Monday, October 5, 2015

Autumn Practice: Falling Within

Autumn has arrived.  For many places that means falling leaves and cooler temperatures.  Here in California, the beginning of fall feels like an extended summer, a lingering house guest that just can’t seem to get the hint that’s its time to go.  Despite the heat, we can still feel a softer sun against our skin as we shift away from the long days of radiant light.  That’s one thing that everyone in the northern hemisphere shares, the slow march into the darkening of days. 

And with that, our practice and awareness shifts too.   While summer was a time of playfulness in the studio (and out), full of lively backbends,  of deep hip openers, serpentine swirls, and joyous sahaja, fall begins a trek into the inner wilderness.  The season brings reminders of life’s ebb - fading flowers, drying leaves, colder days. As the earth moves inward, so do we, our mythic unconscious confronting the shadows where the fear of life’s mysteries reside.   

In the days during Ganesh Chaturthi (a celebration of the Hindu god Ganesha, remover of obstacles) -marking the end of summer and beginning of fall- we confronted fears head-on.  Acknowledging and working toward removing our obstacles seemed like a great way to kick things off.  We bravely worked our way into two challenging arm balances,  Bhujapidasana (Shoulder Pressing) and Pincha Mayurasana (Feathered Peacock). Although totally different, they are both equally daunting for the intermediate practitioner.  Why?  Well, it’s simply, really:  no one wants to get hurt.  Isn’t that true for all things?

We usually stop ourselves from taking risks because we are afraid of how we might get hurt.  Starting a new business - losing money.  Ice skating - falling and breaking a leg.  Telling someone we love them - risking rejection.  The truth is:  None of these things are going to hurt us.  If we take the appropriate and necessary steps.  If we take the time.  If we remove the obstacles in front of us like fear.  Impatience.  Disbelief.  Attachment to outcome. 

Breaking down the postures, understanding the work to achieve the poses, and making progress toward embodying the asanas -without attachment- builds our strength step by step.  It’s this undertaking that develops the physical, emotional, and spiritual fortitude we need to master the asanas- and the inner journey.  

As we begin to embody these poses, we are forced to examine our limitations and fears.  We recognize exactly where we are in a pose, what we are capable of right now and how much -or how little- work we have left to be able to experience sthira within the asana.  Are the hips open enough to bring the legs over the shoulder?  Is the core strength solid enough to stabilize?  Then we go deeper to the question of our capabilities.  Am I strong enough?  Am I flexible enough?  Do I have the stamina? Am I as good as the person next to me?  Where ego gets involved, we have to remember to let go.  We can allow our fears to dictate our experiences, or we can use the asana to work with, explore, and transform that fear.  These are all issues that invariably come to our minds and it is work- real work- to extract the truth about our present situation.  But this work -the techniques, the patience, the self-compassion necessary to overcome the obstacles on the mat- reflects where we are in our lives off the mat.  

The tools we gathered during that practice will serve us well now that Ganesh Chaturthi is over and the journey into fall continues.  We will begin with the exploration of space and expansive energy in order to make room for all the acorns we must gather... Fall is for grounding, so we move into the Earth element to balance the Vata in the air so that we may look into this meeting point of lightness and darkness, of life and death, with a clear and steady mind, a strong rooted foundation, and a warm honey heart. 

As the sun’s radiance dims outside, it is vital we keep the light inside us growing brighter, illuminating our way like a lantern through the forest.  

©Kerry Ann Lambert,  2015.  Please be honorable.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site's author is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  Namaste.

Friday, March 27, 2015

What Do You Expect?

“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”     -Alexander Pope

As you begin to read this article, you might have an expectation of what it will be about.  Will it illuminate in any way?  Get straight to the information you need?  Will it annoy?  Will it be something you can share happily, or will it be something you can criticize?

As a yoga student, you have probably had an expectation of some kind walking into the studio.  That there would be less people, or more. That you would be facing this wall, or that one.  Perhaps you had an expectation of who was teaching.  Your regular teacher did not show up, and now you find yourself panicking.  Maybe this instructor won’t be as good, you think.  Maybe they will be too easy, or too hard.  Too much talk about chakras and not enough arm balances.  Maybe you won’t learn anything new and this will be an hour and a half you’ll never get back.  You grumble internally, “Crap, maybe I should have gone on the treadmill.”   And then it’s sealed.  Your day has just set the course to officially suck.

Expectation, just like wanting, is a prime source of suffering.  It sets you up for disappointment.   Yoga teaches us to let go of pesky expectation.  Yoga teaches us to release attachment to any particular outcome.  When you let go of your desire for the present moment to be a certain way, then you’re free to experience it as it is.   You can let go of your anger, your sorrow, your anxiety and allow yourself to open up to new possibility.

Next time, just before you enter the studio —or into a work or social situation— make the intention to free yourself of expectation.  Allow yourself to ride the wave of each moment as it comes. 

Then when you practice, don’t let the attainment of asanas be your guiding force, i.e. to think “Today I will master the headstand.” And what if you don’t “master” it?  Again, expectation. If your hips are tight, accept that your hips are tight and practice without any attachment to the goal of opening up that area. Allow yourself to naturally unfold in the field of your own body.  Be open and receptive to whatever comes your way.

If you’re not doing and being, then you’re thinking and judging and hoping and a whole mess of noise.  Just like that, you’re out of the present moment.  Allow the asana to unfold and merely feel yourself within it.  

The most exciting thing to understand about the journey of yoga —and maybe even life— is that all the joy, happiness and freedom that we are searching for out there in the mysterious, imagined future is actually right here and now. All we need to do is quiet our minds enough to feel it.  So stop expecting and simply start experiencing.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Finding Santosha With Dishsoap

When my husband and I first started living together, he hated doing dishes.  I mean, hated.  So much so, he flat out refused to do them.  The post meal messes were always mine to clean and it became a bone of contention as we both worked outside the home, equally.  I felt we needed to share in the domestic work load.  Now, several years later, he actually tells me to get out of the kitchen so he can do the dishes. I find him there now humming along with a kirtan, a peaceful smile on his face as dish soap suds on a sponge and a pan.  I know, it’s a part of every woman’s fantasy.  How did this miracle occur, you wonder? 

It’s a word and a concept:  Santosha.  It means contentment, but like all Sanskrit terms it goes a little deeper.  At its basic core, it’s about finding contentment in all things, not just about where you are in life, but in everything you do.  Okay, easy to find contentment in reading a compelling novel curled by the fire, petting the soft fur of your sleeping dog, eating a warm apple pie with a cinnamon crusted top with no money or relationship worries.  But I’m talking about finding contentment in being unemployed, being single, or in the things you don’t exactly like doing.  Like washing the dishes.

While the concept is pretty straightforward, applying santosha isn’t necessarily easy.  Imagine finding contentment in cleaning up the cat litter - when your pet has diarrhea.  Or getting a ticket for speeding when you weren’t.  Those things probably don’t happen every day - at least I hope not-  so how can we practice santosha so that we’re ready to handle the discomfort or the injustice with the ease of contentedness?  You can do it like my husband does, find something that annoys you to no end and do it repeatedly until you can actually find contentment in it.  Or if you want to bring it on the mat, think of trying Bakasana (Crow) and becoming frustrated that you cannot lift both feet off the floor.   Or losing your grace in Natarajasana (Dancer).

In your asanas, practiced observance -free of judgement- is one way to begin (that is, no internal dialogue that says “this hurts, can’t wait for it to be over,” “I’m terrible,” etc.) Relax into where you are with the pose at this time and realize that -right now- it is as it should be, and that -that- is perfect.  

It is important to note the difference between finding contentment through mindfulness versus blocking out sensation by using mindfulness as a device.  For example, you could clean up the sick cat’s litter by simply going through the motions without feeling anything. Santosha?  Not exactly.  You need to have both the awareness and the contentment while you clean it.  That’s santosha.

So he washes dishes to practice santosha.  Lucky me.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Surrender Into Strength

You’re moving right along, right on time.   The kids have been dropped off at school.  Lorde’s new song is on the radio, you crank it up. Woo hoo!  You’ve got two solid hours of “me time” until you’ve got to be somewhere else.  As you drive, you start to daydream about what you’re going to do with two full hours… read a book maybe?  Look stuff up on line?  Go shopping—for you…?   Then it happens.  You enter the freeway on-ramp and traffic is at a standstill.  The Lorde song is over, and“All About That Bass” comes on.  Again.  You shut it off.   It was all going so well… You realize this is going to cut at least half an hour off of your precious time, maybe more.  Your blood pressure raises as your hands grip the steering wheel.  You look in the rear view mirror and the emergency vehicle lane seeking an exit strategy but there’s no way out.  You’re stuck.  Now you’re faced with a choice:  let this obstacle ruin your day or just surrender to it. 

Surrender.  In our western society, that word implies “giving up”… We see an image of someone standing with hands up in defeat.  But in Sanskrit, the word surrender is slightly different.  Ishvara Pranidhana.  It translates to “surrendering to a higher power”.  

Those cars, like weather —or the unpredictable nature of friends and family— are external forces.  We can’t control them.  But we can control our reaction to them.  The first thing we have to do is let go.  

The same thing happens on the mat.  We resist the poses that challenge us.  Instead of greeting the challenge like a gift, we dread it like rush hour traffic.  You were fine in Trikonasana until cued into Ardha Candrasana (Half Moon).  Muscles you weren’t using for the asana begin to fill with tension as your mind becomes flooded with all kinds of noise- I hate this one, my balance is horrible, my legs are hurting, I’m going to fall…

You have the same choice here as you did in getting on the freeway.  Embrace the reminder to let go by beginning with a deep breath.  Release unnecessary tension like the clenching of your jaw or the hardened gaze of your eyes.  The traffic and the asana are only transitory, but the way you learn to handle those challenges can shape the way you live your life.

When you surrender to the things you can’t control, you are not giving up, you are not defeated.  In fact, it is the opposite.  You have said to the higher power, Okay, you can throw this at me. And I will handle it with grace.  If you fall, you will get back up again.  If you are stuck in traffic you will eventually get out.  If your plans are altered because of weather or a late friend, you seize another opportunity.

Indian yoga master BKS Iyengar says, “Through surrender, the aspirant’s ego is effaced, and…grace…pours down upon him like a torrential rain.”

Every obstacle is a gift, a gentle reminder to let go.  It is in the surrendering of our tension back to the Source that we gain greater strength, a deepening of the breath, or stability to our imbalance.   It is in the surrender that we defeat our own ego and regain our humility.  

Releasing the grip, you are moving again.  Breathing, and moving.  Just a few feet on the asphalt.  Leg back down on the mat.  Rising up to Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and standing tall and proud.  Undefeated.