Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love and Yoga

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “love”?  

What if you think about it for a few moments more?  Do you think of different things?  People, places, ideas, emotions, activities, spiritual beliefs, symbols, actions?  

Love is lots of things.

In yoga’s mother tongue of Sanskrit, there are about 100 words for love, more than any other language in the world.  The attention and nuance a language gives to a concept underscores its importance in the culture (likewise, the Inuit language has many words for “snow”, because it plays such a critical role in daily life).  So we might conclude then, that in the world of yoga, “love” is a pretty big deal.

The ancient yogis knew that love takes different forms, serves us in different ways, and evolves over time.  They knew that love is complicated.   They knew that love can hurt, and they sought to understand why.   All these different definitions and descriptions of love were designed to help us practice viveka, or mindful discrimination between truth and illusion, when we look honestly into love’s true nature.  

Among the many variations of love outlined in Sanskrit, there is karuna – a deep feeling of compassionate love for others, manyate – the intellectual pondering of love, and mitrasneha – the love shared within a true friendship.

Kama is love laced heavily with desire.  It can refer to sexual love, the ambition to achieve greatness, or a desire for wealth.  Kama drives the action of the world – without it nothing would happen.  But this kind of love is also fraught with attachment and illusion.  Kama is powerful, but frequently short lived, leaving us disappointed, heartbroken, grasping for more.

Fortunately, yoga gives us other ways to channel the overwhelming power of kama. Here we can turn to bhakti, which translates rather neatly to devotion

Bhakti is both an experience and a practice.  It is cultivated through intention and repetition, often in the form of rituals or service.  Devotion to a helping others, to a higher power, or to a creative pursuit are all forms of bhakti. What makes bhakti so much different from kama? Bhakti asks us to work towards our goals with devotion, but without attachment to the fruits of our labor.  It means we follow our own right path even if it doesn’t lead to success, money, or romance.  It means we fight the good fight even if we know we are likely to lose.   Bhakti requires patience, faith, and continued effort over time.  While unchecked kama tends to lead to suffering, a true experience of bhakti has the power to take us into a state of pure bliss and oneness, with no negative side effects.  

Kinda like your yoga practice.

So, what kind of love will you cultivate today?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Gods and Goddess of Yoga, part 1

What do these guys have to do with yoga?

A student asked me this once.  We were on a teacher training retreat, in a temple that was covered in statues and paintings of deities. It was a good, reasonable question.  What were we doing in a temple anyway?  This student had signed up to learn to teach yoga classes, not go on a mythological journey.  But even in the most fitness-based yoga, we tend to stumble into its spiritual roots.  Yoga mat bags are inscribed with Sanskrit lettering, you hear enigmatic chanting in the background music, and studio walls and retail section items are adorned with colorful, exotic-looking gods and goddesses.

So what do those guys have to do with yoga?  Is it some kind of religion?  Do we just like the pretty pictures?  Different people will give you different answers.  And they may all be right.  Or they may all be wrong.  

My answer?  It depends.  It’s actually up to you.

I’ll explain.

Yoga is old. Maybe 5,000 years (people disagree on this too).  It comes from a time and place where spiritual practice was an important part of life. It involved lots of different things, including meditation, chanting, devotional dance, symbolic rituals, and the study and memorization of sacred scriptures and mythologies.  Hence the colorful deities.  

The poses of yoga were used by early practitioners to prepare the body and mind for meditation.  Yoga poses also probably helped people counteract the effects of a physically difficult lifestyle, and people started using them to stay healthier and feel better in general.  Just like we do.

Their lives were not separated into categories labeled “work”, “spirituality”, and “exercise”.  It was all woven together.  It was all yoga.  So the practices, the mythologies, and the exercises all evolved together, fluidly and messily, as life goes.  Different regions adapted their practices in different ways, and there developed a wide-ranging abundance of styles and traditions.  Some were more physical, some more spiritual, some a mix of both.  

When yoga arrived in the West in the late 1800s, us westerners simply continued this messy and widespread adapting.  Some people stuck to the most traditional path they could find.  Others changed their yoga practices to meet modern needs and desires.  Some chanted around statues of deities, some practiced the poses, some sat in silent meditation.  Some did all these things, and in different ways. People argued, as people will, about which practices were better and how exactly they should be performed.

So back to my “it depends” answer.  

Each god or goddess represents a manifestation of the Divine within us.  Some are gentle, others are fierce.  There are deities that correspond to creativity, protection, nourishment; transformation.   They have their own stories and mantras and symbols.  Invoking a deity is a way of setting intention, of calling forth that type of energy in your practice.  Do you need inspiration?  You might call on Sarasvati.  Is something blocking your way?  Ganesha may be able to help.  It’s really just another way to look at life and personal growth.  

You may have heard that “yoga is more than the poses”.   You may take the same classes as your friend, but your path to accessing the deeper levels of yoga is uniquely yours.  It has to do with what kind of learner you are, your spiritual beliefs and background, your stage of life, and what tools work best for you. Yoga has techniques for all the ways we interact with and learn from the world - physical, intellectual, creative, intuitive, auditory, visual.  In the end, it doesn't really matter if colorful pictures of Eastern gods and goddesses are your thing or not.  Your yoga is yours, and if you honor it your way, it will work for you.

At least, that's what I think.  But someone is bound to argue with me. 😉

Monday, June 29, 2015


So I'm in Texas.  I come here every year to visit my family.  I'm not from the Lone Star State myself, but have spent many weeks and months of my life here.

Texas has always been a sanctuary for me.  My respite from jobs, schedules, and difficult relationships.  The place where I felt loved unconditionally, cared for by a family who was uncritical and happy to see me.  I slept blissfully, comforted by the musty scent of my father's house and the rhythmic symphony of crickets and cicadas.  If my life fell apart for some reason, I always knew I could run to Texas.

But for the first time ever, I'm really, truly homesick here.  If I wrote a country song right now, it would be about driving my old pickup truck right back to Colorado.  I'd leave my dusty boots outside the practice room of the yoga studio, along with my big gold belt buckle with the "Om" symbol in the middle.

Don't get me wrong, I still love Texas.  The rich, hot outdoors packed with wildlife, the giant succulents, the beautiful bigness of everything.  The lakes you can lose yourself on in a boat and swim in without freezing to death.  The friendliness of strangers, the Mexican food, the cowboys and the kind Southern ladies with their big hair and Diet Cokes.  It's just different somehow.

As Thomas Wolfe says, you can't go home again.  I miss the Texas I used to love, but it has changed and so have I.   We are like old lovers who have grown apart but still care for one another, our hearts warm with bittersweet nostalgia.   I have come to believe that my only real home is that ever-evolving thing we call yoga practice.  That perhaps all our suffering is simply homesickness for a deeper connection to the Divine.  And when we truly connect, when I am in that place in me and you are in that place in you, well, we are one.  So Namaste for now, y'all.  I'll see you there, whenever we both arrive.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Colorado Springs, Yoga Sanctuary

 Old hometown acquaintance: "So, where do you live these days?"
Me, smiling: "Colorado Springs."
Acquaintance, visibly confused: " you, uh like it there?"

I know what he's thinking.  What kind of kale-eating, composting, bohemian yoga teacher lives in Colorado Springs?  And talks about it without crinkling her nose?
I can't be too offended, though, since I felt the same way before I lived here.  I came here under mild duress (a story for another day), and pretty much figured I had arrived in a camo-colored exile governed by hate-preaching dictators.  In hindsight, I'm not sure why I made this assumption.  I had never actually spent any time here.  
It appeared I would be stuck here awhile, so I sucked it up and decided to meet some people. I took my then-baby to a La Leche League meeting.   This was where my stereotypes began to break.  I was expecting homogeneity and intolerance. And that, as I longed to tell my old acquaintance, is not at all what I got.  There were mamas of wildly varied ages, ethnicities; religious and political perspectives. These categories clearly meant nothing to them. They were feeding babies together.  Without a twinge of judgment.  I began observing this phenomenon - radical tolerance - everywhere I went in the city.  
So the answer is a vehement yes.  Yes I do like it here.  Very much.  Colorado Springs has healed my life and given me more opportunities than I thought possible.  Living here has taught me to set aside my opinions and look into the hearts of those in my midst.  We have all kinds of people here, and we get along just fine.  We help each other in times of crisis and work together to fix trails and help homeless citizens.
We are also doing yoga - lots of it.  There are dozens of active studios, and every gym offers a full menu of yoga classes. You can go to a kirtan just as easily as you can take a fitness yoga class.  We bring yoga into our schools from elementary to university, to libraries, parks, corporate offices, hospitals, assisted living facilities, military bases, treatment centers, and so much more.  Local yoga teachers are training to serve wounded veterans and to support PTSD recovery through mindfulness practices.  Our yoga community facilitates healing for those affected by abuse, trauma, addiction and eating disorders.
Yoga teaches us, repeatedly, that we are not our bodies, not our experiences, not our identities.  That our true Selves are something much greater and much more unified.  In this space we embody the literal meaning of "yoga" - "to yoke" or "to join together".  If we fail to welcome those who vote or pray differently, we miss the whole point.
The typical stereotype of Colorado Springs is misguided, based on a few national news items and some now-defunct religious leadership.  This is where walls are torn down, not built.  It's where hippies and soldiers put their mats side by side, and bow to one another with a Namaste after class. No kidding.  And if that isn't creating change in the world, I don't know what is.

Monday, November 3, 2014

there's no crying in...well, sometimes there's crying

There’s no crying in yoga.  

Wait, no, that’s baseball.   I’ve seen plenty of people cry in yoga.  I’ve cried in yoga.  Actually, I cried in yoga today.

It came as a surprise, just a simple, spontaneous, child’s pose at the end of my savasana.  After a practice that felt pretty good.  But I had to face it – I’d been in a bona fide slump.  The slump is filled with self-doubt and anxiety.  It happens in occasional cycles, often following something I perceive as a personal failure or mistake.  The slump awakens my dormant inner naysayer, who chides me with criticisms of my performance and questions my self-worth.  It’s a mean, condescending voice.  It wants me to be small. 

Thankfully, there are other voices in the room.  The voice of my instructor reminds me gently to breathe, to be present, to acknowledge my thoughts and surrender them.  Her gentle adjustments guide my body to hold these intentions.  From here awakens the voice of my inner teacher, which is not linked to my success or failure.   I remember the passing nature of these sensations.  I recall the knowledge that all good things take time, that challenges are but stepping stones on the journey, that I make mistakes because I’m willing to try, and that being small does not serve my higher purpose.  It tells me I can offer the gift of grace to myself and others.

It’s just another way to practice yoga. In the past, I might have run from that discomfort, distracting myself with food, alcohol or some form of chatter.  I might have intensified the slump, thinking something was even more wrong with me for feeling this way.  But now - through practice - I can breathe into the tears, into that doubtful, grieving place and allow it to be.  When it passes, I am lighter.  For now, the voice of the slump is gone.

In its place is gratitude.

 You are very close to the Divine. The perfection you are seeking is as close as your breath.  It is only because we get caught in a state of dualism that we feel separate from that experience.  

-          Sri Shambhavananda, from Spontaneous Recognition