A few years ago I sat down to do some goal setting and realized that I hardly ever take personal vacations. I travel a lot with work, obviously, and I visit so many awesome places and spend time with amazing people all over the world, but I rarely plan a trip for fun and recreation. So I decided that I would take a trip to the Galapagos Islands, a place I have always wanted to visit. Anyway, me, Kelly, Mom and Dad have been planning this trip on cruise to the Islands for over 18 months. We left home last week and flew to Quito, Ecuador for a few days of rest and then set off to the Islands last Friday.
So many things could be said but to make a long story short, while we were on the island we noticed that Mom was getting very weak in her legs, very unsteady in her balance and her hands were getting very weak. Turns out, she was having a stroke.
On the second day of the cruise we landed in a small town named San Cristobal and got off the boat and went to the local hospital. We spent the morning in the local hospital and and eventually took a flight back to Quito where Mom was admitted to the hospital on Monday evening. She was seen by some amazing doctors and cared for by great nurses and we have been here in Quito ever since. Mom had a stroke in the left side of her brain that affects her center for walking, particularly on the right side so her right leg is very weak. Also, she is having some trouble using her right hand.
I have been spending the nights with her. I come in around 7:30 pm and leave around noon when Dad comes in. He is spending the days with her. During the days, Kelly and I have taken some time to get some food, to exercise, to make connections with the various insurance companies and so forth who are involved in Mom's case.
It seems like we are living a lifetime every day navigating a major illness in a foreign country where none of us speak the language.
One of the things I have always appreciated about traveling is the way that it knocks me out of my zone of comfort and confronts my stereotypes, unconscious assumptions and habitual patterns of both thought and behavior. While Facebook profiles and blog entries always show great images of cool vistas and nifty sites along the way, anyone who has packed bag and headed off on a trip- particularly for a long time and/or to a foreign country- knows that travel, for all of its boons and delights, is also full of discomfort and demands that range from strange foods, to long lines, to missed connections, illnesses, poor lodging, bad weather, lost luggage and so on. Things can and do go wrong and the gods of travel are both generous and cruel.
So while I hold these challenges in high regard as part and parcel of the process of transformation that I believe travel offers, this particular trip has been quite heavy on that end of the spectrum, as you can probably imagine. And probably because of the pendulum's swing to the end of challenging circumstances, the time has also been rich with food for reflection and insight for contemplation.
One of the most amazing experiences during the trip has come from being so vulnerable here- very sick mother, unable to speak spanish, etc.- and to continually receive the blessing of kindness that the Equadorian people so constantly offer. There is something both humbling and inspiring about being on the receiving end of another person's basic goodness. It is somewhat mind-blowing. From the doctors, to the nurses, to the cab drivers, the folks in the hotel and in the cafe- we have been treated with a generosity of sprit that has softened the experience quite considerably.
Also, it occurred to me the other day that the "life is precious and uncertain" realization is a difficult one to hold onto. Of course, experiences like the one I am having this week with my mom serve to drive the message home in a visceral way. However, one thing I have come to realize is that moments of inspiration do not, in and of themselves, change me. The inspiration must be integrated, fought for even at times and concretized through action over time. Over a long time. Just today, as I was reflecting on the great fortune it is to have health and well-being, I felt a sober voice emerge from within that said, "You know, as strong and solid as this feels now, you will probably lose your certainty in a few weeks. Insight is easy to forget so stay close to this moment in the weeks to come as complaint, comparison, fear, etc. arise and remove you from the simplicity of the gratitude you are feeling."
So, the thing is that is what practice is about for me. I don't practice expecting that I will remember every inspiring insight I have or because I expect those quotes on Facebook and Twitter to really come to my rescue in a moment of need, as much as I might like to read them in the morning as I scroll through my News Feed. I do not practice because I expect that I will become some different person from it. In some ways I practice because I expect, at least on one level, that I will forget a lot of what I learn. I practice because I know how hard it is to make lasting shifts and changes and because so much of growing is about managing a kind of inner profit-and-loss. I practice because it is in the small acts of asana, of conscious breathing, of mantra, prayer, Remembrance and Assertion, I connect to my important insights and to what holds meaning for me.
The paradox of the process of sadhana is that even though practice doesn't necessarily make me a better person, it does give me a thread of connection, a way back home to my Heart, and a doorway to a context for my suffering and joy that I do believe makes me and my life better than I or it would be without those things.
So, I am here in Ecuador, counting my blessings, chanting the Names of God, caring for my mother, doing my best to support my father and to take care of myself . I find myself remembering something Manorama said that her teacher, Sri Brahmananda Saraswati, used to say: "You do not need to practice every day. But when you need your practice, you are going to wish you had been practicing every day."
So like that.
I am home from Hollywood, Florida where I spent the weekend at YogaOne with Darlene and Steve Feinzig. This was my third visit to YogaOne and I really felt like I was coming home to good friends and good family. Darlene and Steve have owned YogaOne for eight years and have grown their studio into a thriving and vital center of community and learning. I loved seeing so many of their students in attendance- many of whom were at their very first weekend workshop ever.
It seems like I say a lot of the same things about the trips I return home from these days. Perhaps that is because every place I have gone to lately has had such similar themes for me personally and professionally. It has been almost two years now since I first resigned from Anusara yoga and I while I was not worried that I would be able to keep teaching yoga and paying my bills (after all, I just don’t have that many bills). I was aware that I was leaving a network and community of people I had grown to love and appreciate and I was a bit worried about what that would be like for me. I didn’t anticipate that two years later my connections to many of the folks in the kula would be even stronger than they were when we were all affiliated formally with Anusara yoga.
It seems to me lots of relationships were tested and tempered over these last few years and for me I find that the ones I have now ring with such depth and honesty that I find them more enjoyable than ever. I think the people I am with now know where I stand and how I feel and I know their true feelings more clearly and the shared honesty creates a greater intimacy and a more enjoyable coming together. The shift in my experience as a teacher and friend is quite profound. So for sure that dynamic is in the background of my enjoyment and gratitude these days.
We didn’t work with a single guiding theme for the practice this weekend but several good teachings emerged over the weekend, starting with Steve’s introduction which was “get what you get and don’t complain”. I riffed on that a bit because “life as it is” is such an amazing paradox in yoga. There is an ongoing teaching/endeavor in yoga that is centered around acceptance, letting things be as they are, going with the flow and even personally or psychlogically speaking, affirming that we are just fine how we are. And of course, there is the additional thread of teaching which is all about vision, tapas, transformation, change and the very practical and much-needed work on self. So there is a way that we “get what we get” and there is also a way we work for and “ceate what we want” and both threads are valid in yoga practice.
I think the serenity prayer is helpful in embracing the paradox of these two threads because we learn that there are things that life brings our way- from body size and proportions, to psychological predispositions, to family members’ health and well-being, and even natural disasters and calamities over which we have not control and we must use yoga to help us learn to accept those things. No amount of yoga will help my arms get longer, will make me taller or will keep my loved ones from getting sick or stop the storms in the sky. There is certainly a domain over which yoga has no power to affect change and about which yoga offers no “promise” of things getting better. Also in this category are those particular life lessons that are perfectly designed for us to learn and to grow from.
And even though yoga doesn’t change those outcomes, I am personally grateful to have tools and practices to utilize during those periods of challenge and in the face of those situations. In the midst of all that we can’t change, isn’t awesome to have a community of people around who remind you to breathe deeply and a place to go to connect your breath to your body and your mind to your movement? Isn’t it wonderful that even when someone we love is sick, we have the refuge of our practices and the Light of the Teachings? I mean really, what a blessing. So even though yoga can’t fix that stuff, still that doesn’t mean yoga has no place in it.
But then there is a whole domain of experience over which we do have control and about which we can affect great change and through which we experience profound shifts. And that is the second line of the prayer. While a very real case can be made that “yoga doesn’t change things” it is also true that when we step into our practices regularly and get more oriented in what is true within us as opposed to what is false, we start wanting different things for ourselves, we start making different choices and we start training our responses to resonate with our authentic self as opposed to what we discover was less real. It is not an overnight thing or an all-at-once occurance that comes with fireworks blasting, trumpets blowing or drums that roll. Well, not for me anyway.
Most of the sustained shifts and changes I have made through my practices are slow peelings away and slow unfoldings that ebb and flow but move me decidedly in the direction of my heart. And sure, occasionally the shifts I feel called to require hunkering down a bit and need an application of will or the making of a big decision and so on. After all, breaking habits on any level and shifting to new behaviors and situations often requires courage, fire, and some sacrifice. Even still, when it comes to the work on the mat I think the shifts come in the gradual recalibration of our resonance.
We see it in our students all the time, right? After a year or so “angry lady” just isn’t so pissed off, “sad girl” seems happier and “quiet, loner guy” is talking to people after class is over. (and, of course, these are generalizations.) The glimpses of truth we get through the postures and in class and practice start to add up and become a more stable point of orientation. It’s so cool. I know for me, those shifts also required some therapy, some bodywork, and tools beyond asana so when I say “yoga” I mean the whole ball of wax that helps us be more conscious and aligned with ourselves.
And really the juciy part of these practices lives in the wisdom to know the difference and the maturity to know what yoga can and can’t do for us. As amazing as I think the teachings are and as inspiring as the practices can be, I also think living the yoga is a very practical and down-to-earth endeavor. In a very real way, for me, yoga practice gives us more of itself. What you get from practice is practice. And practice doesn’t make some problems go away. Not at all. Terrible things happen to yogis and the people they care about that are very difficult to understand. All the time. A life of practice is no guarantee, in my opinion, that things will turn out in such a way that we are safe from betrayal, heartbreak, tragedy and loss. On one level, yoga doesn’t change things.
But on the level where we sabotage ourselves because we have self-hatred patterns and on the level where our lack of love for ourselves leads us to poor choices in self-care, interpersonal relationships and so on, the glimpses of our goodness and the depth of our nature we experience in yoga can lead to profound changes over time and very different choices in our lives off the mat.
This theme emerged over and over all weekend because it lives in every pose. Every pose is like a little life challenge. Some things we can’t change in the moment- our size, our shape, our current health, etc. And some thing we can- we can watch the demo to glean new info, get a prop, use a modification, try a new technique or approach, work a little harder, work a little differently, stretch a little longer, etc. And we always have to sort out when to change ourselves and when to change the pose and that wisdom to know the difference might just be the best and hardest lesson of all.
Yoga helps us endure what can not be cured and cure what need not be endured.
Anne and I had a lovely trip to California with a lot of time for work, play and "sisterly bonding." In addition to the awesome weather we enjoyed throughout the trip and the good food and drink, I must say that my Asana Junkies practices were probably the highlights for me. We had a practice in Monrovia, CA and in Claremont, CA and they were both awesome.
I find myself very inspired these days by the continuity in my relationships. Certainly, as time has passed and as the community of practitioners has shifted, responded to and coped with the various challenges of the last few years some friendships and relationships have faded and even ended in some cases and that is never easy. But the flip side of that is also true- some connections have grown stronger, some have been renewed, others have gone from peripheral to more central and watching that process unfold is very meaningful to me.
Like so many things about me, my relationship to community is paradoxical. My friendships are very important to me and yet I am also a bit of an introvert and need big doses of time away from people. I am an idealist when it comes to the what I believe are the transformational possibilities of community and I am also a realist when it comes to my understanding of all that is involved for individuals and groups to move skillfully toward the high aims of conscious community. I believe shared practices and shared rituals are the key to bonding people together and yet I am avidly uninterested these days in any environment that uniformly dictates the terms of involvement or that attempts to govern one's relationship to practice. I believe that one's relationship to Sprit is intimate, personal, and private and yet, I also believe that God lives in and through the people with whom we are in relationship and there is no God separate from that field of involvement.
Someone once told me that a hallmark of an advanced practitioner on the path is that they can live in the tension of paradox without needing to resolve the paradox from a binary position or paradigm. (Binary, in this case, means the typical black/white, either/or, right/wrong, good/bad, etc.type of thinking that the mind does so well.) So perhaps that I am aware of the paradoxes that seem to govern my relationship to something as innocuous sounding as "community" is a good sign. And all that to say, that when I come into town and look around and see some folks on that mat that I have known for a decade of down dogs, something deep inside my heart moves. And to meet the students of my students and the students of my colleagues in these kinds of gatherings is always a treat for which I am very grateful.
Obviously, we can't all go to every workshop and practice and we can be connected without physical presence. Life has its demands and so these ideas are not in anyway to suggest that we need to feel pressured to do everything or that we should go too far down the road of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) when it comes to yoga events. One of my favorite teachings from Lee about community-based practice is that "you never miss anything." One has to understand that teaching from the vantage point of a bonded community with shared intentions and also from an esoteric perspective not literally since a case could also be made about seizing the moment, recognizing rare opportunities, etc. which are also true but part of a different line of consideration. Lee's point, I think, was that if the guru resides within the community and the Spirit is to be experienced and expressed "where two or more or gathered" it also follows that it is the sum total or perhaps something greater than the sum of the parts that is at work in conscious community. Not only can we not do everything but we do not need to nor are we even intended to.
As a group we share interests, intentions, ideals, etc. and we are also diverse in our backgrounds, upbringings, life experiences and personalities. We navigate that wonderful paradox of similarity and difference and are called to do the work of understanding that unity does not require us to be homogenous, identical, carbon-copy automatons to "belong" in a meaningful and spiritually-productive way. Because of our differences, we hold different energetic posts or positions or roles in a group.
For instance in a group there are those who are mothers, there are those who didn't have children, there are people who have suffered abuse, some who didn't. There are people who have lots of trouble getting to their mat, there are people for whom that task is easy, there are people who eat too much, there are people who don't eat enough, there are people with addictions, there are people who just don't relate to that issue and so on. And because these differences are held consciously in a group, when someone is experiencing something in their post, due to their life configuration, we can learn from their experience without having to experience it all for ourself. Learning from one another is a great boon of community because, let's face it, we can't experience everything, and there is always something to learn from everyone.
This teaching also means that when we everyone on Facebook appearing to be doing something more cool, more meaningful and more fill-in-the-blank than what we are doing, we can settle down about it. They are learning and experiencing on our behalf and we are learning and experiencing on their behalf. One person may be swinging on silk ropes on stage in some fantastic pose or winning some award or seeing the coolest band EVER and no matter how amazing all that sounds and seems and how much more exotic, intriguing and gratifying their life might actually be than ours, they are not having our experiences of staying home, watching children build lego sculptures, reading a book, teaching our classes, drinking a cup of tea, etc.
Again we find ourselves in a paradox because we have to be present to get hooked up to the field of energy with a group. And we have to show up enough to stay connected and to contribute and to benefit from our connection. But really, the whole thing to keep in mind is that we each walk this path a little differently and having a shared experience sometimes means the experience of sharing directly in the moment and in person. Sometimes, having a shared experience means that I will do my thing and you will do your thing and we share our different experiences through the subtle nervous system of people who are bound together in consciousness. You will parent your children for me since I did not do that this lifetime. And some of you will be grandparents for my parents since, well, we all know they are "missing out" on that! And I will travel for those of you who are home. And you will stay home many times for me. And so on and so on and so on.
I suppose this musing might be a bit esoteric this morning but it is what is on my mind and to me is a very practical application of the "we are all connected" philosophy.
On a personal note from my time in California, I took great joy in seeing people in person who very much feel like my yoga tribe. And I enjoyed meeting new people also. And that joy doesn't override, take the place of, become more important than, the subtle web of connection we are all weaving as we endeavor to stay connected in our hearts, minds, memories and intentions.
I got home from Los Altos, California on Sunday night and had such a busy week I didn't make the time to sit down a write about the trip or the lovely time I had there. And here I am now in Southern California for the weekend finally having a few moments to reflect and report on things.
Mostly I spent my week at home with webinars- Monday (Yoga From the Inside Out), Tuesday (Teacher Training and Mentoring) and Wednesday (Asana Junkies) and doing my best to catch up on emails and correspondences. I also had some business meetings for future plans I am making for online programs and courses. All in all, I am very excited about my work these days and the places its taking me- both internally and externally.
One of the biggest shifts for me that I recognize in my work is how much happier I am these days and how much I enjoy teaching. Making the shift away from teaching a "method" has enabled me to get more focused on "teaching people the postures" and that distinction makes a huge difference in terms of freeing me up. Teaching yoga asana is such an interesting endeavor because we have these poses that are not really the point of the yoga at all, except that by having the postures as a doorway we walk through together, we have a shared focus through which all kinds of interesting considerations of the heart and spirit arise.
So to me, saying "it is not about the poses" falls short of accurately describing the situation. However, saying "it's all about the poses" certainly doesn't get after it either. The closest I get to the process of what's happening in asana studies and practice is with the statement "it is not only about the poses."
My experience is that by creating the boundary of shape, form and alignment we engage the postural practice in a very profound way. The study of form is not only about assuming all these shapes nor is it about forcing ourselves into postures we can't or shouldn't do. Form-based practice is certainly not based on the assumption that one pose is better or more right than the other although certain expressions may be more bio-mechanically sound than others, etc. To me, form-based asana practice is about studying the asana and ourselves in relationship to the asanas. When we engage that process of examining ourselves in relationship to the forms, we get to make a series of very meaningful choices even though the shape itself is, let's just say it, perhaps a bit arbitrary. For instance, when we we study the form and we see that arms are "supposed" to do something that our particular arms can't do, we enter a process of self-study, self-observation and skillful choice-making that is anything but arbitrary.
This list of questions goes on and on and takes us into very interesting terrain interiorly and even communally. And my observation/opinion is that by taking the somewhat "arbitrary" shape and working towards it as though it actually matters, we are delivered to a line of questioning that actually does matter because the resultant line of questioning takes us into themes of self-respect, self-honor, self-scrutiny, compassion, insight, and the discernment of knowing when to work and when to yield as well as the knowledge of how to work in our own best interests. My opinion/premise as a teacher is that we get to this world of work best in the boundaried discipline of asana differently than we do in the free-form, anything goes approach to asana. (Of course, let's be clear, everything has something to offer and this is not a critique of the other, it is simply an explanation of my starting point as a practitioner and teacher.)
So it's not only about the postures but without them I am not so sure the other stuff would arrive with the same force, focus and necessity. (Obviously, just my opinion.)
I had a great time in Los Altos at Andi Bruno's studio, Yoga of Los Altos. Andi and I knew of each other through Anusara Yoga but this was the first time we me in person and it was one of those circumstances of settling into a conversation that was honest, funny, and a bit irreverent within moments of meeting each other. Northern California is steeped in the Iyengar tradition and the influence of that approach is somewhat pervasive in the region so even teachers who are not certified Iyengar teachers have been influenced by the system and its teachings. This made for easy teaching in terms of alignment and also for an interesting contrast from last week. Last week I visited a predominately flow-based studio who also studies alignment and this week was a very alignment-oreinted group had embraced movement and flow over the years in addition to the detailed refined work of Iyengar yoga and Anusara yoga. (you can see from the picture on the left that the studio was well-equipped with props and so forth and that yes, Christina Sell actually teaches some restorative yoga!)
We had students from a variety of traditions, which is always fun and one actually described the weekend as "the intersection of Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga and Bikram Yoga" which I thought was both clever and insightful. I have to say that I think my style has become quite eclectic but it might actually be more like 3 scoops of ice cream more than it is like a blended milkshake. I do know when I am in which tradition even if I am using all 3 in the same class. Of course, put three scoops of ice cream in a bowl and there are some lovely, tasty places where the flavors meld. You can't esccape that so you might was well enjoy it, I suppose.
Another fun thing about the weekend was that so many of the participants that came are in my Asana Junkies Webinar and so it was so fun to see each other live and in-person, not just via the internet. I started that program with a vision of supporting students and teachers in deepening their practice through structured sequences, online support, local community practices and connection to a global community and network. I have been amazed by the response and the outcomes so far. People are telling me how much stronger they are, how their communities are getting unified through shared practice and how their teaching is improving as well.
It is always a bit humorous (and perhaps a little disheartening) to me when people say, "Oh, I can't do your junkies program because it sounds too tough" but there is no requirement for hard postures to join and you can always do the parts of the sequence that you can do and skip the parts you can't. The webinar is a prime example of the "it's not only about the poses" perspective because, like the name implies, it is for people who LOVE asana and want to grow their asana practice but once you decide to do that, guess what? The other aspects of who you are come along and demand attention as well. Many "junkies" report resting more as result of the webinar, being more comfortable with respecting their limits as a result of what we talk about and more accepting of themselves and their students. Anyway, don't let the name scare you!
Speaking of Asana Junkies, I am leading two group practices while I am here in Southern California. My plans Changed from my original trip to do some filming but since my sister and I already planned to meet up in Southern California this weekend, we just kept our reservations. I will lead a group practice in Monrovia, California today from 1:30-4:30 at Yoga Cove. And on Sunday from 12-3 I will teach a practice at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. When some of the local students realized I wasn't going to be teaching as originally planned, they offered to organize these spontaneous group practices and since I was coming anyway and generally what I like to do when I go places is practice with people, this worked out great. Definitely, these grassroots efforts are the spirit of the junkies program. (If you are interested in learning more about the Asana Junkies Online Practice Club, check out the fall session course description on my website. I have so many great things planned for this session and also for the winter including some teacher training sessions based on the practices so to do the future teacher programs you need to do the course, etc. And honestly, the webinar is one of the best places to really learn about asana, sequencing and the nitty gritty details about the poses. It is a lot like "yoga school.")
Anne and I will be here until Tuesday. This weekend in Pasadena where she has a philosophy conference and then Santa Monica where we will spend some time on the beach and taking some yoga. We were talking on our trip out that almost every August we take some kind of sisterly-bonding yoga trip together. We live down the street from one another in the same town but it seems like in order to actually get together, we need to leave town! Ah, the joys of a busy modern-day life.
This August is a lot about family connections for me since the last two weeks me and Kelly will go to the Galapagos Islands with my parents on a vacation. So sisterly bonding this week and later this month parental bonding. Good times.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."