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Day Twenty-What?!?! February 1, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, 40-Day Challenge, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Health, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Movies, Music, Peace, Philosophy, Super Heroes, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 22

My housemate has a way of saying, “What?!?” that embodies more astonishment, amazement, and awe than an adult male should be capable of mustering. It is incredulous. It is not, however, a childlike exclamation. It is one that can only be expressed by a person with a certain amount of knowledge, experience, and – yes – delight. It is the sound I hear when I think of Day 22.

During the 3rd week of the Yoga Journal 21-Day Challenge, I made several allusions to continuing the practice. After all, I had done 40-day challenges before and, as my housemate recently reminded me, 42 is “the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” So, on that level, it makes sense to do another 21 days.

Today was suppose to be a day off, but I had planned to sub a 50-minute class at the Y. It was a departure from the classes I normally teach, a super SPY class: Silent Power Yoga. In some ways it felt liberating to forgo music and my usual preparatory practice. I knew it was going to be a refining and aligning sequence; a tuning, if you will. After completing my 5-minute morning meditation and the Morning Sequence with Kate Holcombe, I knew today’s theme was going to be more super hero than super spy.

Able To, edited by Neil Ellis Orts, is an anthology of stories about people with super powers. These people, however, are not your typical superheroes. They’re more Zen then that. Like the girl whose words become flowers, some of these people have really cool powers for which we can all strive: being able to extend loving-kindness, compassion, to any one and everyone – in any situation. All of these stories make me think: what else could we do, if we tried?

In his book Power Yoga, Beryl Bender Birch refers to a zen koan that sounds like it was written especially for modern day yogis: Only when you can be extremely soft and pliable, can you be extremely hard and strong. Think Plastic Man, without the acid and the history of crime.

In today’s world, we sometimes think of being soft and pliable as being a bad thing. We imagine that bending will lead to breaking. In fact, the opposite holds true. Think of the way a palm tree and a pine tree react to strong wind. Both have strong roots, but the palm tree can hold up the longest, because it bends with the wind. The same thing is true in life: sometimes the only way to withstand the pressures around us is to give a little, bend a little. Being flexible, literally and figuratively, can be a super power for which we can all strive.

There are plenty of times in a yoga class when I see people struggling to hold or get into a pose. I encourage them to slow down their breath, and to relax…something. Sometimes I’ll even remind them that finding a deeper expression is, quite literally, finding a way to smile in the pose: inhale the corners of your mouth up to your ears, exhale and relax your jaw. See, instantly, you have a “deeper expression.”

Take a moment to consider a difficult situation in your life. Take a moment to consider how you react to even the thought of this difficult situation. Does your jaw clench? Do your shoulders move closer to your ears? What’s going on with the space between your eyebrows? What about the space between your fingers and toes? What about your breath and your heartbeat?

OK, now, consider how all these expressions of power serve you.

Take a moment, in the moment, to see what happens if you find a deeper expression, whatever that means to you. Maybe you relax your shoulders. Maybe you take a deep breath in, a deeper breath out. Maybe, just maybe, you soften your brow and smile.

Today, and the next 20 days, for me will be about finding ways to be more flexible. The funny thing is, on New Year’s Eve, when I was told (essentially) that I needed to be more flexible this year, I thought it was the most ludicrous suggestion in the world.

Little did I know.

Which is one of the great things about doing challenges like this. Not only do you give yourself the opportunity to embrace change and create space for change in your life, you also discover things you never knew you could know.


Day 21, The Perfect Time For A Tune Up February 1, 2011

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 21-Day Challenge, 40-Day Challenge, Books, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Health, Mantra, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Philosophy, Texas, Twin Cities, Yoga.
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Day 21

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things
I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr


Life happens. As long as you’re breathing, there’s no getting around it – life. As I said on Thursday, “Life is unexpected, surprising, and miraculous – it is full of the unexpected” The unexpected came in waves this past week and weekend and so, by Sunday, I felt lucky to get out of bed. Albeit, a little later than usual and with much more to do than normal. Playing catch-up meant I barely had time for my 5-minute meditation and a 20-minute asana practice. I was struggling; and, when I struggle I feel the need for a tune up.

When something mechanical – a car, for instance – needs a tune up, we take it to a professional. It’s a job that happens without us. But, when I think of tuning up as it relates to yoga, I think of a more personally interactive process. I think back to my years working for the ballet. Professional dancers take class every day; orchestra musicians start every performance by tuning up together. So, to me, tuning up means a bunch of people breathing together and running through the scales or the basics. Tuning up, is tuning in. Of course, sometimes other people are not available. So, you tune/turn to something elemental.

There is nothing more elemental than breath, and the sound of your breath. So, the first step is always to focus on the breathing. Then, to deepen the breath. Finally, when tuning, I find it’s nice to combine the breath with a mantra. Then, more often than not, I add a little movement. Asana, Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyana – half of the 8-limbs of yoga – are a great way to tune in and tune up.

Because it sounds like breathing and because I have some really great recordings of it, “So Hum/Hum Sa” is my default class mantra. My students may even say I over use it, but I’m not sure that’s possible. Still, when it came to Sunday’s practice and classes I ended up going with a mantra more in keeping with my current mindset: Om Namah Shivaya.

Om Namah Shivaya can be translated or interpreted in a lot of different ways. On a very basic level, it is considered a bhakti mantra, a devotional hymn. “Om” is the sound of the universe; the vibration under everything. “Namah” is honor or respect. “Shivaya” is a name for the divine. Of course, that last part can be the sticking part, because those of us in the West tend to view the divine in very different and conflicting ways – which is why I like to go deeper, look at it from a yoga perspective.

Yoga, on a basic level, is all about connecting the mind, the body, and the spirit. In the physical practice of yoga, we usually consider mind-body-spirit connection successful if we can be fully present and fully aware of what we’re doing at any given moment. But the ultimate connection is union with the divine. Samadhi, the 8th limb outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is considered enlightenment: the fundamental and conscious awareness that we are connected to all things, all people – and yes, to a divine spirit.

Breaking it down, “Om” represents an individual’s conscious, unconscious, and subconscious mind – it is the sound of our full awareness. “Namah Shivaya” represents the 5 elements that are inside of us and all around us: earth, water, fire, air, and ether (spirit). When we repeat this mantra on a personal level, we bring our full awareness to all we are, all that is around us, and all we are capable of creating or enduring. I usually correlate this mantra to the middle of the Serenity Prayer: the courage to change the things I can….However, the more I think about it – meditate on it – the more I realize it’s the whole enchilada. This mantra tunes you in to what is inside you and all around you; it wakes you up to what you can accept and what you can change.

On a physical level, Sunday’s practices became about being upside down. My students would probably say we did Standing Splits (Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana) 50 billion times. In reality (and 60 minutes), however, we could only do 3 on each side. Each time we came at it in a slightly different way and each time, theoretically, was an opportunity to take it deeper. On a subliminal level, each one was also an opportunity to accept, to change, and to distinguish the differences between what we could change and what we could accept.

In between my second and third class, I completed my 18-Minute So Hum Meditation. I was sitting in a chair, on top of a block, and at some point the motion detectors turned out the lights. It was peaceful, but more than anything it reinforced how tired I was. I planned to do one of the video practices when I first got home. However, after my third class, all I wanted was a nap.

My nap almost became a good night’s sleep. At 5 AM Monday morning, I woke up fully clothed and tried to do the Evening Sequence with Kate Holcombe. I lasted about 10 minutes. Normally, I would beat myself up about this, consider it a failure. But after the last 21 days, all I could do was accept it. And go back to bed.

The challenge that came in like a lion, went out like a lamb.

Or, so it would seem.

~ Om Namah Shivaya Om ~