A yogi plays with fire.

“The streets are paved with gold.

 No they are not.

 In fact they are not paved at all.

 And I just realized I’m going to be the one who paves them.” - 1900’s American Immigrant.

We have all come to yoga as a result of a promised golden path. There is much to savor and explore. The catch is this: you are going to be the one who paves the way. We have to do the work. Let me explain.

In class I have been teaching about Agni and the way sophisticated sacrifice can teach us, as practitioners, how to play with fire without getting burned. At the same time I have been reading a selection of essays by Arundhati Roy and John Cusak, who hold pretty extreme notions about the state of our world, what history looks like and how we should move forward politically. This blog post comes with a warning. Their views are extreme and shared here. They are not necessarily my own, however their voices are powerful and offer an opposing perspective to many of the tenets I assume are inherently good like Nation and Capitalism. In this post I have tried to connect Agni and these essays as a vehicle for my own transformation. I am attempting to widen my view as a means for creating change.

In the yogic tradition, Agni is the god of Fire. His face is bright and his long red hair is made of flames. He wears a golden beard that covers a sharp jaw holding shiny teeth. When Agni opens his mouth, he reveals 7 tongues and they shout the truth. This fire-god carries a banner of deep black smoke announcing his arrival in every home, wealthy or poor.

“Agni exists as fire on the earth, lightening in the sky, and the sun in space. He is a communicator that has the ability to consume, transform and convey.” -Douglas Brooks, yoga teacher

In our body, the fire sits in the center of our belly and is responsible for digestion and assimilation of food and ideas. Our impulse, gut feeling, and intuition all arise from the fire of Agni. Our Agni is what helps us honor our values and work as a force for good on the earth.

In Things That Can and Cannot Be Said co-authors Arundhati Roy and John Cusak pave a new and provocative path. Roy and Cusak along with Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the pentagon papers during the Vietnam War) travel to Moscow — they want to have a conversation with exiled Edward Snowden. The result is a set of essays that undoes much of what I know. The book is a deconstruction of assumptions I make about lifestyle, priorities, power and nation. The book is a civilized arbitration; four minds coming together to understand the state of things and suggest radical change.

Agni too is a means of radical change. We humans take dangerous energies like fire and we tame, civilize, and domesticate its wildness — we learn to cook, forge, and weld. Our very survival is contingent on this understanding, and yet in order to work with fire we must learn to obey its rules.

“Agni’s character is that of a priest, a mouth of the gods and goddesses. He acts as the medium who carries our yearnings to the divine, our inner world.” Douglas Brooks  

Agni stands for the voice that makes tasks and our way of doing things acceptable to the gods. Here I use gods as a metaphor for “the right way”.  My usage assumes there is not only one right way; there is not only one god. There is a manner of looking inside to a deeper truth; one that honors all beings. Truth arises out of love not fear and it speaks softly and kindly. This is the realm of the gods and Agni. Just sit before a flame and you will know what I mean.

Daniel Berrigan is quoted in the preface ofThings That Can and Cannot Be Said. Berrigan is a catholic priest, author, and one of the most vocal critics of nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War.

 He writes, “Every nation-state, by supposition, tends toward the imperial: that is the point. Through banks, armies, secret police, propaganda, courts, jails, treaties, treasuries, taxes, laws and orders, myths of civil obedience, assumption of civic virtue at the top…Still it should be said that of the political left, we expect something better. And correctly. We put more trust in those who show a measure of compassion. We agree, conditionally but instinctively, with those who denounce the hideous social arrangements which make war inevitable and human want omnipresent; which foster corporate selfishness, pander to appetites and disorder, waste the earth.”

His preface gives voice to the yamas and niyamas (the ethical considerations) of our yoga practice. Peacefulness, truth, and shared responsibility abound. He crushes our notion of nation as inherently good and offers a crack in the façade as we face issues concerning privacy and the marginalization of civil liberties in the name of security. A security with no guarantee.  Arundhati Roy brings up strong arm techniques used in the name of nation, security, and stability. This history, which is often forgotten or ignored, is considered a “necessary evil” to achieve an end.

As a yoga teacher, my job is to teach you to practice and live without employing “necessary evils” yet still thrive.  From one perspective, effort could be misconstrued as pushing to the point of injury. I would ask, is this how we want to treat our bodies, our friends, our world? Yes, our effort builds heat in the body and mind. We can perceive the heat in practice as we sweat and feel the friction of a concentrated effort. Instead of fighting, freezing or running, a sustained yoga practice asks that we turn our attention inward and wake up. Inner gaze is like the light of a candle; when the light illuminates darkness, false perceptions can be seen, evaluated and ultimately changed. It is only when we shine a clear light, as Berrigan does, on false perceptions relating to inevitable war or insatiable appetites, that transformation can take place.

“Deep connectivity with nature and creativity is Agni’s message. He represents the civilization of power.  Agni turns us back toward nature reminding us that there are forces in the world we cannot live without. In his somewhat priestly nature Agni asks for sacrifice as we learn the rules of his power, work with them, and create change. He is the stately course of transformation that is the civilization we adore.” Douglas Brooks

He can cook. He can pave the streets.

“If there is something to be done, then one thing is for sure: those who created the problem will not be the ones who come up with the solution. Encrypting our e-mails will help, but not very much. Recalibrating our understanding of what love means, what happiness means—and yes what countries mean—might. Recalibrating our priorities might. An old growth forest, a mountain range, or a river valley is more important and certainly more lovable than any country will ever be. I could weep for a river valley, and I have. But for a country? Oh Man, I don’t know.” –Arundhati Roy, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said.

 Agni turns us toward nature to remind us there are primal powers that are part of the world and we cannot survive without them. With them we can cook, be warm, and nourish ourselves. Agni teaches us that how we act counts. He reminds of us the importance of our tone, tenor, and means while working with fire. He is the messenger through which we touch the depth of our inner experience. Agni will burn us if we misuse or misplace him. If we do not follow the rules of playing with fire, we will get scorched.

The ideas offered in this book are not flawless, but in their imperfection they also got my brain moving in ways I had never considered. Is it possible that international trade agreements like the TTIP gives multinational corporations the right to sue sovereign governments for acts that threatens its profits?

“Such offenses could include, governments increasing minimum wage, not seen as cracking down on terrorist villagers who impede the work of mining companies, or say having the temerity to turn down Monsanto’s offer of genetically modified corporate-patented seeds. Is it possible that global trade is just another weapon like intrusive surveillance or depleted uranium, to be used in the Lifestyle wars.” –Arundhati Roy, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

How can we even begin to we betray the consumer ideology? Do we have the courage to be with the discomfort of saying no thank you.

“If Agni is not civilized then he is dangerous. On the other hand, we can take the primal energy of fire and allow it to be creative, nourishing, and warming. Agni is a representation of our next destiny, our future.” Douglass Brooks

Agni is any force that consumes and dispels a state of darkness procreating and transforming that state into an enlightened realm. Agni will not put up with our ignorance, the rules of the fire will burn down any house that leaves the hearth untended, it will also provide sustenance to any home that honors it’s power.

“Our tragedy today is not just that millions of people who called themselves communist or socialist were physically liquidated in Vietnam, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, not just that China and Russia, after all the revolution, have become capitalist economies, not just that the working class in the United states have been marginalized and its unions dismantled, not just that Greece has been brought to its knees, or that Cuba will soon be assimilated into the free market- it is also that the language of the left, the discourse of the Left, has been marginalized and is sought to be eradicated.”–Arundhati Roy, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

Agni’s creation myth tells us: before there was anything, Prajapati, the father of all things sat in the unlimited causal ocean; Agni emerged from his third eye. The light and heat of fire brought forth day and night. From this duality all of nature was formed.

“Isn’t the greatness of great nations directly proportionate to their ability to be ruthless, genocidal? Doesn’t the height of a country’s success usually also mark the depths of its moral failure? Our best first strike, then and now, has never, for a moment—since the mid ‘50s—been able to keep the Soviets from annihilating every last person in West Europe. By the way, you know we were going to kill—depending on how the wind blew—which depended on the season…our private, top secret estimates were that we kill every European, a hundred million Europeans, without a single US or Soviet missile landing on West Europe. Just the fallout, just the fallout.” –Arundhati Roy, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

 An additional creation myth names Agni’s parents as “two pieces of kindling”. Their loving rubbing made an initial spark. Agni is described to have emerged delicate and easily destroyed. Agni needs care and tending so that he, as a roaring fire, can become big and powerful. At this point Agni consumes his own creators, he embodies change.

“What mattered, perhaps even more than what was said, was the spirit in the room. There was Edward Snowden…what the two of them (Snowden and Ellsberg) clearly had in common was a strong, almost corporeal sense of moral righteousness—of right and wrong. A sense of righteousness that was obviously at work not just when they decided to blow the whistle on what they thought was morally unacceptable, but also when they signed up for their jobs—Dan to save his country from communism, Ed to save it from Islamist terrorism...We talked about war and greed, about terrorism and what an accurate definition of it would be. We spoke about countries, flags and the meaning of patriotism. We talked about public opinion and the concept of public morality and how fickle it could be, and how easily manipulated.”  –Arundhati Roy, Things That Can and Cannot Be Said

The content of the conversation between Roy, Cusak, Snowden and Ellsberg, did not draw any conclusion. It did shine a light. Both Cusak and Roy, in their respective essays, were moved by connections both physically in Moscow and ideologically. All four have taken great risks and made great sacrifices to embody truths they believe in. Their thinking is not dangerous but free. Although I may not agree with everything the authors say, I am grateful for their willingness to gather, speak and share. I learned a lot about history from a different perspective. I learned a lot about taking action. Mostly I learned to pay attention, our reality is changing quicker than any of us could have ever expected

Our spark is tender and easily extinguished.  Many of us live a life of luxury where our daily struggles shade in comparison to Snowden and Ellsberg. It will be difficult to tend the fire of change we desire. Agni always requires discipline and sacrifice.

Change is a practice and that is why we are on the mat. We want Agni to become big and powerful. We want him to be fueled by love and devotion. We want him in our lives. We, as yogis, need our flame to consume the kindling that gave it birth. On the other hand, we have to pave the streets.

Keep the fire burning and do your practice

 

 

 

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On Desire.

Often times in the yogic world we confuse non-attachment with the relinquishment of desire. This is a misunderstanding of spiritual philosophy. Desire is an important tenet in our practice and I was reminded of this teaching during a recent visit to New York City. Chris and I saw three outstanding exhibitions: The Rolling Stones “Exhibitionism” in the West Village, “Agnes Martin” at the Guggenheim, and Kerry James Marshall “Mastry” at Met Breuer and I was struck by the desire saturating each of these shows. Each artist saw something specific in the world and wanted nothing more than to fulfill that aspiration.

Perhaps the world could exist without art, music, and practices like yoga, but life is surely more enjoyable because our creative endeavors and desires endure.

“Think that you are gliding out from the face of a cliff

Like an eagle. Think that you’re walking

Like a tiger walks by himself in the forest.

You’re most handsome when you’re after food.” -Rumi

As yogis’ we must ask clearly for what we want. Desire is an essential endeavor on the spiritual path. James Martin, author and Jesuit priest says, “Without desire we would never get up in the morning. We would never have ventured beyond the front door. We would never have read a book or learned something new. No desire means no growth, no change. Desire is what makes two people create a third person. Desire is what makes crocuses push up through the late winter soil. Desire is energy, the energy of creativity, the energy of life itself.”

Agnes Martin, James Kerry Marshall, and the Rolling Stones achieved their unique art by mastering a specific want.  In yogic terms we call this “the object of concentration.” For the Stones, the thing was rhythm and blues. Kerry James Marshall was lit up by the tradition of painting. And Agnes Martin embodied the lofty goal of illustrating subtle emotions like innocence.

 Each of these artists dedicated everything to their endeavor.

Rumi reminds us, “You must ask for what you really want and don’t go back to sleep.”

As yogis, we identify an aspect of our practice that really turns us on. This passion leads us to desire more. The desire then results in a mastery of our craft. By establishing excellence, comfort, and fluidity in our work something unique (art) is a natural residue.

In his inspiring book, The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, James Martin refers to a bible story. Jesus, approached by a blind man, asks the beggar, “What do you want?” The man replies directly, “I want to see.” Only then did Jesus perform the miracle of returning the sightless man’s vision.

One might ask, why would Jesus, the all-knowing maker of miracles, ask a blind man what he wanted? Surely the prophet already knew the answer. The teaching clearly instructs us that the question is not posed for Jesus’ benefit, but for the seekers. By asking for what he really wants the blind man names his desire. Knowing what you want and asking for it is half the game.

Can the path be as simple as that?

Exhibitionism, a retrospective of the Stones history includes a recreation of the bands first apartment at 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea. It is a mess. There are dirty dishes piled in the sink, rumpled soiled clothes, unmade beds, cigarette butts and beer bottles strewn about but there is also a recording of Keith Richards describing why.

“We were too busy, you know, avidly learning to be blues players and that was all we had time for.”

The Stones were infamous for 10, 20, even 30 takes to get a song right. They would not give up until the sound they heard in their head came out on the record. Their desire was specific, clear, and unfinished until fulfilled.

Imagine if your desire is exactly what the world needs?

"Come, come whoever you are, wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving. Ours is not a caravan of despair, even if you have broken your vow a million times…still come, and yet again, come." -Rumi

James Kerry Marshall, who has classical and modern painting elements in his large identity-driven artworks, said in the audio tour of “Mastry”, that he desires to learn everything painting has to teach. He wants to know how to paint classical portraiture, landscape and even modern techniques like “Jackson Pollock” drips. His deepest desire is to insert the black figure into an overwhelmingly white cannon of painting. He masters painting and as a result introduces a more complete perspective on African-American life. His artworks, which include overtly black figures in every walk of life - artist, prophet, business owner, student, family member - has changed the history of painting by including African Americans in roles beyond slave or exotic other.

His intelligence, facility and insight bring a powerful voice to issues of race and equality. He adds to the conversation, through art, a clear past, illustrating injustice, persistence, and power that sustain black people despite the unfairness of their treatment. His work is so potent and necessary as we try to right wrongs of the past and move forward into an era where refugees, immigrants and “others” need to be treated with care and respect.

“Be like a fish moving toward wave-sound.”- Rumi

Agnes Martin wanted to understand and paint subtle emotion. She sat in her studio for a long time, asking for a vision of innocence. She waited. She emptied her mind and waited some more. Then she saw the image of a grid. She said to herself, this is innocence but is this what I am supposed to paint? No one will think a grid is art?

She moved forward anyway. Martin surrendered to her desire and began a lifelong career in abstract painting. She concretized the grid as a tool for experiencing subtle emotions.

Her work requires the viewer to slow down and look closely. If we take time to look and perceive the tiny irregularities, we see the same subtleties we experience in our yoga practice. We feel bodily sensations arising and falling away. We listen to the soft voice and notice our response. Our intimacy with her work brings up subtle emotions like innocence, kindness, love, and happiness. This is exactly what Martin desired. The monastic experience is a consistent characteristic in her work.

 “Try to make an idea move from ear to eye. Then your wooly ears become subtle as fibers of light. Your whole body becomes a mirror, all eyes and spiritual breathing. Let your ear lead you to your lover.” - Rumi

In yoga, as we study traditional forms of asana and pranayama, we find our passion in the practice. My passion may be different from yours but since yoga is an art, our commitment to our individual desire is the actual work. This commitment is what will push us forward on the path and keep us interested.

Sufis call this wanting Nafs. Coleman Barks, the beloved translator of Rumi’s poetry talks about Nafs: “from the urgent way lovers want each other to the Sannyasin’s search for truth, all moving is from the mover. Every pull draws us to the ocean.”

Agnes Martin, Kerry James Marshall and the Rolling Stones, dedicate everything to their desire without hesitation. These exhibitions illustrate this idea clearly. Agnes Martin says painting is not putting down pink or green because you like them; Painting is something you cannot resist, something that drives you.

James Martin continues, “To live our deeper desires, the ones that shape our lives, help us know who we are and what we are to do. This is exactly what the world needs.”

Desire may lead us from power yoga to restorative, from abstract painting to still life, it may move us from writing prose to poems but it is a voice that we should follow.  The intelligent pursuit of our deepest desire makes us great. For more on desire read about Astavakra and his persistent, insistent, desire and how it helps our asana practice.

Other exhibitions that I have written about this year, include El Bosco, Julio Gonzales, From Rye to Raphael, Eusebio Sempere and Campo Cerrado.

 

 

 

 

 

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Embrace your alone time.

The Old Poets of China

By Mary Oliver

Wherever I am the world comes after me.

It offers me its busyness. It does not believe

that I do not want it. Now I understand

why the old poets of China went so far and high

into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

 

Mary Oliver in her new essay, Of Power and Time, explains the phenomena of solitude in relation to our creative endeavors. The form of the endeavor can be varied: yoga, writing, painting or anything else that quiets the mind. She says,

“Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to a certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.”

I was thinking about the yoga practice, and how Swatmarama, in the Yoga Pradipika, informs the yogi that our practice place should be small, situated in a solitary place… free from stones, fire, water, and disturbances of all kinds…

Each day, I rise early to be alone, write, draw and paint. In Sanskrit this time is called Brahma Muhurtha, which literally translates as the creators hour. This hour begins in the dark and as one works our world is formed. The sky becomes striped in red and the greenest blue. Silent orange yellow sun stains the atmosphere. The land, water, and boats in the harbor are touched by a bit of fire. This is the time for me, when the world is quiet and the morning sun is begins to rise.

Oliver continues, “Privacy, then. A place apart - a place to chew pencils, to scribble and erase, and scribble again…Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among the easements and comforts and pleasures, it (creativity) is seldom seen.”

Often we go to our mat in community, we see our friends, find pleasure and pain in class together. But our deep creative work happens alone. It can happen in a moment of silence during class. It can happen when we close our eyes and find the inner world. It can happen when we are home alone, stretching and pointing our face to the moon.

But both texts remind us what's next, distractions inevitably arrive. External and internal obstacles arise when we sit down to focus. This is the nature of the task. In Indian mythology, Ganesh is a symbolic remover of obstacles. A big elephant-headed being that uses his girth to sweep our path clear. But the funny thing is, Ganesh soon becomes an obstacle himself. This symbolism teaches us that the obstacles cannot be avoided; they must be met and worshipped as part of the creative process. The process then becomes the yoga.  We can wrestle with Ganesh but he is too powerful. We can try to out-maneuver him but he is too smart. Instead we embrace the distraction and keep our butt in the chair or our body on the mat or our brush on the canvas, no matter the pull. We persist, endure and the work itself becomes a satisfying and illuminating endeavor.

Today, I am late to my desk, and the construction outside is already banging. The light reveals things to be done, remembered and acted upon. How I crave a bit more of the darkness, the cave of in-between day and in-between night.

Oliver continues, “The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self, and does - is a darker, more curious matter.”

What is it that draws us out of engagement with our work? Continuing with our reference to the Pradipika, Swatmarama speaks of 6 obstacles to success in the yoga practice:

1. Overeating: too much of anything creates a problem. Overeating in particular can lead to health issues related to disease and destruction of the body. We need the body to do our work.

2. Exertion:  strain or pushing leads to attachment. When we are so busy trying hard, we lose sight of the present moment. The breath and mind become distorted. We need a clear mind to work well.

 3. Talkativeness: the inner world is a silent world. My teacher always reminded us to begin the practice by quieting the language function. Verbal chitchatting is a distraction. So is inner talk that distracts the mind from actually feeling.

4. Adhering to rules: Yogis are not fundamentalists. The inherent belief that if I do something the “right way” the result will be “holy” is an obstacle on the path. In yoga and art, the rules must eventually be broken. Understanding this takes integrity because in the beginning disciplined study is required. Once the habit has been set, yoga and art only occur after the form is blown away by the wind, like Tibetan sand paintings.

 5. Company of men: if I accept every invitation and fill every spare moment with friends, I have no time for solitude. No space for me.  Without solitude there will be no success in the practice. We need to be alone to listen, feel, and allow.

 6. Unsteadiness: this refers to extremes in the practice. Often times we come to yoga to increase flexibility. But too much is not good. Though we need alone time in our practice, this time must be grounded in connection. Though we should not eat too much, eating too little will also make us sick. Yogis call this balance grounding. Grounding leads to steadiness and steadiness leads to success.

These obstacles, which are the impediments to yoga, writing, and all art making, are to be met with any variety of tools. The sole aim is to steady the mind for sustained concentration.

Agnes Martin, one of my favorite painters, thinks of “nothing” to calm her mind. Mary Oliver offers a loyalty as an antidote…“a complete loyalty, as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity”. The Pradipika says, by whom the breathing has been controlled, by him the activities of the mind have been overcome.

Calming the mind reinstates concentration that will help one stay on the mat, at the keyboard or easel. The aim of our practice has nothing to do with achieving a specific form. For example, the path does not say that every writer must produce a novel, every painter a large format work, or that every yogi must accomplish handstand. These notions seem silly indeed, but how many times do we confuse the form for the task? For me, this is where the art of practice comes in. Practice is a mystery. It forgoes form to the invisible, and it facilitates magic in our lives.

Agnes Martin says of the work, “in your work, in the way you do your work and in the results of your work, yourself is expressed. Behind and before self-expression is a developing awareness in the mind that affects the work. This developing awareness I will also call the work. It is the most important part of the work. There is the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work is a result.”

I don’t stay up late to write, I am too tired. Dreams call me to the total stillness of sleep. But 3am, 4am, and 5am I’m up and at the keyboard with a cup of coffee, alone. I engage discipline to stay away from Facebook, Instagram, and the news. Instead turning to the “news” of the book I read the night before, or taught in class on the previous day, I see what is inside me. The inner world offers content for understanding, study, and art. Somehow, I am swept away. Before I know it, the coffee is gone, I need to stretch my back, and there are words on the page.

Martin continues, “My interest and yours is artwork, works of art, every smallish work and every kind of art work. We are very interested, dedicated in fact. There is no halfway with art. We wake up thinking about it and we go to sleep thinking about it.

We go everywhere looking for it, both artists and non-artists.

It is very mysterious the fast hold that it has upon us considering how little we know about it. We do not even understand our own response to our own work.”

It is extraordinary that we heed the call.

Mary Oliver says, “In creative work, creative work of all kinds, those who are the artists are not helping the world go round, but forward. This is something altogether different from the ordinary… Certainly there is, within each of us, a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity...The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work- who is thus responsible to the work.”

Making time to be alone allows me to create. Sometimes, I travel half way around the world for this time and daily, I crawl out of bed deep into the night to find it. Sometimes I think my body breaks down and I get sick, insisting on this time when I push it aside. Sometimes I think I am crazy to spend so much time alone and be perfectly content. I, like all people, require connection, but for me alone does not mean separate. In fact, when I honor the time I need to concentrate, make art or write, I can love more fully, listen better, and be there for the people I love.

Oliver concludes with a powerful statement, a sort of love letter to those in her life this need for alone time has impacted,

“ The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time… My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

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Doing the right thing, for the right reason.

Some of the YogaWorks family that lent a hand.

Some of the YogaWorks family that lent a hand.

Now that I have decided to act, there is so much to do. I volunteered at the Salvation Army over Thanksgiving and it was breathtaking. Making the meals, 300 of them in community, was as warm and rewarding as you might imagine. My job was simple; add the plastic silverware on top of the roll. I took care to get it right. I thought what a drag it would be to get the meal and have the napkin covered in gravy or wet from the beans.

I also connected with community; others like me, wanting to help. I enjoyed the fellowship… But then there was the call, "We need another car, does anyone have a car that can follow the delivery truck around and help?" No one replied. It was the only silent moment of the morning. I know what everyone was thinking because I was thinking it too. I didn’t sign up for this. I have to be at dinner in an hour, I don’t have time…the silence was deafening. Finally, I raised my hand and asked, "will a small car do?" Any car will do was the reply.

So we filled my trunk with supplies and off I went leaving my father and husband to Uber home. I followed a brand new, what we would call in the old days, roach coach downtown. A roach coach is an insulated truck that often pulls up at construction sites and offers meals to workers, this one painted up with a Salvation Army logo and a "donated by FedEx" sign. I wonder where are we going?

While driving I was reminded that in  India, when a yogi has reached enlightenment, they often take on the service of ferrying passengers back and forth across the great rivers. This symbolic action reminds the enlightened ones that their true work is to transport those who are not yet awake from the shore of darkness, across the great river to everlasting life.

Siddhartha did this as did many others including our monk, Balaji.

Balaji was a humble monk who loved his job as the ferryman. One day a well-dressed man, a professor from the university, arrived on the bank of the river. As the professor was stepping onto the boat he asked Balaji, “Have you ever read the Bhagavad-Gita translation by Sri Radha Krishnan? It is the most enlightened and intelligent commentary I have ever read?”

“No,” said Balaji. “I cannot read; I only know the story from the perspective of my teacher.”

“Poor man,” said the professor, unless you can read the text yourself you will get no benefit. My friend you have wasted half your life.”

Later in the ride, the professor approached Balaji with another question. “Do you know the teachings of our great philosophers, Aurobindo, Rama Krishna, Muktananda, or Krishnamurthy, their teaching are essential to true understanding?”

“No.” said Balaji “I do not know these great men, I only know the kind and comforting words of my teacher.”

“Arghhh,” scoffed the professor, “you cannot understand anything without their teachings, Balaji, you have wasted three quarters of your life.”

The trip was long and as professor began to doze the weather changed. The sky went dark, the wind threatened and waves splashed over the edge of the boat.  “Professor, professor,” cried Balaji,  “have you ever studied swimology?”

“Swimology,” asked the professor? “Does that have something to do with swimming?”

“Yes Professor, can you swim?” Balaji replied.

“No Balaji” said the professor, “in all my busy years of study I never found the time to learn to swim.”

“Oh professor,” said Balaji, “the boat is sinking and we have no life jackets…. I am afraid you have wasted all of your life.”

This teaching offers us the reminder that every thing we do in our yoga practice: asana, breath-work, and philosophy must be grounded in real world applications. We ground our insights in our lives so we can swim when the waters of life require that we do.

A posture and the challenge of strong sensation teaches us to keep a clear head, hold steady and relaxed when life is painful. Pranayama teaches us to check in with the breath when we feel a strong emotion arrive.  And the philosophical stories help us discern how to act in relation to others. Is this action part of the life I want to create? We understand that learning just to be smart will not help us on our sacred path. The learning must support our purpose.

Our caravan drove to the tents first, you know the ones, under I-83, near the farmers market. There are scores of them littered along Fallsway and the cross streets. As we arrived people began to appear. Tents unzipped and all kinds of folk: old, young, male, female, and every ethnicity emerged. Some smelled of alcohol, others appeared to have mental disability but most of them just seemed strung out and I am not surprised. It was cold. Imagine your Thanksgiving Day sleeping in a tent under a highway, owning only a bag of stuff and the clothes on your back. Damn straight they were strung out, I could feel it in my body. Lines and lines of people full of gratitude came to visit the truck. We handed each person a bag lunch, a hot turkey meal, a soda and a bag of candy.

We worked for three hours; the truck driver, Luther, knew all the spots. The interesting thing was, so did I. I’ve lived in this city since high school and the places we went; these are the places one might avoid or at least lock the doors and roll up the windows when entering, for safety of course. If you ask Luther what he does, he says I feed people and it was downright biblical. The joy of taking care of those in need, of reaching out to lend a hand when there is no expectation for return is incredible.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. - Matthew 25:35

All things are assigned a task, the heavens send light and rain to the earth, the earth brings forth blossoms and fruits, the mountains offer shelter. As for our human task, we are entrusted with free will and with that responsibility comes our path to wholeness. Often times I forget or ignore this sacred trust. Right now I feel like I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I am unsure what my sacred work is but I know what makes me happy and what doesn’t.

Now I am faced with what to do. I want to join Luther and help out. I also teach yoga most nights and weekends. I like to write these blogs and I like to make paintings. How do I know what to do? How do I know which is the right path for me? How do I know my purpose and does it help? It is said that the path becomes more and more narrow as we continue. Does that mean more refined? Does that mean difficult? Does it mean intimate, one behind the other rather than great migrations?

 Rumi reminds us that  If we perform and remember everything else, yet forget about our essential purpose, then we have done nothing at all. He says we are golden pots more valuable that ordinary pots but we use ourselves to boil ragged turnips. Why not, he continues, use the pot to boil your ego instead and set yourself free?

I am inviting you, as we enter the deepest dark of winter, to walk toward that which lights you up. Take your practices on the mat and use them as a tool for life. In other words, study "swimology". I want you to move towards your joy every moment. I want you to use that joy to help others. Again I come back to Rumi who reminds me with urgency- take an axe to the prison door and escape.

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I just have to do something.

In just a few short weeks our collective yogic actions have made a difference. My yoga teacher would often ask, why do you feel compelled to believe that "what is" is wrong? That "what is" is not exactly the way things should be? And I, in my insistent inquiry, ask back “Even if I think everything is as it should be, does that discount my desire to act?”

I desire to take action and we are creating change!

This week, President-elect Trump has softened on several important issues facing his administration: Obamacare, climate change, the wall,  and coal. The alt-right are disavowed and racism is denounced. Our environment, endangered species, and our children can all breathe a sigh of relief. But the work has just begun.

CC Yoga 500 hour TT-87-S.jpg

I see infinite opportunities to give. Giving is a rewarding task and I do make a difference. I also see the many ways I find excuses not to help. But as we say in the yoga world, awareness is the first step to healing.  Awareness shows me that I am not too busy to lend a hand. Awareness shows me I will not initiate a barrage of petitions if I sign one, three, or ten online. Awareness shows me that I do have room in my home for a friend in need. There is so much I can do and it feels good.

An inspiring Facebook post by my friend Jon Gorman is an example of actions one person has taken this month. I like how he found opportunity on a local, national and global level. He honed in on three tasks in an infinite sea of options. His intelligent approach is inspiring and I hope it helps you to take action.  It goes like this.

My biggest takeaway from my utter shock and horror at the election results and aftermath is this: to have a perspective based on morals, to vote for the more progressive candidate, and to share relevant articles and opinions on Facebook is not enough. I had been standing behind these acts throughout this election but if I'm truly honest with myself, these acts are what allowed us to pretend we are making a difference despite an underlying complacency that allowed Trump to get elected and prior to that, have allowed injustices to be perpetuated for decades. Opinionated posts on Facebook don't change anyone else's opinions and don't advance the change that is needed. There is so much more that these times demand of us, and so much more that we can and need to be doing.

 Here is how I intend to take action:
1) I set up a recurring monthly donation to non-profit organizations that support education for underserved communities, protecting the environment, and a social cause I care about.

2) I am volunteering with an organization in Baltimore that aims to engage underserved youth and help them succeed and have more opportunities in life.

3) I started a therapy private practice this past September. I will be re-evaluating my business plan to determine a way to provide low-cost or pro-bono mental health services to individuals in marginalized, low-income communities starting within the first half of 2017.

... I challenge all of you reading this to take similar steps. If you don't have time, donate money to important causes. If you don't have money, donate your time or other resources. If you don't have money or time, why are you spending so much time on Facebook reading my ramblings?

I want you to notice how his three specific actions, not too big but also not inconsequential, will change the world for the better.

1. Jon reached into his wallet and gave. Imagine if every one of us set up a recurring monthly donation to an organization we love? What if we gave every month to an organization that advocates for the environment, endangered species, human rights, arts or humanities? Imagine if we all give a single dollar to 5 groups each month? Our actions would not only help these organizations financially but our donations would be a voice that tells the world what we value, love and cherish.

2. Jon has found an organization that operated locally and his time will make a difference. I was listening to Jane Alexander, actress, environmental and endangered species activist, speak at the Miami book festival. She suggests we help in three ways.

A. Find a local organization where you can get involved.

B. Find an organization you are passionate about at a national level, one that works to make the United States a better place to live and support them with time or money.

C. Find an international organization, one that is working for the betterment of our global community and support them with time or money.

3.  Jon is altering the way he does business to advocate for diversity. Imagine if each of us, in our local area, found a way to include students, clients, and colleagues from diverse economic backgrounds into our endeavors? Imagine what the world would be like if the guy who worked in the Starbucks lived next door to the politician? Imagine if the construction worker was valued as much as the banker. Imagine our world if the entrepreneur and the artist stood on equal ground.  Imagine our neighborhoods if they were a tapestry of people all working together creating community. Imagine if we found a way to insist upon diversity, diversity of all kinds. Imagine what the yoga classes, shopping centers, and the schools would be like if we altered our business plan to insist on diversity.

I love how Jon says, if you don’t have money, donate time. This Thanksgiving, I recruited my family to go and help out at the Salvation Army! We are going to serve food and you know what? I am more excited about Thanksgiving than ever. I absolutely cannot wait. You know what else, when I signed up the online form said: share what you did on Facebook, we still need help. As a result of the share, we filled the quota needed for serving this year. I made a difference, Facebook made a difference and so did everyone who chose to come and help.

It’s hard to know how much one can do. It is hard to know, as a yoga teacher, when students need a break from it all, just to stretch, relax, and go inside for some peace and quiet.

But I wonder, where is the peace and quiet when the house is burning down? How can there be peace and quiet, when your children are hungry and need a helping hand?

When I was 20, I took a vow of the bodhisattva. This vow promises that I will not reach enlightenment until every other being on earth has been helped along the path. The vow of the bodhisattva asks, where is the joy in my own awakening when there are still others in the dark? I vow to continue to work on this earth until we all experience unity. I am asking for your help.  We live in this world together, so for today, in the name of Thanksgiving, lets lend a hand. Find a way to give, and don’t go back to sleep.

The Sun by Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen

anything

in your life

more wonderful

than the way the sun,

every evening,

relaxed and easy,

floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,

or the rumpled sea,

and is gone—

And how it slides again

out of the blackness

every morning

on the other side of the world

like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,

say on a morning in early summer,

at its perfect imperial distance—

and have you ever felt for anything such wild love—

do you think there is anywhere, in any

language,

a word billowing enough

for the pleasure

that fills you,

as the sun

reaches out,

as it warms you

as you stand there,

empty-handed—

or have you too

turned from this world—

or have you too gone crazy

for power,

for things?

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Is that so?

A monk was living at the base of the Himalayas.

He had a small hut, at the top of a crest, about five miles outside a nearby village.

He was very content with his holy life, full of peace and practice.

In the nearby village, a young woman lived with her family.

The young woman found herself pregnant.

Her parents, furious, about her unwed status, demanded to know who the father was.

The young girl trying to protect her boyfriend said, "The monk on the hill is the father."

The baby was born and the village family stormed up the hill and knocked on the monk's door. When he answered they thrust the baby into his arms. "This is your doing now he is your responsibility.” They turned to walk home.

“ Is that so?" replied the monk as he held the baby and looked at his new life.

The monk abandoned his formal practices to care for the baby. He learned how to provide for the child: food, clothing, and love.

After 5 years, the young woman could not stand it anymore. She missed her baby and wanted to marry her boyfriend. She told her parents who the father really was.

Mortified the parents made the journey back up the hill. They knocked on the monk’s door.

Full of apology they let the monk know there had been a mistake. They now knew the truth and took the young boy to their family home.

“Is that so?” was the monk's reply.

There are two yogic principles this tale brings to mind.

The first is that yoga is the path of action.

I’ve been thinking how unlike the monk my first reaction to the election results have been. How I thought to myself, everything is turned upside down. The monk too, must have felt that way about his quiet peaceful life. But because he approached the situation with an air of inquiry, he could see clearly and respond in a loving way. He took on the task of loving the boy as a priority over everything else. I too have been thinking about how I can respond to the election results in a way where I can see more clearly. I have taken time to reflect on how little I have done because I  felt everything was safe in the hands of the government: the environment, immigration, equality. I noticed how, in a sense, I have become passive.  I have been busy pursuing my personal goals because everything out there is in good hands. Today, I made a donation to WWF and inquired into donating my time at a soup kitchen for Thanksgiving.

The second principle says that the yogi, like a lamp in a still place, is undisturbed by the winds of life.

The election didn’t go my way and that is ok. As President Obama said in his Rose Garden transition speech yesterday, the sun came up this morning anyway.

The monk in our story must have been incredibly upset when the baby and the false accusations arrived on the doorstep. His reputation as a good man must have been ruined. His practice, routine, and simple ascetic lifestyle was turned upside down. But in the wisdom of his equanimity, he replied with an inquiry into the inevitable change that was before him. The monk was not being passive - he actually seems fiercely clear in his actions. I am sure he weighed the consequences of a fight to defend himself. I am sure he reconciled the cost to his own sense of peace and the health of the baby if he pushed back. He chose to care for the infant.

And can you imagine, 5 years later, how much he must have loved the boy? How his life must have been settled, after such a long time, into the joys of family living. Tucking the boy into bed, watching him grow, and sharing meals together. Can you imagine the loss the monk must have felt when the family arrived to take him away? And still, he replied, with the inquiry. His curiosity grows into the equanimity of wisdom. Wisdom tells us, change is always right around the corner.

The teaching is not saying we will not feel a spectrum of emotions. We will. And the stillness of the lamp allows it’s light to shine clearly. So we can do our work.

I liked the passage below published by Huffington Post, when they decided to remove the footer they put at the end of every article about Trump,  that declared… I'm paraphrasing here, that he is not such a nice guy.

“It was a win that was at once foreseeable, yet one we failed badly to see.  Where we find fault with how Trump governs, we won't hesitate to call it out. If he targets minority groups or encroaches on our democracy we won't hesitate to say so loudly and clearly...  We have hope that the man we saw on the trail at his worst moments is not the man who will enter the White House. If Trump can reverse the economic inequality he decried during his campaign, bring back manufacturing jobs, find a way to give people better healthcare for less money, invest in infrastructure, and otherwise make the country great again we will cheer him on... We'll find out."

President Obama reminded us, “We are all on the same team. We are not Democrats, Independents, or Republicans first. We are Americans first and we all want what is best for our country.”

Obama continued, referring to Clintons remarks earlier that morning, “To the young people. Stay encouraged don’t get cynical. Fighting for what's right is worth it. Sometimes you win an argument, other times you lose. The path has never been a straight line, we zig and zag, and that is ok. If we lose, we learn from our mistakes, we brush ourselves off and we get back into the arena. We go forward with good faith.”

Let's be here as yogis to care for one another, despite our politics. Let us look at the world and ask, “Is that so?”  Although the emotions and feelings may arrive like storms, the wisdom of the practice reminds us that the more quickly we can recover the better. Only then can we get back in the arena and be effective at working for what we love.

 

 

 

 

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Creating change: noticing, laughing, and practice is all that's required.

One of my favorite Sufi tales gives a teaching about a charming mullah named Kahil. A mullah is an Islamic guru, someone versed in the theology and philosophy of the Muslim religion. Kahil was a kind man and with a large and loving congregation. He had several assistants who came each day to help him with the administrative tasks at the mosque. Every day at noon, they all sat down for lunch. Recently, the mullah had been complaining about his food. Basically, he was tired of what was packed in his lunch bag. Every day it is a cheese sandwich. He would say, "I am so tired of eating cheese sandwiches."  Another day he would yearn, "I would love something else for lunch." Almost to the point of whining, "I wish had something else for lunch." Time went by and Kahil's complaints became more vociferous and angry. The brothers began to worry about the mullah’s health and happiness.

“Mullah” they inquired, “why don’t you just let your wife know you are tired of cheese sandwich? Why don’t you ask her kindly to make you something else for lunch?”

The mullah tilted his head to the side, as if reflecting on the question.

“Why my dear brothers.” he answered, “I make my own lunch.”

 

Do you yearn to change the way you are doing things yet find yourself repeating actions, thoughts, and patterns that no longer serve you? What is it that drives us to live in the trap of our very own habits? In yoga these habits are called samskara.

Whenever I need inspiration to create a mindful change, I turn to Agnes Martin. I find her to be brave. She is clear about the importance of the inner work that impels us to make a different kind of sandwich. A sandwich that is truly nourishing.

"The process of life is hidden from us. The meaning of suffering is held from us. And we are blind to life. 

We are blinded by pride. Pride has built another structure and it is called “Life,” but living the prideful life we are frustrated and lost. 

 It is not possible to overthrow pride. It is not possible because we ourselves are pride. Pride the Dragon and Pride the deceiver as it is called in Mythology. But we can witness the defeat of pride because pride cannot hold out. Pride is not real so sooner or later it must go down." Agnes Martin, Writings

 Where Martin uses the word pride, I often insert the word ego. The ego is important and the habits (samskara is sanskrit) we develop are what gives us a sense I, me, or mine. Understanding the world and creating short cuts are skills that allow for our very survival. Imagine if you had to discover each step every time you cooked.  We turn on the heat automatically, get out our ingredients and cook for our children, all while talking to our spouse, writing a thank you note, and planning a day date with a friend but our short cuts are only one way. Sometimes we confuse our way of doing things as reality (the unchangeable) and this is where the suffering of pride or ego can come into play. And sometimes our way of doing things becomes, from our perspective, the only way to get the task done. This perspective can be extremely painful especially if we want change.

Yoga teaches us that we can approach a pose from a certain perspective for a while, then out of the blue, one day we will have pain and we need to modify our approach. Changes in flexibility and strength will also eventually ask us to approach the pose in a new way. The ability to change how we do things is an embodiment of the very flexibility we are searching for in the practice. Haughtiness relating to our way, as the only way or the best way, can cause a sense of separation from real joys in life. In the previous passage Martin introduces to the ideas behind the mullah story, as he complains about the sandwich he is blind to his own habits. He is blind to the possibilities and his ability to change.

The antonyms of pride, it’s opposites, are characteristics admired in all spiritual traditions. In order to free ourselves from the tight grip of the ego we embrace the qualities of nature: humble, meek, modest, and yielding. These freedoms are the space of inquiry. The place where the sunrise is a marvel, the crunch of autumn leaves is like music, and the apple is the first you have ever tasted. The mullah was far from this place, yet he was also very near.

Martin continues, "When pride in some form is lost we feel very different. We feel the victory over pride, and we feel very different, being for a few moments, free of pride. We feel a moment of perfection that is indescribable, a sudden joy in living.

Our best opportunity to witness the defeat of pride is in our work, in all the time that we are working and in the work itself."

 In yoga, as we come to the mat each day, we meet our work. The form of the work is irrelevant. Our work is the place where we meet who it is that we really are. If we come to the mat, with a cheese sandwich in hand, oh the suffering and the woe that will follow. I can’t do this, I am so good at that, I hope we do this pose, oh she better not teach that - these preferences, aversions, and grooves in our thinking create a tedious experience that is rigid in form. The remembered experience is separate from what we are experiencing today. It is a misunderstanding to think that the practice will be the same each day. Even if we practice the same poses everyday the sensations arising as a result of our efforts, will change. Our emotional state is different each day and the work, in this sense, is a defeat of pride. Or as I might say, we cultivate humility and yielding by recognizing the immensity of what stands before us: our miraculous body, mysterious mind, and intrinsically good soul.

My teacher Richard Freeman, in his book, The Mirror of Yoga, says, that the practice always begins with the listening. Listening makes room for what is. Lending an ear prevents approaching the practice from a mechanical perspective. The practice becomes art, born each day from sincere work.

"Our best opportunity to witness the defeat of pride is in our work, in all the time that we are working and in the work itself." Agnes Martin, Writings

 Many of us don’t want to think of the practice as work, but I would say that it is. Work doesn’t have to imply a predetermined amount of effort or struggle; it does imply a certain amount of concentration, focus and discriminative thinking. Practice as work implies that we engage in our process correctly and efficiently. It implies that at the end of the session there is an outcome and this outcome is measurable. I call the outcome a residue: that which remains when the work is done. If we examine the residue of our practice, we can approach tomorrow’s work with more intelligence. This is a way to explore the self. If, at the end of lunch, I do not feel good after eating a cheese sandwich and if I am aware of this, tomorrow I can try peanut butter and see how I feel.

 "Work is self-expression. We must not think of self-expression as something we may do or something we may not do. Self-expression is inevitable. In your work, in the way that you do work and in the results of your work yourself is expressed. Behind and before self-expression is a developing awareness in the mind that affects the work. This developing awareness, I will also call “the work.” It is the most important part of the work. There is the work in our mind; the work in our hands and the work is a result." Agnes Martin, Writings

 Work as self-expression can make us, not only better at our jobs, but better at our practice. The hope that who we are comes through in everything we do, or do not do, invites me to relax as I effort.  In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna reminds Arjun that even inaction is action and a reflection of who it is that we really are. Self-expression is inevitable. Underneath action or inaction is the breath and beneath the breath is the mind. If we come to our practice with an understanding that the developing awareness is a subtlety we are moving towards, there is almost no way to eat the same sandwich every day. Martin calls this awareness the work. I call it the practice. She says it is the most important part. What is happening in your mind is the most important part of the practice. Are we watering seeds that we want to nourish and are we allowing the bitter seeds, parched by the heat of our efforts, to die.

Where Martin talks of the work in our minds, the work in our hands, and the work is the result, she is referring to art work, but this logic a can apply to our practice:

There is the practice in our minds, the practice with our body, and the achievement of yoga is the result. One cannot be without the other. Success on the path requires and engagement with both the mind and the body. The mullah was not using his mind in relation to  his discomfort around a cheese sandwich. He was not recognizing his own habit, the only thing necessary to make a change.

"In your work in everyone’s work in the work of the world, the work that reminds of pride is gradually abandoned. Having, in moments of perfection, enjoyed freedom from pride; we know that that is what we want. With this knowing we recognize and illuminate expressions of pride." Agnes Martin, Writings

 We illuminate expressions of pride so they can be abandoned. It is one thing to feel content at peace, or even pleased with our efforts.  But suffering comes with: I nailed it, I got it, and it’s mine. The mine will be a cheese sandwich before long. Expectations of solidity, in a practice that boasts of nothing but change will cause the student to suffer. Awareness of change and embrace of change is the means to be free, but it requires we stay awake to our preference and aversions. We can recognize them through statement like: that is I and that is not me. One is drawn, once you have tasted the freedom of mystery, toward practice as an inquiry. To the listening and looking at who I am, as if for the first time.

Mary Oliver in her essay, Staying Alive, says, “I did not think of language as the means to self–description. I thought of it as a door - a thousand opening doors - past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and thus to come into power… I saw what skill was needed, and persistence – how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page - the long labor. I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. Reading, then writing, the desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstance – a passion for work.”

She goes on to say,

“I don’t mean it is easy or assured; there are stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all these years…but there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness, and because, more interesting, more alleviating.”

Our practice is our work. We go to the mat with eyes and mind wide open. Here we meet everything that ever was and every thing that ever will be, a banquet that is our own unique and marvelous life. You do not have to be puffed up about the life that is yours, you do not have to be filled with pride; instead, we bend our spine mindfully over the mat, watching, with curiosity, kindness, and love.

 

 

 

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