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What’s Behind Your Curtain? June 24, 2020

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Yoga Sutra 2.20: draşțā dŗśimātrah śuddho’pi pratyayānupaśyah

– “The Seer is the pure power of seeing, yet its understanding is through the mind/intellect.”

“my heart
Is true as steel:”

 

– Helena in Act II, Scene i of A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare

 

“The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one often comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”

 

– Abolitionist, suffragist, and minister Henry Ward Beecher (b. 06/24/1813)

 

Life is a matter of perception. We experience certain things and that experience colors the way we experience future things. The way we experience something, based on previous experiences plays a part in what we engage ourselves, others, and our experiences. In other words, life is how you see it. In the yoga philosophy, these layers of experience or layers of perception are referred to as samskāras (which is often translated as “impressions”). Specifically, samskāras are karmic impressions formed by everything we say, do, think, and experience through our senses. These layers of impression can be very subtle, and may be imbedded deep within our subconscious and unconscious memories or they can be very much in the front of our conscious mind. Either way, they can strongly influence the way we think, speak, and act. Part of the practice, both in Yoga and in Buddhism, is to burn away the veil. Or, you could think of it as washing them away.

“Go and pray upon a mountain
Go and pray beside the ocean
And you’ll wash your spirit clean”

 

– from the song “Wash Your Spirit Clean” by Walela

There are lots of great stories about how previous experiences color future and current experiences, and one of those stories comes from Christianity and Islām. It is the story of Zechariah or Zachary. Zechariah was a Jewish priest married to a woman named Elizabeth (who happened to be a relative of the Virgin Mary). According to the gospels (specifically Luke 1:6), the couple were good people who followed the commandments and orders of God. We can take from this, and the fact that Zechariah was a rabbi, that they had spent their lives steeped in their beliefs and, not only keeping those beliefs in their heart, but also acting according to the beliefs in their heart. They were also old and considered their beyond child bearing years. So, it’s not surprising that Zechariah doubted the words of the angel Gabriel, who informed the couple that they would have a son named John and that he would “be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord…. and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. (Luke 1:14 – 15).

“We never know the love of a parent till we become parents ourselves.”

 

– Abolitionist, suffragist, and minister Henry Ward Beecher (b. 06/24/1813)

Based on his previous experiences, the angel’s message didn’t make sense to the rabbi. It especially didn’t make sense, because Judaism, like many other cultures and religions has very specific naming traditions. Given these traditions, what self-respecting rabbi (with a great name) would name a descendent of Aaron and Moses “John?” Zechariah wanted proof, he wanted a sign, and so Gabriel said the rabbi would be mute until the day the prophecy was fulfilled – basically, until Zechariah believed.

Before the baby was born, there were some other events that were some other unbelievable events. One of those events came in the form of a visit from Elizabeth’s relative Mary. It turned out that Mary, a virgin, had also received a visit from Gabriel and was also pregnant. Her son would be born 6 months after Elizabeth’s son – and both sons were destined for greatness. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son was born, their friends and family assumed the baby would be named after the father. The still mute, Zechariah, however, wrote down the words that ultimately ended his muteness: “his name is John.” His written words were actually a sign that Zechariah’s experiences had changed his beliefs. Or, more precisely, his disbeliefs had changed and the veils were lifted.

“On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’ Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.”

 

New Testament: The Gospel According to Luke (1:59 – 1:64 NIV)

In the modern world, this son of Zechariah and Elizabeth is known as John the Forerunner (in Eastern Christianity), John the Immerser (in some Baptist traditions), John the Baptizer, the prophet John (in Islām), or simply John the Baptist. Born 6 months before Jesus, he would go on to baptize Jesus and be associated with a spiritual cleansing ritual within Christian traditions. To be baptized is to have one’s sins washed away and is a way to be transformed, or to mark one’s transformation.

There are four feast days associated with Saint John the Baptist, one of which is today, June 24th. Also, as an aside, Saint John of Capistrano (b. 1386) and Saint John of the Cross (b. 1542) would have celebrated birthdays today. The fact that today is not a feast day for the other two Johns is actually more interesting than the number of feast days for John the Baptist. Most feast days are traditionally celebrated on the death date of a saint. The idea behind “dies natalis” being that upon death one is born into eternal life (and free of original sin). Today, however, is one of two feast days in Western Christianity associated with an individual’s birth – the idea being that Jesus and John the Baptist were cleansed in the womb. (NOTE: The Virgin Mary is concerned immaculate in that she was “conceived without sin.”)

As Christianity made its way through the pagan and indigenous cultures, this became a “good” day to co-opt… because it already had meaning. Today is also Midsummer. Considered the ancient (pagan) middle of Summer, it is also the astronomical beginning of Summer and was widely celebrated long before Christianity existed. Many of the pagan celebrations involved bonfires; fire being another element used in purification.

Celebrations of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist are recorded back as far as 1333, when the poet and scholar Petrarch noted women in Cologne were “rinsing their hands and arms in the Rhine ‘so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.’” For people in Quebec and for French Canadians throughout the North American continent, today has a particularly patriotic and cultural heritage significance – making it similar to Saint Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo.

“No emotion, any more than a wave, can long retain its own individual form.”

 

– Abolitionist, suffragist, and minister Henry Ward Beecher (b. 06/24/1813)

 

Please join me today (Wednesday, June 24th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. (If you have a free Spotify account, you may hear extra music that is not part of the original playlist.)

 

“It is not so much what you believe in that matters, as the way in which you believe it and proceed to translate that belief into action.”

 

– from “Chapter I: The Awakening” in The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang

 

 

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Perfecting Understanding – 2018 Kiss My Asana Offering #7 April 7, 2018

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“And now I see with eye with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A being breathing thoughtful breath,
A traveler between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;”

– from Perfect Woman by William Wordsworth

The more you practice yoga the more insight you gain, insight into yourself and, also, more insight into the practice. The more you practice the more you may start to appreciate the beauty and the perfection of the human mind-body-spirit. For instance, the body and mind are constantly striving to maintain balance. You can see the natural balancing act in the way we process food and waste, as well as in the way we breathe.

Let’s say, for instance, that a person consumed the perfect amount of calories, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and fluids for their body type and activity level. That person with the perfect dietary habit would still produce waste – a good amount of waste, in fact. Because, the body is a machine that uses what it needs, in order to flush out what it does not need. It may be hard to view the food/waste analogy on the mat, but part of the practice is observing the process of breathing (which is another way the body takes in fuel and releases waste). Part of the practice is noticing how the inhale and exhale are opposite and equal reactions – and how the body reacts to the breath.

Since we were in the womb, our bodies have responded to breathing by extending on the inhale and flexing on the exhale. The reactions are subtle and autonomous, and they mirror the breath in that they are opposite and equal. So, here again is an example of the body-mind seeking balance within the imbalance.

In most physical yoga practices (hatha yoga, regardless of the style or tradition), poses are engaged in a way that exaggerates the body’s natural tendencies – extending on the inhale, flexing on the exhale. This is true even in static poses: we press down to go up or find a backbend on the inhale and engage the core or fold forward on the exhale. Vinyasa literally means “to place in a special way” and is a technique, as well as a style of yoga (sometimes referred to as flow, whereby the poses are linked with the breath – again, in a way that exaggerates the body’s natural tendencies. Vipassana literally means “to see in a spacial way” and is a technique, as well as a style of Buddhist meditation (sometimes referred to as Insight Meditation).

William Wordsworth’s poem Perfect Woman, also known as “She was a phantom of delight,” chronicles the poet’s growing perception and understanding of his wife. When they first meet, Wordsworth (born today in 1770) views Mary as “a lovely apparition” and very literarily refers to her as eye candy, an object that looks good on his arm. But, as they get to know each other better, Wordsworth starts to recognize his future wife as a multi-dimensional human being. Even though he is still slightly in awe of her otherness, in the end Wordsworth’s esteem reaches a point where he can describe her in the same way he might (as a Romantic poet) describe a peer. He develops insight.

People new to yoga often experience a similar evolution of perspective. At first, they may just see the top surface of the practice; they see the obvious physical benefits. Over time, people may start to notice that there is something more going on than just the physical elements. They get more in touch with their emotions and become more of how to manage their emotions. They also start to notice that the practices changes as the body and mind change, and that every day is different. Ultimately, people begin to see things in a special way. They start to recognize the symbolic elements of the practice; how the sequences often mimics life – like “A traveller between life and death;” – and how there is “something of angelic light” in all beings everywhere. As they gain insight into themselves, they may also gain insight into the world.

Perfect Woman – by William Wordsworth

Placing your body parts in a special way, move into Child’s Pose (Balasana). Notice how much of what you do is now automatic and how much is mindful of the way your mind and your body are in this present moment. Has your understanding of Child’s Pose changed over the last week? Has your understanding changed over the entire lifetime of your practice? Does your appreciation of the pose – even as a simple possibility – change throughout any given practice?

When you move into Table Top again check to ensure you are moving with full awareness of your mind and body in the present moment. Double check your alignment. Press down so that the shoulders and shoulder blades are even with the rest of the back and your belly is firm. Engage your locks (bandhas) if that is part of your practice. Notice how you feel in the pose (physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically).

Move through Cat/Cow or the “Un-Cat” sequence precisely matching the movement to the breath. So that, as the breath gets long and fine and deep, the movement gets richer – whatever that means to you in this moment. This is the first vinyasa in this practice, notice all the ways you are mimicking your body’s natural tendencies (e.g., extending/flexing, lifting/grounding, creating/engaging, rising/falling, etc.).

Pause with the spine back in Table Top position and then move into Staff Pose (Dandasana). Sit down with your legs straight out in front of you. Sit up on a blanket or a block if you have a lot of tightness/stiffness in the back of your body.

Press your heels down into the ground, flex the ankles so the toes reach for the nose, and then spread the toes. At the same time, fire up your thighs and engage the quadriceps (the four muscles at the top of your things) in order to lift the knee caps into their full extended position. Press the sit bones and hands down (with the hands next to the hips). If this engagement is too extreme, bend knees or place the hands behind the hips (but still wide enough to just barely be outside of the hips).

As if they are seeds you are planting, push your shoulders and everything touching the floor, the mat, or a prop down into the earth. Allow your heart to blossom. With your eyes on your nose, watch your breath and notice how you feel in the pose (physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically).

Engage your locks (bandhas) as described in earlier practices. Changing as little as possible, lift the arms over the head, with wrists in line with the shoulders, and turn the palms up so that the finger tips point towards the wall behind you.

Extend the elbows and, as much as you are able, rotate them towards your nose. Keeping the shoulders down the back, push the whole body down to lift the heart and the arms up. If this is too much intensity for the shoulders, modify by bending the elbows to 90 degrees and extending the wrists rather than flexing them. Again, notice how you feel in the pose (physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically).

NOTE: If you want to skip the arm balancing below, move back into the poses after Downward Facing Dog. Another modification would be to do the Downward Facing Dog or “Dolphin Dog” with hands on the on the wall.

For the arm balance Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), return to Table Top – engaging as you did at the beginning of the practice. Curl your toes under; then use your arms and legs, hands and feet to lift your hips up in the air.

Check to make sure all your fingers are spread wide, with the majority of the weight/pressure in your hands moving into the thumb and first finger. (So that, there is less weight/pressure applied to your outer wrists.) When you relax your head and shoulders, make sure your big toes are parallel to each other and at least a foot apart. Big toes can be behind the thumbs or behind the middle fingers. Notice if you feel lighter or heavier when your feet are spaced further apart. Hips are high, heels are low (reaching, but not necessarily touching the mat); and neck is long. Even if you have to bend your knees, find Cow Pose in this position (so that you have a straight line from your middle fingers all the way up to your hips and then a second straight line from your hips to the back of your knees). Eyes are on your nose, your belly button, or the space between your toes.

If you are staying off of your wrists or need something to minimize stress on the shoulders, bring the elbows to the mat when you are in Table Top and lift your hips up for “Dolphin Dog.”

No matter which variation you choose, notice how and what you feel (physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically). Notice how Downward Facing Dog is simultaneously an arm balance and a standing pose; a forward bend, as well as a back bend; and an inversion. Notice how much of the engagement in the Staff Pose variations you can also feel here. How and what can you adjust to experience more of the sensations of Staff Pose?

Stretch back (meaning, push your spine towards your thighs) and on an exhale walk your hands to your feet or bring your hands and feet together. Once hands are in line with the toes and heels are flat to the mat, inhale to a Half Lift/Flat Back or Extended Forward Bend. (This pose may be called Ardha Uttanasana or Urdhva Uttanasana.) Place your hands on your thighs and press the shoulders into the metaphorical back pockets. Again, you want to engage in a similar fashion to Cow Pose, Staff Pose, and Downward Facing Dog. In fact, inhale and find a little bit of Cow Pose (even if you have to bend your knees). Now, press the heels down and – as much as you are able without losing the extension of the spine – engage the quadriceps to extend through the knees and press the thigh bones into the wall behind you. Engage your locks (bandhas) as you are able. You can play with the position of the arms for a moment; again, noticing the similarities between this pose and the other two poses.

If you have unregulated blood pressure, low back issues, eye issues like glaucoma, or if this is already challenging, stay here with knees bent. Otherwise, if it is not contraindicated, bend the knees and flex from the hips to prep Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Keeping the upper back extended, place the hands on the floor or a block and begin to extend through the legs while pressing the thigh bones into the backs of your legs. Do not force the extension. Use the exhales to settle the heart on the thighs (as much as you are able without losing the extension of the spine.) If your legs are completely straight, make sure the knee caps are lifted and that you are not hyper-extending the knees. Also double check to ensure that if the knees are straight the hips are over the knees, not behind the ankles. Engage your locks (bandhas). When you reach your edge, take a moment to notice you feel (physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically).

On an inhale, extend to Half Lift/Flat Back and on an exhale fold into the Forward Bend. If you are modifying and using the Half Lift throughout, keep the back in the position that feels similar to an intense Table Top and use the breath to extend the knees on an inhale and flex/bend them on an exhale. This is the second vinyasa. Move through the sequence precisely matching the movement to the breath. So that, as the breath gets long and fine and deep, the movement gets richer – whatever that means to you in this moment. Notice all the ways you are mimicking your body’s natural tendencies (e.g., extending/flexing, lifting/grounding, creating/engaging, rising/falling, etc.).

Move back into Staff Pose. Keep the left leg extended and bend the right knee in order to set up the Sage Twist. Remember to keep the left heel and the right foot flat on the floor. You can place the right foot next to the inside or the outside of the left leg, as long as the knees are comfortable and the right foot is flat on the floor.

On an inhale, lift your right arm up and, as you watch it, reach the right arm back to the floor behind your hips. As you settle into the twist, adjust your left arm to provide additional support wherever you need it. You can always sit on a block and/or place a block under your hand if you’re hips and low back are really tight. If you don’t have a block, substitute a book.

Watch how you engage your base, your core, and your breath. Remember to start the twist in your base (not in your neck). Do not allow your body to collapse or untwist until you complete 3 – 5 complete breaths. After the third or fifth exhale, inhale to center, give the lifted knee a squeeze, and return to Staff Pose. Repeat the Sage Twist instructions for the Sage Twist (replacing right with left).

After the third or fifth exhale on the left, inhale to center and give the lifted knee a squeeze. Bend or extend both, as needed, and lower down onto your back for Corpse Pose (Savasana). Notice the breath, as Spirit, and how it is still moving you towards balance.

This opportunity to explore a poem on the mat is part of my offering for the 2018 Kiss My Asana yogathon. I encourage you to set aside at least 5 minutes a day during April, to practice with the poem 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 one of the donation-based classes listed (April 7th and April 28th).

I also challenge you to set aside a certain amount every day that you practice with a poem 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. ##