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The Kindest Step (the “missing” Sunday post) July 27, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Confessions, Daoism, Dharma, Faith, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Hope, Karma, Life, Loss, Mantra, Meditation, Music, Pain, Peace, Pema Chodron, Philosophy, Suffering, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tragedy, Vairagya, Wisdom, Writing, Yin Yoga, Yoga.
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[This is the “missing” post for Sunday, July 25th. You can request an audio recording of either practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.

Check out the “Class Schedules” calendar for upcoming classes. ]

“Anger is a mental, psychological phenomenon, yet it is closely linked to biological and biochemical elements. Anger makes you tense your muscles, but when you know how to smile, you begin to relax and your anger will decrease. Smiling allows the energy of mindfulness to be born in you, helping you to embrace your anger.”

 

― quoted from “Two – Putting Out the Fire of Anger: Tools for Cooling the Flames” in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

When I talk to people and/or watch the news these days, I see a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, and a lot of reasons for people to be angry and frustrated. Even if you don’t feel particularly angry and frustrated right now, you probably are around someone who is feeling one or both of those emotions fairly strongly. So, let’s talk about your anger (and frustration) for a moment. Or, if that feels too personal and raw, let’s talk about my anger and frustration.

I love the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and, all my life, people have told me I have a great smile. But, let’s be real, when I am feeling really anger and frustrated, my smile probably looks kind of feral – almost like I’m going in for the kill, metaphorically speaking. Even with my practices, smiling during a intense moment of conflict can feel like a big, giant leap… which I’ll get into if you don’t mind if we deviate a little (and if you don’t mind the pun). See, before we get into my feelings of anger and frustration – or even why I might not feel comfortable smiling when I am angry – we have to address the two elephants in the room: (1) the idea that I can’t/won’t have strong “negative” emotions because I practice yoga and meditate and (2) the stereotype of the angry Black woman.

Let’s start with the latter, because most people in American are familiar with the stereotype of the angry Black woman (ABW). Although I’m not sure exactly when the stereotype came into vogue, it became a standard trope (a literary or entertainment-based pop culture stereotype) during the 1800’s. The popular caricature device of an angry, sassy, rude, and domineering Black woman became even more popular in with the advent of shows like Amos n’ Andy.

First aired on January 12, 1926, as Sam n’ Henry on WGN in Chicago, the radio show featured white actors (Freeman Gosden, and Charles Correll) portraying stereotypes of Black people. The series became so popular in the Midwest that the actors wanted to expand it; however, the studio rejected the idea of radio syndication (which didn’t exist at the time). Since WGN owned the rights to the name, Gosden and Correll rebranded their show as Amos n’ Andy, which premiered on March 19, 1928 on WMAQ and became the first radio syndication in the United States. It was eventually carried by approximately 70 stations across the nation.

In 1930, the series spawned toys and a movie, which featured a racially-mixed cast… plus Gosden and Correll in blackface. Then there was a cartoon – still voiced by the original duo. By 1943, the radio show was being produced in front of a live studio audience and featured Black actors and musicians – who were backup performers to the original creators. When the Gosden and Correll started working on a television version of the series, in the late 1940’s, their previous movie and cartoon experience made them decide to move away from blackface (and to also, eventually, reject the idea of lip syncing with Black actors). When the TV show premiered on June 28, 1951, it featured a Black cast – that was directed to retain the characterized voice and speech patterns Freeman Gosden, and Charles Correll had carried over from minstrel shows. The TV show also inherited the radio show’s theme music – lifted directly from the score of what some consider the most racist and controversial movie of all times, Birth of a Nation.

While both the radio and the TV show had critics, they also had legions and legions of fans. One of those fans, surprisingly (to me), was Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. In the 2012 American Heritage essay “Growing Up Colored,” Dr. Gates talked about his childhood in Piedmont, West Virginia and how (around first grade) he first “got to know white people as ‘people’ through their flickering images on television shows. It was the television set that brought us together at night, and the television set that brought in the world outside the valley.” He also said that he “felt as if I were getting a glimpse, at last, of the life the rich white people must be leading in their big mansions on East Hampshire Street.” Everything was so different from his life and his experience. Yet, to a young Dr. Gates, the TV show Amos n’ Andy was what I Love Lucy was to a young white girl of the same generation. And that’s the thing to keep in mind when you read the essay: perspective and awareness. Audiences only viewed comedy characters as exaggerated impressions of life if they actually knew people like the ones being caricatured. The popularity of Amos n’ Andy, however, was built around an audience that did not personally know Black people. 

“Lord knows, we weren’t going to learn how to be colored by watching television. Seeing somebody colored on TV was an event.

 

‘Colored, colored, on Channel Two,’ you’d hear someone shout. Somebody else would run to the phone, while yet another hit the front porch, telling all the neighbors where to see it. And everybody loved Amos ’n Andy—I don’t care what people say today. What was special to us was that their world was all colored, just like ours….Nobody was likely to confuse them with the colored people we knew, no more than we’d confuse ourselves with the entertainers and athletes we saw on TV or in Ebony or Jet, the magazines we devoured to keep up with what was happening with the race.”

 

– quoted from the American Heritage (Summer 2012, Volume 62, Issue 2) essay “Growing Up Colored” by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

There’s another key element to keep in mind as it relates to the ABW stereotype in relation to Amos n’ Andy. When Freeman Gosden, and Charles Correll started the radio show Sam n’ Henry, they voiced all of the characters. However, there were some reoccurring characters, like George “Kingfish” Stevens wife, who were not initially voiced. Instead of being heard, Sapphire and most of the other Black women reoccurring in the series were only talked about. Ergo, it didn’t matter if they had a legitimate reason to be upset about something done by their husband, boyfriend, or serviceperson – their anger and complaints were presented from the perspective of the person who was the target/cause of the emotion being felt and expressed. In other words, audiences only heard the male side of the conflict… and, to be fair, they only heard the white male perspective.

Now, if you grew up listening and/or watching Amos n’ Andy you might think, “No, no, that’s not how it was. They would say what they did.” To that I would ask three things:

  • First, are you more inclined to support the person who is telling the story who also happens to be your friend (or someone with whom you are familiar) or are you more inclined to support the person you have never met?
  • Second, if I (as your friend or someone with whom you are familiar) says, “I did this little thing – that yeah, was a little inconsiderate – but, dude, I was sooooo tired/hungry/sad/etc. ….” Do you commiserate with me and agree that the other person overreacted or do you point out that that other person (who, again, you’ve never met) has a point?
  • Finally, does you answer to either of the questions above (especially the last one) change if I explain why the other person was upset with me? (The flipside of this, of course, is does it matter if I don’t explain the why?)

Which brings me to my last little bits about the angry Black woman stereotype: It was a really confusing idea to me when I was a little girl. It was confusing because I didn’t know Black women who walked around angry all the time and, just as importantly, when I did see a person who was angry they had a reason to be angry. I will admit that, for most of my formative years, I was sheltered just enough to not understand – or even question – why someone might walk around angry all the time. However, if we go back to the beginnings of the trope – and acknowledge that the stereotype already existed by the 1800’s – then we have to go a little deeper into why Black women might have been angry. And, when we go a little deeper – even just taking a little look at history, regarding the conditions of being a Black woman (or any kind of woman) in the 1800’s – we don’t need to go far before we start finding reasons to be angry.

“If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after the person you suspect has burned your house, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire. So when you are angry, if you continue to interact with or argue with the other person, if you try to punish her, you are acting exactly like someone who runs after the arsonist while everything goes up in flames.”

 

― quoted from “Two – Putting Out the Fire of Anger: Saving Your House” in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

All of which brings me back to today’s anger and frustration.

As I said before, you can look at the news and see that people are angry and frustrated. You can look at your family, neighbors, and friends. You can look inside of your own heart and mind.  While we may have some individual, personal situations about which we are angry and frustrated, we also share some anger and frustration about what we have endured over the last year and that some people, even today, continue to experience. Some of that anger and frustration is even tied to the fact that people are consistently pointing fingers at the (alleged) arsonists instead of putting out the flames. Two other issues we have, as a society, are that we don’t understand the concept of a backdraft and we keep putting matches in the hands of arsonists. (Or, maybe, we never took the matches away in the first place.)

A backdraft is fire that seems to come out of nowhere; but is actually the result of fresh oxygen fueling embers that were previously depleted of air. Embers in an enclosed space can smolder and produce heat even as the fire is dying. Sometimes a fire will burn itself out; other times, however, if the embers are not completely out – e.g., saturated in water or sand – they can reignite in an explosion. This can happen when a door or window is opened or when a portion of the side of the building caves in as the infrastructure fails. A social backdraft happens in the same way. For example, imagine an upsetting situation about which people are really angry and frustrated. The situation, as well as the anger and frustration, is fueled by additional elements – which the “firefighters” attempt to address. But maybe, unlike real-life firefighters, these social responders don’t provide a safe way to ventilate (or “air grievances”). So, the embers just keep building heat and no one notices the air getting sucked in through the cracks or how the smoke is changing colors. Now imagine the original situation gets buried so that it’s no longer in the center of attention. The eyes of the world shift to some other priority, some other injustice. Then, suddenly it seems, a “new” situation arises and the fire is raging out of control. Can you imagine?

“Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.”

 

― quoted from “Two – Putting Out the Fire of Anger: Embracing Anger with the Sunshine of Mindfulness” in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

I think, sometimes, that if we “have a handle on” our anger and frustration, we can convince ourselves (and others) that we are not actually angry or frustrated – that it’s just something in the ether. I think, too, that some people even believe that if they don’t lash out at others or express their anger in a stereotypical way then they aren’t actually angry. But, the truth is that there are different ways to express anger and frustration just as those emotions can manifest in different ways and at different times. Some people are all about lashing out (physically and/or verbally); others express themselves in a mindful way; still others get passive-aggressive. Some people go out of their way to avoid the conflict all together and don’t resolve the situation (which may defuse their anger and frustration or it may heighten it) and still others get super-duper quiet.

Here I’m tying anger and frustration together, even though frustration is just one manifestation of anger. However, anger can also manifest as irritability, defensiveness, and resistance. Since these emotions are inevitably tied to conflict, they are mentally connected to discernment. In other words, the angrier we get, the harder it becomes to make wise, skillful decisions.

Earlier, I mentioned that there was another elephant in the room – the idea that someone can’t/won’t have strong “negative” emotions because they practice yoga and/or meditate. Like the stereotype of the ABW, this has its roots in some superficial truth, but ultimately it is just another stereotype. I say it all the time: yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness-based practices are not intended to make you numb to emotional and mental experiences. In fact, instead of being numb, you may find that these practices allow you to feel more. They also can help you see more and, therefore, enable you to make better decisions.

One way to understand this is to look at the connection between emotions and the mind-body. Emotional experiences – like anger, frustration, fear, and even joy – have the ability to hijack our central nervous system. When an emotion takes our nervous system for a ride, we either want more of the experience or we want to escape the experience. Like fear, anger and frustration can activate our sympathetic nervous system, thus engaging our fight-flight-freeze response. When this happens, we get tunnel vision and everything narrows down to what is needed for “survival.” We not only see less, we hear and feel less. In certain extreme situations, blood is diverted from our digestive and immune systems into the limbs that we need to fight, flee, or escape through collapse (which is the freeze response). Additionally, anger and frustration are often fueled and driven by fear – creating a feedback loop that leaves us highly sensitized and over-stimulated. If we get into that feedback loop, as many of us have over the last few years (and especially this last year and a half), we can become like a stick of dynamite that has been placed next to a lit match after the fuse was soaked in gasoline.

Of course, there is something really special about the emotional “elephant” that practices yoga, meditation, and/or some other mindfulness-based practice (like centering prayer). Such a person has the tools to deal with their emotions in a way that is wise, loving, and kind. I did not choose those last three randomly. In Eastern philosophies and some medical sciences, every emotion has a flip side: for fear it is wisdom; for anger it is loving-kindness.

We can think of anger and frustration as emotional pain (because that’s what suffering is) and, in this case, they are signs that something needs to change. They can fuel change in a way that is constructive or destructive. But, in order to make the decision to resolve conflict in a way that is constructive, we have to be able to see as clearly as possible. We have to be able to be able to see the possible.

Which takes us back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to smile – and how, sometimes, that feels like a giant leap to me.

“This also, then, leads on to the idea of whether or not the brain ever does big jumps – or does it only ever do small steps? And the answer is that the brain only ever does small steps. I can only get from here to the other side of the room by passing through the space in between. I can’t teleport myself to the other side. Right? Similarly, your brain can only ever make small steps in its ideas. So, whenever you’re in a moment, it can only actually shift itself to the next most likely possible. And the next and most likely possible is determined by its assumptions. We call it ‘the space of possibility.’ Right. You can’t do just anything. Some things are just impossible for you in terms of your perception or in terms of your conception of the world. What’s possible is based on your history.”

 

– quoted from the 2017 Big Think video entitled, “The Neuroscience of Creativity, Perception, and Confirmation Bias by Beau Lotto

 

As I said before, I love the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and, if we are to believe the people around me, I have a great smile. But, I have a hard time faking a smile when I’m angry – which is kind of the point. Add to this practice, my self-awareness – or, in this case you could call it self-consciousness – about how I am perceived as a Black woman… especially when I am angry. Something that I do all the time seems like a giant leap; because suddenly smiling, even softly, during a conflict, can come across as menacing.

I know, I know, most of you who know me personally don’t think I’m scary – especially since I am so small. But, trust me when I tell you that there are people who have been scared of “me”… or, at least, their perception of me. And, sometimes, that makes me a little angry.

[Feel free to insert a hands-thrown-up-in-the-air emoji.]

When it comes to dealing with anger and frustration, I definitely use the Eastern philosophy model as a foundation. I get on the mat, the cushion, and/or the walking trail and I consider how Chinese Medicine associates anger and frustration with the energy of the Gallbladder and Liver Meridians. Gallbladder Meridian is yang and runs from the outer corner of the eyes up to the outer ears and top of the head and then DOWN the outer perimeter of the body – with some offshoots – before ending at the fourth toe. Liver Meridian is yin and runs UP from the top of the big toe up the inner leg; through the groin, liver, and gallbladder; into the lungs; and then through the throat into the head, circling the lips and finishing around the eyes. (This is an extremely basic description!) Since YIN Yoga is based on Chinese Medicine, we can hold certain poses that target the hips and side body in order to access the energy of the Gallbladder and Liver Meridians. Other times, we just bring awareness to how we feel in those areas associated with the meridians – knowing that “prāņa (‘life force’) follows awareness” – and perhaps do poses that highlight those areas (superficially) in order to cultivate more awareness. This is what we did on Sunday.

Another thing we did on Sunday was incorporate lojong (“mind training”) techniques from Tibetan Buddhism. These are statements that can be used as a starting point for meditation and/or contemplation. They can also be used, in this context, as affirmations and reminders. For instance, in Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh explained one of his personal rituals: “Each morning I offer a stick of incense to the Buddha. I promise myself that I will enjoy every minute of the day that is given me to live.” This is like the lojong statement #21 “Always maintain only a joyful mind.” To me, this is not only about cheerfulness; it is also about showing up with a sense of gratitude, wonder, and awe. This activates my practice of shoshin (“beginner’s mind”) and santosha (“contentment”) – which means I am less likely to think (or say), “[That person] always does this or that.” If I can let go of past insult and injury (about which I can do nothing since it’s in the past), I can focus on the present issue. I will also consider how doing something loving and kind – for myself, for the other person/people in the conflict, and/or for some person not involved in the conflict can change the energy.

You can think of these practices as personal de-escalation techniques. They are the steps you take (and the tools you use) to offer your inner child a little comfort and to start putting out the flames so that they stay out. They can also be the tools you use to make sure there will be no backdraft and no new fires. This weekend, when I randomly stumbled on the Big Think clip quoted above, I added a new perspective to this practice: I started thinking about the “kindest” next step.

“And the idea is that, for the person being creative, all their doing is making a small step to the next most likely possibility – based on their assumptions. But, when someone on the outside sees them doing that, they think, ‘Wow! How did they put those two things that are far apart together?’ And the reason why it seems that way is because for the observer they are far apart. They have a different space of possibility.”

 

– quoted from the 2017 Big Think video entitled, “The Neuroscience of Creativity, Perception, and Confirmation Bias by Beau Lotto

 

Beau Lotto is a professor of Neuroscience, the founder and director of the Lab of Misfits, as well as the author of Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently and the co-author of Why We See The Way We Do: An Empirical Theory of Vision.  One of his missions – in fact, the primary mission of the Lab of Misfits – is to get people to know less, but understand more. I know, I know, that sounds so weird and counterintuitive, but ultimately it is about questioning and delving deeper into what we think we know, in order to gain better understanding of our areas “not knowing.” It is about gaining better understanding of our selves by letting go of our assumptions and being open to possibilities.

The clip I ran across was specifically about creativity and perception, which got me thinking about how we perceive one another during a conflict and how that perception contributes to our ability to construct a viable resolution or, conversely, how our perceptions lead to more destruction and conflict.  How do we de-escalate a situation between people who may perceive the conflict (and each other) in different ways? One obvious answer is Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to smile. It’s a really good answer… but “my” history and my perception of how I might be perceived – based on history – makes it seem like a giant leap. Even though I am in the habit of smiling all the time, I am not in the habit of being angry or being perceived as an ABW. So, to combine the two requires practice and an awareness of my “space of possibility.”

In considering my space of possibility, I started thinking about what the kindest next step might be in a certain situation. For example, let’s say that I’m getting angry at something someone keeps saying to me during a conversation and/or I am frustrated by how I react to what they are saying. To suddenly compliment the person who is insulting me might come across as disingenuous. That might be a big leap for them to understand – especially if they are insulting me on purpose. But, somehow, we need to reach an understanding between the two of us (or just between me, myself, and I). Reaching that understanding requires bridging a proverbial (and verbal) gap – which we can’t do as look as I keep getting “hooked” by the thing they keep saying and they keep getting “hooked” by the way I am reacting.

So, what’s the next step that is also kind? I could practice the four R’s (Recognize, Refrain, Relax, Resolve) and maybe even that fifth R (Remember). I could just take a couple of deep breaths and remind myself that I promised to enjoy today. I could do all of that and preface the next thing I say. After all, sometimes naming what you are experiencing – even if you just say it to yourself – can make a big difference. Of course, be mindful about how you preface and name what you are experiencing – otherwise, you might come across as snarky and sarcastic.

“3. Examine the nature of unborn awareness.”

 

“4. Self-liberate even the antidote.

Commentary: Do not hold on to anything – even the realization that there’s nothing solid to hold onto.”

 

“5. Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence.

Commentary: There is a resting place, a starting place that you can always return to. You can always bring your mind back home and rest right here, right now, in present, unbiased awareness.”

 

6. In post-meditation, be a child of illusion.”

 

– quoted from Always Maintain A Joyful Mind: And Other Lojong Teachings on Awaking Compassion and Fearlessness by Pema Chödrön

 

Sunday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [“Look for 04102021 Si se puede & Birds”]

 

“It is a small step that begins the journey of a thousand miles.”

 

– quoted from “Chapter 64” of A Path and a Practice: Using Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an Awakened Spiritual Life by William Martin

 

### What Would Hanuman Do? ###

 

The Effort to Free/Liberate Yourself – a philosophical perspective (a “missing” post) July 6, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Depression, Faith, Gratitude, Healing Stories, Health, Hope, Life, Loss, Meditation, Mysticism, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Suffering, Tantra, Tragedy, Vairagya, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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[This is the “missing” post for Monday, July 5th. You can request an audio recording of Monday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.

Check out the “Class Schedules” calendar for upcoming classes. If you are using an Apple device/browser and the calendar is no longer loading, please email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com at least 20 minutes before the practice you would like to attend.]

“The liberating current brings us excitement, energy, and novelty, while the descending current brings us peace, grace, and stability. In order for either of these pathways to really be complete, all of the chakras need to be open and active. Liberation without limitation leaves us vague, scattered, and confused. We may have wonderful ideas and lots of knowledge, but we are unable to bring these fruits to any tangible completion. On the other hand, limitation without liberation is dull and stifling. We become caught in repetitive patterns, clinging to security and fearing change.”


– quoted from  “Chapter 1 – And the Wheel Turns: Liberation and Manifestation” of Wheels of Life: A Users Guide to the Chakra System by Anodea Judith, Ph.D.

Sometimes in yoga, I talk about the inhale literally being an “inspiration” (from the Latin, by way of Old French and Middle English) whereby we are filled with spirit. The exhale is, by the same logic (Latin by way of late Middle English), an “expiration” whereby something is literally expiring, returning to the source. Some of you have even heard me say, “Inhale down your spine, in the direction of the manifesting current; taking all the possibilities of the Universe and making them your unique experience. Exhale back up your spine, in the direction of the liberating current, taking your unique experiences (and efforts) back to the source.” In Wheels of Life: A Users Guide to the Chakra System, Anodea Judith explores the fact that “we must limit” in order to manifest – and the ancient texts back her up in the idea that there are ways in which we are limited. There are ways we can have a lot, but we can’t have it all.

If we think of the source of all things – whatever that means to you at this moment – then we’re thinking of the source of unlimited possibilities. We’re thinking of something infinite and something limited only by our imagination/understanding – which is finite. On the flip side, we are not omnipotent and/or omnipresent. We can experience multiple sensations at one time, but we can only truly focus-concentrate-meditate on one thing at a time. While our initial possibilities are limitless, our whole lives are built around the experience of “narrowing things down.” So, we do.

There’s nothing wrong with narrowing things down and establishing boundaries. That’s all part of the human experience. Being human means we are constantly swinging like a pendulum between having everything and having nothing – in every area of our lives. We run into problems, however, when we don’t recognize (and appreciate) what we have; when we operate from a perspective of scarcity instead of a point of abundance. We run into problems when we are paralyzed by what we don’t have and/or by something that hasn’t happened.

“The more you can increase fear of drugs, crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all of the people.”


– Dr. Noam Chomsky

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”


– quoted from Latin America: From Colonization to Globalization by Noam Chomsky (in conversation with Heinz Dieterich, with additional collaboration by Edward Herman; introduction by Denise Glasbeek and Julian Semphill)

Like a lot of people associated with the United States, I spent the last week-plus thinking, contemplating, and discussing the concept of freedom, liberation, and independence. On a certain level, I do that all the time; but there is an acute awareness between PRIDE, Juneteenth, and the Fourth of July – and I start thinking about those concepts on a lot of different levels. The most obvious level in this context, of course, is the legal aspect. However, last Tuesday I referenced the nine obstacles (and their four accompanying physical-mental experiences) outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras and, if you go back, those obstacles and ailments are kind of floating under all of this week’s posts, classes, discussions, and meditations. Because, as it turns out, our minds are one of the biggest obstacles to anyone of us experiencing true freedom, liberation, and independence.

Tonight (Monday, July 5th), as well as during the Juneteenth class and in the First Friday Night Special post-practice blog post, I shared the story of how circus elephants are trained not to move beyond a designated circumference.  It’s a story I’ve seen and heard a lot of people tell, but I first came across it because of Steve Ross’s yoga practice. The story is a great reminder about how powerful the mind is, how it can literally stop us in our tracks. And, while we might name an endless list of things holding us down and holding us back, it really comes down to one thing: our relationship with fear.

Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. I say it all the time: The threat doesn’t have to be real, but the emotional and embodied experience is real. Additionally, a perceived threat can be in the past and yet the emotionally embodied experience can still actively experienced in the present (and, as Lisa Nichols points out, projected into the future). Both fear of failure and fear of success can paralyze us, because at a very early age we were taught that fear equals danger and, when we feel the associated sensations, we have to be still or turn back.

Yes, on a neurophysiology level, fear activates our sympathetic nervous system which activates our fight-flight-freeze response. However, adults teach children what to fear and how to respond to that fear. We know not to stick our hand in the fire or on a hot stove for the same reason we know to look both ways before crossing the street: someone taught us to fear the consequences. Similarly, we teach those who come after us. As we grow through life, we keep the tool of fear – sometimes even more than we use the tool that is our awareness. Eventually, these lessons in fear are just like everything else we experience in life; they hardwire our brains and create samskaras (“mental impressions”).

We view our experiences through previous experiences. Over time our reactions to certain sensations (including certain thoughts) feels instinctual – even though  they’re conditioned. Over time, there’s very little (if any) difference between the way we react to the possibility of failing, falling flat on our face, and/or embarrassing our self  and the we  react to the possibility of a snake in our path.

“As a rope lying in darkness, about whose nature one remains uncertain, is imagined to be a snake or a line of water, so Atman is imagined in various ways.


When the real nature of the rope is ascertained, all misconceptions about it disappear and there arises the conviction that it is nothing but a rope. Even so is the true nature of Atman determined.”


– quoted from “Chapter 2 – Vaitathya Prakarana (The Chapter on Illusion)” (verses 17 and 18) of Mandukya Upanishad [English translation by Swami Nikhilananda]
   

Remember, I’m talking about the possibility here. I’m talking about the point when the brain goes, “What is that?” Someone can tell you, “Oh, that’s just a big hank of rope someone left out when they pulled their boat in,” but, if you’ve lived around water moccasins your whole life, the adrenaline might already be pumping. It may not even matter that you’re in a part of the world that doesn’t have cottonmouths. You’ve been conditioned – by yourself and others – to stay safe. Just the idea of something we fear can bring up the sensations. In fact, just reading the words above might have caused your body to tense up in preparation. (I know just typing it does the same for me!)

Sacred texts from India, like the Upanishads (“sitting near” devotedly) and the Ashtavakra Gita (The Song of the Man with 8-Bends in His Limbs), often use the idea of a snake to describe our experience with māyā (“illusion”). Interestingly, Death sometimes shows up in Hindu mythology as a snake called Yama, which can be translated into English as “binder” and is also the same Sanskrit word used for the first limb of the Yoga Philosophy (Yamas), which consists of five “external restraints.” In other words, the snake we see in the road is a limitation – even if it’s not a snake.

“It is not that you must be free from fear. The moment you try to free yourself from fear, you create resistance against fear. Resistance in any form does not end fear. What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it, not how to resist it.”


– Jiddu Krishnamurti

I don’t think J. Krishnamurti was telling people to walk up on something that might be a snake and poke it with your finger – just as the writers of the Vedic texts were not necessarily telling people to put themselves in dangerous situations in order to confirm the nature of reality versus illusion. Instead, the practice is about going deeper into the mind-body experience. Where, for instance, do you hold your tension, discomfort, and dis-ease? Where do you hold your fear, anger, disappointment, grief, and confusion? Where, as I asked people on Zoom, do you not feel free, liberated, and independent?

Breathe into those spaces where you don’t feel free, liberated, or independent. Remember, your awareness and your breath are tools you carry with you everywhere. Don’t be a fool! Use those tools! Use the inhale to explore those places where you are holding tightness and create space around those places. Maybe imagine that you are blowing into those areas like you blow into a balloon and feel that expansion. Then, use your exhale to let something go. You may not be ready to let go of everything – and, it’s important to acknowledge that. Just release what you can release and let go of whatever is ready to go.

“There’s a darkness
Living deep in my soul
It’s still got a purpose to serve”


– quoted from the song “Put Your Lights On” by Santana and Everlast

One of my favorite songs, and one of the star-studded collaborations included on Santana’s record-breaking album Supernatural, was written by Everlast. The title comes from what we do when we’re driving as the sun sets, when we start driving at night, or when it starts to rain: We put our lights on so we can see and be seen. We put our lights on to avoid danger. We put our lights on so we can be less afraid. One of my favorite verses (quoted above) is a reminder that sometimes we need the limitation. Remember, fear is an important neurophysiological tool – that’s why it’s such a great teaching tool. However, we can’t let the tool rule our whole life. Sometimes we have to remember, as the angel in the song also reminds us, “I got nothing to fear.”

When we can, and when we are willing, letting go of something – some attachment to the past, some fear of the unknown – makes us like the elephant that looks down and realizes there’s no stake, no chain, and no shackle. We’re free!

I’ve heard stories about elephants that are considered “escape artists” and no amount of “training,” no matter how brutal, can keep them from testing the limits of their binds. Most elephants, however, never seem to look down. I’ll admit I don’t know a lot about pachyderms. I know the location of their eyes limits them in some way, as does bright lights; so, maybe they can’t see around their trunk and tusks. But, the most likely scenario (especially in cases where the shackle is removed) is that they have been conditioned to fear what happens if they go beyond the originally established boundary.

Ultimately, the circus elephants are limited by their mind-body connection. As are we; which means, if we want to be truly free, in a physical-mental and emotional-energetic way, we have to recognize our stakes to pull them up. We have to recognize our chains to break them. We have to recognize our shackles to release ourselves.

“‘You are the one witness of everything and are always completely free. The cause of your bondage is that you see the witness as something other than this.

If one thinks of oneself as free, one is free, and if one thinks of oneself as bound, one is bound. Here this saying is true, “Thinking makes it so.”’”


– quoted from the Ashtavakra Gita (1.7, 1.11) [English translation by John Richards]

There is no playlist for the Common Ground Practice.

Do you need your high beams or your parking lights (to see your chains)?

“We may think that if we ignore our fears, they’ll go away. But if we bury worries and anxieties in our consciousness, they continue to affect us and bring us more sorrow. We are very afraid of being powerless. But we have the power to look deeply at our fears, and then fear cannot control us. We can transform our fear….


Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.”


– quoted from “Introduction – Fearlessness” of Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh

### Let Wisdom Speak Over Fear ###

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

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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 ###

 

2017 Kiss My Asana Question #2: Why 108? April 3, 2017

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“The number of words you use to answer these questions is going to be divisible by 108? Why 108?” – the obvious questions

The significance of 108 is something pondered pretty much whenever people get ready to practice 108 Sun Salutations (for New Year’s Day, Spring/Fall Equinox, and Summer/Winter Solstice). It is considered an auspicious number in a variety of disciplines and traditions. So much so that if I listed 108 reasons, I might still be missing some. Swami J has a pretty comprehensive list; however, here are some of my favorites:

  • 108 is a harshad (or, “great joy” bringer) number in mathematics, meaning that it is divisible by the sum of its parts (1+0+8=9; 108/9 = 12)
    • Note also 1+2 = 3; 12/3 = 4 and 108/3 = 36; 3+6 = 9; 36/9 = 6
  • 108 is a prime example of numbers being exponentially powerful {(1, raised to the 1st power) multiplied times (2, raised to the 2nd power) multiplied times (3, raised to the 3rd power), i.e., 1*4*27}
  • 108 suitors pursue Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey.
  • In Buddhism, the 108 feelings or sensations humans experience result from external/physical and internal/mental stimuli (2) being received through our senses and consciousness (5+1) multiplied times our perception of sensation as positive/pleasant, negative/painful, or neutral (3) multiplied times our ability to experience feelings or sensations in the past, present, and future (3). {2*(5+1)*3*3}
  • In Eastern religions and philosophies, a mala used to count repetitions during meditation contains 108 beads – or a fraction of 108, and this coincides with an old school Catholic rosary which allows you to count out 10 decades, and provides 8 additional beads (for mistakes). The cross would be considered the guru bead.
  • In some religions there is only one God; however there are 101-108 names for God.
  • In an Indian creation story, God as Dance (Nataraja) creates the universe through a dance containing 108 steps or poses; and, there are 108 forms of dance in Indian traditions.
  • Some martial arts forms contain 108 steps or poses.
  • According to some yoga texts, there are 108 nadis (energy rivers carrying the bodies vitality) intersecting at the heart chakra.

Since I’m writing this on opening day 2017:

  • The 108 double stitches on a Major League baseball are hand stitched; AND
  • It took 108 years for a much loved baseball team to break a curse (that may or may not be real) – and they did it in the 10th inning with 8 runs!

Finally, it would be seriously auspicious if a couple of people (2) Kiss(ed) My Asana by clicking here and donating $54 each. Or, you know what would be a real joy bringer? If a certain number of individuals (108) clicked above and donated $108 each.

For those of you doing the math: $25 shares a “Beyond Disability” DVD with a home-bound person living with a disability; $250 provides four yoga classes at a battered women’s shelter or veterans center; $500 provides full tuition for an Opening Yoga Teacher Training Workshop; and $1000 transforms the life of someone living with a disability by providing them an entire year of adaptive yoga. While these numbers focus on the people directly receiving the service, consider how yoga affects not only the individual on the mat, but everyone that individual encounters off the mat.

~ LOKAH SAMASTAH SUKHINO BHAVANTU ~

Gazing Into the Heart December 14, 2014

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Daoism, Faith, Fitness, Healing Stories, Hope, Karma, Love, Meditation, Men, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Movies, Music, Pain, Peace, Philosophy, Science, Suffering, Super Heroes, Taoism, Texas, Tragedy, Twin Cities, Vipassana, Women, Writing, Yoga.
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“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“SOLUTION” by Franz Wright
What is the meaning of kindness?
Speak and listen to others, from now on,
as if they had recently died.
At the core the seen and unseen worlds are one.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, given all the things that have happened in the world; however, somehow last week I was caught off guard by people’s request that I hold space for their sadness/grief/anger/fear. And yes, this is something I do on any given Sunday. It’s even, on a certain level, what I signed up to do. And yet, for one blinding moment I was pissed – I mean really royally pissed – to come back from my working vacation/week of Thanksgiving/week of fellowship and find all was not sunshine and light in the world.

As is recommended, I sat with the anger. The anger passed. I got back to my baseline, and I got back to work.

But that’s the short, simple version of the story. And, it’s not nearly as real or messy or satisfying as the whole story.

I say the anger passed; however, really it felt like it diminished or receded to a place where rather than reacting to the craziness in the world I was able to respond in an appropriate manner. But, before that happened, I had to acknowledge that what I was feeling was anger. I know people who are angry all the time – and they have very valid reasons for their anger – but we don’t always acknowledge or articulate the emotion. Oh, sure, we may act angry or spew angry words, but consider the last time (the last angry time) you took a deep breath and explained to someone, “I’m really angry.” Have you ever done that? Have you ever articulated the emotion without directing it at someone or something? Have you ever gone deep beneath the emotion, and found what’s beyond it (as opposed to what’s behind it)?

“…really pay attention to what’s happening internally…. Meditation is learning how to get so still, and so calm, tranquil, through the directing of the attention, to this present moment, that we begin to see really deeply…. And so we go more and more and more deeply into the nature of things, and when that happens, and reactivity ceases, then responsiveness arises.”

– Gina Sharpe, Suffering and the End of Suffering

When I first came back from Texas and started reacting, I hadn’t heard Gina Sharpe’s super skillful teaching on Suffering and the End of Suffering (see Thursday’s link below). All I had were emotions (mine and other people’s), desires/requests (mine and other people’s), signs from the Universe, and what I’ll call Divine messages. And I was resisting all of it! I wanted to focus on metta (loving-kindness) meditation or tonglen (giving and receiving) meditation, or sitting in compassion. You know me; I wanted to do that joy thing.

But, when I got on the mat, what came up was the need to be where we were. To feel what we were feeling. To validate and honor what was in the heart – and all that was in the heart.

Here’s a glimpse at a week of heart gazing:

Tuesday, December 2nd: We started with eyes open; I counted down and then had people quickly shut their eyes. In Bel Canto, Ann Patchett (b. 1963) wrote, “The timing of the electrical failure seemed dramatic and perfectly correct, as if the lights said, ‘You have no need for sight. Listen.'” Pratyahara (sense withdrawal, Yoga’s fifth limb) heightens our awareness. This heightened awareness happens even if we just withdraw one sense. It also happens when we are in a crisis situation similar to the hostage situation that takes place in Patchett’s beautifully written novel.

“She sang as if she was saving the life of everyone in the room.”

And while listening to Maria Callas, Ingrid Michaelson, Indie.Arie, Nelly Furtado, Jj Heller, Pink!, Raya Yarbrough, Sylvia Syms, Kate Bush, Dinah Washington, Amy Lee (of Evanescene), – my examples of “beautiful singing” – I asked people to breath as if they were hitting the high notes.

Ultimately, Bel Canto is a multilayer, multilevel love story set during a horrible crisis. It shows the heart’s ability to feel more than one thing at a time. But, more than that, it shows the heart always wants to find a way to love.

Wednesday, December 3rd: We started in Balasana (Child’s Pose) and asked people to gaze into their hearts – while listening to the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne (b. 1948).

Friedrich Nietzsche’s words about gazing into the abyss seem applicable (maybe even prophetic) when dealing with Heart of Darkness on Joseph Conrad’s birthday (b. 1857). Conrad wrote his short novel after his own experiences in Africa in the late 1800’s and while his own words best describe the world he sees, I think the world he sees is the world in his own heart.

I resisted this book and this birthday, in part because literary greats like Chinua Achebe criticize Conrad and his work as racist and xenophobic – and I don’t think there’s any way to get around that. Neither did I want to seem to celebrate a depiction of racism given currents events in Ferguson and around the United States. However, Professor Peter Mwikisa said Heart of Darkness can be “…the great lost opportunity to depict dialogue between Africa and Europe…” and that makes me wonder: Are we, right now, losing an opportunity for dialogue in the U. S.?

Or, are we just not ready for dialogue?

“People look to me and say / Is the end near, when is the final day? / What is the future of mankind? / Don’t look at me for answers / Don’t ask me / I don’t know.” – “I Don’t Know” from Ozzy’s Blizzard of Ozz

Thursday, December 4th: I usually don’t teach yoga on Thursdays. This was, however, one of the Thursdays when I facilitated my meditation group. We sat briefly and then listened to Gina Sharpe’s Suffering and the End of Suffering. The discussion around the talk, current events, and the additional resources (see below) also informed my weekend classes at the YMCA.

Friday, December 5th: We started in Balasana (Child’s Pose), again gazing into the heart – this time with the intention of listening to the heart until it, as Gina Sharpe puts it, flutters. Physically, emotionally, and musically, this was a heart focused class.

“Venerable Maha Ghosananda, who was considered to be the “Gandhi of Cambodia” taught the power of the intention of kindness all his life, even though his life and his culture were fraught with suffering, trauma, violence and war of the Khmer Rouge and the “Killing Fields.” He taught it this way:

The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into the habit;
Habit hardens into the character;
Character gives birth to the destiny
So, watch your thoughts with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of respect for all beings…

Saturday, December 6th: Same beginning as Wednesday and Friday, but this time Bear McCreary’s Taiko drums sounded like the heartbeat and Anne Frank’s thunder.

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that this cruelty too shall end, and that peace & tranquility will return once again.” — Anne Frank, July 15, 1944

Sunday, December 7th: In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that today was “a date which will live in infamy.” The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, in a moment, 2,300 people died. As a result of the attack, the United States entered World War II and, subsequently, bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States entry into the war saved countless lives. Yet, in the moments when we dropped the bombs, 149,000 – 266,000 people died (this includes POWs). So, we begin with a moment of silence for all.

~ Taps + 1 minute of silence + Reveille ~

Feeling stuff is hard, messy, icky work. But, the moment you feel is also the moment you heal.

“I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone are guilty of the war. Oh, no, the little man is just as keen, otherwise the people of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There is an urge and rage in people to destroy, to kill, to murder, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated and grown, will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.”  — Anne Frank, May 3, 1944

“Third we must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding. At times we are able to humiliate our worst enemy. Inevitably, his weak moments come and we are able to thrust in his side the spear of defeat. But this we must not do. Every word and deed must contribute to an understanding with the enemy and release those vast reservoirs of goodwill which have been blocked by impenetrable walls of hate.” — Martin Luther King. Christmas 1957

“Let us move now from the practical how to the theoretical why: Why should we love our enemies? The first reason is fairly obvious. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…. The chain reaction of evil- Hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”  — Martin Luther King. Christmas 1957

 

Sunday’s class ended with the same Larry Yang quote from Friday. Both classes also ended with a reminder to honor your work/karma*:

  • Hands at heart: Honor what is in your heart, as what is in your heart becomes what is in your mind.
  • Hands at third eye: Honor your thoughts, as they become your words.
  • Hands at mouth: Honor your words, as they become your deeds/actions.
  • Hands back to heart: Honor your deeds/actions as they give the world a glimpse into your character and pave the way of your destiny.

Thank you to everyone who was in class last week, as well as to everyone in my meditation group. Thank you also to my housemate Meghan (who listened to me explaining that I was angry). Thank you to all of my family and friends (who help me return to my baseline of joy). Thank you to the teachers (on and off the mat, musical and otherwise) who inspired the messages behind these classes. Thank you to Eileen for the Sunny Side post and video that made me cry. And, finally, a special shout out and HUGE, TEXAS-SIZED Utkatsana Woohoo!, to Carolina at YogaOne’s Heights location, whose Humble Warrior flow inspired this week’s physical practice and helped me remember the power of being “a great spiritual warrior.”

 ~ NAMASTE ~