Seeing the forest through the trees


 

dont-ignore-your-sufferingSuffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful…How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural–you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Life can sometimes feel unfair. Our actions, conscious or not, have the potential to fill us with regret, frustration, helplessness, even anger. Sometimes “bad” things happen to “good” people. It’s not unusual in these instances to wish we could turn back time, or to be fearful about what the future may hold; we may even look up to the heavens and ask why? When a seemingly unfortunate event unfolds, self-inflicted or not, physical or emotional, it is our perception and belief that makes us see it that way. We never really know why things happen as they do or what the result of it will be on our life. When we are dealt one of life’s blows, the only thing we can really control is how we choose to respond.

Whether it is human nature or cultural conditioning, often the first inclination is to assign blame and assume the role of an innocent victim. After all, pointing a finger brings an instant sense of gratification and resolve. Longer term, however, this approach begins to backfire when the ego tries to keep the memory of the event alive by retelling it over and over again rather than letting go of it.  Perhaps it’s because of this that those assuming the role of  ‘victim’  in their lives often end up unhappier than those who find a way to let go of the past and not to fixate on the future; those who find a way to ‘be here now’. When we learn to step back from the immediacy of emotion and become an observer, we diminish the context and drama of the story, and this tends to have a calming affect on the mind. The next step is in learning acceptance; instead of witnessing ourselves and our circumstances with a critical and judging eye, we can simply watch (this is called the sakshi in sanskrit, the silent witness). When we focus solely on our suffering, we miss out on the magic and the celebration that co-exists in the world in equal measure. A panoramic view is only available in its entirety from a distance, and we never truly know the length and purpose of a journey until it is complete.

There is a wonderful story from Satchidananda’s interpretation of the  Bhagavad Gita entitled The Living Gita. The story is about a yogi living in the hills of India with wife and only son. The army comes to the house one day and takes the son away to fight in a battle. The wife is terribly distraught and cries to her husband, ‘isn’t this awful, our only son taken from us!’ The yogi replies, ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’ Months go by, and one day the son returns home, and despite his wounded left, the wife is thrilled beyond belief. When she shares the joyous news to her husband, she says ‘ isn’t this wonderful?!’ The yogi once again responds, ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’ Within the course of a week, another knock at the door brings a messenger from the king’s palace to  inform the boy that since he cannot return to war with a wounded leg, he has been called to be the royal gardener. The palace is a long, long way away. The wife once again is left in despair, and looks for consolation from her husband. She says, ‘we may never see our son again, my heart is broken, isn’t yours?’ Again, he responds ‘I don’t know, we shall see’. Weeks pass, and a knock at the door reveals a messenger who has been sent by the royal palace. It has come to pass that the boy and the king’s daughter have fallen in love, and will wed in the coming days with the king’s blessing. As a result, the yogi and his wife have been invited to move permanently to the royal palace. It goes without saying that the wife is thrilled. She laughs, cries and sings with glee, turning to her husband and saying, ‘Our prayers have been answered! Our life is now happily complete.’ The yogi turns to his wife and says ‘I don’t know, we shall see.’

The practice of mindfulness in whatever form it takes, is one of being present, making space for all the shapes and forms of a magnificent landscape to unfold. We practice being focused and specific on a certain task or posture, yet we hold a larger understanding of the world in our periphery; one that we do not try to control or understand, but rather, one with which we can co-exist. This is not to say that moments of joyful celebration and deep despair are not important or meaningful; these are important points along life’s journey. The moment of understanding that both joyful celebration and deep despair come from the same source is a beautiful moment. Being present and beholding the entirety of a landscape as an observer while interacting, enjoying and participating in its creation — this is our great gift called Life.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

-Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

The art of teaching


Krisna_instruisant_Arjuna“When the disciple is ready, the Master will appear.”

Om saha navavatu saha nau bhunaktu saha viryam karavavahai tejasvi navadhitam astu ma vidvishavahai
om shantih shantih shantih
Accept us both together. Protect us both together. May our knowledge and strength increase. May we not resent one another.

Before I started practicing yoga, I had various people in my life whom I called teachers. I have fond memories of my school days, and have come to realize that each one of the teachers that left an impression on me did so because they shined a light on some aspect of relationship. I suppose I can see these teachers as my first yoga teachers; each one helped me get a better understanding of myself.

When I first started practicing yoga, I was fascinated with the idea of having a Guru. I studied about the importance of the teacher, and was determined to find mine. I searched near and far, and at some point I even felt a little bit like the duckling from the very popular 1979’s children’s book, Are You My Mother? With each new teacher I encountered, I waited for a magical moment, the moment I knew I’d found “the one”. Years went by and I attended many classes, workshops and retreats with many renowned and wonderful teachers. I went through at least one life crisis, and eventually I found myself at the Jivamukti teacher training in 2007. I embraced this method of yoga and its founders, Sharon Gannon and David Life, whom I had never met until the training. My head wanted me to feel an electric current drawing me ever closer to these masterful yogis, but my heart was conflicted. While I certainly felt vulnerable in their presence in a weird and wonderful way, I was confused, scared and uncertain. How could I know for sure?

In addition to my own uncertainties, there was almost a cult-like encircling around the teachers that I had never seen before. I was dumbstruck by the reverence and devotion other teacher trainees bestowed upon Sharon and David. Part celebrity-styled idolizing, part deep-admiration and love, it was sometimes difficult to discern the difference between the two, and hence my understanding of the complexity of relationship between student and teacher grew. Perhaps I was simply not far enough along on my path at that time to understand the nature of teacher-disciple relationship, or perhaps I understood the word Guru to be something so revered that I would only bring myself to use it only when a most divine bond had been cemented. Whatever the case may be, by the end of the training, I had come to realize that the relationship in question was as much about the teacher nourishing the student as the other way around. I left the training with unanswered questions. Is the student chosen by the teacher, or the teacher chosen by the student? How can a student see them self in the teacher without the teacher seeing them self in the student? As long as there is a divide, is it yoga? Is there a difference between a teacher and a guru?

For many years, I carried these questions around like extra baggage, being naively let down by teachers who showed their ego at times I deemed to be inappropriate; disenchanted by others due to my own narrow-minded expectations.

Still and forever on my journey, I have come to realize a few things.

First, to refer to the quote above: “When the disciple is ready, the Master will appear.”

We all have a variety of teachers in our lives that become our teachers when we are ready to see them as such; ourselves included. Friends, family, loved ones and nemesis are not to be overlooked. When a time rich in potential for transformation unveils itself, you can be assured, the right teacher in that moment will be there to guide the way. It is our choice, or course, to be open the form in which they will appear. It may not be what we are expecting.

Then, the mantra: Om saha navavatu saha nau bhunaktu saha viryam karavavahai tejasvi navadhitam astu ma vidvishavahai om shantih shantih shantih Accept us both together. Protect us both together. May our knowledge and strength increase. May we not resent one another.

In times when I have been in the presence of a great teacher, I have learned over time that it is always up to me to embrace the relationship. I am in the presence of magnificent teachers every day, and my biggest obstacle is my own ego, filled with judgement, preferences, and avidya (ignorance). The moment I see a teacher as human, flawed, capable of using their power to harm or manipulate, embarking in selfish actions, I succumb to fear, and miss out on the opportunity of learning, of growing. In these instances I fail to see clearly from a state of love. I create a separation.

Of course, we all have insecurities, and sometimes in the presence of a master, those insecurities can feel like they are being unmasked and magnified for the world to behold. This is in equal parts terrifying, diminishing and enlightening. The teacher who holds this power is a Guru, as they are lifting the veil of darkness, or avidya. We see ourselves as we are; all the beauty and potential, all the flaws. The challenge and work at hand is to accept this, and understand our responsibility to oneself. The Guru is not necessarily there to hold our hand and cater to our every need and weakness. Far from it.

It may seem for some that the remover of darkness, the Guru, is there to deliver the disciple into a field of rose petals at the dawn of a new day, with nothing but peace and freedom from the word ‘go’. In my experience, this ain’t how it works. In reality, the Guru may lead us to see great suffering and pain before finding enlightenment. Darkness can take many forms, including believing that happiness comes solely from material gain or physical appearance. Imagine you have spent your life amassing fortune in torturous, harmful conditions….or starving your body to an incurable state of illness in the hopes of finding happiness, only to be told it was all for naught. Not a field of rose petals at dawn, I can tell you.

I have my own unique views when it comes to the guru principle. I hold my teachers in my heart always; they come to me in dreams even when I am not able to be physically near them. Their words resonate within me and I aspire to be near them, to be with them. Ultimately, however, I have come to believe that the Guru exists in its purest state, within. It is something ignitable in each of us that can be turned on by tuning in. Sometimes it takes an exceptional teacher to help us find the switch, but when we do, we become powerful beyond our imagination. We become an instrument for divine will.

The true art of teaching then, comes from learning to tune in long enough to find our own ‘guru’ switch, and then empowering others to do the same. We can only do that when we embrace, accept and protect each other, and that takes a lot of letting go of fear, resentment and anger. The master will appear, it’s just a question of time.

Breast Cancer Benefit Class : Saturday October 18th


I’m so thrilled to be teaching to the live music of Javier Rodríguez Huertas this weekend to benefit Breast Cancer International. All proceeds will go to this charity’s mission – to give women with breast cancer the tools to improve the quality of their lives, regardless of race, background or income. Please come and sweat and support! A gong bath savasana and a prize raffle, to boot. Indaba Yoga Studio, 10-11:30am, Saturday 18 October.10661744_890305917654658_7393616449238100219_o

 

From the Ground Up


originally posted on Movement for Modern Life

imageYS. 2.46 sthira sukham asanam

May the relationship (connection with the earth) be steady and joy filled.

Our relationship with the earth may be the most important connection we have in our lives; afterall, we come from the earth, and some day our bodies will eventually, but inevitably return there. What is more, the gravitational pull to the earth’s centre may be the single most prevalent physical force we will ever know. We are a mere 3959 miles from the earth’s core, whereas the the closest moon, star or planet is almost one hundred times that distance. Despite this, we spend the large majority of the time looking outward, being “star struck”, and in awe of what’s out there and how it might affect us rather than increasing our knowledge and compassion towards what is just under our feet; that which is also our greatest support and biggest resource. Ironically, this mirrors the relationship many of us have between ourself and other beings; there is a great propensity to look outside of ourselves for strength and happiness rather than finding the answers within.

Yoga has long been documented as a journey inward, a practice that stabilitises and balances the mind and body, so it would make sense to begin with a good foundation to the earth, the element that connects us to our roots and to all other beings. In reality, however, we are sensorial-based creatures, and our greatest sense, our sense of sight, leads us to a fascination with the things that we can see. What is more, the ego thrives on affirmation, and as such, seeks measurable results based on analysis. It is easy to understand then, how the desire for mastering advanced asanas has superseded the joy and discovery of fully understanding the subtleties and challenges hidden in ‘basic’ standing postures. As a culture we celebrate the idea of ‘onward and upward’ rather than valuing our ability to root and reflect. One of my favourite quotes comes from Richard Freeman who has revealingly said “advanced asana is for those who don’t get the basics.”

Over half of the bones in the body are found in the feet, and the soft tissue, including fascia and muscle, span as an interconnected matrix from the toes all the way up the torso to the cranium. Our designer knew how important our foundation would be to survival. While the ability to ground and take off stems through the feet, the propulsion comes via the legs, hips, spine, shoulder girdle, arms, neck and head. The whole body “gotta get down to get up” (James Brown).

In today’s world where sitting in a chair has replaced squatting, where driving a car has replaced walking and running, and where yoga practices tend to be more about learning to fly rather than learning to stand with ease and grace, let us remember the joy in finding the subtle connections of the body to enable a deeper rooting to the earth.

Yoga is an integrative practice; we practice reconditioning our mind and body to be more interconnected in the world. Sometimes, however, the ego takes over, and the practice stays in the mundane realm of ‘physical fitness’. We forget the intention behind the practice, the goal of connecting to the earth and all beings. The moment we acknowledge that we have slipped back into the mundane is a beautiful moment: it is the chance we have to reset our intention in the practice, it is a moment to find a steady, joyful place to begin the breath anew. When we find ourself ‘competing’ in some way in the practice, when we don’t listen to physical pain in pursuit of attaining a posture, when we ‘cheat’ to get into an asana and put our body at risk of injury, these are moments to be celebrated. After all, on a macro-level, the yoga practice is about increasing our awareness, so when we start to observe and recognize habit patterns we can begin to change. This is the beginning of transformation. When our foundation is strong, steady, filled with ease and grace our potential to fly becomes a permanent state of mind rather than a temporary physical feat. In yoga, we build consciously in body and mind, from the ground, up.

Please join me on Sunday, September 7, for the first of three workshops on the topic of the architecture of asana, exploring the various regions of the body in relationship to an integrated yoga practice at Indaba Yoga Studio. Follow the link below to book in:

https://www.facebook.com/events/290000161173856/

Footprints


IMG_0121-0.JPGFrom an early age, well before we are born into our physical body, each of us begins making our mark in the world, our imprint. As we develop, we find our feet and intuitively understand the sensation of movement, and also our relationship with gravity. We learn to fall, and to get up. Sometimes it is easy to regain our balance after a stumble; sometimes it is more challenging. This pattern of falling down and picking ourselves back up remains a thread in the tapestry throughout our physical and also our emotional lives.

Over time, our brain evolves and involves us in numerous and increasingly complex concepts and activities, and falling down and getting up become almost as automatic as a reflex. Most of the time we don’t think about it, unless there is a particular instance that is cause to slow down, evaluate and even change how we approach being in our body, or being in our life.

When we take a tumble, either physically or emotionally, it can sometimes be painful, even traumatic. It can also be seen as a wonderful opportunity to titrate past experiences, to break habit patterns that may not be serving us, and to re-establish a simple, steady foundation and to affirm the path beneath our feet.

The path is important, because beyond the up and downs of our lives, there is also the potential to traverse and transform. The process of bridging, whether it be connecting two physical places or two seemingly disparate moments in our lives, is an powerful aspect of integrating our life’s story. After all, being truly present in a moment, stabile and grounded yet alert and up-lifted, includes not only how we stay in the moment, but also how we span; how we journey through hardship and joy to incorporate an expansive landscape of life as one rich experience.

In today’s world where the motto of moving ‘onwards and upwards’ is celebrated as a mark of success, all too often the obsession with making, meeting and surpassing goals overtakes the importance of simply staying still and finding the joy and the beauty in the sameness, in the quiet of a forest or in the journey we have taken. Reflecting on the past enables us to acknowledge where we have come from and informs where we are now; it can also provide guidance to where we may be headed.

Recently, I have travelled back to a place important to me; a place rich with family history, and a place where I grew up. It had been a few years since my last visit, and during that time I went through a period of life threatening illness resulting in a successful liver transplantation. While I had been excited to return to family and friends, I had no idea how emotional and reflective it would be to be back in a location imbued with such meaning, in the presence of beings whom I love so dearly. At every sign post memories emerged, and I was forced to dive deep into the reflection of who I was from an early age, to who I have become today. The result has felt like both heartbreak and celebration. I have observed past footprints dissolving into deep waters while standing in my present reality, and have given pause to allow a path to unfold for my future.

Like the oceanic tides, we must fall to rise again. All of us will eventually but inevitably witness the passage of time and the transience of all of life. May each of us learn to appreciate each and every moment, for these are the imprints we leave across the diverse landscape of our lives that makes each of us unique and complete.

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