Another New Year

Happy (lunar) New Year!  I realized recently that I've put off writing for a very long time, while waiting for the perfect post to take shape in my head.  One of my intentions for the coming year is to write, daily.  Just write, whatever it is I have to say, regardless of how polished it is.  Thank you Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic is a must read for the avidly creative!)  And so, a jumble of thoughts...

I picked up some cards last fall that follow the cycle of the moon.  Each day has a card and it's become my meditation since my son was born and my world turned upside down.  Day 27 keeps coming back around and grabbing my attention, and it did so again Saturday.  

Whirlwind: There's something in there in the chaotic windstorm and twisted-up jankyness of this moment.  There's something there.  You're uncomfortable.  There's something there in the discomfort.  There's something there.  It's gold.

 (Day 27, Moon Angels by Ryan Rebekah Eren).

I read this card and immediately think of the poem Eyes So Soft, by Haiz

Your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more

Let it ferment and season you
As few human
Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so

My need of God

Loneliness is not a feeling I enjoy, AT ALL.  I doubt many of us do.  It seems to particularly agitate me.  And so I love being brought back to this poem and reminded of the goodness that lies in such discomfort.  I didn't expect motherhood to bring a huge wave of loneliness.  Yet here it is, day after day.  Fall has turned into a dark and wet winter, dear friends live in far off places, everyone is busy, busy, busy, and I am alone with this dear, sweet baby boy who can't yet talk.

Six more weeks of winter.  Lent begins Wednesday.  Time to hunker down and see what beauty emerges from my discomfort.  Let the new year begin.

Practice - A Balance of Effort and Ease

Be soft in your practice.  Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall.  Follow the stream, have faith in its course.  It will go on its own way, meandering here, trickling there.  It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices.  Just follow it.  Never let it out of your sight.  It will take you.  - Sheng Yen 2014-08-02 14.16.25

My daily home practice was flowing smoothly last fall, but once I hit January it ran right into a brick wall.  I couldn't pry myself out of bed early for a bit of asana and meditation to save my life.  It became, at best, a feeble weekly attempt.  I hoped the season of Lent would jump start my efforts.  No such luck.  Daylight savings seemed like another good marker for gathering momentum, but it came and went and still I struggled.  Surely the transition to spring would have an immediate to passed without significant influence. Then last week, for no particular reason, I woke up early and found my meditation practice lengthened 10 fold without any real effort.  I resumed my study of the Sutras.  I welcomed the ease.

We like to think we have control over most things in life.  We like to think our shear will power is enough to keep any practice strong at any time.  We feel guilty when we fall short, convinced we've failed.  But life has a force all its own and we can not separate ourselves from the influence of all that swirls around us.  Darkness - whether lack of daylight or seasons of personal struggle - can hinder the best intentions for practice.  The effort to keep going can seem momentous.  And that feeling of exertion can build and build until we are all but ready to give up.

We can't predict when the balance will shift back towards ease, but we can trust that at some point we will cycle back around to a more peaceful place.  Our responsibility is to show up - not to be perfect, not to be the best - simply to show up.  To keep some semblance of commitment going, acknowledge when it's hard, and savor the times that it's effortless.

Be soft in your practice.  Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall.  Follow the stream, have faith in its course.  It will go on its own way, meandering here, trickling there.  It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices.  Just follow it.  Never let it out of your sight.  It will take you.  - Sheng Yen

Time Crunch

Pike Place ClockI'm still adjusting to the recent leap we took to "spring forward" an hour.  I love the extra light in my living room come late afternoon, but I feel behind as soon as I open my eyes each morning.  We're also coming out of a season that is supposed to provide a chance to hibernate and move at a slower pace, but with the holidays and new year's resolutions, winter is often just as exhausting as any other time of year. The shift of seasons (spring starts Friday) give us the opportunity to pause and reflect on what's working in daily routines and what isn't.  As we say goodbye to winter, I'm ready to re-focus my dwindling breath and meditation practice.  Turns out, this isn't just for yogis.  Anyone can feel less rushed and stressed by starting a simple practice. The New York Times recently featured an op-ed highlighting the link between our level of anxiety and our perception of goals.  That we live in a world of constant connection--allowing us to try and juggle numerous things at once--heightens our sense of busyness.  Mental exercises that focus on breath and re-framing how we think about time can actually lessen stress!

Rather than consider this as one more "to do," start small and see if it works for you.  Meditation doesn't have to be an hour-long practice to have benefit.  Five minutes is more than enough, if that's what you feel you can reasonably make time for.  Set your alarm 5 minutes earlier tomorrow, go sit in a quiet place, and set another alarm for 5 minutes.  Connect to each of your five senses in some way.  Then focus on taking three conscious breaths.  Follow the inhale and exhale in and out of your body.  Then think about a time you were at ease - feel the experience of relaxation throughout your body.  Try and stay with the sensation for about 30 seconds.  Go back to your breath and finish with three more slow inhales and exhales.  Repeat the following morning.  See what happens.

Mind and Meditation

Much is made this time of year about getting the body in shape - many of us commit to new routines, workouts, and diets in an effort to improve our health. Yet state of mind is just as important as shape of body.

"Researchers in the field of neuroscience have found that whatever you focus on shapes your brain. If you are constantly thinking negative thoughts...the neural pathway becomes stronger, and those thoughts become more automatic and habitual. The basic idea is that 'neurons that fire together, wire together.' The more you practice a new behavior, the more integrated or groomed the pathway becomes.  This news is both disturbing and liberating: through purposeful attention, mental training and practice, we can change our brains and ourselves."  - Ann Kearney Cook, Darling Magazine

The brain has been on my mind this week. In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, in an article titled "Mind Games", scientist Sebastian Seung compares the firing of neurons to a river and the continual wiring and rewiring as a riverbed - over time the river shapes the riverbed until, in an extreme case, the result is the Grand Canyon. And then the canyon determines where the water flows.

Meditation then, is more than just a way to calm the mind, it can shape our lives. A few years ago I was introduced to a "meditation misperception," namely that a blank mind is the goal of a meditation practice. To stop neurons from firing - that's just a fools errand.  What we're really after when we sit is awareness. Attention is paid to what the mind is thinking and from there, we can make changes. Positive thinking really does have power.  It can actually reshape pathways in the brain.

Want to try it out for yourself? You might start with a Heart Math technique.  Negative thoughts impact physical and emotional health. Instead, if we focus our attention on a previous experience of appreciation, we can rewire pathways to promote well being.  It's simple.  Find a quiet place to sit for a couple of minutes (you really don't need more, a 20 minute meditation goal is pretty intimidating). Close your eyes and take several deep breaths.  Recall a time you felt appreciated.  Imagine reliving that experience, rather than just thinking about it. Let the feelings spread through your body.  Stay with this experience for 30 seconds.  When you finish, take another 3 deep breaths and notice how your body feels.  Open your eyes and go about the rest of your day.  Find another few minutes tomorrow and repeat the practice.  It doesn't take much to start reshaping the riverbed.

Accessing Anahata

Much as I like the idea of subtle energy, I tend to resist it when presented with the opportunity to deepen my practice in this way.  For some reason, that didn't happen over the weekend while studying meditation, pranayama, bandhas and vayus with two teachers I greatly admire - Jenny Hayo and Chiara Guerrieri.  I am deeply grateful to both of them for the space they held and the teachings they offered.  And I also know that I showed up ready to receive.  Perhaps 6 months of backing way off of my physical practice to focus on subtle alignment and sensations in the body had prepared me.  I felt my breath move in new ways and was refreshed in my desire for a consistent mindfulness practice. With that sense of openness, I returned to a guided meditation that I find quite powerful, though it had sat on my shelf for a good long while.  Maitri, or Meta, is a simple and beautiful way to increase the capacity of the heart for compassion towards self and others.  I shared my own interpretation of Maitri in my very first post on this blog.  It's certainly appropriate for any time of year, but as I discovered this week, spring provides an abundance of imagery to support the practice.

If you are unfamiliar with this meditation, it's a four-part offering to self, a loved-one, a neutral being, and finally to someone with whom you are experiencing dis-harmony.  I usually use my own words, but this week felt drawn to my teacher's rendition:

May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be safe, may I live with ease.

May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be safe, may you live with ease.

May we be happy, may we be healthy, may we be safe, may we live with ease.

Maitri is associated with the anahata chakra, or energy point in the heart space.  Each chakra has a color and anahata is green.  I often try to imagine my awareness dropping down into my chest and am always curious to see if somehow the color green will show up.  It doesn't and I'm left wondering what I'm missing.

I left my Maitri practice on Tuesday and had the rare opportunity to move at human speed for the rest of my day.  By this I mean that I walked to wherever I needed to go.  As I made my way from one neighborhood to another, I was suddenly flooded by green.  Everywhere I looked - neon, earthy, dark, mint - green.

IMG_5047IMG_5051IMG_5048IMG_5056IMG_5054IMG_5062IMG_5065IMG_5066It turns out that when I open my awareness, slow down and use my senses as I move through my day, I find that what I've been looking for is already all around.  Every where I go this week, I see green.  The world around me is alive with love and compassion.  It's spring and love is in bloom.  Hello heart chakra, nice to meet you.

Buddhism and Yoga

In an effort to deepen my practice and teaching, I'm enrolled in an advanced yoga teacher training program with 8 Limbs Yoga Centers.  Every few months I gather with other teachers to delve into a particular aspect of yoga.  This coming weekend the over-arching theme is Buddhism and meditation.  Certainly not all yogis are Buddhists and vice versa, but there are many connections between the two practices.  With this training on my mind, I stumbled across "What Does Buddhism Require" in The New York Times.  If you're curious at all about some the tenants of this tradition, I recommend this overview. Two aspects of this article caught my attention, as they relate to both my yoga practice and my graduate studies:

  • "The third (jewel) is the Sangha, or spiritual community, conceived sometimes as the community of other practitioners, sometimes as the community of monks and nuns, sometimes as the community of awakened beings. The project of full awakening is a collective, not an individual, venture."
  • "The Buddhist tradition encourages us to see ourselves as impermanent, interdependent individuals, linked to one another and to our world through shared commitments to achieving an understanding of our lives and a reduction of suffering. It encourages us to rethink egoism and to consider an orientation to the world characterized by care and joint responsibility. That can’t be a bad thing."

The more I practice and study, the more I experience the beauty of the collective and the value of embracing the impermanence of life.  Change is constant.  Community, if we dare to embrace it, helps us move through our ever-shifting landscapes with grace.

Contentment, still relevant

It Felt Love

(by Hafiz)


Did the rose

Ever open its heart And give to this world

All its

Beauty? It felt the encouragement of light

Against its

Being, Otherwise,

We all remain Too Frightened.

Sprouts     Spring has come, as it does every year, but I never grow tired of the awakening that happens when the days get longer.  My garden blooms as hibernation comes to an end.  It feels a bit easier to breathe and certainly contentment is less difficult to practice.

     I've thought a lot about Santosha over the past 9 months.  The turmoil of moving, a remodel, moving again and finishing graduate school made me realize how hard contentment really is.  I wrote about it last October, about how easy it is to think we're good at being content when we think within the context of ease.  Once effort is required, santosha usually becomes such a challenge that I brush it aside and focus on other ethical teachings of yoga.

     Spring seems like a good time to strengthen this particular niyama (internal practice).  It's a hopeful time and I can easily find moments in each day that feel good and contentment is nearly effortless.  But there's usually enough turmoil in this season to provide brief tests, when contentment is less a feeling and more a choice.  Like those days of rain and wind we get after a teaser of sun and warmth.

     Meditation is as good a way as any I've tried to encourage growth in this area.  It's easy to get carried away with the business of spring, to become over-stimulated with light and activity.  A few minutes of quiet, alone, goes a long way.  And when I say a few, I literally mean 3-5 minutes.  If you think you can't "do meditation,"  try it for a week.  Start or end your day in silence, just briefly, and see what happens.  Set the timer on your phone for 3 minutes, sit and breathe and observe your mind.  If that feels easy, add another minute.  If it's a challenge, be willing to stick with 3 minutes, even if it feels silly and a bit wimpy (it's not).  As someone wise whom I can't recall wrote, "solitude is where you gather yourself."  It's counter-intuitive in our hyper-connected world.  Silence can be unsettling, but spend enough time there and you just might build santosha capacity for life's effort-ful moments.

Effort and Ease

IMG_3108I've struggled to put up a post the past few weeks. when I had the words at my fingertips, I picked up a book instead of my keyboard. I lost what I wanted to say. I waited, and waited and waited...for all the thoughts in my head to form into something profound, for the perfect moment to sit down and write, for the stars to align. Maybe someday that post will make its way here, but today i was inspired by the mild day, mellow sunlight and dwindling darkness to invite a little ease into my life. I had a lot of expectations for January. I planned to dive right back into my pre-holiday schedule with renewed commitment and focus. and then I caught a bad cold and was forced to take it slow for a couple of weeks. As I healed, I realized something pretty obvious (but somehow had escaped my conscious awareness), that January is just as dark as December and all I wanted to do was hibernate. I have the luxury in my life right now of setting a schedule that is aligned with the rhythm of the seasons and I've noticed the changing ratios of darkness and the light affect me more. So, I set aside my big plans and let myself be. Last week I felt like I was ready to try again. We're still in winter, but I feel the promise of spring. The days are a little longer now, there's a bit of freshness in the air.

This morning I returned to one of my favorite practices - 90 minutes of pranayama, meditation and Sutras study with Jo Leffingwell. Two of my teachers have studied with her and I am quite humbled and honored to learn from Jo myself. As we sat today, I remembered something she gave voice to in a previous practice - referring to the exhale as "releasing the breath." Over and over today I cycled through "inhale and release, inhale and release." Eventually this gave way to a sense that the expectations of thinking mind could surrender, dissolve, and blend into a hopefulness of the heart. For me, hope is a little more gentle, it carries a sense of ease that is missing from expectation.

The beginning of February seems like a good time to refresh. Perhaps you set a New Year's resolution that you've stuck to doggedly. Inhale and release...soften your goal into a hopeful intention. Maybe January came and went and you never really found your sense of direction for the year ahead, or you made a resolution and forgot it. Take five minutes to sit in quiet, observe your breath, release any lingering frustration and find a little lift with the inhale. See if you can taste the coming spring. Discover that sweet spot between effort and ease. This is the practice of yoga.

(Yoga Sutra 2.46 | sthira sukham asanam - asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation)