Archive for the ‘Yoga Stories’ Category

Keep Dancing

Heritage of Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:  2.5  Ignorance (avidya) is misperceiving permanence in transience, purity in impurity, pleasure (sukha) in suffering (dukkha), an essential self (atma) where there is no self.

What is the perfect pose, the perfect instruction, the perfect practice?  Where am I going with my yoga practice, what am I getting, who am I pleasing?  In my old age what will I have?   So easy to get lost, to forget the clarity of a moment, to fix an experience, become bored with routine.  Dukkha

A spiritual teacher of mine once told me that our happiest moments often hold the greatest suffering because we refuse to see their essential impermanence.  Avidya

It is wonderful to feel strong, be flexible, to have health and vitality, to move one’s body into extraordinary positions.  Sukha Yet the question arises like the song of Peggy Lee’s:

“Is that all there is, is that all there is? If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing”.

The song has notes of despair but it is also possible to hold that idea as a way of working till I live in the direct experience of enlightenment.  Where I don’t see permanence in transience, purity in impurity, pleasure in suffering, an essential self  where there is no self.  So if I am not to fall hopelessly into the mire this sutra speaks of, what does it mean in the context of yoga to keep dancing?  Could I hold dancing as the gradual path?

I experience the joy of a yoga pose.  I love the feeling of my heart center in Trikonasana, the stretch over my back hip and the reach of my top collar bone and arm.  I like how grounded I feel in Downward Dog, the texture of the mat under my hands and feet.  There is power in the Warrior poses and sweet surrender in Uttanasana.  I can do Handstands until my arms will no longer hold me.  Head back, chest open in Ustrasana or snug as a bug in Child’s pose.  I like to hear and feel my spine adjust in Jathara Parivartanasana and sit in the quiet of Gomukhasan legs.

There are lots of poses I don’t care for.  The ones where my body flounders and my mind finds little rest.  But some I have come to like as we have become better acquainted.  Is this dancing?

I like the moments of connection, when insight connects disparate experiences into a whole as vast as space.  For a moment there is direct perception.  An instruction I thought I understood gains a depth I hadn’t experienced before and I think, “Oh, that’s what they meant?”  Or something I read revels a profound insight.  These moments of clarity are fleeting.  Soon I fix them with my thoughts and they evaporate into a memory.  Is this dancing?

I am never tired of my yoga practice.  It does not bore me or seem of little value.  I am always learning something.  If not about my own practice directly then something new about my students which in the end informs my own study.  It is so wonderful to see another’s body and communicate in such a way that they share the perception.  For a moment our eyes join and the veils of separation lift.  I experience love in these moments and hold such gratitude for my students.  Is this dancing?

Patanjali speaks of the pitfalls, the subtleties of ignorance.  When I think I’m clever, or my practice is about accomplishment, when I think I am teaching and feel separate from my students, I am in the state of ignorance.  The shades of this ignorance are vast.  Occasionally I wake for a moment, but in general, I work within ranges of distorted perception.  But in the moments of lucidity when the veils lift I experience the freedom Patanjali speaks of.  I believe it is these moments which inform my experience, let me know what is possible, and keep me dancing.

The Horse Ride

Heritage of Yoga

Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Describe my most significant experience in my yoga practice.

The Horse Ride

Floating.  Floating like a mist above, around and through my body.  I am not out of my body nor in it.  The Rap music pulsing through the window from the house next door, beating the waves of the soft breeze.  Not here, not separate, just present.  No words to describe, just present.

Was it only this morning I was experiencing a moment in my childhood?  Deep in the trauma of an event.  Images, sensations merging with memory.  Remembering.  I knew this happened.  Heard the stories, believed the power of yoga to release memories, trauma held in the cells.  How appropriate I muse, cells.  Little prisons holding captive events too painful to face in the moment.

How many times had I told the story of crying even at the thought of the big backbends, Urdhva Danurasana, Wheel pose.  Watching others lift effortlessly, their arms and legs unfolding as their spine lengthen into an arch.  Up they went in one smooth movement while my own body struggled to find the strength to lift and then could barely hold the pose.  They made it look so simple.  Fluid motion, not chunky and straining like my own.  Then the fear I felt each time before backbend practice and the relief when it was over.  Relief that barely covered the disappointment.  Relief  that this part of the week was over (1).  I had made it through without falling apart.  I wouldn’t have to face that pose again.  I could go home and maybe from time to time try it again.  Sometimes it seemed like I was making progress, but always the dread.

I told my students that it was because of opening the heart.  It was a big heart opening pose.  That wasn’t it, I knew that now.  True it had taken a long time to shed the layers of clothes I wore covering my chest and shoulders.  I could do that now, wear sleeveless tops that left my shoulders bare.  That was the clue I never grasped.  I was always so sure it was my chest I was hiding.  Big breasts I thought, too vulnerable.  It wasn’t big breasts, it was shoulders.  Bare shoulders that exposed my secret.

Ten percent less mobility in the left arm my teacher had told me.  That was good to know.  Reasons why it was hard to do some asanas.  The accident I would say.  I broke my left arm as a child, no physical therapy in those days.  An event that was hardly a blip in my family history, not anything anyone would recall years later.

Knowing I had to work that arm had made improvements.  I stood straighter and learned to do handstand and other poses.  Yoga had taught me to find a core strength and work from that awareness.  But still the fear, dreading each time I had to attempt wheel pose again. I knew now,  my body had finally released its secret.

I wanted to ride the horse, Beau Crest El Dorado Genius, Elmer for short.  Funny, I was afraid of big horses and Elmer was a big horse, sixteen hands at least.  Somehow that day was different, I wanted to ride him.  My sister had been riding him that morning and I wanted a turn.  The stirrups were too long but my sister wouldn’t help, too much trouble.  I got on anyway.  It was just around the track, it would be ok.

What spooked him?  A car, other horses, I don’t remember.  The reins pulled away only the ends in my hands.  Bouncing on the saddle, barely staying on.  I watch the cars on the freeway on-ramp as I passed them.  Dreamlike, details in slow motion as Elmer moved at a dead run.  Then the sharp turn into the trees, still on.  The fence, ready to jump but he stops and I fall hard onto the packed ground.  Then lying on the cot in the dark, cool room off the office.  Someone is rubbing horse liniment on my shoulder.  My red and white seersucker blouse open.  Embarrassed, there are men in the room and I am a young girl.  Someone calling my mother.  Maybe they’d asked, “Do you want your mother?” “Yes”,  I would have answered.  When my mother comes she is angry.  She hadn’t wanted to drive to the stable this morning.  I sit in the back seat of the Ford station wagon.  Was I crying?  I can’t remember.  Mother asks, “Do you hurt?”  It doesn’t hurt but I say, “Yes, it hurts.”  We go to the doctor where the x-ray shows a break at the top of the humerus.  I feel relief.  There is now a justification for wanting her to come get me.

I wear a cotton ribbed stocking that goes around my body and holds my arm to my side.  Left hand sticking out as the shirt sleeve hangs loose.  Then the hives whenever my skin is exposed to the sun.  Strange they all think but don’t make any connections.

Present time. My friend is with me.  She holds me and we gently rock as I tell the story.  Sobs shake my body as the images pass.  The betrayal of love.  Love I, the child, expected, wanted, but couldn’t ask for.  The holding, cuddling and care I longed for from this new mother, new sister.  I wanted to belong to this family I had gotten since the death of my birth mother.

I am floating.  Floating in Savasana.  The events of the morning are gone.  There is no quality, no texture, just being.  Maybe it’s a beginning.

(1)  The Summer Intensive in Berkeley, CA is a week long yoga practice where backbends were generally done on the Thursday of the week.

Hatha Yoga and Enlightenment

Heritage of Yoga

Shakyamuni Buddha: From my perspective, what does it mean to be enlightened or awakened?  Do I want to be enlightened?  Do I think it is possible to achieve enlightenment through the practice of Hatha Yoga?

Enlightenment is the direct experience of one’s true nature and the true nature of all phenomena.  It is the sustained state in which one has the direct experience of the emptiness of mind.  That is, that mind can be experienced but has no fixed characteristics (e.g., location, shape, color, etc.).  It is the direct knowing that our true nature is consciousness which includes perception and experience.

In the state of enlightenment all one’s thoughts and deeds benefit all sentient beings.  One is the state of grace.  It is said that the Buddha had non-referential compassion.  Having transcended duality there was no I, no other; all his actions and words were the expression of enlightenment.  When one is fully awakened there is nothing outside of this awakened state.

Do I want to be enlightened?  I sincerely wish to benefit all sentient beings.  I hold this as an aspiration and the wish to accomplish this as the blessing and fulfillment of my precious human existence.  I value that in this life I have the potential and opportunity to realize my true nature.  I’m not sure I have the intensity of practice to accomplish realization.  There have been moments when my aspiration has been strong.  Years where I have spent hours a day in formal practice.  Formal practice being the time where I hold my awareness in the structured teachings of my spiritual path.  At this time in my life I carry my daily life as my practice.  I do not fool myself by thinking this is enough to bring enlightenment.  I sincerely wish that at some point I will resume a formal practice, for I believe that one needs both.

When I ask myself is it possible to attain enlightenment through the practice of Hatha Yoga alone I must first ask the question: Is Hatha Yoga separate from the whole of the Eight Limbs of Yoga?  The myth of the gradual path is that each step is separate.  Yet my own experience of yoga has shown me that at any moment all limbs are present.  The limitation is our perception of separation.  If we don’t bring the larger teachings of the Buddha or the Yoga Sutras to our asana practice then Hatha Yoga is not sufficient to accomplish a sustained state of enlightenment.

In my yoga practice I develop insight into my habitual patterns, a steadiness of mind, an inner peace, an experience of transcendence.  But how does this arise?  It may be argued that enlightenment may come in any circumstance.  I agree.  Nothing occurs outside of this moment, but there are many moments that surround this one.

If I return to my yoga practice to validate my understanding, I need look no further than the moment I finally pushed up into Urdhva Danurasana after many years of failed attempts. Though I did this one day without any warm-up or daily practice leading in this direction I cannot separate it from all the other things I had been doing:  opening tight joints, releasing held trauma, building strength, hearing the wise instructions of my teachers, and in the end, letting go of the accomplishment itself.

When I practice Hatha Yoga I bring the wealth of all my practice to bear.  If one doesn’t have a spiritual practice isn’t this an insight into why many see yoga as a good workout?  For those who have a foundation in spiritual awareness, yoga practice includes the bounty of our spiritual merit, the truth of our spiritual teachings, the blessings of our teachers, the support and practice of our community and our unflagging aspiration to travel the path and bring it to fruition.  Even the hermit of the Upanishads was not without support (tradition & acceptance by the community) in his search and accomplishment of awakening.

There is a quote from Trungpa Rinpoche that I love, “We all want to witness our own enlightenment.”

Just as it is ignorance to believe we can hold to our separateness and awaken, it is delusion to believe there is realization in Hatha Yoga separate from all our lifetimes of spiritual practice.

Evenness of Mind

Heritage of Yoga

Bhagavad Gita: Do thy work in the peace of Yoga, and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure.  Yoga is evenness of mind – a peace that is ever the same.

This passage from the Gita speaks to me of cultivating equanimity.  To not hold success as the measure of my life nor be defeated by my failures.  To nurture an evenness of spirit in the face of all my experience.  This is a tricky path to follow.  It seems as narrow as a thread where all my actions illuminate my lack of skill and, at the same moment, as wide as my eyes can see if I hold all my thoughts and deeds as grist for the mill.

Many years ago after a week long meditation retreat I had the insight that I had spent most of my adult life trying to go under life by being in despair or over life by seeking bliss in meditation practice.  I had never been willing to just be in life.  My experience was driven by events I held as outside myself.  As life took its ups and downs so I followed.  In this scenario I had little responsibility.  I was at the whim of the world.  So I had to ask, what does it mean to just be in life?  To work with this insight I took the metaphor of riding a bike.  Bike riding is a continual experience of balance and unbalance.  If the adjustments are quick there is the perception of steadiness.  In this idea I saw that steadiness or balance wasn’t the ability to hold life on an even keel but a continuous process of letting life in, making adjustments, and going on.  This was the beginning of my exploration of equanimity.  How to find a sense of balance in my life, when my circumstances, my thoughts and emotions, are in continual change.

Certain events help me remember and find a center again when I think I have lost my way.  I remember the time when I was so angry with my son.  I felt the red hot flash of anger move through my body but I did nothing.  I experienced my anger.  This is worlds away from reacting to anger.  I think of other times when I have had such a deep sense of happiness that actions on the part of others which I might have found irritating washed over me.  My own joy could not be shaken.  In this state of connection or being grounded I allowed the other person to have their experience without hooking in.

These experiences and countless others remind me that I can hold equanimity in the face of a fluctuating world.  I can experience the ups and downs of life but I don’t have to go with it.  I can hold an inner calm while life washes through me.

Without knowing it I have taken this passage from the Gita and carried it deeply into my yoga teaching and practice.  Each term I read a quote to my students from Yoga, The Iyengar Way (1) that is based on this passage.  My wish is to remind all of us that it is perseverance and sincerity of practice that brings our goal near.  If we hold our yoga practice as merely physical forms to accomplish we will only have the measure of our successes and failures and miss the heart of yoga: to cultivate a quiet mind in the midst of activity.

So my yoga practice is a crucible in which I distill my understanding.  I stand in Vrksasana and gather my scattered thoughts.  I feel the rhythm of bone and muscle in Trikonasana, strength in Virabhadrasana III.  Ardha Chandrasana brings a sense of harmony and balance.  In Urdhva Dhanurasana there is effort and power.  JanuSirshasana is sweet surrender.  Yoga is my mirror.  It is a place small enough to offer introspection and large enough to hold my whole life.  It is a place to go out from and a place to come back to.  It is my yoga which supports me in just going through life and finding:  “evenness of mind – a peace that is ever the same“.

(1)  “Correct effort, without over attachment to the goal, leads to mastery in Yoga.  This demands perseverance and sincerity in practice.  They bring the goal near.  Through nonattachment the mind is undisturbed by dejection resulting from failure or by the pride of achievement.  When the means are right, the fruit comes by itself.”

Knowledge and Wisdom

Heritage of Yoga

Knowledge and Wisdom:  What is the difference and how can I cultivate wisdom in my yoga practice?

I place my feet, I lengthen down in the inner calf and lift from my outer arch.  I feel the strength grow from my feet through my inner and outer legs as it weaves a pattern into my pelvis.  I follow this strength up my spine lifting one vertebra off another.  My upper ribs and collar bones lift and roll back and I release my shoulders.  The strength transforms into an experience of length and lightness as it passes up to the crown of my head.  I feel myself strong and tall.  I have taken the form of Tadasana.  But is this the asana Tadasana, the experience that transcends the form?

My eyes tell me that I have placed my body in the correct position.  My nerves, bones and muscles echo the truth of what my eyes see.  My memory of previous experiences affirms that I am in the correct alignment.  All this I know through my senses; my senses which have guided me before there was cognitive thought.  I trust them to be a sure guide in every moment, reflecting the world back to me and me to the world.  This is the sphere of I and other.  This is the world of knowledge.  Knowledge presumes that there is something to know and someone who knows.

There is something more I experience in Tadasana which defeats language.  The moment I begin to describe it, it no longer exists.  This moment is not known in language.  Language is linear, moves in increments along a continuum.  This experience comes whole without a subject and an object.  When the moment is past and I hold the memory recorded in my senses then I can speak of it.  I feel light, no effort to hold myself up in gravity.  There is balance.  There is no in or out, no sense of breathing.  It  is quiet, peacefulness, joyful.  Joy that is like the warmth of the sun, everywhere and nowhere.  This memory is not the moment, but the shadow of the moment.  In the remembering I have separated myself and made my experience solid.  Wisdom is fluid.  It is that which transcends duality, that which cannot be named, but can be known.

So how do I cultivate wisdom in my practice?  In truth, I don’t know.  I believe that at best I can establish fruitful conditions and make a sincere effort.  I can watch out for pitfalls and not be discouraged.  I can hope for blessings and recognize them when they happen.  I don’t think there are any guarantees.  Effort and the right conditions don’t create wisdom, but without them I have little hope.

So I cultivate being present.  I am grateful for finding an authentic spiritual teaching and good teachers.  I am happy to have spiritual friends who guide me and give so generously of their inspiration.  I am blessed with a practice that so easily reminds me when I have dropped it and bears fruit when I persevere.  I walk the gradual path from the foundations of the yamas and niyamas to the apex of samadhi.  I know from previous experiences that any moment can transform into wisdom.  Recently I was sitting at the end of class when I realized that when I am ‘in the state of yoga‘ all eight limbs are present.  That even when it seems I am only walking the path of yoga, I am also the path.  I am not the form Tadasana, but the thing itself.

I am reminded of a comment a Zen master made to a group of us who had just finished a week long meditation retreat.  In essence: ‘That when we have insight (wisdom arising) it is like breaking out of our box into a larger box.  The important moment is when we are between boxes‘.

So each time wisdom arises I move into a larger arena of awareness.  I expand my understanding, my knowledge, and for a brief moment I drop my small self and am a spark of wisdom.

You live in illusion and in the appearance of things.  There is a reality.  You are that reality.  If you wake up to that, you will know you are nothing, and being nothing, you are everything.  That is all.

Kalu Rinpoche

Sacrifice

Heritage of Yoga

Sacrifice:  What it means to me and how it relates to my yoga.

Sacrifice begins with the idea that I am giving up something of value to gain something I believe to be of greater value.

I give up that which is small for that which is great.  At any point the elements of this can range from the mundane to the esoteric.  My view can expand from the immediate to beyond the boundaries of birth and death.  Yet the acts that I perform may not be different to the external eye.  So to gain a deeper understanding I must examine my view and my intentions.  I must return to myself rather than the actions or objects of my sacrifice.

When I think of what sacrifice means to me I believe it is my aspiration to find in the living of my life the constant offering of my personal agenda to the experience of wholeness.  My wish to relinquish my sense of self as separate.

Taking the idea of sacrifice to my yoga practice, I think of the rituals that weave through my life.  If I hold yoga as the asana practice that I perform and teach, then I think of the many actions which carry the elements of sacrifice.  I can hold the taking off of my shoes as the beginning of the ritual that makes the transistion from one state of awareness to another.  The stepping out of my everyday life into the world of carefully intended action.  In this action I am choosing to give a certain amount of time in pursuit of an attentiveness that brings a feeling of well-being.  As I move through my practice I choose one asana over an other to gain mastery in a certain direction.  I pay attention to the placing of my body or the movement of my breath to observe a particular so I can better understand where my trouble lies or know the value of a particular movement.

As a teacher I both hold the space of the ritual of sacrifice and am a participant.  Taking our shoes off establishes the container in which we practice.  The asanas we practice and the instructions become the path of our ritual.  In this space we offer our time and energy to gain insight and inspiration.  We see ourselves in each other.  As we travel the path of yoga together we notice how what we want from our yoga changes as our practice gains depth.  But the ritual of sacrifice falls short of our intentions if we do not allow it to expand beyond our mat.

When I hold my yoga practice as my life, the rituals of sacrifice broaden into life lessons and realizations.  Small insights illuminate larger patterns of behavior.  After years of fear, anger, frustration and a sense of defeat around certain poses I let go of accomplishing them.  My small mind had clung to these emotions and blocked any curiosity or sense of wonder.  Speaking the truth about these aspects of myself that I would rather not admit, allowed me to sacrifice my pride to gain honesty.  When I am honest I can see how I limit my experience and place these limitations outside myself.  Telling the truth gives me room to grow.

To me this is the role of sacrifice in yoga.  To sacrifice that which binds me to a limited self.  If I hold my yoga practice as my accomplishments then all my rituals of sacrifice are small and do not bring me to my greater goal.  If I hold my yoga practice as a path of awareness that permeates my life, then even the small rituals of sacrifice carry me to greater understanding.