Yoga......what is in this word?

Yoga…what’s in this word?                                                                                           Oct 2017                   

 

Yoga is commonly translated as ‘yoking’, referring to the process of yoking or joining things together. I’ve read that the term may have originated when the ancient Arya civilization advanced southward into the Indian continent and one advancement they had over the current people of the area they encountered was the horse and cart. They had learned how to yoke the horse to the wheeled vehicle. And the benefits of that are obvious. Fact or fantasy, it’s certainly metaphorical. The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit root ‘yui’, whose definition is ‘to join’, ‘to unite’ but also ‘to subjugate, control, discipline'. And we know that our English 'yoke' derives from this Sanskrit base. 

 

So what does this yoga, this yoking, mean to us today? What are we yoking together, uniting, subjugating, controlling? In my Buddhist practice we often begin sitting meditation session by inviting the bell and speaking a chant that begins, “Body, speech, and mind held in perfect oneness...”.  This is yoga…a joining together of our still body on the cushion with silence and a stilling of our mental speaking, or at least an attempt at that. We focus awareness on the still body and we focus on our breath.  And we see the seemingly constant parade of thoughts in the mind. But we practice just seeing those thoughts appear out of nowhere, seeing how they come into our head, and we continue to watch as they fade back into that void from which they came. We practice observing their transient nature. We stay in this present moment.  And in this practice we hopefully train the mind to be obedient. We use our breath as a tool to focus the mind in this practice. When we discover that the mind has latched on to one of those thoughts and is carrying us away from this moment, we acknowledge that fact and purposely let the thought go on its way as we return the focus to the breath. We are purposely in control of our body and what we do with it. We are purposely in control of our speech and what we say and do not say. We strive to have that same control of our mind and how it functions. This is discipline. This is yoga. This is the practice.

 

Can you see the similarity of this to your personal yoga session? We come to the mat with an awareness…of the mat, the space, the others that may be present, the instructor (be it our self or another), our body, our thoughts. And we practice a focusing technique not unlike the sitting meditation practice.  We are instructed to ‘leave our daily thoughts at the door’ as we focus on the asana practice.  So we select what thoughts need to be in the mind, in the head, as we move the body into and out of certain trained moves and positions. We focus on the Ujjayi breath as well as these thoughts of how to purposely move the body through this vinyasa, this flow of body, speech, and mind held in perfect movement. We learn control. We practice discipline. And we often find we reach a point where the body and the mind rebel and challenge us and create doubt and confusion. But this is a practice, our practice, of yoking all those components –the body that may not want to, the mind that says ‘I can’t’, the speech in our head that may be saying ‘no’, the breath that now is labored. We practice yoking these components in this asana. And with practice we often find that when we get to that negative place, that point of resistance, of rebellion… we can find a tiny break through. A small discovery that allows us to be in that doubt, confusion, and negativity, and to learn what it has to teach us. And we find a way into the pose. We find that the mind and breath and the body can do it.  We practice yoking all this together into a functioning system we call vinyasa….yoga. We find control of all three…the mind, the breath, and the body. 

 

So what does all this mean for us? What are we doing these practices for? Why do we sit in meditation daily? Why do we practice vinyasa?  The answer is in the word ‘practice’.  The musician practices every day, often playing endless boring scales over and over. The dancer practices every day, often the same moves over and over, repetition, repetition. The purpose is to be the best musician possible, the best dancer possible. It takes practice, practice, practice.  They are yoking the mind, the fingers, the legs and arms, the body, the breath with a goal of being the best they can be. 

 

But we aren’t all musicians or dancers. We all have individual talents and purposes in life. But what we do have in common is that we are all human. And what better goal to have than to be the best human possible. Living in awareness…of our body and what we do with it wisely, our speech and how we use it skillfully, and the activity within our mind -the very core of who we are- is a practice of being the best human possible.  The hour of sitting in meditation and the hour of asana vinyasa are periods of practice for the remaining 23 hours of our day. That’s why we go to retreats….to meditate 2, 4, or more hours at a time, to study and participate in yogic practices for a weekend or a week….to increase the practice time because ‘practice makes perfect’. Or if not perfect, at least better.  We are practicing control…of our bodies, our speech, our thoughts. We are learning how to be the masters of ourselves as opposed to just stumbling through this life letting our unwholesome thoughts, our unwholesome actions, our unskillful habits control us. It takes practice to learn how to skillfully drive our life, to live our life in a wholesome, meaningful manner. It takes practice to be a perfect human. 

 

The mastering, controlling, disciplinary aspect of all this is necessary. It is the path. It both leads to the goal and is the goal at the same time.  The ancient texts say the goal of Yoga is Yoga, the ultimate goal being moksha…liberation.  I see this as the true meaning of yoga.  Yoking the attributes, the actions, the physical, the mental, the myriad components of life itself, into a practice of living in such a way as to be as perfect a human being as possible.

Space........ by Ray Horn

Aug 2017

Space

 

One of the songs written by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh that we regularly sing in our meditation sangha goes as follows:

 

“Breathing in, Breathing out……Breathing in, Breathing out,

I am blooming as a flower, I am fresh as the dew,

I am solid as a mountain, I am firm as the earth,

I am free.

Breathing in, Breathing out…..Breathing in, Breathing out,

I am water reflecting what is real, what is true,

And I feel there is space deep inside of me,

I am free, I am free, I am free.”

 

Space…..what is it? In no way negating the works of the likes of Einstein and the great astrophysicists, I will tell you what it means to me as a Buddhist Yogi.  It means openness, vastness, grandeur. It means freedom.  And…it is where the birds fly.

 

As a small child aged four to five, I had, seemingly every night, vivid dreams of flying. I didn’t need to flap my arms or do any work at all. I could just levitate and go forward in the open air, the open space around me. I was free of the effects of gravity. It was such a wonderful feeling, this dream flying. I would fly all over the yard, down the street to the schoolyard, even downtown near the old movie theater and the drugstore.  The fact that this dream flying was limited to no more than about ten feet above the ground was no hindrance to the magical freedom I felt. This feeling was so real, so wonderful, that during the day I would climb up on the massive stone BBQ fire pit in the backyard and, with full and complete confidence, simply jump off!

The result was always a full-frontal plop onto the grass below. But because the dream was so real and the feeling so wonderful, I never stopped believing that if I just kept at it, if I returned to the pit another day and jumped, one day it would work…. I would fly.  And return I did, many times. Thank goodness the fire pit was obviously not as massive as memory paints it, for I never broke any bones or skin.  Long after I quit jumping, in fact all my years afterward, I’ve never forgot the feeling of that freedom of flying in my dreams.

 

In mediation practice one practices becoming familiar with the mind and how it works. As we sit and focus on the breath, we are aware of the thoughts, the many thoughts, as they form seemingly out of nowhere….out of space.  With practice we are able to see that they are transitory in nature. They come on their own out of this space and, if we just observe and let them go, they disappear. They are like clouds in the sky, coming and going, growing and fading. As we continue to sit and the mind gradually stills, we can see the beginning of a thought, then the end of it. We can just watch them like we watch the clouds in the sky, forming, growing, moving through the space, and fading away. And with practice we begin to see the space within the mind. The space between these thoughts. Just like the blue sky between the clouds. We see the openness, the vastness, the grandeur of our mind. We become mindful of how our mind works, how the thoughts work. This is a great and wonderful lesson that can greatly improve how we live.

 

Yoga teaches us mindfulness of the body. We learn to be mindful of how we are breathing, how we are standing, how we are walking, how we are sitting as we watch TV or read a book. Yoga is very much a somatic practice and it teaches us so much about our body that we may have failed to notice in the past. Asana practice brings us closer to your bodies.  We form intimate connections with the body, both physical as well as mental. Pranayama unites the breath with the lungs, the ribs, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor. We learn more about the body and how we can use it to live freer, heathier, happier lives.  We unite the physical capabilities with the mental capabilities. We grow.

 

Nargiza gave me an assignment several weeks ago…”to feel the space in my body”.

It was not the first time I have heard these instructions. But this time it struck home as I pledged to focus on it as I went through my day. And as with so many of the instructions we get from the teacher, at first I struggled, looking most likely like some contorted automated being in an old science fiction TV show. But with continued practice and mindfulness, I found that after a time I settled into the instructions with ease. And with this ease came a sense of grace.  And I felt it, truly felt it.  Standing correctly, breathing correctly, moving correctly, I felt this space in my body. I felt the expansion. I felt longer, taller, looser, lighter on my feet. The gravity around me seemed to lessen with each step I took. There was grace and ease in my body. It’s as though I can now sense more room within the body for improved bodily functions, for more flow of oxygen and fluids to the cells, more freedom and ease in the joints, more flexibility and tone in the muscles.  It’s a feeling of openness, vastness, grandeur. It’s a feeling of freedom.

 

It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for my body, not unlike the mental ones I have had on my meditation cushion. And suddenly I thought of those long ago childhood dreams of flying. No…I didn’t suddenly levitate and fly. But the feeling of this sense of space within my body was wonderful, like the wonderful feeling of flying in those dreams. But now I am awake!

 

It is here in this space, the space of our mind and the space of our body, that we can find a sense of freedom. I am blooming as a flower, fresh as the dew, reflecting what is real, what is true, feeling the space deep inside of me. I am free, I am free, I am free.

 

What brought me to yoga......... by Sandrine Sanos

My turn to yoga is a banal and a familiar story that sounds like a conversion story. And it is. One of my closest friends who had been practicing for years had brought me to some classes in New York. I’d never found it appealing as a form of physical exercise. And I was rather scornful of this western obsession with some imagined “ancient Indian tradition” that sounded more like colonial fantasy. One day, I decided to walk into a Sunday donation class one afternoon to see whether I’d like something different. I’d been obsessively exercising as a way to manage, in what I believed was the best way, my anxiety, my stress, my work, and most importantly, the debilitating insomnia that was plaguing me. No amount of exercise, pills, or techniques seemed to work. Since the Sunday class had been light-hearted and pleasant, I decided to turn up to a “regular” class, one evening. It was already dark outside the studio, though hardly cold as is the case for South Texas winters that do not deserve their name. The studio was small, in contrast to the large New York lofts I had walked in. I remember looking at the walls and wondering who had thought of painting these purple. The class was small. There were four or five other students who seemed experienced and confident. This was not a beginner’s class. I sat on a borrowed mat, trying to look like I belonged. The teacher smiled at me. She had a strong accent, which I immediately recognized as “European” –that is from the same continent I came from. We are a rare occurrence in this small South Texas town. She had a joyful and demanding energy about her, an unusual name I could not quite yet pronounce but neither could she pronounce mine. And the practice that evening proved, I’m afraid to confess, a revelation. Physically demanding, and asking me to be still, to breathe, to settle in difficult poses I could barely manage, poses with byzantine names. It felt as if “flexibility” was something I was incapable of, stretching beyond what I imagined impossible. I found comfort in paying attention to my breathing. Nargiza led me through my first practice. That night, she encouraged me, showing me I could indeed “do” what I thought my body never could. Like the day, she led me to this Parivritta Janu Sirsasana, which I find both soothing and exhilarating and never thought I could ever “do.” She did not let me hide. She laughed. She often does in class. She knows how to guide and show the way. That yoga class was also not just a series of physical motions to learn nor of exercises to stretch or muscles to strengthen. It involved it all. A way of sitting and breathing, of breathing through discomfort, of learning that stillnesss can feel sweet and almost blissful. Of recognizing how I needed, as many say, to “quieten my mind.” It is not much quiet that I found but an orientation to my self, my body, and the world that I was learning. It is difficult to remember these first few classes. It has been five years now. Since then, I have tried many different “styles” –mostly out of curiosity: anusara, ashtanga, hot, variations of hatha, kundalini, bowspring. Each has revealed something different, everytime something I did not know I could do or feel. For a long time, words such as ‘awareness’ and ‘being present’ meant little to me and remained mysterious, like a secret others knew and I had resigned myself to never understanding or feeling. But yoga—the asana practice, the philosophy, and especially meditation—reminds us that patience and curiosity are what each style and practice of yoga has required of me. And, mostly, it has meant trusting my teacher, as guide through all of this. I trust Nargiza as she showed me the way, and still does. 

Sandrine pic yoga.jpg

What is Vipassana and is its relationship with Yoga............ by Ray Horn

I was asked this question by a dear yogi friend who is aware of my devotion to meditation.  So one simple answer I could give is that Vipassana and Yoga are the same path. Vipassana is a type of meditation commonly attributed to The Buddha, though its technique is similar to many contemplative spiritual traditions. I personally practiced Vipassana for many years before ever encountering Patanjali’s Yoga. But during my very first yoga class I clearly saw the similarity of the two. This is why I return repeatedly, to this day, to the yoga mat.  I knew then that this practice of yoga could aid and assist my sitting meditation simply because it was in truth the same practice.  Learning about and studying Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga only reinforced this belief.  

 

 Vipassana is a Pali word (Vipasyana in Sanskrit) that best translates as “clear-seeing”, often called ‘insight meditation’ in the West.  In the Buddhist culture it is commonly paired with the Pali term….Samatha, which translates as calm, tranquility, stilling. I particularly like the Sanskrit (Shamatha) translation of “peacefully abiding”, which as a Buddhist meditation technique is called the practice of Bhavana….a calming of the mind (citta) and its ‘formations’ (sankharas).  Any yogi ever having been in the same room with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras would recognize that particular wording.

 

The starting point for this practice is sitting still in an easy sitting posture (the original and in ancient days the only asana I might add!) with awareness of your surroundings and mindfulness of the breath….settling into the present moment.  Does this not surely sound like the beginning of the majority of yoga classes we attend?     

 

Let me quote His Holiness the Dalai Lama:

Tranquility or calm abiding is a heightened state of awareness possessing a very single-pointed nature, accompanied by faculties of mental and physical suppleness. Your body and mind become especially flexible, receptive, and serviceable.

Special insight is a heightened state of awareness, also accompanied by mental and physical suppleness, in which your faculty of analysis is immensely advanced. Thus, calm abiding is absorptive in nature, whereas special insight is analytical in nature.

 

This is the practice of Samatha and Vipassana. Take a moment to mentally place yourself on your yoga mat. Now re-read his words.  Do you see the relevance, the similarity to the actions, both mental and physical, that we do on the mat?

 

The Buddha gives us his Noble Eight-Fold Path, the eight paths or eight correct ways we can chose to live in order to accomplish a meaningful and enlightened life in which we are able to see truth.  Patanjali in his compilation of the Yoga Sutras gives us his Ashtanga of Yoga, the Eight Limbs of Yoga. One of the commonalities these two compilations share is that, though they appear to be written as linear pathways, which is merely a limitation of the written word, each step contains within it manifestations of all the others.  In contemplative practices such as these, stepping on one stepping stone of the path is stepping on all of the stepping stones of the path.

 

Patanjali’s two limbs of Yama and Nyama teach us the basics of personal and societal ethics which are also woven into each of the Buddha’s pathways.  Those who come to the yoga mat with true spiritual intention are already focusing on these ethical qualities.

 

When in meditation we first sit on the cushion in stillness and awareness…the calm abiding of Samatha.   Arriving to the yoga mat we do the same. So right here we have Patanjali’s three limbs of Yama, Nyama, and Asana.  Either on the mat or on the cushion, we are not harming others, not stealing from others, etc.  We are focusing on the ethical standards of our behavior in a disciplined and agreed upon manner. We are in both cases in a posture, an asana, of easy sitting, be it full or half lotus, Burmese style, or virasana.

 

Both on the cushion and the mat we begin focusing on the breath, becoming aware of it with each inhale, each exhale. A series of long, slow, deep breaths that aids in the activation of the parasympathetic system, thus aiding in the calming of the body and the mind.  On the cushion after a few minutes of this breathing we settle into a relaxed unaided breath which is used as point of concentration throughout the sitting.  On the mat we begin Ujjayi breathing, which is maintained throughout the asana practice.  This is Patanjali’s Pranayama.

 

These are preliminary stages of our practice of meditation and of yoga. We focus on these, becoming aware of them and seek to maintain this discipline throughout the sitting session, throughout the yoga session.

 

The natural progression from this awareness leads into Patanjali’s limb of Pratyahara – the practice of directing our attention inward so that we both become attuned with our body, our heart, and our mind. This is a very subtle state, so much so that I feel many of us are not totally aware of it as it occurs.  But we can with practice become aware of the senses and the strong affect they have on us.  How they can sway us one way, then another.  

 

On the mat we move through a series of poses, the extended, modified asana of the modern era. On the cushion we maintain the challenging asana of just sitting….. correctly, erect, with determination but also with a sense of ease and lack of tension…..the Sthira (steadiness) and Sukha (comfort). We hold this pose for what can seem a very long span of time.  Time is relative. In the mind an hour can be ten minutes, five minutes can be an hour.  When the yoga instructor asks you to hold a pose for just one more breath, which among us has not experienced the overwhelming feeling of doubt, only to find that in taking that next breath life springs into the form itself?   Our senses are heightened with many conflicting thoughts… I hate this pose, I can never do this correctly, or I love this and feel myself alive and powerful. We find out just how far we can go with attention to the details. With insight. We find strength and accomplishment within these experiences of inadequacy, doubt, irritability, as well as the experiences of ease and familiarity.  We learn to become a friend to our emotions.

 

As we continue the practice we are inhabiting and moving within the other yoga limbs and meditative stages of Dharana – concentration, Dhyana –contemplation, and if we are so fortunate, Samadhi, the final yoga limb of union…with our self, with the universe, with each other.  This is Yoga, this is Vipassana…. clear seeing, insight to our strengths, our weaknesses. This is meditation, where we practice becoming one with ourselves so that we may become aware of and attuned to our grand oneness as human beings.

 

I know that we as individuals practice yoga for different reasons.  But any association or encounter with the practice does indeed open that little door in the mind that, if we choose to walk through it, will allow us to experience a profound spiritual transformation.  We all must live our lives.  We can do it blindly, without awareness, going through life in ignorance, knowing little about the meaning of it all, the beauty of it all. Or we can chose to do it with attention to and awareness of that ignorance so common to each of us, and practice to see the true beauty of what we have.  This choice requires stopping for a moment, stilling the body and the mind, so that we may look.  It is from this simple action that we are able to develop the insight into our actions, our relationships, our lives, our mind and heart.  

 

It is in this practice, on a meditation cushion or on a yoga mat, that we train ourselves to be in the state of continuous mindfulness, not just for an hour during practice, but all day as we go about the actions of living. I have found that the majority of my ‘insightful moments’ occur away from my mediation cushion and my yoga mat.  It is true that our hour of practice is practice for the other 23 hours of our day.

Maintaining this state of awareness enables the insight of Vipassana and the union of yoga to happen.  This insight enables us to be better people, partners, parents, friends…..better humans.  

Practice on your mat, practice on your cushion, or join me and practice on both. The paths, the steps, all lead in the same direction.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Positivity

I am on my twenty third day of 40 day Sadhana, personal transformational practice. The goal of this effort is to cultivate a more positive outlook in my life. 

Only my family knows my tendency to be negative. I am predisposed to be melancholic and seeing the bad side of everything before the good. I do my best to hide it from others simply because I was sure I will not be loved and accepted if they truly know how I was feeling. Growing up in and around negative environment planted the seed; It was hard to be optimistic when surrounded by unhappy people. Another story for another blog...........

 Anusara yoga philosophy, which is based on seeing the beauty in everything, helped me to take the first steps in my Positivity journey. It was not easy and, although it helped me tremendously, I was still slipping into my habitual mindset. Bowspring came along and reminded me it is my own effort and responsibility to see the beauty and what is good in life. Moreover, it is going to be a long and difficult journey but maintaining my practice, I am reminded to NEVER give up. EVER.  During Summer 2016 Olympics, I saw the video of an Austrian athlete, Michelle Jenneke, who was doing a little cheering dance before competition a few years ago. She jumped and smiled, she opened her arms and radiated so much positivity that I felt it washing through me. Needless to say, she won the race. 

 Michelle set the body into a motion of positive mode and that triggered the emotional response that was showing on her face in her beautiful smile. Humans and animals love to move. Movement is embedded in us, it is a sign of a good health and vitality. Movement is everything!

So, I am on my path to feel positive, to see what is good in life first. It is not a panacea from the all negativity in life BUT, the power of positivity will give me an ability to bounce of quickly in the face of difficult and daunting moments. I know it will!   

 

What is Presence?

My theme of the month has been Presence based on Amy Cuddy's book. I have been teaching my students to work on length and space in their physical bodies as well as breath. At the end of the classes we sit in meditation and create space in between our thoughts, making it longer and deeper. Not an easy thing to do especially if you default into an oh so familiar and comfortable closed posture, way of thinking. Our daily activities like sitting, standing, walking encourage us to contract, curl, make ourselves small. These patterns do not serve us; moreover, they diminish our presence. 

Amy talks about the true meaning of presence- the ability and awareness to accept yourself as you are, to be true to yourself. Furthermore, she talks about working on impressing yourSelf not others. This speaks volumes to me. I, as long as I can remember myself, was trying and certainly still am to impress others based on outside values. I can see now that it started with my intolerance and refusal of myself. I did not like myself. I was ashamed of myself. I was fake. This reflected in my classes- as much as I wished to sound authentic, the authenticity fled me with the speed of light. 

Then I came across the word "vulnerability" and that is where it all began.  I changed my teachings and here I was standing in front of my students- raw, vulnerable, and true. Many students left but it actually encouraged me to continue. I felt deep in my guts I was on the right path. 

Now it is Presence. A refinement, a deeper meaning of vulnerability. 

I show up and stand raw and tall in my true Self. This is who I am, take it or leave it.