Obstacles to Practice: Apathy

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

Apathy (styana)

Have you ever had a limited time to live somewhere? A month, a year?  Have you been a new parent, or gone back to graduate school? Have you had limited time with someone?

Limited time naturally preempts apathy. If we have just two hours in a day to study, we study with all we’ve got for those two hours. If we have just one week in a place, we don’t sit at home and watch TV.  We’ve all experienced time at work in our lives in this way.

time

Working with the obstacle of apathy asks us to look at how we experience time in our daily lives and practice.  We can all be anxious about time and feel as though there’s never enough. And we can all slip into the apathy-inducing illusion of seemingly limitless time.  Different tonics need to be applied at different times.  I had a period of meditation where I would sit with a lot of self-induced stress to really focus this time, and eventually I needed to remind myself that I have (hopefully) years of practice ahead of me.  This provided much needed relaxing around my sitting practice.  I have also had periods where the everydayness of meditation and asana made it seem as if I had so much time that apathy crept in.

Usually in my classes, I encourage students to be expansive with how we consider practice; that it expands way beyond this one person, this one mat, this one row, this one room, community, family, borough, and onwards.

Consider the next time you sit or step onto your mat, especially if you’ve noticed overtones of apathy coming in, to imagine that this was it. That you had to go through a whole week of constant story-telling, of the mind continually on and leading you around, of living habits of action crafted over decades. What if this was the one 10 or 20 or 30 or 90 minute period you had to drop all of that, let the mind relax into quiet with the breath, and let the heart expand with its loving kindness for all the body’s cells, and blood, and those of all beings? To be really intimate with this experience moment to moment to moment? What happens?

Our time

When we don’t experience our time as fully as we know or sense to be possible, it often causes discomfort during time with others. Those feelings of wishing we were in some different place, or with some different people, or had a chance to be alone again can easily creep in.  I knew there was a chance of this when I recently went upstate to the cabin I take many solo retreats in.  This time, my family was going to be there.  I knew that I was going to have about an hour in the woods to myself.  That would be all the time I had to really drop into the nourishing and inspiring retreat feeling of the cabin experience. Since I had prepared, I found that not only could I be fully with the joy of my family without regretting the lack of solo time, but that hour in the woods was more continuous and more quickly accessible than when I go by myself.

Thich Nhat Hanh offers a beautiful story at the start of his book, Miracle of Mindfulness , from his friend Allen. It takes this work a whole step deeper in how we work with “our time”.  Thich Nhat Hanh has just asked Allen about his experience as a family man;

  “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work.  The time left over I considered my own.  I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

But now I try not to divide my time into parts anymore.  I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey  with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time.  I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now i Have unlimited time for myself!”

Nothing left out. Nothing squandered.

Chant

life and death are of supreme importance.
time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
let us awaken. awaken!
do not squander your life.

may all beings be happy.
may all beings be healthy.
may all beings be safe and free from danger.
may all beings be free from their ancient and twisted karma.
may all beings be free from every form of suffering.

 

 

 

 

Obstacles to Practice: Sickness

The obstacles to becoming an adept yogi are sleep, laziness and disease. One has to remove these by the root and throw them away … Asana will help all this. To acquire this skill, recite the following slokam every day before practicing yoga.  Yoga Makaranda (II.3)

maṇi bhrātphaṇā sahasravighṛtaviśvaṁ
bharā maṇḍalāyānantāya nāgarājāya namaḥ

Salutations to the king of the Nagas,
to the infinite, to the bearer of the mandala,
who spreads out the universe with thousands
of hooded heads, set with blazing, effulgent jewels.
(Listen to Richard Freeman chanting.)

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (I.30) there are nine obstacles to the practice listed.

How we practice

When we commit to practice, we soon understand that we’ve undertaken a lifelong pursuit.  What can sometimes take longer to perceive is that it’s a twenty-four hour one as well, including weekends.  We don’t take time off.

The first obstacle, disease or illness (vyadhi), is perhaps the most universal. We can all recall when it’s been nearly impossible to get off of the couch/floor/toilet/bed, let alone onto a mat or cushion.  So the question arises: “What is practice? What does it look like, what does it feel like, when we’re sick?”

I recently experienced a stomach bug while travelling, and have front line recommendations for the question.  Ethan Nichtern of the ID Project shared his own list with his sangha which is worth checking out as well.

savasana-corpse-pose1) Savasana – truly use the time to be quiet, still, resting and inwards.  Avoid the habit embedded in us since childhood of turning to TV or movies.  If you can’t get up, truly be down. Since I was travelling, I did not have my Netflix queue nor my stash of comfort reading.  I had no choice but to savasana, and it was delightful.

2) Notice – just as you would in practice, pay attention to the thoughts and stories that come up while you’re sick.  How did this happen? How much longer will this last? When I get better I’ll take X action.  Let go of ruminations. Notice tendencies towards judgement or blame. Cultivate the positive, calm, healing thoughts.

3) Movement – therapeutic stretching for parts of the body that get strained, constrained, or achy with illness can be a sweet relief. Simple, slow, and easy –a few neck rolls or hips movements can suffice.

 At the first signs of illness I know many people go to a yoga class in the hopes it will move the illness through.  Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If you have this thought, practice at home so as not to potentially spread what’s brewing. In many illnesses, it’s the beginning period when you’re most contagious.

4) Breath – sometimes it’s the only thing you can pay attention to that isn’t painful.  It can be an important anchor. And sometimes you can barely make a full round of breath. Paying particular attention to the end of the exhale during pain can give you a small moment of oasis.

5) Experiment – the next time you’re not feeling well, bring in this question and see for yourself how practice shifts with you.

How we’re calledmoney-and-illness

We never know how we will be called to take care of others. We never know when we are going to need others to care for us.  What we know is that both will happen. People we love will get sick, they will need care.  We will get sick, we will need care.

Our practice can prepare us to be receptive and open to meet another when they are in the hospital or the bathroom floor or the couch. Our practice can help us cultivate deeper and deeper relationships, and the ability to ask for help.  It can teach us to rest and be still.  There are so many ways in which our practice can serve us when we’re called.  We can use that as motivation to truly give our hearts to our paths.

How joy enters

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his essay ‘The Peace of the Divine Reality’, writes: “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. That is peace. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be very happy. Therefor to look deeply at the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”

Take a moment to reflect on one or two recent physical ailments or illnesses in the body or mind which are no longer present.  Perhaps any of the afflictions of allergies, a persistent cough, a toothache, food poisoning, or joint or muscle pain. Remember how it felt, how difficult and challenging certain aspects of asana practice, or sitting practice, or sleeping, or getting dressed, or general life were. Notice how easy it is now.  You’re not just fine or ok, you are nontoothache! Allow joy and gratitude for your healthy eye, tooth, elbow, hamstring, toe to well up and infuse you. Sense, perhaps, an appreciation for your life.

What would it be like to infuse a week with this type of reflection?

Golden Buddhas

“Yoga or union is the cessation of the movements of the thinking mind for the time being in order to feel “Who am I?”  Sri Bramananda Saraswati’s translation for Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah

From “Uji” by Dogen

An ancient buddha said:

For the time being stand on top of the highest peak.
For the time being proceed along the bottom of the deepest ocean.
For the time being three heads and eight arms.
For the time being an eight- or sixteen-foot body.
For the time being a staff or whisk.
For the time being a pillar or lantern.
For the time being the sons of Zhang and Li.
For the time being the earth and sky.

“We go around as ordinary people and move through the world, but actually we’re spectacular buddhas” – Michael Stone

Three Stories

1) “A traditional Swedish Story: Because of the Black-Dragon-04mishaps of her parents, a young princess named Aris must be betrothed to a fearful dragon. When the king and queen tell her, she becomes frightened for her life. But recovering her wits, she goes out beyond the market to seek a wise woman, who has raised twelve children and twenty-nine grandchildren, and knows the ways of dragons and men.
This wise woman tells Aris that she indeed must marry the dragon, but that there are proper ways to approach him.  She then gives instructions for the wedding night. In particular, the princess is bidden to wear ten beautiful gowns, one on top of another.
The wedding takes place. A feast is held in the palace, after which the dragon carries the princess off to his bedchamber. When the dragon advances toward his bride, she stops him, saying that she must carefully remove her wedding attire before offering her heart to him. And he too, she adds (instructed by the wise woman), must properly remove his attire. To this he willingly agrees.
Then, taking off the first gown, the princess watches as the dragon sheds his outer layer of scaly armor. Though it is painful, the dragon has done this periodically before. But then the princess removes another gown, and then another.  Each time the dragon finds he too must claw off a deeper layer of scales. By the fifth gown the dragon beings to weep copious tears at the pain. Yet the princess continues.
With each successive layer the dragon’s skin becomes more tender and his form softens. He becomes lighter and lighter.  When the princess removes her tenth gown, the dragon releases the last vestige of dragon form and emerges as a man, a fine prince whose eyes sparkle like a child’s, released at last from the ancient spell of his dragon form. Princess Aris and her new husband are then left to the pleasures of their bridal chamber, to fulfill the last advice of the wise woman with twelve children and twenty-nine grandchildren.” – From Jack Kornfield’s “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.”

tall golden buddha2) Building a temple in rural Thailand, a set of monks uncovered the top of a plaster buddha statue – which turned out to be huge – 5 tons! Later, the temple moves several times, and the monks always arrange to have the large buddha statue moved as well.  The third move is into Bangkok, where they had cranes positioning the statue into place.  As it was being set up, a rope from the crane broke and the buddha crashed to the ground, and cracked.  As the monks went up to investigate the damage, they saw that inside the cracks was something shining.  The buddha was actually a gigantic golden buddha that had only been covered over with plaster.

3) When I was in high school, my parents got divorced. At the time, this was still relatively rare for where I grew up – I knew only one other person with divorced parents.  I experienced a range of sadness and disorientation that only occasionally came out in tears at the end of the school day.  My last class happened to be French, and so my French teacher, along with my friends, were the only witnesses to this.  About a year later, I was again with that same French teacher where we were given the assignment to write (in French of course) one nice thing about each person in the class. She compiled them, added her own, and gave them to us.  To this day, I remember that she called me a “steel magnolia”. To this day, it’s one of the compliments I’m most proud of.  Not for a moment during the divorce had I thought about how I was handling it, how it was perceived, or if I was being strong. I’d never thought of myself as strong in any regard. It took her words for me to see it.

Despite how much we may doubt that first quote – or have trouble wrapping our adult-view points around it – it’s true.  And all the ways in which you can, right now, easily accept and name your inner 16-foot golden body – is not it. The most spectacular ways in which it is true, are the ones we don’t easily see – the ones that require a crack, a tearing, a lifetime of effort in order to be known.  And then a further lifetime of polishing.  Tend your inner buddhas, and peer deeply into cracks for what glitters there.

Return from Retreat

Returning from retreat is a skill the meditator cultivates along with any other technique in their practice. As a current resident of New York City (Brooklyn to be precise) with a heart born in the country, this has been a particularly challenging skill for me.

826-new-yorkFor several years now I have taken solo retreats in upstate New York, and at first re-entry was tough. I would cross the George Washington Bridge, look out at the unnatural grey towers, and feel weighted down by the heavy frenetic energy of the city.  Turning around always seemed like the best possible option.  Leaving retreat was always and only sad.

What changed: I began to notice that when I returned from retreat the first couple days of classes would be amazing. They were rare special classes where there was less of me, and more of just passing along a space inside.  Connections with students, and my personal relationships alike held a deeper quality.  I realized that I had something pretty amazing to look forward to back in the city.  Sharing the nourishing, inspiring, beauty of the natural world I immersed myself in – while deep in my practices and studies – became this heartfelt private gift I would bring back to those waiting for me. I entered the city smiling.Basic CMYK

Last week I came back from my first 8-day silent meditation retreat with Michael Stone.  Coming home was once again buoyed by this heart filled gift I carried inside.

A few days after, I was sitting in Prospect Park, watching trees, listening to birds. Being in Brooklyn. Right in the middle of my regular life, there was a shift. A place I had only recently begun to touch on during this past retreat was suddenly there and alive.  A place I had worked to cultivate during the retreat, a place I had thought I would only know in meditation – a place meditation created. The next day, sitting at my desk, looking out past house plants to the sparse tree branches beyond the window, there the space was again.

“What is true zazen? When you become you! When you are you, then no matter what you do, that is zazen.” Shunryu Suzuki

“The message for us today is “Cultivate your own spirit.” Is means not to go seeking for something outside of yourself.” Shunryu Suzuki

il_fullxfull.338294012_originalThat place is not there because of meditation – it’s nowhere other than in me. Meditation and asana never make anything. They, like all the teachings, are arrows pointing back at us.  Our job is to let them pierce right where they need to, melt around it, let go, and trust.

And if you retreat: How are you generous with that internal space? What ideas of that space are you holding onto? Don’t go seeking for something outside yourself – let that be an arrow that sinks right into the marrow of your spirit – or turn it into a flower.

Cross Pollination

bee_pollen_macro

David Montgomery, a geomorphologist (a geologist that specializes in the study of changing topography over time), was recently in conversation with Krista Tippett for her radio show, On Being. Among many insightful thoughts, David shared his interest in promoting cross pollination between science and religion.  His recent book specifically works towards bridging what he has often experienced as a rather contentious relationship between the two.

My teacher, Michael Stone, recently co-led a retreat working on bringing together Judaism and Buddhism study and practices. Not in an attempt to Frankenstein the practices together, but to engage in dialogue.

“Religion is a long conversation going on for thousands of year about what’s important, by people struggling with figuring out what’s important, and how to open up to what’s important with each other.”

The ability to open up that conversation between religions allows us to see our particular perspective’s blind spots. I believe that if we’re very honest we would agree, without loss of faith or love, our own particular religion is not perfect.

We would similarly, without loss of faith or love, duly agree we are not perfect. This idea of cross-pollination is just what we need more of in our practice.  Reading yoga books alone only gets us so far. Meditation and introspection alone only get us so far.  Practicing asana without feedback or guidance only gets us so far.

When I engage in conversation with my fellow explorers, their conversations come back to me over the weeks to come – snippets and threads that inspire me, move me pass blocks, or just point out blind spots I had no inkling to even look for.

1) Thank you to my fellow explorers – you have impacted who I am more than you know.  Be grateful to your own – let them know.Yarn and knitting needles_1

2) Be willing to cross-pollinate.  Engage in conversation with other yogis – but also with Buddhist, Christians, Atheists, Scientists, Artists, Lovers, Poets, Athletes – anyone who has a passion and exploratory spirit is ready with insights to share, even if they don’t know it.  Ram Dass was giving a lecture and noticed an old lady in the front row. He knew there was no way she way there to hear about all the drugs and alternate realities and yoga practices and gurus and such. And yet everytime he went a step deeper, he looked over to see the lady nodding – totally on board and getting it. At the end they spoke, and she said how he was so right on. He asked what her practice was. She told him it was knitting.

3) Join us for Yoga Between the Lines and Satsang: Meditation & Dharma Discussion for some cross pollinating in Brooklyn!

Yoga Between the Lines starts a new book: The Only Dance There Is by Ram Dass in May

Satsang meets this Thursday: 7:30pm at Mala Yoga – $15

 

 

Pratyahara: Withdraw to Interact

In the first pratyahara blog, the traditional translation of “withdrawal of the senses” was discussed.  Like many yoga practices – it can seem as if we’re being led in, and consequently away, from the world.  Away from the lives we’re actually motivated to live more fully, more awake with the present moment. i-think-you-are-shirt

Michael Stone once encouraged students to “withdraw your idea of others and the self” – as opposed to withdrawing from society or the natural world. I love the practice of withdrawing my ideas of who someone is, especially those I am closest to.  A practice I invite you try out today, if you have yet to do so.

In the cyclical intertwined nature of the sutras, this practice of cultivating sensory equanimity, actually fuels our ability to more readily and adeptly interact with others and live into the preceding sutras.  The more we’re aware of the interaction between our sense organs and sense objects – the more we’re able to watch the thoughts, perceptions, and reactions that result.  From there, we’re able to see more clearly what is happening right now. Or as Bernie Glassman says, it’s “the ability to approach a situation without superimposing what you know.”

When you practice asana next be aware of the sense(s) you most dwell in – where are you most distracted? Can you use the breath to tune into all the senses equally, and so not be drawn out from the present moment by any one?

“How do we live a balanced life in an unbalanced time? How does our practice help us to maintain the sensory equanimity we need to participate effectively in our families and communites?” Michael Stone

“Only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.” Rilke

Why Practice in Community? ~ 4

Relationship – to each other, to animals, to patches of sunlight, to snow, to trees, to our desk and the computer atop it, to parents, to coffee makers, to practice, to everything there is – relationships comprise the foundation of our lives.  To cultivate relationships is to cultivate our lives. To deepen relationships is to recognize our capacity to deepen our understanding of ourselves. 

Connected_web_banner-copy3

I have come to understand how you truly cannot describe anything without talking about relationship – almost entirely through the teachings of Michael Stone and the investigations of my own life he has encouraged. Then I attended David Life’s yearly class in New York City on January 3rd.  And in that way the universe has – the teaching was once again brought to the fore front. Or as Davidji said:

“Yoga is the perfection of relationship”

Entering a new session of Satsang (Thursday nights have been scheduled all the way through July!) – I was excited by the message. It also made me think – what are the qualities of relationship, exactly, that we’re working on? A list to get started with:

~ Listening to where someone is coming from as the heart of conversation
~ Giving your attention whole-heartedly
~ Nonharming honesty
~ Responding instead of reacting
~ Silence
~ Residing in Namaste – seeing a person beyond their “stuff” – allowing yourself to be seen
~ Creating a space where there is no good/bad
~ Being aware of the perceptions and conditioning you are automatically putting on the situation
~ Empathy instead of sympathy
~ Dedication to mutually beneficial relationships

None of these, I think, are new for us.  We work with these lessons from our yoga practice all the time – or try to, and fail, and try again, and fall, and try again, and gain a bit of ground, etc.  The unique aspect of Satsang, is that you’re trying this WITH another yogi. Almost all the time we bring our practices into our lives with nonyogis.  While not exclusive to yogis, the following are benefits to practicing in relationship with yogis:

1)    Accountability: Similar to meditation, sitting with a group inspires your posture, how long you stay sitting, and even the stillness within. Practicing relationship with yogis inspires us to stick with the work, to say the difficult thing, to not chicken out trying a new way of listening that is completely counter to the way we’ve been conditioned to over the years, or waiting until “next time”, or however else we let our habits slide when not held accountable to anyone other than ourselves.

2)    Mirrors: Yogis make excellent mirrors of each other –  Right in the moment, we can see how another yogi responds to the same situation. It’s inspiring, and it’s a great encouragement. One of the recent teachings I received was from watching the way another yogi looked me in the eyes whole-heartedly when I offered her a hot cup of water to warm her cold hands.  I saw how I was able to be in the moment enough to respond to her need, but when it came time for me to socially accept her deep thanks, i reverted to my introverted deflection and scurried away.

3)    Sharing: Other yogis are WITH you – they get how important this work is. They’re interested and intrigued by what you’ve been working on or thinking about. They want to know more about that meditation technique you learned, or that article you read, or what happened when you tried this with your coworker.

“It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is.” – Hermann Hesse

Whether it’s in one of the monthly Satsangs at Mala, or with your own group of yogis, or non-affiliated practitioners – take the time this year to make relationship your practice.