How to feel at home, wherever you are.

“Our world is a product of how we understand it, how we feel in it and ultimately a reflection of the actions we take. We often see only what we think is true. By practicing authenticity and belonging, we begin the journey of Wholehearted Living.” Brene Brown, author of The Beauty of Imperfection

I have been asking myself, where is home? Is it in Baltimore, California, the yoga studio, or on my mat?

I've been living at my parent's house for the first time in 30 years. I feel so grateful for their hospitality and find myself calling it home. I drive my dad's car, and we go to yoga together. My mom cooks for me, and I wear her clothes. Also while I am in Charm City teaching, many students meet me with love. They wish me well and share the latest excitement in their practice and their lives. I find myself calling the studio home. Today, back in Palm Desert, I see my husband at the airport and say to Chris, it’s good to be home.

Recently life has been a wild ride: twenty–two days in India, two weeks in California, teaching a lot of teacher training, packing and unpacking everything we own.  Somehow, though, I manage to feel grounded. I maintain a sense of myself, a feeling that I belong. When I step on my mat, no matter where I am, I feel at home.

Brene Brown says love and belonging happen when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.

And everything is not perfect: I have been traveling a lot, and that takes a toll on my body. I neglected to take care of some important details and forgot an appointment. I was hurt, and I hurt in return. But still, I practice, teach, and feel as if there is a place for me. The real me.

One of my favorite Buddhist stories helps illustrate the idea of authenticity and belonging as a prerequisite for feeling at home.

 A monk mentions to his guru that he is leaving the rural ashram to live and practice in the city. The teacher reminds the monk how dangerous urban life can be.

 "They will verbally assault you for wearing your robe and carrying a begging bowl," the master says.

 The monk replies. “In that case, I will love the people who shout but do not hit me.”

“But what if they do hit you," the teacher replied? "These are dangerous people."

“If they hit me I will feel grateful that they did not stab me,” the monk said.

“Ah, but what if they do stab you?”  The teacher asked.

 Then the monk, looking right into his guru’s eyes said, “I will think these people are kind because they did not kill me!”

"My dear monk friend, what if they do kill you,” remarked the teacher?

The monk closed his eyes and entered his heart. He took a breath and said, "Some monks get so discouraged on the path, so disappointed with their efforts and the seeming fruitlessness of the practice that they take their life. I will be happy that death finds me without my having to seek it.”

 In this story, the monk is rooted in home. He maintains a connection to his sense of self and community even as he plans to move to a dangerous place. This connectedness allows him to continue to love in the face of pain. He is authentic in his assertion. He finds a way to look on the bright side.

Brown gives us a three-step plan to develop a persistent sense of home.

1. Cultivate the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

2. Exercising compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle.

3. Nurture connection and a sense of belonging. Home can only happen when we believe we are enough.

Brown also reminds us that cruelty always hurts, even if the criticisms are untrue. She reminds us of the pitfalls of perfectionism as an obstacle to authenticity. Her definition of perfectionism includes the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, act perfectly; we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.

Perfection is not a successful strategy for living without pain. A natural sense of belonging arises when I am grateful. You and I can be imperfect together. We can ask for help.

 “Get deliberate, get inspired, and get going. “ Brene Brown

 Like yoga postures, finding authenticity and a feeling of belonging is a practice. Its fruit is happiness. We experience, like the monk, happiness for what is going right.  We find joy in the bright side of things. This practice can make us more pleasant to be around. It can also release hormones that make us feel better. Physically and emotionally we now have the endurance to complete our endeavors with more skill and more vigor. We feel at home wherever we are.

“Even when it is hard, even when we are wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we are afraid to let ourselves feel it; mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”  Brene Brown

Be who you are, it is enough, and you belong.

  

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You are on an adventure.

In practice this week I have been reflecting on a Zen Koan. It feels immeasurably helpful. 

The nun, Chiyono was unable to attain the fruits of her meditation. She practiced diligently but was not able to find enlightenment.

At last, on a moonlit night, she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke, the bottom fell out of the bucket, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!

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Chris and I are experiencing many changes. We have moved house out west and are beginning a new life. This a major transition for us; we are excited and scared. I think it is fair to say we certainly feel alive! There is no bottom in our bucket anymore. Everything we know seems to exist in the past. Every moment is brand new. This recognition, according to yogic teaching, is a presence. Presence is what the koan refers to when it speaks of Chiyono's freedom. 
 

Here in the California desert, a mockingbird sits on the palm singing its complicated song. We watch, like children, eyes wide open. We remember the osprey and the goose at Fort McHenry. There is a bit of tugging on our hearts, and we take delight in recognizing that the hummingbird, dove and white heron are here for us now. This bittersweet love is what it means to find enlightenment. Momentary joys arrive one after another, and we recognize them.

In commemoration of her awakening, Chiyono wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break.
Until at last the bottom fell out.
Nor more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

Yoga teachings often use the metaphor of moon reflected in water to symbolize the "real" unchanging reality. It also illustrates the "unreal" ever-changing illusions that cause us suffering.  In Chiyono’s poem, the moon represents the permanent and water represents movement or change. The reflection of the moon in the water symbolizes the temporary nature of enlightenment. It is troublesome to try and carry an experience around in a pail, no matter how precious the moment may seem. 

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For most of us, awakening is temporary. The yoga sutras tell us this. The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, and Buddhist philosophy also remind us of our changing nature, yet we still yearn to hold on. 

In the story, Chiyono carefully carries her enlightenment in an “old bamboo pail”.  This attachment quickly becomes a burden. The bucket is heavy and requires tending, resources, and repair.

One can imagine the burden we carry trying to preserve a brief moment of realization or a particular circumstance. 

Here in our new home, it feels like our pail is empty. It feels like our hearts, minds, and hands are free. Chris and I need all of our dexterity to weed the garden, paint the walls, and unpack the boxes. Our emptiness forces us to look at the moon directly. Seeing the moon provides us a new experience in every instant.

Even though I am taught in practice to let go of whatever appears, I often hold onto to moments of insight.  I tend to make theories and philosophies around such experiences rather than seeing that they are impermanent. Sometimes when I am teaching yoga, I joke about this desire. It goes like this: yesterday I had a great experience in class. Today I am going to wear the same outfit, put my mat in the same spot and hope the teacher plays that same music so I can have the same great experience. Burdened with expectation, I head into the studio with no chance of experiencing the aha moment called presence. 

Letting go of everything in my life has been a reminder of the importance of release.

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I often forget that my experience is ever changing, even if my circumstance stays the same.  Each moment is a result of the causes and conditions of my life. My perception is subjective and based on the past if conditioned. My experience is alive and awake, if free. 

In our new home, I feel a freedom to begin again. I am unsure and therefore alert. I can see old conditioned ways of thinking and embrace the opportunity for change. I notice when I am carrying my understanding around in an old bucket that simply needs to empty.  Emptiness is the heart of my adventure, and it is magnificent.  The truth is beginning-less and endless.

Here is another example poetry that uses the moon as a metaphor. Here the image of the moon represents being.

Being-in-the-world:
To what might it be compared?
Dwelling in the dewdrop
Fallen from a waterfowl’s beak,
The image of the moon.


If I can see the absolute expressed in each “drop” of my life, I have found enlightenment; this is the goal of yoga.

I feel tiny in my new house, and I feel at home. I feel vulnerable and delicate like a dewdrop, but I feel powerful too. Perhaps I am the moon?  I am seeing the world, as if for the first time; everything is new. I am meeting new people and walking an unknown path with my husband, my friend. It is an adventure, and it is exciting.

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And I must remember that enlightenment is momentary. That it only lasts for the instant or two it takes for a drop to fall from the bird's beak and splatter onto the grass; so my practice is essential.

 I have practiced each day remembering nothing lasts forever.  Every moment lasts for no more than an instant; this is what I have learned from Chiyono. 

My moment as a student is fleeting. My moment as a teacher, artist, wife, friend, and adventurer is also brief. As I walk around the new neighborhood, I realize this blossom only lasts for a second, the same for the bird, cloud, and me. My practice brings me back to the present; it reminds me to keep looking, breathing, and letting go.

I have a tendency not to remember this impermanence. Even as I write it down, I tend to reject the fleetingness of things.  Instead, like Chiyono, I fashion a bamboo pail so I can hold on. This bucket becomes a burden, and it takes a lot of my energy to mend and carry. 

 If I practice correctly, I remember how to let go. Letting go is what Chris and I are doing out here. We can watch the water disappear into the wild grass of our lives. With nothing to depend on, nothing to hold onto, we follow the path, even when the moon hides behind a cloud.

This practice is very simple though it is not at all easy.
 

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A day in the life at Shreyas.

Today a poem by Kahil Gilbran was left on my bed. It was called “Tell us of Pain.”

"And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break,

that it’s heart may stand in the sun,

so must you know pain."

Each day I wake at 5:00 AM. Just like at home, I get up and begin my writing. I find this time of the day to be soundless in circumstance and mind. At 5:30 promptly there is a knock on the door, Santosh, the chef is there with a tray carrying chai, a milk-tea mulled with spices served with sugar on the side. I like it extra sweet.

I sleep in a tent, but it is quite plush. Last night a small something was twirling my hair, a chipmunk, squirrel, or gecko I do not know, but it came back three times. At first, I thought the touch was a dream, then a visitation, then realized this is a small animal, now there is no sleep, so I get up to write. Sitting beneath the light of my lamp,  I see it flash-past, a gray puff, scratch, click, and then gone. So I sleep in a tent, but it has a desk, a wardrobe, and an unusually comfortable bed.

The bathroom is heaven. It is open to the outside. The back wall is simply wicker shade, up during the day, down at night. Connected to a courtyard housing palm, frangipani tree, fern and a stone bowl of rose petals; the shower and toilet look out. When I am brushing my teeth, I am standing under a canvas peaked roof in beautiful temperate nature, a sky fringed with palm and air filled with India-sound: peacock, chanting, train.

My first practice begins at 6:30 AM. There are two yoga programs here, Hatha and Ashtanga. This year I am the only student in the Ashtanga program, so my group class is just me. There are two teachers, Ramakant and Manikant. They are both practitioners with skillful assists. They studied at the Mandala school in Mysore with Sheshadri. They teach a traditional approach to Ashtanga yoga. This visit marks my third year of study with these teachers.

Today we moved through the Primary Series, and there are lots of details that my teachers point out. I tend to skip the down dog exhalation in Suya Namaskar B, and sometimes I rush my chaturanga refusing to exhale completely during the posture. I fail to straighten my arms in up-dog and my right leg; I don’t think I have bothered to straighten it since last year. As I work on these details, I notice aches and pains going away. Others arrive. A bright awareness returns to my effort, and my practice improves.

And if you could keep your heart in wonder

at the daily miracles of your life, your pain

would not seem less wonderous than your joy:

And you would accept the seasons of your

heart, even as you have accepted the

seasons that pass over your fields.”

 

Last week I wrote about having a teacher two valleys away. I notice how valuable it is to work on the practice at home in between these trips abroad. When I come here, it becomes clear where I have forgotten, gotten lazy, and gone to sleep in my practice.

After asana, we do what is called Kriya. We use the neti pot to clean our nasal passages. We gather in a group outside in the shade. It is funny to see the whole gaggle of students putting water up their nose and blowing it out on the ground with plenty of tissue available to keep the effort relatively civilized.

Then comes breakfast. The table laid with fruit, condiments, sprouts, water, and fresh juice like watermelon or orange-lime is wonderous. I tend to fill my big bowl with papaya, sliced banana, watermelon, and grapes. Sometimes there is guava other days chikoo (a sweet-sticky pear like fruit). I toss some bean sprouts on top and think heaven. It is warm enough in India to eat a big bowl of fruit in February!

The servers arrive. The same chef who brought me tea offers ladles full of oatmeal, a pancake stuffed with sweet lentil, idli or dosa. Everything paired with chutney and sauce.

I finish my meal with Assam tea, my favorite. It is robust and hot, served with milk and sugar.

We sit family style, so I meet the other guests at meals. Many are business folk who come to Shreyas to escape the hustle or bustle of Bangalore, but there are also seekers of peace, yoga teachers and homemakers wanting to get away from it all.

I excuse myself and head down the path to meditation. Bala, the meditation teacher, is a marvelous guide with a baritone voice that takes us on a tour of our surroundings, bodies, and minds. We chant So-Ham Ham-So which translates to I am that, that I am. This time and mantra offer me a daily opportunity to recognize that I create my reality and if I perceive it, it is me.

“and you would watch with serenity

through the wonders of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

It is the bitter potion by which the physician

Within you heals the sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink

his remedy in silence and tranquility.”

 

After meditation, I’ll go for a rest. In India, there is plenty of space to integrate insight. I am careful about social media and the web. I use the discipline of my practice to be still, to watch and to learn from myself and my quiet time.

At 11, I put on fresh yoga clothes and head to the outdoor hall. The hall is a big open-air structure with columns and a tiled floor. There is a shrine to Patanjali adorned with fire and plenty of fresh cut flowers. I lay down my mat and wait. The teacher comes and we work on hips, shoulders, backbends, whatever he thinks might help my practice. These sessions are just one hour, but they are very intense, filled with long holds and challenging positions which aim to target old tension patterns.

Each of the yoga sessions begins with the guru mantra. It acknowledges that the teacher is creation, sustenance, and change. In Diety terms: Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva. The Guru is the truly supreme absolute, which, to me means the truth.

I stagger up to lunch which is rich and rivals breakfast in its variety, flavors, and color. There is always a soup that is creamy hot and spiced just right. Then there is a thali-style lunch served, one spoonful at a time by the chef and his helpers. It is a dance of careful dishing out: lentils, yogurt, curries, masalas, papadum, roti, and rice. There is always a dessert, today was lemon cheesecake, and we finish with fresh herbal tea. I choose ginger to help everything digest…after all afternoon class begins at 4.

After lunch, I find a lounge chair in the shade and read. Not too much time passes before I fall asleep to the sound of birds and the scent of flowers falling left and right. My dreams are light and contain content found in listening, dishes, chatter, and trains. When I wake, there is always a cup of fresh coconut water by the table which I drink down and head back to the tent. I throw on another set of yoga clothes and head to class.

Afternoons are for practice. I am warm, and my body knows where to go. The first inhale and I’m off. The teacher's cues are less frequent, and I am a bit sleepy, but the attention to detail is fierce. Straighten leg, press heel, relax shoulders, sit down, sit down, sit down. Often, Disha, my teacher's daughter joins us. She is about 7. She rolls out her mat, right next to mine and we practice together. What I think about is the way practice is in her body at such a young age. We practiced together two years ago when she was 5. Two years of consistent practice before one is 7, can you imagine? She can do most of the primary series and never stops the flow. She has focus and interest and skill. Her father is gentle and precise in his instruction. He adjusts her to improve her alignment and deepen her pose. I can see the practice is not easy for her. I am relieved because it is not easy for me either.

In the evenings I’ll have a massage, Yoga Nidra or pranayama. I skip dinner, which is served outside under the stars. It is just too much food and I have to be up in 8 hours and ready to practice. My body needs time to rest, and digest, so tea and fruit are what I eat.  I write or paint until 9.

“for his hand, though heavy and hard, is

guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,

and the cup he brings, though it burns

your lips has been fashioned out of the clay

which the Potter has moistened with His

own sacred tears."

 

 

 The new poem is delivered, and soon I am in bed. Life here is so restful I rarely sleep through the night, but it doesn’t matter I can wake and read and write and then go back to sleep.

“There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”--Borrowed by Bala.

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Get to know your inner world.

An approach to the subtle body.

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The best teacher lives at least two valleys away.

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This proverb instructs us about the importance of time to think, feel, and fully experience the lessons offered by our teachers. By taking the time to digest and assimilate offerings from our guru, we will be able to apply or share those teachings in a way that is authentic and unique.

In the Taittiriya Upanishad

Yagnavalkya is the only student in a large room of seekers to comprehend his guru’s instruction.

The teacher recognizes that everyone except the exemplary Yagnavalkya does not understand.

He asks the bright one to “vomit the teachings.”

Yangnavlkya, being very obedient, proceeds to throw-up all over the floor.

His teacher, a great yogic master, turns all of the other students into a flock of partridge.

The hungry birds proceed to “eat” the teachings voraciously.

This parable illustrates how Yagnavalkya, who matures into a great teacher, can regurgitate the complex texts in a way his fellow students can understand.

Beloved yoga teacher, T.K.S Desikachar says in his book, The Heart of Yoga, that the practice must be individualized to serve the seeker. We too must internalize what we learn and “vomit” so our students can “hear” what we know. We need some serious incubation time for this process to occur.

In the first six months of my yoga practice, I lived close to my teacher. I would go to public class several times week. During this period, I discovered the details of alignment, breath, and dristhi. I built strength and courage under my teacher's guidance.

This first teacher offered a powerful asana class, and at the end of each session he would always say, “If you want more see me after class.” I listened to this closing for a couple of weeks then I asked him what he meant.

He was talking about meditation. It turned out my postural teacher was also an accomplished Transcendental Meditation (TM) practitioner. He studied for decades. The first time I went to his house to learn the technique, he put on a video from 1970. The students, including my teacher, would levitate across basketball courts. Disclaimer: it wasn’t levitation in the cartoon sense. The students didn’t look like hover-craft, but they used “kundalini energy” to take giant hops, sometimes 10 feet, across the floor while remaining in the lotus posture.

Well, that was enough for me; I was hooked. I went to as many classes as possible and practiced on my own every day. I can remember being on break at work and doing poses.

Shortly after this introduction, I moved from the west coast back home. I knew Baltimore had a future for me. My friends and family were calling. Here I had found a teacher I loved, and I was not staying. I was moving two valleys away.

This initial separation taught me the importance of my own insight. It taught me how to keep a teaching in my heart and practice. I learned to dig deeper. I was lonely at times, but in the end, the distance forced me to stand on my own two feet.

At the beginning of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a treatise on yoga and its aim, Swatmarama says, “Due to a multiplicity of opinions there is confusion about yoga.” This quote helps us through the confusion we hear one thing from a book, another from a teacher and a third from our friend.  Instead of getting overwhelmed and maybe even discouraged on the path, we turn to ourselves for the truth.

I need time to explore, experiment and revise understanding, so it feels right to me.

Today, while I was walking with my teacher here in India, he told me five years of digestion was required to practice and integrate what he learned. He needed the time to make the instruction his own. From an American perspective, five years seems impossible, no new sequences, technique, or YouTube videos?

Diving deeper makes any endeavor: painting, music, or yoga, art. There is no single correct way to make a picture. It is also true that there is no one way to do yoga. I find that making time to internalize and individualize instruction is essential to our success on the path.

A student asks his teacher.

Guru, Guru, how long will it take me to become enlightened.

The teacher replied ten years.

What if, the student inquired, I come to class every day? If I practice twice as much, even leaving my job to do so?

The teacher paused and replied,

20 years.

We cannot rush the process of yoga. For some it comes in an instant for others, it requires many lifetimes of effort, but either way, a practice needs alone time.

I am teaching a little in India this year. Sudeepta Shanbhag, an inspiring student, runs her classes and school here in Bangalore. She kindly invited me to offer a session in her teacher training. I walked into her center and was thrilled to see success. Heart-warmed, I notice the students looking at her with adoring eyes. They are savoring each word she shares. Her teachings are articulate and uniquely hers.

The students love Sudeepta. They are grateful for the way in which she has helped them improve their bodies, minds, and lives. I remember when she left Baltimore and how as a teacher, I hated to see her go. She was in the room for every class. She never missed. She moved two valleys away. But we have stayed connected. She returns to my classes each year, and I now come to visit her.

Sudeepta has worked slowly and mindfully over the last few years, developing herself as an independent student and teacher. And then I had the pleasure of attending her student’s class. The student, too, offered an insightful experience. I thought we cannot know the many ways our efforts ripple into the world.

Two valleys away doesn’t do away with the teacher. It just means you do not have to see them every day to maintain a relationship.

Not only is Sudeepta teaching classes, but she is offering a 200 hr training program. I gave a lecture on the subtle body to her trainees.  The talk introduces the yogic concept of a subtle reality that lies just beneath the gross. The subtle body lives in the realm of the physical but requires a soundless mind to perceive. It includes functions like breath, circulation, digestion and lymph. It also includes artful maps designed to describe a sensation like butterflies in the stomach or a racing heart.

The poetics of the subtle body expands the spectrum of our experience. It widens the frontier in a yoga practice. It gives us tools to refine and deepen the focus of the mind.

A certain amount of attention is required to feel your legs in Warrior and adjust their position. It takes a deeper focus to perceive the touch of the breath. This touch is the subtle body

And the breath is just the beginning. In the talk, the sensation of breath is an example of the strongest subtle feeling. We go quieter and quieter from here: heartbeat, thoughts, stillness.

To feel subtleties, you need time on your own, dedicated to practicing. You need peace and quiet to create metaphors.

The subtle yogic body contains a pillar of lotus blossoms; it contains 72,000 rivers; it contains five winds, five sheaths, and a latent serpent. The lotus flowers are metaphors to help us stand upright. The river images help us to explore balance. The winds provide an exploration of contrasts: ground, lift, swirl, reach, and go within.  The subtle body contains five sheaths: food, energy, thoughts, wisdom and soul. They tell us a story: we are more than a bag of bones and blood. The exploration of the subtle body provides a rich landscape of imaginary landmarks. These signposts provide friends on the journey to sitting still.

The lecture was well received. I enjoyed teaching new students in a traditional Indian environment. Teaching here was likes a dream come true. The students were marvelous, and I felt very connected and at home. We are already making plans for a workshop in Bangalore next year. I can’t wait! Click here for a video of the complete lecture.

In our American life, we move toward the outer world: new poses, sequences, anatomical understandings and even teachers can keep us on the surface of our practice. Nestled just inside the physical aspect is an inner world impervious to politics, success or failure.

What if we think of the teachings as a meal? How much time do we give ourselves to digest? How often do we need to consume?

For this kind exploration, you need a teacher, two valleys away. I have only seen my teachers once or twice a year since my initial learning. I never really thought about it, but this circumstance forced me to stand on my own two feet. It forces me to practice in a way that is truly me. And then, when I want to share the offerings, they are uniquely mine.

Sudeepta, her mother and I practice together. We roll out our mats and breath. I recognize how connected Sue and I are although she is here, teaching, learning, and growing on her own. When we come together, I offer her what I know, and she teaches me too.

I know the teachers in Charm City will stand strong on their own once I am gone. They will take what we have created together and make it their own. YogaWorks students will look at them with adoring eyes.

Of course, I am saying all this because I am moving. I am moving two valleys away and find it hard to say good-bye. But leaving is not leaving after all. Our circumstance gives you time to digest, assimilate, and do your practice. All is coming

 

 

 

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A beginner in India.

I leave for India in just a few short hours, but for the first time, I am going as a beginner.

Like all newcomers, I contemplate exactly how much effort I should put into practice? It is a true inquiry: how much do I let go and how much do I try? How does one create a new life? If I try too hard I risk injury yet if I stay in a place of safety, I never experience tapas or  “the heat” of change. 

In Archery:
If the strings are too tight, the arrow will not fly,
If the strings are too loose, the arrow will not fly. —Chinese proverb

Last night I taught my last class. It was sweet and quiet with the tender-kind of love a couple might enjoy after decades of marriage. A familiar, rich and satisfying love. I saw myself cueing the students to inhale exhale and realized that this was the last time. I was glad, and when it was over, I found myself facing a vast new world.

“You are this vastness. This vista you see, this grandeur, this enduring strength—if you go deeply enough inside yourself, you will find not something small but something immensely spacious.” Donna Farhi, yoga teacher and author of Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit.

Earlier today, I got out of bed as a beginner might, with care and interest. The world is new; I grabbed my camera. The sun is rising for the first time, like me. It is Wednesday I will not be teaching tonight. My 6:30 class is no longer mine. The class has been passed on to the next generation. I feel free, and as I look down, I see my feet for the very first time.

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again. Less sure about everything it freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” Steve Jobs

Yoga teachers often instruct about letting go. But it is not easy. I have a tendency to keep myself tethered, emotionally, physically, and mentally. Being a beginner, I am freed from saying I have to or I should. Instead, I fly in the “not knowing” untangling myself from beliefs I held as “true.

“The notions and ideas we have about happiness can entrap us. We forget they are just notions and ideas. Our ideas of happiness may be the very thing that is preventing us from being happy. When we’re caught in a belief that happiness should take a particular form, we fail to see the opportunities for joy that are right in front of us. “ Thich Naht Hahn, How to Love.

In practice, the liberation of letting go shows up as relaxing tension in the postures. On a more subtle level, the churnings of the mind release. These practices teach me how to let go in life as well. Let go of big things and little thoughts that keep me tethered and prevent change.

“Yoga is not about self-improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world.” Donna Farhi

Today, after 17years of working in the thriving yoga industry, my bags packed I see my hands for the first time. I’m headed to India to be with my teachers. India is the birthplace of our practice and its roots are in the temples, the people, the schools, and the hills. This time I journey, not as a teacher, but as a student. For the first time, I go as a beginner.

“After ten years of practice, you can call yourself a beginner.” B.K.S. Iyengar

I think, how after all these years can I call myself anything but a beginner? Before Chris and I roll out the door, I roll out my mats and choose. Which one to bring: one is heavy, one is familiar, and is one light? I select the light one; it’s easier. 

When I think about being a beginner, I realize it means moving beyond the edge of what I know. Moving into the realm of adventure, I often tell new students in class, don’t be afraid. You are not broken! You are beginning. There is a courage required to be a beginner. One must allow for surprise! 

I notice a joy as I close the suitcase and lift my purse. One last look around.

“The goal of asana practice is to live in your body and to perceive clearly through it. If you can master the 4 noble acts…of sitting, standing, walking, and lying down with ease, you will have mastered the basics of living an embodied spiritual life." Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.

We climb into the car and chatter all the way. It is like a dream for me. I am traveling to one of my favorite yoga-practice-places and when I return, life begins new again. It is an adventure in every sense of the word.

“The first step (in yoga) is accepting that some deep work needs to be done and then deciding to make it a positive, uplifting experience.” Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.

Today it seems I feel everything, the good and the bad: happy, sad, excited, afraid, delight and dread. The sky is crystal clear. I say good-bye to my husband. The journey is long but not grueling. I travel business class so the two legs of the 19-hour flight are enjoyable and I get to hang out in some cushy lounges. The plane becomes a metaphor. It is a device to take me from one world to the next. It illustrates my willingness to fly. I try to write a bit in the lounge as I wait for departure but nothing comes. It is too soon. I have not left yet. CNN is on a big screen and the old world is still way too close. 

It’s not until I lie down in my seat, close my eyes and sleep that my old life disappears. I wake up alone but with eyes wide open. As a beginner, I think mindfully. I come back to the philosophical underpinnings of the practice: I am ok as I am, softness is as valuable as hardness, and safety is in my control.

Being a beginner shows me that I am more than I thought I was. 
We are high in the sky; it is 5 AM at home, my regular waking time. Now, I can write.

It is not all pleasure, and I am not so sure of myself, but I am. The widespread feeling of inhaling is reflexively balanced by the contractive exhale. 

“The inner—what is it if not intensified sky, hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming. “—Rainer Maria Rilke

As students, we often want to hear what we already know. Then we can agree. The gifted student listens for what we do not know and opens to the possibility. Listening is the language of beginning.

“The process of perception has no ideal and so the process of practice has no ideal” Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit. 

As I fly, I sit with Kamal; he works at the World Bank. He has sat Goenka Meditation 10-day retreat 2x. He is a Hillary supporter, as he says most World Bank people are…as he says most of Washington is? He articulated interesting ideas about the global economy and the pitfalls as well as the benefits of growth, change, competition, markets, philanthropy, and a natural balance that comes when we insist on one another’s light shining. "Laziness does not help anyone," He says. I listen like a beginner.

“ So every day, before you begin your practice, sit quietly for a few minutes and tune into yourself. Ask yourself, “ What do I need today?” Then let your inner guidance be guided by your voice. Some days this intuition may say, “ I think you should sit for thirty minutes to center yourself and then do just a few quiet postures; other days your intuition will say “practice Sun Salutations!”; and still other days it may tell you it is not good to practice at all. This deep process of listening to yourself will prevent you from being dominated by ideas, concepts and theories, and will allow you to move from the realm of yoga as science to the realm of yoga as art.” Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body, and Spirit.

 Day one I am a beginner,  and tomorrow I will be a bit more seasoned. Perhaps a bit less aware, but for today, I feel my spine for the first time, and it feels good. 

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How to Grow Your Organization.

Michael Meier, real-estate-rock-star, interviews me! We discuss how to grow your business by educating your own leaders. Learn how Chris and I grew our yoga studio and ultimately sold the organization through creating a culture of education and learning

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I'm Going to India.

Coleman Barks, one of the world’s most beloved translators of Sufi poet Rumi, in his book, “The Essential Rumi” teaches us about the value of secret practices. A secret practice does not mean the technique is secret but, rather, refers to the relationship between our practice and the value of privacy in the work.

“The egg is Rumi’s image for the private place where each individual globe of soul-fruit becomes elaborately unique. Incubation in secret practices produces the lovely differences. Out of one leathery egg, a sparrow, out of a similar one, a snake.”

This privacy takes courage and a willingness to be alone. Every year around this time I notice that my writing begins to wane and that I can’t think of anything to paint. These symptoms, for me, are an inner calling that says it is time to go and practice, in private. Before I go, my attention has been drawn away from myself in an outward direction. I cannot concentrate on my arts in a fulfilling way.  Secret practice, away from it all, is my favorite fix.

“Which is worth more, a crowd of thousands

or your own genuine solitude?

Freedom, or power over an entire nation?

A little while alone in your room

will prove more valuable than anything else

That could ever be given to you.” Rumi, The Private Banquet

The story of Mullah Nasradeen reminds of the value of solitary practice, it also teaches us how to work with the obstacles that show up along the way.

The Mullah was a gifted Sufi seeker. One day he was given a practice by his yoga teacher, which stirred the tingle of awakening. His teacher, recognizing Mullah's progress, told him to go to the forest and perfect practicing with the single goal of attaining enlightenment.

Mullah embarked on a long journey to the forest and found a place to sit and practice. After many seasons the seeker achieved great progress. So skillful was his practice that an angel appeared before Mullah. Very pleased with the seeker's efforts the angel offered Mullah a boon.

The angel said as your gift I have decided to serve you for all of eternity. I will do everything you ask of me as long as you keep me busy. However, the minute I am idle I will ruin you!

Mullah thought of all the difficulties in the world and his list of things to fix was very long, surely it would take the angel a lifetime to carry out the tasks.

“Ok Angel,” said Mullah, “I accept your terms.”

First, the Mullah asked the angel to feed the hungry.  "Ok," said the angel, "that is a good use of my services." And whoosh he was gone... In just a couple of minutes as Mullah was sitting down to his practice, the angel was back. Mullah was surprised by the speed in which the angel solved such a big problem.

Next, he asked the angel to heal all the sick. The angel flew away to complete the task. Mullah once again sat down to do his daily work and after ten minutes everyone was healthy and the angel was back ready for more tasks.

As you can imagine it was not long before the angel had completed every task Mullah had in his mind, and Mullah quickly realized he himself was in trouble if he could not keep the angel busy. This time he asked the angel to go out and impose justice on the world. As soon as the angel left Mullah ran back to his master.

“Do not worry, “ said the teacher, “ there is a solution. First, have the angel install a very tall flag pole at the edge of the forest, then ask the angel to climb up and down the pole until you think of something for him to do.”

Mullah followed his teachers’ instructions. Keeping the angel busy he was able to return to practice, and soon achieved enlightenment.

In this story, my mind is the angel. During solitary practice, the mind is very powerful and able to complete many marvelous things. But my mind must also be restrained, entertained, or otherwise occupied when it is not put to task. I cannot be doing things all the time and this story teaches me how to begin the process of restraining the mind so it is rested when I need it for yoga, writing, or art. Otherwise, worry and distraction can interfere.

The Mullah was working toward enlightenment, the angel, though willing to serve the Mullah, was a distraction to his mission. As I head off into retreat, doubts and worries can arise. I can be overwhelmed by things at home I should be doing or will be doing or should have done. The flagpole in the story reminds me of the inner focus I need to maintain. This way the focus of all of my energy can be directed toward my art. Secret practices require stillness of the mind, a calm approach.

This teaching also comes with an additional message: Everything I need is within. The Mullah, as he progressed on the path, headed for the forest. He needed time alone to immerse, uninterrupted and undisturbed.

“Transformations that happen on retreat are comparable to the changes that come during the 9 months in a human womb. Meditation or any solitary practice (a walk before dawn, a poem every morning, sitting on a roof at sunset) gives depth and expands the soul's action.” Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi

This year I am traveling to Bangalore to stay for a few days with a friend then off to retreat for two full weeks. Full disclosure, although I am staying in a tent residence, this tent is pretty plush. Shreyas is a very nice resort with wonderful yoga and meditation teachers. I often stay there as a stop gap on my travels to Mysore but this year, Shreyas is my destination. The tents are situated in gardens of bamboo, fig, and palm trees. The birds are abundant and the weather is warm. Away from it all, I can practice yoga, read, write and paint. I can be very still for a sustained period of time. My schedule often includes asana and pranayama in the morning and private lessons in the afternoon. I meditate each day with instruction. I have plenty of time and energy to write and paint. It is really quite nice. There is no conversation, no interaction, just me.

“Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruption. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty, which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy then. A place apart—to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again…" Mary Oliver, Upstream

I am taking the story of Mullah with me, as a tool. 

Below is a journal entry from my arrival in India 2016:

I always forget what its like. Somehow, I cannot remember the block-like shapes of the houses along the city road. I forget about the Bollywood billboards advertising a luxurious high rise, that is yet to be built but on its way. I forget about the darkness punctuated by sodium lights bursting from retail shops draped in blue tarpaulin or clad in metal, painted red and white, like Coca-Cola or Voda-phone logos.

I forget how the scrub is so much like Spain --- dry, low, and seeking a life out of the dusty red rock. I forget about the trucks and buses painted as happy as any tattoo. Gods on the dashboard, blessing the ride. The fences in India are worth remembering too, they are always painted in swaths of alternating color, white and blue or yellow and red.

There are entrances everywhere but only darkness behind them as I ride from Bangalore to Mysore. We don’t have this kind of darkness at home. The kind of darkness where you can see the stars. Here, the headlights illuminate the road, vehicles, and reflective signs but to the left and right is dark, black--dark. I forget about the wedding halls in every town, covered in Christmas lights, bright red, yellow, pink, and blue. I forget about the curbs painted black and white, zebra or skunk, warning of turns and circles. The village buildings are pressed against one another, ATM, snack shop, tailor.

I guess that’s why I keep coming back because a memory is so fuzzy, so dim. The bright lights of AC Residency don’t stick in my mind until I see them again and then I remember the taste, sweet like home.

In India, we drive on the left and the driver is on the right. To me, he sits in the middle of the road, where my husband, who is very British, says, “only makes sense.”

Indians flash their lights to pass and cooperate with each other. It is a sort of symphony as we beep and bump our way along the speed-hump dotted road that connects Mysore to Bangalore. India is waking while Baltimore settles in for supper, then sleep.

I forget the early riser wrapped in his shawl and the ubiquitous woolen cap. Where are they going I always wonder? How many ways are there to fill a life? To feed a family? To occupy one's mind? In two’s and three’s at bus stops or on scooters, India wakes. The trucks have been rolling all night but the pedestrians appear just before dawn. Our headlights illuminate their small frames. I forget their structured faces with deep brown skin.

When I get to India I remember I am home.  I see my own size and shape. I see my face reflected everywhere.

And so finally my entrance to India is arriving. I look forward to heading off and being still. I hope you will find a way to join me on retreat. Perhaps create a simple practice that you can do each day alone. It can be anything, private, just for you. I also hope you follow my blog during this journey. This way we can remain connected, even as we do our work alone.

“There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,

and yet you go door to door asking for crusts.

Knock on your inner door. No other.” Rumi, A Basket of Fresh Bread

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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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