The Right Stuff for Non-Attachment

One of my kids’ favorite book characters is Chico Bon Bon from the “Monkey with A Tool Belt” series by Chris Monroe. Do you know these great stories?

If you don’t know Chico Bon Bon, you should definitely check out the Monkey With a Tool Belt books.

Allow me to summarize.

Chico Bon Bon is a monkey with a tool belt. (You could have guessed that from the title, right?)

He has absolutely all of the tools anyone could need for anything. All of the things. As you can see.

In one story, Chico gets captured by an organ grinder and taken to the circus. The story is about how he uses his tools to escape.

Every time we read this book – and I’ve read it so many times I could probably recite it from memory for you – I think about the classic Indian allegory about catching monkeys. It goes like this…

Do you want to catch a monkey? Let me tell you how.

Build a small box of wooden slats to hold a banana. Place a banana in the box in the jungle and go out of sight to wait.

Soon enough, a monkey will arrive. He will be able to put his hand between the slats to pick up the banana but he will not be able to get the banana out through the slat.

The monkey will become OBSESSED with getting this banana out. He will try every trick he knows. He will pull and yank. He will twist and bang. He will be so very focused on getting this banana out that you will be about to leave your hiding place and walk right up to him.

He might even notice that you are approaching but he will not let go of the banana. He will be so deeply attached to the banana, unwilling to release it, that you will be able to pluck him right up.

I’m not sure if this is true or not but the point of the story is pretty clear.

Freedom for that monkey is so close. When he hears the human approach, the logical thing to do would be to let go of the banana, pull his little hand out and run. But he doesn’t.

How many times have you been holding onto something so tightly, trying to solve some problem, to the point that it captures you?

I have. Dozens of times.

The story is meant to be a lesson in practicing aparigraha or non-attachment or sometimes non-possessiveness. I hear this message in a infomercial sales pitch voice:

Are you suffering because you are holding on to something too tightly or too long? Let it go and you are free!

Sounds so easy, right? And yet.

Here’s where I think about good ole’ Chico Bon Bon.

I think we need some tools to help us figure out let go of the bananas.

The solution to the grasping too tightly problem is probably somewhere between Chico Bon Bon’s overly stocked tool belt and just simply letting go.

We probably don’t need a zoozle and a snoozer like Chico’s. Whatever the heck those are!

And we definitely don’t need 2,100 yoga asanas either.

Fellow restorative yoga advocate and teacher Jillian Pransky recently wrote a great blog post about the difference between letting go and letting things be. This distinction is at the heart of the lesson of aparigraha. Check it out.

And perfectly on topic, in this short video Chico Bon Bon creator Chris Monroe talks about how Chico Bon Bon is about to get his own Netflix show.

I love how enthusiastic she is and also totally not surprised by it. Consider her attitude as she speaks about how it happened. It’s a great example of non-attachment.

Practice Makes Perfect?

On Sunday I’m going to do something that I haven’t done in a long time. And I’m nervous about it.

I’m playing in a piano recital. In front of about 100 people. Eeek!

I started taking piano lessons earlier this spring. It was the first time I’ve played the piano in more than 20 years!

Despite my current uneasiness about playing in front of a bunch of people, I discovered something I had forgotten. I really, really enjoy playing the piano.

I don’t think I really appreciated it or found it as joyful when I was first learning as a kid. Practice always felt like a chore. I always felt like the piano was just one more thing I was trying to achieve. There were songs to pass, good marks to earn from the adjudicators, a new book or songs at a higher level. You get the idea.

But now that I’m just playing for fun, I get to choose the songs and I find myself really wanting to practice. No surprise that my piano playing has actually improved!

My piano playing saga can help us understand the spirit of abhyāsa.

Abhyāsa means practice, especially a consistent practice, one that is done without interruption or distraction.

I once heard the teacher Richard Rosen say “Abhyasa builds on itself, just as a ball rolling downhill picks up momentum; the more we practice, the more we want to practice, and the faster we reach our destination.”

But wait, you say, I didn’t think we were trying to achieve anything in yoga. Isn’t that what you always tell us?

You know as much as I do that yogis love a paradox.

On one hand, yoga invites us to set intentions for our yoga and setting intentions can admittedly feel like setting goals.

While it’s helpful to have the direction and the prioritizing an intention can provide, yoga ultimately instructs us practice from a place of curiosity and a desire to know ourselves.

And when we practice with a desire to experience the joy in connecting more intimately and completely with ourselves, we improve in more ways than just being able to “do” postures.

There’s a common saying that goes “yoga isn’t about touching your toes; it’s about what you learn on the way down.”

If you have an intention to achieve something or attain something concrete, like being able to balance in tree pose or in crow pose, what is underneath that intention? When you “do” crow pose, what qualities or sensations, what experience does crow pose elicit?

Try reframing your idea about what you are practicing when you do asana on your yoga mat.

Digging at our motivations and ultimately moving towards understanding why we are drawn to certain poses is at the heart of abhyāsa.

In the meantime, despite my impending nerve-wracking piano performance, I’m trying not to forget about the joy I feel when I play. My in-home guru who often appears in the form of my oldest son said to me the other day, “Don’t be nervous mom. It’s like Ghandi and Malcom X say, ‘man’s greatest enemy is fear.’ You are going to be great if you don’t worry so much and just have fun.”

And in case you were wondering, this is the song I’ll be playing though this isn’t me in the video. Wish me luck!

Of Yoga and Chocolate

little boy feeding chocolate to little girlA friend of mine recently took a trip to stay at an Ayurvedic center in hopes of addressing some chronic health problems. She was on a pretty extreme exclusion diet when she arrived and her unaware but good-intentioned roommate offered her some chocolate. My friend was really distressed about not being able to eat it, almost to the point of tears. When one of the doctor’s heard about this, he told her she should just eat the chocolate. His point was that if not eating the chocolate was causing so much distress for her, the exclusion diet wasn’t really being fully effective.

This is an important idea to help us guide our choices in our yoga practice.

When the postures or the sequence or the meditation feels like a punishment, the whole practice has diminishing returns.

Now this doesn’t always mean that our practice is always supposed to be just rosebuds, butterflies, and savasana. Sometimes gnarly stuff gets churned up. And that’s part of yoga, too. You have to sift out and sort through the things you encounter – physically, emotionally, and thought-wise.

But the spirit in which we encounter and deal with whatever comes up really does matter and here’s where intention becomes the most valuable to us.

We can hold up our experience on the mat against the reasons that we come to yoga. If they aren’t meshing up, we get to decide if our practice needs to change or if our intention needs to change.

Sometimes what we encounter can tell us if  we have to back off (restoratives, anyone?) or if we need to push a little harder to get over whatever inertia has built up.

Rod Stryker once told a group of us that in an ideal world, he would advertise a class as advanced power vinyasa and then make everyone do restoratives the whole time.

Sometimes the things that attract us aren’t that helpful. It’s good to mix it up and see what happens.

I wrote a whole blog post about aversion and attraction not too long ago.

daffodil shoots in the snow

In many ways spring is more of a “new year” than when we celebrate the change on the calendar year in January. It’s the rebirth of nature, marked by a strong upward movement, as evidenced by my daffodils shooting up, almost defiant, in our recent unseasonal snow.

It’s a really perfect time to check in with ourselves, our intention, our attention, our practice as a whole. What’s your plan today? Where are you holding yourself back? How can yoga help you figure out what will serve you best?

Keep asking and seeking, yogis. That’s the real practice of yoga. I’d be honored to help you in the journey. Check out my new spring class schedule and come meet me on the mat.

Everything is Connected. Even Boston and Nirvana.

Jack, my oldest son, has become a serious rocker. He’s been playing the guitar for about 18 months and the list of bands whose songs he’s been learning to play has gone like this…

Jack playing a Fender Mustang

The Beatles
Vance Joy
Jack Johnson
<enter his first electric guitar>
AC/DC
Foo Fighters
Weezer
Nirvana
Rage Against the Machine

Earlier today, as we were taking down our Christmas decorations and unpacking from our holiday traveling, Jack heard the song “More Than a Feeling” by the band Boston playing on the stereo.

“Who is this band? Is this a cover of a Nirvana song?” he asked us tentatively. “It sort of sounds like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’

At first my husband and I just laughed. But then we all stopped and listened more closely. My husband Googled it and Jack is definitely not the first person to hear the connection between these two songs, as you can see for yourself in this mash-up video.

Turns out the similarity between the songs was a total accident! You can read about it here.

Okay, I know you are probably thinking, this is pretty cool but just how is this related to yoga?

The very first premise of yoga’s philosophical basis is that everything is connected and our suffering comes from the experience of and identification with separateness.

The practice of yoga is about finding, making, abiding, in our connections. Simple. Sure. But easy? Nope. Not at all. It’s because so much of our lives are filled with the experiences of discord – me versus you, light versus dark, awake versus asleep…

Oneness is always concealed in the differentiations. The yoga is in seeing oneness despite that.

So seeing something familiar in someone else, tasting a familiar flavor, or hearing a familiar sound… these are perfect entries into interconnectedness. A moment of revelation. Yoga suggests to us that we are constantly playing a giant game of hide and seek. Our oneness is concealed and then revealed. But we can only see if it we are paying close attention.

My wish for 2018, or shall I say, my resolution (to borrow from the day’s classic buzzword) is to continue to play the cosmic game of hide and seek. That means I’ll keep seeking connections, celebrating similarities, and listening to hear something familiar in every song I hear.

Happy new year, yogis.

black and white drawing with quote by da Vinci

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!

Making Space for Contentment

I’ve just returned from leading a 4-day summer retreat that was all about cultivating contentment. Santosha (sometimes spelled samtosha or santosa, as well as several other variations) is one of the niyamas or recommended habits and practices of yoga.

Santosha is described as a state that is essential for changing the future.

Yep. I know. That seems contradictory, right? If we are content, why would we need to change anything?

It might be easy to misunderstand santosha as a need to remove all desires (which of course is a mysterious paradox: the desire to remove desire.) But I think it’s more helpful to think about santosha as a process of clarifying the difference between pursuit of cravings and pursuit of needs.

If we are always focused on what we don’t like in this exact second, or not exactly the way we want it in this moment, we are more likely to make rash decisions that are based on our immediate attractions and aversions. We go for quick fixes and we are less likely to make decisions that take into account the long view.

Restorative yoga is the quintessential place for cultivating contentment.

It can be so tempting to work to acquire postures, to own them, to be able to “do” them, which in the end isn’t so different from wanting to acquire stuff in an effort to be happy.

Don’t get me wrong here. I love doing crazy hand balances and working on achieving the almost unbelievable movements and shapes possible in body. There is something totally empowering and motivating about having a goal pose and then nailing it. But the real magic of yoga comes for me when I’m not working to achieve anything physical and instead working on being curious about and contented with whatever I encounter when I practice restorative poses.

Restorative poses give time and space to withdraw from the demands and the pressures to consume and achieve.

We get permission to land in a place where we don’t have to be motivated. This idea of being in a space where I lack motivation is an often uncomfortable one for me. Doesn’t that sound like a bad thing? I hear lack of motivation and I think lazy.

But imagine, or perhaps even remember, a time when you were still and quiet in savasana and you noticed some sound but you thought to yourself, “I hear a sound. I don’t care about that sound and am not going to do anything about it.”

When we make space and give ourselves permission to abide in that place, we have an incredible amount of control. We are choosing for ourselves what is important and what deserves our attention without any pressure to have more or to do more.

Judith Hason Laster, says

“You can’t run after contentment. It has to find you. All you can do is try to create space for it.”

Just consider whether or not you making space for contentment in your life and in your yoga practice. It’s not easy but I think it’s worth it.

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.

Focus, Fire, and Letting Go

Not too long ago, Will came inside from playing in the back yard and asked me if I knew where he could find a magnifying glass. We ended up finding one buried in his closet and he tromped back outside. Assuming he was just looking at some interesting bugs, I went back to whatever I was doing. Moments later Sadie came running in, shouting,

“Will is starting a fire in the yard!”

My reaction was just as you might expect but it turns out I needn’t have worried. Will was *trying* to start a fire… With his small hand-held magnifying glass, wet leaves, and the 4 pm spring time sun.

But… if all other conditions were right and if Will had been holding the magnifying glass still, it would have been possible to harness the power of the sun. A magnifying glass is able to focus the rays of the sun into a concentrated beam, then multiply it through the lens to make a fire.

This is… wait for it… yoga. (I’m so predictable, I know!)

We are capable of amazing and powerful things, including the power to heat, transform, even to destroy, just like the sun.

However, we can only harness our power with concentrated effort.

This kind of concentrated effort only comes with dedication to practice. And this part of yoga is hard. Because habits. The Sanskrit is saṃskāra, or the impression of our past actions.

We need to practice – many times in a vigorous and dedicated way – in order recognize and then replace the old habits that are impeding our paths or causing us suffering. In Sanskrit this is abhyāsa.

That all makes sense. In order to learn something new, you have to practice. Even my 6-year old in the backyard trying to start a fire knows this to be true. You need a dedicated practice, focus to get the fire started.

But you also need to let go. This word in Sanskrit is vairāgyā.

As hard as it is to practice, I think it might be harder to let go.

It might help to understand the importance of releasing, and for that we have to come back to saṃskāra again. Any actions, even the positive forming habits are saṃskāra. Just like the old patterns, these new ones we are forming eventually will not serve us anymore either.

The whole cycle is one of many beautiful paradoxes of yoga. We are called to practice, to be fierce, to become master.

But then, just when we feel like we are getting “somewhere”, we are called to let go of that mastery.

One of my students recently wrote, “I find it remarkable that Tara, who practices and teaches highly athletic versions of yoga, is also an advocate and teacher of restorative yoga. Her classes have helped me realize that both activity and deep rest are necessary.”

You got it, Margaret. Dedicated practice and then letting go. That’s the most yogic combination there is.

Get the conditions just right, start the fire, but then know when and how to put it out.

Need more “athletic” yoga in your life? Dedicate to your active practice in my summer weekly classes. Better yet, get your partner in on it with you. Need more resting and letting go? Retreat is almost sold out so get registered!

There’s more to strength than big biceps

This past month I’ve noticed a fair amount of discussion of “shows of strength”, from politics (“North Korean Missile Launch Fails, and a Show of Strength Fizzles”) to fitness (#bicepswinraces.) It’s got me thinking about strength, specially the Sanskrit word vīrya.

Of course it only takes a few moments of holding a warrior 2 pose to convince anyone of the role that strength has to play in yoga asana practice.

However, vīrya is describing a richer concept than just sheer physical strength.

The word vīrya comes from the root word vir, which means “to subdue, to overpower, to tear open, to display heroism.”

You might even recognize this root word from the name of the pose virasana. It is named for the well-known Hindu monkey god Hanuman, who is sometimes called “Vir Hanuman”.

Wait a minute, some of you are saying, isn’t Hanuman’s pose called Hanumanasana? And yes, you are right. The splits (hanumanasana) are expressions of Hanuman leaping through the air, one of many great heroic feats he does in service of Lord Rama. Wouldn’t this pose, a representation of Hanuman’s great physical strength and stamina be better suited to the name virasana?

Instead, the pose virasana is a kneeling posture. It is a pose of humility and devotion. It is a pose that is often used for meditation and a posture that you might take if you were in the presence of someone that you wished to honor. Many depictions of Hanuman show him in the kneeling pose at Lord Rama’s feet. Lord Rama represents a higher power. Hanuman’s heroism is in the context of devotion and service to a higher power.

I think the message here is that vīrya is more about the kind of inner strength we drawn from devotion and service to something bigger.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an external god to be worshipped (though it certainly could be if that is your faith tradition!) but instead one way to understand this higher power is as a power that is within each of us.

Which leads me to a story…

There once was a young woman who had grown weary of the unfulfilling grind of her daily life so she decided to quit the things that made her feel dull and lifeless. She knew it would be a struggle and didn’t know where to find the strength to pursue happiness.

She asked her teacher where she could get the strength and he replied, “It is in all of the books ever written. It will take you many lifetimes to learn it. Let’s get started!”

She asked the priest who told her, “The strength you need is obtained by devotion to God. You can find it through prayer.”

She asked the strongest man she knew, an endurance athlete, who explained, “I found it in climb to the summit of Mount Everest. I can help you train!

Everyone she asked had a different answer. She felt confused and even more distraught than usual. She went to her mother and explained her dilemma. On the verge of tears the young woman explained “I have a dream of happiness but I don’t know where to find strength for its realization. I asked everyone, but there was no one who could help me.”

Her mother smiled and said, “Darling, I gave you the name Virya at birth because it means strength. You asked everyone else but you never asked yourself.

The strength you need is part of who you are. Go and change what needs to be changed.”

Your Life