Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Entering A New Year

The transition period from one year to the next always gives us an opportunity to reflect on the years that have gone by. I find that many memories begin to percolate through the filter of my mind as I think about some of the lessons I’ve learned, the friendships I’ve been blessed with, the people I love, and those I’ve lost, and all the various experiences that have brought me to this day, sitting in this present moment.

It is a time of year when we can look back and be grateful for all those people, places, and things that have enriched our lives, and realize that our journey has been exactly the way it needed to be both for our growth and for our pruning. Some days it may seem like a bit of a mystery as to how we end up where we are, and sometimes it feels like we haven’t moved any steps further ahead at all. The end of the year is a good time to look back and see just how far we’ve come, to celebrate our victories and learn from our defeats.

This is also a time of year when I like to refocus my thoughts. To set an intention for the year ahead, reaffirm what is most important to me, and give thanks for what has yet to come. Part of this process is identifying and releasing old ideas and negative patterns of thinking. These are the limiting thoughts that work only to hold us back or put obstacles in our path. If we are to fully embrace what is to come, and be receptive to the new, then we must also be willing to let go of the past, open our hearts to the possibility of something completely unexpected; live and let live.

Swami Vivekananda says, “We are what our thoughts have made us, so take care of what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live, they travel far.”

So as we enter 2009, let us take some time to think and then write down our intentions for the year to come, as well as our goals, hopes, dreams, and wishes... let our thoughts live - let them travel far.

Let’s take a few minutes to concentrate on an image of the kind of person we want to be, and the type of world we want to create and live in. Let’s turn our minds to the positive, be happy for the joyous, and compassionate to the suffering, and most of all, let us love one another truly and deeply, for only then can we begin to experience the Infinite and come to recognize the face God.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Looking into the Mirror of the Practice

This practice of yoga is a process of gradually learning to let go. Not only letting go of those places where we hold tension, fear, or anxiety in our present life, but also learning to release the old hurts and patterns from the past.

There are many instances when we’ve been unable to fully express the sadness, anger or heartache we’ve felt, and instead of experiencing the full intensity of these feelings we’ve learned to stuff and store these emotions within the structure of our physical body. Although at the time this containment permitted us to feel safe and in control, in the end, it creates restrictions and tensions both at a physical and psychological level.

Some days the past comes back to haunt us so strongly that we can feel its presence in the pinching sensation of our low-back, the pressure in our knees, or the heavy weight sitting in our chest. Stored memories and emotions can appear in a myriad of forms and manifestations.

As we move through the Ashtanga series of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, we gently try to coax out our fears or resentments, and unravel our memories from the dark corners of our minds, drawing them out from the fibers of our muscles. As we purify our minds, we begin to experience the removal of these emotions and memories in our physical body. This gives us the opportunity to examine their presence, and then release them from a place of distance, and eventually allow them to completely disappear.

This process requires that we be very real and honest with ourselves. It does not help to create stories or dramas about what is going on. We must focus our minds and stay completely present in the moment. It requires a degree of courage to confront the past, our patterns, and recollections, and to look these old demons straight in the eyes and say, “you will not have power over me any longer.”
It requires some bravery to step forward into the light, out from the shadow of a previous time.

Ashtanga yoga is not for the faint of heart, or for those with a “weak mind.” It encompasses a deep process of self-discovery, and reveals a certain truth about our weaknesses and strengths. This practice does not permit us to linger long in fanciful whims, mere entertainment, or escapism. It acts as a mirror that we must be willing to look into on any given day if we wish to grow and transform. The Ashtanga Yoga practice challenges us not only on a physical level, but also on the mental, emotional, and spiritual planes as well.

As students of this practice we must be open to change. There must be a willingness to let go of everything that no longer feeds our growth, and a readiness to embrace something new. Each practice contains the seed of our creation, death and rebirth. We only need to open ourselves to the experience of this process within, and then integrate the lessons we learn for the transformation to occur.

Finally, we must understand that even with the right attitude and approach, there are moments when the past jumps back into our present day to challenge us, and make us aware that there still are those hidden pieces inside that we have not yet reconciled, and areas where we are still holding onto some lingering impression of our former self.

Whether it is a grudge, a painful memory, an old belief, or an inhibiting pattern, we must be prepared to take a close look at it through the wisdom and reality of the present moment, observe any discomfort that accompanies it, and without identifying ourselves with it, permit its full release.

This ability, like everything else in our life, both on and off the yoga mat, requires practice and non-attachment (abhyasa and vairagya). Some days this process is much easier then others, but the important thing is that we continue to practice and mindfully observe the lessons and transformations as they occur.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scarcity and Abundance

“Ever desireless, one can see the Mystery,
Ever desiring, one can see only the Manifestations,
And the Mystery itself is the doorway to all understanding.”
Tao Te Ching

Over the pass three months we’ve been traveling all over North America, and then through parts of the Middle East, and finally we have arrived in Goa, India, where we will be teaching several yoga retreats over the next five months. It has been a very interesting transition moving from the “financial crisis” that is consuming the minds of North Americans, to observing the huge amounts of ridiculous wealth in cities like Dubai and Doha, which are drastically contrasted by the obvious poverty of the workers building these metropolises up from the sand. It was a refreshing breath of sea breeze that washed over us as we arrived in Goa, clearing the clutter and commotion of all our traveling over the past few months.

All this moving about has made me think about one of the gifts that this practice of yoga brings. A daily practice creates a space in our lives where we can sit in the silence of a moment and start to perceive ourselves more clearly. We come to the mat each day and create some stability within the chaos that surrounds.

After visiting so many different places, it seems to me that the common problem for people all over the world is that we have been conditioned to believe that scarcity is the cause of all our feelings of despair. There is a general attitude amongst the many that without obtaining some type of external object for gratification they “just won’t get no satisfaction.”

The common thought seems to be: “without this person I’ll never find love or happiness, without this possession I’ll never be contented, without this job I’ll never have security, without this experience I never feel pleasure, without being in this place, I’ll never find fulfillment.” We are stuck in this cycle of feeling excitement over the thought of the possibility of attaining something, anxiety over the idea of loosing it, and we end up angry or in total despair when we realize it has been taken away.

This is the sequence we fall into when we allow craving and aversion, attachment and dependence to rule our lives. We develop varying degrees of attachment to people, places, and things, and we start craving for what we don’t have, and feeling an aversion to what we don’t want, and this pattern produces endless amounts of pain, sorrow and suffering.

The interesting thing is that when we really stop and take a look at our attachments, we begin to realize that they are merely fantasies and stories that we’ve created in our minds, and somehow, in the process of creation, we’ve convinced ourselves that they are real and true. We’ve tricked ourselves into believing our own made up illusions about the world around us, and our role within it.

Nisargadatta Maharaj says, “As long as you identify yourself with the body-mind, you are vulnerable to sorrow and suffering.” The ego believes we are defined by “what we do, what we own, who we are friends with, who we love, who loves us back, and what others think about us.”

The truth is that no-thing can ever really bring us happiness, and no person can ever really make us feel loved, no new experience can provide lasting peace, and no place or job will bring ultimate satisfaction. We have to start to transcend the cage of our ego-mind and move beyond our limited self to experience the ‘Source of Peace,’ which is our Highest Self.

Unhappiness is a condition. It is a pattern of thinking and feeling that we’ve become addicted to, and so we continue to recreate those situations in our lives that will reinforce a subconscious believe that we don’t deserve to be content, and that happiness is something that exists outside of ourselves instead of inside.

We can start to deprogram ourselves by remembering that contentment is a choice and cheerfulness an attitude. They are not dependent upon anything outside our own mind. We can learn to eliminate feelings of despair through cultivating an attitude of non-attachment and gratitude for what we do have.

In our daily yoga practice we need to develop a habit of moving inwards, instead of running outwards to the manifestations of the material world. Chasing after postures is simply another form of craving, and reinforcing that old belief that “we are not good enough.” It is acting from a framework of scarcity again instead of recognizing the abundance that exists within.

India is a beautiful place for reminding us that it is not scarcity that creates despair. So many of the people here live off very little, and yet, they are some of the happiness, most beautiful individuals we’ve ever met. Somehow they’ve learned to see beyond the illusion of the material world, and to act outwardly while remaining firmly established in the center of peace within.

Value is not created by what we add to ourselves, the value is inherently in us, and gets realized when we can honestly see that nothing needs to be added at all, for we already have everything we need.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Self Practice

At the beginning of the month Sharath had taken a two-week break from teaching at the Yoga Shala here in Mysore. Students were given the option to practice with Saraswathi or on their own at home. During this time Guruji came down to lead a couple of led-primary classes, and to chant the invocation, which was a real treat for all of us practicing in the Shala.

Around this same time, one of our students from Canada had written to us asking: “what do you do when your teacher is away?” and “how do you practice when left on your own?”
It seems that this is a question was on the minds of many people, as it was asked during our last conference with Guruji and Sharath the week before. The answer was simple: You continue to practice as your teacher has taught you.

Yoga is a personal practice that when practiced correctly has positive effects on the whole of humanity. Finding a teacher to guide and instruct is an essential component of the Path, as is being surrounded by a sangha (community) to help motivate and encourage each of us along the way.

However, there will be many times in our lives when we will find ourselves far from any teacher, and without a community of practitioners around us. In fact, it may be the case that most of our lives we will practice alone, without the direct presence of a teacher. This being the case, it is important to figure out some ways to keep our minds focused on our practices and to stay motivated so we can continue to grow.

One thing that will help is to take a close look at the how and why we practice. If we are truly practicing in a correct way, and for the right reasons, we cannot help but experience the positive effects of the practice in our daily lives. The more self-awareness we can develop, the more we will observe the benefits of the practice, and we will find ourselves encouraged to continue making a strong effort in our daily practice.

It can also be helpful to find time once or twice a year to devote a period of time to just practicing and studying yoga. This can be done by going on a specific “yoga retreat,” or by just taking some time off from the demands of your job and the obligations of daily life to focus on your practice and reconnecting with yourself and if possible, your teacher. These periods of intense study and concentrated practice can help to revive your practice, create inspiration, and rekindling your passion for the practice of yoga.

Sometimes students ask: “What should I practice and how can I progress while you are not here?”

Sharath and Guruji have said: “practice what you’ve been taught, as you’ve been taught.” When you practice the postures your teacher has given you with earnest devotion you will certainly “progress.”

In the modern world we tend to associate this notion of “progress” with the idea that “more is better” and we get caught up in the idea that if we are doing more it means we are getting better and “progressing.”

Contrarily, progress along the path of Yoga doesn’t amount to “more.” We don’t progress by doing “more postures” or “more difficult postures” or “more practices” or “longer practices.” Progress on the path of Yoga is determined by the internal condition of our mind and attitude.
When we can be completely satisfied with exactly what we have and who we are at any given moment then we are starting to walk along the path of santosha (contentment) the second niyama, and that is the sign of real progress. We will be happy to practice less with more awareness, instead of more with less satisfaction.

As Sharath reminded us in conference, doing advanced asana doesn’t mean you are a more “advanced practitioner.” It doesn’t guarantee more “self-knowledge” or “enlightenment.” A student practicing primary series can be learning more, and growing more by focusing on the internal form and starting to “still the fluctuations of the mind,” then a student who may be practicing an advanced series but who is still fixated on the external form without developing any kind of control over the mind.

The “inner asana” is what we must strive to perfect. When we can humbly surrender to a practice, and commit ourselves to following one method and one teacher, this “inner asana” the “seat of God within” gets perfected. Gratitude grows when we can accept what we have been given instead of always acting from that deeply ingrained pattern (samskara) of asking and wanting and taking more and more. As Sri O.P Tiwari has reminded us time and time again, we should strive to be a “person of the needs, and not the wants.”

Monday, May 26, 2008

Inner Asteya

Sharath gave a conference last night and I was reminded of a practice I had last year when out of frustration I choose to quit early.
I was fed up, had had enough, my back was sore, I had no energy, and in my mind I wasn't "progressing."

As I left the shala my teacher looked at me and said, "weak mind". Something sunk in my chest. I was heart broken, angry, and wanted to cry. But honestly, Sharath was right, he had nailed me. Of course this led to a little reflection for me...

The yamas are known in the yoga sutras as the mahavratam (the great vows). These fundamental teachings are the corner stone of yoga. Asteya is the third yama, and is translated as “non-stealing.” For most of us it is obvious we must not steal in order to maintain our practice of ahimsa (non-violence). We know that if we take something from someone else we are harming him or her.

But what about stealing from ourselves?

We all face challenges both on and off the mat. One challenge I have in my practice is urdhva danurasana or back-bends. It's not so surprising that this posture became much easier when I realized I was actually sabotaging myself with my mind. (Ok... that's a picture of Harmony not me)

I had developed a pattern of berating myself, and it needed to be broken. Somehow a resistance towards bending-back had crept in, along with an attachment to what I believed was “ideal progress.” I realized that I needed to release the feeling of fear I was having patiently over time. I needed to stop stealing my ability to see the positive.

This brings up the question: “How do we steal from ourselves both on and off the mat?”
Do we steal time from ourselves? Do we push into and through pain in an unhealthy manner? Are we overly critical of ourselves? Do we mentally beat ourselves up?

We can start to find our own answers by asking ourselves the right questions: Am I being patient with myself? Am I allowing myself enough time to learn the lessons I need to learn before moving forward?

Louise Hay, in her book You Can Heal Your Life, asks her readers to: "Stop for a moment and catch your thought. What are you thinking right now? If it is true that your thoughts shape your life, would you want what you were just thinking right now to be true for you?"

This is a great question to ask your self. Are we thinking supportive thoughts? Or are we playing old tapes in our heads that no longer add value to our present circumstances.

Are our thoughts, and consequently our lives, filled with the mantra: "I can do it!" or are we in subtle ways stealing happiness and contentment from ourselves simply because we have not examined our own patterns of thinking? It is so easy for the mind to simply default into its old self-sabotaging patterns, so we need to make a conscious effort to increase the awareness of our own thoughts.

Ultimately we need to support ourselves in the yoga practice we have chosen. This is vital. We need to give ourselves lots of positive encouragement the way we would encourage others. Learning to love and approve of our actions in every moment is one of the most important practices that we can do.

I leave this week with one more quote from Louise Hay: "If we want a joyous life, we must think joyous thoughts. If we want a prosperous life, we must think prosperous thoughts. If we want a loving life, we must think loving thoughts. Whatever we send out mentally or verbally will come back to us in like form." (You Can Heal Your Life)

If it is true that we only get what we give, then perhaps it’s time to reflect upon what you have given or withheld from yourself lately.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Moving Into Mysore

After 44 straight hours of travel, sleeping seat-belted in airplanes, muddling through various time zones, enduring indigestion from bad airplane food, and finally surviving a scary Indian car ride, we are back in Mysore!
Mother India always presents a plethora of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes – a real smorgasbord for the senses!
And all I can say is ... Yippee!!
The effort to get here is a small price to pay for the great blessing of being back to study with our teachers.

Thank God for the next three months! While we are here in Mysore, the practice becomes the sole focus of our attention, pretty much of our whole existence, and although three months might seem like a grand amount of time, for us it seems more like a short, but intense, check-in. It is nice to have some time to step away from the demands of “big city living,” to find a quiet space to sink into where we can practice, study, and delved deeper into the inner-Self once again.
The truth is that most of us need to deliberately dedicate some time every now and again to make our yoga practice the focus of our attention. Amidst our busy lives we need to find those moments where we can rededicate ourselves to a consistent practice and review our growth along the path.

As we move through life, a multitude of things can become obstacles to our spiritual growth. The daily demands of “modern living” are just some of the obstacle that can take a toll on our mental, physical and spiritual well-being. With the help of our yoga practice we can begin to recognize a little sooner when we need to take a personal “time-out” to rejuvenate, re-vitalize, and possibly modify our approach to the journey.
Taking time to focus on what we really want, both on and off our mat, and pausing to honestly assess the barriers on the path is a very important process. It is satya (truth) that helps us find the answers to the questions that lie within ourselves.

Sometimes it is only after taking a step back that we can truly assess our choices and correctly decide where to invest our energy and resources. Life is a series of choices, and as Louise Hay would say, "the point of power is always in the present moment."
Breath, Be Present, Choose Well!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Same Same But Different

Sometimes practice is hard. We would all like it to be easy, but realistically this is not always the case.

We have a student who comes to us intermittently. He is an artist, and a yoga teacher, and has a loving free spirit. After working through some strains and sprains, aches and pains, he asked us if his practice would always be this difficult. He was referring to the many struggles he was having with discomfort in his body: "Isn't yoga supposed to be all about bliss?" he asked. Physical suffering can be hard on us psychologically, and our motivation to keep up with the practice can decrease.

It is a great question though, "Isn't yoga supposed to be all about bliss?"
I guess the simple answer is NO! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out however. We need only to observe the nature and the truth of our existence. Pain comes, and pain goes. Pleasure comes, and pleasure goes. There is an arising and a passing away. Yoga is the ability to keep our mind steady during the rise and fall, the ebb and flow of life, and the successfulness our practice shows up in our ability to deal with the changes, great and small, that manifest within us and around us in every moment.
The most difficult form of satya, or truthfulness, starts with our own self. One good question to ask of ourselves is this: "Am I being serious or sincere?"

Our teacher Tiwariji encourages us to be sincere, as seriousness is an expression of the ego. When I get "serious" about my practice, I push too hard, I tend to move out of a balanced state and into an ego-driven state, and I increase the potential for injury. Yoga practice is difficult enough, without creating more obstacles with our ego. Finding the balance beyond pain and pleasure, and creating steadiness of mind and body to help us move beyond the dualities of existence, is an essential part of our quest. Searching for "bliss" results in a constant disappointment. To crave bliss is really a craving for misery, as all sensations, pleasant or painful, are conditioned by our temporal existence, and so are always impermanent and changing.

I am reminded of what my friend David Swenson says, "If at first you find this practice hard, don't worry, it gets easier! And if at first you find this practice easy, don't worry, it gets harder!" In my opinion, David is one of the great Ashtanga Yogis of our day, and what he said pretty much sums it up: Sometimes practice is hard, sometimes it is easy. What is important is not to crave the easy, energetic, light, enjoyable practices, as this is a recipe for disappointment, but we must strive to keep our equanimity during both the pleasant practices, as well as the difficult ones.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Satya - Bringing Truth to the Mat.

Satya or the second yama arises out of ahimsa. It is a continuation of the foundational practice of non-harming, as it is the application of truth in our lives. It not only refers to being truthful with others, but it also includes the awareness of being truthful with ourselves, and this means meeting ourselves each day on the mat as we are, as we practice.

We had a new student came to our Mysore class this week to begin learning the wonderful practice of Ashtanga Yoga. His wife practices with us, and so he was familiar with the practice and brought with him many pre-conceived ideas, expectations, and concerns about what a yoga practice should look like, and how long it needed to be. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the other students, and that he had to do it for over an hour every day. I think he was pleasantly surprised to find out that this practice "truthfully" can fit into his busy schedule and that it doesn’t have to be a long and laborious activity, and that when practiced with awareness it could add value to his life.

This brings up a few questions though: Are there times when the practice truthfully doesn't fit for us? Are there times when the practice is too much for our day-to-day schedule? Can we approach the demands of life, and the demands on our time in a truthful way and still make the effort to find the middle path between laziness and egoistic ambition? I believe we can.

Finding this middle ground is vital for us. Our yoga practice should be
something that creates more balance in our lives not further imbalance. We must find ways to integrate our practice into our daily living without increasing the stress we already have. Only in this way will the practice be maintained over the long term, and can we hope to find the true benefits of a yoga practice. Patanjali says: "Sa tu dirghakala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih" – which means: “Only after a long time of continuous practice with sincerity will the benefits of yoga be achieved.”

This then must be our aim. To be truthful with ourselves and our capacity each day not only when starting and integrating yoga into our lives, but also when sustaining the practices we have already established, and in doing so we will gain all he benefits that come from a daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Patience Grasshopper...

This week one of our students was frustrated with supta kurmasana and was clearly disturbed when we kept stopping her at this difficult posture. She, like so many of us, was restless and itching to move forward in her asana practice; and again like so many of us, she wanted results and had become impatient with her progress.

This reminded me of what our teacher once taught us about impatience. He said that impatience is a subtle form of violence or hostility towards oneself. (Of course then he looked directly at me and said that if a student is impatient they have not understood the the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Busted again!) So, for one more week lets keep with the Yamas and the Ahimsa theme.

You see according to Patanjali only one eighth of this classical yoga path is asana, and in his book he speaks about asana in only 3 of 196 verses. His emphasis makes it clear for all of us that in this practice of yoga there are some other limbs that we must attend to.

Whether it is on or off the mat, if we are "practicing impatience" in our lives we have omitted a first and vital step in our yoga process, and quite possibly our yoga progress. In the Yoga Sutras the chief Yama (the first limb of ashtanga yoga) is Ahimsa. Ahimsa is an action centered attitude of "non-harming" or "non-violence," and it is a vital, but very difficult, practice. It deals with our actions towards others as well as ourselves. We must cultivate this practice in ourselves and radiate it out to others. As always the mat becomes the great mirror, and if we are willing to look, it will reflect back to us our true progress on this path.

Ultimately, this comes back to choice. We must make the conscious choice to practice ahimsa: to be gentle with ourselves, to approve of ourselves, to have patience with ourselves, and after taking action, we must leave the results to God. Of course in this practice if the struggle of this daily existence overwhelms us... you can always do what Sri K. Pattabhi Jois tells us to do: "You breath You!"

Be Blessed! Peace, Out.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Snow eh!

I was excited it was only -8 degrees Celsius! The deep freeze we were living in was unplugged a week ago, and I was looking forward to actually getting on the mat without being frozen; even more so to having a long lingering practice...

Then I looked outside... Now maybe if you are melting in Thailand it looks like a winter wonderland, but dang the extra 15 minutes I thought I had for my practice was just re-assigned to snow removal.

With no one around and a feeble grumble I started sweeping the car clean.
I was reminded of what my teacher would say, "the mind wants to be negative," and in the snow that morning it wasn't hard to watch this mind gravitate towards negativity... (especially when I can remember loving days like this as a kid).

There is no debating that in Canada we have 4 seasons. In the winter season things slow down, even our practices, and so it becomes even more important to remember ahimsa in our interactions. This ahimsa, "non-harming," or "non-violence," applies equally to ourselves as it does to anyone else that we interact with. To practice Ashtanga Yoga, we must bring attention to all the limbs and luckily asana helps us with this.

Of course in the end, seasons come and seasons go, postures come and postures go, stiffness comes and stiffness goes. To dwell in impatience and criticism of ourselves or others, or the situations we are in, is to misunderstand the necessity of practicing ahimsa, and to miss out on a great opportunity to practice yoga more fully in our lives.

But Dang! I'm looking forward to spring!
Until next time... Be Blessed! J

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Canadian Winter

Dang!! It's cold here in Canada!! ... It was 3:00 am and -49 Celsius (-56 Fahrenheit) the last couple days when we were making our way to the shala to practice, now for those of you tuning in from Thailand for the first time, that is like living in your freezer. Public transit wasn't running because the doors were freezing open or closed, if you could start your car the wheels were frozen more square than round and bumped along for the first 10 minutes of your drive, and if you had any uncovered skin exposed it would freeze causing frost bite in under 2 minutes... Even the "momma deer" wanted to bring her baby inside...

Oh, how we were missing India and Thailand...

I guess you can't help but question your life choices when it seems more sensible to hibernate than to crawl out of bed from under piles of warm blankets. Even in the heated room of the yoga shala my body never wanted to get warm and I felt the the mental resistance to doing my asana practice.

Oh, the tricky mind, it wasn't to hard to see that I had formed a strong attachment to the warm climates of India and Thailand, developing a craving for the internal heat that makes me feel so bendy, and the desire to "perform" asana rather than "practice" asana in the moment. Patanjali who gave us the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga tells us to achieve our goal we must practice and be non-attached or non-dependant.

This week it is the Canadian winter that is reminding me to take heed of Patanjali's words, to practice with sincerity and detach from the results. Yoga is so much more than asana, and it's clearly time for me to review the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.... but more on that in a couple of weeks...