Preparing yourself for meditation.

More and more often, these days, I’m hearing from folks who are trying to begin meditation practices. They’ve read a book, downloaded an app, found someone with a nice voice on youtube or they’re going it alone, just sitting there, waiting. What adventurous people!

And then I hear from people that they aren’t suited to meditation because they tried it and they failed. Aw, well. Please let it be known: meditation is accessible and meditation requires practice. We can learn how to do it and we can decide to do it with patience and compassion towards ourselves. If we expect to become enlightened unicorn guru masters at the first go, we’re in for a great big sad. So how do we approach this? With total friendship toward ourselves.

Here’s the thing. Sitting down to meditate cold is about as comfortable as doing anything else cold. Let’s face it… most cold things are uncomfortable. At first. Until we warm up. So why not cultivate warmth and comfort?

It seems that meditation is becoming pretty hip for a few reasons. Some of them are pretty awesome. These are the ones that acknowledge how unnecessary it is to remain in anxiety, to languish in sleeplessness, to suffer chronic pain, to deal with constant distraction. Sometimes, I hear meditation is used to improve a love life or advance a career. That’s all well and good, but it might be a little ridiculously tunnel-visioned. In other words, it’s pretty likely that your love life isn’t awesome for a variety of reasons that are going to require a bit of self-examination. Likewise with your business. Let’s just acknowledge the appropriate starting ground. Realize and soften the impact of you on you (be a friend!) and your world improves.

This is where the concept of meditation may be helpful to understand. In the West, a lot of folks simply think of it as ‘sitting there.’ Some folks consider it daydreaming or spacing out. The contrary is true. Meditation is the practice of cultivating a single-pointed focus so the mind’s chatter quiets down. We can call it contemplation (originally, ‘the act of looking at’) as well, acknowledging that this means a high concentration on a single object.

Over the millennia, the focus of attention may have been light, God, love, breath. Whatever it is, it is only that in meditation. The process of being in that focus, over time, cultivates a merger with that object. What begins as an inward focus develops into an absorption in the one-pointedness. This has been called emptiness by Zen practitioners and fullness in the yoga tradition. Same same.

(In fact, the word zen is the Japanese word taken from the Chinese word dzjen or chan which is taken from the Sanskrit word dhyana, or meditative state. All paths get you there.)

Patience, grasshopper. It takes practice. The practice of meditation offers an abundance of gifts in itself. As you learn how to redirect your mind again and again, you will discover that this process is also available when you are not intentionally meditating. When we develop agency over the mind’s pursuits, we learn how to direct it to our benefit or the benefit of any situation. We become calmer because we aren’t ricocheting from thought to thought to thought without relief.

The kindest thing you can do for yourself as you begin is to prepare wisely. Choose a quiet space, turn off distractions, assess the condition of your body, pay attention to the speed of your mind.

For the space, let it be clean and comfortable. Make it special for yourself so you can develop a relationship with the space that will support your endeavor. You may like to light a candle, water a plant, or gaze on a pretty picture to settle your energy as you start.

For the body, ask yourself and answer honestly your ability to sit with an upright, extended spine for more than 5 minutes. If this is an impossibility, you’ll simply work your way up! Though it seems like yoga asana may be strictly for the purpose of instagram, the truth is, most of the poses are meant to prepare your body, energy and mind for the rigors of sitting still over extended periods. A simple sequence of gentle forward folds and simple spine extensions will increase your body’s acceptance of the position you will take. You may be interested in doing the simple, short practice here to prepare.

As you begin, please consider sitting just on the edge of a chair with your feet firmly resting on the ground so that you can lengthen your spine comfortably. If you insist on sitting on the ground, please lift your bum onto a bolster so that your knees are lower than your hips. Most importantly, be gentle with yourself. If you need to move, do so mindfully to relieve whatever ache is developing. As you continue in your practice, over time, these instincts to fidget will diminish.

For your mind, as you get started, simply listen to the burbling brook of babble in your mind. There’s no need to judge it. Sometimes, I like to thank it when it’s particularly raucous. ‘Thank you, wonderful mind, for all of this amazing activity.’ That way, I remember that mind is a treasure that like a pile of gold coins with a tendency to scatter itself all over the place. It’s also nice at the start to simply notice the patterns of thought. I like to say, ‘Oh, you again. I hear you but now we’re focusing on …’ Sometimes, my mind will offer up a series of startling images or ideas. I say the same thing. ‘Oh, I hear you. Right now, let’s focus on …’ Constant redirection. And if I get lost in one of those images, it’s no problem. As soon as I realize I’m lost, I say, ‘Oh dear, we’ve wandered. Let’s get back to our focus on…’

Over time, with practice, the thoughts start to come more slowly because the mind has become more adept at remaining with its focus.

It’s not unlike strengthening muscles. At first, it seems impossible to lift a certain weight or run a certain distance. Over time, with training, it’s not only possible but pleasant. We learn about our capacity and the obstacles we put in place to enhancing it.

Most importantly, and I know I’m repeating myself, always remain friendly with yourself. That means all parts of you. A meditation practice does no good if we push and punish ourselves. I always loved when my teacher would remind us, ‘if you insist on being an asshole when you meditate, meditation will make you a bigger asshole.’

The best preparation is choosing how to be kind to yourself, to be comfortable, to be a friend. Please don’t be an asshole.

 

 

The High Purpose of Asana

I think we can all agree that yoga, these days, appears a little absurd.

People carry their mats in stylish little bags and spend most of their day in pants especially designed to enhance your down dog. Great! May all our down dogs be so happy for the assistance.

Now what do those pants offer my mind? Or my heart?

The deeper practices of yoga intend to take any of us who are willing into an experience of bliss. What does that mean, actually? A quiet mind. In the stillness, your Self. The capital S indicates its importance. It’s your true nature. The resident of your heart. The eternal you that is not confined to your body or ego. The you that realizes how to move beyond suffering. It’s a spiritual thing, for sure. It’s the science of Self-realization. We are the scientists of ourselves. We use the system, experience its effects and consider the results. No one can experience it for us. And no one can tell us, really, what our bliss will be. Not your teacher. Not your mate. We can only study ourselves and find out. That’s the dance.

A neat thing about the dance is the variety of steps for your particular rhythm. You can plop down and meditate until you know the choreography, but this isn’t completely feasible for folks who have to work to pay rent and may also have some back pain. You can study the old texts a ton but the shoulder tension could distract you from that ultimate realization. Who knows?

Which is why yoga is a system. It’s got a bunch of options available to you as you progress in your practice. It also has a variety of tools to aid in the progression. And to help you understand how you should practice, Patanjali kindly offered eight steps to guide you: yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayo ‘stav agani. The eight limbs of yoga are social and personal conduct, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and absorption.

Oh my gosh! Asana is in there! Long live yoga pants; long live my down dog!

In the West, most people equate yoga with asana. If people learn I’m a yoga teacher, they want to know my favorite pose. (Savasana. Duh.) To most, yoga means a form of exercise. Or, gentle yoga means a form of stretching. Or, restorative yoga means a form of napping. And, more recently, yoga therapy means a form of rehabilitation. All fine. Each of these forms are good and helpful. But there’s so much more. Taking asana to be the whole world of yoga is to take the spot where you currently sit as the whole world. Please don’t limit yourself.

Asana is just a fraction of a greater system. And the system is more vast than even Patanjali’s simplified rubric. Still, asana absolutely is part of the dance. Here’s why.

The practice of various poses will help you figure out the physical and energetic disturbances that keep your mind hurtling at mach speed. The appropriate practice of asana will balance your energy, so you can learn to settle your mind. It may be that your body requires physical purification. Certain asana, done in certain ways, are very effective for this. It may also be that your body requires greater strength to sit still. Certain asana are effective for this as well. In coordination with the asana, we also should learn to regulate our breath. This sort of integration of appropriate asana and pranayama gets us moving toward a greater understanding of our energy (and how to work with it) and how to start focusing our minds.

Another lovely aspect to asana is the familiarity it will give you with the temple housing your soul. Your body isn’t going to live forever. I’m sorry if I’m the first one to tell you. It also isn’t redeemable for a trade-in. The one you have in this life is the one you have to work with. You can look around these days and see a ton of variations on the theme of body-neglect. Folks in pain. Folks eating crap. Sedentary folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies move through space. Highly active folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies rest. So many people have forgotten how to be friendly and loyal to their bodies. They care more for their pets. (The reason we love down dogs so dearly?)

An appropriate asana practice can help you start to pay attention to what your body needs. That lovely body of yours is constantly sending you signals. You may be familiar with those for hunger and those for ouch. Listening in more carefully, you can hear it ask more specifically. It may ask for sunlight or a siesta. Touch or a banana. Protein or the feel of dirt under your toes. The body knows what it wants. It’s amazing how often we fail to give our bodies what they want. How we fail to provide an appropriate offering to the temple.

Finally, an appropriate asana practice is a kick in the pants for self-discipline. It’s a thing these days: we prioritize everyone and everything but ourselves. Some people even hold this habit up as an achievement. Well, it ain’t gonna get you on the shortlist for sainthood. Just suffering.

Having a short sequence of postures to do in the morning or evening will help us learn to create space and time for ourselves amidst the noise. Even to realize that the noise is not all that noisy when we learn to integrate it properly.

So. Asana. Purposeful. But not everything. Pants or no pants.

Final note: I’ve mentioned several times the word ‘appropriate.’ Yeah. Intentional. If you’d like to know more about what’s appropriate, contact me. And if you’re shy, just think about this: would you expect a 30-year old marathon runner to do the same series of movements as a 70-year with a recent hip transplant? Do you think a new mother, post-Caesarean, with barely a moment needs the same movement patterns as a 45-year old dude who works in a cubicle all day and drinks beer all night? Good. Now send me a note and let’s talk.

I love you and your yoga pants.

 

 

Learning to meditate.

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.

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The technology of Yoga

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.)

Tell your mind: Just hush.

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.

Right?

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.

Outwit yourself.

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. 

Then.

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.

Give thanks; get thanks.

I think we all know how good it feels to be thanked. Truly thanked. So consider this.

In yoga, we do asana to cultivate strength and movement in the body. We do this, believe it or not, consciously or otherwise, as an act of gratitude for these fleshy vessels that carry us. Sure, you may also want nice looking deltoids. And a yoga butt. Ultimately, however, acts of mindful movement are powered by a deeper knowing that these bodies deserve our attention and care. That maintenance of these bodies can’t be outsourced. That we are our own custodians.

Sometimes, unfortunately, the attention can go wonky. We haven’t upskilled and we pretend like we’re still 18. Like, for example, we turn upside down into handstands at 8:30pm with an expectation that we’ll fall into a calm sleep shortly after. Or we let our egos push your bodies into poses they can’t cash. These efforts are a misguided attempt at gratitude—something like giving your Grandma your favorite mix of dubstep and expecting that she’ll want to hoof it out to some illegal dance party with you. You gotta be thoughtful about your attention, capeeesh? You got to be considerate about your care. Good custodians know that maintenance should be both effective and appropriate.

Which is why I’m so grateful for my training in Viniyoga with Gary Kraftsow. The yoga I teach—thanks to his guidance—is less about what you think yoga should be and more about discovering what yoga will be for you. You may be ready for more pranayama. For more concentration. Or maybe there’s structural issues that can be improved. Maybe you’re tired of your patterns. This is the yoga that answers your needs. Which is a lovely gesture toward yourself—body and mind.

When you start giving yourself this kindness, you’ll start to realize how sweet it is to feel thankful for this life you have. That gratitude means understanding that what you have is plenty. And you’ll be inspired to offer what you have to others. And you’ll enjoy the feeling of gratitude from within and without.

So pay attention to your decisions. To the way you practice your yoga. And if you’re interested in developing a practice that honors your physical and emotional conditions without the demands of your ego, let me know. I’d love to help you consider a deeper path.

And thank you. Truly.

 

 

Please give a f*ck.

I heard this from a yoga student recently: ‘From now on, I’ve decided I give zero f*cks.’

And I got a little sad.

I wanted to give a f*ck in his place, if he’d let me. So I asked. He was cool. He said, ‘whatever.’

Of course he did.

So I told him: ‘With this f*ck you’ve let me give in your place,’ I said, ‘I’m going to give a f*ck for you.’

He laughed. He’s a good one. He even said thank you.

So we chatted. And here’s what we came up with.

We both give a lot of f*cks. We care about the well-being of our families and friends, the safety and potential of children, strangers who cross our path or don’t, the broadest possible understanding of community, even—meaning, the whole family of humans who inhabit the world with us. When we got down to it, we realized that we both really have quite a lot of f*cks to give. We care about universal access to quality healthcare complemented by a growing understanding of prevention and self-care habits. We care about rising sea levels and diminishing animal species. We care about literacy and spelling. We care about appropriate behavior, gender equality, safe sex and self-respect. Dogs, cats, potholes, litter, space: we care!

It’s just that, sometimes, it’s easier to put our heads in the sand in the midst of the deep caring. The caring becomes, occasionally, overwhelming.

This is when we started talking yoga. And not just the form of our virabhadrasana. (Though I do care that your low back is protected in the warrior pose. That your legs are strong. That you feel your spine extending.)

In particular, an idea posed in the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In sutra 2.21, we learn tad artha eva drshyasyatma. Or, ‘the essential nature of that which is seen is exclusively for the sake of the seer.’ In plain speak, the world around us offers opportunities to feel pleasure and pain and in these experiences, we find ourselves.

If we were to stop giving a f*ck, what growth would we ever enjoy?

The good and the bad you see out there—the wealth and the homelessness, the irrepressible happiness of drunk college kids and the dismal despair of families grieving a shooting victim, all of it—exist for the purpose of our liberation.

Liberation is a big ask. But I think we all know how we gain from feeling deeply. It’s usually transformative. A big laugh, a big cry. Big anger, big falls. We resurface from these experiences with perspectives newly illumined by the emotion. If we’re willing.

And when we turn ourselves off, turn ourselves over and hide, we miss out. Which isn’t to say that we should try to see everything at once. But that we should be present in every moment to discern it for what it is. See it clearly. Feel it. And let everything kindle the fire of our discernment.

In this kind of attentiveness, we not only learn but we see how to love the world and all its inhabitants for these experiences.

Crazy? Try it for a week. Let me know what you think after asking yourself to focus clearly on the situations confronting you.

 

Putting it all together

The thing I love most about my Viniyoga training? Gary Kraftsow’s stubborn and persistent message that yoga is more than asana. Thank goodness for Gary. Thank goodness for the students who came before me who confirmed his path. His teaching is authentic and it works. Bodies change. Minds change. More importantly, people change their perception of themselves. I’m honored everyday to be his student. I’m grateful that he hasn’t altered course despite what I imagine would be some strong pulls for him to consider other paths.

In my funny beach ghetto, yoga is widely understood as a physical practice that takes place in a studio, on a rubber mat, in specially designed clothing made from organic hemp or body-slimming plutonium or something. The innovation of all the inconsequential components of a yoga practice is a mesmerizing example of the distractions our society enjoys.

Did you know you can practice yoga without a Lululemon bralette? I promise you: you can. You can even practice without a playlist. Your breath can actually serve as the rhythm of your movement. Astounding. We are amazing beings, us humans. Even without our toys and gimmicks.

Especially without them.

When we begin to set aside the unnecessary parts of what is commonly known as a yoga practice, the bones of a practice become apparent. In the quiet, in the austerity, we can begin to notice what our practices might be missing.

For example, I have a student who used to do his asana practice to music. As a result, his ability to observe his breath was pretty weak when we started working together. He’d never really listened to it. When he started to hear it, he discovered how labored it was. How his inhales caught in his throat. How he never let himself exhale completely. It took only a few sessions and he was suddenly able to move with more comfort. His breath changed. And lengthened. He started to notice that he could relax himself when he got in bed, simply by extending his exhale. He discovered an amazing tool for himself—a tool completely free to him, not available on Amazon or at the gift shop of your favorite yoga studio.

Another student had pushed herself in some serious hot yoga classes. This is a woman who was already dealing with high stress in her personal life. She experienced frequent anger—at herself and those she loved. She came to me with a yoga blanket, a yoga towel, a water bottle, really short shorts and her phone. She resisted when I initially told her that she wouldn’t need any of those things to lie on the floor for a while. She gave me funny looks when I asked her to move with her breath into a sequence that would calm her nervous system. But she came back because she felt better after resting, after eliminating some of her body’s suppressed energy. When she learned how to settle herself, she discovered that she felt a deep connection to her own vibration. Now she’s learning to silently and verbally chant as a way to explore this vibration. She’s incorporated a mantra into her asana practice and she spends more time in child’s pose, feeling her body learning how to relax.

When we surrender all the toys we gather to distract ourselves—when we strip down— we start to discover who we are. From that place, a yoga practice can be developed that integrates so much more into the physical practice. We can work on the breath, we can learn to control our senses, we can come to stillness, we can concentrate and meditate. We don’t turn our back on our asana. Instead, we discern the appropriate movements for our current condition and we incorporate breath or mantra or sound.

Our practice becomes so much more interesting at that point. Like the former hot yogini (though temperamentally cooler, she remains a hot woman), we might discover other methods of practice to complement our idiosyncratic potentials. Some of us might want to incorporate mantra with our practice. Some might like prayer. Or maybe a little bit of everything.

There’s so much to explore beyond the material fiddle-faddle; there’s a whole smorgasbord of practices to focus the mind and body toward joy and freedom. We need only become willing to release our attachment to the things that identify us as yogis and look a little more closely at the patterns that have allowed those attachments to form.

And this, my friends, is why I love my Viniyoga practice. And why I enjoy sharing it.

If you’d like to explore the potential of an integrated practice for yourself, please join me on the next two Saturdays, July 25 and August 1, at Eight Elements West, for the last two workshops in a series called Moving Toward Stillness. We’ll be looking at the things that prevent us from sitting still and learning more about using our breath to help us train our attention and feel our inherent joy.

Off to hike. And a small prayer in advance.

About a month ago, the amazing executive director of Warriors Live On asked if I’d join a group of combat Veterans on a 4-day/40 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. She wants to introduce them to yoga, with the intention that it’ll complement their healing process as they walk the trail. I thought it would also relieve tension in the shoulders, back and legs after the walk. So I said yes.

Yes. Of course. And without hesitation.

I was (and remain) humbled and honored by this adventure.

In between then and now, however, I’ve had a few epiphany moments that will sound silly to anyone with actual trail-traveling experience. (That would be anyone, it seems, who is not me.)

I’ve climbed a few mountains in New Zealand, and wandered around trails in California. But, really, I managed those on whims. I didn’t plan. I didn’t read. I just went out and always got back before dark. Maybe shortly after. Then I had a beer. Or a glass of wine. And I put my feet up. That’s what I know about hiking.

When the WLO Director instructed me to get fitted for a pack—generously provided to all the participants by Adventure 16—it dawned on me that trek means something more than hike. I would be transporting my personal survival on my back. Food, water, shelter. Layers. I would be forced to acknowledge that a whole bunch of things that I consider imperative—laptop, phone, almond butter, and about 15 books—were not actually requisite to my existence.

Then I realized that generous as Adventure 16 has been to WLO, they are not providing us with donkeys.

And no one I know volunteered to be my sherpa. (Really? No one?! Sheesh.)

The trek will follow the PCT from Big Bear Lake to Lake Arrowhead. In the morning, before we eat, I hope the Veterans will enjoy moving slowly through some yoga asana with me to prepare our feet, ankles, legs, backs, and shoulders for the 10-mile day. In the evenings, when we’ve settled into our camp, I’ll invite them to move again, and to breathe and notice their energy after the great exertion of pushing the ground beneath us. I hope I can share whatever knowledge I have with clarity and integrity. I hope whatever I can share will be a helpful reminder to each of the Veterans that the study of the self—through asana, trail-wandering, or that mindless state of wonder that both bring—is an elevating pursuit. It serves all of us to look within. May we all be safe and supportive of each other.

I leave tomorrow. My pack slumps against the wall in a state of half-packed anticipation. It doesn’t quite weigh more than I do. Please think kind thoughts for all of us! I’ll report back soon.