Thursday, December 22, 2011
Friday, November 4, 2011
Saturday, September 3, 2011
#2. Love mud between your toes and enjoy the scary thrill of possibly accidentally stepping on some creepy bug- or better yet, not stepping on it and getting freaked out by its looks. The Jerusalem cricket is a good one to get freaked by.
#3. Get lost in a crowd. Crowds generate an energetic buzz of human-ness like no other. They are not annoying, they are delicious with the flavor of diversity which is what we are experiencing while immersed in them. The flavor of humanities joys, sadness and secrets and aspirations (including yours!) ooze together and once you decide to taste it rather than reject it, it's pure delight.
#3 & 1/2. For that matter, get lost. Then see something new as you find your way back.
#4. Eat a food that frightens you. It will make you feel brave and adventurous without having to go anywhere. If you need a suggestion on this one, just ask me.
#5. Roll down a steep grass hill. Be itchy afterward. Better yet- if you have poison oak, go ahead, scratch it. If you have had poison oak, you know what I mean!
#6. Don't just smell the flowers, stick your face in them completely.
#7. When you see people you have any amount of affection for, throw your arms around them (okay- some people are freaked by this, no need to cross boundaries), feel the mass of their human existence- notice what they smell like even- pull back for a moment, look them straight in the eye and tell them what you think of them. Let yourself have lots of internal explosions over your feelings about people you like/ love.
#8. Taste your food with all six senses. Yes, I said six. Don't argue, okay? It really can be done. Every element of the food sensory experience registers in your entire body- and your intuition. If you pay attention, you will notice it. Do it with a lemon, with a spoonful of honey, with some stinky cheese, with some good olive oil. D. it with a chunk of butter some melted chocolate. A very hot pepper. see what happens? Ecstasy. Or agony :)
#9. Read a poetry book-- that you understand. Don't make yourself crazy trying to decode anything. Go for Rumi, Hafiz, etc.
#10. Smile and wave at every small child you see. Even if (maybe especially) they are giving you a blank stare or dirty look. If you are rewarded with a smile in return- your whole existence will flood with joy.
#11. Tickle and or get tickled by someone- my kids are masters at this and I love it! Good thing I am stronger than them and I always win. Also, let children climb on you and give them horsey rides. Same gratification.
#12. Stay up until 2am talking with someone you really like or until the conversation reaches delirium and you don't even know what the last thing you said was. Then talk to that person again the very next morning. Tell them how much you like talking to them.
#13. Swim underwater with your eyes open for as long as you can while holding your breath. I have a trick that helps me hold my breath for long periods of time. Don't mock it 'til you try it! Just hyperventilate for about thirty seconds then take in a huge deep breath and go under! Make sure to include underwater somersaults and handstands.
#14. Stare at the moon as though there were nothing else to stare at- ever.
#15. Wake up, go outside, take a deep breath, scan the scene, say "WOW," and explode on the inside.
Saturday, August 6, 2011
Another great insight regards what it means to fully understand something that can never really be understood. Take existence for example: The only thing to understand, is that we don't understand anything. It is in our very nature to crave certainty about what we do or believe which creates a false (but useful) sense of security. Everything, absolutely everything is a total mystery at the core.
A particular experience that made an impression on me was in anatomy lab where our group studied four different cadavers to learn more about physiology. I'll admit that when I first learned what a cadaver lab was really like, I was nervous. Once inside the lab though,Todd our amazing teacher shed some light on how to participate with an open heart and a calm gut.
Class began with Todd asking what kinds of discussions and questions we might have about the lab and the cadavers. Maybe I was the only one or maybe no one wanted to mention it, but after a few students asked some scientific questions he asked again, "What else have you talked about?" My hand went up sheepishly, "What if I feel squeamish?"
"You begin by telling yourself a story", Todd began. He then shared the story of how these cadavers made it into his classroom.
First, every single cadaver in the lab is the body of a person who volunteered to be used for educational purposes. This is different than being a donor Todd explained, because as a donor, you may give organs that will potentially function in another live body. If one donates the body to science on the other hand, she fills out an application and is aware the the body will be preserved, dissected and used for about a year as a specimen. People who donate their bodies do it so others can learn.
This was a good start for me, as I consider myself to be of the squeamish ilk. I tucked that story in my front pocket in case I needed it. What I did not expect was something entirely different to overwhelm my senses. Actually, I was overwhelmed by a full spectrum of feelings.
The cadavers all have names. They are not the real names of the once living personality who inhabited the body. In our quartet of cadavers there were Agnes and Lee as well as two others whose names I do not remember. The bodies had been prepared in a manner that specific organ, muscle and nerve groups could be seen, touched and moved. When it was time to begin Todd explained that he needed our help. The cadaver were tables were heavy. To move each one into the middle of the room, several people were needed. My first step in being a participant felt a little like being a pallbearer. With several others whom I felt an immediate affinity for, I grabbed a corner of the steel covered container on wheels and we rolled Agnes over.
Agnes was covered by a hinged lid and concealed inside a bag. When unzipped she was covered in layers of formaldehyde soaked cloths. This kind of layered presentation creates some serious suspense. Lids, zippers, then cloths. Todd finally removed the wet cloths and something magical was exposed. The body of Agnes displayed in a way no living thing could be. The diaphragm, the pelvis, the psoas. There they were in all existential glory. I was overcome with an urge. Not to run or to vomit--but to cry.
What explosion of profound appreciation and gratitude came over me I can only call love. Here was Agnes. This body that once was a woman in the world. She was thin, appeared tallish. We were looking at what she never once in her own life was able to see of herself. How beautiful is that? This, I realized was an incredible gift. This was the gift of selflessly saying, "Here is my most relevant earthly asset. The thing I needed to physically exist. I have never known it's appearance, but when I am done you may take as deep a look as you like." I am aware that Agnes may not have thought that at all, but the story Todd told earlier had essentially unfurled into my own fairytale.
On the brink of tears and the verge of hugging this entirely un-huggable body, ( I learned later that it was very emotional for many other students as well) I immediately shifted closer.
There is so much to learn in anatomy. So much that it can very easily become a lifelong obsession. Agnes' organs at this point were removed and put aside for our later lesson on viscera. Todd began pointing out muscles, nerves and connections. Here were the abdominal muscles- the rectus abdominis, the obliques, the transversus abdominis, painstakingly separated to show fascinatingly thin layers. The pelvic floor- a long ignored place in the body, lined with small to tiny layers of muscle cradled in the sculpted bowl of the pelvic girdle. The diaphragm and the psoas, whose actions affected by behavior, emotion and breath interact each other.
This was like science fiction and a real life miracle all at once. I was reminded several times that looking or asking for miracles is like looking for your sunglasses when they are right on top of your own head. I was reminded that this idea of "everything is connected" has been incredibly bastardized and lost almost every bit of meaning in mere conversation.
It occurred to me that we dissect our lives into various categories and departments and have forgotten that there is absolutely no one thing or act that doesn't affect absolutely everything in the entire world. Todd reminded us that though tissues are categorized and named which creates a necessary separation for obvious reasons. His point seemed to be that there is no disconnect between your toenails and your spleen to the heart, eyes and digestive system. If one leg hurts the rest of the body knows and acts accordingly. If we are sad, every limb knows and behaves accordingly. If we are in love the body expresses it though our very skin. When one commits an act of charity that lightness lifts the world by some measure. When a person is abused or killed, we all suffer deeply. In the world, in people, in our individual lives, we cannot truly separate anything. But we sure try.
Speaking of separation my final insight came near the very end of class while studying an arm that had been dissected so we could see all tendons and ligaments. Beautiful satin cords of nerve were exposed. The machine like workings of muscle attachments to bones clearly separated as newly wired electrical work in a house. There was space, movement, total grace and a perfection in the workings of the musculoskeletal system.
I was feeling it. I mean, I was really feeling it. Todd slid a tool underneath the four lumbricals (extensions of the tendon) of the hand and so gently lifted them to show flexion of the hand. I experienced a very deep unnerving sensation in my own hand and all I can say is that everything became very fuzzy. It sounds dramatic, and unfortunately it was a little dramatic as I crouched on the floor and looked up while 10 faces stared down. I wondered why I was so popular all of a sudden. But as it turns out I actually passed out which made me popular in not my favorite way. Several others sat closely offering water and helping me out of a sweat soaked lab coat and gloves.
So what was that all about? Here is the most insightful lesson of all. It's about compassion. Number one, it felt as though every person in that room was genuinely concerned for my well-being. They were experiencing compassion. This is when we learn whether we are able to receive or not, if we are even able to recognize when someone is expressing compassion. A day later several of my class mates told me that they were either having some difficulty just being in the lab, felt nausea or mentally checked out to avoid dealing with those feelings. That they shared those feelings with me, even though nobody would have ever known, showed me compassion.
But then there is empathy. Mary, Richard's wife helped me understand this. Empathy is when we directly experience what is or could be felt by another. And make no mistake-- when we empathize, we are experiencing only our very own feelings, as we believe others might feel them. Even if we do feel precisely what the other person is feeling it's still empathy. That is what happened to me as I have always been a certifiable empath and maybe a little proud of it. I had an empathetic feeling of what it would be like if my own tendons were lifted away from my hand. So though I might have related it to what the cadaver was feeling- let's not kid ourselves. Cadavers don't feel.
Compassion on the other hand (as I am still learning) is when we are able to relate to an experience with an open heart without having the experience ourselves.
Crap. I don't think I've really learned compassion yet. I'm certain I've experienced it, but have been unaware of the most fundamental difference between it and empathy. There is still some sorting to do on my mental end of that stick.
This I learned from the arm of a dead guy. I'm a little disappointed that there are no more lab days.
If ever you have any opportunity to explore the human body in this way I highly recommend it. Knowing from a tangible place what is really inside of us is special. And what we can learn from seeing our own impermanence, the generosity of the once living is quite an illumination of some uncharted and very adventurous self territory.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
I'll begin by identifying theory as what we believe should or will happen based on personal belief systems.
For the sake of the greater population, it might be okay to apply a little more than one percent theory to actual living- for a beginner (such as myself), I think 25% seems reasonable. Political view points, religion, diet, science- any facts derived from those things are based in theory, yet where would we be without them? Yes, we living on the material earthly plane need theory to make choices.
The important thing is not to identify too strongly with our theories.
As said by Isaac Asimov:
"Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right."
Morals, being rules are just theories shrouded in dogma. Maybe. That doesn't mean morals are useless. Remember that one percent.
My teacher Richard (Freeman) told this story illustrating why being a strict theorist can be disastrous.
Lets say you need a surgeon because you found out you have tumor- You are going to need a good surgeon (note the word "good"). You find a surgeon and he says, "Yes, you have a tumor" and thus decides to perform the necessary surgery. There you are in surgery and this surgeon you picked (because he was local we'll say) starts cutting you open. There you are all cut open with your guts exposed and instead of a tumor, what you really have in your stomach is a squirrel! The surgeon being hung up on the theory that you have a tumor states "Whoa! That tumor looks just like a squirrel!" Fine for you that you don't have a tumor, but are you sure you want this guy cutting into you?
Anyone would be surprised by something so improbable. I think the real experience for this particular surgeon might be fear. Fear that what was thought to be the truth is not true at all. Fear causes blindness. I can comment on that because I have plenty of experience with those things. When and if the illusions surrounding ones beliefs dissolves, the disillusionment itself feels a little blinding. Things like realizing I don't really know someone I thought I knew well. Things like when life feels stable and the bottom falls out and you have no where to live and no money. Things like angering someone you thought could never be angry at you. Also things like realizing that the church you go to is full of crazy people. That church experience screwed me up for like 20 years. I was really invested in that church saving me from myself. It didn't work.
We get so invested in what we theorize about it that it gives us a false sense of being anchored to a world that we really cannot pin down. Then something surprising happens and our theories fall apart and we find ourselves floating in space, possibly in a total panic. Like the theorist surgeon who deep down thinks he's going nuts because his theory that you had a tumor was all wrong. So he's totally freaked and blinds himself to his own misconception. It's like suddenly finding yourself dangling from your feet by a thin wire over a river of lava. Very precarious. Very dangerous to our sense of who we think we are. It just might- if you go deep, feel like a threat to your very existence. Like "Hey, if this isn't true, then maybe I'm not really who I think I am!"
Back to the squirrel. A good surgeon on the other hand- one who is not hung up on theories will automatically recognize that you have a squirrel instead of a tumor. Instead of carrying on cutting up your insides, he (or she- hello!) will encourage the little fellow to run back into the woods while she stitches you back up. In the end, it's good news for you too! I mean, hey- it was just a squirrel!
Everyone will probably be really perplexed for some time. Maybe even forever.
But isn't that what everything has the potential to do? To perplex us with the truth? And how interesting is it that better news; "Hey it's just a squirrel!" but news that is confusing;"Oh my God, it's a squirrel!" is scarier (at least to the doctor) than a common, well known tumor? Nobody expects the squirrels.
We are perplexed with truth, making an effort to grasp what cannot be grasped. We remain attached to our theories of what things are so that we can feel safe, grounded- all knowing perhaps?
What about the 99% practice? What is that? What does it mean to practice? I can say for myself that I just have to experiment. There is a lot of intuition involved. Everyone has intuition at their disposal, but we can be so attached to what we think the outcome of every situation should or will be that intuition is ignored. We disbelieve in the ability of the moment to unfold on its own. We can be so caught up in a past disaster or pleasure- a hope for the future, that the potential for the blossoming this infinitely petaled flower of life is misunderstood.
In that well intentioned effort we deliberately attempt to make the petals of this flower unfold a certain way, maybe pull the petals off seeking the center of the flower. And though many flowers require cultivation, this one requires a different kind of attention in the form of simple observation.
My theory however, is that this flower is forgiving, resilient and immortal in its ability to bloom over and over again. That is one way to experience God. To theorize, to force theory, to experience the discomfort of what is forced is a part learning to practice. We can only "practice" something that has a foundation of beliefs and set practices, yoga for instance. But to elevate what we are doing to true art, which everything has the potential to become, we must both remember the rules of our theories and then throw them completely out the window in order to witness the blooming of life that our theories germinate.
Theories are easy to talk about. Practice is another realm entirely. Maybe you are practicing getting really high Tetris scores, I don't know. It seems to me that when practice is experienced by the individual, it is recognized by others. Real practice is an abstract thing that we cannot contain, and yet boundaries keep us from floating away from the rest of humanity. Practice is not some willy-nilly floundering act where there are no rules. As a truly good artist knows good technique and applies it, truly good art is embedded with an element beyond technique. It transcends our ability to communicate in the traditional sense, try as we may. That is where theory feeds practice and practice has the most freedom.
At the moment I am theorizing that this blog post will get lots of hits. And honestly I am truly a bit attached to that theory. If I am right I will be happy. But for now, just sharing these thoughts is my practice. If I am disappointed, I will practice getting over myself. Maybe through ice cream.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
2011 has been an intense year for me. Never in my life have I had so many amazing, intriguing, perplexing and frightening things on my plate to sort through, dump and digest all at once. But I am and have always been an optimist, so when people ask me how I am doing, my answer is as always, "Great!". If the person knows me well, they look at me searchingly. They know there must be something missing. And if that person tilts their head, drops their gaze and voice and asks again "How are you?" I have another answer.
My answer: "Not to long ago my life appeared unique to many people, but for me it was normal. Now my life is unique to many people but it is not longer normal even for me!" The thing is that we all seem to have a default setting for our general dispositions. My default setting is happiness. When my happiness wavers, I immediately believe something is terribly wrong. And this last week I seriously started to question my sanity in the choices I am making based on what exists in my life.
I have been at the center of a whirling dervish of existence- relative to us pampered Westerners- since the year began.
I applied to study with Richard Freeman in Boulder which would happen for 30 days over the summer- without my family coming with me. I decided that certain people in my life belong in it minimally-- if at all and that I also wanted to branch out in my friendships. So you know- releasing people, loving new ones; it can be quite be exciting, jarring and emotionally taxing all at once. I decided to move my business to a new location and I have two children who are getting the minimum of required time with me.
This too shall pass
It's what I always tell myself. And in this I am able to move forward and complete the tasks at hand- but it also gives me an appreciation of what I am confronted with. I am more aware of the pleasures and lessons of each experience knowing that it will all end eventually.
And though awareness of the impermanence of everything is what keeps me in check- it is really courage that keeps me going. Courage as I have been taught is not a lack of fear, but the ability to experience what causes fear. I have also learned that what is most scary is anticipation- never the actual event. And if courage is the deciding factor of the size of one's life, then the only way we can actually do the measurment is through self evaluation.
It seems that this should be a daily practice-- checking in and asking whether we are living the lives we want to live. But the daily grind and the rat race have the vast majority of us asking whether we are living up to the expectations of others. Self included.
I myself have been running circles in effort to raise the the money I needed to move to Boulder for a month, tending to leaving my business in the hands of others and making arrangements for moving it. This means LOTS of extra work that I am not accustomed to. And getting back to that happiness default setting- I may not actually be entirely in touch with what is good for me and what is not at all times. So one day when I was missing my children- (who are a huge inspiration to me as well as one of the main reasons I am taking time to fulfill a dream and cultivate a satisfying life), feeling exuasted and loopy I forgot why I cared about doing what I was doing. I began to doubt whether I was making good choices. I became fearful. Within days, I sustained a back injury and suddenly lost the choice of the constant doing. I was forced into a state of surrender and slept for 12 hours straight during the day, then 10 more that night.
I don't really reccomend crazy-making as a means to inspire insight, but good insight often comes like a brute slap in the face in times of maniacal behavior. When the next day rolled around I awoke and felt miraculously better! Clarity came in the form of two truths that everyone knows- but as in my case often ignore.
#1. Is that the the world- my world, will not crumble if I stop doing what I believe to be "holding it together" The world holds itself together quite well- this is not to say that passivity is a good choice either. Just that my activity is not the glue of the universe. And as independence is an illusion- if anything important is truly meant to be, if the individual is ripe for it, the world around that individual will support that manifestation. And look, I'll be the first to admit mild inverted narcissism--believing that the solid structure of my entire world depends upon my actions alone.
#2. Is that yes, I do want to keep going and that what my confrontation with fear required was courage. That the fear I was experiencing happened when, like a big wall climber or big wave surfer I actually looked at what I was doing and paincked. Again, self- evaluation is imperative here. We have to look at what we are doing and decide whether we are feeling up to the challenge, fear or no fear. I decided that not only can I handle this wave- but I am already riding it. So panic is only allowed for a split second. Panic, if allowed to grow will destroy the work in progress, which is also allowed- but we tend to know instinctually at that moment if we want to forge on or let everything go.
My life has gotten big as far as what exhilerates me, what makes me feel alive and satisfied. My life is huge with the amount of love I feel for my children and what I want to do for them. But I suspect that I am only in some kind of boot camp for big lives right now. What a big life means to one person will not be the same for the next. I have no measurement of whose life is bigger than whose, nor does it matter. What I do know is that what I am drawn to and the people who are part of my life have some pretty big-life energy that is truly inspiring.
My life is not only big, but resplendant, lush and alive. I credit that to learning what courage really is and how to use it. I will always be set to happiness default and I might always be slightly reckless in the way I seek to learn- that too is a default setting. Courage has helped me embrace those aspects of who I am so that I can feel the bigness of this life.
Special thanks to Samantha Weber, Heather Vanderheide and Brenda Ostrom for concepts and ideas in this post- You have been especially insighful and supportive during this time.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
I love cheese. I can hardly think of a more interesting and unique transformation of one food into another where, by employing different techniques and processes a single food item-- milk, takes on a completely different identity. Part of the miracle is that cheese has so many identities! From the soft spongy texture of fresh buffalo mozzarella to firm, smooth yet grainy texture of a good aged cheddar and everything in between, cheese provides so much experience diversity.
In the spirit of good cheese and good times, here are some tips on creating a glorious cheese platter as well as one of my personal favorite cheese platter combinations. If you enjoy wine with your cheese, ask an expert recommended pairings. The right pairing makes all the difference!
Choose three types of cheese for your platter. It is important to serve some cheeses them within a day or two of purchase. Ask a cheese monger when your cheese is best consumed.
- Soft ripened cheese/ semi soft cheeses: Brie is the most common soft-ripened cheese, but I would recommend something different such as Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, Delice de Bourgogne or La Tur or Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor (actually a bit crumbly and dry)
- Hard Cheese: Most common is the classic Parmigiano Reggiano. Others include dry jack, Mizithra (semi-hard), and my favorite Pecorino Romano.
- Semi Hard: Fiscalini Farms Purple Moon is a wine soaked cheddar, Bravo Farms Silver Mountain Cheddar or a grass-fed New Zealand cheddar are all delicious
- Blue cheese can vary from semi hard to soft and creamy to dry and crumbly. What gives it the blue striations and kicky flavor is penicillum that is injected into what would be a perfectly normal cheese if left alone. Pick one that contrasts the other cheese textures. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog is a soft ripened goat’s cheese. Some crumbly favorites are Maytag blue and Rogue River Blue. There are also blue cheddars that many people really like.
- Fresh cheeses undergo a short process are not aged and usually very high in moisture, but consumed right away. I love Cypress Grove’s chevre with herbs, fresh Buffalo Mozzarella and high even homemade Ricotta with honey or maple syrup.
Choose 5 accompaniments:
Fresh honey, high quality balsamic vinegar, apple or pear butter or a wine jelly
Dried fruits: apricots, dates, figs, cherries, high quality raisins, prunes
Fresh berries (raspberries top my choices), new crop pink lady or gala apples, any fresh stone fruit (peaches, etc), muscat grapes
Toasted walnuts, almonds, and pistachios
Fresh basil, dill, mint, chives
A really good baguette or crackers if you prefer. A good baguette has a non-competing flavor a more pleasant texture than crackers.
Plating your cheese:
I like to use my favorite big cutting board. You can use a legitimate cheese serving board or you can use a pretty plate that is relatively flat.
Bring cheeses to room temperature at least 1 hour before serving. Arrange cheeses on your plate while they are cold and firm. At room temperature, the oils that carry flavor are more easily read by your taste buds. Texture is also better because they are softer.
Fill sushi dipping bowls, ramekins or custard cups with any nuts, jams and honey. Just do a little bit. Fruits and herbs make gorgeous garnishes to your plate so wait to add those until you serve.
Simple Cheese Plate
For this combination I chose varieties that are easily found in our foothill area stores. They are also favorite “comfort” cheeses for me.
- 3-4 oz chunk Parmigiano Reggiano, broken into craggy rustic chunks. Mix with 1/3 cup toasted walnuts.
- 3-4 oz wedge Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, (a semi-soft blue cheese made from goats milk) left whole
- 2-4 oz Chunk Purple Moon Cabernet Soaked Cheddar, sliced very thinly (it will break when you cut it. That’s okay)
- Good balsamic vinegar or balsamic syrup. Once you have had truly good Balsamic vinegar, you wonder how the other stuff got such a great reputation!
- Good quality, fresh (if possible) orange blossom honey
- 1/3 cup toasted walnuts
- Dates (pitted and halved) or fresh figs if they are available
- Organic Gala or Pink lady apple slices. These types are very uniquely flavored and this will make a real difference!
- Handful of fresh mint leaves
- A good baguette, 1/3 inch thick slices
- Blowtorch (yes!) any blowtorch from your hardware store will do
Once your cheese has been out at room temp for at least an hour, place your fruits in small piles between the cheeses. Stick a few bouquets of mint leaves in between crevices in the fruit piles.
On a second platter (or even better a small cutting board) arrange small bowlful of the honey with a drizzler if you have one and ½ of the bread slices. This board can be used as a platform for everyone to assemble their cheese combinations.
Drizzle about 1tsp balsamic vinegar/ syrup over the Parmigiano Reggiano walnut combo. And try not to eat all of it before your friends even make it over.
Some good combos and the blow torch:
-Date halve, mint leaf, smear of Humbodlt Fog, drizzle of honey, walnut
-Parm-Reg chunk, apple slice, balsamic vinegar drizzle
-Baguette slice, Purple Moon slice- now get your torch out! Set the torch to medium flamage, carefully and slowly bring the flame to about 4 inches above the cheese and move it back and forth until cheese melts, then begins to bubble. This is a good party trick. Brenda and I have sold many a catering job just because of this one.
Cheese is adventurous. If you are inclined to try a combination that seems strange, do it anyway! I for instance absolutely love chevre with lemon zest on top of wafers of dark chocolate. Think it sounds crazy? Find out for yourself. Happy cheesing!
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Awareness on the breath is an ideal means to connect with the divine. Though breath is involuntary, it can also be a choice. The involuntary breath can be viewed as the divine choosing us. Voluntary breath is a means of choosing the divine.In my post Climbing the Tree of Yoga: Asana, I explained the significance of the physical yoga postures. In this post I'll move on to pranayama, the fourth limb.
Loosely, pranyama means controlled breath. But it actually translates to something more like "life force restraint". Which sounds strange because in yoga, aren't we trying to cultivate life force? What we are cultivating is balance. Many things can occur in pranayama. Commonly we simply become aware of how unaware we are. With regular practice, we experience increased energy, breathing capacity and better brain function (oxygen!). All worthy gains. And whether we think we are open to it or not, there is a possibility that we begin to realize that connecting to the divine is not only easy, it is inherent. We realize that the connection is not something to be had or chased after or worked toward. It is already there.
Breath gives the yogi a focal point. It assists the mind from talking too much. On the other hand when the mind won't shut up, breath can be a great assistant in showing us that most of what the mind says is of little consequence except that of mis-use of your precious energy. It is much like the chatter of a squirrel, but without the element of judging that chatter. As a sharp saw cuts through the thickest knot in a log, the breath is the tool that cuts through tangled webs of thought.
To practice pranayama, one must essentially decide on a specific breath pattern and practice it. Pretty simple right? It can be, but there are countless pranayama practices that range from simply focusing on the breath to moving the abdominal muscles in what appear to be freak-show like motions. The purpose of each is very specific. My favorite pranayama technique which is practiced in many yoga classes is the ujjayi ("ooh-jai") breath. It is also called the victorious breath.
Most pranayama techniques are not used during asana. Ujjayi breath is the primary breath of most asana. To perform ujjayi, we begin filling the whole body with long smooth inhales creating an aspirant sound through a constricted throat. If you do those things alone, chances are it won't resemble the breath as described in detail by your yoga teacher. What I am saying is not to worry if you try that and it seems strange. The well practiced ujjayi breath is comfortable, invigorating, calming, cleasning and-- here's the cool part, it creates heat in the body which is imperative to practicing any type of asana. The warmer the body, the more relaxed the tissues are. (One reason yoga produces lean definition).
Beyond that, why does it matter?
Well, you could approach yoga from a purely physical angle. And that is totally great. If a person seeks to expereince greater spiritual connectivity, it is easily said as the opening statement.
Different aspects of our physical being can be associated with existential aspects that we view to be outside of ourselves. For instance eating and the process of assimilation can be associated with the aspect of earth as our bodies become the food we have consumed. So breath, as associated with air or ether can be associated with divine creativity, or God. With that association in mind, just think about your breath and everything it connects you to with each and every cycle.
We breathe the same air as everyone around us. When I exhale, that breath goes out mixes with the exhalations of the rest of the world and is in turn, inhaled by other people. When I take another breath in, I in turn breathe the breath of the world. Yet another insight to our interconnectedness unfolds. And in the breath, certain aspects of individual identification and the need to fight to be separate from everyone else is lessened. Through the breath we are One.
Pranayama for me has been the most potent part of my practice thus far. It is also one of the most challenging parts of my practice. Sometimes I avoid focusing on my breath in favor of egoic thoughts about what and who my ego believes itself to be. And even then I am aware of this because I know I am avoiding something. When I give breath first priority, I am allowed to observe those thoughts. Regardless of my physical capabilities during any given moment I know the beauty of the expereince with the execution of every single movement. There is a perfect grace the nuances of fumbling, falling, balancing, bending, trembling, sweating, feeling frustrated, ecstatic and alive. I see it in myself, in every single student and in my peers when I get to join class too. Through the breath that knowing who I am goes from intellectually understood to internally actualized. And that, through pranayama, is the very essence of what yoga is.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Learning yoga, as in learning a language- is a lifelong endeavor. Though I grew up speaking English, I have never stopped learning it. As the English language can be arranged, rearranged and even re-created over and over again, so can yoga; both to a degree. With communication and relationship at the heart of language, we may use verbal skills to communicate to others, and yet our deepest intentions are communicated through tone and body language and eye contact in spite of the words we choose. Intention and words are utilized in flux with each other to refine the messages we send to one other, thus acting as just one part of developing relationships. Whether in asana or any other element our practice, we converse intentionally with every aspect of the self including body, intellect, psyche- every part of what and who we are. We also speak to the world around us.
Enter the yoga studio (or any space for that matter). The first thing you might do is search for someone; maybe your teacher or a fellow student. Your experience might range from the nervousness of trying something new to the excitement of seeing your friends. The point is we are constantly communicating and building relationships through every aspect of feeling and behavior. Suddenly every interaction is actually a profound communication.
Most important is that judgment is futile to yoga language development. At least not being aware of judgment is the one thing that will stunt the learning process. It is not the factor of exactly how things happen, but that your awareness of how they happen that matters. Any entry point into your practice is the right one as long as the awareness is primary, and even without awareness, something sparks the desire to learn and that is the beginning to finding awareness.
In yoga we are making a sort of effort toward marrying communication (behavior and speech) and intention (desire + sense of self worth). When the two are in agreement with each other all that is unnecessary dissolves. So to learn the language of yoga is to learn the language of self-realized living.
In learning the language of yoga asana came first for me, then pranayama (controlled breath). Though breath was definitely a part of my first yoga experience, my body and mind were so distracted by instructions, movements and sensations that it was a real challenge to focus on the synchronized inhale-exhale pattern. Fortunately I really didn't care that I could not do that part so well. And for your own personal comfort you should not be concerned with what is difficult to incorporate right away either. I was just having fun. When I became more familiar with the poses and movement I began paying better attention to my breath and slowly the work of learning and practicing pranayama was added to my set of skills.
With these two aspects of my favorite language now easily utilized, a couple of things have happened. I went from wondering what kind of conversation I was having with myself, to being able to listen to and cultivate self-understanding. From there many other aspects of the language of yoga were more readily assimilated. I have learned about how I wanted to think and behave and this started with knowledge of the rest of the eight limbs, all of which play an active role in my daily decision making.
Whatever your starting point happens to be-- whether meditation, postures, breath or any other yoga practice, it is good to remember that there is no real "getting there" or "knowing it" other than where you are right now knowing what you know right now. It is what exists in your immediate experience that is sacred and profound. All truth is the same truth. We can and will only communicate what exists in our direct current expereince. To venture into the process of learning yoga as a language is to remember that despite words, it is the language of the body, the breath and the gaze that we will always say what is being spoken inside.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Let's take a bird for instance ( I like robins). Many birds begin life in the upper branches of a tree. For a sweet little robin hatchling, the inner branches are where life may begin, thus the robin views that part of the tree as maybe the only part at first. As little robin grows into big robin, it will probably continue to favor similar branches hidden among leaves, but it will also venture down to forage for tasty little insects and such. An ant's life on the other hand may begin within the very soil in a nest at the roots of the tree. When the ant matures, as long as it's boss aunt tells it so, it will go anywhere on the tree it is commanded to. And how about a caterpillar? It may be much like a combination of the ant and bird, one day climbing to munch on leaves only to secure itself in a cozy little cocoon and emerge a flying creature preferring flowers (which in their own way are like trees).
The tree is beneficial for all and in all aspects the tree does it's job. Though the many creatures who depend on the tree for food and shelter may never explore it in its entirety, we can all agree that it would be silly to judge the behavior of these living things. And it is such with humans. When exploring a new practice, or even working in an old one we all relate to and seek out different parts based on needs and resonance. For most westerners the entry point of the tree, the place where many recognize the biggest need and feel the most resonance is asana.
According to Iyengar's break-down of the tree, the limb of asana is actually represented by the groups of limbs that extend from the trunk. Each limb representing a different posture in the yoga asana practice. Like the limbs of the tree, they are all different and each unique and important. Each posture is designed to stimulate different parts of the body and the mind.
Take twisting postures for instance. These are the poses where we wring out the spine, the internal organs and squeeze breath through a constricted lower respiratory system.
As a culture we tend to be hyper stimulated. The spine is the central location of the the many nerves that run through our body.
How are we overstimulated? Through the senses. How do the senses perceive? Through the nervous system. Every thing you expereince starts with the nervous system receiving a physical message, weather through touch, smell, taste or any other. The brain receives these messages via the often over-saturated senses and then proceeds to think about them (or sometimes just stuffs the experience into a dark corner) I won't even start to talk about the gazillions of overwhelming messages I receive daily. Do think about some of your own. Recall something someone said to you and how your body reacted. Take a bite of something you like and pay attention to how your body reacts. Think about seeing something you did not want to look at and what your physical reaction was. So most of our big Western brains are teeming with all of this crazed Western thought...and really, sometimes that is not a good thing. So what can we do for over stimulated nervous system? If it can be likened to a saturated sponge, lets wring it out with a nice twist. And to settle the mind, how about choosing to focus on our breath (pranayama...that's another entry). Why does this work? I don't know. I have theories that might hog the entire internet, but then that is just my brain doing too much again! There is solid scientific evidence for just about everything a person wants to prove, but I think the best thing to do is try it for yourself.
A twist is a nice starting point to reference the myriad benefits of asana. Twists relieve stress in the back muscles, stimulate the immune system by moving lymph, improve digestion
and lots more. It is just one asana among hundreds- and maybe even thousands now that we are getting so creative with our yoga.
If this one asana, a simple twist to the spine can do so much then just imagine the possibilities of the depth and layers of benefit of all the other asanas. And for that matter, if I am getting such immense benefit from one just asana, what is the rush in practicing the rest of the limbs?
There is no rush, no hurry, no 911. If you are present in your body in whatever you do (and one of the main gifts of asana is body presence and awareness); if you suspend your self judgment for just a tiny moment in order to observe your expereince and simply watch your life then yoga is happening- no eight limbs required. However, the remaining eight limbs are something like creeper vines. First one slowly crawls and reaches it's way into your unique personal framework, spreading its tendrils through the bricks of your very existence. Then? Maybe more come. Maybe not. But it is vines that are alive and thriving and living within you- not the ones that aren't- that count.
Do the twist:
-Sit tall at the edge of a chair in which your feet rest fully on the ground. You can stack books under your feet to get them planted if need be.
-As you breath let your belly draw out and inward, but keep it toned.
-Bring your left hand to the outside of our right knee and hold the base of the back of the chair with your right.
-Visualize your spine and breath in.
-As you exhale, twist from the lowest place in your spine possible, then let the rotation move slowly up all the way to the neck (be gentle here) as you continue to twist to the right. Take several full breaths gently deepening your twist with each exhale if it feels right.
-Do the same thing on the opposite side.
Be happy :)
Saturday, March 26, 2011
What happens when Yosemite National Park and the El Portal community can’t go home due to landslides and snowstorms? Read on and find out! Written by Balanced Rock Foundation’s program director Arin Trook.
Yoga is a practice of refuge. Slow the breath, turn the gaze inward, find a place of stillness. These are both aspects of the path, as well as the destination, for yoga practice. Yoga, in its literal translation, is union. Union of breath and body, union of spirit and mind, and union of self and other, the coming together of community in yoga, in union.
All wonderful and inspiring (if a bit uber-groovy) words. And yet the afternoon of the Storm, the first day of Spring, we were reminded of these truths in a very real way.
The First Day of Spring Storm hit Mariposa and Yosemite hard. Heavy rain and thick snow had toppled hundreds of trees, washed literally tons of stone and mud across highways, covered the high roads with thick drifts of snow. Much of the area lost power, and every road in and around Yosemite National Park was closed. Returning from a trip, my family and I had missed the last window to return home, arriving at the Highway 140 closure just minutes after the last car was allowed through. We waited out the night, and the next day, with the road still closed, began to bide our time in Mariposa. We anxiously wondered if we would be able to get home any time this week, wondering about work, about pets, about friends and family and homes. There were rumors of tree branches fallen through rooftops, power lines laying across most of El Portal’s roads.
Unable to really rest, we poked our head into the Downtown Yoga studio. And we were not alone. One by one, the El Portal refugees began to arrive, everyone trapped away from home, simply waiting. Jen Meno, as always the most gracious of hosts, had hot tea ready for us all, and soon began nudging us out onto yoga mats. Gentle music was soon on the new sound system, and one by one, individual yoga practices began.
For me, the time we spent in the Downtown Yoga studio as refugees was one of the most beautiful expressions of yoga I have experienced. The stress each of us felt being away from home and family melted away in a collective yoga practice. Our world was chaotic, the future uncertain. We were in a real crisis and yet we were in this together. And this made all the difference. We stretched our way into peace, into a gentle acceptance of the moment as is was, in all its chaos and uncertainty. This was yoga, as it was meant to be.
And then sometime in the early afternoon, Josh arrived with the news. There was a convoy from Highway 120 heading into the Yosemite and El Portal at 3 pm. If we hurried, we just might make it through the hairpin turns of Highway 49 over the Merced River in time to join the convoy and head home. The moment was broken, and we jumped into our cars to head across the county and back home.
Of course several hours later, huddling in an unlit-unheated apartment under three sleeping bags, we all had to wonder why we ever left the warmth of the Downtown Yoga refuge. What was so compelling about getting home again?
No one looks forward to crisis. Yet I was reminded again at our recent emergency town meeting in El Portal that crisis and disaster can actually be an opportunity to build stronger community. It is at times like this, when things seems incredibly dark, that we are closest to each other. And this is yoga, the practice of union, the refuge.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
B) People who do yoga like to chant "om" and say "namaste".
The eight limbs are as follows:
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Amma, a living modern day saint and guru
. What does "guru" mean? How does one become a guru? Do you have a guru? Is the concept of the guru confusing or clear to you? When you think of the word guru, who do you think of right away? Would a guru ever call themselves a guru? Do they have to know they are a guru to be one?
I received some wonderfully thoughtful and insightful answers. And an interesting thing happened as this conversation developed. I realized I have had many gurus in my life. The people who have represented the guru to me have come into my life most perfectly showing me things about myself that I was ready to see. I got permission from my friends to share their answers. Here they are:
"In the Patanjali Yoga sutras it says there is One Guru for all time. It, according to the Shiva Sutras, is the grace bestowing power of God, the aspect of Spirit that brings us home. It literally means the "remover of Darkness"
The highest Gurus act as a channel for this divine wisdom and light. Life itself reaches out to us as Guru if we invite Spirit to help us grow and expand and can here the voice of every event and circumstance.I've found that, despite teaming up with the universal power, that all Gurus have some personality of their own which often has what others consider flaws. That's the nature of this dense reality, so don't expect absolute conceptual perfection in anyone, even if somebody does an amazing job of themselves."
"A Guru, in generally is a person with extensive knowledge, skill, and ability; based on experience, or occupation for a particular area of study, or research.
To answer your question would a guru call themselves a “guru”:
we’d picture them to be humble and selfless. this just may not be the case. Heck I’ve been dubbed on occasion as “GURU”. Honestly; to pass the title so easily, a complete A__Hole could qualify as “GURU”. To be knowledgeable and humble is enlightenment."
"A few people come to mind when I think of this term. One is my therapist, who I rely on for more than helping me sort my thought & feelings. She also helps with meditation, yoga, Ayurveda hook ups, as well as spiritual balance and perspective. Other one is a teacher and friend who is yogi, she has spent her life traveling, learning and practicing all aspects of yoga. She is knowledgeable in Ayurveda and has been influential in helping bring me back to center when I'm wandering. She keeps me educated and up to date on events to encourage my practice and well being. Among so many other things they are both very similar yet extremely different. Over the last few years anytime someone directs me along the path I seemingly should be following so steadily I'm almost delivered that opportunity directly. My therapist & I spoke of Ayurveda therapy and practicing yoga and meditation more regularly and a few days later I met Adelfa a Yogi & Ayurvedic practitioner, the one I'm traveling to India with. It seems I'm attracting people to aid in the path have been searching for. Or I'm finally in the right place mentally that I can see what I may have been missing all along. ♥ "
"This question is truly close to my heart as I have been exploring this so much lately. I have found that for me, guru is a teacher. God is everything, so God is also guru. The guru teaches you to open your heart to God by first opening your heart to guru. One must cleanse their soul before they can ascend. The purest way to this, is through the heart. A guru is a teacher, but how do you teach someone to open their heart? Unconditional love flowing to the student as well as experiences with the divine. Amma has been instrumental in showing me the difference between divine love and human love. One is conditional. The other is not in any way, and that can be felt fully. We always have love for each other, but it seems to serve some purpose for us. Even our love for ourselves...We don't love the bad. W love the good. With Amma I feel none of that. I have had my moments of "What the hay is going on?", but never have I been able to walk away from her. She is my teacher, and that is mostly felt on the subtle level for me. Being in her presence is powerful, but I feel my strongest connection in the realm of spirit. "
In Richard Freeman's The Yoga Matrix
the guru is described as "The remover of darkness...the darkness of ignorance". Richard tells us that the word guru itself means heavy; defining that heaviness as ".. not moved by the changing phenomenon of the world". As students we "..initially orbit[s] around the guru attracted by the immense gravitational field of the teacher". Based on that description, I totally get it! Yes, I have found a teacher, a guru, and can count many people in my life as having been gurus who somehow drew me in with what level of truth they were fully in touch with as individuals.
The ego driven world is constantly telling us who we are and what we should be. And it is our sense of ego itself that identifies with and defines those expectations and projections. As people of the world on a whole, we may just be going around showing each other images of unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We identify with images of that which is not who we really are. It causes us to suffer greatly; taking these images of what we think we should be, trying to become things that cannot last. Things like younger, richer...and on a sub-conscious level: immortal. We cannot "be" any of these things as individuals. And what we strive for egoically we state that we "are" rich, young, etc. But what we really "are" cannot be reduced to to egoic desires. We plug along chasing an illusory carrot. As the very nature of ego is to love illusion, we may purposefully not grab the carrot out of fear that we will learn the truth of it, that it is not real. Or maybe we think the carrot is not really for us anyway, so we curse it because we cannot have it. Either way chasing or running from that carrot is the same as running to and from our gurus at the same time. That is precisely how I stumbled upon yoga. It is exactly why my life in inexplicably what it is. That is what the guru, or teacher, is for.
We all have a concept of what the Guru is. And therein lies the imperfection and very nature of concepts. Is a guru a perfect being? How can they be? In reversal of the famous proverb: to be human is to err. Divinity lies in non-judgment of all things earthly existent. The guru is not perfect, but has had to learn to see what is real beneath the illusion. And how else would we at first relate to a guru other than recognition of humanness? The idea of guru is a creation of the mind, of ego, yet without conceptualization what would we have to ground ourselves into as we seek the center of Pure Consciousness from which it all came? We must conceptualize the guru so we can find the guru. As for me, I have discovered someone who holds hold that mirror. I am very grateful for the conceptualization of what can actually have no concept. And in case you haven't noticed: irony doesn't affect me much. That is what I have been learning from my teacher, a small yet growing sense of that weighted heaviness. A feeling of being grounded into earthly reality yet completely connected with the ethereal. And so I think it is student who defines guru. Because through recognition of one's own sense of divinity, we are able to recognize what inspires divine opening, insight and eventually awakening.
Who is your guru? Do you have one? Does the concept of guru resonate with you? What else? The Yoga Teacher Blogspot wants to know. Thanks for reading!
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