The Yogi’s GPS

I’ve driven to my hometown in York, PA from the DC area more times than I can possibly count. Certainly hundreds – maybe thousands? – of times since I moved to MD in 1999. And yet, not so long ago I was driving to my grandmother’s house and I totally missed my exit. What? How is that possible?

signs pointing in different directions

Well…I have a terrible sense of direction. Like really the worst. I have zero instinctual understanding of where I am and the route to take to get to where I’m going. It was an even worse dilemma in the not so distant past when I needed actual road maps to plot my courses.

Luckily for me, the modern navigational technologies of GPS and a smart phone has resolved any serious issues with my lack of sense of direction when it comes to getting places.

But I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my way when it comes to less concrete things like getting to my grandmother’s house.

Equally fortunate for me, yoga offers me a kind of GPS for the non-physical moments of feeling lost.

Prajñā, often translated as clear understanding, can also be understood as clear direction. It is one of the five virtues, along with focusstrength, faith, and retentive power.

Yoga offers us opportunities to cultivate focus, strength, faith, and retentive power in order to have a clear direction and understanding of the self and ultimately life.

Prajñā has three important and specific components:

  1. Knowing what we want and where we want to go;
  2. Recognizing when we are on the right course to get there;
  3. Knowing where we are when we start.
Where am I going? Hello, sankalpa.

How can I get somewhere if I don’t know where I am trying to go? As George Harrison sings in Any Road, “If you don’t know where you’re going/Any road will take you there.”

Working with an intention or sankalpa is a strategy that helps get at exactly what it is that we want and how we get there. Kelly McGonigal wrote a really fantastic article about sankalpa and how to set one that is powerful and meaningful. I find it super-helpful, especially as the year is winding down and I start thinking about what it means to set a New Year’s resolution.

Am I on the right path? Where am I right now?

line drawing of woman meditatingCyndi Lee is the teacher that has inspired me most lately to access a clearer picture of whether or not I’m on the right path. Her meditation tradition called shamatha, a technique based on Buddhist teachings. The premise is that the essence of our being is unconditional wisdom and compassion. But it’s easy to lose track of our wisdom and compassion because other real (and imaginary) drama gets in the way.

It’s become a regular strategy for me now to ask myself, “is this reaction you are having right now coming from a place of wisdom and compassion, or is it a result of being hangry/tired/sick/scared/grumpy/etc?”

It’s hard to make good wise decisions when the basic needs of body and emotional self aren’t totally met. But sometimes it’s even harder to recognize when I am abiding in a state that is not wisdom and compassion. Fortunately I have meditation and a very helpful husband to continue to call me out in the most loving ways possible.

Reenter the five virtues.

Santa Claus in tree pose

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Chairman and Spiritual Head of the Himalayan Institute, explains as we nurture focus, strength, faith, and retentive power, our clear direction unfolds before us. Essentially prajñā means that we understand “what we are supposed to learn from the pleasant and unpleasant experiences that life brings, and ultimately, know how to use our worldly achievements to fuel our spiritual growth.”

While yoga is helping me to figure out my clear way forward into 2018, I’m still pretty grateful to modern technology for helping me navigate in my car. Even luckier and oh-so-appropriate for the season, Santa is the voice of my directions on Waze right now.

Happy holidays, yogis. I look forward to seeing you this month and in 2018!

On the matter of being in and out of a body

Not too long ago, one of my students had what she described as an “out-of-body experience” in a restorative yoga practice. It reminded me a bit of the experiences described by some of transcendental meditators that I used to hang around.

Those amazing yogis had the most intense meditation practices of anyone I’d ever known.

They were super far out, yearned to be in that space all the time, and specifically cultivated a meditation practice that would take them there at will. (On the flip side, most of them had a hard time paying the rent or being in committed relationships. But that came from never putting their energy or focus back down and into their daily lives.)

The yogi from my class who had the “out-of-body experience” said she firmly prefers the kind of yoga that puts her *into* body.

She jokingly said she was about to jump up out of savasana and into a triangle pose.

I told her a story from the Mundaka Upanishad about Shaunaka, a householder yogi. Shaunaka goes to his teacher and wants to know why he isn’t making more progress in his study of yoga. His teacher explains that while Shaunaka’s practice is steady and correct, he is succeeding in becoming master of only lower knowledge.

The Mundaka Upanishad goes on to explain in a very beautiful and poetic style, more beautiful than my retelling could do justice, the true purpose of yoga.

The benefits of yoga practice come when the student works toward mastering the Self.

My teachers have given me a similar chat about my own yoga practice. I’ve been stuck in asana-land these days and I recognized this experience in my student, too. We joked about it.

If just practice down dog long enough and in exactly the right way, we are sure to attain Self-realization eventually.

Ha! Neither of us believes for a second that yoga asana can take anyone to this place. That doesn’t mean yoga postures are a waste of time. Asana is a fantastic way to improve the health of body, and to get us more fully connected to the body. Asana has definitely helped me to recognize ways that my body and my perceptions of it are the causes of suffering.

But let me tell you first hand, it’s so much harder to face all of the stuff that comes bubbling up when the moving and posing stops.

Even the most complicated yoga posture feels like a breeze compared to those crazy demons that can come popping up in the quiet stillness.

I definitely can’t claim to have experienced any of the transcendent “out-of-body” experiences that my student or those meditators I used to know have had.

But it’s in the quiet times when I really start to dig into understanding the interworkings of Self.

And that’s when the practice of yoga really starts.

Who Has Time and Energy for This?

A few years ago I thought I wanted to go back to school to be an Occupational Therapist. I knew I was going to have to take a bunch of prerequisite courses (a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion doesn’t really cut it) so I went to Montgomery College to talk to an admissions counselor.

The counselor was great; he helped me figure out what I would need to take to be able to apply for the OT program and then he had me take a math placement test.

I tested into Remedial Algebra. That’s a nice way of saying I needed to go back to 4th grade. Seriously. Suddenly my two years of prerequisite courses became four years of just math. Eek! Could I have studied up a bit and taken the placement test again and probably done better? Sure! Could I have powered through those additional courses? Sure! Did I want to? Absolutely resoundingly: no.

Here saying no was actually a yes.

I’m telling this story as a contrast to all of those other stories you hear about incredible and far-reaching goals achieved with hard work and serious acts of willpower. We regularly hear those stories. Things like the story of Alex Honnold, my 10-year climber’s idol, who just happened to do the most dangerous free solo climb of El Capitan. No biggie. Ha!

But we don’t often hear the more common stories like mine. Those ones about regular folks who have an idea, realize how much work it will be to bring that idea to fruition, and then decide not to pursue the goal because it isn’t really worth it.

There’s absolutely something inspiring about seeing someone achieve their goals after lots of sacrifices and hard work. But I think it might be equally inspiring and perhaps more empowering to hear stories like mine.

We all have millions of goals, desires, interests, and behind every one of those is a certain amount of willpower to accomplish it.

If we acknowledge this and the choose with confidence to let go of certain goals, would it be possible to reclaim the willpower and energy that belongs to each of those goals?

There seems to be a kind of unspoken (sometimes very much spoken!) narrative that if you don’t go after your goals you are a slacker or a failure. But sometimes not going after your goal is about optimizing resources.

What could be possible if we could stop directing attention and effort at the things that aren’t really worth it?

In asana this can looks like making the appropriate amount of effort in each pose. This is not about working more or working harder but working differently. Perhaps it comes as a shift to some part of our skeleton, such as unlocking our knees and untucking our pelvis. Or sometimes it just means doing a pose in a different way so that there is a different load on a different part of the body.

Still other times it means doing something different with your yoga that might not even be asana at all. Maybe it’s time to revisit pranayama or to reconnect with your meditation practice. It is an 8-fold path and asana is just one piece of the puzzle.

As you move through the month of July, vacationing, working, summering how you do, consider what kinds of goals you have – the in-process ones, the yet to be started ones, the abandoned ones. How much willpower is there behind each of those? Could you be content with the ways that you have let go of goals that were too much work to achieve? I think you just might be able to redirect the latent willpower in those not-so-worth-it goals in order to move closer to what you really want.

Your Life

Green Cup Moments: A Lesson in Attraction and Aversion

Not too long ago, Sadie, my 3-year old asked me for a drink. When I gave her the cup, she threw the most epic tantrum to ever be thrown. She stomped and shouted:

“I can NOT drink from a green cup!”

I rolled my eyes and nearly lost my temper but we worked it out and I brushed it off as typical three-year old drama.

Not too long after that, I was telling one of my teachers about a time when I attended a workshop with a very famous yoga teacher. I described how this very famous yoga teacher turned me off because she was sitting up on a throne (literally a throne!) to teach and she would make some very big shows of normal things like drinking water. I was also put off by the way she would make these big dramatic pauses when she was speaking, as if to make sure everyone was really paying attention to her.

I said to my teacher, “I prefer when teachers are a more down to earth, not so much pomp and circumstance.”

My teacher replied, “I prefer when teachers know what they are talking about whether there is pomp and circumstance or not.”

Touche. My own green cup moment.

Attractions (rāga) and aversions (dveṣa) can be impediments on the way toward manifesting intentions or fulfilling desires, or getting the experience or knowledge we seek.

Of course just like there are no categorically bad actions, attractions and aversions are situationally dependent.

We can experience this in asana practice. Everyone has attachments or aversions to practicing particular poses or practicing poses in particular ways. When presented with a different variation or way to practice, those attractions and aversions might prevent the practitioner from accessing the benefits of the pose.

The only way to tell whether or not attachments or aversions are impediments is to be really clear about exactly what it is that we want from our practice.

It also helps to continuously inquire about each time we encounter something in practice that we immediately like or don’t like.

Need help figuring out if you are caught in the trap of attractions and aversions? Spring is the perfect time to sort out your intentions, your attractions and aversions, and to renew your commitment to practicing. Come see me on the mat and we’ll sort it out together.

Namaste, yogis, and happy almost-spring!

Undisturbed by Dualities: The Yoga of Politics?

Sometime ago, a friend of mine posted a photo quote on Facebook: “No one is you and that is your power.” I replied saying, “But also everyone is you and that is your power.” We had a chuckle over that and even more so when someone else weighed in to say “You aren’t even you.”

The Sanskrit word avidya is sometimes translated as ignorance. While adviya does mean ignorance, it also means misconception. It’s the word that describes mistaking illusion for reality or the mistaking the impermanent things for permanent. In other words, incorrect knowledge.

In B.K.S. Iynegar’s translation of the Yoga Sutra he writes, “when asana is practiced with steadiness and ease, the infinite being within is reached. From then on, the practitioner is undisturbed by dualities.”

Mr. Iyengar’s read on Patanjali is that we’ve got to bring our whole selves – body, breath, and mind – to each pose. When we do that, we can be steady and easeful in asana practice, and we recognition more fully our capacity for connections in this microcosm that is our individual self. We are undisturbed by dualities when we acknowledge the separations for what they are. The divisions that are a covering for the ways things are deeply connected.

When I think back of the moments when I’ve feel the most distraught and disturbed by the challenges I’ve faced, it’s always because I’ve identified more fully with the way I was separate from others. And this distress continues for me full-force in today’s contentious political environment.

It’s easy to say that the folks who disagree with us are inferior, uneducated, separate from us. It’s easy to just disregard them or maybe outright argue with them in an effort to make them change their minds. How many times have I tried to point out that I’m not like THAT person!?

But what happens when we say, “they are us too”? Is it possible to recognize ourselves in the other? How can we do this without validating racism, misogyny, bigotry, lying, and just plain bullying?

I don’t know the answer. And maybe it’s just the peace, love, and understanding hippie dippy part of me that is foolish for even thinking this is possible.

But think about this: if the body is a microcosm for the way the world, nature, and all of humanity interact and it’s possible to practice asana in the body in such a way that we know without a doubt that we are connected to ourselves, then I think it’s possible to make this jump too:

Everyone is you.

Even the awful racist, misogynist, bullying, lying, egotistical maniacs.

And believe me, that guy scares me. A lot. But perhaps there is more power in saying that we are connected. We are responsible for that guy. We are that guy. Whoa.

What are you holding too tightly?

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell

Nothing like an impending move to make you question why you own what you own. I spent most of the past two weeks packing up our house. It was sifting, sorting, selling, donating. It was an interesting experience to reflect on what I had been keeping and why, an excellent chance to practice the yama known as aparigraha.

Aparigraha is sometimes translated as non-possession but that doesn’t really capture the essence of this yama for me. Calling it non-possession makes me think I should be giving away everything that I own, and aspire to live the ascetic, possession-less life. While there are certainly schools of yoga that encourage this kind of lifestyle, it makes more sense to me when aparigraha is translated as non-grasping, not clinging so tightly to what we have.

Sometimes what we are holding is a physical thing, like the single sock my husband was refusing to get rid of even though he hasn’t seen the mate in more than a year. Or the six pairs of scissors that I was keeping, you know, just in case one pair got lost.

Or maybe it’s not something physical. Ingela Abbott writes,  “Am I attached to being a stiff person or a weak body, attached to my old tensions or old injuries, attached to blaming people for my old pains or injuries, attached to doing a perfect pose or doing the finished pose, attached to doing a pose a certain way, or attached to my teacher’s way of presenting the poses, or just simply attached to that certain spot in the classroom?”

She goes on to argue that releasing the grip on physical things, thoughts, ideas, and even the grip on other people, allows us to connect more fully to our true and most authentic self. “The more we let go in all areas of life, the more life unfolds itself to us”.

My friend Naomi Gottlieb-Miller just wrote a great blog post about the stories we tell ourselves and the way we hold on to beliefs and ideas about ourselves, even when those stories aren’t really true. 

As for me, I’m busy unpacking. But not in the way I hoped I would be unpacking. Unfortunately, the impending house purchase fell through the day before closing, two days before the move. Unknowingly, we were working with a terrible lender who erroneously pre-approved us for a loan and then wasn’t able to get the loan through the underwriters. After talking to another lender in an effort to save the deal, it was clear that we never should have been pre-approved for the loan in the first place.

The reason we couldn’t get the loan was a direct result of a tenant who lived in the rental property we own. She didn’t pay rent for six months last year, had to be evicted, and left us with a huge repair bill on the townhouse. In other words, absolutely nothing I could do to change that woman’s behavior or the decision the bank made on the loan that we were expecting to get to pay for the new house.

Talk about stressful, frustrating, disappointing! I had a day where I was clinging so tightly to those feelings that I was totally paralyzed.

But then I started unpacking.

I realized that just like the sorting and reflecting and letting go that I did when I was packing up, in order to move on, I had to let go of some things again. I had to let go of my disappointments, and my ideas of success and failure. I had to let go of my anger over how someone else had power over my options. I had to let go of what could have been, let go of the plan I had. Quite simply, this whole ordeal has just been another chance to practice a little more aparigraha and stop grasping so tightly.

Procrastination be gone!

In general, in most parts of my life and work, I’m a get-it-done kind of lady. But when it comes to this one particular item – writing a monthly blog post – I’m the biggest procrastinator ever.

I always have really good excuses…

“I just got back from a really busy (and totally amazing!) weekend retreat.”

“I’ve been juggling some childcare challenges.”

“I’ve been working on lots of new class plans.”

“I’ve spent time cooking for some friends and neighbors who needed a little help.”

And none of that would be a lie. But the real truth (get ready for the yogi confessional) is, quite simply…

I’m procrastinating.

In my procrastinating this month, I think I might have come to recognize why I put this off and always seem to find other “more important” things to do when it’s newsletter writing time.

I care a lot what you think. It’s been going on for awhile, like, ever since I can remember.

And my drive for you to think highly of me rears its ugly head when it comes time to write something. I get worried that you might think what I’m writing about is lame. Or that I’m bothering you by sending this newsletter.

Now in most things, I’ve mostly gotten over myself. I don’t care so much about what you think of my clothes or my hair or my post-baby belly (okay, maybe I’m still working on that one!) I don’t really care if you like my classes because I’m really confident in the value of what I’m offering. And I acknowledge that I am way more judgmental about myself than any of you are likely to be of me.

But when it comes to things that will be photographed, or in print, or on the interwebs for(ever?) a long time to come, I’m almost paralyzed by my need to be perfect because of what you might think and so I would totally prefer to avoid than to actually do.

So instead, I do the things I love like cooking, practicing yoga, planning classes, doing laundry, going to the car wash, watering the garden, playing with the kids…

And while all of those things are helpful and good in their own way, I totally know that there are just those things you have to make yourself do because they move you forward toward your goals, even if they make you uncomfortable. For me, it’s writing a newsletter. Putting myself and my offerings out there whether you like it or not so that hopefully you will all come to class and I can make a living as a yoga teacher.

Here’s the real point of all of this: are you reading this because you are avoiding something you should or have to do? If so, own it. Call yourself on it and then go! Get on with it, friend! Stop procrastinating. Get on your yoga mat. Finish your work. Clean your house. Call your mother. Go to the dentist. Go to bed. Whatever it is for you, go and do it.

Love,
Tara