Poem: Your Other Name by Tara Sophia Mohr

In keeping with the Halloween theme, this poem is inspiring me today.

{With thanks to the author, Tara Sophia Mohr, and to Elena Brower, who so often inspires me in her classes with poems like this one.}


Your Other Name 

If your life doesn’t often make you feel
like a cauldron of swirling light –

If you are not often enough a woman standing above a mysterious fire,
lifting her head to the sky –

You are doing too much, and listening too little.

Read poems. Walk in the woods. Make slow art.
Tie a rope around your heart, be led by it off the plank,
happy prisoner.

You are no animal. You are galaxy with skin.
Home to blue and yellow lightshots,
making speed-of-light curves and racecar turns,
bouncing in ricochet –

Don’t slow down the light and turn it into matter
with feeble preoccupations.

Don’t forget your true name:
Presiding one. Home for the gleaming. Strong cauldron for the feast of light. 

Strong cauldron for the feast of light:
I am speaking to you.
I beg you not to forget.
Photo credit: shadowbrush / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Banana Oatmeal Breakfast Hippie Cookies

Note: My friend Jill of Ayurveda Alchemy reminded me this week that honey, when heated, does not digest well and becomes a toxin in the body. She recommends maple syrup, or you can always go with brown rice syrup as the original recipe suggests. She also notes that the ground flax seeds may be problematic as flax OIL will create free radicals in the body- I suspect you could probably use chia seeds instead. Would love to hear if anyone tries that substitution. 

After spending all day yesterday practicing, teaching and talking yoga at Down To Earth Yoga for a super Yoga Fest, I knew my body needed a break this morning.  It’s a gorgeous October day and the weather is perfect for baking… and perhaps a little visit to my friends Barkin’ Bones Bakery at the Stuart Downtown Green Market, where I could share cookies (a favorite activity) and pick up some homemade snacks for my fluffy friends.

(I love, love, love, waking up in the morning and having only fun things to do. 🙂 )

This morning, I knew I wanted to make another batch of an unlikely cookie. To be honest, I did not want to like these cookies. In the morning, you see, I want to eat big old cinnamon rolls, and French toast, and lots of decadent sugary things. This cookie was intended to be a compromise, and I felt resentful. The ingredient list is just so… wholesome.  It felt like a chore of a cookie, a deprivation cookie. A cookie for people who don’t know what real cookies should be.

So last weekend, I baked the cookies for the first time. I gave some away (mostly to yoga folks, who seemed the most likely to appreciate the virtues of a banana-oatmeal-goji-berry-pumpkin seed cookie). To my great surprise, of the cookies I’d given them that day (including a chocolate-cappucino cookie, a decadent cinnamon-chip oatmeal cookie, and these carrot cookies that everyone loves so much)- this homely, wholesome, hippie little cookie was the overwhelming favorite.

I sampled the cookie again and had to agree that, despite its staunchly nutritious pedigree,  the cookie had won me over. I needed a new batch for myself. Will you be a convert as well? Here’s the recipe:

Banana Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies

Banana Oatmeal Breakfast Cookies 

Adapted from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.- a GREAT cookbook. 

Ingredients

  • 2 smallish ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 T ground flax seeds
  • 1/4 cup nondairy milk
  • 1/2 cup oil (peanut oil or coconut oil work well)
  • 1/2 cup honey (or brown rice syrup, which is vegan, delicious, and more expensive)
  • 1/4 cup agave nectar
  • 1 t pure vanilla extract (when you’re tired of messing around with cheap vanilla, buy this one)
  • 2 C white whole wheat flour (you could use white or whole wheat pastry flour, but WWW flour offers the benefit of whole grain flour in a lighter texture. I love this one).
  • your choice of spices: for the last batch I used 1.5 t cinnamon, 1.5 t ginger 1/4 t ground nutmeg 1/4 teaspoon allspice.
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 2 cups oats (I like rolled oats, not quick-cooking; they are chewier. Either work)
  • 1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds) or toasted walnuts, pecans, or other nut or seed
  • 1 cup goji berries (or dried cranberries, or any other dried fruit)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees; line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Combine banana, flax seeds, and “milk” and mix until smooth. Add oil, honey or brown rice syrup, agave nectar, and vanilla.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, spices, baking soda, and salt. Stir well using a whisk or fork- you could sift, but it’s not mandatory.
  4. Add the flour mixture to the wet mixture until just combined.
  5. Add oats, nuts/seeds, and dried fruit. Again, combine well, but be mindful not to over-mix. It will be thick and sticky.
  6. Drop scant 1/4 cups of dough onto baking sheets about 2″ apart. Gently press the cookies down to 1″ thickness. If you prefer a more uniform, rounded cookie, use moistened hands to loosely roll the dough into balls, rather than just dropping.
  7. Bake 14-16 minutes, or until edges begin to turn brown.
  8. The final texture will be really muffin-like; don’t fight it, just enjoy it. Cookies keep awesomely in the freezer. Defrost on counter for 20 minutes or in microwave for 20 seconds.

How To Celebrate Love Your Body Day 2012

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 is  NOW (National Organization of Women’s) 15th annual “Love Your Body Day.” Didn’t know? That’s okay, I didn’t either, until a friend posted about it on Facebook. But I think it’s a fantastic idea and I am embracing it whole-heartedly. At the bottom of this post, I’m suggesting Five Ways To Celebrate Love Your Body Day 2012. But first, you can read a few thoughts… or go ahead and skim your way down to the bottom.

I’d love to love my body, but truthfully, I don’t, most of the time. Like most women, I’ve always kept a running long of the many ways in which my body disappoints me.

According to the National Organization of Women, 80% of US women are dissatisfied with their appearance. I would put this number even higher, based on the women I know.

It’s not surprising, is it? We are bombarded with media images of airbrushed, touched-up, unrealistic females. In many cases, we are actually measuring ourselves against computer-generated images. We will never measure up. 

I was in sixth grade the first time I really felt fat. I’d made the crucial error of telling a friend how much I weighed- 115 pounds.* “Wow,” she said. “That’s a lot.” I felt shamed, crushed, suddenly enormous. “Well, you don’t look like it,” she added. Oh good. Thanks. 

The practice of yoga reminds us that true contentment – santosa- must come from within. By relinquishing our grip on outdated beliefs about our bodies, we can gain freedom from this particular suffering (okay, now we’re wandering into Buddhism, but you get the drift). This makes perfect sense… until you’re in a room with a bunch of Spandexed (Luoned?) women and suddenly, santosa be damned, you’re right back in the sixth grade. She’s got better boobs. My arms aren’t defined enough. These pants make my thighs look fat. I hate myself. 

Honey, the woman next to you is thinking the same thing. And so is the woman with the boobs. But with a little awareness we CAN start to change the way that we think about, talk about, and treat our bodies. It’s not easy- we’re fighting upstream against a wave of media- not to mention the countless products and services available to “fix” whatever’s wrong with you- but you’re reading this article, and that’s a start.

This month, I’ve been able to finally break free of some of this thinking. I became certified as a Curvy-Friendly yoga teacher through the amazing Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga. Anna’s vision- to encourage a body-positive class environment for women of all shapes and sizes- has inspired me incredibly. I especially love Anna’s Curvy LovingKindness Meditation:

may you greet your body with gentleness
may you soften when life invites you to harden
may you listen to your intuition with wisdom and trust it with ease
may you appreciate your body a little more in this moment, just as it is.

With that, my beautiful friends, here are my celebration recommendations for you:

  1. Visit the NOW Love Your Body Campaign page and check out their featured videos.
  2. More of a reader? Click on http://www.eatthedamncake.com and enjoy some excellent {poignant, funny} writing about body image.
  3. Watch this video- No Mirrors In My Nana’s House by Sweet Honey In the Rock. “There were no mirrors in my Nana’s house/ And the beauty that I saw in everything/ was in her eyes (like the rising of the sun).” What are you reflecting to others? What are you reflecting to yourself?
  4. Find a Curvy Yoga class. 
  5. Spend an extra minute or two looking in the mirror. Listen to the thoughts that arise. What are you saying to yourself? How critical are you? Would you let your friend say that about herself? Now, turn it around. Find one thing you really love about yourself and admire that. Practice smiling at yourself. Say, “Hey, gorgeous,” or maybe, “You sexy thing, you” and let the ensuing giggles be the ice-breaker in your new relationship with yourself.

How will you celebrate? What recommendations can you offer to others to love their bodies a little more, just as they are?

*Thankfully, at the time, I was unaware that 115 pounds would be the LEAST I would ever weigh. I was depressed enough as it was. 

Five Reasons to Add Yin/Restorative to Your Power Practice

Hey, Yoga Stud. Yeah, you, the one who’s doing the extra chaturangas during our child’s pose break. Handstanding your way into Tadasana on our first Surya A. Binding every posture, every chance you get. Doing three Wheel Poses while the rest of the class does Supported Bridge.

No judgies here.  I know you’ve got a totally sweet practice, and I love how strong and flexible you are. But I want to introduce you to something that can really change your practice, maybe even your life: A quieter practice of Yin or Restorative Yoga.

HEY! Hang on, don’t start backing away yet. Yes, we will be very quiet and very still for long stretches of time. No… no, there are no inversions or arm balances. Hear me out! There are a few things you need to know.

Yin and Restorative Yoga Practices are two separate systems that are often taught together. Here’s a really simplistic definition of each:

Yin Yoga postures are designed to stretch the connective tissue of the body. The focus is on long, slow holds. Props may be added for comfort, but relaxation is not the primary goal.

Restorative postures are designed to invite relaxation by supporting the body completely through the use of props (blankets, bolsters, blocks, straps, maybe a cat if you have a lazy one). Stretching is not the primary focus, although it can be part of the experience.

Many classes offered will combine aspects of the two disciplines. It is possible to experience the Yin postures in a Restorative way, and by adding soothing music, dim lighting, and perhaps aromatherapy or inspirational readings, it can be a really wonderful experience that will KNOCK YOUR TOESOX right off.

Five Top Reasons to Add Yin/Restorative to Your Power Yoga Practice! 

1. Yin Yoga increases flexibility in a whole different way. In your traditional “Flow” class,  you’re stretching the muscles through active movements. Yin postures- held as they are for longer periods of time- stretch the connective tissue of the body. See, your muscles and bones and internal organs are all shrink-wrapped with special tissues that don’t respond to the active stretching we do in other types of yoga (not even hot!). Longer holds will help you to open more deeply, cultivating stronger and more flexible joints.

 2. A quiet practice will quiet your mind. I have news for you. You are not the only person on the planet whose mind is veryveryverybusy with lots of chatter. This is the normal human condition. It may seem like only vigorous physical activity (perhaps coupled with loud pop music) can drown out the critical auctioneer in your head, but you can do better than muffling. You can find peace. Through a quiet practice of yin/restorative yoga, you’ll learn to tune in to the breath and the subtle currents of your body, and gradually, the commentary in your head will become less obnoxious.

3. Ancient Eastern medicine Yin postures stimulate the same meridian lines of the body that are worked through acupuncture and massage. Our chi (or prana, or energy, depending on your point of view) runs through the connective tissue in a complex organic communication network. By opening and clearing these passages, we can help ourselves to maintain healthier bodies.

4. Release competition. I know, you might really like competition. Sure, it is fun to work toward a goal, and to measure your progress and effort against your own previous results (or, perhaps, others’, although that’s really sort of a yoga no-no).  It is exhausting to compete. It is often narrated negatively (Why can’t you balance today, you should be able to reach the floor with that hand, that other girl is doing it, why can’t you?) and it just drains the joy out of the moment-to-moment practice that yoga is intended to be. By releasing competition and comparison through a quiet, slow practice (often done in a dark room- I find it helps not to see what your neighbor is up to), you can access the practice, and the joy of moving and breathing in your body in a whole new way.

5. Let Go of Chronic Stress. Do you have any stress in your life? How about headache, heartburn, or a tight neck, back? In her classic volume, Relax and RenewJudith Lasater explains that, physiologically, our bodies have not changed much in the last few thousand years. Our lifestyles, however, have altered dramatically. We experience stress today in ways that our ancestors never would have imagined- and yet our bodies are reacting as though there were a tiger chasing us. When faced with stress (a missed deadline, a missed opportunity, a missed mortgage payment) our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension are elevated, and “non-essential” systems (digestion, elimination, growth and repair!) are partially shut down. For some of us, this is an almost daily occurrence. Research shows that we can counteract the effects of chronic stress by relaxing deeply.

Still not sure? Listen, I get you. Sitting still for an hour, or more might sound like absolute torture to you. I struggled with the concept for some time- swore I could never do it. But I tried it, and after a few classes, the chatter in my mind started to subside. I felt the benefits of slowing down and letting go. I saw how my joints loosened and my postures opened. And I want this for you, too!

If you’re looking for more on Yin Yoga and its fascinating benefits, here’s a nice article by Paul Grilley that sums it up nicely. Or check out Bernie Clark’s amazing site over at YinYoga.com. 

Photo credit: myyogaonline / Foter

Hey, Up Dog: Your Cobra is Showing

Friend and fellow teacher Kirsten practices Up Dog in an unlikely locale

Last month, in a sort of boot-campy mood, I challenged one of my classes to do some “Up Dog  push-ups.” I demonstrated first by showing them they could start with Cobra- lifting and lowering- and, if they felt pretty stable, they could lift all the way up into Upward Facing Dog, supporting themselves with the strength of their arms, resting on the tops of their feet, and then take the “push-ups” from there.

One of the students interrupted me (no worries, not in a rude way, it was the kind of class where questions were good). “What do you mean?” she said. “Isn’t the first one Upward-Facing Dog?” I showed her the difference again, and she tried it. “That’s hard!” she said. “I think people don’t know this.”

Well, she might be right. She’s not the first person I’ve met who had never learned the distinction.  This student is not new to yoga. She’s intelligent, she has a strong practice and is more than capable of doing upward facing dog- but she had never been properly introduced.

I heard a teacher say recently (I’m pretty sure it was the awesome Jodi Blumstein on YogaGlo, but it might have been someone else) that “Up Dog is a pose we drive through, not one we stop and visit.” It’s often done so quickly (and is so fatiguing to hold for newer students) that teachers may not stop and explain the mechanics properly. Later on, when students have the strength to hold the posture, teachers might assume that students are already comfortable/knowledgeable about it. And, let’s face it- there’s nothing very flow-y about stopping class to break down a posture, so a teacher may choose to sacrifice mechanics to art.

So, let’s correct this now with a look at Up Dog (Upward Facing Dog, aka Urdvha Mukha Svanasana), especially as it compares to Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana).

Either of these poses may be done as part of a Sun Salutation or what is called a vinyasa (the transition postures that we take as part of a flow class- typically, Chaturanga -> Up Dog/Cobra -> Down Dog.

Both Cobra and Up Dog act as a backbend. The simple difference is that in Cobra Pose, you are supporting yourself with the hips, thighs, and perhaps the belly on the floor. You may still be supporting some weight in your arms, but it is much more distributed.

In Up Dog only the very tops of the feet are touching the ground- toes are extended behind you, not curled under- and the weight of the body is supported by the strength of the arms, shoulders, and back. It also requires core strength to be able to hold the pose with integrity (so that the low back does not take an unfair share of the strain).

Before racing to your mat to try out your new understanding of Up Dog, let’s practice the upper body mechanics from a seated position.

  1. Start by sitting comfortably in your chair (enjoy it, it won’t be comfortable for long!). Now, we want to tuck the tailbone, just a tiny bit. You can find this most easily by experiencing the opposite: stick your tush out behind you like you’re showing off your cute yoga booty. Now, we want to find the opposite action- tuck the tailbone so that the tush pulls IN. There you go! Don’t go crazy with this, it’s just a slight action that will help to keep the lower back elongated as you move through the posture.
  2. Now, pull the belly up and in, creating a bit of tension there- just as though you were starting to think about doing a crunch. Imagine you’re pulling the belly tight against your spine.
  3. Next, bring your arms tight along your side body. Keeping the elbows glued to the ribs, bend the elbows 90 degrees and extend your forearms in front of you. Flex the wrists as though you were pushing something away.
  4. Keeping all of the above actions, begin to curl and open the upper back. To do this, broaden the upper chest- imagine that you wanted to draw shoulder heads back and away from the other. The center of your sternum presses forward and upward. Keep pulling your belly in and tucking the tailbone as you do this- you will notice that the low back wants to “help out” by curling for you. Instead, lift the chest and broaden the collarbone even more.
  5. Relax your face, and jaw, and smile slightly (it helps tremendously) as you breathe fully and completely. Gaze ever so slightly upward so that the neck curves naturally along with the upper back. Stay with these actions long enough to let the muscles begin to “learn” the pose, and then release.

Now we’re ready to come to the mat. Let’s start in Cobra pose- legs extend long behind you, top of the feet on the ground, toes are extended (not tucked). Initially, the hips are down. Let’s address the steps again, with just a few additions:

  1. Find the slight tuck in the tailbone. Imagine that the tailbone is pointing down to the floor.
  2. Pull the belly up and in.
  3. Squeeze elbows into ribs and look down at your hands. The pose is often taught with the hands directly under the shoulders. Do start there, and make sure that the wrists are not behind the shoulders.
  4. Press down firmly through the palms and the base of the fingers. The hands should look like they do in Down Dog. We want an external rotation of the shoulders, which you will find by squeezing the elbows tight to the ribs (Note- if you’re finding this challenging, try rotating your hands outward slightly).
  5. Find lift-off! Float the hips and belly up into the air as you begin to straighten the arms, pressing down firmly into the full palm. Be mindful that you are not rolling more onto one side of the hand than another- commonly, we roll onto the outer edge of the hand. Press down a bit more between the thumb and first finger. If you are one of those crazy noodly folks who can straighten the arms completely, be mindful not to lock them- keep a microbend in the elbow, and above all, keep the elbows squeezing to the ribs!
  6. Broaden the upper chest. Find the same actions you practiced while seated, driving the shoulder heads back with gentle persistence, at the same time drawing the tips of the shoulder blades down your back (imagine that each shoulder blade is a triangle on your back, with a point facing down. We want to squeeze those triangles down and towards each other). Keep pulling your belly in and tucking the tailbone as you do this. 
  7. Find length through each of the legs and squeeze them in toward each other- and then relax your glutes. You can find this action by tucking the tailbone even more and by trying to click the pinky toenail of each foot down to the floor.
  8. Your drishti– gazing point- will vary, depending on the style of yoga you are practicing. In some schools it is said that you must look waaaaaay up to the ceiling. Because that causes strain in my neck, I prefer to keep a more natural curve, just gazing slightly upward.
  9. Finally, it’s time to exit the posture. You could simply lie down (ahhhh!!!) or make the vinyasa transition. To do so, engage your core strongly- squeeze the belly in!- and push the hips up and back into Down Dog.

Here are some more thoughts on Up Dog.

In case of low back pain: More core strength may be needed. I would recommend sticking with Cobra as you continue to strengthen, but be sure that you are approaching it with integrity- engage the belly, tuck the tailbone, and roll the shoulders back in the same way that I suggest here for Up Dog. You should be working, not just hanging out, even in Cobra pose. And please don’t give up on Up Dog- continue to try it from time to time, especially when you are warmed up but not completely fatigued.

You might also find that toward the end of practice, the body fatigues and can no longer engage the muscles as strongly as needed to keep this pose safe (you’ll know- you’ll start to feel like you can’t pull the belly in, or the arms want to collapse). In that case, it is always preferable to take Cobra rather than run the risk of injury.

Wrist/Palm Pain/Fatigue Not every teacher might agree, but I will suggest if you are following all of the other cues in this list and you are still finding strain in the wrists or hands, that you should experiment with walking your hands forward a bit so that the weight of your body is not directly on those delicate bones.

Entering/Exiting the Pose in a Vinyasa Wondering how to achieve the graceful fluidity some yogis demonstrate as they roll over their toes through Chaturanga -> Up Dog -> Down Dog in a vinyasa? It’s all about the core (and the bandhas- more on those in a later post). As you grow stronger, you’ll find that you are able to use your core to carry you so that your toes and other body parts are merely along for the ride. Here’s a mini-guide:

  1. From Chaturanga (note- your elbows are bent at 90 degrees, not any lower, which means that your elbows and your hips are the same distance away from the floor!), keeping the hands just where they are, engage the core even more strongly and pull your torso and legs forward through your hands as you activate the key actions of Up Dog- shoulders back, heart forward, tailbone tucked, legs squeezing together. The last thing to happen is the toes roll over so the toenails click down.
  2. From Up Dog, as you engage your core and lift the hips up and back, imagine that the hips are LIFTING the legs up so that you can roll lightly up and back onto your toe tips. Keep in mind that doing this repeatedly this will ruin a good pedicure and can even cause your toenails to break, so make your choices accordingly.

There’s Nothing Wrong with Cobra. It’s an awesome backbend and sometimes it makes a lot more sense than using all of the muscular energy required by Up Dog. I think it’s important, however, to be clear that the two poses are not one and the same.

I’m grateful and appreciative of my student for asking me this important question. I hope all of you feel free to do the same in your own classes.  All the teachers that I know LOVE to talk about yoga, and answer questions about postures. Please don’t be shy to ask for clarification, or about any difficulty or challenge you’re experiencing with your own practice.

Poem: “Beannacht (Blessing)” by John O’Donohue

This week, just a little poem to share with you. It may be helpful to know that a “currach” is a type of Irish boat. The author (since deceased) wrote these lines for his mother. You can find more information on O’Donohue’s life and work at http://www.johnodonohue.com.

Beannacht – For Josie

On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.

Learning to Let Go: Aparigraha in Action

Her only crime? That she loved (the hippo) too much.

What are you attached to?

Family, and your friends. What about possessions- your car, your house- shoes, jewelry? Yoga pants? Perhaps you’re attached to your ideas- as a Democrat, or a Republican. Or your defined image of yourself as a certain person- yogi, Christian, vegetarian.

What happens when the attachment is severed or threatened? A loved one dies. Your possessions are stolen, or broken- or you can no longer afford them. Your ideas are challenged as you discover new truths. Or you find that you can no longer sustain the image of yourself that defined you.

This, according to Buddhism,* is the cause of all human sorrow. Attachment causes us to suffer. If we become un-attached, we will cease to suffer. It’s simple. And yet so hard to do.

Aparigraha, the fifth of the yamas, is “non-grasping.” At its simplest, it invites us to let go of those possessions that we cling to. And it has a lot in common with asteya, (non-stealing), in that it asks us to trust in the abundance of the universe.

It gets a little trickier when we start dealing with non-material things. ‘What about my family,’ you may think. ‘I don’t ever want to not love people.’ Right. Aparigraha is not about becoming DE-tached, or cold. It means that you accept things as they are in the present moment- to enjoy them, to love them with a whole-hearted generosity, and then be willing to let go when you have to.

No, it’s not easy. Let’s face it, it’s not always easy to let go of material possessions, let alone a loved one.That’s why (as with any moral law) it is best to start small. We can build up to the big stuff.

So, if you’re just starting to work with the concept of non-attachment, or if you’d like to refresh yourself, here’s an exercise for you.

Find a drawer or a closet, or (if that is too overwhelming), a box that needs to be cleaned up. Look at each item with fresh eyes. Do you need it? Can someone else make better use of it? If you feel like you can’t bear to be rid of something, put it in a box and mark your calendar to revisit it in 6 months. At that point, if you haven’t used it, or thought about it during that time, you may be more willing to let it go.

You’ll find that you’re letting go of more than just stuff here. Your material possessions are symbols of the ideas and concepts that you’re clinging to, as well. Those jeans that are too small? They might represent an outdated image of yourself. If you’re reluctant to part with an item, close your eyes and look at the “suffering” that you are feeling. What are you really clinging to?

It feels good to clean up the clutter and junk in our lives. We’re freeing ourselves of things- which gives us more physical space- but we’re also cleaning up our attachments, so that we have more emotional and mental space.

This week, as I’ve talked about, written about, and examined my own relationship to aparigraha, I’ve had the opportunity to notice a few things about myself that might be true for you as well.

  1. Aparigraha in Language. “Hang on,” I say to my friend, who’s going through a tough time. “Hang in there.” Our language itself advises us to cling. Instead, if we can soften the grip and fall away a bit, the pain might be less. I am not going to start saying “Let go,” instead- but I think I’ll free myself of the clingy language.
  2. Emotion and Aparigraha– for me, defensiveness is a sign of clinging. For example: in the last few months my iPhone has been functioning less and less well, becoming frustratingly slow. Several people have suggested that I delete some of my music- do I really need to carry around 3000 + songs? I actually found myself feeling snappy and irritable toward these well-meaning folks. “NO, it’s not the music!” I said. That defensiveness even felt tight and “clingy” in my chest- a sign that something was not right.  I have since cut down on the music, and the phone does run faster again- but as I started to remove songs, I felt a bit concerned that someone might need to listen to something, like a Barry Manilow Christmas song, or the theme song to the cartoon show Hamtaro** and I won’t have it all queued up and ready to go. What’s my deal? See #3.
  3. Layers of Attachment– Why on earth do I need all of these songs?! It turns out that I  am attached to an idea of myself as someone who has an amusing or appropriate song at the ready. I hoard music, I think, because there was a time in my life where I didn’t have access to the popular stuff. At the dawn of the MTV era, cable TV was not a priority in my house, and so I always felt a bit uncool and out of the loop.

Aparigraha in action isn’t easy. None of the moral guidelines are. Perhaps that’s why we need them- doing the wrong thing is so often easier, at first, that we need rules, laws, to help us to do the thing that is temporarily harder, or at least less satisfying, so that we can experience a more permanent sense of happiness.

The last five weeks have been eye-opening as I researched and deepened my understanding of the yamas in order to share them with you. Thanks for your readership, friendship, and insightful comments throughout the process. I have to confess, I’m a bit attached to all of you.

*Wait, aren’t we talking about yoga? Yes, but Buddhism and Yoga share the same root system, and Buddhism says this awfully well. 

**An anime show featuring a wise pet hamster who loves sunflower seeds and helping out his schoolgirl owner. “Little Hamster, Big Adventures!” 

An Elegy For the Ants in my Car

I am murdering a colony of teeny tiny ants in my car.

I’m not sure how it started. We always have ants around the house (it is Florida)- but I’m surprised that I managed to bring in enough to start a whole civilization. It was probably beneficial that there must be enough Nature Valley granola bar crumbs under the driver’s seat to feed them for a year. (Why can’t Nature Valley get a handle on the crumbliness of their granola bars? But I digress).

For a little while it was not a big deal. I was willing to let the little guys crawl around the car. Occasionally one would climb on me and I would manage to not be too bothered by it. They don’t bite, or sting, or do anything except walk around, so although I wasn’t really thinking the whole thing through too clearly, I hoped we could manage some kind of peaceful co-existence.

Then, sometime in the last week, there was some sort of population explosion (I think it was around the time a Kong dog toy with some dog biscuit crumbs in it entered the car… long story). Suddenly, I had enough ants in my car (let’s call it “Antopia”) to populate the cars of most of my acquaintances. I could no longer ignore the fact that this was a problem. At some point, someone else was going to need to sit in my car with me, and it seemed a bit much to ask that they tolerate my pest problem in the name of non-violence.

…and frankly, the situation was becoming a bit of a nuisance. While I was still (mostly) willing to turn the other cheek, I occasionally found myself squashing one, almost idly, almost instinctually. No, I am not proud.

What the #%$ do you do in a situation like this? These poor ants didn’t have a choice about where they made their home- if anything, the fault was mine. I provided them with shelter and food, allowing them to blossom. Now, I was unwilling to tolerate their presence and so, they had to die.

It’s a ridiculous situation, but it’s been unpleasantly enlightening. When I inspect my earlier feelings on the ant situation, I realize that I had sort of hoped they’d die on their own, as it would be convenient for me not to have to murder them. My husband suggested that I clean out the car, which would (cue the ominous music) “take care of the problem.” At first glance, this seemed like a good idea. But wait: it’s still killing the ants, isn’t it? Whether I Windex them into oblivion or starve them by removing the Nature Valley crumb hoard, they’re going to die.

I came to the conclusion that I must face the task honestly. Before I drove to class this morning, I put some ant killer on cardboard and left it in a little cubbyhole under the radio. That tiny dab of clear poison glistened and winked at me all the way to St Lucie West, as though to say (in a smooth, oily voice), “Don’t worry, honey, I’ve got the situation under control.”

By the time my classes ended, and I returned to my car, the ants had discovered the poison and were forming mad lines to transport it back to their (condo? hive? lair?) living quarters.

I feel lousy. Yeah, it’s just ants. But HARMLESS ants. And a brilliantly big metaphor for the difficulties of really living a non-violent life. It was easy to hope they’d die alone. It would have been easier to look the other way as I vacuumed the car (which, don’t worry, I’ll do anyway). Life, and compassionate choices, are a lot harder when they are crawling all over your car.

I’m not a total sappy idiot. I know one can’t live a completely innocent life, devoid of harm to others. We have to find a line that we are willing to draw for ourselves, and sometimes it’s pretty arbitrary. The decisions that we make are often contradictory, and confusing. Maybe you buy organic to be kinder to the earth- but what about the local farmer whose business is suffering? You eat vegan, but the clothes you wear are manufactured in a third-world country by underpaid laborers in poor condition. I’m not starting a fight, or even a discussion, really- just saying, it’s damn HARD to make kind decisions day to day.

And some days, the decisions make me sad. Some days, the best thing you can do is face the decision head on and say, at least I didn’t look away from it. I lived with the ants, I killed the ants, and soon, I vacuum up dead ants.

Thanks for reading, friends.

Brahamacharya (Gesundheit!)

Brahmacharya, the fourth of the Yamas, is also the one that sounds most like a sneeze. ‘Bless You!’, you might think. Appropriate, I guess, since this term is sometimes translated as “Walking with God.” Bless you indeed!

This is a tricky Yama. It is often (mis?)interpreted as celibacy (see this article “Life Without Sex?” on yogajournal.com). Others (myself included) interpret it as mindful use of energy. I like the word “moderation,” although that may over-simplify it somewhat. Another phrase you might hear is “continence,” although this brings to mind adult diapers, so I tend to avoid it.*

Okay, back on track. Brahmacharya! Using energy mindfully means not wasting your resources. BKS Iyengar says, “When one is established in brahmacharya, one develops a fund of vitality and energy, a courageous mind and a powerful intellect so that one can fight any type of injustice… Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.”

What a great metaphor! By using our mental and physical resources intelligently, not draining the battery but recharging it as needed, we will be better able to shine our light in the world. Whether your goal is to make it through your next Power Yoga class without modifying a posture, or to act in service to those who need it, brahmacharya makes us a better-run machine.

Where do you squander your resources? Do  you…

  • Overeat?
  • Overindulge in alcohol/other substances?
  • Oversleep?
  • Undersleep, because you were doing something else instead?
  • Over-exert, physically?
  • Spend time worrying about the future, or
  • Spend time living in the past?

All of these can quickly become evident on your mat. If you’ve ever eaten a big pancake breakfast and then gone to a vigorous hot yoga class (as I did, one regrettable morning) an hour later, you know that the body isn’t going to live up to your demands! A commitment to the physical practice of yoga will eventually demand brahmacharya of you- there isn’t energy enough in your body to both squander your resources AND cultivate an effective practice.

And, as always, the physical practice (asana) is just one place for this to show up in your life. The same thing is going on, obviously, in all other areas- once we open our eyes to see.

Brahmacharya! I raise my battery-operated torch to you.

See you next week, when we conclude the yamas with a discussion on Aparigraha, non-hoarding. Get ready to clean out the closet!

*Although this is a really ridiculously silly thing for me to have said, it raises a pertinent point. Through use of mula bandha, the root lock engagement of the pelvic floor, which is used to prevent energy leakage in our practice, we females can strengthen the pelvic floor, which sags as we age, and thus, perhaps, avoid the need for adult diapers. I’d hoped to use this post as a discussion for mula bandha, but it’s gotten a bit too long and the bandhas really deserve a big discussion of their own. Stay tuned, I’ll get it out there.

Yoga Poem: “Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton

Part of the pleasure of being a teacher is getting to share concepts, readings, bits and pieces of essays and poetry that echo something I feel in my soul. I ran across this poem recently and have been inspired to share it with some classes. 

Although I don’t know that the author considered herself a yogi, I do know that these lines may ring true for many of my yogi friends. I won’t trivialize her words by attempting to add more of my own. Please enjoy:

Now I Become Myself, by May Sarton 

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–“
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

(“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.)

For more on May Sarton’s life, and a few more lovely, haunting poems, please see the good folks at this site.