I've had a very difficult time with asana practice over the last few months--it has been a struggle to get to the mat, and once there, I have been on auto-pilot--even performing asanas with a feeling of anger.  So I push harder--hitting my head against the brick wall because I'm afraid that if I stop I will feel good.  I have discovered that I enjoy singing, japa, reading (see Experiment #1) and have discovered that not only are these things valid and more important practices, but I like them more than twisting my knee in handstand lotus just to prove that I can still do the pose. My hypothesis is that I can get to sun salutations, 10 poses (headstand, shoulderstand, fish, paschimottanasana, janu sirshasana, cobra, bow, spinal twist, handstand, triangle),  and kriyas (Uddiyana Bandha, Nauli, Agni Sara) in 1/2 hr. This will reduce time in asana by 20-30 minutes, freeing up more time for singing, japa, reading, etc., practices that I would rather be doing.

3. In an effort to work on santosha (contentment) and not be so quick to get upset and take everything personally, I will experiment with a page from the Jivamukti playbook--the mantra of "Let go."  I have no desire to have anyone accuse me of being peacelovehappiness, I just don't want to feel my blood pressure skyrocket every two seconds.  The sheer fact that I am admitting this to myself is a step in the right direction.

Essential to the idea of experimentation are observing, recording, and reporting. Does this mean I'll get back to more frequent posting here? That I will share my trials and errors, my attempts at retelling the oldest poem known to man, my practice schedule? Maybe.  We will all have to wait to see what the results are.

I am curious though.

Happy New Year, and I wish you success in all your experiments.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Surrounded by Saints

In one of those cycles that comes with consistent practice where I feel a little lost.  Not that I am slacking with practice, yet it has been feeling rather mechanical, like on autopilot. I’ve been doing this long enough to recognize it for what it is—a natural ebb and flow, and I know that continuing to practice, even without bhava  (faith) is important.

 Swami Sivananda, in speaking about japa practice, states:

“The name of God chanted correctly or incorrectly, knowingly or unknowingly, carefully or carelessly, with bhava or without bhava is sure to give the desired fruit. The bhava will come itself after some time…” (Essence of Yoga. p 17)

It is easy to apply Swamiji’s statement to the entirety of the practice. But waiting for that bhava to re-appear is a challenge.

Seeking inspiration, I have been reading a lot.  More accurately reading a little from a lot of different books.  Various translations of The Ramayana, The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita, The Dhamapada, The Upanishads, etc. Somewhere along the way, maybe in one translation of The Yoga Sutras or another, the text mentions [paraphrasing] keeping the company of Saints as a good practice.  The commentator writes about reading positive books; Swami Sivananda also encourages reading of the lives of Saints. The general agreement is that you don’t have to be in the physical presence of Saints to be positively influenced by them.

Taking a step back, I realize how lucky I am to live in this time.  Even though I feel completely lost and directionless with my practice (temporary, I know, temporary), I have the teachings of countless Saints within easy reach.  My book shelf, my flash drive, Google books, The Guttenberg Project, an infinite number of websites all with writings from great teachers. There has been no other time when everyone can instantly be surrounded by Saints—most of this stuff was not written down or translated even 100 years ago, and it is only very recently that so many of these teachings have been placed online for free and easy access. For countless eons, one had to be in the direct company of a teacher to gain their wisdom.  The Information Age has truly let us transcend both  time and space.

Even if my faith is not there right now, I take comfort knowing that I am completely surrounded by saints, and their faith gives me the strength to carry on.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Return of the King

From Ramayana: The Divine Loophole by Sanjay Patel (author and artist)

Once upon a time, in India, there lived a brilliant scholar. His 10 heads gave him superior brain power, but that also meant he had a huge ego.  He performed severe penance to gain a gift from the gods--every thousand years he cut off one of his heads and threw it in a fire as an offering.  Just as he was about to offer his last head, Brahma (the creator god) stopped him and offered him a wish. The scholar asked that he would never be defeated by any gods or divine beings.  Brahma, true to his word, granted the wish. Now with 10 heads, 20 arms, and a ticket of invulnerability from the creator, the former scholar, now a demon, went on a rampage, conquering all the gods and claiming the title King of the Worlds.  The scholar became known by the name of Ravana, meaning "He who makes the universe scream."

The gods did not know what to do.  Brahma's word must remain true, so he could not reverse his gift of invulnerability.  The gods asked Vishnu, the god who preserves the universe, for help.  Vishnu had a plan. He remembered that Ravana asked only never to be defeated by gods or divine beings, he did not ask for protection from humans or animals. Vishnu decides that he will accept birth as a man to circumvent Brahma's gift and slay the Ravana.

The only catch is that he had to truly be born a man: ignorant of his divine powers. The rest of the gods decide to help out, and take birth as animals--specifically monkeys and bears.  They too, must remain ignorant of their divine nature.

Vishnu takes birth as Rama, a prince in the city of Ayodhya, and Vishnu's divine plan is set in motion.  Through trickery, Rama, his wife, and his brother are banished to the forest for 14 years.  During the course of their exile, Rama's wife is kidnapped by Ravana, a great war ensues, and Rama triumphs.  On the anniversary of his 14th year of exile, Rama returns to Ayodhya to take his righful place as King.

This story (called The Ramayana--literally "The comings and goings of Rama")  is the oldest epic poem known to man.  There are those (when I say "those" I am referring to about 1 billion people) who take this story as truth.  Let us respect that, and let us see the more universal aspects of this story.

Several themes permeate this story.  The first is that we all have something greater inside of us that we have forgotten, and by defeating our ego (represented by the 10 headed 20 armed Ravana) we can re-discover that something. Of course, this is not easy.  Secondly, every character in this story represents an ideal--the ideal king, father, son, brother, wife, mother, devotee, etc., and demonstrates how we should act correctly in any given situation.

Rama's return from exile, the triumph of Good over Evil, the Light of Truth over the Darkness of Ignorance/Ego, is celebrated in India as Diwali.  This year Diwali begins on Tuesday November 13th.  This is a joyous festival of lights--a time for celebration, a time for giving thanks, a time for knowing that the universe operates correctly and that good will always win.  When all is right with the world, we see that we are truly a small extension of something larger--we see that everything is one. When that happens, we operate out of love.  It is said in The Ramayana that "Rama loves only love."  If we want to gain favor of The Lord (the greater Love) we must first give and act out of love.

On Diwali, spread love and happiness.  Know that our true nature of Love can shine through.  Even more importantly, remember that Diwali is not limited to one day--it is everyday.

Jai Ram!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Keep Calm and Carry OM

I have the wonderful opportunity to teach two yoga classes at work on Monday as a part of our Employee Health and Wellness Fair.  I think having a Wellness Fair is a great program for an employer to run.  There is a trend, at least according to the HR thought leaders that I follow, of employers focusing on wellness for their employees. 

Work is stressful.  Any work, any level.  If it were not stressful, it would be called “vacation.” Employers and employees alike know this. Work is a fact of life. We all need to find a method to deal with that relentless stress so we don’t go climbing clock towers or let other areas of our lives be ruined. 

For me, this method has been through cultivating a yogic practice.  Not just asana, although that helps incredibly because I sit behind a desk all day, but meditation, chanting, breath control, and the discipline of practice itself helps me to get through the day.

I don’t think anyone would accuse me of handling stress well.  But I think back to when I was in sales or working in kitchens for 12+ hrs. a day.  I handled stress by smoking a lot of cigarettes and drinking a lot of booze.  I ate like crap.  I did nothing to prevent or treat back, knee, elbow, and hand pain.  I was a physical and emotional wreck a lot of the time.

Over the last 8+ years, I have systematically worked to bring my body and mind back to some sort of human level baseline.  It is a work in progress.  This practice has not cured me of all my ailments (physical and mental) but it certainly has helped.  I am in better physical shape and have more sense of purpose than I did 8 years ago.  I have grown further in my career in these last 8 years than in the same time prior.  Of course this causes me to take on more stress, so I continue to practice.

My practice has changed over the years.  What I teach may not be completely appropriate for everyone, but my hope is that some part of it plants a seed.  The movement, the stories, sitting still, saying OM—hopefully something in there resonates with my students so that they can find a path that works for them.

This is all based on my direct experience.  Not something I read in a book, not something someone told me.  I have seen growth first-hand and think that I am in a much better place because of this practice.

There is a lot of work left.  But every OM gets me a little bit closer. I may not be all peacelovehappiness yet, but at least I can get out of bed in the morning.

My boss’ boss is a Churchill fan.  He frequently quotes “Keep calm and carry on.”  Saw this on Dharma Yoga’s page not so long ago and it seemed fitting.  Although I would personally alter it to “Keep Calm and Carry रमा .”

Be well.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Lighter Side of Death Wobble

Picture this:  You are driving down a straight road.  Once you hit 50 MPH the front end starts shaking. By 52 MPH, it is shaking so bad you can barely hold the wheel.  You break and pull over to the side, and once you are back to 45 MPH the shaking mysteriously disappears.

That, friends, is called Death Wobble.  If you have driven a Wrangler for any amount of time you know what I am talking about.  Why does this happen only at specific speeds, at random times? I have yet to find an answer to that.  Suffice it to say that some times, under some circumstances, things vibrate just right, and the harmonic vibration becomes so powerful that it changes the normal pattern of the machine.

And here’s where the topic relates to a wider audience…

Scary as this can be—think about it—wouldn’t it be amazing if the power of harmonic vibration could be harnessed and used for good?  OK conspiracy theorists, I’m not talking about that thing know as HARP (I said “used for good!”), but I am talking about yoga.

By focusing on the body and the breath in Hatha yoga, we are changing the vibrations within the body.  Call it energy, prana, kundalini, the Force ( ™ Lucas films.  Please don’t sue) or what have you.  We consciously alter the vibrations in the physical body, then those vibrations effect the mind and soon (well, in yogic terms ‘soon’ means multiple thousands of lifetimes) the whole system is vibrating differently.   I have read this (cannot remember where) effect likened to having a bunch of grandfather clocks set against the same wall. Eventually all the pendulums will begin swinging at the same time, in harmony. 

Controlled death wobble used for good.

Hatha is not the only way to do this.  The main drawback with Hatha practice, and even meditation practice (keep in mind it is impossible to ‘practice’ meditation. Meditation is a state where there is no distinction between the observer and the observed.  We can practice placing ourselves in situations conducive to this state, but the state occurs on its own) is that we EXPECT something to happen.  Come on, I know you do. So do I. 

Unfortunately this is completely counterproductive.

I have found that by incorporating sound into my practice (I won’t say ‘singing’—more on that in a  post to come) by reciting mantra has a more immediate effect than practicing asana, pranayama, and meditation. 

The effect, of course, is shutting up the noise in my mind by replacing it with a different vibration: The Hanuman Chalisa, Sri Ram, Sitaram, Rama Bolo, The Mahamantra, The Gayatri Mantra, Mantra for Purification, etc.

As part of my regular practice, I set a timer and recite softly, under my breath, the mantra or song. This has largely replaced seated meditation. 

The main reason I know it works is because, more often than not, I am surprised when the timer goes off; meaning that I forgot I was sitting about on the floor muttering under my breath for a set period of time and I was so concentrated that I forgot my surroundings.

And, I discovered, I actually enjoy this recitation.  I feel better when doing it. Seated meditation, for me, can be a bit of a chore. Which would I rather do?  The choice is obvious.

Recitation is much easier to do throughout the day than other forms of practice. I’m not breaking into asana at work (never mind the picture from last post…).  I’m not pulling out my mala to do japa while waiting in line.  But I will hum mantra.  I will sing it out driving to and from work (and scream it when death wobble occurs).

Does not matter what the song is or what it means—I do know enough of the English translation of The Chalisa to narrate it in general terms, but feel no need to get the translation down.  I was given the Mantra for Purification and was told that I am not to know the meaning.  Doesn’t matter.  I like the sound of it.

Controlled harmonic vibration it truly the basis of everything.  The significance of Gen. 1.3 is not “Let there be light,” it is “God said.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Life Lessons from Handstand: Forget You Can't Do It

Handstand is one of those poses which immediately causes people to thing “I can’t do that!” You are balancing your entire weight on your hands.  In my class, that means you are doing that in the center of the room.  Like all asana, it is comprised of 3 parts: entry, held expression of the pose, and exit.  To ‘do’ the pose means to do all 3 parts.  A war cry, flip and thud against a wall is not a handstand.  Crashing to the ground afterwards is not a handstand. Purposefully and mindfully approaching a preparatory step, even if neither foot leaves the ground, is a perfect handstand.

There are so many things working against you in this pose: Gravity, for one. Fear. Strength.  Gravity.

It took me countless attempts, with countless cartwheel escapes before I became, frankly, so annoyed with not hitting the pose that I no longer cared if I ever hit it. 

And once I gave up thinking about hitting the pose, I began to hit it.

The trick, I found, to learning handstand is very simple: you have to forget you can’t do it.

If we look at someone in a handstand and immediately begin to compare ourselves to that person, yes, never having done the pose you most likely cannot do it.  Just because something  is ‘impossible’ right now does not mean it is ‘impossible’ forever.

Handstand provides an opportunity to work on how we react to our limitations.  We first have to accept that our version of the pose will not match someone else’s expression of it.  So we begin by trying. Donkey kicking those legs up with all the brute force you can muster.  Or you meekly and half-heartedly lift one foot a centimeter off the ground.  But you keep trying. Experiencing frustration, questioning why you are doing this.  But you keep trying.

And something funny happens. With continued practice the fear and frustration begin to fall away.  You adapt and change.  You develop your expression of the pose—which may not ever be a complete balance on your hands. But it is your pose, the correct pose for you.

How many times during the day to we face adversity.  Do more with less.  Answer all these e-mails and phone calls. The job needs to be done yesterday.  Reassignment. Reorganization. Make dinner. Pick up kids. Flat tire in the rain. Splinter.

We can let fear paralyze us. We can get angry at the situation and fight against it. Or we can forget it—whatever ‘it’ may be—is impossible and start doing it. Maybe we will succeed or maybe we will not. Maybe we will have to re-define what success looks like.  When we try (paraphrasing MK Gandhi as I write this on his 143rd birthday) with full effort, we achieve full victory.

And if you can do the impossible (ie-getting out of your own head enough to try handstand, not necessarily hitting the arm balance) in one area of your life, than you can do it in another.

Handstand is not just gymnastics, it is a laboratory for learning to deal with life.