IMG_1516

A friend of mine has been writing a book on home practice and asked me about mine. I’ve been contemplating her questions over the last couple of months, and realizing just how integral home practice is to my every day. For most of my yoga life, I’ve lived away from my teachers. So I would travel to take classes or workshops, and then practice at home the rest of the time to deepen my understanding and integrate what I learned into my experience. Classes and workshops were where I got the raw material of the teachings. Home practice is where I made the yoga my own.

My first yoga teacher invited all his students to start a daily home practice. He would lead us in a beautiful class, then give us a sheet with stick figures in a sequenced flow and send us home with instructions to practice a bit every day. He assured us he would know if we did it or not. Hardly knowing what I was doing as a novice practitioner, I would light a candle, take a deep breath, and start- sometimes it was just a few minutes, sometimes it was a longer session.  But the invitation to own my practice was there from the beginning.

Many years later, my practice shifted and I did almost all my practice at a studio. Showing up to class motivated me- the teachers, the energy of the room and group, the release to the sequence, all uplifted and elevated my practice. After cumulative injuries caused me to stop attending class, my home practice became reactivated. In the immediate aftermath of the injuries, I found a teacher who taught me healing actions and alignment to help me heal. At home, I could practice slowly, practice sequences that were healing for my particular situation, and practice deep listening and responding to my body’s needs for any given day. Since that time, almost 16 years ago, my practice has been primarily home-based.

For years, even after my body recovered and could hold the muscle memory of clear alignment and actions, the ritual of coming to my mat at home and responding to my body’s daily shifting needs, desires, and temperament was so compelling that I would look forward to it and cherish the time. I love a good class, but there’s something that feels very rich and holy about listening to the inner teacher.

Until two years ago, my normal  asana practice would last anywhere from 50 minutes to 2.5 hours, 4-6 times a week. Meditation and mantric practices were an average of an hour and a half each day split into two sessions. I felt supported, steadied, and stabilized by these disciplines. It took some finagaling to figure out how to put it all in the day, but it was do-able. And then I got pregnant. And it all changed!

Photo on 10-3-13 at 12.18 PM #2When I got pregnant, we were so thrilled- it was a dream come true! I had visions of continuing my practices throughout the pregnancy, being one of those gorgeous women who are in full wheel pose in their ninth month, meditating good vibes into my growing baby’s sweet energy field, continuing my food sadhanas of healthy veggies to nourish every burgeoning cell. But the reality was- I was so sick and so tired. Meditation made the nausea so extreme. My mantra seemed to call up the bile, like the flute calls the snake up from the basket. My belly felt so pulled and tight and my energy so sapped, that all I felt like doing was supported forward folds and restoratives. A beautiful meal of fresh veggies from the farm share would come up again right after eating. So what was yoga practice with that scenario?

Having cultivated a relationship with my practice over the years, one thing I’ve learned is that the best way of approaching practice is to not confuse reality with my ideas of how reality should show up. Practice instead is releasing expectations and meeting what is happening as it’s arising, and responding appropriately, with compassion. Which meant that expectations weren’t going to run the show.

One of the best teachings I received was the 10-minute rule, which basically says, if you don’t feel like practicing, just commit to being on your mat for 10 minutes. And it can be all savasana, or resting pose, if you want. Just stay on the mat for 10 minutes. Usually what happens is that you do a little movement, and then it births a different movement, and then a further exploration, and then you’re off and running. So that’s what I did.

Practice during pregnancy was a powerful reminder for me to listen to my inner experience of my edge and sense how it shifts from day to day. Yoga is about cultivating this intimate relationship with the Shakti. That’s what I love so much about home practice. There’s an opportunity to really meet one’s experience, unmasked, unveiled, courageously and curiously. It’s thrilling.

I learned about new levels of gentleness- toward myself and in my poses and my approach. I learned about my capacity to give myself permission to be easy with myself and honor my limits. I learned a great deal about the healing potency of restorative yoga and natural breathing.  And then baby came. And practice shifted again.

Parenting is often exhausting. And for me, yoga and meditation practice are the things that have always filled up my gas-tank, so to speak. If we’re giving our all, it’s important to have sadhanas that replenish the energy stores. Yes, my son’s smiles fill me and give me energy, but ultimately I don’t want to depend on him to fill me up. That’s my job, not his responsibility. I want to be full for him. Yoga practice does that. How to find the time and space to do that was now a mystery that I was passionate to solve.

After some time, practice actually felt regular. I would meditate when he would nap or nurse. I’d wake early and meditate in bed while he slept beside me. I’d do asana during his morning or afternoon play time, with my mat next to his playmat and toys, him crawling or rolling over to me when it interested him. Or sometimes, I’d practice in the evening when he went to bed. Asana practice was centered on knitting together the different parts of my body that had spread apart during the pregnancy. I had a whole new understanding of what centering and finding my core was. Being on my mat at home, listening to my body’s new capacities was fascinating. 

Other weeks or days, it felt impossible to figure out how to practice. When naps would be 15 minutes long, or he wouldn’t go down to sleep, Or he didn’t want to play by himself and just wanted to be held. Or in the evenings, all I wanted do was collapse on the couch. Or I had some time, but I needed to make food, wash diapers, shower, shop, clean or just go outside for fresh air. We all have legitimate and real reasons why we can’t get to our practice any given day. So home practice in those moments is about responding to what’s in front of us, with an open heart and a willingness to flow with what’s needed. And practicing self-compassion. And practicing faith -that the next day was a new opportunity to find the time for our breath and for listening within..

Practice these days is sometimes 15 minutes. An hour practice at one stretch without interruption is a luxury. But it happens. And it is so delicious. Like nectar. And I have the supreme delight in listening to what my body wants and needs and desires, and responding. Appropriately, optimally.

IMG_1568I’ve learned how to warm up my body without a lot of time to do it. I’ve learned to find the two or three poses that will open me up rather than the sequence of 5-10 in case I don’t have time. Sometimes the session is broken up between requests to read a story or to give a hug, to incorporating him into the flow or to stop to nurse for a while before I start up again. I find myself regularly nursing in agnistambasana or in gomukhasana, changing legs after so many minutes.

I’ve learned how to savor sensations that I so easily took for granted before. Instead of a steady half hour of meditation, sometimes meditation is 10-minute sessions here and there. But I do it. Because if I don’t, I feel run ragged. When I miss practice, even the clips of time I catch here and there, I start to feel isolated, soul-tired. When I replenish with practice, life just feel more easeful, more supported. When Liam smiles at me, I feel the stream of Shakti that I’ve been steeping in, rise up to meet him through my eyes. I feel less like I’m doing the work of mothering, and more like I’m flowing in the oceanic Shakti, and that’s the source of my capacity to mother.

Whether we have the time in our schedule to fit in juicy amounts of practice, or like me in this powerful time in my life, it’s hard to find the “spare” moments, the thing is, no one is going to make the time for us. We have to do it. We can go to class and get support, nourishment, training, comraderie. And on the rest of the days, we have ourselves. And we’re worth listening to. Take what you learn from class, and workshop it in your body. Discover the pacing and the breath speed that wants to happen. Take time between poses, in the poses to feel, to notice, to inquire, to observe, to delight. Yoga is about your relationship to yourself and to your Self. This is the relationship that has been with you from your first breath, and will be there until your last. Meet  yourself on the mat, on the cushion. The gifts of doing so are nectarean. They are gifts to yourself, but will also benefit everyone around you as well. Because as you steep in the Love, it pours forth from you. And there’s no richer gift to those you love.

 

Advertisements

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” I can hear Nina Simone singing this in my mind. There’s a aching so deep, so palpable, the heart just feels the weight of despair. It’s a voice so forlorn, we’re drawn to it, even though most of us listening aren’t motherless children. But there’s something we recognize as our own in the song. There’s something that rings true for us in the words, in the melody, in the pained expressiveness.

A month ago, a friend that I had known since I was a small girl was killed. She was murdered. She was one of the girls that everyone in school knew. She had two older siblings that to us younger kids seemed so cool and fascinating. Her parents were so central to our small town. Everyone knew them. In high school, my friend was the one everyone called to see what was going on. She lived on the lake, and my memories are inextricably linked to being on her dock, in her boat, hanging out with her crew in the lazy summer evenings at her home. My growing up is connected with her, her home, her family.

Her name was Amy. And Amy had two little boys: 18 months old, and 3 years old. And I spent the funeral in the “family room” with them. I brought my 11 month old son Liam home with me. He’s still breastfeeding and not very good at taking bottles. So, he went to calling hours with me, and the funeral, and the reception. He’s vocal now, cooing, laughing, making motor boat sounds -not sounds that are very appropriate for a somber event. So Liam and I went to the family room at the church- an enclosed room with a window to see and the sound pumped in. And Amy’s two boys were there. I think it was an uncle that was holding the little one, who was inconsolable. He didn’t have words yet. And no amount of hugging, holding, or kissing was helping. His grand-aunt came in. He would take the bottle from her, and it somewhat calmed him. But the wailing continued. It became very clear to me that what he wanted was his mama. And she not only wasn’t there, but she would never be there. I don’t think he knew that, but the immediacy of his unhappiness just broke my heart. Here is a motherless child, desperate, aching, longing. And there was a recognition inside of me. It triggered a recognition of a primordial human ache and sense of loss, so deep and hidden that we often don’t even perceive its presence.

At some point, all of us will lose our mother. Some, like Amy’s children, experience it early, which I can only guess makes it that much more excruciatingly painful. But the loss and future loss of this human relationship, I think, is felt on another level of consciousness as well. Our sense of being a distinct and separate individual is vital to what it means to be human. And yet, the cost is a powerful, often unconscious sense of loss between ourselves and the supportive nature of our life itself. There’s a point, and sometimes many points, where we have a  sense of being separated from not just other people, but from Divine Love, from the Collective Unconscious, from God, from the Mother Shakti– all words for a similar concept: the great energy that birthed us from the formless into form, from possibility into reality. When we experience a sense of isolation, purposelessness–a sense of life as only that which the eyes see and the senses perceive–it’s as if on the spiritual plane, we’re orphans, separated entirely from the great nurturing, sustaining, inspiring, unconditional loving energy that birthed us from its existence. The heartbreak is so achingly wretched that people go mad. We see people try to balm the pain with drugs, additive behaviors, endless distractions like TV, movies, video games. We try to assuage our pain with shopping, thinking if we just get this one thing, it will ease the ache of our heart that doesn’t seem to be assuaged, ever. Some even try to escape the misery and pain by taking their own life. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. 

There’s a deep human existential need to experience ourselves as connected. Connected to others, yes. And also to something bigger. Some people identify that bigger thing as Love, as Nature, as Meaningfulness, as Happiness. The yogis called it many things as well: Paramshiva, Paraprema/ Supreme Love, Siva, Shakti, Anuttara/ The Absolute, Brahman, Hridaya/Heart. When our parents leave us, what holds us? Who holds us? When our families pass away, when the structures that we so assiduously fasten in place fall away, crumble, what supports us, nourishes us, comforts us? I would say it’s The Mother Shakti, which is another way of saying: the vibrant energy of everything that is everywhere and in everything, including ourselves. And the practice of deep yoga is to remember, reestablish, abide in, and know palpably, ineffably, truly, our relationship to that, and as that.

May Amy’s boys know how loved they are- loved by all her friends, her community, her family. And may we, as children of the Infinite, know that whether our mothers are with us or have passed, whether our lives are as we thought they might be or not, whether we are successful in the world or not, may we know at some level the beauty of Life, of Love, of Love bigger than just: “I’ll love you if you do what I like, if you behave, if you are pleasant, if you xyz…” but Unconditional Love. May we find a way in our Yoga Practice, in our Life Practice, to know deeply our True Heart, to know the great Shakti, the energy that sustains the universe and ourselves. May we know ourselves as part of something vast and loving and sublime and glorious. From motherless children, may we feel loved as if the world, everyone and everything, were our mother, taking care of us, nurturing us, watching over us, supporting us. And may we grow into adults, mothers and fathers ourselves, able to love well, love generously, love without conditions.

 

In the Yoga Tradition, the word nyaya refers to a teaching axiom, a teaching aphorism. There are many in the nondual Tantric tradition that  I study and practice. And they inspired me to speak to the process of learning to crawl.

Liam, who is now 7 months old, is in the process of figuring out how to maneuver himself around his playmat and the room. He started by learning to roll. It was thrilling for him, and also for all of us (particular his daddy and myself) who have been cheerleading his learning process on.

Recently, his movements started to get more particular in their focus. We could tell he was acting on a primal urge to crawl. At first, his time on the belly became more frequent than time on his back. This was new. On his back, he was more of a passive receiver to whatever face, toy, or other object was placed in front of his vision. On his belly, he was learning that he could participate in what he wanted to interact with. He could roll, scootch, and reach toward and for things around him. His chest lift became very strong. His arms straightened all the way, like an upward-facing dog pose. Then he started to add some actions in his legs and feet. It took a while for him to figure out how to lift his bum off the floor, but now he’s a pro at hands and knees pose. He seemed to understand that the legs were somehow key to moving, but it hasn’t been clear how that is supposed to help him. He has been rocking back and forth to get some momentum, only to giggle from the activity or collapse onto his belly after the effort. At one point, he started to push off with his feet and was doing some mean plank poses on the tips of his feet and his hands. So much learning, but there was a lot of struggle as well.

Because he was trying these new movements out, he was using a lot more energy than he did before, so he got tired more easily. He seemed to know what he wanted to do, but couldn’t quite figure out how to make it happen. In the beginning of this learning curve, he would regularly cry with frustration after just a few minutes of effort. If he could talk, I had a sense he would be saying, “Why, why, why? I’ll never get this!” He would just put his head down on his hands and cry angry tears that his body wasn’t cooperating with his desire. It was clear to me observing him, that if he just rolled on his back and rested for a while, then perhaps the challenge would be less tiring. But when I “helped” him onto his back, he became even more frustrated  and only rolled onto his belly to begin his Sisyphean-like effort all over again.

But he kept on. It was as if I were watching the deepest part of the human experience- the desire to act, to move. In Sanskrit, it’s called iccha shakti. It feels awe-inspiring watching this primordial human desire play out in his need to move.

The next stage of his movement is the killer- instead of moving forward, he ends up moving backwards. It’s been going on for a couple of weeks now. At first it looked like it was soul-achingly frustrating. Then it shifted to being a challenge that ended up with him figuring  out how to get something in front of him with a combination of crawl and turn and roll. Then he used his reverse gear to move all over the room, exploring new places like under the table and under the chairs.

And yet with all these apparent blocks, I still have no doubt about his ability to crawl someday soon. I sense it as a deep inevitability. And then he will pull himself up on things and then figure out how to walk. But throughout this process, I am reminded of spiritual practice, even our regular life, and how the stages of development often seem like the exact opposite of what we’re trying to cultivate.

How often have we had a sense of what we wanted, what we expected, what we desired, and it felt like no matter how dedicated our efforts, how committed to our practice, the end result seemed so illusory and unattainable that we wonder if we should continue? How many times have we started an endeavor and wanted to just quit, crying into our hands like little Liam when he was trying so hard to go and just couldn’t quite figure it out. I have seen in class the frustration and self-doubt and the shame people feel when they can’t do what they think they should be doing or what their neighbor on the mat next to them is doing. I have seen folks give up rather than work through the initial struggle. I have seen many blame it on the teacher, the class, the sequence, the pose, the pacing, the level of the class, their body, their injuries, and more. I, myself, have done the same. And yet, aren’t we running right into the challenge of learning to crawl… and walk…and run… and dance.

And of course, we recognize with the infant that the first and the many following attempts are all strengthening his body to be strong enough to do the work of propelling himself forward. The effort itself is helping connect the iccha shakti to the brain’s communication via the nervous system into the body. The continued repetitive act of attempting to crawl refines and strengthens the communication pathways, the body gets stronger, and the system figures it out.

And yet, as older beings, we often stop the process at the point of initial frustration. Or perhaps we persevere; we can see slow but steady progress. But when things start to look like we’re going in reverse, then not only do we give up, but the rage or despair or self-criticism is so strong that we often are angry or disgusted that we put so much time/effort/emotion/energy into it. And yet, to crawl, one of the main steps is the reverse gear. I can see his arms are stronger and more awake now than his legs. But it’s only a matter of time before it shifts. It’s often the outside observer that can see the bigger progression. When we’re in it, we can get despondent, frustrated, fearful. That’s why I’ve valued my teachers along the path. My teachers, my peers, my friends and family. Particularly those who helped remind me of my indomitable iccha shakti and the path of my own heart’s truth. Particularly those who encouraged me to discern whether I was way off track, or simply in reverse on my way to crawling forward.

 

spirals in nature

along the bike path

Spirals in the trees

Discovery

The wonders of feet

Feet

Finding feet

This is my first post as a mom.

Since I’ve written my last entry, everything’s changed, and yet in other ways, nothing’s changed: Life is a mystery, the practice is Love, and the path is meeting oneself in all the ways we not only express and reflect Life’s joy and meaningfulness, but also how we inadvertently block it, are blind to it, or harden ourselves in reaction to it.

I’ve been contemplating all the things that interest me to share, and they seem so varied: asana, yoga philosophy, eating for wellness and delight, parenting, living mindfully and consciously. At first glance, it may look disparate, separate. Yet, if we have the experience, the  perspective, the darhshan that life is sadhana, spiritual practice, then all is part and parcel of our Yoga.

Yoga is so many things to so many people these days. It can be a workout, a stress-relief tool, an approach to life, a path to wellness, a community support, a vehicle for awakening. And there are also many philosophical approaches to yoga as well. Many of these approaches  to yogic spiritual practice are what is considered ascetic or renunciate in nature. Another approach is described as the householder path. I’ve had the blessing in this life to have teachings in both of these margas, or paths.

For many years (well, fourteen or so), my meditation teachers shared the dharma of the renunciate path with me. And the beginnings of my asana practice were based on a renunciatory foundation as taught by Patanjali. The teachings reminded us as practitioners that what is most real about us is not our body, our mind, our emotions, our thoughts, our dramas. That in fact, these things are most prominently obstacles in our life with respect to experiencing our True Self, our innate Nature, God. And so, the training often focused on releasing ego, training oneself to not get caught up in one’s emotions, recognizing and abandoning attachments, and experiencing what is Real, namely, the Absolute/ Buddha Nature/ the Self.

These teachings brought deep meaning to my life. To be in a community that acknowledged the traps of our humanness, that spoke of Spirit, our True Essence, True Unconditional Love, that which is beyond our senses, even beyond our conceptualizations, felt like soul medicine for me. The training was strong and asked much of me, but it taught me powerful discipline, depth, and commitment, beyond what I thought possible.

And yet, after many years of this training approach, much of which was daily, for hours each day, under direct tutelage, I started to lose myself. This was considered a positive because I was releasing the transitory individual aspects of myself. And yet, I felt as if I were losing parts of myself that made me who I was. Instead of feeling more free, I was feeling empty and numb.  I had become unable to articulate and even feel emotions. Yes, I did feel less anger, less drama, less separation to the larger pulse of the Universe, and that felt like a gift. And yet I also lost touch with my joy, my intuition, my delight in life. I had a sense that there was something about myself as an individual that had yet to be accessed, and that was worthy of exploration. There was a longing to express who I was as this individual embodied being with as yet unknown gifts or dharmas to bring forth, to uncover, in this lifetime.

As I left these particular practices and approaches, there was a deep fear that my spiritual practice would go flat, plateau, be hollow. But I gave myself a chance to honor this next iteration of what practice might look like. I took some time to deeply listen- to my heart, to the Universe. And my assana and meditation practices started to shift. About a year later, I was introduced to the concept of Yoga as a Path of the Householder. My teacher explained the difference between the path of the renunciate versus that of the householder with a metaphor of a wave and the ocean, the wave being our individual self and the ocean being the Infinite. He said that the renunciate path assists the practitioner in awakening to their True Self by reducing the individual ego structure/wave until it is not able to be differentiated from the ocean. In the householder path, the individual life/wave becomes so full and expanded that it becomes the ocean. Both paths have the intent to assist the student in recognizing one’s vastness, one’s “ocean-ness.” One path seeks to extinguish one’s individuality and one seeks to refine and expand it.

At first, this new practice felt similar, insofar as the practice felt deep and rich, and I felt connected to something greater than myself. And yet, the approach felt different. The experience felt different. The teachings from this perspective acknowledged that the mind and body can create suffering, yet taught that instead of tearing down the impediments of the mind and body, there is a path of exploring mind and body as instruments of awakening, that Consciousness  and Essence suffuse all things, including mind and physicality. The problem isn’t their presence, but our mistaking them for the Whole.

Yoga as Householder Path honors not only the Infinite, but also how we are all different finite expressions of the Infinite. It teaches that from the Infinite, the Non-Differentiated (often taught as the Non-Dual) comes an infinite amount of permutations. And that each of us is a unique expression or aspect of the vastness of possibility. So, instead of tearing down  attachments and the binds of relationship (whether to others, to family, to worldly job or goods, or to our body/mind and all its trappings), we practice the yoga of refining, purifying, seeing more clearly, with all of life’s infinite ways of waking us up. We practice with what life has given us.

This is tricky business. We have all felt the pain that attachments bring. We have seen the horror of addictions- whether substance abuse or addiction to sex or food or the need to be liked, etc.  The path of the householder is to take a deep hard look at ourselves and start to notice where we’re caught. The practice is to dive deep into an experience or remembrance or recognition of the Whole. And rather than it being a practice of controlling the outer forms of difference, it becomes a practice of attuning ourselves to something vast and beautiful and healing. And that Whole-ing begins a process of allowing the grasping, the blockages, the resistances to Love to simply let go more. We become more fully ourselves by resting in the depth of our essence, rather than diminishing the outer expression as the only path to experiencing the Transcendent.

So, as I contemplate what this blog will be about, I see that I’m excited to write from a place of celebrating the infinite ways of finding our connecting to Spirit, to Mystery, to Love, to the Divine. Whether it be through deep meditation, food made with love, seeing the spark of life in a child’s first giggles, exploring how life’s challenges offer opportunities for growth, practicing asana, or any of the other ways I’m looking forward to discovering my voice here, I’m starting to get clearer about what I’m writing about: Life as Yoga. Life as Practice. Yoga as a tool to awaken to our Full Radiance as the best us we can be. I look forward to sharing with you.

side yard delight

This does a spirit good…