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)

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.

Replace the negative with the positive

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Pratipaksha bhavana (Book 2 Sutra 33) is the practice of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Negative thoughts are a kind of blame game – we can use them as an excuse, a justification, a defense against letting in anything unknown, challenging, or scary. “This happened because she is a terrible person. I can’t do this because the system is evil. It’s not my fault, this culture is too unfair.”

Feeding negative thoughts feeds hatred and builds a wall against interaction and exchange. We do this with ourselves as well, focusing on what’s wrong with us and feeding those insecurities and fears.

If we feed the positive, we feed openness. By feeding our own wonderful qualities we help them grow.

It sounds so simple to stop a thought and either just let it go or replace it with an opposite thought. But in practice it’s very difficult. I don’t even realize where my mind has gone when I am in the middle of an internal rant until I am well invested in the negative emotion. If I’m lucky I realize what I’m doing and then can try to change what’s going on in my head. Then I have to be vigilant about not watering the negative seeds I planted (they will still try to survive) and try to plant positive seeds instead.

If making a 180 isn’t possible, especially in the moment, then change what you are doing or where you are. Look at or listen to something that makes you happy, peaceful, at ease. Remove yourself from the situation or person over which you are filling yourself with negativity.

Try to think of the hurt you are causing, not just in yourself, but in the energy you are putting out into the world, into the situation you are in, or toward the person you are with. These thoughts lead to actions that take the negativity from energy to something tangible. How much hurt are you causing now?

I sometimes have days where I stew in negativity.

I’m taking the subway with my son in a stroller and no one makes room on the train so we can get on, so we have to wait for the next one, or the next one. “Jerks.” Or – my son loves to watch the trains come and go so now we get to watch more than one. Or – instead of rushing, now I have a few extra minutes to breathe and chat with my son and lower my anxiety level.

I’m carrying my son up the subway stairs in a stroller because there is no elevator in the station. “Jerks.” Or – what a great opportunity to use my strength and show my son what fortitude is. Or – the New York city subway system is a monster and the MTA is doing their best to address all the issues, it is a near impossible task with the infrastructure they are working with.

I’m pushing a stroller awkwardly into a building and someone closes the door right into us. “Jerk.” Or – maybe he was just blissfully unaware and had no idea what just happened, it was an accident. Or – maybe he was overwhelmed with something difficult in his life and he didn’t have one ounce of energy left to give and I should feel compassion rather than antipathy for him.

And then my son has an irrational but completely normal toddler melt down. If I had stuck with the “jerks” all day I wouldn’t have any patience or softness left to give my son what he needs. I know this from experience. But when I really try and practice pratipaksha bhavana I feed my inner strength that allows me to keep going with a steady gaze, a calm breath, and a smile. And then I can project that positivity back into the world.

Finding your edge

As we moved from asana to asana, the teacher wove through our mats and urged us to: “find your edge”, “push to reach your limit”, “ease past your comfort zone”. This is common language in a vinyasa class.

Hearing these suggestions, I realized where I was at – I had no comfort zone. I wasn’t living in a stable place of ease and routine and comfort that I had a need to push beyond. My existence since my son was born had already been past my limit and beyond my edge. I had been struggling to get back to a sense of home, of ease – to find my down dog in the middle of the vinyasa. I had been looking for that slow deep breath of stability in the midst of persevering through effort – that moment of stillness within perpetual movement.

In class that day I wasn’t looking to push further in the effort. I was resistant to the message. I wanted slow, steady, calm, comfortable, expected. I feel at home in a yoga class because it is routine and known to me. I don’t have to think or learn; I can just do and be.

I spent much of my daily life in resistance so I decided to not resist the message, to let go and not let my thoughts about limitations block my movements. I would just do. I would accept the challenge. I would trust that pushing myself, even though I felt like I had nothing more to give, would bring more ease in the end than just going through the motions in a comfortable way, without awareness, distracted by my mind.

I found that as I focused on my body, I got out of my head and my thoughts and into my body. I forgot about the diaper delivery that didn’t come, cleaning up vomit in the middle of the night, and how I struggle to not hold onto resentments in my life and instead focused on the release of tension from my hip in eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose). I noticed where my imbalance was coming from in sirsasana (headstand) and how many breaths I could last before coming down. I felt my bone alignment and struggling flexibility in hanumanasa (splits).

I pushed – I wanted to feel the pain, the release of toxins from my muscles, and breathe it out of my body. I wanted to feel something that wasn’t heartache, frustration or exhaustion. I wanted to feel my own body again, not my body in relation to my child (a wonderful yet binding attachment) – just me. I felt like I needed a physical pummeling. In a good way!

The most profound moment of the class was in savasana (corpse pose) when the teacher massaged my shoulders and head. That healing touch let me know what I was missing. Baby hugs and kisses and tickles are like nothing else – the epitome of sweetness and softness and pure love. But I needed to be kneaded, I needed the tension manipulated out of my body, I needed physical help releasing all that I had been holding onto.

I needed to be challenged to push myself, to be guided out of my head, to be put into savasana and a deep level of rest, and I needed healing touch. I went beyond my beyond and it pulled me back to a place of ease.

Gently down the stream

GangaIn The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Satchidananda says, “The entire world is your own projection.”  What a powerful idea. What does he mean? We choose to give meaning to things, to people, to places and we choose what particular meaning to give them. We then react in response to those meanings. I lost an inexpensive ring I had bought for myself – I had given the ring the power of being a reminder to me of the spiritual path. I loved to look at the ring and remember where I was and how I felt when I bought it. Then I lost it. I was upset, it was meaningful to me and irreplaceable.

But, did I lose the spiritual path? Was that reminder in a physical object more powerful than the practice itself? No. I had given that little piece of metal power but it in itself was just a little piece of metal. I let it go and the upset followed.

Being able to control how the world affects you is the key to peace.  Knowing the difference between your true self and your affected self is yoga.

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah – The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” Practicing yoga is practicing letting go. Our minds jump around and react constantly – stilling, restraining the mind, letting go of the reactions, the attachments, and just being brings peace.

How we react to the world around us is what creates the world around us. But it is such a difficult practice to become aware of our reactions, to control them, and to let them go. Peace is not easy to achieve.

My two-year old son seems to have mastered letting go in mid cry and turning his frown upside down and laughing at it all. He sang to me: “Row, row, row your boat gently on the lake. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life’s a piece of cake.” Life’s a piece of cake mommy, why are you making it so hard?

Then he changed it up to: “Row, row, row your boat on a on a mouth. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life’s a piece of mouth.” He thought that was supremely hilarious and laughed heartily. I have to give it to him for being creative and trying to make a joke – but mostly I admire his ability to laugh. He reminds me every day to laugh. Life really can be laughable if you let yourself see it that way.

Row gently and know none of it is real. It’s amazing how hard it can be to laugh, to let go of attachments, to believe it is all just a dream. It’s all a creation of our minds. Everything we hold onto is ultimately unimportant. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have people or things in our lives but we should try to be in control of how our mind reacts, how we attach, how we project meaning and expectations onto them. It must be easier if you become a monk…

But I will row on and practice.

Quotes from Satchidananda, Swami, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali/translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga Publications, Yogaville, 1990.