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.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The places you fear to go....

"No fear, no fun."  One of the things I love about Ashtanga, is that it requires me to confront some scary places.  I started working on dropping back and standing up from urdhva dhanurasana (backbends) a few weeks ago.  My teacher came up to me as I was going into the finishing sequence and asked if I wanted to try it.  It hadn't even occurred to me, much like many parts of the practice that at one time seemed so inaccessible I wouldn't even attempt it.  It's one of the gateway postures in the primary series.  Once I get to Mysore, I'll need to be able to stand up on my own in order to move on to the intermediate series.  He explained how we can work on it with him spotting me.  I said it sounded really scary and that I was afraid.  He said it was indeed terrifying.  And I replied, "let's do it!" with enough mock bravery to convince myself that maybe I could do it, or at least not break myself in half trying.  We've continued to work on it in class, and it's still pretty much as scary as it was that first day.  But I'm getting more comfortable with the fear, and that, if anything, feels like progress.  Pain is a guru, a gift.  And so is fear.  How can I unwrap it? 

There's all kinds of stuff packed into fear, but as I'm fond of saying or being reminded of as often as needed, "where there's fear, there's power."  That power cuts both ways.  If I do not confront my fear, that thing will have power over me and will be an obstacle and limitation, often amplified into something monumental and insurmountable.  But by confronting fear, I come to embody that power and open up those spaces that I feared to go.  Those places are often the most fertile territories we can colonize within ourselves, and the rewards of such an endeavor echo into every area of our lives.  We become empowered in all we do when we confront our fear.  In addition to confronting the many layers of fear, there is a tremendous amount of trust I must give my teacher to not have me do something I'm not capable of doing, and of course, to not drop me on my head.  The teacher is an archetype, a mirror in which the student glimpses previously unseen possibility.  The most important gift a teacher can give is to be a clear reflection that allows the student to see what they are capable of, to help navigate and facilitate the student's own self-discovery.  And when it comes to backbending, I am not only trusting my teacher, but also myself.  I have to trust I will stay focused and aware and not get all turned upside down and around and try to come up on the wrong count - which is precisely what happened a couple weeks ago.  I got ahead of myself and all turned around (it's hard to tell which way is what when you're upside down) and I came up a count too early and damn near made us both wipe out.  Luckily no one was hurt.  It rattled my nerves a bit, but I got right back up and did the rest of my five drop backs.  This made me realize that the trust cuts both ways too.  It's like mountain climbers tied together, even though the more advanced one leads the way, if either one falls, they could both potentially go down.  

And yet, the act of trusting is far deeper and infinitely more subtle than merely knowing I'm not going to get dropped on my head.  Trusting can be terrifying, and all the times I gave my trust and was somehow betrayed come rushing to the surface.  Whether intentionally or accidentally broken, the rupture of trust can be traumatic.  Broken trust, most fundamentally, feels like a self-betrayal because it inevitably comes to the question, "How could I have allowed myself to trust an unworthy person?"  That's a heavy question to have to confront, and, for the faint of heart or meek of spirit, it can undermine the most basic sense of self.  And now realizing that my teacher has to trust me to some degree too, I must rise to the occasion to be worthy of that trust.  Breaking another's trust is perhaps even scarier to me than the prospect of them breaking mine - and most certainly scarier than falling on my head.  And so go the layers and layers of work to be done here, all potent and alive in just this one part of the practice.  And so I breathe into all those spaces, and I acknowledge that trusting is scary, even scarier and more difficult for me than the actual backbends themselves.  I'm sure my teacher sees some of these inner workings as I stand there preparing and trying not to freak out too much, outwardly at least.  He reassures me so that I feel safe and supported.  That reassurance is not just comforting physically, but even more so emotionally.  The emotional dimension of feeling safe is profoundly transformative and healing territory for me, having grown up in a very emotionally unsafe family dynamic.  I have done a lot of deep work to heal those early traumas, and still, when I push myself to the edges, tilting the mirror just enough to see into the darkest of spaces, there are still shadows wanting for the light.  Those shadows cast hard edges, and it's those edges that offer the greatest leverage for healing and discovery.  The heat generated from the practice is purifying, it breaks up stagnation and old traumas and clears the way for the light to shine through.  Combine that with urdhva dhanurasana being one of the most powerful heart opening asanas, and the conditions are ripe for some serious magic to happen.  Dark places are coming into light.  As one of my earliest yoga teachers from my highschool days in Idyllwild was fond of reminding us, backbends place the heart over the head.  "That's the medicine."  She was right, it is medicine, and it's potent.

As I continue to make progress with the physical practice, the emotional dimension continues to open up as well.  As I come up from the backbend, the natural instinct is to lift the head.  It's an automatic reflex like blocking your face if some object is flying at you, but really the head should hang back and be the very last thing to come up.  Lifting the head too soon can actually cause you to lose balance and fall back.  I have to really fight the impulse until it becomes second nature to let it haaaaang back.  Interestingly enough, keeping the head back also keeps the heart open, guiding the movement upwards.  And so I ask myself in what other ways are my impulses and reflexes self-sabotaging and can cause me to lose balance and fall?  Where else can I fight the knee-jerk reaction and train myself to haaaaang back?  Where else do I close myself up instead of staying open?  Where else do I let my head lead over my heart?  What am I capable of when I remain open and trusting, when I surrender to the movement of the heart?  And in practice last week, I caught a glimpse of what I'm capable of.  In the final deep bend of the backbending sequence, I walked my hands in close enough that I could see my own feet from behind.  At first I thought they were my teacher's feet because it is very strange and unexpected and exciting that I'd be able to see my own feet in a backbend.  I wonder what else will come into view in this wild, uncharted landscape.  There is so much to discover, and I am so grateful, every day, for this practice, and the vistas it is revealing.

This is incredibly potent heart opening territory.  And in some moments it is scary as all hell, and some moments it is so full of joy and wonder and discovery.  This is where the work is.  This is the place where I face my fears and see what I'm made of.  This is the inner landscape that holds the kind of power and beauty that cracks the heart wide open.

And the light is dawning there...

May your trails be crooked, 
winding, lonesome, 
leading to the most amazing view... 
where something strange 
and more beautiful 
and more full of wonder 
than your deepest dreams 
waits for you 
beyond that next turning 
of the canyon walls...
~Ed Abbey