Your most beautiful self

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I wrote the post below a month ago as I reveled in the beauty of a perfect August in NYC. But life has been a series of challenges for me this summer and many things, like blogging, have disappeared as quickly as summer seems to have. Looking again at these photos, I see perseverance –  blooming year after year, no matter what the hardship, no matter how harsh this city may sometimes feel, no matter if anyone notices or not. Being your most beautiful self amidst it all.

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From August –

I am so grateful to have the opportunity to teach yoga. It’s such a gift to guide beautiful souls in this practice. In my Friday evening class after several restorative poses and yoga nidra, I could literally feel each student opening like a blossom.

The deepest practice is in allowing ourselves to let go, to open, to drink in the sweetness of peace and let ourselves exist in that peace. Even only for a moment.

Lately I have been stopping to smell the roses and every other flower that seems to be exploding all around me. From the Highline, to city parks, to front stoops, on fences, in pots, or among weeds in a tiny square of dirt around a sidewalk tree – vibrant, colorful, joyful blossoms.

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Loopy Love

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As my son squealed with excitement and wriggled in a happy dance/hopping session shouting, “I’m three years old! I’m three years old!” I smiled the biggest smile at how much pure, sweet joy a little person can feel. That feeling is a distant memory, but having a child reminds me it exists and a little spark of it flashed in my own eyes.

And then, I told him he had a birthday present to open. When the box was revealed his eyes grew big, his lips pursed, and he became serious about his excitement. Whenever something awesome happens (like eating chocolate fudge for the first time) he gets very focused.

“Open the box.” He instructs.
I do as I’m told.

“Take out the pieces. Let’s do it together.” His voice starts to tremble.

I assembled the hot wheels launcher, track, and loop, showed him how it worked, and stood back. The first time the little car shot out, looped upside down, and flew across the room he laughed, ran after the car, and shouted, “Again!” There is nothing like hearing your child laugh.

The first year with my son was unimaginably hard. As I described the level of sacrifice that left me barely standing and a shadow of myself to a wonderful spiritual guide, he said, “sounds like this is your karma yoga.” Selfless service. I was losing my self and certainly my whole life had become about serving another – my son. He opened my eyes to seeing the sacrifice as a beautiful thing.

It’s been a challenge, trying to continue to see the hardship as joy, but a very important practice as the years go by and hardships mount one on top of the other. I continue to struggle to see the giving as selfless as my ego wants to engage in the world and be “me” again. I give and I give because I am incapable of doing anything else. I love, therefore I give.

I thank motherhood for giving me the experience of feeling the deepest, most powerful, even overwhelming love on the planet – a love unlike any other. A love that holds great responsibility and never ends.

I thank motherhood for what it has taught me about my own mother and the deep sacrifices she has made for her children, the suffering she endured, and the ability she has to be joyful in it and embrace reality, moving forward as positively as she can.

I thank my mother for mothering me forever, through it all, and still on my own son’s third birthday.

I thank my son for inspiring me and for loving me with the purest, sweetest, cuddly wuddly love.

Muddling peace

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Over the past few weeks I have been profoundly affected by quotes that have come to me that speak so perfectly to what I am going through. Deep reminders . One came to my email, one was in a newsletter, and one was a quote I used in my own writing that I came across as I was editing. They brought me to tears.

It is so hard to stay strong. Each day is a struggle. Even through the tears, it is so comforting to feel some guidance, however difficult that guidance is to actually follow it provides a clearer path.

Swami Satchidananda has always come to me in times of uncertainty. When I returned to New York from India, I was bouncing around between different yoga studios, looking up different teachers and schools of yoga. I was reading books from many different gurus and thinking I wanted to find someone in New York. I sat on the subway one day, having just been turned away from a particular yoga center that didn’t want to honor a free class card a friend had given me and didn’t seem interested in me attending their programs, disappointed and wondering where to turn, when I happened to glance down at the magazine the person sitting next to me was reading. Looking up at me was Swami Satchidananda with a big smile. I laughed at myself. Of course.

A quote by Swami Satchidananda arrived in my email about allowing ourselves to be supported by sangha–a spiritual community. We can’t get through life’s difficulties alone. We shouldn’t even try. Family, friends, and community are there to help, to guide, to support, to be a shoulder to cry on, to offer a smile and comforting voice. Allowing others to give is giving them a gift. Giving is joy. I am so thankful for the help those around me have offered, in every tiny way. Just having someone say they are thinking about me while I navigate stormy waters, helps steer me into a calm harbor.

A man on the sidewalk greeted me as I walked by and said, “It’s nice to see you out today.” And I thought–it’s nice to be out in the world today, it’s nice to be seen, to get outside of the jumbled mess of existence in my head.

A recent newsletter from Integral Yoga reminded me to “clean up my mind”–to stop allowing negative thoughts, blaming, anger to dirty my mind. When I can clean my mind then I will have a clean heart and be at peace.

Editing my book, I read a passage I had written about dealing with hardship:

The life of a yogi is to prepare the self in times of stability to pass through times of disquiet with peace. It’s a preventative care strategy. It’s a long-term plan of dedicated, continuous work. The waves of life move and break unceasingly–whether we tumble under, get pummeled, get swept into unknown regions, or ride them with a smile is up to us. Staying afloat on the surface, not engaging, not fighting against the current, remaining only a witness to the tide is the practice of yoga. Swami Satchidananda says:

If you want to be peaceful always, identify yourself as the ever-peaceful witness within. “I am that eternal witness. I am watching everything that’s happening in the body and mind.” That is the supreme way of maintaining your peace. If you can’t get to the state of identifying yourself as that eternal witness, simply say, “I am not all these things. I’m not the mind, not the ego, not the senses, not the intelligence. I simply watch them. I am the seer, I just see.”

These are some of my recent muddled thoughts as I search for balance and peace.

Finding peace in chaos

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As emotions spiral, tensions rise and fall, and the known becomes the unknown, chaos feeds itself, growing into an overwhelming mass of frenzied heaviness. Everything has the potential to ignite from a spark to a blaze. How do we contain the raging wild fire into a simple, controllable flame? Where do we grasp when everything slips through our fingers?

When there is nothing to hold onto, we can always go inside and hold onto our Self. There we will find the steadiness. Pranayama can be a key to unlock that door to stillness.

When we cannot remove ourselves from a difficult place we can remove our minds, relocating to a clearer space. It starts with focusing on the breath. Once we begin to focus, the breath slows, the body begins to release tension. When we deepen the breath we are signaling to our body and mind that everything is ok. Then the heart follows.

There are so many wonderful pranayama practices, great for cleansing, for stimulating, for stilling the mind. Just practicing one – mindful, slow, steady, deep breathing – is life changing. I made it through 20 hours of natural labor with pranayama (and a lot of determination, courage, and faith). I stepped out of each contraction and into the breath. Steady, slow, deep. Once my son was born, the endless hours of focus and concentration seemed like a blink of an eye, the pain quickly forgotten. But I won’t ever forget the gift of pranayama in getting me through and its powerful and immediate help in all times of difficulty.

Pranayama continually reminds me to slow down, to let go, to have faith that my inner Divine will guide me, that I am not alone, that I am connected – that everything will be ok.

We will be free

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“According to the Yogic system, the entire body changes in a period of twelve years; in other words, you do not have even one cell that was there twelve years ago.”1 (Satchidananda)

That statement kind of blew my mind and I started thinking about the stages of my life in twelve year increments. Was I the same person in each stage?

It does seem like I went through major changes at 12, 24, and 36. I could see each age as the beginning of a new era in my life. At 12 I quit ballet and piano, joined a children’s theatre group, and changed schools to change who I was, who my friends were, and start fresh in a new environment. At 24 I got my first permanent job in NYC, was in my first long term relationship, and felt, to my dismay, that I had really entered the adult world. At 36 I had my son – enough said.

But I still feel essentially like the same person. My core personality hasn’t changed although other aspects have come and gone depending on my life situation, location, job, relationship, or chronic illness and how I worked through them. Yoga helped re-form parts of myself. Travel helped open my eyes to seeing the world and people in new ways.

But that’s all my self – not my Self.

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Swami Satchidananda was talking about understanding the difference between what is permanent (Self) and what is impermanent (self). Who we really are – our soul – is permanent. Our impermanent self is generally how we define ourselves – by our body, job, clothes, names, home, desires, the list goes on endlessly. If we can understand and truly know the difference through vigilant discernment then we will no longer feel unhappiness. Change won’t affect us. There will be no disappointments, no fears, no heartache.

We will be free.

This freedom is the result of yoga practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice. Buckle up, it might take lifetimes…

 

 

1 Satchidanada, Swami, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali/translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, 1990, p 118 (Book 2 Sutra 26)

Memories transform my eyes

Memories of India (excerpts from Dancing in the Bamboo Forest)

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The intensity with which Indians look instantly into your eyes is amazing. On the bus it was especially amazing – moving by so quickly in opposite directions someone will catch your eye – not for a second – but for an impossibly long time. It seemed as if you could see deep into each other in the smallest moment.

My breath deepened as I watched the film of life fly by past the open doorway of the bus: a sea of lotus blossoms, fields of rice, beaches in the distance. Every few moments the horn of the bus squawked as we careened around motorcycles, tractors, and oxen plodding along steadily, pulling their load as their driver tapped them with a stick while he laughed into his cell phone. The door was just a hole in the side of the bus, I was afraid my suitcase was going to fly out at any moment.

The bus stopped for a break. The flies invaded through the glassless windows while we waited. Bulls meandered past, followed by a herd of goats. I saw the resemblance between goat and human kids – energetic, running here and there, jumping out of line and being herded back into place, getting excited and then complaining about the lack of freedom. On the road again. The driver was flying; we made good time. The road from Mahabalapuram took me past Auroville and I reminisced about their delicious kulfi.

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In Mahabalapuram, on a shady wall my friend and I sat to catch our breath and cool down, when a young monkey scampered over to us. He had spied my water bottle and became determined to capture it. He wasted no time knocking it out of my hand and we watched curiously as he tried to drag it away. It was nearly full and I’m sure weighed more than his slight body. He pushed and pulled, it rolled down a little hill, he dashed after it. Finally he hunkered down to try opening the bottle to get at the good stuff inside. I almost wanted to go over and help him. A few adult monkeys felt the same way and he had to push and pull and drag his prize away a few more times. When he managed to crack an opening into the bottle and drink what didn’t spill, I was happy for his success.

Then he came back and thought he’d have a go at my guidebook. We decided it was a good time to leave.

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It has been a few years since I traveled and lived in India but the memories are still vivid and immediate. The intensity of the experience has been seared into me. Travel has a way of becoming who you are as all of those memories and experiences transform the eyes through which you see.

Happy times

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“I feel happy and they all feel happy being there, so they make me happy and I make them happy. We just spend a little happy time together, that’s all.”1 That’s how Swami Satchidananda describes giving a dharma talk, sharing yoga, and essentially – what yoga is. Happy times.

Last week I subbed a Restorative Yoga class. Teaching restored my own energy, my sense of self, my connection with the Divine. The most beautiful thing about teaching for me is feeling peace and joy resonating from the students. That’s the whole point to me. And in turn I receive and emit that energy as well.

While teaching may seem like giving (and it is) I get so much in return that I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve even when it feels like I have nothing more to give. Teaching nourishes me, lets me practice, and reconnects me to what is important.

As a mom my priority is always my son but lately I’ve been running on empty. The years of sacrifice and giving have drained me and even my son recognizes that I’m not the same person. “I have two mommies, is the other one coming tomorrow?” He may mean something completely different in his 2 ¾ year old mind – but it breaks my heart anyway.

I took the time this weekend to be alone, to be quiet, to be slow. I smelled the newly sprung flowers, lay in the sunshine and stared up at puffy clouds forming and reforming in the bright blue sky above. Those moments, while short in the big picture, melted away long held tension. I felt like me for a moment again.

I watched bees discover blossoms and nestle inside. Bees take nectar for themselves and in turn give pollen and help create more flowers, more nectar, and more life. Taking enough to keep yourself going is necessary when it prepares you to have more to give. Sometimes we forget that we need to take sometimes, we need to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others, we need some nectar to sweeten our lives in order to create more sweetness in the world.

Yoga gives me a little happy time to remember that sweetness.

1 Satchidananda, Swami, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali/translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, 1990. Book 1 Sutra 15

Riding the waves

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Santa Cruz is a beach town, a Northern California college town, a yoga teacher haven. The old hippy vibe never left even though the population has changed over the decades.  Trees are there for the hugging, dogs romp in the surf on their very own beach, drum circles hold the heartbeat, fog blankets the mountains. Strawberries, artichokes, brussel sprouts fan out in neat rows from the highway. Old adobes, ranch houses, and the odd yurt mix it up with modern developments, strip malls, and box stores.

It’s a place of paradox. “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” clashes with Starbucks and American Apparel. SUVs, hybrids, motorcycle gangs, skateboard crews, yuppie stroller squads.

One thing that doesn’t change is the ocean, the waves rolling in and the longing to be on a wave feeling absolutely free. I grew up on that bay and learned a healthy fear of the power of the Pacific, rip tides, undertows, jagged rocks, sudden massive waves, and great white sharks. But finally in my 20s, with a trusted guide who had been surfing Cowell Beach for 50 years, I suited up from head to toe, and paddled out into the deep blue.

I love to swim in the ocean, I have dived into many salty waters (all warmer than this part of the Pacific), and felt that singular kind of isolation looking back at land, fully focused on breath and the movement of the ocean, aware of my body alive and moving in this other body of expanse and power, much stronger than me, much greater than me, relentless in its constant change.

But there was something very different about sitting on a surf board, gently rising and falling, feeling the energy of the ocean beneath me rather than on me. It was incredibly peaceful. I felt a deep stillness and feeling of ease. There was a friendliness out there, away from the world on land, a community of joy.

I tried catching a wave numerous times before I finally felt the exhilarating sensation of being carried. I lost the momentum and the wave. I tried again. And again. And again. Suddenly I was on a wave, one foot planted, one knee grounded into the board and I felt a rush. When I tried to stand, I fell. Eyes stinging from the salt water, I heaved myself up onto the board and paddled back wanting more. Finally I managed to plant both feet, knees deeply bent, arms out, going on feel not technique and the wave moved me. My face was one big goofy grin. I rode that small wave all the way to the beach.

Happiness melted every aching muscle.

I struggled and worked and believed and then I let go and allowed the wave to take me to a place of peace and freedom. The little waves didn’t seem so daunting after that. I would have to work harder to deal with anything bigger. One day I might be able enough to ride any wave I meet.

Yoga doesn’t have to be found in a class or in a book. Nature is ready and willing to show us all we need to know if we just listen and feel and make ourselves fully present in the moment.

 

Laugh, seriously.

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Have you ever burst out laughing in a yoga class? Or stifled a giggle? Or bit your lip to squelch a guffaw? Yoga can be pretty funny. Sometimes even seriously hilarious.

Yoga teachers ask us to be aware – aware of our breath, aware of our body, aware of our mind. I guess on this particular day I wasn’t in the mood to follow instructions. I followed the sequence the teacher dictated but ignored the very detailed guidance to focus on the micro alignment of my toe knuckles, and to rotate an extra millimeter to feel synovial fluid flow through fascial release, and to sigh with all the other moaners in the room on cue.

I just moved.

There were sixty students mat to mat in a humid room with strong overhead lighting beaming down on us. I couldn’t see the teacher way up at the front of the room without my glasses. I brought my focus to the narrow navy blue rectangle below me, my allotted space.

In adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) I looked down at my shadow. I saw an antique oil lamp on my mat. My hips were the base (round and stable), my torso the body (rippled like my shirt around my waist), my head the wick, and my arms were the glass enclosure reaching up leaving space for the light. I moved my head to flicker the flame and laughed at myself a little.

On all fours we stretched one arm to the front and one leg to the back, balancing. The shadow of the foot of the person in front of me landed right into the shadow of my palm. I tickled her shadow foot with my shadow hand. I wondered if she could feel it. I imagined my son uncontrollably laughing when tickled. I smiled.

As we sat in gomukhasana (cow face pose), arms and legs pretzeled. I slowly leaned forward and saw seven big round splashes of sweat all in a row, lined up exactly like the chakras. The biggest splash was over the imaginary heart chakra. At least I was sweating in alignment.

After bhujangasana (cobra pose) we pushed back to sit in vajrasana and I noticed the sweaty mark I had left from laying on my chest. I giggled. Two big circles with an extra big blotch in the middle of each, like cartoon eyes, and a little round nose. My little cartoon guy stared up at me unwavering with his big eyes. I smiled back at him.

I laughed at myself and at the practice. My body felt warm and steady, my breath slow and calm, my mind content. Not focusing had been a wonderful practice. Feeling instead of thinking, being present to see the unexpected had made me smile.

Sometimes the best way to still the mind is to laugh. One of my favorite things is laughing meditation. You get comfortable and then you laugh and laugh and laugh. You laugh everything out of you – thoughts, feelings, tension – and when the laughter stops you are left completely still. It’s a very deep practice.

Laughing is yoga.

Overwhelming love

I waited in a long snaking line in a cavernous Starbucks deciding which caffeinated elixir to shock my body with when I noticed how amazingly different each person in line looked from each other. Sure, it’s New York City – I expect diversity, I’m used to diversity. But what really struck me was feeling in an instant the vastness of each person as an individual with deep and complicated lives that fill up massive amounts of space and time in the world.

And that we all exist in that massiveness at the same time.  I imagined standing amongst dense brush, the city of insects, covered in spider webs as thick as cotton, each web with one little spider in the center. The webs overlapped but were created and existed separately. We are all the centers of our own webs of contacts, connections, conversations, a greater network.

Nearly everyone in line had their head bent down, eyes glued to their hand held device, tapping or scrolling. Only the one family, the one couple, and one older gentleman were not mentally in another place.

As I looked at everyone not connecting to those around them I suddenly felt connected to all of them and a sudden swelling of love, a great acceptance and empathy, overwhelmed me. All these beautiful souls walking, or texting, or surfing through the world. My heart went out to all of them and everyone around us.

Tears came to my eyes at the strength of the love, my heart pounded, I felt shaky.

It didn’t matter that not one person looked up at me or noticed me in any way. We were all there together and in the world together. We are all just little bits of the same big mass, the same big network of humans in a larger network of energy that embraces us all.

We are all the same. If only we could feel that all the time. I knew being tapped into that love would be a fleeting experience so I let myself swim around in it while it was there. I looked at each person and loved them.

The love was an inner vibration, a humming, an echo of the feeling produced by chanting “Om.” Om is the infinite vibration that is always around us and within us; it is the sound of the Divine; it is the energy of love. Chanting Om brings us into harmony with the infinite. Beyond the sounds of Om is the unstruck sound – anahata – a sound that exists without anything producing it. (Book 1 Sutra 27)* In the chakra system anahata is the heart chakra. Its inner state is compassion and love. This love is the kind of love felt without attachment or self.

Sometimes we are lucky enough to feel love’s immensity for a moment, maybe longer. It’s important to nurture the glimpses we get of the greater reality – of the Divine – and remember the experience when we feel lost or disconnected. Love is always there.

 

*Swami Satchidananda discusses the four stages of Om in this sutra in his translation and commentary of the Yoga Sutras.