Friday, December 21, 2012

What satisfies our spirit...

Happy winter solstice!  I'm amused at all the end of the world banter on ye ole social networks.  Why such a literal interpretation?  Why not an infinitely more subtle one, one that involves the transformation of things unseen?  Here is one of my very most favorite quotes from Hegel which illustrates that internal turning away from the light, and perhaps portending a turning back... 
Formerly they had a heaven adorned with a vast wealth of thoughts and imagery. The meaning of all that is, hung on the thread of light by which it was linked to that heaven. Instead of dwelling in this world's presence, men looked beyond it, following this thread to an other-worldly presence, so to speak. The eye of the Spirit had to be forcibly turned and held fast to the things of this world; and it has taken a long time before the lucidity which only heavenly things used to have could penetrate the dullness and confusion in which the sense of worldly things was enveloped, and so make attention to the here and now as such, attention to what has been called 'experience', an interesting and valid enterprise. Now we seem to need just the opposite; sense is so fast rooted in earthly things that it requires just as much force to raise it. The Spirit shows itself as so impoverished that, like a wanderer in the desert craving for a mere mouthful of water, it seems to crave for its refreshment only the bare feeling of the divine in general. By the little which now satisfies Spirit, we can measure the extent of its loss.  ~GWF Hegel
And because I can't talk about a satisfied spirit without thinking of the good Reverend Al Green... and because with all the apocalypse talk, the irony of 'Jesus is Waiting' is just too good... I offer this little gem of heavenly soulshine goodness to you... Turn it up!  May it satisfy our spirit and turn us back toward the light...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Something missing in my heart tonight...

I realize that the dawn
when we'll meet again
will never break,

so I give it up,
little by little, this love.

But something in me laughs
as I say this, someone

shaking his head and chuckling
softly, Hardly, hardly.  


Don't surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,

My need of God


Monday, November 26, 2012

A full moon in each eye...

Admit something.

Everyone you see, you say to them
"Love me."

Of course you do not do this out loud:
Someone would call the cops.

Still, though, think about this,
This great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one
Who lives with a full moon in each eye
That is always saying,

With that sweet moon

What every other eye in this world
Is dying to 


Monday, November 19, 2012

Tired of speaking sweetly...

Tired of Speaking Sweetly

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.
If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly
And wants to rip to shreds
All your erroneous notions of truth
That make you fight within yourself, dear one,
And with others,
Causing the world to weep
On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,
Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself
And practice His dropkick.
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favor:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
But when we hear
He is in such a “playful drunken mood”
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

~ Hafiz

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On friendship... this is the training ground part 2...

In my last blog, This is the training ground, I wrote, "It is this place - between the running and the staying, the closing and the opening, the hardening and the softening - where we see precisely what we're made of.  This is where we can initiate meaningful and substantial change within ourselves.  This is where we become better people, more integrated, more open, more loving, more clear.  No one is exempt from fighting this battle within him or herself.  The only real choice you have is which side you fight for.  It is the choice you make - between the fear and the love - that becomes the story of your life.  Which side are you fighting for?  What story do you choose to tell?This is an internal dynamic as well as a dynamic we take into our relationships with others.  There has been lots of talk on the wind lately of friends having difficulties with other friends, questions about how to be a friend, how to stand in your own integrity when a friend is struggling in their own darkness, how to stay open instead of shutting down.  It has been at the forefront of my mind lately, tooOne thing I know for certain is that unless we each confront our own darkness, there is no way to have deep, meaningful friendships with anyone else in this world.  The good news is these difficulties are opportunities to become better people, no matter which side of the scenario you fall on.  As we head into the dark of the year, it is an ideal time to turn our focus to the internal work required of us to become the best people we are capable of becoming...
Meaningful relationships depend upon our individual, ongoing self-reflection.  It's crucial to know where our landmines are, our triggers, our hard edges that cast the darkest shadows. We need to be mindful of all the ways we escape, shut down, short cut, run away, numb out so we can be accountable when those things come up in our relationships.  I hold myself to high standards of integrity and accountability, and I likewise expect that from my friends.  We all fuck up sometimes, it's not only okay, it's to be expected.  This isn't about being infallible, it is about actively working on being the best we can be, and being accountable to ourselves and others for our thoughts, feelings, words, and actions when we fall short.   
 So what do we do when another person's shadow butts up against our own?  We are not alone out in the cold, there are tools we can use to bring clarity to our own internal dialog so we can bring clarity into our dialog with others.  If I see a friend trying to pound a nail into the wall with a sock, I go give him a hammer!  There is no judgement or blame here, none of us have these tools when we come into this world.  Some of us are very lucky to find them along our way, and many of us still need someone to give us a goddamn hammer!  Now if my friend keeps using a sock to pound the nail after I give him a hammer and show him how to use it, then there is not much I can do other than feel compassion for his folly as he becomes increasingly despondent at the failure of his method.  Afterall, we all have blind spots and stubbornness that obstructs our view at times.  It can be challenging and often futile to reason with someone who is already convinced of things being a certain way.  As a stubborn person myself, I know how frustrating it is for my friends to try to convince me of something I don't want to hear or think I already know.  But if we tune into the nuances of our own inner workings, our emotional reactions become a light that shines precisely on the places we ought to be looking.
Our emotional life maps our incompleteness: A creature without any needs would never have reasons for fear, or grief, or hope, or anger. But for that very reason we are often ashamed of our emotions, and of the relations of need and dependency bound up with them.  So people flee from their inner world of feeling, and from articulate mastery of their own emotional experiences... What is the remedy of these ills? A kind of self- love that does not shrink from the needy and incomplete parts of the self, but accepts those with interest and curiosity, and tries to develop a language with which to talk about needs and feelings. ~Martha Nussbaum  
Feeling emotion deeply can be a gift when we are equipped with the tools to properly manage it.  When we don't have the tools or know how to use them properly, our emotions can be overwhelming and outright destructive to our lives and the relationships that are most important to us.  They can undermine and sabotage everything we desire and work so hard to create.  We end up living out our greatest fears.  But when we employ the proper tools, our feelings can be a great catalyst for transformation.  They can propel us toward our dreams.  They can be a bridge that connects us in the deepest and most meaningful ways to the people in our lives.  We have the choice, every day, to approach our emotions with interest and curiosity and to use them to initiate beneficial change in our lives and in our friendships.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom... The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.  ~Viktor Frankl 
Our thoughts generate our emotions.  If we change the way we think about something, the way we feel will likewise change.  When I am upset about something, I work to understand what is at the root of my discontent.  I inquire within myself about my own needs, motivations, judgements.  What is my role in this?  Oftentimes, creating just a little bit of space between the situation and the emotional reaction is necessary to have enough clarity to responsibly manage the habituated response which, more often than not, is counterproductive to our contentment and the wellbeing of our friendships.  How do we create that space when things are heavily charged with fear, hurt, pain, vulnerability?  We take a breath.  We breathe just enough space around our fear/hurt/pain so we take a moment to ask ourselves some important questions.  In my yoga practice, fear comes up in backbending almost every day and can induce something close to a panic attack.  This is a helpful place for me to practice creating that space between the situation and my immediate reaction, even if it's just pausing for one breath before I cave to the fear.  The next day might be two breaths, and my capacity to make that space continues to grow as I continue to practice.  Learning how to fall is also helpful, so when that fear comes up, you can ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen?  And you answer, I could fall.  Well, as silly as it sounds, it's quite helpful to test it out so you know you won't die if you fall, and it hardly ever hurts as much as you fear it will.  For me, yoga is a safe place to practice this, and there are also relationships in my life that are safe places to practice making space in my emotional reactions.  No matter how safe these places are though, it always feels risky.  That's okay so long as we are continually pushing our capacity to stay open.  The greatest things in life involve the greatest risk.
Gamble everything for love, 
if you’re a true human being. 

If not, leave this gathering.  
 Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.   

You set out to find God, but then you keep stopping 
for long periods at meanspirited roadhouses.  


So how do we make space in our reactions to a friend?  Well, we embark on a process of self-inquiry.  For instance, if a situation arises where I do not get what I need from someone, I look to see... Did I ask for what I need?  (When I ask myself this question, the answer is almost always a resounding no!  And I'm always shocked!  Shocked!  I mean... but... how... uhhh... what... but.... if... damnit!  Why can't you read my mind?!  (Note to self: Be fearless in asking for what you need.))  If you don't ask, the answer to your question is always no.  And as the guy who picked me up hitchhiking one time many years ago said, "If you've got the balls to ask, the only answer is yes!"  I've realized this is a profound insight into the inner workings of the universe.  Regardless of whether or not I asked for what I need, was I open to receive what was given to me?  Was I open to recognize what I need in unexpected forms or from unexpected sources?  Did I express gratitude for the kindnesses extended to me?  Did I give freely to others what was needed of me?   
If I judge someone else as having fallen short, say, by being unkind.... I ask myself, "In what ways have I been unkind?"  If I already know the person to be a good person based on our shared experiences and history, then I am inclined to give a more generous interpretation for their actions.  I ask myself if there are other factors at work: Are they under duress?  Do they have the proper (physical/emotional/spiritual) tools to deal with the situation properly?  Are they doing the best they can under the conditions?  Are they willing to acknowledge where they fell short?  Are they actively working to be better?  And then I turn every single one of those questions on myself. 
Hopefully that line of inquiry turns up a new, more positive perspective on the situation and my friend and I can start working things out from there.  But if it doesn't, I consider if I could be mistaken in this assessment of my friend.  Is there a more fair and generous interpretation?  Am I projecting my own fears/biases/beliefs/pain/anger onto this person?  How is this triggering my own pain/fear/darkness?  Did this person unknowingly step on one of my landmines and go explodey all over both of us and now I don't know which way is up?  What is at stake if I act on a potentially inaccurate or incomplete understanding?  Is this friend important enough to me to do the work required of me to gain greater clarity?  Do my feelings about the situation or attachments to my defense mechanisms outweigh the care and regard I have for my friend?  Is my friend willing to help clarify the situation, their motivations, their feelings?  Am I willing and courageous enough to stay present and open even though it's uncomfortable/scary/confusing/triggering me? 
Don't turn away.  Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That's where the light enters you.  ~Rumi 

What is at stake is not just the friendship.  By running away or shutting down or closing myself off, I am reinforcing my own negative patterns, defenses, and fears.  What part of me does this serve?  Does this serve my deeper desire for connection and intimacy?  No!  Does this serve the love and care I have for my friend?  No!  How do these defenses obstruct my ability to have meaningful and substantial relationships with myself and the people I care about?  And most importantly, how do I serve the higher parts of myself, the desire for connection, the love I have for my friend?  

Very little grows on jagged rock,
Be ground, be crumbled,
So wild flowers will come up where you are.
You've been stony for too many years
Try something different


Our defenses are thorny weeds, the more we indulge them, the more strongly they take root.  So long as we submit to the spurious whims of our shadow, we will remain complicit in our own suffering.  We are making a choice, whether we realize it or not, every time we run.  But there is another choice we can make.  We can ventilate those claustrophobic places, we can uproot those thorny weeds.  We can choose to stay present in those moments we want to run, we can choose to stay open instead of closing ourselves off, we can choose to feel the depth of our emotions instead of numbing ourselves out.  Choosing this course of action chisels away at our defenses and opens up greater possibilities in our inner landscape.  It also brings us into greater integrity within ourselves and our friendships.  Standing in integrity means our thoughts, words, and actions are in alignment and turned toward the Good.  Breaking down our reactionary defenses and integrating the shadow part of ourselves is necessary if we are to live contented lives and enjoy meaningful relationships.  
We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises on the path of life.  ~C.G Jung
It's worthwhile to look around your life every so often and take inventory of things.  It's helpful information to know if you've surrounded yourself with people who serve the lowest parts of you or the highest.  Take a good look around to see what kind of people populate your life and bear their influence upon your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.  And ask these questions of yourself, as well, to see what kind of friend you are to others.  Does s/he hold herself and her friends to high standards of integrity and accountability?  Does s/he manage her emotions responsibly?  Does s/he call me on my negative patterns?  Does s/he refuse to coddle my weaknesses?  Does s/he challenge me to look at the dark places within myself?  Does s/he encourage me and support me in becoming a better person?  Does s/he celebrate my successes?  Does s/he see the best in me even when I fall short?  Is the care and regard for our friendship mutually reciprocated?  Do I feel lighter/clearer/more energized after spending time with him/her?  Am I a better person for knowing her/him?  
If we are earnest in our inquiry, it is likely we've turned up some unsavory aspects of ourselves and our friends that may cause alarm.  Fear not!  This is to be welcomed and expected as the natural result of sincere self-reflection.  Afterall, I do not know a single soul who is as good as they'd like to be.  And the very best ones are often filled with the most doubt and fear and questioning.  So long as we are moving toward our goodness, that thing perpetually on the horizon ever out of reach, we are headed in the right direction.  When we fall short or do wrong, know that it is possible to repair the infraction.  First, acknowledge your short-falling at the very first opportunity you have to do so.  The more time that passes without acknowledgment, the more damage is potentially done to both you and your friend.  Then, account for the short-falling.  Explain to your friend what was going on in your heart and mind that caused you to behave the way you did.  Show your friend where you have clarity and where you are still struggling, and ask them to show you the same in return.  Listen to your friend's side of the story, and be open to really hear what they say so you can both better understand how to support each other and more gracefully navigate any difficulties moving forward.  Next, make amends by making the situation right in whatever ways you can and committing to yourself and your friend to actively work on becoming better.  Finally, forgive your friend for their short-fallings, and ask for forgiveness for your own.  Now hug it out, you two!

Life, and love, is short.  The forgetting, and regretting, is so very long.  Be fearless.  Be the first one to pick up the phone.  Say I'm sorry.  Extend a hand.  Ask for help.  Ask for clarity.  Ask for forgiveness.  Be forgiving.  Cry together.  Express gratitude.  Laugh at yourselves.  Celebrate the little things.  Friendship must be tended to, cultivated.  It takes continual, sustained effort over time.  It takes devotion.  It takes practice.  It takes showing up even when it's not convenient or pleasurable or easy.  It takes good days and bad days and falling down and getting back up.  It takes fighting for what and who is important to you.  It takes courage and a willingness to go far outside what's comfortable.  It takes vulnerability and sacrifice.  It takes looking your fears in the face.  It takes staying instead of running.  It takes being seen by another, shadows and scars and all.  It takes bearing witness to another person's pain and darkness and loving them still, even more.  It takes a goddamned impeccable, unshakable sense of humor.  It takes risking everything for the chance of love.   

This is the yoga of friendship, and it is one of the most beautiful and worthwhile things in the entire world.

Street art by Swoon

Lovers gather and give each other shade,
relief from the direct sun.
Stay closeby that community.
Be shade with them,
until you yourself are full of light
like the moon, then like the sun.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

This is the training ground...

Ok, yeah, so I haven't written a blog since I was in India.  I figure I should at least say hi and let y'all know I'm alive and well in Austin.  Ahhhh, to update you in a nutshell on the last several months... My rib injury healed and my practice has been going well.  It took me about two months to be able to catch the bind on my own in Marichyasana D after the injury. Now that I'm back to full steam, things have been progressing nicely overall.  I've been pushing the edges of my strength and am growing stronger and leaner every week.  I've also been sweating like crazy during practice, it feels like I'm condensating more than sweating.  Beads of water just drip drip drip off me out of every pore.  It was a long summer in Texas, and now slowly turning into fall, and I'm working hard in practice, so the sweat feels good.  It ushers in that post-practice lightness and clarity, like cleaning the soot off an oil lamp.  In the last month or so, I've moved into second series, so my practice is quite long now.... all of primary and second up to laghu vajrasana.  Kapotasana coming soon! 

Coming home from India was a tougher transition than I expected.  I came home all filled up with this amazing experience that words cannot adequately express, and I felt like a lot of people just didn't care or have interest or know how to relate to me.  I got asked questions like, "How was your vacation?" as if I'd been sitting on a beach drinking fancy drinks out of pineapples without a care in the world.  I quickly slipped back into my reclusive tendencies and rhythms of life, for better and worse, here in Austin.  I'm very comfortable here, too comfortable in many ways.  There is little sense of urgency, and I find I become too complacent with life if I'm not careful.  I started fantasizing about selling my house, buying a little airstream, packing up my dog and cats, a few essential things, and hitting the road indefinitely.  I daydreamed about all the places I would go, being free as the wind, spending months in places I love, finally going places I've always wanted to see.  I was escaping my present reality and getting lost in a fantasy.  And then... 

A month after I got home, my beloved dog, Amallah, died suddenly and so very unexpectedly.  I loved that dog more than I've loved any human.  The heartbreak of her death and the big gaping hole she left in my heart and my home have been a daily struggle and tremendous source of sorrow.  I slipped into what was probably the worst depression of my life.  Most days it was all I could do to show up to practice.  And I decided that if all I do is my yoga practice, then that's enough.  Everything else falls away as irrelevant and arbitrary.  Practice is an anchor, a lifeline, and I truly believe it's kept me alive during some of the darkest times of my life.  Some days, tears come with the very first ekam inhale; some days not until savasana.  Some days, something resembling joy seeps back in, and all I know is that I need this practice like I need the very next breath.  It is perhaps the greatest act of love and devotion that I know, and this becomes especially apparent when there is nothing but darkness, like a fever you can't shake, all around and inside you.

The Uses of Sorrow

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

~Mary Oliver 

One of my dearest friends helped me tremendously through that very tough time after my dog died.  I don't think I have ever known heartbreak like that.  My friend kept saying, "Use this pain, let it galvanize you!  Let it transform you!  It is a gift."  Of course the instinct is to close yourself off to that kind of pain, to turn away from it.  It is overwhelming, to say the least.  And it takes a kind of deep, sustained courage I did not know I even possessed.  But if you make the choice to stay, tap into your deepest well of courage and lean into the pain, let it burn down all the defenses you've built against it, let it move through you, let it come in and uproot the darkest places within yourself, sweep out the debris, it will change you in the profoundest of ways.  Shantideva tells us, we are like a blind man who finds a jewel in a heap of garbage.  Right there in all that you'd rather throw away is your treasure.  If you throw away the garbage, you throw away the treasure too.  Instead of running away & thereby reinforcing old patterns of suffering, be loyal to this experience irregardless of good/bad, pleasure/pain.  Staying, no matter how uncomfortable, is where the treasure is.  In fact, the harder it is to stay, the bigger the treasure.  When it hurts like hell and pushes at all your edges and you're full of doubt and fear and every impulse in your heart and mind tells you to run, that's how you know you're onto something wholly worthwhile.  As an ayurvedic healer in India told me, laughing, "Pain is noooo problem.  Pain is very good sign, indeed.  Pain means happiness coming soon."  Oh, how those words have rooted themselves in me and make me laugh at my own suffering, no matter the cause.  Those simple words continue to ring true in the deepest of ways, so very, very true...

Showing up to practice is one thing; showing up to life can be a whole other battle.  If you practice even when distracted/distressed/hurt/upset/in pain, then you are training well.  This is the training ground, afterall.  So let us train wholeheartedly.  It's easy to show up to practice, to work, to relationships, to life, when things are flowing effortlessly.  But how do we respond to our pain, our fear, our hurt, our anger, our distress, our wounds?  How do we respond to others who are battling their own darkness?  Do we run, do we close ourselves off, shut people out, fortify our defenses, harden our heart, become apathetic, numb, uncaring?  Or do we stay present even though it hurts like hell and scares the holy shit out of us?  Do we stay open even though it makes us vulnerable, even though others can see our darkness, our doubt, our fear?  Do we take a sledgehammer to our hardened defenses and open up our view to greater possibilities?  Are we able to sink deeper into the sources of love, compassion, and equanimity?  It is this place - between the running and the staying, the closing and the opening, the hardening and the softening - where we see precisely what we're made of.  This is where we can initiate meaningful and substantial change within ourselves.  This is where we become better people, more integrated, more open, more loving, more clear.  No one is exempt from fighting this battle within him or herself.  The only real choice you have is which side you fight for.  It is the choice you make - between the fear and the love - that becomes the story of your life.  Which side are you fighting for?  What story do you choose to tell?

If you bring forth what is within you, 

what you bring forth will save you. 

If you do not bring forth what is within you, 

what you do not bring forth will destroy you. 

~Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

The last few months, I've had a lot more sunshine and clarity seep in.  I'm working hard, staying just the right amount of busy, enjoying my relationships - even the difficult ones, and I'm excited about the projects I'm working on in all areas of my life.  I recently launched a new line of wearable art called Soul Azul, much of it directly inspired by my trip to India and the photos I took there.  I'm also working on some spoken word film projects that have been a long time in the making, so stay tuned for those in the coming weeks.  I love this time of year, the fall always feels like spring bursting forth in my own creative cycle.  So much comes flooding in all at once.  The days are shortening, the leaves are turning, the wind is stirring up delightfully unexpected little treasures, the weather in Austin is divine.  A breath of fresh air.  And I've been having epic adventures in my dreams... realizations about how much India felt like a home coming... and learning how to come home to myself no matter where I am or what the circumstances of my life may look like... And seeing so clearly how, in each others' light, we become better people... and how much work there still is to be done... and how far we've already come...

Read On friendship, this is the training ground part 2...

P.S.  I am so very grateful to everyone who reads my posts here, takes interest, comments and emails... I am really so very humbled and blown away at the response from people all over the world who can relate to my experiences (and are trying my recipes!)  It means a lot.  I am energized by your remarks and your willingness to share your experiences, too.  While I juggle many projects, I feel this is one of the most worthwhile ones, and although I may come and go at odd intervals, I do intend to keep up with things more regularly here... so check back every so often, and please do stay in touch... I love hearing from y'all!  Om shanti...

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Even the gods speak of God...

Self Portrait

It doesn't interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need to change you. 
If you can look back with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. 
I want to know if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward the center of your longing. 
I want to know if you are willing to live, 
day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, 
even the gods speak of God.

~David Whyte

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Forget your perfect offering...

A month just flew by in the blink of an eye.  Time is strange here.  The days are impossibly long, and yet the accumulative passing of them goes by in a flash.  I still have another week in Mysore, and many people have already left or are in the process of leaving this weekend.  There is much to catch up on since my last post, but mostly, if there's anything to know, it's that practice is practice is practice, whether you're at home or halfway around the world in Mysore, whether you're strong and rockin it or injured and crawling your way through the vinyasas.

In the last few weeks practice has taken an interesting plot twist for me.  I caught the bind in supta kurmasana just a day or two after my last blog, got moved on to the next bit of primary, the garbha pindasana to kukkutasana bit, then the following week got to go ahead with full primary.  Doing full primary means I'd get to work on dropping back.  But then a week and a half ago, I felt something pop in the right side of my chest as I was doing backbends from the ground.  I wasn't pushing myself to my edge, I was very much working within the realm of what's possible and even comfortable for me.  As I came back down to the ground, I was in serious pain.  If the pain had been on my left side, I would have seriously thought I was a having heart attack.  I couldn't finish the rest of the closing sequence, so I sat up, did the closing mantra, rolled up my mat and went home to lay down.  Next day I was in serious pain, literally crawling through the vinyasas.  I rested for a few days, since we had a moon day, then led class which I skipped, then Saturday off.  Sunday I practiced at home and it was so painful all I could do was cry.  Later that morning, I went to an ayurvedic bodyworker to see if I could get some relief.  He told me, "Pain is good sign, noooo problem.  Only in mind is there problem.  Your heart is opening, madame.  Happiness coming soon.  Yes, love coming too... coming very soon, maybe three or four days only.  No worry, pain good sign..." *head wobble*  The second opinion I received was a little more sobering.  It looked like I may have separated the rib from the cartilage that attaches to the sternum, and that I was looking at a six week minimum recovery, and perhaps as long as six months.

Three or four days later, I was still suffering, and I was coming to terms with the more grim prognosis of a long recovery.  Things were rough, and I was doing my best to handle it with grace and surrender.  To add insult to the injury, I came down with some awful upper respiratory infection, coughing, sneezing, sinus pressure hell.  It already hurt to breathe, and then with every cough and sneeze it was like a knife in my ribs.  It was so painful.  I mean, what the fuck, Universe?  I come to Mysore, prepared for whatever is in store for me, ready and willing to suffer if need be, and yet, my predicament seemed beyond ridiculous (and somehow entirely appropriate).  Of all the sicknesses I could get in India, I get the one that hits me right in the chest where I was already injured?  (And as far as being sick in India goes, I think I prefer the coughing and sneezing over the alternatives... but still).  I was suffering so badly, and yet the irony was not at all lost on me.  I started laughing about it, which was also very painful, but I think that's when something shifted...

I found a little book called The Yoga of Beauty.  It talks of beauty as one part of the holy trinity of the Good, the True, the Beautiful.  The trick is finding beauty in things that are not pretty and perhaps downright ugly.  There is plenty of art that is aesthetically and/or emotionally challenging that I find beautiful.  Some of the most beautiful moments of my life were ones marked by hardship.  The thing that makes something beautiful is not a set of some formal characteristics which are pretty, but it is a whole accumulation and unfolding of moments that lead to an aesthetic experience.  The Japanese concept of wabi-sabi is a good example of how we can celebrate imperfection.  If a vase is broken, it is put back together in a way that adorns and embellishes the cracks instead of attempting to hide the imperfection.  And as the very wise Leonard Cohen says, there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in...

I went to talk to Sharath about modifying my practice and to get any advice he may have about my situation.  He told me to breathe into the pain, stabilize my mind on my breath, and to only do half primary and skip the vinyasas in between right side and left side.  And so I put my full trust in him and did just that.  Sharath said something in one of the conferences (I'll post full notes on those when I get a chance) that despite the ups and downs of life, Guruji always had an evenness about him.  He said life is like the streets of San Francisco, up down up down, you never know what is coming, but to find a steadiness and ease regardless of the terrain, that is one of the gifts and rewards of yoga.  And so I wondered, is it possible to have a great practice when I'm this down and out?  Can I find the beauty in this pain no matter how ugly things feel?  Whenever I've been in pain in the past, I always pick little projects for myself to focus on.  Like with my shoulder injury, since I couldn't work on building strength in the vinyasas, I decided to work on bandhas and lengthening in the forward bends.  With this current injury and sickness, I decided that I would find a steadiness and ease in my breath and mind and have a good practice the next day.  And I did.  To a casual observer, I'm sure I looked hobbled and suffering, but I would say the energetic quality of my practice was as sweet and focused as the days I feel strong and totally rockin.  Each day of practice this past week, I felt marginally better, just enough to renew my faith and not lose hope.  The measure of progress in the practice is not if I can get my legs behind my head or jump back with grace and ease, but it is if I am becoming a better person, more clear, more open, more loving... and I think that I am...

Last night it rained in Mysore.  First rain in many months.  The sun was setting, and I went for a walk to enjoy the thunder and rain.  I realized that the last few days the pain in my ribs shifted.  It feels less like suffering and more like opening.  Big opening, filled with much joy and gratitude.  And I realized that happiness is not coming, it is already here...

Every heart, 
every heart to love will come, 
like a refugee... 
Ring the bell that still can ring, 
forget your perfect offering. 
There's a crack, 
a crack in everything... 
that's how the light gets in,
that's how the light gets in...

~Leonard Cohen

Sunday, March 11, 2012

When the center of the universe is a coconut stand...

When the center of the universe is a coconut stand... not a coconut, the coconut stand.  Of course there must be hundreds in Mysore, but you know the one I'm talking about, because your whole life revolves around it... 

My first week and a half in Mysore and I'm feeling the rhythm of things here like I've been here forever.  For as long as the days feel, they are also quite full.  I start my day with practice, Monday through Thursday are self-practice, and I start around 8am, although the time will keep moving up earlier and earlier as people keep leaving.  Friday and Sunday are led classes which start at either 430am or 6am.  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I have chanting class in the morning after practice, and then Sanskrit and philosophy class later in the afternoon.  I love chanting, it is so beautiful.  I wish we did it every day.  The words and melodies stay with me all day long, echoing for hours with their beauty.  Sundays we have conference with Sharath, usually in the late afternoon.  Saturdays and full/new moon days we have for rest.  My experience so far has been filled with so much joy and happiness, lots of laughter bubbling to the surface, thoughtful & knowing smiles, so much brightness shining through.  I really enjoy my connection with Sharath.  Some love him, some fear him, some revere him... for me, it is all of these, and yet, most of our interactions look like this, filled with joy and laughter and a good amount of goofiness.  It is very much the same energy I experienced in the dream of him when he told me, "Come home, it's time."  He has quite a sense of humor, and we also share a deep love of wilderness and photography.  He told me some pretty amazing stories from a trip he made to the Serengeti.  He offered to show me his work sometime soon, and I am very much looking forward to that!  
As far as practice is going, I'm still working on catching the bind in supta kurmasana.  I am so close to getting it.  Sharath came up to help me last week.  He said, "you do" as he helped me bind my hands, and then when my hands kept popping loose as he crossed my feet over my head, he said, "Ahhhh, you need to eat more chapati."  No chapati, no strength.  The next day, he was helping someone else when I got to supta k.  My shoulder was hurting and I didn't even try to get all the way into the bind, but I went as far as I could.  He came over after I had started my backbending and asked, "Did you do?"  I smiled and shook my head no and told him my shoulder was hurting.  He said it will help if I can get my legs as far up over my shoulders as possible when entering kurmasana.  Interesting, right?  The tendency when I'm hurting is to back off and not go as deep, but that may be precisely the thing that is causing pain.  I said to Sharath, "Monday, I will do it, both [hands & feet]"  He said, "Yes, you will do... I will help."  And then he smiled and laughed in a way that inspired confidence, comfort, and a just a bit of fear, which are all useful and motivating for me right now. 

Yesterday I attended the Yoga Stops Traffick event at the Mysore palace.  The event was held to benefit Odandi Seva Trust which is an organization that helps rescue and rehabilitate victims of child trafficking.  They carry out brothel raids and provide sanctuary and a chance to rebuild their lives for the children they rescue.  The annual global event is held to bring awareness and raise funds for the cause.  There were a lot of kids participating along with many from the yoga community, there were even quite a few Tibetan monks who came to watch as well as many locals and passersby who stopped to see what it was all about.  After twenty seven sun salutations, coconuts and holi colors to celebrate!

On my rest days, I've been getting body work from a couple of different Ayurvedic massage therapists/healers.  I've found one in particular that I really like.  Aside from helping open up my shoulders and hips - things were popping left and right, and he always made this 'ahhhhh' noise like he could feel the release in his body - he told me I have fear in my belly.  He said, "Do you feel this, these knots?  That is fear.  Mmmm, yes, here.  See?  It gets in your way, restricts you.  Shine the light there.  Let it go.  Let the light shine in there.  There is darkness so many places in this world, but here, the light must shine."  After the session, we sat around and talked for a bit.  He said, "There is brightness within you.  Listen, listen.  Your body belongs to this earth, your soul belongs to god.  Listen to them.  Listen to them like you listen to your best friend.  Listen like you listen to your teacher, to your guru.  See?  You listen, and then it will come.  The brightness within you, let it shine through, and listen to what is says.  Let it guide you..."  Beautiful.  I am looking forward to my next session with him...
Aside from practice, study, healing, and socializing, I have been wandering around photographing things for my next series of fine art pieces.  India is amazing, a feast for all the senses.  The oils and incense and silks, the grime and rot and non stop horn honking, the laughter and despair and devotion, the smell of jasmine and spices and burning trash, the coconuts and kumkum and wandering cows, the beggars and holymen and housewives, the chanting and yelling and the hundreds of unheard whispered prayers... I love it here!  The joy and sorrow are interwoven so seamlessly, as it should be.  Everywhere I look is heartbreaking beauty.  I am so inspired by it all, it feels like such a gift.  I find myself filled to the brim with gratitude.  My heart breaks opens in awe of it all.  Everything about it is just so beautiful, even the sadness is full of beauty... The light will break your heart, if you're lucky now...

ॐ स॒ह ना॑ववतु । स॒ह नौ॑ भुनक्तु ।
स॒ह वी॒र्यं॑ करवावहै ।
ते॒ज॒स्वि ना॒वधी॑तमस्तु॒ मा वि॑द्विषा॒वहै॑ ॥
ॐ शान्ति॒ः शान्ति॒ः शान्ति॑ः ॥

ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्माऽमृतं गमय ।
ॐ शान्ति: शान्ति: शान्ति: ॥

Friday, March 2, 2012

A sleeping turtle in the land of yogis...

First few days in India felt like a whole week.  With a nearly thirty hour trek to get to Mysore, I saw two sunsets and two sunrises in twenty eight hours.  Hours feel like days as I am sinking into the rhythm of things here in Gokulam.

First day of practice.  My start time is 9am, which is technically 845am shala time, and so I arrived at the shala a quarter after 8am since I have heard it's good to be early.  Sharath looked at me and said I was "too early, you come ten minutes before your time, that is all."  Ok, no problem!  I was half expecting my first practice here to be more of a struggle than it was, since I am jetlagged and a little off kilter, but it was actually pretty damn good.  It is hot and humid in that room, good for the sweat and the breath.  Plus the energetic buzz in that room is off the charts.  Made it to supta kurmasana and am still half an inch away from the bind there.  On a good day and with help, I can touch my fingers.  I can cross my feet over my head, no problem.  Sharath stopped me there.  Also, "no backbends until you do full primary."  No problem!  There is work to be done with the asanas I have.  It feels magical and blessed to be practicing at the shala. 

Second day of practice.  Led primary, 6am start time.  Walked to the shala around 5am in the cool pre-dawn air and waited outside on the steps with other folks who arrived early to get a spot.  Even so, I wound up in the ladies changing room with a dozen others who weren't pushy or early enough to get a spot in the main room.  I didn't mind being in there, actually, as we started practice, I became increasingly relieved I wasn't in the main room.  My practice felt heavy, sluggish, sore.  Jetlag and a creaky neck and shoulder caught up with me.  Today is rest day, hoping a deep tissue massage later this morning will set me straight. 

I have been contemplating the lessons supta kurmasana has for me.  Every asana creates a doorway to the inner work.  What is the spiritual lesson for me in this pose of the sleeping turtle?  It is one of the gateway postures of the primary series and opens up an entire universe of behind-the-head postures.  It is a counterpose to urdhva dhanurasana, requiring a strong core and lengthening of the spine necessary for dynamic backbending.  Supta kurmasana also seems to me to be a very receptive and quiet posture.  Meditative.  Every time I get myself into it as deep as I can go, it feels very cozy and contemplative and somehow emotionally restorative.  Safe, even.  I always feel compelled to stay longer than five breaths.

One of the primary physical benefits of the posture is that it increases blood flow to the heart and lungs.  I find this especially interesting when considering supta kurmasana as a counterpose to backbending.  Backbends open the heart and, for me, have been purging old sadnesses which Chinese medicine says reside in the lungs... Coincidence that this is where my work is right now, highlighted and underscored and asterisked, a door I must figure out how to unlock before I can walk through?  I think probably not. 

Out of curiosity and a hope to be inspired by the symbolism, I looked into the mythological underpinnings of the asana, and of turtles in general.  I'm fascinated at what I found.  In general cross cultural symbolism, the turtle shell is a symbol of heaven and the square underside, a symbol of earth.  Turtle represents a union of heaven and earth and a temporary dwelling place of souls making their way to nirvana.  Turtle is also a shore creature, a gate keeper between land and water.  Turtle is easy going, patient, wise, steadfast, and tranquil.

In Hindu mythology, there are various accounts of world-tortoises, that is turtles who hold up the world on their back.  One of them, Akūpāra, meaning unbounded, is a turtle who carries an elephant that carries the world on its back.  The elephant is the masculine; the turtle, feminine.  Another tortoise, Kurmaraja, is the second avatar of Vishnu.  In an epic battle between the gods and the devils, the gods were losing strength.  Vishnu suggested they drink the nectar of immortality to regain what was lost, but it had been hidden in the milky ocean of the universe.  They began churning the ocean to recover the nectar, but the mountains began to sink.  Vishnu assumed the form of Kurma to bear the weight of the world in order to recover the nectar.  As the churning continued, halāhala (poison) was thrown out and threatened the existence of both the gods and the demons.  Shiva drank the poison to save the gods.  The nectar of immortality was recovered, and the gods regained their strength.

As the Hindu proverb goes, you have to digest halāhala (poison) before you get amrita (immortality).
And somewhere, Ganesha is looking over, laughing...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Come home, it's time...

I am getting on a plane to India tomorrow to go study and practice at the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore.  I have been having a lot of dreams leading up to this trip, dreamland visitations by people I will soon meet.  Mostly they are anonymous dream characters who give me an information download, but one night Sharath came to me as I was wrestling with the decision to go and the timing of my trip.  He had a very light, joyful, playful energy, at the same time commanding my unwavering respect and trust.  He told me very clearly, "Come home, it's time."  Well ok, then!  

When I originally started planning this journey, my intent was to go to deepen my practice.  Something has shifted though in my practice to allow me to see the depth of the work there, and now I feel like I'm going to heal something within myself, first and foremost.  The practice has become such a deeply devotional activity for me, that I have no attachment to what asanas I may be given, or whether or not I'll get the bind in supta kurmasana once and for all, or if I'll start second series.  I only care about any of that insofar as it supports the spiritual dimension of the practice.  The asanas create gateways to the inner work.  They show me where to look, where my fears and suffering hide, where my weaknesses and vulnerability are, where I need to pay attention more closely, where I need to push myself harder, and where I need to let go.

I want to practice in that room with people from the world over, where the roots of the lineage have grown deep through the generations, where the spirit and history is palpable with every ekam inhale.  I want to go deep into my own work, to push my edges, to sweat and burn through the things that no longer serve me, to heal old wounds and discover things I don't yet know about myself.  I want to taste my capacity for joy and sorrow and suffering and courage.  I want to confront my fears and pain and know the source of my own strength.  I want to walk to that edge, to see my limitations, and then go a little further to see what I'm made of just beyond the present horizon.  I feel like my whole life has led up to this.  In many ways, it feels like I'm preparing for battle, like I'm about to step right into the fire.  And I'm ready for whatever is in store for me.  I am, afterall, about to be practicing under the sway of Durga who slayed the demon Mahishasura in the Chamundi hills on the outskirts of Mysore.  My recent experiences in backbending (which Kino mentions at the end of her recent article) have given me a look into the depths of what is there and how much work there is to be done.  After a couple of weeks of almost daily full body sobbing after practice, I've had several days of respite from the emotional purging.  A lot of joy and laughter have been bubbling to the surface, even in the midst of the somewhat stressful hustle to get ready to leave the country.  I feel like I'm peering over the edge of a rabbit hole, about to dive in.  I am ready to surrender to the current, wherever it takes me, whatever painful or blissful or beautiful or ugly places it has to show me within myself.  I'm willing to do the work required of me, to confront whatever demons need slaying and to bow down at the feet of gods, trusting completely in the unfolding.  I feel held and supported and blessed by my amazingly awesome friends, my teachers, the community, and something so much bigger than me, something beyond my wildest dreams.  I am filled to the brim with gratitude and a deep sense of trust as I venture forth on my journey...

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life's battlefield
but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
 but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Samskaras, tapas, & burning through...

The only way out is through.  Last weekend I took a workshop with Ashtanga badass Kino MacGregor.  One of the main points of focus was about developing agni, or the karmic fire which burns through obstacles we encounter along our path.  Kino talked about tapas, the significance of pleasure & pain, and the importance of burning through samskaras.  She said that if things are uncomfortable enough to make you want to skip practice some days, then you're onto something important, and if things are so uncomfortable that you think about giving up the practice altogether, then you're really onto something important.  It's those times that are absolutely crucial to show up on the mat, to stoke the inner fire and burn through whatever is in the way, be it pain or fear or old emotion or unhealthy habits.  If your practice is comfortable and pleasurable, you may not be doing it correctly, or at least not maximizing its potential for your own transformation.  It's that burning sensation, whether burning muscles or burning emotions, that let's you know you're on the right path.  Kino recently wrote a great article, Let Her Fall.  The entire article is worth a read, but for those short on time, here is one part that particularly resonated with me as it relates to the things I'm confronting in my own practice. 
I recently heard R. Sharath Jois say to his assistants in Mysore, India, to let certain students work on challenging arm balances or backbends for awhile before going over to help them. His actual words were “let him suffer” or “let her fall.”  These two experiences tie directly into the discussion of pain and suffering within the context of our yoga practice, and as such they also offer the most potential for growth and development in the student.  When you learn a new posture you often need the teacher present to go to places inside of the body and mind that bring up fear and pain. After awhile, you will need to strengthen your nervous system and face these places with your own inner resolution. Sometimes, asking for the teacher to help you every day is a kind of escape that prevents you from experiencing exactly what you would need to experience in order to learn the tough lessons contained within some of the most difficult postures in the Ashtanga Yoga method. If you always either go to the wall or ask a teacher to spot you, then you will never develop the kind of self-confidence that it takes to master the posture on your own. You have to learn to…let yourself fall... Learning how to fall is about understanding what suffering is, how to face it, accept it and ultimately make it your friend. This is at the core of yoga’s deepest teaching (Kino MacGregor, Let Her Fall). 
In my last blog, I talked about fear in backbending.  Last weekend in morning mysore practice, I dropped back and stood back up by myself for the first time ever.  Kino was standing there in case I needed help, and I rather shamelessly pleaded with her to spot me, as I'm used to my regular teacher really holding onto me so I know he's there.  But Kino does things differently, and I have to trust her and surrender to whatever it is she is trying to show me.  Honestly, I wanted to run away.  I wanted to tell her to hold my hips so I could feel she was there and feel safe and not be so fucking terrified that I'd fall.  But she stood there, a few feet away, smiling and sweet and a little scary like a stern but tough loving parent all at the same time, and said, "It's ok, I'm here.  Just your fear in the way.  Body, no problem.  Now go."  She was throwing me in the deep end.  I felt like I was about to sink straight to the bottom.  And despite wanting to run and hide, I dropped back anyways.  And I actually did it.  And then I came back up.  Kino was there smiling at me, "Good.  See, you did all by yourself, both ways."

Insofar as I imagined this day would come at some distant point in the future, I imagined I would be ecstatic with joy of the accomplishment.  Like jump for joy happy.  Like feeling as if I could do anything I set my heart and mind to.  Instead, I finished the closing sequence, laid down in savasana, covered my face with my hand towel, and cried.  Sad tears, not happy tears.  After practice, I got in my jeep and cried some more as I drove home.  So much sadness.  When I got home, I drew a super hot salt bath and cried even more.  Bawled, actually.  Big whole body sobbing.  I let it all go into the salt water, got it all out, and then crawled into bed and took a nap until it was time to go to the afternoon workshop.  It felt like some kind of spontaneous combustion happening on an emotional level, like I'd set aflame old things that no longer serve me.  It's the burning through of old emotions, the emotional detritus that accumulates over a lifetime, or even over many lifetimes, and roots itself into the body and heart and mind. 

During my post-practice, post-cry nap, I had a dream.  I was tending a vegetable garden, with big, almost ripe veggies I knew I would be enjoying for dinner in a day or two.  Plump, juicy, sweet, and brightly colored veggies.  Down in the dirt, I see a little thorny weed sprouting up, just barely three inches tall.  I pinch it just below the surface and pull, but it barely moves.  I dig a little further in and start to tug.  It feels like it is starting to move a little but is clear it has roots down deep.  I pull and dig some more, my fingers are covered in thick, dark, sticky mud.  As I dig and pull, I discover a massive, gnarled root, so imbedded in the earth it takes all my strength and focus to get it out.  I don't want to pull too hard too soon because I know I could make the root break and leave part for it to grow up again.  With what seemed like a lot of time, a lot patience, and a heroic effort, I pull the entire root system out in tact and examine it.  The little tiny thorny sprout was growing from a massive, hardened, and mostly dead root clump.  I throw it in the fire pit in the center of the yard and watch it burn.  It hisses and smokes and burns brightly, quickly to ash.  Then I wake up.  

I know I've carried a lot of sadness throughout my life.  Not just my own, we inherit our parents' (and countless generations passed) sadnesses, too.  I have some deeply rooted traumas from my childhood and early adult life.  I grew up in a physically and emotionally abusive family to parents wholly incapable of loving me in the ways I want and need and desire.  Thank god I had a natural capacity for love and empathy, and a proclivity for independent and creative thinking combined with a fierce stubborn streak that served me well enough to keep my head above water during some dark times.  I've dug through and healed much of those traumas over the years, and yet it's an ongoing process and one that continually reveals new and more profound lessons and layers of healing.  The old traumas no longer guide or control my relationships.  If anything, now, they help me hold myself and my relationships to the highest levels of integrity.  And yet, it now feels important to talk about it even more openly as part of burning through those remaining dark spaces.  There are more layers there needing the light, even deeper roots sunk into that thick black earth that need burning, like that big mass of mostly dead root from my dream that needed to be thrown on the fire.

The things that have been coming up in my practice in general, and backbending in particular, feel very much like they're tugging on and uprooting those traumas, whatever remains of them.  All the fear, issues of trust, vulnerability, sadness, anger, pain.  There are also profound moments of joy, love, hope, strength, and glimpses into the depth of my own courage and the opening up of new possibilities.   It's like when we discover a nuance in our asana practice, and then suddenly there is a whole new space that opens up in postures that once were impossible or uncomfortably constricted.  To find courage and hope where there seemed to be absolutely none at all, that's where the work begins.  It is only by confronting the struggle and burning through samskaras that we open up new landscapes within ourselves.

"Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul. Just as in every heroic epic there are fearsome, painful and worrying battles that test the limits of the hero’s ability, so too in yoga are there challenging, difficult and nearly impossible postures that test the limits of your body and mind. But if you are the hero who is committed to the whole journey, then you also have the heart to see the experience all the way through to the end and win your final freedom."
~Kino MacGregor

Check out Kino's website & youtube channel.