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!

Time Is On Our Side

I’ve just returned from a retreat at one of my favorite places on the planet: Blue Mountain Retreat Center. There’s a funny thing that happens when I’m there. I totally lose track of time. It’s a bit inconvenient, especially when I’m running the retreat and responsible for keeping on the schedule. But it feels like retreats there are set in an unusual kind of timelessness.

clock with no handsThe super wise and brilliant teacher Machelle Lee once told me that when our nervous system switches into rest and digest (the parasympathetic side) instead of fight or flight (sympathetic), we lose track of time.

Or maybe more specifically, we lose track of our urgency around time.

While this isn’t exactly the kind of timelessness that the Mandukya Upanishad is talking about, it certainly reminds me of it. The Mandukya Upanishad proposes that Consciousness is beyond time.

Our mind’s state is divided as follows:

  • Outwardly focused
    We are only connecting to the external world – solving problems, getting things done, responding to information we receive from our senses.
  • Inwardly focused
    This is sometimes calls the dreaming state where we are replaying our past actions and desires.
  • Deep sleep
    This is described as a state when there are no actions and no desires.

It goes on to describe what happens when we become more fully aware in each of these three states:

The superconscious state is neither inward or outward, beyond the senses and the intellect…without parts, beyond birth and death…Those who know Consciousness become Consciousness itself.

One of my teachers, Judith Hanson Laster, talks about how difficult it is to get access to this kind of connection. She explains it like this: the body is always stuck in the past. It is a cumulative experience of all our past movements and lack of movements, injuries, bodily experiences.

Our mind is often concerned with the future. It’s pushing ahead to solve problems and be prepared for whatever we might be expecting to encounter or experience.

But our breath is our best place to get access to the present.

If we can connect mind, body, and breath together, we can stay steady and aware in the present.

supported savasanaStaying present is absolutely not possible when we are in a rush to do something or to get somewhere. When we can slow down and be in each step of the practice as we encounter it, we are cultivating a more purposeful kind of awareness in action and this is the launching point for access to this Consciousness described in the Mandukya Upanishad.

If you want to experience a kind of timelessness that happens on a restorative yoga retreat, registration for my winter retreat is now open!

From Fullness, Fullness Comes

pumpkins and mums

This weekend I pulled out the sweatshirts and flannels with great delight that the cooler weather has finally arrived. I put some pumpkins and mums (my favorite flowers!) on my porch and I considered how fall always feels like a time for organization, order, preparations, settling in.

Fall also always gets me thinking about abundance, specifically the invocation from the Isha Upanishad: 

 

“All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.”

I have lots of favorite parts of the Upanishads but as a whole, the Isha Upanishad is my favorite. Purportedly It was Ghandi’s favorite, too. Ghandi did reference the Isha Upanishad in his writings, specifically about the implications for our social and economic structures if we were to take the Isha Upanishad’s message of abundance seriously.

Ghandi is famously quoted as saying “There is enough for everyone’s need, just not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Sometimes our yoga practice serves us best, perhaps after a particularly stressful week in the world, as a place for us to regroup and turn inward, as a place to recharge and practice self-care. It becomes a place that moves us in rhythm the energy of the fall, where we organize our bodies, our attention and it’s where we can gather in to what serves us as individuals.

But in Ghandi’s view our yoga practices should ultimately rest on the foundation of what is good for the collective, no matter what the season.

The Isha Upanishad’s point is that there is one consciousness that connects us all. We have equal access to it and equal right to experience it.

Even more than that, it is not a limited resource. This one consciousness is abundantly and constantly available to us. What kinds of implications does that have for the way we move through the world?

There is so much division and conflict right now, perhaps even in own families and even within ourselves, that I find a particular inspiration in words from Greek philosopher Plotinus’ Enneads, which sounds quite a bit like the Isha Upanishad’s message:

“Think of this One original source as a spring, self-generating, feeding all of itself to the rivers and not yet used up by them…When you pours over us, we are not dashed down but you raise us up. You are not spilled out, but collect us together.”

Diana's Bath, Bartlett, NH

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.

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

Snakes in the Grass

Not long ago a whole group of kids were playing after school in the neighborhood park. All of sudden, two kids came tearing out of the wooded area at top speed, screaming their heads off.

“A snake! A snake! A SNAKE!”

Predictably, my two boys – Jack and Will – immediately dashed up the hill in the direction of the snake with an eager look in their eyes.

Standing on the playground area it was hard to see exactly what was happening. Both of them bent down. Jack pick up a stick. There was a collective gasp among the kids and parents as he gingerly poked with the stick. Then he tossed the stick aside, reach down, and picked up…

…a rope.

What happened is an example of a avidya. (And in fact, a classic Indian example often told to explain the concept!)

Avidya is sometimes translated as the English word ignorance.

My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ignorance as “lack of knowledge, education, or awareness”. But it wasn’t that a lack of education or unsophistication that caused the first two kids to think they had seen a snake. Of course they know what a snake is and looks like.

However, in order for them to have seen that ‘snake’ in the first place, their minds discarded the possibility that it was a rope. Then their minds filled in the blank so they saw a snake in the rope’s place.

It was a kind of confusion or mistaken identity that caused the problem.

Avidya as not ignorance as Merriam-Webster defines it but more like a false impression.

The correct information or understanding is still there, it just gets obscured by something else. When all of the kids finally saw the rope as a rope, the snake was gone and everyone had a good laugh.

This kind of mistaken identity happens all the time, and not just to elementary school kids. We see situations, experiences, and other people unclearly all the time.

I’d even argue that we rarely see ourselves clearly.

So yoga is giving us the opportunities to figure out if we are seeing clearly or identifying with our misconceptions. It’s only with dedicated practice and a healthy dose of non-attachment that we can cultivate correct “sight” and see the ropes and snakes as they really are.