learning stillness

Practicing every day


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What A Day…

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Drawn specially in the courtyard at Odanadi for Children’s Day.

I am homesick right now. More accurately, I am husband and dog sick. When I left twelve days ago I was nervous. (Wow, has it really been twelve days already? Has it only been twelve days?) I imagined I would miss my husband at times that I felt lonely or scared. I wondered how it would be without someone I trusted completely, someone who I knew for certain loved me, there with me when I felt unsteady. There have been plenty of moments when I’ve felt vulnerable and hesitant, but in the short time I’ve been here I’ve been shocked by the amount of strength and self-reliance this place has helped me find. I realize more and more that I am brave and strong and capable. I doubt myself less and less as the days march forward. Much to my surprise it’s not when I feel weak or beaten down that I miss my husband the most; I miss him the most in the best moments. I miss having my partner to share those moments with.

Today was one of the best days. I had a really amazing practice this morning. I was able to wake up a few hours early, to the sound of the call to prayer wafting over from the Muslim neighborhood. I love waking up to that sound in my cool, dark room here. I had time to meditate, shower and enjoy one very small cup of coffee before I headed out to the shala. During drop backs, as I was being taken to my ankles, I started to panic. My brain got all fuzzy and my breath caught in my chest for a moment when the word “surrender” came to me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I got here. Surrendering to India, to practice, and maybe one day to life. So in that moment I did. I just surrendered to the experience and the assist. For a few moments it was completely quiet in my head. Wow. After I closed, I went out front and drank two coconuts,  which still makes me smile. Then I had a lovely breakfast out with my housemate and a friend.

It was Children’s Day today, so I went to Odanadi for their celebration, which I was invited to the last time I was there. This was no ordinary trip out, though. Today I rode the scooter for the first time, outside of the tiny practice runs I’ve been doing in Gokulam. Driving of any kind in India scares the hell out of me, particularly since I’ve only been on a scooter one or two times in the states, and not in any real traffic. To an extent, my fears are totally rational. People here drive by some unseen set of rules. It’s organized chaos, and you are supposed to drive on the opposite side from what I am used to, just to top it all off. However, it’s getting quite expensive to pay for a rickshaw to take me the 15 -20 minute ride out to Odanadi and then pay them to wait before returning me home. I got the scooter a week ago, but then I hesitated. I practiced and started slowly, but then I started to drag my feet. While I’ve hesitated, my rational fears have mutated into a full blown fear monster. Just the thought of driving was making my stomach hurt. I know this feeling. I’ve been here before and it does not get better or go away. Over time, I just become more and more paralyzed and the fear migrates, oozing from one new experience to another, filling me with self doubt.

Around noon I set off. My heart was pounding and my mind went kind of fuzzy, just like this morning. Instinctively, I started to recite the Maha Mantra in my head as I made my way on to Contour Road and something really magical happened. Flow. I surrendered. I surrendered to the holes in the road and the noise and later, as I crossed over from paved roads to sand, gravel and huge ditches, I wasn’t afraid. I was cautious and aware, but the paralysis that comes with  fear was gone. The monster had been banished. I arrived safely at the front gate.

Odanadi was amazing today. All the children were there, from the boys and girls homes, all dressed in colors and smiles. There were games and cultural programs and they had prepared bisi billa bath (a spicy rice and veggie dish that originated here in Karnataka) and curd. It was awesome. The afternoon was indescribably beautiful and I was honored to be there. The only thing missing was my partner to share it with and my dogs to come home to.

This morning, Sharath’s kids were in the shala for a short time and  he made an off handed comment to those of us waiting to start about “no family, no fun.” I kept thinking about that all the way home. It’s really true for me. I love it here and I am eager to come back, but I will always be more eager to return home. That’s where I can always let go.


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Echos in Mysore

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I have a few ideas for posts brewing in my brain, but I can’t seem to find a way to get them to coalesce. Perhaps it’s because India, even here in beautiful Gokulam, is a mass of contradictions and dichotomies. I think I will have a lot more to say in a more succinct fashion after some time has passed, but that it won’t be until I’m home and I can fully appreciate this experience. Until then, I have a few thoughts, experiences, and photos to share.

I landed in Bangalore on November 3rd, which was the second night of Diwali. I was picked up and taken to Mysore, a four hour drive away. As promised, the ride was more like a rocket ship taking off into another world. There was a seeming lack of rules on the road, and yet somehow everything worked out. There were near misses and moments where I took flight off of my seat because of deep holes in the roads, and to top it all off, the entire country seemed to be outside playing music, eating delicious smelling treats from street vendors and lighting the night sky with  fireworks. I arrived at a serviced apartment (read – transitional housing for newbies) at midnight and struggled to fall asleep as kids set off crackers outside my window until the wee hours.

The next morning I went to Anu’s Cafe (FYI, Anu and Ganesh are a Mysore treasure. Eat her food and look to him for help with accommodations.) I was there to drop off some supplies for Operation Shanti and to eat my first meal in almost a day. Ganesh told me there were no houses available at the moment, but by the time I was done at the buffet I was told to hop on the back of a young man’s motorcycle to see something that had just come up two blocks from the shala and we were off. Withing 20 minutes I was paying an older gentleman of about 80 for my month’s rent. 15 minutes later a rickshaw came and took me to my new Mysore home. That same evening I found myself on the roof top watching fireworks with that same man, a retired doctor who reminds me a lot of my own grandfather, aside from his occasional lapses into Kannada (the local dialect), and his ten year old grand daughter. It was the Fourth of July and Christmas all rolled into one. Familiar and yet totally foreign. Strangers who echoed of family. IMG_0624

The next morning  was my first practice at the KPJAYI and there was Sharath, so familiar to my eyes and ears and yet a total stranger. I was a beginner all over again, from my return to a daily Primary Series practice to my feeling of being totally lost when it came to the customs and culture of this community. (Thankfully, a new friend clued me into “Shala Time”, which is exactly 15 minutes before your start time. Not before and not after. the clocks are even set ahead.) The funny thing is, that I already run my life according to “Shala Time.” I always aim to be 15 minutes early, and when I am right on time I feel late.

I cook a lot here. I shop with my friend, who I sort of knew before I came, but who I now simply adore and feel an inherent connection to. My house mates are awesome and they rarely cook, so I like to make and buy extras. We make chai a lot. It feels just like home in some ways.

I am chanting in the afternoons with Dr. Jayashree, and Dr. Narashimha does Yoga Sutra discussions after. They are both the best teachers I’ve ever had in their areas of expertise. It is not new to me, though. I’ve sat in this same kind of haphazard circle and stumbled over the more complex Sutras many times before; repeating, repeating, repeating.

Today was my first Led Primary. I cannot begin to describe the energy in that room. During daily Mysore practice and during led. Mysore Magic indeed. There really is nothing like it. Still, it’s more like I’m stepping into the deep end of the same pool. Sharath was very funny today. Or maybe I am just getting more and more comfortable here, and therefore more able to laugh.

Last night I went to Odanadi and met some of the young girls and women I am going to be volunteering with. As we drove further away from Gokulam the scenery changed. The people were much poorer and there were more stray and hungry animals. It was a striking contrast to the world I’ve been living in the past week, only 20 minutes away. I find myself marveling at the inequities in life. It makes me want to fight  harder and give up all at the same time. And that feeling is certainly not strange to me either. Back home, in Philadelphia, I’ve encountered those same feelings when I was working with the children and adolescents that the rest of the city seemes to have forgotten about. I  found myself struggling with all the gifts I’ve received in life, and wondering if I even deserve them when there are so many who have received so few. Then there were the young women I met at Odanadi. They were beautiful and bright and they made me feel so welcome. They made me laugh and they told me about their studies and their plans for the future. When I think about the circumstances they have endured, it makes me feel angry an helpless and scared. Again, these are not new feelings. They are so familiar. So, maybe what this experience has given me, above all other things, is the opportunity to see myself clearly via a totally new setting. To see what changes and what remains the same in a place that feels so foreign, but maybe isn’t really that different after all.

I love it here. There is so much to be learned, and so much yoga to be practiced. I think maybe the thing I am most grateful for is that I have the opportunity to practice not only at the source of this amazing and beautiful tradition, but also to spend the rest of my day continuing my practice in various contexts. “Whole life is practice. That is the method.”

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My Word for Today

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My friend, Chelsea has been doing a really cool “Word a Day” series on her blog. Using one word as a catalyst she has been able to write some truly insightful blogs. This morning during practice it was hot again. It’s been a while since I’ve practiced in that kind of heat and I started to feel antsy and panicked. I instinctively wanted to run out of the room, but I decided to stay put, slow my pace and keep working. After a few moments, my breath started to take on a more even quality and the word “Equanimity” kept coming to me, like an impromptu mantra. So, inspired by Chelsea, I decided to investigate.

Equanimity is a state of mind, essentially, which is undisturbed by the external events we experience. I practice every day because, over time, it has brought my mind closer to a state of equanimity. I have such a long way to go. I am still prone to self loathing, crying fits, grown-up temper tantrums and a whole litany of behaviors that are symptoms of a mind that is still reactionary.

Balance, on the other hand, is something I can work towards. Balance as in a state in which all elements are equal. It can be an even distribution of weight or effort, like in an inversion, or it can be a an even distribution of struggle and acceptance. Learning how to find this state of balance within myself, I think, is the first stop on my road to Equanimity.

Today is September 11th. This has always been a strange day for me. 12 years ago I was living at the corner of Hudson and Canal Streets in Manhattan. My bedroom was a closet sized space just big enough for my futon and my dresser, and it was separated from my roommates closet-sized space by an illegally constructed wall. My favorite feature of the “room” was that it looked out into the entrance of The Holland Tunnel, which meant that I could never open my window for fear of being overcome by exhaust fumes, but it was a pretty cool set up to my 21 year old eyes. 12 years ago today I watched as a plane slammed into the World Trade Center. Because I was running late for my singing lesson in Mid-town, which I almost always was back then, I didn’t stop to ponder “the accident” for long. Instead, I rushed to Spring Street to catch the C train, which never came. Later, after we were evacuated from the station, I came back above ground to find that not one, but both towers were in flames. You know what happened next.

For the next few weeks I volunteered over night with the Red Cross at St. John’s University, across the street from Ground Zero, feeding rescue workers and manning the boot wash station, spraying the toxic grey dust from their work boots so they could go inside and take rest. Like everyone around me I think I was just desperate to do something, and it never felt like enough. I have some pretty distinct memories of that time. Most of them are sensory. I remember the air. How it smelled and how it tasted. Thick with dust and fumes that settled on the tongue and the teeth. As one of my roommates said, “You could practically chew it.” I remember walking up to the pile for the first time. It was dark and silent and there in front of me stood this enormous pile of twisted metal and rubble. It was back lit by flood lights and there were tiny figures moving around on top of it. I remember the first time I saw the skeleton of The Winter Garden, all of its windows blown out. It had been such a beautiful place, and I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how ghostly it looked. Mostly what I remember are the faces of the people I met. The men and women in the National Guard, the firefighter, construction workers and the people who, like me, were volunteering to provide meals, naps and any bit of comfort that we could. I didn’t really understand it then, but now I can see that we all were desperately trying to bring balance to the world around us. Maybe within us as well.

When terrible things happen, when I lose someone or something I love or am witness to suffering that I cannot change, it feels like the world is out of balance. I often feel afraid or helpless. When I feel that way, I try remind myself of Sutra 33 in Book 2 of The Yoga Sutras, which says, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.” If I cannot cause the fluctuations of my mind to cease, (and it seems that thus far I can’t) then at least I can try to redirect my thoughts, which are the building material for my actions.

After the attacks, there was a sense of darkness, despair and pain that was palpable everywhere in New York. Everyone, with no exceptions, felt helplessIn the face of that, as if by instinct alone, people started to to look for a ways to bring themselves and the city back into balanceOn the train everyone, and I mean literally every single person, would rise and offer their seat to anyone who got on the train wearing or carrying a hard hat. People volunteered in so many capacities. They worked for the Red Cross. They donated supplies. They brought cards and food to the fire stations around the city. They stood on the side of The West Side Highway to cheer for the trucks bringing rescue and recovery workers to and from Ground Zero. And they prayed openly. I have never seen so many people praying on street corners, alone and in groups, in my life before or since.

This year, I am reminded that everything eventually passes. That pain and joy, discomfort and ease, and loss as well as gain, are all temporary. Just as I am trying to cultivate equanimity in my breath as I move through my practice, I am trying to cultivate it in my mind. It will be a long time coming, I think. But the first step, which is where I am consciously working these days, is finding a balance between effort and ease. Not only in my asana practice, but in every single aspect of my life. As the Prayer for Serenity says: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” May we all be granted that serenity.


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Looking for Home

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My grandmother left her home in the Croaghs, also called the Blue Stack Mountains, in the wilderness of Northwest Donegal, Ireland one morning. She was twenty-four years old. Her name was Margaret and she grew up on a farm as one of thirteen children. One by one the children in her family left home. I remember her saying that sometimes they would start out very early in the morning on the day they were to leave for good, well before dawn, to avoid saying what may have been a final goodbye. I don’t know if she did or not, but on the day she left she wouldn’t return for the next fifty-nine years.

I was with her when she went back to her first home. There was a party in her honor. The tiny house out in the mountains was full of her nieces and nephews, and their children. She sat on the sofa in between her only remaining siblings, her sisters Ellen and Cassie (who were both IHM sisters dressed in habits). There was fiddle music, singing, an enormous amount of food and drink, and the party went on late into the night. I was seventeen at the time and, as many teenagers are, totally self-absorbed. I think back now to how she clutched at my arm as we drove through the winding hills on our way there. I didn’t grasp then that she was scared. She was unsure. In order to survive the changes she experienced as she transitioned to life in America she had been forced to see herself as someone else. During my childhood she had rarely spoken of her life in Ireland, always dismissing my questions. Never wanting to reminisce. In order to move forward I think she had to convince herself that there was nothing worth looking back at.

There has been so much change in my life lately. Life is change, I know. It is a series of ever shifting moments and those moments, strung together, make up a life. Understanding that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Change is scary and hard and often times painful. It’s been painful for me. There have been so many tears, so much fatigue. Clinging is exhausting.

My grandmother passed away two years ago. She was ninety-three years old. But she was very much with me when I went back to see her first home this week with my dad, my aunt and two cousins. As we wound around the tiny roads, climbing higher and higher into the mountains I thought about her leaving her home for the last time. I thought about how I have recently left my heart’s home for the last time. I thought about how my heart hurt, just like my grandmother’s must have. Even when you are choosing to move one, even when you know you need to, change is hard. It can feel like you are dying, and to be fair, a piece of your ego is. The part of me that identified with where I was, what I was doing and what value I thought that gave me, has to die in order for me to be free and move forward. The courage to face these “little deaths”, and the wisdom to allow them to happen, that is why I practice in the first place. I know this. I know that I’ve been clinging desperately to the near past in my heart and in my head. It’s invaded everything. It’s invaded my muscles and joints and my breath. I know that only through surrender will I find relief. Surrender, surprisingly, requires a lot of strength.

I finally asked myself the question I’ve needed to ask since the wheels of change have started to turn. Alone at 6 am, on a moon day that I couldn’t make myself sleep in for, on a bench next to the Lief River in Dublin. Sitting there as the city started to wake up, I finally felt  safe and strong enough to have this very private conversation with myself sitting on a public bench. I guess it was as good a place as any.

I asked, “What are you so afraid of?” 

“I don’t know where I belong now. I‘m afraid that I’m lost and I’ll never be found.”

And the answer came, quiet but certain, “You belong here, right where you are. You belong now. You are not lost and you have never not belonged” 

I sat there for another little while, smiling to myself as the sky got brighter. And I knew it was true. I walked back to my hotel about an hour later and I think I may have left a tiny little piece of my ego behind. It was a good walk, and I felt more at home than I had in a long time.

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Is Nothing Sacred?

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What is sacred? What does that mean? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary list five different definitions for sacred. The one I like best states that sacred means “Highly valued and important.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of sacredness, and I’ve come to realize that nothing is sacred. Not churches, synagogues or mosques. Not the student-teacher relationship, nor the bond between friends, or even the relationship between a mother and child. Nothing is inherently sacred, but everything has the potential to be sacred. Sacred is not a state of being. It is a choice. It is an action. It requires that someone keep the space, the action or the relationship as sacred in their mind, heart and actions for it to actually be sacred.

The practice of yoga is not inherently sacred. For some people it is a workout. For some it is a thing to be achieved, for validation or attention. “Give me the next asana.” “I want to do third.” “I want to demo and show and feel special because of the things my body can do.” For some people it is a chore. Something that they have to drag themselves through every day. Sometimes their minds make skillful arguments, coming up with the cleverest reasons why they don’t need to practice. I’ve been all of these people from time to time. I’ve had transient moments of workout/show-off/resistance. My mind has tried its damnedest to trick me into thinking that I don’t need to practice. That the practice demands too much sacrifice from me. These thoughts and feelings come and go. I am very happy to see them leave, but I know that they will reappear again one day and so I must be vigilant. I must actively work at keeping my practice sacred, by giving it consideration in the choices I make.

What makes my practice sacred, really, is the narrowness of the path it requires me to walk. We cannot have it all, let me make that clear. We are not meant to have everything at once. We are supposed to make choices in our lives. To dedicate ourselves to the things, precious and few, that we deem the most worthy. My mind’s reactions of temporarily inflated ego identification, resistance and of doubt, are what lets me know the practice is actually working. Binding myself to a life of practice in which I am constantly, on some small level, aware of my practice is what makes it effective.

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I think of my practice a lot like I think of the other most sacred relationship in my life, my marriage. The man who married me and my husband compared married life to a garden. Gardens require constant care and tending to really bloom. They will give you back what you put into them. Gardening require that you get your hands dirty. That your back be sore sometimes from pulling up the weeds that threaten to choke what you have sown. It requires your time; tilling the soil, planting, watering, harvesting and then preparing the garden for the winter. There are seasons in both a marriage and a practice. Sometimes it is summer and things are in full bloom and easy. Sometimes it is winter and the work you do may seem pointless as growth is slowed or stalled. Yet it isn’t. If you continue to tend to your relationships under the harshest and most discouraging of conditions, be it to your spouse, child, friend or your Self, then you will see that your efforts weren’t wasted. If you stop just because conditions aren’t ideal, if you give up, then you are right back where you started. 

There was a time in my life when nothing, least of all my relationship to myself, was sacred. I know how easy it is to return to that place. But I don’t want to live in a world where nothing is sacred anymore.


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The Importance of Imagery

  One of the most important things I’ve learned from studying with my teacher is the importance of imagery in practice. Which has gotten me thinking: if, as Guruji famously said, your “whole life is practice”, then I need to start cultivating images to support me beyond the asana. This year has been a big one. Many, many changes and challenges and opportunities. It’s hard not to feel storm tossed sometimes. So the other night, when I was having one of those moments when you’re afraid and you don’t know what of (Holly Golightly called it the “mean reds”) I wrote wrote this to myself. It helps, somehow, so I thought I’d share it…

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 Why do you fear the storm raging around you. The waves may break and pull at your shore line, churning the very floor of the sea. The vast ocean surrounding will drag debris onto your shore, leaving a pile of the things you though were long ago drowned and dead at your feet. The sky is dark, I know. The wind is fierce, stinging your cheeks and burning your eyes The rain comes in torrents and it is hard to see; harder still to hope. Do not fear the flashes of lightning and the deafening claps of thunder. Do not despair as all of your carefully constructed defenses fail you, one by one. 

  But you are a lighthouse. You were made to withstand this. Shine your light and do not doubt that what you have to give is important. These things that are outside of you? They have always been out of your hands; you only tricked yourself into thinking you had control over them. Do not be afraid. You will be here when the storm ends. Your exterior will be little worse for the wear, maybe. Some work will be required to sure your foundations. Yet understand that your light is not dimmed.

  Your light cannot be dimmed. It is the essence of you, and the reason for you. And remember, when it seems to be too hard and dark and frightening, that you chose to build your home out here. You knowingly set yourself on this edge, where the elements sometime rage unchecked. Remember that you chose this place for a reason. There is work to be done here. Your work. So continue on.

   


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The Thaw

“Cold changes water into ice or snow. 

Discernment shows the three different states are not really different.

When the sun of the consciousness shines,

the plurality dissolved into oneness.

The universe appeared throughout permeated with Shiva”

-Mystical Verses of Lalla, A Journey of Self Realization

A little over a month ago the first day of spring arrived, but I was still filled with winter. My back was hurt from over work all winter and my practice was slow and uncomfortable for weeks, and I was impatient and frustrated. Then I got sick. Really sick, with strep throat and a fever that put me in bed for over a week. There was no progress to be made in my asana practice. No pranayama to be performed through swollen glands a raw, red throat. Only reading, writing and self-contemplation could be practiced, and I wasn’t in the mood for either. I didn’t want to look too close, afraid of what I might see.

I was angry at my body. I felt as though it were betraying me. Angry that is showed the cracks in my armor and allowed anyone and everyone to see how vulnerable I really am. Coming back to practice the first week or so after I was sick I was weak and sore. My hands shook, my head swam and tears kept escaping my eyes, falling without my permission; without any control. My body was telling on me, telling anyone and everyone who cared enough to look just how much pain I was in, emotionally and physically. I felt… naked.

There is something about working with your body that is powerful and transformative. It allows me to challenge myself, to go to the places I fear to go, in the safest way possible. I allows me to push myself and to nurture myself. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way in my fervor to be competent and practically perfect, I had gotten myself turned around and lost in a maze of chitta vrittis (mind fluctuations.)

The Yoga Sutras list the five kleshas, or root causes of pain, as being avidya (the absence of awareness of the Self), asmita (a sense of “I am”), raga (attachment to pleasure), dveda (holding onto pain), and  abhinivesha (clinging to life or survival at all costs). In my eagerness to follow the rules I created for myself, I became lost and almost immobilized by my self-doubt. (As David said at the most recent AYS Sunday talk, “the mind loves rules, it loves to put itself into a prison.”) I had become attached to what my body was able to do previously, to what I thought my body should be able to do as part of a pre-determined progression, and to the value I thought that ability gave me. I had lost the wonder of feeling the movement of my breath and of the incredible journey within myself that was possible with each Surya Namaskar, each standing posture. I had forgotten why I practice in the first place.

The body is an amazing thing. It is an amazing experience to feel the perfection of physics and creation at play through your bones, muscles and skin. Your practice is a wonderful place to play with, learn about and experience your consciousness. It is the safest place for me to engage in the things that scare the hell out of me and to learn from them. Ashtanga is a practice of carefully constructed sequences and each series is set as it is for very good reasons. One thing follow the other and there is a progression, but it is not always as linear as we think. The practice is not about mindlessly following the rules, even if they are rules you’ve created for yourself. Practice is about remembering who you really are. It is about waking up to the truth of your Self, which can never be changed. It is about seeing “the plurality dissolved into oneness ” and setting yourself free. Even if you are the one who imprisoned yourself in the first place.