Category Archives: Off-The-Mat

Taking your practice off the mat.

Presence in Yoga, Presence in Love

I love to teach yoga to newbies. There’s an almost palpable sense of coming alive in those first few classes. As students learn to move in new ways, it’s not unlike a toddler explore her range of motion- testing out a foot here, or the gaze here, or marveling at what her body can do and how it feels to be in different shapes. Finally, when savasana comes and a group full of workaholic adults lies down to rest and breathe together, I love to watch as their faces soften and their bodies relax into their mats. I think most teachers would agree: it’s pretty magical to watch and work with the someone waking up through the practice of yoga.

There’s also quite a visual distinction between the novice and the experienced student, of course. As a new student moves into a standing pose, you might observe a sort of “floppy” quality to his arms and legs. He’s watching the teacher, following the verbal instructions, and simply moving himself into what seems like it might be the correct position. You might observe that the hands and feet seem disconnected, even lifeless; an afterthought, or a forgotten accessory.

A more senior student, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the sensations in her fingers and toes; the lines of energy lifting and expanding from uddiyana and mula bandha; the subtle changes in the breath and the micro-shifts of flesh, bone and breath within the external shape.

So we see, then, that there’s a distinct difference between simply bringing one’s body into a shape, and bringing the feeling of the shape into the body. The beginner student moves (or, in many cases, forces) the body-pieces into an approximate puzzle-shape and then stands lifelessly in place. The senior student moves her body into her variation on the asana and then begins to occupy it actively, breathing and moving within the pose in a way that feels completely embodied and alive- full of presence.

Tara Brach’s latest book, True Refuge, defines this quality of presence beautifully:

Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience.

I remember very well what it felt like to “wake up” through this process- suddenly I was in my body, and breathing with it, and truly, there is such a sweetness and tenderness to being completely with yourself, aware, awake, alive. It was quite poignant and almost, in a way, heartbreaking, when I realized how I’d neglected myself in this way.

As is so often the case, the on-the-mat experience provides a fantastic metaphor for our lives off the mat. Recently, I’ve been examining my relationships with others- current and historical- in light of this quality of presence.

I believe that it is not enough to simply move ourselves into position with another person- that is, to say, I’m your lover, I’m your friend- and then occupy that space lifelessly. True love- romantic or otherwise- is only, I think, alive and breathing when it is infused with this wakefulness, openness, tenderness.

Maybe it’s inevitable that this will happen with certain relationships, at certain times in our lives. Perhaps we are so occupied with our own challenges that we can’t embody love in this way. Maybe we’ve never learned how. In my own case, I can see quite easily that while I might have called myself a wife, or a girlfriend, and truly felt that I was living in that role, there was an inauthenticity, an incompleteness, to my actions. At the time, I didn’t know how to fully be present with that person- to love him fully, actively- because I was so unhappy with myself. It’s also clear that we were poorly matched, in many ways- so that to be fully present would have meant to acknowledge a painful truth.

In another case, I can recall asking myself why I felt so terribly lonely when I was with someone who said that he loved me deeply. I knew that it was true- and yet I believe at the time he simply wasn’t capable of completely embodying love. He was in the pose, so to speak, but the presence, the attention, the wakeful, open and tender quality was not there- and so our relationship could not flourish.

“If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, you attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, anti makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things- her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say that you love her?” -Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

As part of the spiritual path, bringing mindful presence to our relationships is far more challenging than the work we do on our mats, at least in my experience. While I can do hours of asana practice or meditation with some degree of awareness and presence,  I’m challenged deeply by the daily work of embodied love. My concern with my own self-image, my need to protect myself in some way, often stands between me and full presence with others in my life. Like most people I know, I’m struggling to somehow look good and feel in control. There’s a vulnerability in setting that aside in service of this quality of presence. With practice, this grows easier, I’m finding, and the feeling of really, really giving your full loving attention to someone is its own reward.

Some yoga students never make it past their first class. It’s not easy to work with ourselves in different ways. Sometimes the pain of waking up may feel like too much. And yet- that tenderness, that feeling of being fully present- oh, that’s worth it. We deserve our own kind attention in this way, and we find that because we are kind to ourselves, we’re more able to give that same kind attention to others. And, waking up, we become open and receptive to embodied, active presence from those who are also learning to love fully and completely.

 

 

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Creating New Karmic Patterns, & Some Crazy Good Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

In last week’s post, I talked about the self-sustaining karmic energy of recurring habitual patterns. I mentioned that meditation has been helpful in creating the space to identify the pattern and then to create a new pattern.

How exactly, though, does the new pattern get created? In the past year, I was lucky* enough to find myself facing similar situations again and again. In fact, sometimes it was really almost the identically same situation, with the identically same person. Thanks to my meditation practice, I was able to see this happening (okay, after a while. Not so much right away) and I gained some time between stimulus and response.

Then I’d ask myself: 1) How did I handle this last time? 2) Was I happy with that outcome? and 3) If not, what had I not yet tried that might have a different, better outcome?

This was a pretty painful process at times. It caused me to look back at the many previous times I’d been in the same situation, and how my actions had caused suffering to others, as well as to myself. There were days where I felt like a total scumbag and thought it might be best to stop interacting with other people. But seeing how I’d hurt others was powerful enough to enact change where the fear of simply hurting myself wasn’t enough. As I mentioned in last week’s post- I just had to try something different.

No doubt I’m still wreaking havoc with my life, but I’m certainly trying to do better. Being able to ask myself those three questions feels a bit like standing at the entrance to a labyrinth- which way to go?- knowing that even if I screw up, I’m still moving forward. In Richard Buckminster’s words, after all, “there is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”

In the spirit of trying something totally different, I offer you this delicious recipe for vegan ginger chocolate chip cookies. If you’re a fan of soft molasses ginger cookies, and love a dark chocolate fix, I think you’ll enjoy this mash-up. This recipe started with this delicious recipe from Oh She Glows. Thanks, Angela!

(Oh, and to illustrate my point? The next time I think, “I’d like a cookie, why don’t I bake two dozen,” I’ll stop and ask myself those three questions. Because really, I don’t need to be unsupervised with two dozen cookies. 🙂 )

Try Something Different: Vegan Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup molasses (I like sorghum)
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp ground chia seeds (I ground them in my coffee grinder, but you could leave them whole if you had to. They add crunch that way)
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • a sprinkle of cardamom, or get creative with any spices you like!
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark (vegan) chocolate chips (if you leave these out, it’s still a fantastic recipe)

Making It Happen: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine coconut oil, sugar, molasses, vanilla, and chia seeds until well-mixed (I throw it in my Kitchen-Aid and let it run while I mix the dry stuff). Separately, mix the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet until combined, but don’t over-mix. Add chocolate chips. Wet hands lightly, and roll into small balls. Flatten lightly with your hand and bake 10-12 minutes or until done. Rest on baking sheet for a few minutes before moving to cooling rack. Enjoy! photo

 

*Not being facetious. Until I was challenged in this way, I was likely to keep creating the same karma again and again. I was forced into growth!  

Staccato is a Rhythm- Confessions of a Color-Coded Calendar

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“I used to be so consistent with my (yoga practice, meditation, eating plan), and then (my job changed, the kids were off school for the summer, I broke my toe)…”

“I can’t seem to get into the swing of things.”

“I wish I could just get into a good rhythm.” 

“I lost my groove.”

Does this sound familiar? I know I’m not alone in the feeling that things are easier when there’s a sense of consistency, or rhythm, in our lives. Habits of meditation, yoga, communication, self-care are easier to plug into a schedule when we have an actual schedule. Maybe we even feel that we can’t move forward, make important life decisions until we’ve arrived at a more consistent stage in our lives.

Physiologically speaking, I’m guessing that this is sort of hard-wired in. We need to eat every few hours, sleep once a day, rest after we’ve been working- and we feel safest and at our most secure when our lives are predictable.

When I became self-employed a few years ago, I sorely missed the comfort of my 9-5 schedule. When would I get it all done? How many hours should I work? How would it all get done? Would I burn myself out? Was I crazy to think I could make any money at this*? In an attempt to alleviate my anxiety, I created elaborate systems of scheduling using my Google Calendar. It was a thing of beauty, color-coded so that at a glance I could see exactly how much time I would spend doing each type of  activity. Green was free time, yellow was for classes I taught… sometimes, if I were feeling unsettled, I would open it up and look at the time slots to reassure myself that there was some kind of order in my life. I liked to show other people. “Look at this! See, there’s PLENTY of time for rest!”

You can guess how well that worked out, people. Somehow, my life neglected to fall into its appointed color-coded time slots, and at the end of the week, I still had to-do list and somehow I felt that I hadn’t found time to actually really live. I had that nagging feeling that if I could just find the right rhythm, somehow it would all fall into place; that there was some formula I was missing that would bring it all together for me. Stuff getting done, but I really missed the imagined comfort of a simpler schedule in which, I thought, there would be an ease of fitting things in.

Sometime later, I had a fantastic revelation that shifted my mindset. I was walking the dogs (While texting. I was still working on not multi-tasking) when a (musician, and yogi) friend of mine texted me: “I can’t seem to get back into my yoga routine. I was practicing every day, but now it’s like I’ve lost the rhythm and can’t seem to find it.” “I know what you mean,” I wrote back. “I feel like my life is too staccato to even try any more.”

“Yeah… but even staccato is a rhythm,” he responded.

This was a beautiful moment of revelation for me. I’m sure the heavens parted and a shaft of sunlight fell upon my little iPhone. Staccato is a rhythm. 

Life does have its own rhythm, I thought. It appears chaotic, but the chaos is its consistency. The tune is so big we can’t even see the rhythm. Maybe there are notes we don’t hear.

While we all may long for the security of a life that offers certain predictability- like a melody or rhythm that you know by heart- well, that’s not even an option.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. -Helen Keller

Accepting this was a big relief. I began to release the illusion of my color-coded security blanket  to fall into this chaotic, mysterious, deeper rhythm.

Practically speaking, how do I work with uncertainty, fear, and a “schedule” that is likely to fall apart at any moment? Well, meditation, mostly. Basically, I practice being uncomfortable and living through it. This can start in your yoga practice on the mat, where many of us first encounter this principle. As we enter an asana that we don’t like, we are confronted with all of our habitual reactions. If we can truly witness these (with kindness, allowing ourselves to see them without criticizing) we will have the first glimmers of understanding of how we react to discomfort off our mat.

In meditation, I can observe my need to try to control my life. I don’t have time to sit today, I might think. Okay, I know I need to sit, but I really need to write down these five things I just thought of so I don’t forget to do them. If I continue to sit, to be massively uncomfortable (ARGH, I am going to forget to do those five things!), I am practicing for those moments in my life where life’s rhythm is out of my control**. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times where I feel crazed about making everything happen, but overall, I can look at my schedule (no longer color-coded, but a general collection of things that I’d like to get done and places I need to be) and feel like I’m effectively functioning as a balanced human being.

I can also see that in years past, I’ve used life’s unpredictability as an excuse to avoid some activities- even those that would have been really beneficial. I’m also learning to be attentive to the gripping energy of things that seem like they MUST get done and to ask myself if that’s real or not. Sometimes “urgent” tasks are really just me trying to control something. Yep, old habits die hard.

I’ve found so far that the truth is that everything always gets done, and if it doesn’t, then somehow everything’s still okay. I’m learning to listen to the own tidal rhythm of my body and feel that it needs a nap, or a massage, or exercise- and somehow I can find time to fit it in to the staccato beat of life’s unpredictability.

I guess I could say I’m in the groove now. Forgive me if my dancing is awkward- I think I’ll be learning this rhythm for the rest of my life.

*Yes, kind of. 

**Wait, that’s all of life. 

My Big Brother: On the Gift of Compassion and Love

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In the back of my closet, under a mountain of dust bunnies, there’s a packet of letters. Not, as you might imagine, letters from an old lover, or anything so romantic. These are letters that I wrote over 20 years ago to my older brother. I was in middle school, or high school, and he was at college (before the Internet was available to us, can you imagine?).

The thought of this package makes me cry, not so much because of the heartbreaking content- and it’s pretty wrenching for me- but because of the great kindness and love that it created.

I wrote these letters to my brother during one of the first great bad times of my life. I had always been a depressed and anxious kid, but adolescence was really pretty awful. I woke up every day sick and miserable at the thought of having to go to school, where I felt that I never fit in- that I was too ugly, too fat, too literate, too just not cool. I had some friends, of course, and there were always those who were worse-off than me, but I took my share of bullying* and there was no escape- nobody to tell. My friends all knew and their lives weren’t much better. What could I say to my parents- I’m miserable because nobody likes me? Who’s going to admit they’re a total loser? Of course I wouldn’t disappoint and hurt them like that. Instead, I cultivated a sort of evil mantra for myself that sticks with me still, two decades later, in moments of great darkness- I wish I were dead. 

Seth, seven years older, had escaped to Pittsburgh for college, and wrote me faithfully. I don’t know why, but he found time in his life to think of his little sister, who had always idolized him and generally been an irritant- but there was some good karma here, and he wrote asking how I was. I found that I was able, in writing, to share the pain I felt. Don’t tell Mom and Dad, I said. I’m so unhappy. I don’t know how I am going to make it. I just want to die. 

Rural central Pennsylvania is not a place to be different in any way, as my brother had found out 7 years earlier. He’d grown his hair long, and I’m sure he was called names, as I was when I shaved my head a few years later (Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” always makes me think with pride of us both: “Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can/ All the same old cliches: is it a woman or a man?”). He was a becoming a vegetarian and an animal-rights activist in a time when that could have been a recipe for someone kicking your ass. Like his little sister after him- like so many people in small towns, and everywhere- he was just trying to be himself in a culture that valued conformity deeply. In a bigger city (our town had one red light and two gas stations), neither of us would have been anything out of the ordinary.

But here is the great gift he gave me: having “survived,” so to speak, he remembered the difficulty he experienced, and instead of turning away from it, he let it open his heart. He felt such compassion for me that he continued to send me letters encouraging me. You will make it. I promise it gets better. I know it seems like it won’t, but it all gets better after high school. I love you. I understand. I’m sorry you’re going through this. He told me I was smart and beautiful and interesting and cool, when nobody else** believed it, including myself.

Over the years, Seth has become closer to me than a friend or family ever has to be. In typical Seth & Laura fashion, he sometimes has felt very self-critical of his treatment of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t more there for you. I’m sorry I was mean to you. This too, makes me feel quite bittersweet sad- because I understand regret and shame, but there’s just no need for it anymore. I can’t overemphasize for you the depth of the gratitude and love I feel for him when I think of the  depth of his unconditional love.  In times of distress, I have always been able to call him and, like a gentler reflection, been shown the situation from his perspective. He understands- he does not judge- and he says, this will end. I understand, I love you, I’m sorry you’re going through this. He reminds me that things will change, as they always do, and that I can get through whatever it is.

I’m fortunate to have had this close relationship with someone who has understood me so fundamentally that he can be a light in the darkness- not only because of the help that it’s given me in my own life, but because it has shown me that I can be a light for others. I can be a well of unconditional understanding, compassion, and love for those who are broken-hearted, suicidal, don’t fit in, think the pain will never end. I can listen, and, instead of saying, I wish I were dead, say I understand. I love you. I’m sorry you’re going through this. 

For many of us, there are times where we’re not strong enough to endure our own lives without this kind of support.  I’ve spent the last five years learning to believe what Seth has always said. I am smart. I’m cool. I’m beautiful. Everything does end, and I can be kind and support myself with love and understanding. As a result, my way of handling pain has shifted a bit. Now, in times of great personal misery (and those will still come, I believe, as long as we’re suffering through this human life), I allow myself to feel the pain, and I ask: May this open my heart. May this pain be of service to others.

So, you might wonder- how did the letters come to be in my closet, if they were the ones I mailed to Seth in Pittsburgh? About seven years ago, Seth called me. He was moving out of state, and cleaning out his own closet. If you could have heard the emotion in his voice, you would know what it is to love someone fully. “I found these letters,” he said. “They’re so, so sad- I can’t just throw them away-” We agreed that he would mail them to me, and I would keep them in my own closet. I’ve never opened them- I don’t need to- but oh, what a reminder they are.

In recounting this story to you, I’ve cried quite a bit. Please understand that it’s not my own pain, grief or sorrow I’m feeling- it’s deeper, broader than that. It’s a thank you, to my brother- to the misery we both suffered- for giving me this love I have for those who need it. I wouldn’t change a thing about my experience.

Happy Birthday, big brother.

 

*Speaking of compassion- the girls that picked on me- well, looking back, their home lives were much worse than mine. No “forgiveness” needed; they were doing the best they could to manage their own unhappiness.

**Mom, I know you and Dad always did. The fault was mine for not telling you how unhappy I was. You’re wonderful and I love you.

Life on Hold

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I received some beautiful advice from a teacher a few weeks ago, and I’d like to share it with you. She said:

“Anytime that we are left waiting for something to change it is kind of interesting to look at the waiting itself.  Life is on hold and is this ok?  It doesn’t mean that we have to be doing the perfect thing but rather how we are using the energy in that moment.”

If this strikes a chord in your soul as it did mine, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What am I waiting for?
  • Am I waiting for some circumstance or another person to change, or…
  • Are there parts of myself am I not willing to accept as they are?
  • If I didn’t wait, what would be the worst that might happen?
  • When I am waiting, what message does that send to others, or to myself? 

Sometimes these questions seem painful. Why go digging around, creating a new wound?

Here’s the thing, though: When I hear a difficult truth- when someone says something to me and my initial reaction is “ouch,” or even defensiveness- well, the wound is already there. These are signs that something isn’t right. At this point, gentle inquiry is merely peeling off the Band-Aid, exposing the damage so that it can be cleaned and properly treated.

There are lots of areas in life where you might find that you are putting yourself on hold. As a yoga teacher, although I don’t ask, people often feel like they need to tell me why they don’t do yoga. I hear a lot of this:

I’m too out of shape… I’m not flexible… My husband doesn’t like me to come home late on weeknights… I’m too old. When my kids are bigger, I’ll have more time. 

It’s fine with me if you don’t want to do yoga (really!). If you really want to do something, though, and you feel like you’re waiting for something to change- then maybe it’s time to ask yourself these questions. Listen compassionately for the answers, and let yourself be led by your own wisdom.

This week in class I’m sharing this beautiful poem, Love After Love by Derek Walcott:

The time will come, when with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome

and say, sit here.  Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you.

all your life, whom you have ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit.  Feast on your life.

Note: If anyone knows where the original image is from at the top of this post- please let me know so I can give credit! 

Size Banana: Can I Stop Measuring Myself?

Recently, Geneen Roth posted this on Facebook:

Almost every woman I know has three sizes of clothes in her closet. Thin clothes, fat clothes and in-between. The fat clothes–what I call the “just-in-case clothes”–keep you frightened of gaining weight, and the thin clothes keep you waiting for your life to begin.

Your thin clothes, the ones you need a shoehorn to shimmy into, function as baseball bats to the head. Get rid of them. You have enough mean, abusive voices in your head without having to hang them in your closet. Replace them with clothes that fit you now. Clothes that are soft and gorgeous and allow you to feel the same.

This has given me some material to work with recently. Yes, I do have many sizes of clothes in my closet, and how I feel on any particular day might have something do with the clothes I put on (Note: In this post, I am going to refer to the sizes by fruit names to help illustrate how stupid and arbitrary the measuring system is). If I can fit into a certain size, let’s call it “Size Banana”, for example, I feel svelte, sexy, as though I’ve won some secret prize. Yes, Size Banana, I think with quiet smugness, deep down below the level of conscious thought, I knew there was a reason I kept you hanging around.

BANANA PANTS

But because I am me, and I like cookies, my weight fluctuates, and sometimes Size Banana doesn’t fit as well as it could. Those days I might try on five pairs of pants before I leave the house. Some of them are like, Size-Banana-And-A-Half, and those are okay, but the fact that I can’t fit into the Banana bums me out.

And then sometimes I’m up to another size. Let’s call it Size Mango. The Mango pants are also cute, and they are comfortable. And, something totally miraculous and amazing happens when I put on this larger size…

Although my body weight and shape remain the same, I look and feel much smaller in these slightly larger pants. 

Proudly sporting my Size Mango pants, I leave the house feeling like, “Damn, I’m sexy today,” rather than, “I feel subtly muffin-toppish in these pants. I will be avoiding my reflection in the mirror for the remainder of the day.”

So Geneen Roth is definitely on to something (at least in my book). But I think it’s bigger than wardrobe or body image. It’s about how we measure ourselves. My body is my body no matter what damn pants I put on.  The pants- and the size- are a just a pointless measuring stick. Instead, if I take away the pants and just be naked, so to speak, can I love, or at least accept my body as it is?

It’s not just about physical appearance, either. I can see it pretty clearly in my own yoga practice. Sometimes (usually at home) I’ll feel like a total yoga rock star. Wow, I’ll think, look at this cool thing I can do!  It doesn’t take too long, though, before I find myself in class with someone else whose practice absolutely humbles me… and maybe I feel a little lousy.

Or, I might measure my mental or emotional state.  Recently, a friend told me that I seemed ‘fragile.’ I’ve been struggling a bit with some life challenges, and my history with depression means that it can be easy for me to feel overwhelmed or negative in times of stress. I would love to say I am free of depression- but that’s just another measuring stick, and one that is pretty mean sometimes. What kind of a lousy Buddhist am I? What kind of a yogi? I should have wiped away these samskaras by now.  

If I’m always measuring myself against these standards- thinner, more “advanced” yoga, less prone to depression- then I’m always going to not quite fit. I’ll never be good enough.

How do we re-frame this? At first, I thought that I just needed to measure a little differently by saying, look at how far you’ve come! Way to go! or, look at how good you are- relatively speaking. But this is just like putting on your Size Mango pants.  A  good starting point, but not quite enough, I don’t think. What happens when the Mangos don’t fit anymore? Or if you break your leg and can’t practice yoga? Or if another challenging life event has you in tears? The measuring stick is still waiting in the corner, a quietly menacing presence.

So I think the real work is, eventually, not to give away the clothes that don’t fit, but to throw away the measuring stick completely. I’m going to work to accept my closet full of all-sizes clothing, and my life full of contradictions, and say fat, skinny, advanced, rudimentary, fragile, strong, I am all of these things. Maybe I’m not really any of them. Maybe I’m wasting a whole lot of energy caring about something that makes as much sense as “Size Mango.”

When we stop measuring ourselves so much, when we stop labeling ourselves and our experience, there is a potential for freedom and self-acceptance that allows us to be more accepting not only with ourselves, but toward others. Ladies, have you had the experience where your skinny friend says “I feel so fat”- and you thought to yourself, By her standards, I’m an absolute whale….? While we would never want to make our friends feel bad, by buying in to the whole system of measurement, we’re agreeing that there are better and worse ways to be- degrees of beauty, intelligence, emotional and spiritual maturity-  and that each of us falls somewhere on that scale.  Let’s find a new system.

So perhaps Geneen Roth’s post might be a good place to start. If your Size Banana clothes are feeling like an extension of that mean measuring stick- then get rid of them and do what you need to do to start feeling “soft and gorgeous.” Minus the measuring tools, you are already gorgeous and perfect. Let yourself start to believe it.

P.S. Yes, I would actually wear these banana pants in the picture above. Why not! Yoga teachers get to wear some crazy stuff. Let me know if you find them for sale anywhere. 

Saucha: Rediscovering Purity

This is the first of (probably) five posts about the niyamas, or moral restraints of yoga. You can get more information on the niyamas and their place in the eight limbs of yoga here

nuances-8_lLove, if it is love, never goes away.
It is embedded in us,
like seams of gold in the Earth,
waiting for light,
waiting to be struck.

-Alice Walker, Even So

The first of the niyamas, Saucha, is translated as purity. This may not excite you. I understand. “Purity” smacks of things too wholesome to maintain, like chastity, white Communion dresses, or a starch-free diet.

Thankfully, we’re given a bit of leeway as far as interpretation- and I’m willing to take it.

Sure, I bet Patanjali was suggesting we should strive for purity in lots of things. I do feel better when I eat less processed food, exercise regularly, maintain my meditation practice, refrain from gossip, spend less time on YouTube or Facebook. These are important parts of Saucha, and I don’t want to take away from them- but you can probably read enough about them elsewhere.

For my own practice, I’ve been inspired by the way Deborah Adele interprets Saucha in her book The Yamas and NiyamasShe suggests that Saucha “has a relational quality that asks us not only to seek purity in ourselves, but to seek purity with each moment by allowing it to be as it is.” In other words, we are asked NOT to “change, criticize, alter, control, manipulate, pretend, be disappointed, or check out.”

What does this look like in your daily life? It might be harder than that starch-free diet. It means  accepting heavy traffic (and other drivers) on the way to work without needing it to change. It means talking to your friends without wishing they’d act or speak differently- even when they themselves are acting with a lack of purity! It means, most difficult of all, that we accept ourselves and our lives just as they are- without needing to be skinnier, friendlier, happier, more patient, or anything other than just ourselves, as we are, in the present moment.

It means that we flush away the storyline, lose the interpretation, unwrap the layers of conditioning and fear and just practice being ourselves.  At our hearts, at our deepest layer, the foundational core of us, we are already pure. As Alice Walker’s beautiful poem says, “love is embedded in us, like seams of gold…waiting to be struck.” When I add on my stuff- my stories, my need to appear a certain way, my need for things to work out in my favor, I’m just muddying things up.

Eckhart Tolle, in his recording Deepening the Dimension of Stillnesscaptures this nicely. “You don’t need to remember who you are to be yourself,” he says, speaking of the tendency we have to label ourselves with the roles we play- mother, teacher, depressed person, vegetarian. “You can be yourself without any story… you are more fully yourself when you are not remembering the story.”

I’ve been actively practicing this for a few days. As with so many of these practices, it started with an awareness. I found myself caught up in a story of my own- I actually sensed myself putting on a role, like a jacket. It wasn’t quite so simple as, “OK, now I’m going to feel sorry for myself and act depressed,” but, crazy as it sounds- it was not that far off. I was able to see it happening and notice what (unflattering, so I won’t list them) behaviors went with it. And although I was not able to completely shrug off the story at that moment, I know that my awareness helped me to leave it behind more quickly than I have in the past. ‘Who am I underneath this?’ I asked myself (yes, I actually did talk to myself). ‘I don’t need to do this at all.’ And picturing Alice Walker’s gold vein, unstruck within me, I recalled my pure value.

At the same time, however, Saucha demands that I not chastise myself for these moments of role-playing, story-writing, forgetting our true value. Yeah, I am unconditional, pure love- but I am also a fully functional creative human being. There will be moments of grief, of anger, or frustration, or nausea or a broken leg and all of the potential suffering that goes with these. If I practice purity, I allow these things to happen, not needing to change them (!) and know they will pass.

Perhaps my favorite part of Deborah Adele’s interpretation of this topic is a quote from Matthew Sanford, who speaks from the experience of an accident that left him paralyzed from waist down: “I am not afraid of my sadness. My sadness is an incredible gift that allows me to be with people who are suffering without trying to fix them.” What a gift indeed, to accept without needing to change. To love without needing to interfere. To learn to be uncomfortable together, and then to find comfort in this way.

A last bit of a poem to illustrate:

David Whyte: Enough

“Enough: These few words are enough.

If not these words, this breath.

If not this breath, this sitting here.

This opening to the life

we have refused

again & again

Until now.

 

Until now.”

Photo credit: paul bica / Foter.com / CC BY