Someone called up and said she’d been reading about the benefits of meditation. She said she wanted to get started. She said, ‘I want to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.’
Great, I said.
The woman said, ‘I have so much stress in my life. I usually work more than 50 hours a week and my husband and I have been going through some conflicts lately.’
I’m sorry, I said.
The woman said, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to get to you, though. So can we meet somewhere? I have to drive a lot for work. Maybe we can meet quickly somewhere or you can just give me some guidance over the phone?’
Hmm, I said.
I wonder if you can guess the issue that will arise if this woman tries to simply sit down on her own to meditate for 20 minutes. Even 10?
Here’s a clue: she won’t. Or she will for about 3 minutes and then she’ll fidget. She may check her phone. She’ll get up and come back. Within a week, she’ll decide, ‘I’ve been trying this for a week and I’m not enlightened.’ And then she’ll stop, concluding, sadly, meditation isn’t for me.
Which is precisely why there’s this gift bag of techniques offered up by traditional yoga.
Does your back hurt? I promise you that learning to meditate with a sore back is unlikely to bring you peace. Is your mind spinning? Same story. Do you struggle to be kind? To tell the truth? To rein in your greed? Yeah, well, deepening the practice of an asshole only deepens the asshole. Which is to say, someone who isn’t looking closely at herself to determine appropriately non-violent, honest and selfless behavior is only going to strengthen the patterns that keep her looking every which way but in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’re provided with the yamas, a set of restraints for worldly interactions, and the niyamas, a set of observances for inner processing. Toward others, be kind, be honest, don’t steal, be moderate, and free of greed. And toward yourself, be clean, content, disciplined. Study yourself and be devoted to something.
Not surprisingly, these are the first two of eight limbs meant to guide a seeker from raucous mind to absolute peace. From there, move the body. Then the energy on the wind of the breath. Tame the sense organs. Learn to focus. Become fully attentive on the object of focus. Then, give up the object and remain fully attentive. That’s meditation. By practicing that for a long, long while, with adequate preparation, maybe someday we’ll all comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the pure potential of consciousness.
In the meantime, we’ll be more peaceful, healthier, clear-minded, less stressed and more compassionate. It’s worthwhile, even if we don’t all become Buddhas.
But it starts with a careful sequence. A series of steps to prepare the body to feel, to relax, to sit comfortably. Another series of steps to prepare the energy to withstand the process. And then practices for the senses. Practices to train focus. For some, mantra japa. For others, chanting. Maybe yantras. Maybe murtis. There’s a lot in the gift bag, curated over millennia to address various personality types, physical conditions and social conditioning. These yoga practices aren’t simply isolated magic tricks or exercise regimens. They’re tools of a system. They help the seeker see herself clearly and complement each other as the we develops her skills. And each tool serves some element of our daily interaction with existence—body, energy, mind, intellect, spirit.
It’s such an incredible gift bag. So thoughtfully compiled. All about you. The greatest gift of all being the compassionate recognition that plopping yourself down in lotus to ascend into mindless absorption isn’t natural after decades suffering and delighting in life.
So. Yoga. A system to know yourself. A system to lead us toward clarity of purpose and calmness of mind. A system to teach us all that we are all Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Mahavira. If we let it.
That woman? To start, I gave her an asana sequence with breath regulation. We did a short visualization before she settled in to rest. She said she had a marvelous experience in savasana. She wants to learn more.
I’ve been moving around this wonderful world since December 26. Now, I’m home.
I kissed the hardwood, the couch, promptly fell asleep for a day and a half, and then I kissed the refrigerator door. Thank you, dear Creator, for giving us the brains to innovate a storage receptacle for milk.
I really enjoy having a supply of milk. And cheese. And yogurt. But this isn’t about dairy. This is about absorption and assimilation. Both of which happen digestively for me when I have the means to enjoy copious amounts of dairy.
Thank goodness I’m home.
It’s going to take me a couple weeks, (and then another few years, I suspect), to fully integrate everything I learned from a variety of teachers over the last couple months. Chanting in Chennai, among chanters who know a thing or two, is like catching a wave on a 10-foot board. You just let it carry you. Alone, the board is one of those toothpicks. And the wave is ginormous. But, as Menaka said, ‘you can’t get anywhere if you don’t start somewhere.’ So I chant in San Diego, alone, and beg the forgiveness and indulgence of neighbors and a universe of sound awaiting some sort of alignment. Patience. Patience.
And then there’s that yoga therapy conversation that happened in the rain north of Watsonville for two weeks. The mountain I knew reformed before my eyes. The paths I’ve wandered for years are now streams. The rain fell. For a day. Then two. Then another 96 hours straight, with a brief pause for fog, and then another 72. I stopped being wet and just was. It took me a moment a few times to realize I was crying with the rain. And when I did, I thought, I’ve become water; I’m reforming myself. With all due respect to Gary and his transmission of Viniyoga, this learning surpassed all the content of the powerpoints.
Finally, a couple days among doctors, physical therapists and athletic trainers in a diagnostic workshop that was not so much diametrically opposed to the general play in my life — yoga, and all its multi-dimensional understandings — as slightly deficient in these greater lessons. (Like, say, working with the breath. Or realizing that what we call bad habits may have actually served us at one point and deserve some gratitude.) So I’m happy I could be there; let’s all work together, my friends. Because these folks know the body. They have this tool called the Functional Movement Screen, which is an attempt to objectively appreciate the subjective potential of movement in a given body. And then train it appropriately. My yoga translate would be: see the person in front of you, prioritize her conditions over everything you think you know, then work toward guiding her toward understanding them. The makers of this idea also have another screen, this one for pain. That interested me and I was fortunate enough to attend a training to learn its parameters. It’s called the SFMA, or Selective Functional Movement Assessment. This diagnostic tool offers a valuable set of information about the origin of pain rather than the manifestation of it. In yoga: recognizing the underlying patterns and how they no longer serve the person performing them. May they have the will and commitment to transform themselves. (That’s yoga.)
So, with all of this, I return to what I was. But, honestly, I’m no longer who I was. I’m richer. I see more. And I recognize that I know so very little.
And this, as always, is pretty much the only thing I know.
Thank goodness for yogurt. If you’d like to experience a hint of what I’ve learned, to help me integrate it more completely and benefit from the elegance and compassion of these teachings, please come see me. And if you have an physiological issue for which you’d like to explore alternative relief, please talk with me about being a case study. I’m looking to work with people dealing with chronic stress, insomnia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, arthritis, diabetes or osteoporosis.
My appreciation for you in this world is immense. My love for you is greater.
Still, Chennai. Coming to know my neighbors: men lugging silver jugs of water on a shoulder before sunrise; flower weavers and their kids trying English words; pruned, skinny uncles tying fishing nets on the corner; dogs under carts; cows. The security guard sheepishly smiles when I smile. The schoolgirls laugh.
Winter isn’t scheduled for this part of the world; the heat builds and builds. Warm evenings become hot mornings then muggy, heavy afternoons. The sun isn’t bright behind the haze but it’s strong. It cooks trash piles and a cocktail of natural waste—human, dog, cow, goat—that fills the gutters. Today, my nose is tuned to the smell of piss. Fumes rise from the asphalt. Beside the tables where the women sew marigolds and freesia into garlands, the smells weave around each other, neither one canceling the other. Seeking the contrast is something like a nose exercise. My nose seeks freesia. It finds pee. It finds freesias. Ah. There is no immediate in-between.
I offer the crude example to share a souvenir from my time away.
Nose Yoga. Surely as compelling as Slackline Skateboard Yoga Booty Flow?
Okay, no. That’s not it. (Core Power will never have me.)
It’s this: when the world presents its extremes, how do I find calm in the center? In other words, where is yoga in this world?
Because it’s all extremes here. It’s a world of texture and color, divided into its polarities. It’s all oscillation, fluctuation from top to bottom.
On some streets, trash is piled against buildings. Traffic is incessant and not limited to wheels and feet. There’s hooves and paws. But one right turn and I’m lost somewhere else. It’s clean. Quiet. Like a bubble descended and captured the silence.
The food is spicy or highly spiced. If not, it’s rice or curd.
The water is bottled or slightly yellow.
Faces are stern until you smile. And then there’s joy, light, a laugh, a head bobble.
Even the hotel. When housekeeping closes at 11, the halls fall dark and silent. At 6, staff returns like birds thrown into a cymbal shop. They drop keys, brooms, phones, everything. They tell stories, issue orders or maybe it’s all lewd jokes that have become an appreciated alarm. (Thank you, Edison and Kalimuri, for the cleanliness and clatter.)
It’s all extremes. An overload for the senses in its fullness and emptiness. The only way, really, to remain calm as I interact with it, is to find myself happily lodged between the two. To find the center in me. At the point where the extremes collide and I get to experience both. Not in conflict but in concert.
Which works for just about everything. Anger around you? Stress around you? Awkward silence? Find your center. Yoga.
I signed up for this chanting and meditation workshop with Kausthub Desikachar and his mother, Menaka, because it promised to honor the divine feminine. Another extreme. One in western culture often ignored, misunderstood, hidden behind more masculine efforts to achieve, command, attack and acquire. All of which are divine as well. Just slightly out of balance when its counterbalance is absent.
So for two weeks, we’re chanting prayers and poems about the consorts of the Vedic gods. The women who share their power and, indeed, enable it with their energy. About abundant and loving Lakshmi. Wise and creative Sarasvati. Powerful mother Durga and blood-drinking Kali. Without the creative impulse and energy of these forces, the gods who stand beside them would be nothing but inert consciousness. Without the goddesses, the material world and our unique, seeking souls traversing it wouldn’t exist.
Nor would we be able to create life, nourish it, heal it and liberate it.
It’s a beautiful, spiritual way of remembering that the world has its way of sorting itself into extremes. As we navigate them, we ascribe to them one of the most elemental dualities we know: the man and the woman. The masculine and feminine. It’s so like men to sit quietly; it’s so like women to chatter. Men don’t ask direction; women have intuition.
Of course, the characteristics aren’t actually gender dependent. We’re all both—braun and beauty; stability and chaos; gods and goddesses. But honoring each gives us pause to remember both sides of the coin. Seeing the dual nature of the world reminds us to seek balance as we interact with it. To give, there must be a receiver. To do, there must be skill. The speaker wants a listener. Ideas want action. A lover wants her beloved.
We suffer when we forget. We become agitated in our imbalance.
I know the words divine and god and goddess (especially) provoke eye-rolls and shudders. So be it. There’s as much poetry in a resounding no as a lyrical yes. So read the poem. And consider it.
Kausthub’s grandfather and the primary teacher of what became western yoga, TT Krishnamacharya, said that you can’t remove Ishvara from yoga. He meant god. He didn’t care what god you choose to include or how you choose to envision her. Your god, my god, some god. So long as you cultivate devotion. In devotion, your heart thrills to connect with others and the whole world. Especially with your own true self. And that’s Ishvara. Safely invested in others, the whole world and you. Male, female. Divine. Yoga.
That’s what stands between the extremes. That’s what gives you calm when everything is fluctuating between them. Yoga.
As the new year begins, we all tend to take a moment to reflect on our positions. I like that about us. These little universalities serve as a reminder of our general similarities. Oh my gosh, you’re human? I’m human too! You love? I do that! Have you suffered? Whoa. Weird. Me too.
It doesn’t really matter much where you were raised, what you believe, how you worship—we are, all of us, interested in the purpose and power of our lives. Also, the alleviation of whatever pain we feel. And deep, meaningful joy. The kind that we occasionally glimpse and then hunt ferociously in the concrete wild. We claim funny little trophies everywhere: shiny phones, new cars, vegan donuts or whatever. Name it. Trips, houses, furniture, football, bling, status, fame, nose jobs, yoga pants.
We pursue a whole lot of things and hope to find purpose. To be nourished. To feel good. And we may… sometimes, temporarily. Then it fades. We plot our next hunt.
We look everywhere. In friends, lovers, careers, possessions, adventure. We become desperate and try new things. Yoga Booty Ballet? A psychic? A threesome? Maybe we need a puppy. Or a new therapist.
All of which may be interesting and helpful. But not without one absolutely imperative condition.
We have to see ourselves in our interaction with these things. We have to look at ourselves relating with the wild. We have to observe. And then look inside to see its effects.
We’re conditioned to look every which way but in. We study the whole of the material world and congratulate ourselves when we take it apart, change it, fix it, understand it. People get awards for this stuff! But no one gets a PhD in themselves. We all qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. It could go to each of us if someone had just offered a user’s manual early on. But alas.
We do whatever we can to avoid introspection despite the ongoing promise made by yogis and other seekers thousands of years ago… that we can find peace in the diligent practice of self-inquiry. It’s not a secret and it’s not religious. It’s simply access to the one source that knows our purpose, softens the hard edges of pain and offers a little joy. It’s us. It’s inside. It’s always been there. And will always be.
It isn’t the easiest process. As soon as we look in, we see. Egad. I’m an impossible knot.
At that point, most of us avert our gaze.
Thankfully, the knot is not impossible. And in these bellwether days of the year, when we’re all sneaking a little peek at ourselves—tallying up accounts, considering pace and striking notes—maybe there’s an opportunity to go a little deeper. To consider the knot.
I’m gonna be totally honest. I haven’t always shared with you everything my teachers, their guidance, and my experience with it have taught me. For a number of reasons. Like you, I’ve felt shame. That I should be better. Or different. I’ve worried that what I’ve learned is a little too wild. A little too brazen. Because I’m no one. Just a woman with funny hands and a non-discriminating sense of humor. I snort when I laugh. I know a little something about a lot of things and a whole lot about one or two. I had a decent career that taught me good, fast and hard that it wasn’t right for me. I tried to have a kid and discovered that I don’t have absolute control over my body or the trajectory of my life. I had a beautiful marriage that ended just at the point when good stories should end. I became alone and saw its merits. Saw that it’s our where we find our nature so we can share it with others.
That’s how I surrendered. I stopped trying so hard. I asked for a guide. One, then two, then three, then four appeared. Not friends. Guides. Teachers. Mentors. People with wisdom. People willing to share it with me. I take everything they offer. In return, to some, I offer money. To others, I offer gratitude, prayers, love… whatever they ask of me and whatever they’ll accept in lieu of payment. With their help, I started to understand my patterns. My habits. The ways my reluctance to change them held me back.
So here I am. With this invitation to you: if you’re curious, ask; if you want help, ask; if you want guidance; ask; if you want support, ask. Make it about you, first.
Because I think it’s time we’re all more straightforward about what we want to learn and what we can do for each other. If you’re interested in getting to know yourself—your habits, their effects, ways to change them—I’m happy to share what I can with you. I’ll care. And I’ll share the tools of yoga. Depending on your interests and goals, it’ll include movement, breathing, chanting, mantra, contemplation, meditation. And this constant reminder: what you experience with these tools isn’t about the tools of yoga.
It’s about you.
It’s about you finding connection to joy and self-awareness. It’s about you learning your own wisdom. It’s you finding you.
When you’re ready…
Hello my friends! And happy new year from Chennai!
It’s January 1 and just like yesterday the horns honk honk on this side of the world. At midnight, a brief moment of quiet fell. And then fireworks. Women and kids painted colorful kolam on sidewalks by sifting rice flour and chalk through their fingers. This morning, they’re mostly gone—walked on, washed off and swept away.
A good lesson, no?
As I move into another year, I’m thinking about the things I can release. There’s shoes in my closet I don’t wear. There’s sweaters to keep someone else warm. And what about the vintage wear wrapped up inside me? Old habits that don’t really fit. Ideas whose day has passed. Just a whole lot of clutter. Just a whole lot of space I’m keeping from myself. What to do?
I’ve asked myself this:
What do I really need? What purpose does a grudge serve? What value a trauma?
These old patterns—souvenirs of the past—are just waiting to be cleared. And like the sidewalk art, some of it will clear with nothing but a sneeze. While others will need a bit of scrubbing. Either way, the sidewalk awaits its clearing. Imagine what new possibilities I can paint there. And clear again. And paint and clear.
It comes down to this. The joy in life is in the experience of creation.And the acceptance of its destruction. We lodge our footprint in the sand. We marvel at our toes. We watch the tide rise. Our mark is gone.
We don’t need to hold on tight. When we do, the joy is gone. Instead, let’s see what beauty we’re capable of producing. Let’s see how it connects us with others. And how others pass it along. Let’s remember that our productions are a meager imitation of a much greater creation. A creation that connects us with others and inspires others to make the same gesture. A gesture toward all that is. A gesture toward all that is always changing.
So I’ll keep letting go this year—of habits and grievance and hurt. And I’ll see what evolves in the space I find. And what joy.
Hi my friends! I miss you. I wish you well. I’m so grateful you’re part of my life.
That said, I’m celebrating this small opportunity to be away. Just for a bit. I’m away!
Chennai is a toasty 85. Breezy. The sun isn’t too strong and the light is filtered in a yellow haze.
Outside, horns beep and honk. Beep beep. Honk. It’s a relentless announcement of presence: I’m here. Now I’m over here. A dog howls. He’s here too. The air smells sweet, smoky, foul. Everywhere, there’s someone. A bent woman sweeping leaves in the wind with a bundle of sticks. A man picking his toes on the crumbling edge of the sidewalk. Kids shouting. Hi! How are you? Hi! America? Tuktuk drivers want a passenger. Buskers want a sale. Men with fruit stands let the flies settle. A cow eats through trash.
Earlier today, I went to cross a busy street. I stood at the side of the road, waiting for the gap and the courage. Traffic eventually slows and dodges and weaves its path around obstacles but still. A tiny old woman with shorn hair stood beside me, patient and accustomed. I smiled at her. Shrugged my shoulders. She laughed and took a step. Honk honk beep. She took a step back. I laughed this time and she laughed again. In a moment, a small resolution formed: we’d cross the street together.We’d watch over each other. We’d get there in the end, to that place we’re all going.
The cars clustered and we waved them around us. We moved like a piece of wood in water. She caught my hand to hold me back. I put my arm in front of her. We navigated the eddies. And then we were there. She waggled her head and laughed again. I did the same. And that’s that.
The Tao says, ‘without opening your door, you can open your heart to the world.’ My whole open heart agrees. But sometimes, a little wander reminds the heart to see the finer details of its contours. Its depth, intricacies, shadows.
And what my heart sees today is this: I’m pretty good at wandering alone. At seeing the whole world from my window and perceiving its goodness. But what a joy to share it. To acknowledge that we’re all propelled by the same vital flow that guides us toward things that sustain us. That we can support each other as we go, and trust each other as well. We’re all heading in the same direction—distracted sometimes by horns and cows but, ultimately, sharing a path. It’s a good lesson for me to accept a hand willing to guide me for a moment. To acknowledge it. To feel that I’m part of the world.
Thank you, world, for having me.
Hi my friends! Peace and prayers that we all cultivate abundant joy in the new year! Listen, I’m heading off to fill my cup a bit. I’ll be in Chennai, India studying with Menaka Desikachar and Kausthub Desikachar. I look forward to sharing what I learn when I return. My first class in the new year will be at Eye of Buddha on Friday, January 20 at 10:30am. In the meantime, I’ll post some tidbits of the experience here and on facebook. Join me on the adventure. So much love to you. I love you truly.
One quick question: who’s the boss of you?
Take a moment and consider.
I’ve asked this question of a few people lately. Some answers: my wife, my kid, my dog, my job, my mortgage. A student recently suggested that it might be her shoe collection. Another student said, ‘John.’ John is in middle management.
How about this answer? Me.
(Not me as in Megan. Me as in you. The you that’s me! Thank you, Vedanta! Thank you, Rumi! Thank YOU!)
See how this feels. You’re the boss of you. You’re the authority of you. You.
How does this work? Let’s give it some thought. Take a moment to sit quietly. Pick up your index finger. Look to the right without moving your head. Did you do it? Whether you did or didn’t was your choice. If you did it, you initiated that movement. If you didn’t, you decided not to. You!
We forget sometimes that each incipient act is a decision of ours. To move, to try, to force. To love, to hate. To accept. To surrender.
I won’t go on and on about this. I’ll just leave you here with this prompt to check it out. Sit quietly outside for 10 minutes. Leave your phone off and hidden. Keep your eyes open. Now, notice. See the trees. Listen for birds. Notice the sky. Start to observe how much more you’re capable of seeing when you make the decision to witness your surroundings. See how it feels to take this additional information in. Who is it who decided to do it? Was anyone in your way? If you think someone was in your way, ask… why would I allow someone to be in my way?
What an honor it was to spend the last few days at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego assisting my teacher, Gary Kraftsow. Curmudgeonly Gary. He has the onerous task of traveling widely to these corporate-sponsored events—for whom poses do a better job than self-inquiry of selling— to say again and again, ‘Yoga is not simply asana.’ He says it kindly at first. And then he repeats himself. And then he take a long, deep breath when someone raises a hand and asks, ‘so should I keep my feet hip-width or not?’ His answer should be trademarked under the American Viniyoga Institute: ‘It depends.’
I don’t believe I run the risk of learning too much curmudgeonry from Gary. For this, I can thank earlier teachers, the law and a healthy few millennia of past lives. But in the spirit of curmudgeonly cooperation—curmudgeonly community?—I offer this little echo of Gary’s broken record and a hopefully helpful metaphor.
Every time I’m introduced as a yoga teacher, someone is sure to say, ‘oh, you must be really flexible.’ Or they harumph: ‘those poses are for circus freaks.’ Or maybe, ‘I should stretch more.’ Even funnier lately, when I meet fellow yoga practitioners and they tell me, ‘I just can’t get a good workout in your kind of yin class. I need to sweat and get my heart rate up.’
Okay, right. Where to start? Honestly, with a small sigh. And then a little bonk of my heart to jostle my compassion muscle. It is absolutely the case that we are all perfect souls seeking higher consciousness. Our paths need not always converge or even cross. And I’m grateful for the tension that I may practice the discipline of patience. Breathe.
So, what does yoga mean to you?
If yoga means poses, you’re not wrong. You’re just missing the forest for a tree.
(If yoga means racerback tshirts with wacky sayings—’puppies, lattes and yoga!’— you’re totally on the pulse of the Yoga Journal Conference of 2016. But you’re a little distracted. Please pay attention.)
In fact, yoga means union. And the union it seeks is within you—body, mind, spirit— and beyond you. It is you learning how to master your body and mind so that you can be you. Your best you. It is you discovering that you are infinitely connected, absolutely perfect and invested with unconditional joy.
The history of yoga is long, circuitous and complex. The tradition, however, can be viewed quite simply. For several thousand years, humans before you have sought a path to find peace. There have been masters—sages like Jesus, Buddha and Mahavira— and there have been millions of ardent practitioners. The ardent practitioners discovered from the masters that an steadfast effort toward self-exploration and discovery can transform their microcosmic power. With this greater personal power inside, they can spare a little to contribute some positive change to the macrocosm. This potential is the birthright of every individual. And yoga is simply a means of finding it.
Wow. That’s awesome, right? But how?
Around 2600 years ago, a guide book was offered. This is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s generally accepted that this small compendium of yoga advice brings much older wisdom into one location. And it’s by no means the only book to consult on yoga. But it’s so well-organized and this post is already going to be way too long. So. The Yoga Sutra. We’ll start there.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lets us know that yoga is a system. Followed diligently and with humility, it will quiet the fluctuations of the mind. It requires discipline and patience, deep self-inquiry and devotion. There are eight limbs that must be practiced. They are, in order, the ethical restraints, internal restraints, postures, breathing practice, sensory control, concentration, meditation and integration.
You’ll note, poses are one-eighth of the practice. And the poses we find familiar were not described in print until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came around… in the 15th century CE. Which isn’t to say that postures were not taken to assist a practitioner’s ability to sit still for meditation. But they probably weren’t taken in conjunction with an awesome playlist, live DJ or stand-up paddleboard. Although, what do I know?
All of this is to reiterate, as Gary says, the poses have no inherent value on their own. It is the poses practiced for the purpose of self-discovery that come to mean something. The poses, like the ethical and internal restraints on behavior, like the breathing, the concentration, the meditation, all of it, serve as a mirror. These are tools that serve us as we pursue our paths of self-discovery. As tools, they are fantastic. Practiced for the sake of the tool itself, they are meaningless.
Think of it like this: if I show you a bridge between two land masses, do you immediately think of the cranes used to build it? Do you want to know more about the bolts used, the brand of cement and the grip on the wrenches? Maybe yes, if you’re an engineer. But the engineer will see the bridge for its utility, its harmony, its safety and know that its construction required more than a knowledge of nuts, bolts and the wrenches to bind them. And this is precisely how an engineer of the self must think: though we may be fascinated by some of the tools we use, ultimately, we’re building a bridge. It’ll take more than a tool or two to get there and we’re going to need to change our tools as we progress. And age. And learn.
We want to move from the chaos of our minds toward the peace in our souls. If we obsess on the wrench, we’re never going to move beyond the tightening of nuts and bolts. And there’s a lot more to a bridge than nuts and bolts. Just like you are so much more than that beautiful body containing you.
Now, what’s yoga to you?
I know. It’s about the pants.
What was I thinking?
(Please note! You may also be interested in reading up on Tantra. Which actually means system. And will be the topic of some other post, some other day. For now, I have to go balance in eka pada koundinyasana. Until I find enlightenment.)
(Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, please join me at 8 Elements West on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm. We’ll chant the Sutra and discuss.)
Every morning, I say thank you. First thing. It’s a practice.
When I put my feet on the ground to get out of bed, I take quick account of my many gifts. Legs work. Cognition: check. Hands open and close. Eyes see. I’m fortunate. I love my life. Thank you.
And then the day starts.
I share this because I’ve come to realize a few things in the last year of living alone. Whether you’re fortunate enough to have a love share your bed or if you’re simply growing love in your heart, it’s the love that counts. Not the partner. Not the bed. Not even the legs or hands or eyes that function. It’s the love YOU have. It’s your love.
We may initiate other practices to help us stabilize the love inside us. Some people choose to scrapbook memories; some people bake cookies for their friends. Other people surf, go to church or volunteer somewhere. We might cook or clean or teach or draw horoscopes for people or make necklaces to give away to those who need them. Our practices are usually about being of service, whether to ourselves or others. About taking ourselves out of our routines and offering ourselves to another moment. And in that other moment, we rediscover our connections. To ourselves first. And then with others. And the world around us.
And when we find those connections in whatever idiosyncratic practice we keep, and when we let ourselves experience a sense of gratitude for the connections and the practice itself, we discover a totally cool feeling. The connection we’re feeling is just a longer word for love.
Check it out for yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong. We all love love. We all have our little ways of cultivating it. I, for one, practice yoga— did you know it means union? Another word for connection.
But my practice doesn’t mean I buy $100 mats or sticky-soled socks. It just means that I do my best to remember—no matter what I’m doing—that I conduct my life honestly, kindly, moderately and with devotion. I take care of my body and my mind. I study myself. I express gratitude. I do my best to be compassionate. I remind myself to see the light inside myself and inside others.
But all this, with all due respect to yoga, is somewhat of an abstraction. A necessary one because it helps to have a practice that guides me. But an abstraction nonetheless. The practice simply helps me remember a very simple thing.
Which leads me to my point. The simple bit. What if you remembered on a daily basis that your entire purpose on this fine earth is the act of making connections? Of creating love? That your highest and best use is to be of service to love. Whether you share love with another, teach others about love, receive love without condition, inspire others to love or help love to grow where it hasn’t yet rooted.
The only important consideration for you and me and everyone else is connection.
It’s the whole point. And it makes the whole point much, much clearer when you just surrender and accept it.
I love you!
At certain points in your life, surely you’ve heard an inner voice talking to you. Who am I kidding? That voice is talking to you all the time. Am I right? It’s talking to you right now. It’s saying something like, ‘why are you wasting your time with this. You have so many other things to do. Like… oh, when can I get some fro-yo?’
And you may have noticed that the voice isn’t always kind.
It might have said things like, ‘I can’t believe they asked you to dinner,’ or ‘you’re going to wear THAT?’ or ‘well, they’re just being charitable so bow out and eat that pizza from the freezer instead.’
Maybe your voice gets straight to the point: ‘You don’t even deserve their dinner or their charity. Look at you.’
Or maybe it’s more socratic and it does that open-ended thing like your dad used to do that shuts you down immediately. ‘What are you thinking?’ Ugh.
(How’s that for a funny, almost paradoxical question? I mean, THAT is precisely what you’re thinking. Come on, mind! And also, lighten up! I’d be thinking something so much better if you didn’t ask everything with that horrible tone.)
Oh, that voice. Imagine that voice in a body. Sharing your living space. Telling you how little you’ve made of your life. You’d be looking for a new housemate. If it took you to the beach for a fun day out, then told you how crappy you look in your bathing suit the whole time? Please say you’d ditch it. Go for a nice swim. Enjoy your time alone.
But this voice, we can’t really escape it. It keeps talking. Just today, I laughed when I heard that voice suggest that the meditation I was starting wasn’t going to serve me at all. Wouldn’t it be better, it advised, if you just had a cup of coffee? ‘Oh voice,’ I had to say, ‘just hush.’
Which isn’t to say that it should always be quiet. Sometimes it has really interesting information for us. Like, turn left, avoid that pothole, pick up the wedding present and call your clients.
But sometimes, for a little bit, it would be awesome to get a little silence. So we can listen into our deeper wisdom. Which may sound bonkers to you. Or not. But here’s the deal. That voice you hear endlessly yammering is the voice of your mind. For a lot of us, it get so consistently loud that we lose track of the messages that our intuition has for us. We can’t access that deeper intelligence and power through all that ruckus. For even more of us, we’ve completely forgotten that we have a source of wisdom deeper than the mind. We just… forgot.
And that’s because the voice of the mind tends to go on and on and on. Ceaselessly. Amidst all that flibber flabber blah blah, we forget that we have any control whatsoever over its agitation. All the negativity—the fear, doubt, grief, shame, guilt—that it broadcasts can actually be turned down. We can even work to prioritize a practice that will minimize these emotions. And when we do, we can start to seek peace in our wisdom with a peaceful mind. How can we possibly expect to find calm with the help of a distracted, confused and agitated mind? We’re lost from the first step.
But we have the means and ability to quiet that voice. We can say, ‘just hush, my dear dynamic mind.’ We can ask it to settle for a bit while we explore the reservoirs of joy, intelligence and knowing that come stock in all of us.
How so? Deepening your yoga sadhana to include breathing techniques that will help you understand and shift your energy, meditation practices that will help you identify your mind’s processing patterns, mantra practice that will guide you toward focused attention, and prayer to build your trust in all that surrounds you. These are just a few elements of an integrated yoga practice. This is how yoga brings you to a place of balance. This is what it means to be in union: to master the ceaseless fluctuations of your rambling mind.
Send me a note if you’d like to chat a bit more about this. I’d love to hear from you.
A yoga practice should always be smarter than your habits. This is a slight paraphrase of T.K.V. Desikachar, the son of T. Krishnamacharya and the author of the book every yoga teacher training grad seems to have and not have read, The Heart of Yoga.
(Seriously, read it. And also read Health, Healing and Beyond if you’d like to know more about the father/son relationship between two foundational teachers of modern yoga.)
So it comes down to something like this: to cultivate an intelligent practice, we need to cultivate awareness about our patterns. Imagine all the frustration you’ve experienced in life because you’ve gathered up the will to pursue a goal but ultimately lost the energy to complete it. Or you’ve mustered the courage to try something new but not necessarily enough to ask for help. Or maybe you’ve gone so gangbusters on a plan that you ended up hurting yourself, thus consigning the plan to the shelf once again.
These little failures are great. Use them! They’re guideposts to limitations imposed by our habits. Look at your failures and discover your habits.
Build your practice. The most important thing about a practice, I think, is an understanding that it’s yours. And it evolves as you do. Because it’s a practice. Which means that you do it again and again. And you remember that a practice is the constant integration of everything you’ve learned in preparation for something more. In the case of a yoga practice, well, my teacher would say that it’s in preparation for death. Long may you live.
As you build your practice, please remember to honor yourself first. If you’re in classes, recognize your limitations and interests. Find a teacher you trust who can help you integrate these into your self-study. Acknowledge your patterns and share with your teacher the ways that they’ve been in your way in the past. And then watch as your yoga becomes a process of evolution rather than just a repetition of poses and sequences. This is the viniyoga of practice: that every path toward knowing the self is paved to benefit the self on the path.
In the last few months, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a student who came to me to strengthen her core. As we discussed her interests, she acknowledged that she often feels short of breath. She also shared her history of feeling like she should know more than she does. From this powerful self-evaluation, we started to build a practice that would encourage questions and breath regulation. Only three months into her yoga practice, and her breath threshold has rapidly increased, as has her curiosity. Her curiosity daily inspires her commitment to learn more. And through these quick changes, she’s becoming physically stronger. She said today, ‘I remember when I couldn’t inhale to four and the strain of it scared me. And now I look forward seeing how my breath moves in me, whether I’m doing my asana or just taking a walk. And I’m asking questions of everyone.’
This student has found her way to a practice more clever than old habits. Her old habits are falling away in the process. Which means she’ll have to engage in evaluation again. And again. And again. This is the development of higher consciousness.
With this awareness, she’ll continue to modify her practice to suit her evolving needs, restrictions and patterns. And as she continues, she’ll become stronger and more aware of the myriad ways that her journey through life can embrace all of its beautiful mysteries—whether these come as people, projects or topsy-turvy challenges.
As long as she always remembers this: whoever seeks her higher self must remember to outwit the one she intends to leave in the dust.