learning stillness

Practicing every day


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Goodbye to my Puck

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Puck was a dog. A Boston Terrier to be specific. He was 10 years old, 25 lbs and had a tail that would wag about half the time. The other half it was stuck in place, despite his efforts to move it. He loved to eat kale at any time, but especially when it was clipped fresh from the garden. Puck came to live with us when we were still in New York, a few months after we moved in together before we were even engaged. It was Puck that first made us feel like a unit, a family. As the first dog in our lives, he was the alpha dog in our little family of four, first keeping our dog Root Beer (a geriatric dog we rescued a few years later, with abuse and neglect in his past and the neurotic behavior to show for it) on an even keel. For the past four years he’s been keeping our wild young dog, Scrappy, in line. He had a special bond with my brother, who has Autism, and seemed to consider Tim “his human.” Puck’s primary forms of communication were snorts, whines and indignant sneezes. For nine years his snoring was the metronome that lulled me to sleep. Above all things, Puck was an important teacher to me. He came into my life bearing many gifts, the most important of which was the gift of surrender.

Puck ate rat poison not once, but twice in the same week. The landlord in our awful apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan laid out bricks and never told anyone. Puck thought they were delicious and ate them whenever possible. We were a young couple, totally broke and stressed about the vet bills. We did not handle the situation well and we took a lot of our frustration and fear out on one another.

Five years later Puck started slipping disks, needing crate rest for weeks at a time. He cried almost non stop and we handled that stress a little better, but still there was this feeling that Kirk (my husband) and I were not on the same team, but acting as two individuals making unilateral decisions.

In the winter of 2012 we discovered that those “slipped disks” were actually un-diagnosed Lyme disease. By the time our (now former) vet put two and two together and diagnosed him correctly Puck was in renal failure , ten pounds thinner, unable to walk, getting subcutaneous fluid injections twice a week, and nearly dead. Puck was such a patient teacher, though we were dense students, but the third time was a sort of charm. We were both incredibly busy at the time and we initially forgot that we are a team, but eventually got it together to work with one another instead of without considering the other. I learned to actually trust and listen to my spouse, even when his understanding or ideas differed from my own. I learned to let go a little, ease up on the reigns and let someone else take the lead when I was too tired, too over-worked or just too scared to do it myself. I learned to surrender and allow myself to be cared for. Somehow Puck pulled through. He regained all the weight he’d lost, and the hop in his step came back. (I love how he pranced when he walked.) He remained on a special diet and needed frequent blood work to check his levels, but he really came back to us.

This winter Puck started having seizures. They eventually became uncontrollable, despite him being heavily medicated. Without an MRI (which we simply couldn’t afford) we were left with the knowledge that it was likely cancer. Probably a brain or spinal cord tumor. He cried every night for weeks and weeks, all night long until we got him a pain killer. After we started giving that to him he cried just about half the night. He’d cry for a few hours before he’d sleep and then again starting at 4 am. This time we had practice under our belt, though. this time, we knew how to give and take with one another, how to allow the other to have a different point of view about his care and how to respect that point of view. Many, many nights Kirk slept on the sofa so I could sleep. Many, many mornings I would get up earlier than I needed to (even on rare days when I could sleep in) to let Kirk get another hour or two or three of much needed rest.

Last night Puck had a four minute seizure that left him paralyzed for a long while after he came to. Then another early this morning. We both knew it was time. We took him to the park this morning, fed him gross and greasy people food (and fresh kale, too), let him fulfill a lifetime dream of riding on my lap in the front seat of the car with his head out the window, told him we loved him and held him as he stepped into the light. I am pretty heartbroken; Kirk is too. I’m sitting with his dog bed next to me as I write this. I miss my dog. I miss my friend. But really, what keeps running through my head is that line from Pema Chodron’s book, “When Things Fall Apart”, which begins “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” Puck most certainly taught us. We are slow students, but I think we finally got the message.

Puck taught us to be better – as individuals and as a married couple. For that, and for a million other things, I am forever grateful. Into the light, my sweet boy. Maybe we will meet again one day.


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For Today I Am a Child

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One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.

But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll feel the power in me.

One day I’ll grow up, of this I’m sure

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll know a whom within me.

One day I’ll grow up, feeling full and pure.

But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy.”  ~For Today I Am a Boy, Antony & The Johnsons

I haven’t really felt much like writing here recently. People have been asking, but every time I have opened my computer to write I’ve felt… I don’t know what the right word is. Reluctant. I write on this thing incredibly infrequently and I usually write something in order to help my thoughts and feelings to come together. Something about putting everything together into a somewhat cohesive piece of writing helps me to understand myself and what I am experiencing more fully, and often gives me a kind of closure that helps me to process whatever’s been bouncing around inside of my own skull. If other people read it and it strikes a nerve with them (or if they even understand what I’m saying at all) then that’s a major plus. Still, I am really just talking to myself in a semi-public forum here.

Over the past two months or so, however, I’ve been having some fairly intense experiences. It sort of feels like I am missing a layer of emotional skin meant to protect me. These experiences, whether the intensely beautiful or the deeply painful, have felt extremely private. The world has become, over the past decade or so, simultanously exibitionistic and vouyerisitc. I am not terribly interested in the on-going debate over social media and its harmfulness/usefulness in present day society. I have my opinions and I am sure everyone else has theirs. However, from my personal vantage point I’ve felt a need to get quieter and quieter as things seem to be reaching a fevered pitch. More than that, I’ve come to feel that sharing certain experiences can change my own perception of them. One way or another, there are certain things that simply cannot be related in a narrative. Something – some of the essence of the thing that makes it special – will always be lacking. So bear with me as I try to share some things and not share others.

I arrived in Mysore a little under seven weeks ago. I came here to practice with R. Sharath Jois at the KPJAYI, but to say it like that sounds so straight forward and it was anything but that. I came here after spending just one month here last November. One month, which I spent grieving and letting things out in order to make space in my heart. There were people, places and ideas of what it meant to do this practice wedged so deeply inside of me that there wasn’t room for light, or breath, let alone the space to allow new experiences to creep in. I officially came here to find out if Sharath was to be my teacher, but I was hedging as I sort of knew that there was no way for that to happen in 31 days. Yes, I came home with a deeper sense of what the practice of Ashtanga Yoga was to me, and how to slowly, slowly begin to unravel it. It was a different perspective than I’d had before and one that can’t exactly be qualified or quantified. I just understood the essence of the thing I’d been doing every day for years in a new and extremely powerful way. I also left feeling absolutely compelled to come back the next year, which secretly terrified me.

I arrived this year with a whole new set of doubts. I had just turned 35, which for some reason still seems like a profound number to me. Realizing that I had to come here every year in order to get closer to the bottom of this thing (and I say closer because I doubt that I’ll see the bedrock of this practice in this lifetime), meant wrestling with what that would mean for my marriage, my financial situation and my future family life. Sacrifice. There was going to be some sacrifice necessary. Sacrifice is not a bad thing, so I don’t mean to make it sound like it is. It’s simply a narrowing of options that leads to a deeper commitment and more intense focus on that which we choose to focus our attention upon. Moreover, I was going to have to finally allow myself to redefine what a “real adult life” actually looks like for myself. To accept that there was no prescribed way to live.

This year, with my two months almost gone by now, so much has happened in such a relatively short time. Last year being in India was so new to me, so exciting and overwhelming, that I looked at it in a very different way. This year, although I am renting in Gokulam (an area that people call “the Beverly Hills of Mysore”, and that does cater to the influx of western students every year) I have found India to be more challenging. Going to the city everyday on my scooter for chanting I’ve found it harder and harder to ignore certain things. Interactions between the sexes are different and I am prone to blundering, as much as I try to respect the culture. Forgetting and paying with the wrong hand, fighting myself not to offer my hand in a handshake to the men I interact with in the market and at stores. Respecting that the style of communicating is different as well and that no one is under any obligation to bend themselves to my comfort. They are all little things but they mean something. It means something to me, and I want to show respect for the fact that I am a guest while I am here. All while trying not to get ripped off! It is tricky, indeed.

The contrasts here between the haves and the have nots are so incredibly stark. It scares me a little that I am getting better at brushing past women and children begging, following me while motioning for food and shoving their hands in my face as I walk into a restaurant to grab lunch. Still, there are specific faces that don’t leave me for days. Dark eyes, set in small faces. It’s the same with the animals here. Even the lucky and relatively well cared for ones near the Shala, break my heart. Every day there’s another motherless puppy, another dog hobbling along on 3 legs after being hit by a car, another cow eating plastic bags out of the trash. Suffering truly exists everywhere in the world, but here it is more transparent than at home. It’s an honest place in that way. It often makes me cry, makes me question why and what my response to what I am seeing should be. Walking through another culture with grace, living here but not really, can be challenging. It’s also an incredible opportunity for self reflection and learning to sit in discomfort rather than blindly reacting to it. Practicing; always practicing.

And here’s where the personal, private aspect of this post happens. I don’t want to get into the specific details, because they feel like something I should keep for myself. Besides, for the most part they would seem like mundane occurrences devoid of the real essence of the experience to anyone but me. It’s sort of like when I met my husband and I couldn’t stop thinking about the way he brushed the hair out of his eyes, or how what I miss the most about my grandfather is the way he smelled like a combination of Old Spice and Downey. Those details, the mundane stuff, is where the real magic in life can be found. It is the same in practicing with a teacher. It’s not these big “breakthroughs” that make them your teacher. It’s a series of tiny moments, day in and day out over the course of years and years, that help guide you from the darkness into your own light. Somehow I feel absolutely certain that however long it took me to get here, however crooked and winding the path, I am in the place where I need to be. I am being steeped in the perspective on this practice that feels the best to me. And that I am here with the person I want to learn it from. I have felt seen, and that’s no small thing. I have been able to trust, and to finally relax and let go. Non-grasping.

So, I guess this is where I am, with less than two weeks left here. Renting a trunk to store my things, and crossing my fingers that my application will be accepted next year. Thankfully, my husband is always incredibly supportive and he understands that this is where my focus needs to be. He’s supportive of me coming again. Even though I know it’s hard on him when I’m away, he accepts that this is going to be a part of our lives now. We will do our best to get me here in the various stages of our lives, and maybe he’ll even be able to come one day. We will “figure it out” as we go along, this wonderful man tells me. Those are not exactly the words a control freak like myself likes to hear. Actually, it’s probably exactly what I need to hear. This is a long term commitment and, just like practice, it will require flexibility as well as dedication. I am content that I have learned and understood a little bit more, and that I will keep coming and keep learning. There is no express train. There is no check list, no number of hours to complete. That’s not how this works. Your practice is for your whole life, right? It extends beyond the two hours of morning you devote to asana. You simply have to keep showing up and remain open.

Next year will present similar challenges and opportunities, as well as some new ones. I will be the same person, but I will be different as well. God willing, I will make it back here next fall. In the meantime, I am really ready to hug my husband, have a good cuddle with my dogs and eat some raw Kale.

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A Test of Faith

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Deities laid out for Dasara.

Faith. When I was a child I had an abundance of it. I talked to God easily. God was there, in my understanding of the world, just waiting to give a helping hand. I bargained with God on behalf of my self, my family and my friends. I would make little offerings throughout the day. “I will eat all of my lima beans (a most dreadful food) and then you can make my friend’s grandfather better.”

As an adult faith is a little different, definitely more of a struggle, but honestly not all that far off. I’ve stopped believing in a Santa Claus version of God, but I believe more now than ever in the importance of offerings, rituals and sacrifice. I also believe that faith should never be blind. Anyone and anything worth having should be testable.

My husband and I were sort of late bloomers. We both knew there was something we were meant to do with the gifts we had. It took us both until our late 20’s to find where we fit, though. We found each other and then we found our paths. I found him, then Ashtanga and then my place, my way to be of service to the world. I know we are both very blessed, but I can’t help but feel behind the eight ball, so to speak. 35 and we don’t own a house, he just completed his Bachelors/Masters degree after returning to school at 29, and we are looking at some serious student debt (if you are reading this Sallie Mae, I don’t like you.) Our marriage was tested in so many ways during the 6 years I was putting him through school. It was hard and scary and there were times I thought we wouldn’t make it through as a couple. Looking back now, though, the tests were a blessing. We cracked and mended our relationship a few times, making it stronger. In the process I think we’ve both learned not to be so rough with something so incredibly precious to avoid cracking it in the first place as we move into the future.

I’m here in Mysore, India for two months at the moment. I am two weeks into my stay and for the past few days I am missing all of my people and my 2 doggies back at home terribly. It’s the end of monsoon season, so it rains more than it did when I was here last year with torrential downpours that make the steps of the huge, multi-leveled houses in Gokulam into temporary water falls. I am also missing my routine. My coping mechanisms. Pulling yourself out of your day to day existence means your tried and true ways to both cope with and hide from your feelings are no longer available. It allows for a crash course I call: “Getting to know yourself all over again, 101.” It hasn’t been the easiest two weeks.

I turned 35 just before I came back to India. It surprised me how much this shook me up. It made me feel like the ground underneath me was less stable. I am certain that I want to be a mother, to own a home, be a part of my community and have deep roots in my life. I am just as certain that I want to continue coming here and studying with Sharath. To study with Drs. Jayashree and Narasimha as well. I believe there is real value in the time I spend with these teachers. Real, true living parampara to be found, and a deeper understanding of the cultural codex from which Pattabhi Jois taught the system that changed my life. Yet I have been feeling some serious internal pressure. Like some deranged March Hare I’ve had a running internal monologue, “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” Time to get on it already, and start living like a grown up. Only I’m not entirely sure what that means. I actually AM a grown up. Just not what I imagined a grown up to be when I was a kid.

So back then to FAITH. I have so much faith in the Ashtanga system, because I have waded through so much doubt. I have been so unsure and scared and hurt, and I practiced anyway. My mind said to give up, but I somehow managed in some very dark moments to stand and breathe on my mat and watch “ekam inhale, dve exhale” follow. I put my belief to the test and was rewarded by a deeper, more authentic relationship with my self through practice. With greater mental and physical health than I ever though possible. I believe that in the end the doubt was a good thing. For faith to be real we cannot always get what we want in the way we want it. True faith requires tenacity, adaptability and so much love. It requires that you keep going, and let go of what you think things should look like or where you “should be.” That you be OK with discomfort at times. It requires a certain amount of surrender, too. Ideal conditions are nice, but it is when the rain is coming down in torrents that we really get to see if the house we’ve built is a strong one, and if it fails to keep us dry then we are given the information we need to sure the foundations. To adapt. But that never happens when we give up entirely.

So I will keep moving through my life, keep practicing with care in my actions and thoughts, in the same way I show care in my asana. I will let my faith carry me through, attempt to lay down my list of shoulds. Instead, I will try embracing what is and where I am. I am going to try to trust myself enough to honor the choices I’ve made. To exist in a place of trusting that there is something bigger than me in the world and that I am a part of it, with a role to play. Faith that if I just keep giving and acting from love rather than from hurt or fear or guilt that I will find myself in the right place. And I will keep a deep feeling of gratitude for the blessing of my time here, outside of my comfort zone, to figure some of these things out. Patience is a virtue…

 

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Durga, who above all else seems to have faith that the humans she encounters at the shala will be kind to her. And that one day she might actually get to remain inside the doors and practice led primary with us.

 


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Dharma sucks

Dharma – Sacred duty. The universal law which holds all life together. Truth.

In accordance with the eight limbed path as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, Dharma can be seen as living one’s life in accordance with the Yamas and Niyamas. Svadhyaya is the fourth Niyama and can be interpreted as the study of the sacred texts as well as the study of one’s self. It can also be interpreted as the study of one’s interaction with and reaction to the circumstances one faces. This is where I am today.

My brother, Tim, has autism. He is 31. He lives at home with my parents and there is precious little in the way of supports and opportunities for someone like him in the state of Pennsylvania once they reach 21 and age out of the school system. Please don’t read this and write me helpful notes telling me anecdotal evidence of opportunity that exists. I know this system. I know it inside and out. I wrote a documentary play and self produced it seven years ago on the subject. I worked, once upon a time, in human services. And my mother is a pit bull when it comes to my brother. A small, red haired, somewhat self conscious pit bull. Supports coordinators fear her. School administrators have hated her. She had devoted much of her life to blazing new trails where there were none for Tim. She and a motley crew including a state rep, a handful of other moms and an assortment of dedicated extended family members have started not one but 2 non-profits, and created 2 school programs for older individuals with autism. When there was no where for him to go, she made a place for Tim.

He’s had jobs and lost them and he has had a few very good services and lost them. Budget cuts. The economy. An extremely underpaid support services workforce that forces anyone talented and caring to leave the industry entirely or take a management position and no longer provide direct care. I work with Tim a couple of days a week for a  very crappy $10 an hour at the moment because, save for my husband and my friend, Lauren, there’s really no one else consistent who actually cares about him to do it. We three are his social life. We take him to arcades and stores, on long walks and to his art lessons. It’s not enough. He knows he’s 31 and feels too old to live at home. He wants his freedom. Yet the group homes we are continuously referred to are subpar. As in, “I would rather lay down in front of a bus and let it run me over than allow my kid brother to live in this shit hole” subpar.

He had his yearly assessment today. I sat in. I wanted them, his team of people, to know and see that struggle. To understand his needs. I also wanted my mom to have some company. My dad is an amazing person, a great father. My dad also has zero patience for bureaucratic idiocy. So I sat in. She’d never say it if she did, but I just don’t want my mom to feel alone. They asked us approximately 1000 questions, rated 1 – 3. About 12 of them were relevant. Then they asked him 30 questions. Tim has a hard time expressing himself, of course, but I did hear him say he was lonely. More accurately he gave his loneliness a rating of 3, as in he feels lonely at least once a day. My heart hurts writing this.

I have always believed that there is a reason, be it Karma or some divine plan, for each circumstance of my life. I have, over the years as I practice and study yoga more, believed that I am never in the wrong place. I have come to appreciate the opportunities for growth and purification each challenge, each circumstance and each moment offers. I have also come to feel strongly that my path to God must involve service to others. I know in my heart that part of that is in offering my service, such as it is, to my brother. He is a truly beautiful soul. And he has taught me many times over to surrender. He has also taught me in that surrender to fight and work for what is right. To never, ever give up.  But today…

Today I stand here at the edge of this yawning expanse and I feel fragile. I look at my mother, this woman I admire and love so much and I see how tired she is. And I don’t want it. I don’t want to inherit that struggle. I want a miracle. A perfect place for my brother to live and for my parents to enjoy retirement with trips and nights out and a well-deserved laying down of their burdens.

A wail collects on my lips. “It’s not fair!”

It’s not. Life is not fair. And nothing is guaranteed. And I sure as hell don’t pretend to understand. Yet, with practice and more practice and more practice again I am inching towards acceptance. Not the begrudging kind, but the real kind. The kind that allows for true peace. It feels far away today. I pray for grace, as I stumble and I fall. Tomorrow, I hope, I will be a millimeter closer. I swim in the strong currents of discontent and fear towards the far shores of gratitude.

Inhale, raise my arms towards the heavens. Exhale fold, surrendering towards the earth. Again and again. A lifetime of practice.

“It is better to strive in one’s own dharma than  to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma.” Chapter 3 (Selfless Service), The Bhaghavad Gita

Ringing the Bells

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“Ring the bells that still can ring/  Forget your perfect offering/  There is a crack in everything/  That’s how the light gets in.” ― Leonard CohenIMG_0800  Last year I made my first trip to India. I am currently gearing up for my 2nd trip in the fall and, in addition to making housing arrangements and skulking around on the internet for the cheapest fares currently available, I’ve been looking at my journal entries from last year. Because I was and am once again going to Mysore to study at the KPJAYI there was a sizable amount of information available on everything from where to eat and what to pay for lodging to the concept of “shala time” and what the phrase “one more, small” means. I was nervous getting off the plane all by myself in Bangalore, to be certain, but there was never a sense that I was moving into truly unknown territory. I had carefully insulated myself in a bubble of information to ensure that I would never feel out of control. The first and only time I felt truly unprepared (and as a result, truly open) for an experience was my first day of chanting and philosophy with Dr. MA Jayashree. Their website is blessedly basic and the method of teaching is decidedly traditional. She calls, you respond. You stumble and feel whatever you feel as a result (joyful, foolish, frustrated, disappointed, even angry.) When there are new students in the room she tells them that it’s OK. She doesn’t expect perfection, just that you sincerely try and then you come back tomorrow to try again.

We live in a culture of competence. A world where we want to know and show that we know by doing it right. The information age means smart phones, You Tube videos and Google searches that quickly give us facts that can be memorized (thereby creating an image of a thing before its even been experienced, let alone internalized.) I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. Videos have certainly helped me figure a few things out here and there, provided me with some inspiration, and I’ve occasionally been known to practice on Fridays with a led primary recording or DVD when I don’t have access to a weekly led class. These bits of information are a spring board. They are where we start, not finish, our journey into practice. Do not let information close you off from true experience. Well before being taught a new asana, for example, we have already formed some notions of not only what that asana is, but what it should look like. Whether or not we realize it, this information can close us off to some degree from the actual experience of the pose and from finding our individual understanding and expression of said asana. Sometimes it is good to fall flat on our faces (figuratively and – very gently – literally.) The ego’s got to take its lumps if it’s ever going to be destroyed, right? If you can “do it right” the first time you try something, then the possibility to learn from the process is sadly lost.

Then there are words.  Words often used in order to avoid the actual experience that comes with doing something. We are constantly inundated by so many words.  (And yes, I see the irony of me contributing to the glut of language by simply writing and sharing this.) Words are tools, but tools need to be put to the correct task to be useful. Just as a carpenter wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to tighten a screw, thinking and talking are often not the correct tools for the job where the practice of yoga is concerned.  A friend of mine recently said, “There’s a difference between information and knowledge.” She’s a smart cookie.

In other words:  “Before practice theory is useless; after practice theory is obvious.” -Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

Yoga, as described by Patanjali (as the cessation of the turnings of the mind) cannot be found in information. Information on how to perform the asana, the breath and where the correct drishti lies, these are our map to guide us as we look. It is up to each individual to allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to experience it. It is scary. To have your own authentic experience of anything and not rely on another person to validate it can be absolutely terrifying, although ultimately liberating. So what does all this have to do with perfection? It goes back to this ideal of being competent that is so pervasive in the modern world. (I dare say it is a cultural samskara.) I am using asana as an example because there is so much to be learned by our relationship to our asana practice. Also, it’s an easy point of reference for me given that I spend a significant amount of time with the asana practice, both doing my own and helping others with theirs. However, this doesn’t just apply to an asana practice. It seems as though there is an almost universal fear of making mistakes and in almost all areas of  life a prescribed “correct way” of doing things, ranging from educational choices, to careers and family. A one size fits all road map of where we should be at each point in our lives.

One of the things that I love the most about the Ashtanga Vinyasa system is the way that form really does follow function, and each individual will have their own unique experience. Catch the toes in trikonasana even if your front leg needs to bend, look for your navel in down dog to gaze inside regardless of the photo shoot ready appearance, let the edge of the back foot come up, shorten your stance and come from your center. It’s OK. It’s not about being pretty or achieving some aesthetic. Internal alignment through engagement of the bandhas, the movement of energy, and the act of going more and more inside. In other words, just breathe and be. Yet we are so quick to apologize, qualify or self criticize. “Is it okay that my hip drops here?” “Sorry, I can’t seem to get my leg there today.” “My stupid tight shoulders.” “I still can’t jump back. What am I doing wrong?” Judgements and qualifiers. As if there’s an ideal to live up to. There’s not. You are where you are and it’s just right.

When I first started to understand this, and understand that what it looks like is beside the point is when I really fell in love with this system. This is not to say the structural integrity of the asana is ignored and the practice therefore becomes unsafe. It’s not that at all. Unsafe and unsound movement patterns repeated over and over lead to injury and that’s absolutely not the point or method of the practice. It’s simply that this idea of living up to a pre-existing ideal of how the asana should look is missing the forest for the trees. All that is required is you begin to feel the energy moving for yourself, in your own body. That you breathe and stay with your breath. That you just show up, just inhabit yourself and the moment as fully as you are capable of doing.  Make your perfectly imperfect offering. No excuses are necessary. No explanation is needed. Respect and love the cracks. Let the light in, let it illuminate your gifts, so you can shine your own light back out.

With Dr. MA Jayashree and Prof. Narashima.


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Loving Kindness – Keep Practicing

It’s been months since I’ve written anything here. Which is fine, because I don’t really do much with my blog in the way of advertising or getting people to follow it. I write when I feel like I have something to say and I’m usually pretty surprised that anyone cares enough to read my ramblings, so thank you if you are still reading along. The past few months I’ve been sort of allowing things to marinate within me. New perspectives and new levels of understanding have been revealing themselves and I have been sitting with them. Trying to be as accepting and as non-reactive as possible. Action through inaction, in a way.

It seems like there has been an awful lot of pain in the air recently. People I care about have been struggling. Not so much on the physical front, although our bodies do have a curious way of telling on us, showing off our inability to soften, our exhaustion and our outright tenderness even as we try to soldier past these emotions; even as we tie on a mask of indifference. I hope relief is coming soon for everyone.

This winter has been exceedingly long and hard in terms of weather here in Philadelphia. The cold, the ice and the snow have made the city weary. People seem to feel trapped. Alone. Anxious and depressed. Stuck. It seems like this dreadfully long season is going to be unending, even today as the first day of spring arrives. My husband keeps repeating that line from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, “Always winter, never Christmas.” I keep thinking we might be trapped in the same season forever, like some seasonal version of “Groundhog Day.”

Still, this winter has brought me some new perspectives, in addition to an improved ability to drive in snow and ice. I have been thinking a lot about Pratayahra. I read somewhere that BKS Iyengar said the translation of Pratayahara was roughly “To draw toward the opposite.” I like that definition. Another one I recently heard was “To withdraw from the ordinary.” I like these both so much more than the translation I’ve been familiar with, which is simply “sensory withdraw.” These expanded translations remind me that the real work is always being done on the inside, and that tapas is not measured by how difficult the level of asana performed seems to be to the outside observer.

To go inside is a scary thing. It’s ironic because it took me a few years of practice to even get to a place where I could go inside. I was forever being drawn out during practice. A friend recently described me (rather accurately) as having once been “a stress case.”  Often feeling like I was practicing for the approval of others, all too aware of things going on around me. Finally, I found a way in. I was able to tap into the Tristhana method (asana, breath and drishti) and withdraw. Of course, once I got inside I found out just how noisy it is in there; how few and far between moments without vrittis (fluctuations of the mind – AKA thoughts) actually are. No wonder I was so resistant to going inside. It’s can be pretty damn painful in there. It can feel like I am trapped having endless conversations with myself. There are memories of experiences that have not loosened their grip over time and have unconsciously morphed into conditioned responses. There is a powerful sense of attraction and aversion constantly at play. Worse still, there is an intellect that is frantically trying to think its way out of “this mess.”

I had a string of really “bad” practices the past two weeks. I have been busier than usual working on a fundraiser for Odanadi, working at my jobs a lot, teaching, and just feeling run down in general. My body responded in kind and practice at 4 AM in the cold and dark of this protracted winter elicited some of my most deeply programmed, unconscious responses. There were many days when my body simply was not responding as it has in the recent past to the postures. So I fought. I dragged myself to my heels and I struggled to pull my legs further down my back. I did 5, 6, 7 repetitions of the same arm balance watching as numbers 3 through 7 got progressively further from the mark. I muscled through when I heard the old, ugly voice in my head: “Your practice is going to fall apart” and “You are a fraud,”  followed by “You aren’t worth loving.” I was reacting. Unconsciously. I fell into the grooves of my deepest samskara as I tried to use my body to prove my value.

It wasn’t until I sat down yesterday to do The Loving Kindness Meditation I’ve been working with for the past year that these two weeks of practice really came into focus. I have been doing unnecessary battle with myself again.

I am grateful for the discernment that practice continues to give me. It has allowed me to be grateful for the hardest practices  On the days where I fall into the flow of the practice and my mind ceases to interfere for small but precious pockets of time I see the possibilities in this practice. I get to taste the sweetness that is inside. These glimpses of the God within sustain me and allow me to continue on in my practice. Yet, it is the hard days that this recently cultivated discernment has allowed me to appreciate and value. The challenging days provide me with an opportunity to see my patterns, to watch how my thoughts turn to actions. On these days I am brought face to face with the ways in which the Kleshas (obstacles) manifest in me and blind me to the true happiness inside. Practice, for me, has very much been a journey of gathering information. Learning about who I am and who I think I am. Figuring out how to keep working, keep believing and keep going in the winter, and how to enjoy the warmth of the spring without attaching to it or identifying with it. There is still so much more practice ahead of me, asana and non-asana related. I am thankful for that as well. I am thankful to have a system in which to work and enough discernment cultivated to understand that I am worth the effort.

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(Morning view. Not a bad practice buddy…)


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Home Again

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I am sitting in the balcony of my home in Mysore right now. It is 6:45 in the morning and the sun is coming up. I have my coffee next to me, sweetened with a little jaggery and soy milk. The chipmunks in the trees are making a racket. They have this insistent chirp that sounds like a bird, but not quite. Right now there’s a little chill in the air, just enough so that my bare toes can feel it. The smell of burning trash is in the air, a smell that I have oddly come to love and hate. My sinuses are not so happy at the moment, though. Later on today as the sun rises fully, it will become warm enough that many people will call it “a pool day” and head over to one of the two hotels in the area for a dip and some sun.

I will be in a car by then, on my way to Bangalore Airport. On the first leg of the 30 plus hours trip home. Home to my husband and my dogs, my parents and my brother. Home to teaching and working. Also, home to the cold and to Christmas. I am so relieved it will be Christmas time at home. There will be lights and color and sound, which will make the transition from India so much easier. There is always color here, even in the poorest of the places that I’ve seen. There are candles and firecrakers and festivals. I wish Philadelphia could embrace that air of celebration. It feels like… gratitude. Painted on every pink or turquoise wall.

The ladies are just now coming out of their homes to wash their driveways and sidewalks. Every morning they clean the cement, use a broom to brush away the debris and then make their Rangoli. I usually see them as I am walking to practice and it feels like we are performing parallel actions. A daily cleaning, an act of devotion, and all the while knowing it is totally impermanent. My asana today will not last. Tomorrow I will do it again. Same action, different day, different experience.

I have a lot of thoughts and insights that have come from this trip. I can’t begin to articulate them all now. I am so ready to come home and so incredibly not ready, all at the same time.

I found a puppy while I was here. Of course I did, because that’s what traveling to a new place is: an opportunity to see how your behavior changes and remains the same in new and different circumstances. Scenery changes, Meghan remains the same. So I found a puppy. She was probably about 7-8 weeks old and she was crying. I found her on the 8th cross, and I just picked her up. Instinctively. Maybe I should have left her there. Maybe I should not have interfered, because there was no way to take her home with me. Not to my home here and not to my home in the US. (Literally, as it would have taken at least one month to get her the shots a dog is required to have to enter the US and I was leaving in two weeks.) Still, I did pick her up and there is no use being philosophical about it at this point. I made some mistakes in trying to get her cared for. For lack of any better options I left her with a local couple temporarily who are living in a construction site. I bought the puppy puppy food and and I bought the couple rice, water and a few other things they needed. I speak no Kanada and they speak no English and I am sure I inadvertently caused some offenses here and there. There were some attempts to shake me down for money and it started to pour down rain for almost two days, so that solution was temporary and imperfect. Then I housed her for a short time with two amazing yoga students, who were actually taking a puppy of their own back home to the states with them. Finally, she ended up with a local boy who works at one of the water stands. I have left at least 6 months worth of food, gotten her vaccinated and have a friend taking her for the follow up next month. I know he may not be able to care for her permanently in the financial sense, but he is sweet to her, and I hope he will be able to get her to a point where she can at least take care of herself. There are a lot of street dogs here in Gokulam and, of all the street dogs I’ve seen in my life, these are the most well cared for. I have had several serious crying fits over the fate of this puppy. I tortured myself for getting involved and for my shortcomings in my ability to care for her once I did get involved. I have done my best.

I have been thinking about this “puppy situation” a lot. It is sort of a perfect microcosim of how I travel through life. I get attached. I can’t always explain why I get attached to the people, places and situations I am in, but I do. I love deeply and fiercely. I want everyone to be happy, at ease and content. This is a good thing to wish for myself and other. God is everywhere and in everything. I don’t bemoan my desire to help and comfort and serve. But I get so attached to the outcome. I try to control the outcome and manipulate the universe to fit my own designs. However well meaning I may be, it is not useful or healthy. I am limited in my understanding and my vision, so I don’t always know what is best. My friend, Sara, is a brilliant person. I am glad I met her here. She recently found a quote, attributed to Guruji, that roughly said: “You let God worry about the world. You worry about your anus.” It made me laugh, but then it really made me think. That’s exactly correct, and exactly what I have the hardest time doing. Minding my own corner of the universe and letting the rest simply be.

So here’s my prayer as I leave India: “May I remain soft and open, may I continue to love deeply, but may I learn to release my grasp on the outcome of my efforts.”

I still believe, deep in my heart, that serving others is an opportunity to serve God. I believe that the best way for me to do that is to constantly try to re-frame my efforts to make them an act of service and to remember that I am always being offered the opportunity to do just that. It is my attachment to the outcome of these efforts that I need to learn to let go. I am leaving Mysore with that lesson in mind. I am so grateful to have been here. I have met some incredible people, practiced sincerely with Sharath Jois, Dr’s. Jayashree and Narasimha. I have learned and tried to be open. I have made mistakes. I have done my best. I can’t wait to come back next year.

“No effort in this world is lost or wasted; a fragment of sacred duty saves you from great fear.” ~The Bhagavad-GitaImage