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Monthly Archives: June 2008

Brahmacharya is one of the Yamas, or Suggestions for a firm foundation for practice. Brahmacharya means conserving your life force. As I was listening to folks discussing our current gas prices and “Energy Independence” on the radio, I realized that this is another application of Brahmacharya. 
When we are aware of where and how we expend our life force – our precious time, energy and resources – we can make choices that reflect our deepest values.
Energy Independence begins with not using our life force carelessly. So if we’re sitting in front of the TV it’s because we mean to, and we’ve chosen the images we’re taking in. Or, if we realize mid-activity we are involved in something that doesn’t reflect our deepest truth, knowing we can choose differently any time.
The other part of Energy Independence is choosing the most efficient methods for moving through the world. On the mat this might mean being aware of whether we’re gripping in a pose, and releasing areas of unnecessary effort. A good rule of thumb is not to reach out further or with more vigor than we are reaching in.
In relationships, everyday interactions and helping others, our practice on the mat is really practice for respecting our own life force and the energy of everyone we meet. That’s why, though yoga makes us more flexible, healthier, thinner and happier, we have so many more reasons to find our feet on the mat.

I tried this as an experiment recently: Sivasana at the beginning and end of class.  I’ve decided that it’s an advanced practice.

Doesn’t sound tough does it? It’s like nap time at the beginning. But have you watched three year olds who just came in from recess try to lay down? It’s like that pop-up gopher game where you’re meant to pop the puppets back down with a soft mallet. Monkey mind most active.

What a tremendous testament to our practice. Sivasana is nearly torturous for many at the beginning, and almost always luscious at the end. What’s changed? The embodied mind.

If you want to try this practice of playing dead both before and after, I suggest that you give yourself some structure for the beginning. Begin by noting sensation in your extremities. Really pay attention and feel it. Then pay attention to your sensation in your core (if you can find any at this stage, you’re particularly in touch that day). Then with each breath draw the sensations from your arms and legs and neck into your core. Now, I’m not suggesting you draw in pleasure or pain, just the unnamable raw sensation, unjudged. Some might call it energy. But it’s very concrete when you locate it within your body: the sense you have of your own body. Use your breath to draw it in.

Finally, draw all your attention to sensation down to your low abdomen and feel it expand and contract with each breath. By relaxing and contracting the low belly when breathing you are mechanically & chemically signalling your “slow down” nervous system to wake up. That’s right, wake up to slow down. There are all kinds of opposites that come together on the mat.

“The light which shines above this heaven, above all the worlds, above everything, in the highest worlds not excelled by any other worlds, that’s the same light  which is in you.” ~Chhandogya Upanishad

What if all the thinking, all the words, ideas aren’t our minds? What if they’re the covering over our minds? Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools. But what’s overseeing the job site? They’re not the tools you’ll need if you’re looking for your true self or for a steady place to stand.

Science tells us our minds are decentralized in the body. Yoga helps us settle into our heart, where wisdom and intelligence reside. Of course when we talk about heart in yoga, we’re not just talking about the juicy pumping muscle to the left of center in our ribcages. There are a lot of bits housed around there – chemoreceptors, baraoreceptors, lungs, thymus, arteries, lymph nodes, spine, circulating blood and air, esophagus, diaphragm. When we bring our attention to this area, when we just feel what comes up, we are contacting the heart of yoga. Our yoga.

Bringing ease to the muscles and joints around this area can be the beginning or development of this process. This is where many of us Western Yogis start, with asana. Maybe a little breathing practice. Then we might start calling that pranayama. Maybe we meditate for stress reduction. Somewhere along the way we realize these pesky emotions are less pesky, the aches are less achey, the mind is less muddled.

“The heart is the resting place of the pranas, the senses and the mind. It’s your true self, which is identified with intelligence and which finds repose in the space within your heart.” ~Nikhilananada’s Intro to The Principal Upanishads

So then we explore pratyahara – sense withdrawal. But then, where do the senses go? Niky above, says to the space within your heart, your true self. Makes some sense – it’s quieter there than the head or stomach. The feelings come up, but maybe we’re in a place where we can uncouple them enough from the words and judgments to just let them be a bit.

Now we’re practicing saucha in our hearts. Saucha – cleanliness, purity. We don’t often think of it in regard to our hearts, but after we’ve gotten glimpses of the Love that lives there, it makes sense not to store our crap on the porch. If we keep the windows clean maybe it will shine more brightly. The Sanskrit word for this place – Anahata – can be translated “unstruck”. “The space within your heart  is omnipresent and unchanging.” (~Chhandogya Upanishad ) Always with us, always available for us to touch and feel is a place that is unstruck by the blows of life, unmoved by the compliments and criticisms, the lost jobs and the awards. It is always what it is. We are always who we are. Sometimes we just cover it up with judgments, which are really old experiences in new clothes. Film on our windows.

Maybe this is the impetus to poke our noses into the pesky ethical side of yoga.  But if you’ve been cleaning your windows all by yourself, and someone gives you a step ladder and an extension for your sponge, you’ll be pretty glad to pay attention. And they’re pretty simple, deceptively so. Love, Truth, Conserve your energy, Be quiet, Be fierce, Stay Open, Be present, Learn you’re not in control, Study your experience, Respect Others’ Boundaries. But Wow! try to practice ’em all at once! That’ll give any college Ethics Professor a run for her money.

So you keep coming back to the place of quiet stillness to which your mat has become the doorway. “The heart is the hub of all sacred places; go there and roam.” ~Bhagavan Nityananda 

Happy Father’s Day, Phil Buckley! with Love, your Daughter

In Gratitude and to Honor Dad, I’m putting up the sequence for my “Strong Shoulders, Open Heart” Workshop I’m giving for the first time today. I’ll be over at yogaeveryday.org, just look for it on the nav bar after this evening. Thanks for your strength, truth and heart, Dad.

Did I mention my Dad does yoga? I’ve mentioned here before that my first memory of yoga I’m barely three (which is a big deal…. most of those are gone) and my Mom and I are doing DownDog. Well, Mom is. I’m doing a quiet, determined, three-year old meditation on what Mom might be doing.

And Dad came to the mat later. Did I mention that my Dad made me cry recently when he said, “No one could ever call you Slacker, young lady.” I was stressing about being a lady of leisure (thus the universe swiped that possibility out from under me and gave me all the classes to teach I could possibly imagine!). To have my Dad acknowledge me as a hard worker, well, that’s something.

My Dad showed me that work could be passion. It could light your mind and give you ideas that keep you up at night (hence, my being up at 1:30 am 🙂 And in addition to that he coached, he taught me about cars and balls and when we finally figured out I was better at kicking than hitting, he coached soccer. When I became obsessed with running at 13 and insisted on a spin after homework, when it was dark in the Midwest Winter, he got in his car and followed me, to see I was safe (pretty sure Mom suggested it 🙂 I assume it was when he got sick of driving at 4 or 5 mph that he put on his Converse – the same ones from college – and joined me. Now that’s a Dad.

Now he’s a superchampion – not sure what exact position he holds this year in the MidWest Corporate Challenge, but it’s not too shabby and he’s definitely a superchamp to me.

So when he told me there was a gal who taught yoga at the Institute where he works and he’d taken it up and how it made his life better, well, I was glad, but not entirely surprised.

We’ve come a long way, Dad. Thanks for being the Engineer.

With love, Christine

Churning the energy for the workshop I’m giving tomorrow, riding my grass green bicycle with pink handles from my Noon class to the grocery, thinking about an interview with Cyndi Lee I need to whip into a blog (stay tuned ;> , the above phrase appeared in my mind. I think Lee does a class named with the same words, associated differently.

And I thought, “Why the hell not?” Now, there’s a deeper point here about mind and body, but let’s dwell on the obvious for moment. I mean, it’s possible to do yoga and be round. Our images about what yogi’s bodies appear to be are really driven by some hippie hype images from generations ago. Those images are of sannyasin renunciates. People who have renounced, who deny themselves for spiritual reasons. I don’t mean like giving up chocolate or wine for Lent or even a really rigorous detox. I mean like de-ny. One man highlighted in Kumbha Mela (a really terrific DVD) had held his arm up for decades. It had atrophied and he’d learned to live without it. That kind of denial.

Let’s take an extreme form yoga popular now – Bikram. I think this is when the worm started to turn for me. I went to my first Bikram class (it was my last for three years) and it was led by a humorless, bodily shaven, clapping man under a photo of a teacher from India: a round, smiling, open mouth laughing man who looked like someone from whom I’d like to actually take a class.

Now, I’ve since found a new Bikram studio and have found happiness in that hot room on several occasions. It was just such a stark experience, the disconnect between projected images.  It’s true, I don’t look like a sinyasin at all. I’m further along the spectrum to one of Ruben’s women. And this does sometimes get stuck oddly in my mind. But then it’s no different than any of the other stuck bits. I take it to the mat and do some yoga with it.

And that brings me to the deeper point: it doesn’t really matter in which order we get the words “Yoga Mind, Buddha Body.” Mind is Body, Body is Mind. They’re the same, kids. Doubt it? Notice the next time you notice one of your parents’ facial expressions on your face. Notice the thoughts and feelings. You might not have been aware of them, but they were there: on your face. This is only one example, you probably can instance a dozen yourself.

Yes, there are useful distinctions to be made and how we understand the identity becomes interesting, if you like details. There’s epiphenomalism, there’s causation, there’s instantiation, there’s more. But it comes down to does the body cause the mind, does the mind cause the body, is there a factual distinction, or is it only useful to talk about them seperately?

Notice, I’m not saying brain, because hopefully we’ve all come to understand the mind is widely distributed in the body, for instance there’s scientific fact buried in our colloquial “gut feeling.” Body and mind, mind and body. If I have to choose I’ll go with mind causing body, which only sounds crazy til you take it to your yoga mat. Change your thoughts while in a pose: feel what happens in your body.

In any event, let’s agree yoga asana is done with bodies.  Aligning our bodies, the physical, breath, mind, emotion – all of them so that they’re most transparent and let the most light through, that’s important. Sometimes that takes sweat, sometimes it takes sitting, but it’s always one step closer on the mat.

(from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerable )

Main Entry: vul·ner·a·ble 

Pronunciation: \ˈvəl-n(ə-)rə-bəl, ˈvəl-nər-bəl\

Function: adjective

Etymology: Late Latin vulnerabilis, from Latin vulnerare to wound, from vulner-, vulnus wound; probably akin to Latin vellere to pluck, Greek oulē wound
Date: 1605
1 : capable of being physically or emotionally wounded
2 : open to attack or damage : assailable <vulnerable to criticism>
3 : liable to increased penalties but entitled to increased bonuses after winning a game in contract bridge
So, I don’t know about #3, but the first two are revealing puzzles. I love revealing puzzles, especially when they come packed in lovely words.
I’m preparing for a “Strong Shoulders, Open Heart” workshop this weekend, and I’ve been gathering stones, so to speak. It’s time to choose the ones that sparkle, but I love the brainstorming part of the preparation process. Writing down and following every lead that comes to mind, integrating anatomy and experience and meaning and feeling. Yoga, in a word.
So as I was performing a mudra meditation for the heart yesterday,  vulnerability washed over me. The “open” part of the workshop title took center stage. What’s it mean to cultivate strength and openness? What’s it mean to stay open even when things are scarey. What’s it mean to remain loving while you stand your ground?
I started thinking about the very word “vulnerable”… “to wound”. The heart chakra is called, in Sanskrit, Anahata  – “unstruck.” Unstruck. So the very place where we are arguably most vulnerable, is somehow, paradoxically, like a perfect soundless bell. To wound, to be unstruck.
And it struck me. “Vulner” “able” doesn’t really straightforwardly translate to “woundable”, because “vulner” is active. More directly, it would mean our ability to wound.
So, our ability to wound is related to our ability to be wounded. In relation to the heart center, the literal heart, as well as our figurative, energetic and emotional connection to our passion and meaning, what does this mean?
And here’s what arose for me. We have access to way of being and moving in the world that is unstruck because it originates in the present moment, whatever that is for us. Whether it’s a scarey situation or tense or joyful or boring, we can connect to it. But instead, we flee forward or backward, putting on our masks, so we drege up old feeling and bring it into the unstruck moment, and we find emotion in that same moment, but we’re holding on so tight it gets stuck. Gets stuck to our ribs, in our arteries, in our teeth, heads and brains.
It’s when we respond from this place, trying not to be open, trying not to be struck, that we are most capable of wounding others, because we’ve already unwittingly wounded ourselves. We’ve closed off, turned away and restricted our own possibilities because we weren’t able to remember that there’s a part of us – the most important part – that can’t be struck.

Is that too harsh?

Sometimes you need to interrupt. Just Stop. And watch.

And from there, we can see what’s to do. Then just do it. Not Nike style, not white knuckled, not competetively, factually, because it’s the only thing to do. You put you + this evolving situation + you watching, noting you AND the situation… soon, the thing will emerge. It will. Trust me.

And if you act before that, it doesn’t matter that it was “right”, it will be more complicated than it needed to be. It will have unintended consequences. Practice waiting for the dust to settle. I promise it gets easier, it’s quicker than you think. Even in a bonafide emergency – and there are precious few of these, really – the half breath to become present before choosing which of the myriad necessities to engage first is totally worth it. That necessity will flow into the next, because you’ve eliminated the competition between the necessities. You’ve entered the moment.

So time on the mat matters. In asana, in pranayam, in meditation. It matters. It’s a laboratory, it’s practice. Literally. It’s how you train. So show up, do it. Shhhh… your mind is talking. Watch it. Hear it. And move on. Feel your mat.