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Sunday Stillness March 29, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Bhakti, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Dharma, Faith, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Loss, Love, Meditation, Mysticism, Pain, Peace, Poetry, Suffering, Tragedy, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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person kneeling inside building

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

“Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an alter
Of wood in a stone church”

– from “Kneeling” by R. S. Thomas, with accompanying music composed by Hilary Tann, featuring Guy Johnston

From the very moment we are born, we are moving towards stillness. Since the practice is a reflection of life (and “how we do yoga is how we do life”), it makes sense that the moment we hit the mat…we are moving towards stillness. Savasana, the seat of the corpse or Dead Man’s Pose, is the peak pose for almost every practice – even when it is not advertised as such – and despite the t-shirts, it is the pose that most often gets skipped (or shorted).

So, what are we missing?

To find out what we’re missing, let’s very intentionally and very deliberately move towards stillness. Join me on the Zoom mat, Sunday at 2:30 PM for a 65-minute practice featuring the poetry of R. S. Thomas (b. 3/29/1913), a man once described as ” a poet of…the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness….”

Sunday’s playlist is already posted on Spotify and will be available on my YouTube channel. If you’re interested in the inspiration behind the music, check out this Kiss My Asana post from 2019.

### OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTIHI OM ###

 

So Many Birthdays, So Many Stories, So Much Music… March 22, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Life, Men, Music, One Hoop, Peace, Poetry, Science, Super Heroes, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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This post contains a link for “Save with Stories” – a partnership with Save the Children and No Kid Hungry. You’ll find the link in the sentence (below), “Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life.”

Maty Ezraty, a yoga teacher of teachers, who died last summer, once told a teacher, “A good sequence is like a good story. There is a beginning (an introduction), the middle (the heart of the story), and the end (the conclusion)”

Take a moment to go little deeper into the middle of your story, because that’s where we are: the middle of our stories.

People often tell me (as someone told me just this weekend) that one of the things they like about my classes is the story, as well as the way the poses and the music tell the story. The practice is always a way to tell our stories. It is also a way to process our stories, every time we inhale, every time we exhale. As I was reviewing Sunday’s playlist (March 22nd), I realized it not only tells the stories of some great storytellers celebrating birthdays today (as I intended) and is a way to process our current life-plot (as I intended), it also reflects my story as a lover of stories.

James Patterson (b. 1947, in Newburgh, NY), is a bestselling novelist and children’s book author whose books can always be found in my parents bookshelves. Doesn’t matter if it is mystery, suspense, romance, or science, Patterson keeps you in the moment and keeps a Chekhovian promise (which we’ll get to in the end). One of his protagonists is a 12-year old orphan named Max Einstein. Like her namesake, this Einstein is a genius with wild (in her case red) curly hair. She is told that her story combined with her emotional and intellectual quotients are why she is considered the world’s “last great hope.” Patterson wrote, “If we are to help save the human race, we must recognize the humanity in all, no matter their station in life.”

For his part, Patterson has donated over 300 million books to school-aged children and the military, over $70 million to support education, and endowed over 5,000 scholarships for teachers.

Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930, in New York City, NY) is a legendary musical theater composer and lyrics, as well as an award-winning film composer. He has won 8 Tony Awards (more than any other composer), 8 Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier Award, and was awarded a 2015 Presidential Medal of Freedom. In all my time working in theater, I can’t say that I ever worked on any of Sondheim’s musicals (or the musicals of our final birthday composer), but I’ve seen my fair share of both their works – and can definitely sing along.

Also born in New York City, NY, in 1941, poet Billy Collins has been called “The most popular poet in America” and has served as United States Poet Laureate (2001 – 2003) and New York State Poet (2004 – 2006). Collins considers “humor a doorway into the serious” and begins his poem “Picnic, Lightning” by quoting Vladimir Nabokov. In Lolita, the protagonist says, “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)…”

The poem’s title is also the title of a collection of poems which my friend Mimi gave me in a moment when I was overwhelmed by grief. Fast forward almost a decade and, as if in a poem, I was dancing with Billy Collins on Nicollet Island and giving him a piece of Collins-inspired poetry. Even now, I can feel it…I can feel it…the joy of the moment, the joy of being alive; which fits in with his secret theory.

In a 2001 interview with The Paris Review, Billy Collins said, “I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to recreate the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child…. Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life.

Our final birthday storyteller is Baron Lloyd-Webber, or more properly styled, The Lord Lloyd-Webber…better known as the EGOT Andrew Lloyd Webber (no hyphen). Born today in 1948 (in Kensington, London), he has composed 13 musicals, a song cycle, a set of variations, 2 film scores, and a Latin Requiem Mass. He is an EGOT because he has won an Emmy Award, 4 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award (Oscar), and 7 Tony Awards – as well as 8 Laurence Olivier Awards and a plethora of other awards.

And now, back to that Chekhovian promise.

It was Anton Chekov who said that if there is a rifle (or a pistol) hanging on the wall in the first chapter/act, it must go off in the second or third. He told another playwright, “It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Whenever we step on the mat, there’s a part of us that is making a promise. Whenever, I put together a sequence there’s a part of me that thinks about that promise, as well as about that second Sondheim song (“Putting it together…bit by bit…piece by piece”) and Maty Ezraty’s sequencing advice about the middle (the heart) of the story. I consider how can I build up to a big heart opener and how we each need to process our own personal story in order to not only lift and open our hearts, but to also support our lifted and open hearts – especially in a time when it is so easy to close off.

Maty Ezraty said, “Practicing yoga is a privilege. And with this privilege comes a duty to be kind, to share a smile, and to offer yoga from the mat into the rest of your life.”

Here’s a mini-practice (5 minutes) which you can use it as your whole practice as the beginning/introduction portion of your practice and finish with a deeper back bend (even if it’s the same back bend – just with more awareness, more breath, and more smile.

 

### NAMASTE ###

It’s Bach’s Day Too! March 21, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Bhakti, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Faith, Fitness, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Karma, Life, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Mysticism, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Tragedy, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Wisdom.
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“[Music] should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the re-creation of the soul, where this is not kept in mind, there is no true music, but only an infernal clamour and ranting.”

– Johann Sebastian Bach (b. 1685)

According to the Old Style / Julian calendar, March 21st, is the anniversary of the birth of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685, Bach’s statement about music also works as a statement for yoga: [Philosophically speaking, yoga] should have no other end and aim than the glory of God and the re-creation of the soul, where this is not kept in mind, there is no true [yoga], but only an infernal clamour and ranting. People who think of yoga only as a form of exercise are often surprised that there’s more. One can only imagine their surprise if the walk into one of my classes – especially on My March 21st, when the playlist starts with Bach and then becomes a soundtrack for other events that correspond to this date in history. Imagine their further surprise when all of that is just the background to a deeper practice.

On Saturdays I typically teach a 90-minute practice at that is primarily attended by a dedicated group who are interested in the yoga philosophy as well as asana and asana philosophy. For the past few years, we start in January and “build a practice from the ground up” physically as well as philosophically. Physically, we start with the beginning of a specific practice or sequence and either explore it for about 30-weeks before continuing to a new practice built on the original or, as we did this year, we start with a basic set of poses and start building around it. Philosophically, in years past, we have explored the 8-limbs of yoga, as well as how the 7 chakras correspond with 7 yoga paths (hatha, tantra, karma, bhakti, mantra, yantra, and jnana). Last year, we started moving through the Yoga Sutras – which worked perfectly as there are 51 sutras in the first chapter.

This year, we started physically moving through the warm-up and asanas that Ram Dass illustrated in Be Here Now, and just recently started using that sequence as a “finishing sequence.” (If you’ve been attending the Saturday practices and/or are familiar with the sequence, that’s your practice today.)

Philosophically, we decided to continue last years work and make our way through the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras. Today, March 21st, is the 12th Saturday of 2020. I am including a bit of background for those who are just now joining this journey and a bit of last week’s commentary since so many had to miss the class. For more on the sutras, you can check out Swami J’s website or purchase the series of books by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD – both associated with the traditions of the Himalayan Masters.

Yoga Sutra 1.1:  atha yogānuśānam

– “Right here, right now (in this auspicious moment), yoga (or union) instruction begins”

Yoga Sutra 1.2: yogaścittavŗttinirodaha

– “Yoga (or union) ceases the fluctuations of the mind”

The first chapter of the Yoga Sutras is the “Chapter (or, more literally, Foundation) on Concentration” and Patanjali begins by explaining how the mind works; atha, right here, right now. In this present moment each of our minds is processing multi-bazillion bits of information/sensation – which results in a constant fluctuation of the mind (cittavŗtti). This restlessness and agitation of the mind, in turn becomes restlessness and agitation in the body – and this becomes obstacles to the practice (or to our goals). At the same time, he explains that our thoughts fall into two (2) categories: afflicted thoughts (i.e., thoughts which cause pain) and not afflicted thoughts (which may ease pain, or at least not cause pain). Finally, Patanjali explains how to work the mind – using the mind’s own ability to concentration/meditate – in order to rest the mind and, therefore, the body.

This is why, I often say, “What happens in the mind happens in the body. What happens in the body happens in the mind. And both affect the breath.” If you take a deep breath in (right here, right now) and a deeper breath out (right here, right now). You not only bring your awareness to the present moment (right here, right now; every time you consciously inhale and every time you consciously exhale) – you also, affect the body and the mind. In fact, that is one of ten practices Patanjali describes in the first chapter: focus on your breath.

Yoga Sutra 2.11: dhyānaheyāstadvŗttayah

– “Meditation destroys the mental tendencies (associated with affliction/pain)”

The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras is (the “Chapter (or, more literally, Foundation) on Practice. It is basically Patanjali – way back in the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th BCE – recognizing and acknowledging that everyone on the planet can’t just drop into a deep-seated meditative state. So he starts explaining the elements of kriya yoga (“yoga in action”) and how the practice of training the senses, exploring within, and letting go of aversions and attractions attenuates the effect of afflicted/pain-producing thoughts. To do this, however, he first gives us a deeper understanding of how afflicted thoughts produce pain.

“Samskaras – the drivers of our mental tendencies – manifest in the form of memory. We are able to remember something because the subtle impressions related to the object have been store in or mind. Because they are hidden beneath thick layers of the forces of time, the mind is not aware of their existence. But like a seed that lies dormant until spring brings moisture and warmth, samskaras awaken when the conditions inside and outside the mind are conducive.”

– Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s commentary on sutra 2.11

 

Using seeds as a metaphor or a simile for our thoughts, words, and deeds is a very common teaching tool. In previous weeks, the metaphor I used was a backpack containing a still soft, but sculpted, piece of clay. Let’s say you’ve molded a little figurine (whatever comes to mind) or a tiny cup; but, something causes you to place the molded clay into your backpack. For some reason, the clay stays in your backpack, getting tossed around, even a little mushed, as you go about your days. Every once in awhile you brush your finger across it when you’re looking for something and you think, “What’s that? Oh, yeah….” And whatever emotions you were feeling in relation to making the piece, or having to toss it in your bag before it was finished, flash up.

Later, you might even pull the piece of clay out, notice that it’s smashed and decide to completely smash it and start again or restore it to some close proximity of what you did before. Someone else could feel it or see it or see you remolding it and have a completely different experience, but this is your experience – and now this new layer of experience is attached to the clay, just like the oils from your skin. Even if you “buy a new backpack,” a piece of the clay finds its way inside. (YS 2.10) Unless, of course, you have “trained your senses, explored within, and given up your aversions and attractions – in which case you can discard the clay when you switch backpacks or you can recognize what it was and decide to treat it as a fresh piece of clay ready for a new project. (YS 2.11)

 

Yoga Sutra 2.12: kleśamūlah karmāśayo dŗşţādŗşţjanmavedanīyah

– “The reservoir of our actions is rooted in affliction/pain that is experienced in seen and unseen lives”

For anyone wondering: Nope, I had no idea this week’s sutra was going to keep us firmly grounded in the “seen and unseen.” Previous translations I’ve used for comparative analysis talk about “current life and future life,” “this life and the lives to come,” and “at the time of the action or (another time).” The bottom line, though, is still the same.

All of our experiences, thoughts, words, and deeds have consequences. Some consequences occur “immediately” and we easily see the connection between cause and effect. Other times, there is the distance of time, space, memory, and/or ignorance (or lack of awareness), which causes the connection to be “unseen” by us. Yet, cause and effect is still there, and so it becomes even more important to recognize that, as Pandit Tigunait points out, “Impure karmic impressions cloud our mind with desire, greed, confusion, and anger, and become the drivers of negative, destructive actions. Pure karmic impressions create a positive mental atmosphere, awakening virtues such as love, compassion, kindness, and selflessness, which then become drivers of positive, constructive actions…. Causing intense pain to someone who is fearful, diseased, or stingy engenders a highly, negatively charged karmic reality. Betraying someone who trusts you or harming a high-caliber soul committed to intense austerity also engenders a highly potent negative karmic reality. This potent negative karma ripens quickly.”

We don’t always have control over our circumstances, but we always have control over our actions (thoughts, words, and deed). We don’t, however, make decisions in a vacuum. Part of the practice is recognizing that are current actions are informed by our previous experiences, thoughts, words, and deeds – and what we do in this moment, is going to inform what happens to us (and what we do) in our next moments… even if that moments are years away.

 

### BE KIND TO YOURSELF & TO OTHERS ###

Happy First Friday of Spring! March 20, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Faith, Healing Stories, Hope, James Baldwin, Life, Loss, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Poetry, Religion, Suffering, Tragedy, Uncategorized, Vairagya, Yoga.
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“The long silences need to be loved, perhaps more than the words which arrive to describe them in time.”

– from God’s Silence by Franz Wright

Yes, it is hard to believe: Yesterday was gray, rainy, cold – even snow for some – and it was the first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. I know, hard to believe. Some folks had forgotten all about Spring, it seems. Still others were expecting it to bring some great change… And maybe it did. But, like the old saying (April showers bring May flowers) implies, we have to wait for the beauty.

In waiting for the beauty of being able to offer a video practice inspired by Franz Wright, I was reminded that Wright’s collection after winning the 2004 Pulitzer Prize was entitled God’s Silence. I haven’t read it (yet), but I am suddenly fascinated by the idea of 144 pages worth of Franz Wright poetry curated around the idea of “God’s Silence.” Notice, that’s 144 pages – not 144 poems. (Poets everywhere are now doing the math.) This is the kind of the thing that gets me oddly excited, especially right now, because there is so much I want to know!

I want to know if he is referring to silence that is the response to a prayer or a request (or even a curse); the silence that precedes an answer; the silence that follows the answer (when the questioner is dumbfounded or in awe of the response); the silence when one is pondering the best way to phrase something and therefore measuring their words; the silence of shock (can we shock God?); the silence of disappointment; the silence of wonder; the silence when no one is around; the silence of sleeping children; the silence between one breath and the next; the silence of meditation; the silence of peace; the silence honoring the dead; the silence just before a newborn declares itself alive; or….The list goes on. He could be talking about all of the above. Or none of the above. There are so many possibilities!

What I know is that he starts off with “The telephone ringing / in the deserted city ––– ” and and that one of the poems is called “Solitary Play: Minnesota, 1961.” I feel like this is where we are at, and I’m here for it.

“You survive this and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what is crucial here is that if it hurt you, that is not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with. You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”

– James Baldwin speaking at Community Church in NYC on Nov. 29, 1962

Besides an ultimate love for poetry that gets you through hard times (because you realize someone has been through harder – or, as hard of a time), maybe one of the reasons I’m here for it is because part of my practice involves silence. The kind of silence and stillness that can make people uncomfortable, because it is so powerful. But, simultaneously, the kind of silence and stillness that is the epitome of peace. When Patanjali codified the philosophy of yoga in the Yoga Sutras, he wrote, “yogash citta vritti nirodah.” Yoga ceases the fluctuations of the mind.

Silence.

Perhaps, God’s silence.

It’s 2 days late and $2 dollars short, but I offer you a video of Wednesday’s practice (inspired by Franz Wright). It’s nowhere near perfect, but I hope it brings you a moment of peace, a moment of ease. I hope it brings you stillness and yes, silence.

 

###

Let’s Do That 90-Second Thing! March 16, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Faith, Hope, Loss, Meditation, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pain, Peace, Pema Chodron, Philosophy, Suffering, Uncategorized, Vairagya, Vipassana, Yoga.
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“From everything I saw, knew, and felt, my decision had been made: LaGuardia was out. Wishing or hoping otherwise wasn’t going to help.”

– from Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chelsey B.”Sully” Sullenberger

We all experience moments where things don’t go as planned or as we want them to go. As Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger said, “Not every situation can be foreseen or anticipated. There isn’t a checklist for everything.” In these moments, we can second guess ourselves, recriminate ourselves, or we can trust what we feel, and then move forward.

Sometimes it is really easy to follow our intuition. At other times we have to practice listening to that still, silent voice inside of our own heart. At other times, we just have a sense of knowing that we must trust our gut and or the funny feeling in the pit of our belly or low back. My whispers of intuition usually happen around books, or discussions about books – and occasionally with music. It happened on September 10, 2001 (when I felt a strong urge to buy a small copy of the The Art of War). It happened at the end of last year during a conversation about the work and life of Ram Das (when I kept insisting he had died, on the day he was actually dying). And, in a similar, roundabout serendipitous and easily chalked up as a coincidence fashion, it happened when I was trying to figure out the appropriate tone and content for my first COVID-19 blog post.

I had an idea – one we will undoubtedly visit later – but I was worried it would come off as a little to flippant and cavalier. I also wanted to make sure there was space within the frame for good information. And, in my musings, I remembered that my new housemate had given me a copy of Pema Chödrön’s Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Note: This was not the only gift in the form of a book that I received last year – or in previous years. And, honestly, I didn’t really remember the title or the titular subject. However, something whispered for me to get the book.

The second featured quote, at the beginning of Chapter One, was Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s simile comparing life to stepping into a sinking boat. And from that river flowed the rest of the blog post. 

Sunday night, when faced with the news that my classes at the Douglas Dayton YMCA and Flourish have been cancelled, I felt the desire to go deeper. {On your next inhale, go deeper.}

Pema Chödrön writes, “In My Stroke of Insight, the brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s book about her recovery from a massive stroke, she explains the physiological mechanism behind emotion: an emotion like anger that’s an automatic response lasts just 90 seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all. When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve chosen to rekindle it.

The fact of the shifting, changing nature of our emotions is something we could take advantage of. But do we? No. Instead, when an emotion comes up, we fuel it with our thoughts, and what should last one and a half minutes may be drawn out for 10 or 20 years. We just keep recycling the story line. We keep strengthening our old habits.”

Essentially, we throw more fuel on the fire and (literally) light it up again.

What happens if, instead of adding fuel to the flame, we just spend 90 seconds watching the light flare up… and then go out? What happens if, as we do in meditation and as we do our physical practice of yoga, we just breathe into the moment? What happens if the only story we tell is the non-story, that “doing the 90 seconds thing” story that is no story, only experience. (Someone in Chödrön’s circle refers to it as the “one-and-a-half minute thing,” so think of it however it works for you.)

You can settle into a comfortable position, set a timer, and do this on your own. Or, you can click below (or here if the video doesn’t show on your phone) and do it with me. Either way, the idea is to breathe and feel what you feel, for 90 seconds, without adding any story: no value judgments, no interpretations, and no explanations.

Its 90 seconds. If you practice on the mat with me, you know you can do just about anything for 90 seconds.

 

### BE WELL ###

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Life…. March 13, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Faith, Fitness, Food, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Life, Mantra, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pain, Peace, Science, Suffering, Tragedy, Twin Cities, Wisdom, Yoga.
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“Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”

– Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

 

Right now, in this moment, I am prepared to do what I can do, but also accepting that there is a lot I cannot do. However, all of that can change in the next moment – because that’s life; as long as we are alive everything changes.

(Say that first part with me: Right now, in this moment, I am prepared to do what I can do, but also accepting that there is a lot I cannot do.)

Right now, we are all on a sinking boat. There’s a chance we’re close to shore and can touch bottom and there’s also a chance we are way out to sea, but no one knows for sure. Some folks are screaming and jumping into what might be shark infested waters. Some folks are sitting back pretending like nothing is happening. There are folks frantically trying to bail out the water. Still others are putting on their life jackets and preservers and inflating their life boats. Bottom line: The boat is still sinking.

“The transcripts of our conversation also show how Patrick’s choice of phrasing was helpful to me. Rather than telling me what airport I had to aim for, he asked me what airport I wanted. His words let me know that he understood that these hard choices were mine to make, and it wasn’t going to help if he tried to dictate a plan to me.”

– from Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chelsey B.”Sully” Sullenberger

Some people, most people, will survive and it is up to each and every one of us to do what we can do to increase the possibility of survival. In accordance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and Yoga Alliance, consider doing the following:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (or use appropriate hand sanitizer for 20 seconds).
  2. Clean mats, props, and gym equipment (as well as desks, phones, and door handles) frequently.
    1. If you’re using a studio/gym mat or other equipment, clean it before and after usage.
    2. If you don’t already own and use one, consider buying your own mat and/or purchasing a skidless yoga “towel” you can place over a studio mat.
    3. Cover props with a towel, bring your own props, or (when appropriate) reduce your props.
  3. Space and stagger your mats if you are coming to a group class. Take a deep breath if a class is cancelled or you are turned away because class size is limited.
  4. Practice good health and wellness habits by getting plenty of sleep, staying physically active, managing your stress, drinking plenty of (hydrating) fluids, and eating heart healthy foods.
  5. If you have been traveling (especially internationally), practice at home and avoid large groups of people for at least a week. (WHO and CDC are recommending 14 day self-isolation for people who have traveled internationally or been in contact with someone who may be ill.)
  6. If you are sick (and/or coming down with or getting over a respiratory illness), practice at home. There are lots of online resources for various types of yoga and other physical activities. (I will add links and post some sequences.)
  7. Monitor daily reports from WHO or the CDC only as much as you are able without increasing your anxiety.
  8. Practice compassion. Acknowledge that there are a lot of people suffering, in a lot of different ways. If you can help someone, without undue risk to yourself, do so.
  9. Avoid touching your face and practice coughing/sneezing etiquette.
  10. Be mindful. Be patient. Be kind. Breathe.

As I post this, my classes at the YMCA, Nokomis Yoga, and Flourish are continuing as scheduled. If, however, you purchased a Flourish package and elect not to attend classes in the next few weeks, you will be given a studio credit. Common Ground Meditation Center has cancelled all programming through March 29th. I will update my calendar as things change.

I will continue to give people the option (at the beginning of class) to opt out of hands-on assists, but the reality is that I am extremely limiting assists for the foreseeable future.

(Let’s say it again: Right now, in this moment, I am prepared to do what I can do, but also accepting that there is a lot I cannot do.)

### OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTIHI ###

 

Foundations 2019 July 29, 2019

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Abhyasa, Books, Changing Perspectives, Fitness, Healing Stories, Health, Japa-Ajapa, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Surya Namaskar, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Wisdom, Yoga.
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(NOTE: The picture above is missing Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy, Steve Ross’s Happy Yoga, Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga, all my Yin Yoga and Taoist texts, a copy of the Ramayana, and Alanna Kaivalya’s Myths of the Asanas, at the very least.)

“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

Frank Lloyd Wright

 

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

John Cage

 

Saturday mornings at the Y, just like any morning, is a great time to explore the physical and philosophical practice of yoga. However, I am partial to my Saturdays since I have 90 minutes to engage in the practice of exploration. For the last few years, I have started the new year with a “Building From the Ground Up” sequence – each Saturday adding more poses and another layer of the philosophy. Sometimes I still tie-in a meditation point specific to the date, and to whatever aspect of the philosophy is on tap for the day. Sometimes, however, it’s just straight philosophy and an opportunity to consider the meditation through movement. Whatever I plan for the year, usually wraps up around the end of July – when we start breaking down a different physical practice, the Ashtanga Primary Series.

This year, philosophically, I decided to sequentially move through Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Each week breaking down a sutra with commentary. (This week will be YS 1.31.) Physically, we have been breaking down a course of poses outlined by B. K. S. Iyengar in Light On Yoga.

The Saturday class is not an Iyengar class; however, (as teachers like Seane Corn have pointed out) if you are going to practice vinyasa, it’s a good idea to practice Iyengar as it will give you the solid foundation and insight into the asanas (poses).

Iyengar’s Course I is 30 weeks of detailed practice, specifically intended to build a physical practice from the ground up. While they are not limbs themselves, abhyasa (continuous practice with devotion) and vairagya (actively practicing the art of letting go or non-attachment) definitely make up the fertile soil from which the 8-limbs of yoga grow and thrive. And, they are key elements to the courses that appear in the appendix of Light On Yoga.  At first, each set of poses is practiced for two (2) weeks before additional poses are added to the sequence. Later, some sequences are repeated for three (3) or four (4) weeks – and sometimes the order of the sequence changes. The 30-week course is followed by a 3-day course, which is slightly different from the 30-day course since the asanas are timed. Finally, there is some guidance on adding sun salutations (surya namaskar) to the physical practice and a list entitled “Important asanas in Course I.”

“If these asanas are mastered then the others given in this course will come even without regular practice.

– B. K. S. Iyengar writing about the “Impostant asanas in Course I”

The important asanas list, when followed by the sun salutations, looks and feels a lot like one of the first vinyasa practices to appear in the West, the Ashtanga Primary Series introduced to Sri Pattabhi Jois.  This is not a random coincidence. While Iyengar and Jois were in very different physical/health conditions when they started practicing yoga, they practiced at the same time and with the same teacher: Sri Krishnamacharya. The practices they introduced to the West – just like the physical practices introduced by some of Krishnamacharya’s other students (including Indra Devi, T. K. V. Desikichar, and A. G. Mohan) reflect their own personal practices – which were the result of the physical and mental needs. Remember, classically, the physical practice of yoga (hatha yoga, regardless of the style or tradition) prepares the practitioner for deep-seated meditation. Ergo, even though they might practice the same poses, a very sickly young boy may use a different method of practice than a very active teenage boy.

(Side Note: It is also not a random coincidence that we generally start exploring the Ashtanga Primary series at the end of July: instead the timing coincides with the birthday of Sri Pattabhi Jois.)

YMCA classes are always open to members and their guests. If you are a member, please feel free to join us for class at any time throughout the year – and, feel free to bring a guest.

For further reading, check out Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar; Heart of Yoga by T. K. V. Desikichar; Ashtanga Yoga the Practice Manual by David Swenson; The Secret of the Yoga Sutra: Samadhi Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD (Note: This is Part 1 of a series and only includes the first section of the sutras. There are many translations of the sutras, a great online resource is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on swamij.com.)

“Talent works, genuis creates.”

– Robert Schumann

~~~ AUM ~~~

MOVING INTO STILLNESS: 2019 Kiss My Asana Offering #18 (for Day 29) April 30, 2019

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Bhakti, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Donate, Faith, Healing Stories, Karma Yoga, Life, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Mysticism, Peace, Poetry, Religion, Twin Cities, Wisdom, Writing.
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The (slightly belated) “practice preview” below is part of my offering for the 2019 Kiss My Asana yogathon. I encourage you to set aside at least 5 minutes a day during April, to practice with today’s theme or concept as inspiration. You can practice in a class or on your own, but since the Kiss My Asana yogathon raises resources as well as awareness, I invite you to join me at a donation-based class on May 4th.

I also challenge you to set aside a certain amount every day that you practice with this concept/theme in mind. It doesn’t matter if you set aside one dollar per practice or $25 – set aside that amount each time you practice and donate it by April 30th.

Founded by Matthew Sanford, Mind Body Solutions helps those who have experienced trauma, loss, and disability find new ways to live by integrating both mind and body. They provide classes, workshops, and outreach programs. They also train yoga teachers and offer highly specialized training for health care professionals. By participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon you join a global movement, but in a personal way. In other words, you practice yoga. Or, as this year’s tag line states….

                                                   do yoga. share yoga. help others.                               

***

“Movement is a language spoken by us all. Movement is a universal language that belongs to everybody If only we open our senses and listen. Listening is what is required, listening without interference, listening without judgment, listening in silence and allowing the movement to pass through the body in the moment, because everything inside us and around us is in motion, constant motion. This is when the body doesn’t lie because it is listening to its truth and manifesting it.”

– excerpt from Karima Monsour’s message for 2019 International Dance Day

“….Then there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart.  All through history”

– from “The Other View from the Window” by R. S. Thomas, with accompanying music composed by Hilary Tann, featuring Guy Johnston

 

It may seem odd, to some, that on International Dance Day (4/29) I was thinking about stillness – and silence. The thing is, as a yoga teacher and practitioner who likes to keep things in context, I am hyper aware that the physical practice of yoga is traditionally a way to prepare the mind-body for stillness and silence. Not for nothing that Patanjali defined yoga as “citta vritti nirodaha” (ceasing the fluctuations of the mind). Also remember, the practice is a mirror of our lives and we are, from the moment we are born, moving towards stillness. In that context, our “final pose” is always our peak pose.

Yes, yes, I know – the “final pose” is the pose that people routinely skip or that teachers (myself included) sometimes give the least amount of time. And yet, the “final pose” is the most important pose; it is the time when the mind-body has an opportunity to absorb and process the work/effort of the practice. It is when we rest, when the parasympathetic nervous system is paramount, that we digest. We digest what we consume physically – in terms of food, drink, air, etc. – and also what we consume through experience. The parasympathetic nervous system is also associated with creation.

“For the first twenty years you are still growing,
Bodily that is; as a poet, of course,
You are not born yet. It’s the next ten
You cut your teeth on to emerge smirking
For your brash courtship of the muse.”

– from “To a Young Poet” by R. S. Thomas*

 

“early April
out in my bathrobe
and gardening boots”

– Hilary Tann

 

 

R. S. Thomas was a Welsh poet and Anglican priest whose poetry is often compared to the landscape of Wales and the work ethic of the Welsh people. He was born March 29, 1913 – so, not an April poet to the date, but the timing of his birthday does get me thinking about poetry and poets at their essence.

Hilary Tann was born November 2, 1947 – so not an April poet either. But, she is a Welsh-born composer who lives and teaches in Upstate New York. In 2015, Tann released a composition set to seven (7) of Thomas’s poems. The music manages to capture the essence of the poems – as well as the poet. Perhaps it helps that Tann is also a published haiku poet who has been inspired by the same natural elements as Thomas. It definitely doesn’t hurt that Thomas himself recites the poems. But regardless of why it works, practicing to Seven Poems of Stillness is like practicing in an empty, abandoned cathedral with the wind carrying in a voice and notes that seem to echo one another. When one ends and the other begins you might question that you ever heard the other: it is as if they are one and the same.

“There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl
calling
far off and a fox barking
miles away.”

– from “The Other” by R. S. Thomas, with accompanying music composed by Hilary Tann, featuring Guy Johnston

 

Above I placed the words “final pose” in quotes, because although I often refer to Savasana (or its modification) as the final pose, the truth is it’s really the penultimate pose: Every practice inevitably ends not with Savasana, but with a seated (on your sits-bones) pose. The physical practice ends where the breathing practice and the seated meditation practice begin.

“…It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and
falling”

– from “The Other” by R. S. Thomas, with accompanying music composed by Hilary Tann, featuring Guy Johnston

FEATURED POSE for April 29th: Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana) or Hero Pose (Virasana)

As I mentioned in this year’s April 8th offering, seiza (which literally means “proper sitting”) in Zen Buddhism is a kneeling position. It places the body in a similar position to one the body is in when kneeling on a kneeler in a church pew or at a prie-dieu (literally “pray to God”) desk. It is one of the few poses not contraindicated by a full stomach and is prenatal approved. With modifications, these poses are accessible to almost anyone. (The big exception to practice these poses would be certain – but not all – knee issues.)

The big differences between Thunderbolt Pose (Vajrasana) and Hero Pose (Virasana) are the placement of the knees and feet, which in turn affects the placement of the hips. For Thunderbolt Pose, both the feet and the knees are pressed together. For Hero Pose, the knees touch, but the feet (and shins) are spread wider than the hips. If you have tight quads, tight hips, and or knee issues, you will need props for these poses. Helpful props for Thunderbolt and Hero include a bench, meditation cushion, blankets, and/or blocks. You do not necessarily need all of these – and you can definitely get creative with common household objects instead of using “yoga props.” If you feel these poses are not for you, even with props, you can practice by sitting in a chair.

To come into either pose, start on your hands and knees, with your toes pointed away from the knees. You’ll either bring your knees and feet together, for Thunderbolt, or bring your knees together and spread your feet apart, for Hero. (Note, the position of the knees and feet is the opposite of the Auspicious Pose described in the April 8th offering.) For Thunderbolt, sit on the heels. For Hero Pose, sit in the space between the heels. If the hips don’t touch the ground in Hero Pose, place a prop underneath the hips. In both poses, you want the hips grounded. If the ankles are uncomfortable (in either pose), place a rolled up blanket, towel, or shirt (even socks) under the ankles and feet. Another ankle option (for Thunderbolt only) is to curl the toes under so that the toes point towards the knees. If there is too much pressure on the knees (in either pose) place rolled up blankets, towels, or shirts between the hips and the shins/heels.

Once you’re seated in the pose, spread the toes and press down into your foundation in order to extend the spine. Ribs and hips are reaching away from each other. Engage your pelvic floor and your core. Relax your shoulders and jaw. Hands rest on the thighs, with palms up if you want a little energy or palms down if you want to be grounded. With the chin parallel to your legs, close your eyes if that is comfortable for you. Listen to at least one (1) of the Seven Poems of Stillness.

Each track of Seven Poems of Stillness is 2:25 – 4.36 minutes long. The entire composition is 24:53 – which is a pretty nice length for a seated meditation. Whenever you feel like you’re done with the pose, lean forward and ease out of the pose. Take a moment to stretch out your legs, maybe rotate your ankles or flex and point your toes. If you are practicing both poses, start with Thunderbolt.

“Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an alter
Of wood in a stone church”

– from “Kneeling” by R. S. Thomas, with accompanying music composed by Hilary Tann, featuring Guy Johnston

 

(*NOTE: To a Young Poet is not one of the seven featured “stillness” poems, but as a little something extra, here’s a beautiful variation of it.)

 

### OM SHANTI SHANTI SHANTHI OM ###

NEVERTHELESS, SHE SANG: 2019 Kiss My Asana Offering #9 April 9, 2019

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Abhyasa, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Dharma, Donate, Faith, Food, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Karma Yoga, Life, Marian Anderson, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Suffering, Twin Cities, Vairagya, Wisdom, Women, Writing, Yoga.
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The “practice preview” below is part of my offering for the 2019 Kiss My Asana yogathon. I encourage you to set aside at least 5 minutes a day during April, to practice with today’s theme or concept as inspiration. You can practice in a class or on your own, but since the Kiss My Asana yogathon raises resources as well as awareness, I invite you to join me at a donation-based class on April 27th or May 4th.

I also challenge you to set aside a certain amount every day that you practice with this concept/theme in mind. It doesn’t matter if you set aside one dollar per practice or $25 – set aside that amount each time you practice and donate it by April 30th.

Founded by Matthew Sanford, Mind Body Solutions helps those who have experienced trauma, loss, and disability find new ways to live by integrating both mind and body. They provide classes, workshops, and outreach programs. They also train yoga teachers and offer highly specialized training for health care professionals. By participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon you join a global movement, but in a personal way. In other words, you practice yoga. Or, as this year’s tag line states….

do yoga. share yoga. help others.

***

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

– Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (2/7/2017)

 

“[I’m] surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate….”

– Senator Elizabeth Warren (2/7/2017)

 

Sometimes triumph comes because someone surrenders; sometimes it comes because someone persisted. If you go back in history you will find examples of both happening on any given day – including this day.

For all intensive purposes, the American Civil War ended today in 1865. Contrary to what some might say or believe, the war effectively ended when Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered 28,000 rag-tagged and starving troops to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. Sure, some resistance continued then (and now), but Lee really didn’t have a choice.

Being out-manned and outgunned was nothing new for the Confederate army. Previously, however, they had food, supplies, reinforcements, and spirit – so they could rally. This time was different. Lee had been forced to abandon the Confederate capital of Richmond and the Union army stood between him and Confederate reinforcements in North Carolina. They were surrounded. They were starving. They were weary. 6,000 troops had been captured at Sailor’s (or Saylers) Creek just a few days before (on April 6th). And, if we’re being honest, the Confederate troops had fought longer, harder, and more strategically than anyone had expected. But, they had also gotten really lucky – and it looked like their luck had run out.

Lee and Grant were the highest ranking officers in their respective armies and they were acquaintances (having both fought during the Mexican War). After arranging a time and a place to meet, Lee showed up in full dress and attire, complete with sash and sword; while Grant showed up in his muddy field uniform. Grant’s actions throughout the exchange (not to mention his overall personality and tendencies) may indicate that he meant no disrespect in the way that he dressed. It’s entirely possible that it never occurred to him to dress up – or that it didn’t occur to him that Lee could dress up. Either way, Grant stated that he remembered everything about Lee from the last time they had met (and been on the same side of a battle). Lee, on the other hand, said he didn’t remember a single thing about Grant. Lee asked for the terms for his surrender and Grant wrote them out: all officers and enlisted men would be pardoned and allowed to return home with their private property (basically their horse, if they had one), officers could keep their side arms, and all troops would receive Union rations. Grant stated, “The war is over. The Rebels are our countrymen again.”

The end of the American Civil War led to the end of legal slavery in the United States, but there was/is still a battle for equality. Throughout the decades, the most obvious battle has been that of civil rights and the most obvious battlefield has been segregation and equal access. One of those battles was won today in 1866 when Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (defining citizenship and rights therein), despite President Andrew Johnson’s double veto. Another of those battles was won today in 1939. This time, because someone persisted.

April 9, 1939 was a Sunday – Easter Sunday to be precise – and over 75,000 people gathered on the mall of the Lincoln Memorial to hear a woman sing. But, this wasn’t just any crowd – it was an integrated crowd in a segregated city. And, Marian Anderson wasn’t just any woman. Even though the legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini said she had “a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years [,]” she also wasn’t just any singer. Marian Anderson was the descendant of slaves: an African-American contralto whose talent would eventually earn her the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), the Congressional Gold Medal (1977), the Kennedy Center Honors (1978), the National Medal of Arts (1986), a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991), and recognition as an international diplomat. Anderson had been scheduled to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D. C., but then told, by the Daughters of the American Revolution, that she could not sing in “their” venue because of her race. Additionally, Constitution Hall did not have the segregated public bathrooms that were required by law. The D. C. Board of Education also withheld a venue for the event. Thus, the battle had begun.

Charles Edward Russell, co-founder of the NAACP and the chair of the D.C. Inter-Racial Committee rallied church leaders, activist, and organizations such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress to form the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC). Led by Charles Hamilton Houston (whose legal prowess would later earn him the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”), the MACC picketed the board of education, collected signatures on petitions, and planned mass protests. This grassroots effort led several DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to resign from the DAR.

“You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

–excerpt from DAR resignation letter written by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

The First Lady went on to enlist her husband, then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; members of his cabinet; Walter White of the NAACP; and Anderson’s manager, impresario Sol Hurok in order to organize a free, open-air concert. The concert, held today in 1939, attracted more than 75,000 people of various races, ethnicities, ages, genders, sexualities, and political affiliations. Additionally, the concert was broadcast live to millions. (Here’s a picture, just in case you’re one of those people interested in crowd sizes on the D. C. mall.)

 FEATURED POSE for April 9th: Equal Standing / Mountain Pose (Samastithi  / Tadasana)

Equal Standing (Samstithi), also known as Mountain Pose (Tadasana) is one of the foundational poses in the physical practice of yoga. It is the first pose highlighted in B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. And, as I often say, there is an element of Samastithi/Tadasana in every pose. Whether you are seated, standing, kneeling, or lying down, start to notice where elements of this pose reoccur throughout your practice.

Begin by noticing how you carry your weight. Rock all your weight onto your toes and then rock it all onto your heels. Sway side to side. Play with being out of balance and then stand or sit so that weight is balanced on either side of your spine. If you are standing or sitting with your feet flat on a surface, spread the big toes and little toes away from each other and then down into the ground. Press both sides of the heels down. If you are seated with legs crossed, or kneeling, get grounded though your base.

Now that the arches are starting to activate and the ankles are starting to stabilize, bring awareness to the knees. If you are standing upright (or if seated with legs stretched out in front of you), engage the quadriceps in order to lift the kneecaps up. Thighs will be firm. In all variations of Mountain Pose, press your sit bones away from your ribs, and vice versa. Lift your pelvic floor (squeezing your perineum muscles as if you are trying not to go to the bathroom) and draw your belly button up and back.

As you extend your spine, as your heart and sternum lift up, be mindful about your low back. Make sure you are not bending over backwards. While keeping the heart open and lifted, soften the lower ribs and draw them down into the belly – so that the core becomes more engaged.

Relax the shoulders and jaw. Spread your collarbones wide so that palms either turn forward or rest by your sides facing the body. If the hands face the body, make sure the collarbones, shoulders, and chest are still spreading left to right. Keep the chin parallel to your toes.

Note, this is a great stance for singing or speaking to large groups of people.

Breathe here for a couple of minutes, extending the spine as you inhale and making sure you’re all zipped up as you exhale. Repeat this same sequence while lying on your back.

(Click here if you don’t see the sound bar below, featuring Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.)

{SIDE NOTE: Marian Anderson’s mother was a Rucker; so I’m claiming her as my own. SAD NOTE: Martin Luther King Jr. was buried today in 1968. CURIOUS NOTE: Marian Anderson died at the age of 96. Having performed on this date (4-9-39), I found it curious to note that she died on 4-8-93.}

### NAMASTE ###

 

CH-CH-CHANGES, LIKE A RIVER: 2019 Kiss My Asana Offering #8 April 8, 2019

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in 31-Day Challenge, Abhyasa, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Confessions, Daoism, Depression, Dharma, Donate, Faith, Food, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Karma, Karma Yoga, Life, Loss, Love, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Music, Mysticism, One Hoop, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Religion, Suffering, Uncategorized, Vairagya, Vipassana, Yoga.
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The “practice preview” below is part of my offering for the 2019 Kiss My Asana yogathon. I encourage you to set aside at least 5 minutes a day during April, to practice with today’s theme or concept as inspiration. You can practice in a class or on your own, but since the Kiss My Asana yogathon raises resources as well as awareness, I invite you to join me at a donation-based class on April 27th or May 4th.

I also challenge you to set aside a certain amount every day that you practice with this concept/theme in mind. It doesn’t matter if you set aside one dollar per practice or $25 – set aside that amount each time you practice and donate it by April 30th.

Founded by Matthew Sanford, Mind Body Solutions helps those who have experienced trauma, loss, and disability find new ways to live by integrating both mind and body. They provide classes, workshops, and outreach programs. They also train yoga teachers and offer highly specialized training for health care professionals. By participating in the Kiss My Asana yogathon you join a global movement, but in a personal way. In other words, you practice yoga. Or, as this year’s tag line states….

do yoga. share yoga. help others.

***

πάντα ρε “  (“panta rhei “ everything flows or everything to the stream)

 – Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos (c. 535 BCE – c.475 BCE)

 

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”

 – excerpt from funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer

 

Shift happens…all the time. Or, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once put it, “Everything changes and nothing remains still…you cannot step twice into the same stream.” Recognizing the temporal nature of everything, including ourselves and our experiences, can be very helpful.  However, it seems to be human nature to resist change and, in doing so, deny that change is happening – which, as the Buddha pointed out, creates suffering.

(Thus) have I heard that Prince Siddhartha Guatama of India was born into a family of great wealth and great privilege.  As pointed out at the beginning of this series, Siddartha means “one who has accomplished his goal” or “one who has achieved his aim” and – as far as his family was concerned his dharma (or goal) was to one day take over as ruler of his father’s lands. (The title “Buddha,” which means “Awakened One,” would come later in his life.)

Siddhartha knew nothing of pain and nothing of suffering, having been shielded from the existence of sickness and death, until the age of 29. Upon seeing the suffering of others, his life trajectory changed and he renounced the life he knew in order to find a path that would alleviate suffering. At the age of 35, tradition tells us, he articulated The Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering is caused by attachment, clinging, craving
  3. There is an end to suffering
  4. The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering

In some traditions of Buddhism, understanding and accepting these four noble truths is the key to waking up and there are a number of practices specifically designed to bring awareness to change happening every time you inhale, every time you exhale. In fact, the very act of sitting and watching the breath can illuminate the Four Noble Truths and the temporal nature of our existence.

The history of Japan and Japanese culture is full of change. Depending on where you look you may find an acute juxtaposition between accepting change, keeping a tradition (without change), and actually celebrating change. For example, most of the Buddhist world celebrates the Buddha’s birthday on May 8th or a day determined by a lunar calendar. Many temples in Japan, however, started celebrating on April 8th every year, when the country switched over to the Gregorian calendar in 1873.  During the Flower Festival, which is the birthday celebration, people will pour a sweet tea made from fermented hydrangea leaves over where small statues of the Buddha.

For an example of people celebrating change, look no further than the sakura (cherry blossom) season that is beginning. The Cherry Blossom Festivals that are currently kicking off (or ending, depending on the region) is completely separate from the Flower Festival associated with the Buddha’s birthday.

Sakura usually begin blossoming in the southern part of Japan and, over a matter of weeks, eventually blossom across the whole island. However, by the time the blossoms peak in the North they are already out of season in the South. The delicate flowers literally blow away like dust in the wind. For the heart and mind to hold the beauty of the moment when the flowers peak, with the awareness (and sadness) that the moment is already passing, is known as mono no aware (literally, “the pathos of things”). Mono no aware may be translated as “empathy towards things,” but there’s really no set words in English to express the feeling of wonder (“the ahhness”) inextricably tied to the longing and deep sadness that accompanies loss. This is what is – and yet, without some kind of mindfulness practice it is easy to separate the two sensations or to be so overwhelmed by the twin emotions that we focus on one to the complete exclusion of the other. Focusing on what feels good and appealing, while avoiding what doesn’t feel good results in more suffering. It also creates suffering when our longing for what has passed causes us to miss what is. (Not to mention, it causes us to continuously confront the illusion that we can go back to a moment in time, in the same way we think we can cross the same river twice.)

If you look at the history of sitting in Japan, you will also find lots of change – and sometimes a resistance to change. What is now commonly considered the proper way to sit in Zen Buddhism, as well as in day-to-day life, is seiza (which literally means “proper sitting”). Seiza is kneeling so that the big toes overlap (right over left) and then sitting on the heels. Women are taught to sit with the knees together, while men may be taught to spread the knees a little. In the modern times, this type of sitting is ubiquitous and considered respectful; however, prior to the mid 14th century and up to the late 16th century it was consider proper and respectful to either sit with legs to the side or cross-legged. Cross-legged was, in fact, the preference for many warriors as it was believed that a cross-legged position would not hinder a samurai if they needed to draw their sword.

“The way up and the way down are one and the same. Living and dead, waking and sleeping, young and old, are the same.”

 – Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesos (DK22A1)

 

In the physical practice of yoga, the “proper way to sit” is in way that is stable and comfortable enough for you to focus on your breath. Notice that in Yoga Sutra II.46 (broken down in yesterday’s post) Patanjali uses the words sukham asanam which can be translated as “dwelling in a good space.” The flip side of a good space is dukha “a bad space” – or, more acutely, “a space of suffering.” As you move into this next pose, make sure you are not dwelling in a space of suffering.

 

FEATURED POSE for April 8th: Auspicious or Gracious Pose (Bhadrasana)

Auspicious Pose or Gracious Pose (Bhadrasana) appears in classical texts like Gheranda Samhita (c. 17th century) as a pose similar to seiza. In more modern texts it is depicted as a Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana). Either variation can be in the beginning, middle, and/or the end of a practice. In fact, if you are doing a variety of poses today, you can return to your Auspicious pose the way your return to Downward Facing Dog, or Equal Standing, and notice was changed or shifted.

For the classical variation, be mindful of the knees and hips as you come to your hands and knees and bring the tips of the big toes to touch. Spread the knees as wide as you are able and then sit back on your heels. If there is a lot of pressure on the knees, sit on a block or blanket. You may also need a blanket or towel under the feet for this variation.

For the second variation, bring your feet together, like a prayer, in front of your hips (rather than behind). This variation is easier on the knees and feet. You may still need to sit up on a blanket or block. Especially if the hips are tight, you slump into the low back, and/or the knees are up higher than the hips. In this variation you can also adjust the feet (bring them closer in or further out) to bring more ease to the knees.

You can sit up tall with the hands resting on the thighs. Another option, which is very nice for the shoulders, is to lift your heart up (into the beginning of a backbend) and cross the hands behind the back so that you can grab the toes, the heels, or (if your feet are in front) the opposite hip. Make sure you are not leaning back, but instead are arching your chest up. Be mindful that you are not straining or compressing the low back.

If you have unregulated blood pressure issues, let your breath flow naturally in and ebb naturally out. If you find you are holding your breath or panting, ease out of the pose. If you are in overall good health, and they are in your practice, you can add your bandhas.

Dwell in this good space (sukha asama) until you have to move out of it (because it has become the “bad space” ( dukkha asanam). Be mindful that you ease out of the pose with the same awareness you used to get into it. Find some gentle, micro-movements to release the joints.

 

(Click here if you do not see the video.)

### NAMASTE ###