Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The sweetness of home practice...

The biggest challenge for me coming home from India this time around was going back to practice at the studio I'd been at for the last year.  Maybe I changed, or maybe I was just seeing things more clearly, but I just couldn't shake the feeling that I didn't belong there anymore.  I love the people there, but it was clearly the time for me to move on.  There is a time for departure even when there’s no certain place to go.

And I don't know exactly where I'll end up.  There are not a lot of ashtanga options in Austin.  Aside from where I was practicing, there are two other options, one way across town during evening rush hour (not ideal time or location) and the other - taught by the only teacher I know of in town who has actually been to Mysore - is a weee bit too early for this night owl, and it's held out of a local gym.  But a third option has presented itself.  In the last couple of weeks, a new ashtanga program started up at another studio where I practiced a couple years back.  The time and location are both good.  I don't know the teacher, although I have heard good things.  So I may go check that out sometime soon.  And I got word that the studio up north will be switching their evening classes to morning next month, so that may become a more viable option.  I plan to explore all these possibilities and just see what feels right. 

I'd like to find a teacher in Austin.  And at the same time, I recognize within myself a certain skeptical resistance to feedback from people who haven't been to Mysore.  Especially when that feedback is contrary to the way things are done in the main shala.  The general etiquette in a yoga class is that you do what your teacher tells you when you are practicing with them, even if it is contrary to how you normally practice.  But a big part of me thinks that is totally bogus.  Especially over here in the west where a couple thousand bucks and a few weeks of your time can buy yourself the title of 'yoga teacher'.  And especially in a lineage-based yoga practice like ashtanga that has a specific tradition and way of doing things.  Luckily, most ashtanga teachers have a well established practice and much better grounding than most.  But still, there is often a massive gap between those who go to Mysore and those who don't - not just on the outer appearance of the practice but energetically too.  I think it's important to critically reflect upon feedback and not accept it blindly, being open to what is useful and letting go of the rest.  I don't think this is disrespectful - I think it is what a responsible, engage student ought to do.  I think it is what being accountable to yourself and your practice looks like. 
Afterall, "two gurus will kill one student."

Sharath is my capital T teacher.  I trust him implicitly.  He sees what I am capable of before it's even on my radar, and he helps me see that in myself.  He helps me become that.  There is some ineffable quality in his presence, in his watchful eye, in his laconic instruction, and in his sense of humor, that instills in me total faith in him.  Not blind, unquestioning faith but a faith tested in the fire of experience.  A faith that is so wholly hearted it burns all doubt to ash.  Śraddhā.  Guruji used to say, “Many teachers, crazy making. One teacher, shanti is coming.”  And I feel that peace with Sharath.  There is no doubt in my heart or mind.  I have found my teacher.  And so, maybe I'm not even looking for a teacher here in Austin, per se.  Maybe I'm looking for a mentor, someone who can provide valuable feedback while also recognizing and honoring that Sharath is my teacher.  And maybe they're even interested and curious to hear about the way things are in the main shala.  Maybe I'm looking for a place where the integrity of the tradition is respected, even if no one has been to Mysore.  Maybe I'm just looking for a solid adjustment every once in a while.  Maybe I'm looking for the sense of familiarity and community you develop with the people you practice with every day, even though you may rarely even say a word.  

Every day in utpluthih, I hear Sharath saying, "Lift up.... lift up.... lift higher..."
So where does this leave me...?  I have departed without any certain place to go.  And I'm okay with not belonging anywhere in particular for the moment, not having a teacher here or even a community of other ashtangis to practice with.  And I'm okay with the prospect that I may not even find those things here.  I'm open to the process of discovery and this in between place of the unfolding.  And you know what, for right now at least, I am really enjoying home practice, even with its challenges.  I've been on a major huge intense creative streak since I've been home, and so it's been all too easy for me to start working on one of my many exciting projects first thing in the morning and get so wrapped up that before I know it, I look up and it's already late in the afternoon and I haven't done my asana practice yet!  So what if I hit the mat at 4pm?  The inconsistency in my practice timing has actually been helpful in some ways.  It keeps me from getting too comfortable, from taking anything for granted, and it allows room for all this creative energy to be expressed in all kinds of juicy ways.  But inconsistency can also be an uphill battle.  It's much harder to hit the mat as it gets later in the day, so I am working towards a little more consistency - just enough to keep me reigned in and focused but not so much that things become too rigid for deep, sustained creative work to unfold in that unpredictable way it so often does.  I like having room to improvise when the muse comes to visit.  I will say, I am continually amazed at how much discipline and commitment it takes to keep up a home practice, especially since I work from home and there are plenty of ways to detour myself.  And I am nothing short of shocked (shocked, I tell you!!!) that I have become a person who could even remotely be described by the words 'disciplined' and 'committed'.  Oh what a potent and peculiar sort of magic yoga is!!! 
Asana practice itself has been great.  Except, to be honest, I miss those rock solid backbending assists in the shala. "Catching?" "Yes catching, no problem!" Every day catching. I could totally catch my ankles on my own if only I can find my balance.  Even so, my backbending is deep and steady, my breath is more full and calm than I thought possible that deep in it... Backbending has gone from a fear and panic inducing thing I had to force myself to confront every day, to my very favorite part of the day... All is coming!  Who could of guessed?!

<Exhibit A>  Exhale, go back... Breathe 1... 2... 3... 4... 5... Inhale, up!

I've been taking some video of my backbending at the end of practice.  I thought it would be good to see how it looks for myself.  It's been helpful to see myself in motion, how I fidget too much sometimes, but also how beautiful and deep backbending has become!  Slow and controlled, steady and focused.  And you know what else?  Looking at myself backbending, it occurs to me that my ass is so big it's damn near a miracle I can bend back over that thing!  As I told my friends who were quick to defend my derrière, I'm not saying fat bottomed girls are a bad thing.  Au contraire mon frère!  I think it's funny!  And kind of awesome.  Clearly, I don't have the ballerina-esque body that seems most commonly found amongst yogagirls... certainly amongst the most naturally graceful and flexible yogagirls.  Hahah, and yet!  I've discovered that my body is plenty capable of doing some damn amazing things.  <see exhibit A, above>  I've been struck with an overwhelming clarity and peace of mind that comes from recognizing how this body is an ally, a comrade on the battlefield, the dearest most loyal friend in life.  I've spent far too much time and energy struggling against it, berating it, trying to force it to be something it's not.  But no more.  How could I have anything other than love and gratitude and respect for a body that does this every day? 

And so... practice is practice is practice... whether you're on the other side of the world, waiting for the "one more" that signals you to enter and roll out your mat to begin your practice as seventy other people are in the midst of their own... Or whether it's just you at home all alone... Practice is practice, and it is so very sweet, same same. 


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Everything is divine...

Well hello from Austin!  I've been back from India for a little while now, and I'm excited to tell you about my experience this go 'round.  I have so many amazing things filling my heart and mind, so much creative energy, I feel like I'm on fire!  Instead of attempting some kind of linear exposition, I'm working on a little series of writings illustrated with photos and videos which will hopefully paint a good picture.  This trip to Mysore was beyond all my imaginings... very different from last year in so many ways, but also it feels like my experience this year only could have happened in light of how things unfolded last year.  No matter pain or ecstasy, India is sweet same-same, the motherland that cracks the heart open and pours in the light.  This year I feel like my lights were turned up to high beams, everything became illuminated in such a powerful way.  And coming back home to Austin has been a smooth transition.  Even the not so smooth parts have vibrated with a clarity that makes my response an effortless one.  I've been enjoying the process of bringing the sweet soulshine of my experience in India to bear on my life and relationships here.

One of the highlights of my recent time in Mysore was the philosophy/chanting/Sanskrit classes I took with James Boag.  James has been living about half the year in Mysore for the last seven years to work on a masters degree in Sanskrit.  I met him briefly on my first visit, and I am glad I reconnected with him this year to practice and study in a substantial way.  I dedicated a large chunk of my free time to study with him, and in the process, we collaborated on a series of short films that I think capture the beauty and power of his chanting and teaching - and a bit of the magic of India.  I'll be posting some of those videos here in upcoming blog posts, and you can always go to my yoga channel on vimeo to see them all.  

Today, I am pleased to share the first of these videos, one of my absolute favorites, Harireva Jagat (Everything is Divine).  We shot this one on location in the Devaraja market in Mysore after I had an image of Neitzsche's parable of the madman in the marketplace taking place in the beautiful madhouse that is India.  But instead of the madman proclaiming, "God is dead!  It is we who have killed him!!!" the madman would tell us how "God is alive!  Look!  Look inside, that is where you will find him!  When you see him there, you will see him everywhere!"  Because indeed, it is we who must tend to the holiest and mightiest within ourselves if we ever hope for something more.  Because there is so much more… And the whole universe opens itself up to the ones who dare to look at (to re-cognize, to re-member, to be at-one with) their indwelling, divine potential.  The whole universe conspires on behalf of those who set themselves aflame in that glory.

Harireva jagat (Everything is Divine) from Laura Lea Nalle on Vimeo.

I asked James to elaborate on the origin of this piece, as it has a very interesting story behind it.  Here is what he said:
This is a real favourite with me. I learnt it from fellow devotees of Swami Lakshmanjoo Maharāja at his Īshwar Ashram, in Ishber, Srinagar. Among devotees of Swami Lakshmanjoo in the lineage of Trika Shaiva Masters, this pair of verses are often added when we sing Bhairava Stava, this stava (hymn) which was given to us by the great Master who adorns the middle of the lineage, Śrī Abhinavagupta, one of the greatest personages in the whole history of Indian philosophy, Indian art, Indian aesthetics, Indian thought: one of the greatest intellects, one of the great masters, one of the greatest Beings of all time one might say!
As I understand it, these two ‘extra’ verses were given to us by Swami Vivekananda and Swami Rāma (Swami Lakshmanjoo’s great guru). And the composition of these verses is a wonderful story.  At a certain time on his spiritual journey, Swami Vivekananda was riled by doubts. His Master Swami Paramahansa Ramakrishna told him that he must go to Srinagar, to the ashram of Swami Rāma, this great master of Trika Shaivism. And you can imagine that just the journey itself afforded so much insight back then, from Bengal all the way over to Srinagar.

Anyway, Vivekananda has been on this journey, and all along, these tremendous doubts about the nature of ultimate reality and the nature of God, have been his companions. He arrives in Srinagar, finds Swami Rāma’s ashram, and there’s satsang going on. He goes in, as satsang’s in progress, and during the discourse, these doubts start to be, as it were, acted upon, worked upon, and they start to dissolve. At the culmination of the satsang, Swami Rāma’s devotees start singing this glorious hymn that Abhinavagupta left us, the Bhairava Stava, which really communicates the essence of Trika Shaiva Śāstra, the essence of Kashmir Shaivism. As Vivekananda hears the devotees singing this hymn, it’s like his doubts just get obliterated, completely dissolved. Like raindrops becoming one with the ocean, there’s just no more of them!

Then, in rapture with his doubts cleared, when the devotees finish, Vivekananda, his creative genius set free and aflame, composes and utters forth, on the spot, this additional verse:

Harireva jagajjagadeva hariḥ harito jagato na hi bhinnamaṇu
Iti yasya matiḥ paramārthgatiḥ sa naro bhavasāgaram uttarati

Then, Swāmi Rāma, pleased with Vivekananda’s understanding and his summary of the preceding verses of Bhairava Stava, follows immediately, with a second half to this colophon to the great Bhairava Stava, and he says:

Ādāvante cidrasa rūpam madhye cidrasa budbuda rūpam
Bhātam bhātam bhārūpam syāt no bhātam cennitaram na syāt

So this pair of verses added to the glorious Bhairava Stava provide a glimpse of the wondrous rasa or flavour of the teachings of Kashmir Shaivism. Also, when we hear them sung, they give us an immediate taste of the richness and transportative power of the way that Kashmiri devotional songs are sung.

Jai Guru Deva!

What a remarkable story, thanks for sharing that with us, James!  For now, I'll leave you with one more video from the Devaraja market - James reciting the poem 'If' by Rudyard Kipling.  I included this poem in a post while I was in still Mysore, so if you want to read it after watching the video, you will find it here.... Enjoy! 

If (poem by Rudyard Kipling) from Laura Lea Nalle on Vimeo.

Stay tuned for more, coming very, very soon!
Laura Lea
ॐ भद्रं कर्णेभिः श्रुणुयाम देवाः ।
भद्रं पश्येमाक्षभिर्यजत्राः
स्थिरैरङ्गैस्तुष्टुवांसस्तनूभिः ।
व्यशेम देवहितम् यदायुः ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥ 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What happens...?

What happens when your soul
Begins to awaken
Your eyes
And your heart
And the cells of your body
To the great Journey of Love?

First there is wonderful laughter
And probably precious tears

And a hundred sweet promises
And those heroic vows
No one can ever keep.

But still God is delighted and amused
You once tried to be a saint.

What happens when your soul
Begins to awake in this world

To our deep need to love
And serve the Friend?

O the Beloved
Will send you
One of His wonderful, wild companions ~
Like Hafiz.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

If you can...

My last two months in Mysore have been an exquisitely unfolding series of one potent experience after another, so rich and deep and infused with the sweetness of fresh mango.  Tomorrow is our last day of practice at the shala, and then there will be a mass exodus from Gokulum.  I will linger here another week or so, holding satsang with a few really remarkable human beings, continuing our studies in the yogic philosophies.  Chanting, listening, connecting.  Practicing.  I have so much to tell you about my time here, and yet, now is not quite the time... It would be like trying to talk with my mouth full.  I am relishing these last few bites in all their delicious sweetness and will give it all a moment to digest before I attempt to relay in words and images what really must be felt to be understood.  I will do my best when that time comes, for your sake, and for my own.  For now, I will leave you with a poem, one that has come up a couple of times recently - once just before I left for India, and again just recently in a course I've been taking on the Gita.  If you want to know what yoga is, and perhaps taste a bit of the sweetness I'm soaking up here in Mysore, then enjoy this as you would a fine wine, slowly, deliberately, lingering on the delicate, unfolding flavor of each sip as it rolls over your tongue...

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools: 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

~Rudyard Kipling

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The time of god...

The thing about practicing at Brahma muhurtham
the 'time of god' three hours before sunrise
is that by the time I am finished
I step outside to cool undisturbed air
stars still overhead in the pre-dawn twilight
distant chanting and prayers 
ringing in surround sound through the neighborhood
only the occasional tuktuk or far off train or dog barking
hint at a city on the verge of waking.  
And then, almost in one fell swoop
the darkness gives way 
to the tangerine and violet rising of the sun
pushing back that impenetrable stillness
that only moments before rang out 
from the center of my chest like church bells,
now an echo of a dream I dare to remember
as a deep sapphire sky fades to bluish white
ushering in the chaos and cacophony 
of another crazy beautiful (extra)ordinary day
in the madhouse that is India,
the motherland that cracks hearts open
and pours in the light...

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Everything to give...

Well, I'm back in Mysore.  Feels like I never even left.  

I had another dream before I left Austin.  I had been feeling quite anxious about some circumstances that presented me with the opportunity to practice non-attachment in a big way.  I was conflicted about whether I should stay in Austin to deal with the unfortunate situation, or go to India as I had set in motion months ago.  When India calls, it is not a subtle argument.  It is not the sweet whisper of a lover.  No, it is the full force of a new moon tide pulling me toward shore.  There is little option but to surrender.  And my dream whispered to me, "Go.  Go, and take nothing.  She has everything to give..."   

So here I am.  And it is a beautiful, sweet homecoming.

I haven't even been here for a week and already Sharath has me catching my ankles in backbends.  Remembering the lessons from last year, and being thankful for them and integrating them into my practice every day, my practice is so much stronger, more focused, more refined - which is most definitely apparent in my asana practice, but also moreso apparent (to me, at least) in my inner devotional practice.  Last year cracked me open, stripped the outer artifice of the practice away, and let me see all that remains.  With a dislocated rib and pulled intercostals, I was crawling and crying my way through the most basic practice, in terrible pain with every breath, and I realized that everything I need was right there all along.  Yoga is really not about the asanas.  Referring to the asana practice, Guruji said, "Yoga is showing where to look for the soul - that is all."  And in the last year, the sweetness and devotion I found in my cracked open heart has grown and taken root in a much more substantial way, in ways apparent from the outside, and, most importantly, in the infinitely more nuanced inner workings.   

Yesterday was my first day of self-practice at the shala.  I attempted to have a nice leisurely stroll of a practice.  I did a few dropbacks with just a little moral support from one of Sharath's assistants while Sharath kept a watchful eye on me, and then he tells his assistant to 'make her catch' in the final dropback.  To which I responded the only way a person really can to such a direction, with a look of complete shock and terror!  For all you non-ashtangis out there, that means dropping back into backbend from standing and grabbing both your ankles.  I didn't do it quite because I sort of panicked and just ended up landing my hands about two inches from my heels, but I feel somehow like I've been found out, and I should be very, very afraid of what's in store.  'No fear, no fun!'  

And then today, I did dropbacks all by myself without the mental safety net of someone standing right in front of me.  And then another one of Sharath's assistants comes over to do half backs and the final deep dropback.  He asked me if I catch and I'm sure I had that scared look in my eyes and said I never even tried or thought about it until yesterday.  So he talked me through it.  My hands landed nice and close to my heels, and I walked them in until they were just a hair away, then he told me to straighten my arms and he grabbed my right hand, put it on my right ankle, and then did the same with the left.  Then he readjusted me a bit higher on my ankles and told me to straighten my arms again, and I took the usual five breaths before coming back up.  As I was getting squooshed in forward bend, Sharath asked, 'Catching?'  And his assistant replied, 'Yes, catching.  Easy for her.'  Ummmm, yeah... easy.  Hahah!  Not so easy inside my head!  But also not as crazy scary as I could have imagined if given a little more time to think about it. 

So there it is, once again, experiencing first hand how the impossible becomes possible, and one day the possible may actually become easy.  So go do something that scares you, aim for something just out of reach.  Practice.... All is coming!