Finding Joy in Movement

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8093518045_3803cfbbb4_bOne of the niyamas, or observances, in the yoga sutras is Santosha, or contentment. This has always been an tricky concept for me. It has often felt dangerously close to passivity. I have seen the idea be used as a way to keep people in their place, to keep them from realizing their full potential. And I personally don’t want to simply accept the injustices of the world, I would rather strive to create a better paradigm. It’s also really easy from my comfortable and blessed life in Seattle to embrace contentment. But what are those living in abject poverty around the world supposed to do with this concept? What practical use does it have?

So, how does one resolve this concept into something we can put to use in our daily lives? My view on contentment changed when a teacher of mine helped me to understand contentment not as being static and unchanging, but as an acceptance of your current reality, which is also never static. When viewed this way, and when tempered with non-greed, contentment can actually become a powerful agent of change. It can be used as a way of empowerment, of recognizing that you have what you need right now. It may take a while and a hell of a lot of effort, but you can only begin with where you are. You don’t need to rail against reality in frustration, you can step back and examine the tools at your disposal and get to work.

Santosha to me also contains a fair bit of gratitude. Gratitude can be used in several ways. You can tell yourself that gratitude means never having anything more than you currently have, or you can be grateful for having the tools that you do have. Ironically (and this is where the practical application of the idea comes about), when you try and force things to change without acceptance and even gratitude for the current reality, we run into obstacle after obstacle as reality and what we want reality to be butt heads. But when you start by cultivating contentment for the universe being the way it is, we can enact change.

There is a taoist story about a master butcher that I think illustrates this point. In the story the master butcher is able to slice up meat without dulling his blade and without any apparent effort, (effortless effort, or wu wei) where others are working up a sweat and going through many different blades. He does this he says, by working with and acknowledging the spaces that are there, by working with what exists, not against it. By accepting reality instead of fighting, opposing, or arguing with it he masters it.

Instead of just being a value we should aspire to, contentment can also be seen as a practical tool we can use to bring about change and avoid unnecessary suffering along the way.

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Beyond the poses

Prasarita_Padottanasana_Wide_Legged_Forward_Bend_1The following may seem strange coming from a yoga teacher, but sometimes I think that the postures of yoga can be an impediment to progress. I have spent a lot of time studying and practicing the poses as they have been defined and developed over the years, but one thing I have come to realize is that a pose is simply a snapshot of a movement or or a direction you might be heading in,  which exists in a continuum, not in some perfect and static form. It can be really easy to get caught up in doing a pose “right” and losing sight of what the pose is supposed to accomplish in the first place. The poses might be a really useful shorthand for your practice, but ultimately, their usefulness is dictated not by conforming our bodies and practice to an expectation of the pose, but using them in a way that furthers an understanding of ourselves and that helps us to move forward.

There are really only a couple of things that the body is capable of doing: we bend forward, we bend backward, we twist, we can bend sideways, and the legs and arms can rotate out or in. Every posture is simply one or more of these movements in various combinations oriented in various ways in space. And they tend to get defined at nice, neat angles that may or may not be where you receive benefit from the pose. Deepening your practice does not mean to me that you can do more poses or that your postures look really great, but that you are more and more aware of the specifics of your body and the ways that it might benefit from movements that may or may not be part of a traditional posture.

I once assisted an over-60 yoga class for a month or so and was blown away by how open they were to trying different things. There was an 87 year old woman in one class who was new to yoga and whom I will never forget. She had had hip and knee replacement surgeries and had trouble both walking and standing upright without some difficulty. But she was incredibly curious about how her body might work within the context of yoga and how she could adjust to find something useful. Partly because her body simply wasn’t going to be able to get into some of the traditional poses, she had no real expectations or preconceptions, just an open-minded attitude and managed to find useful movements that she could sit with and breath with. More quickly than the vast majority of younger students I teach, she managed to find the essence of the yoga practice without really any postures to speak of. It was wonderful and inspiring.

So how do we know when the postures are serving us and when we are serving the postures? This is difficult and requires some real honesty on the part of the practitioner. For myself, the times that I have gotten into trouble were all times when I was trying to accomplish a posture instead of using that posture to connect to something useful for me in that moment. We need to be aware of why we are making the decisions we are making when we practice a posture, and to examine our assumptions about both our bodies and the poses as we take practice. I have no one-size-fits-all solution to how to do this, just an encouragement to continually examine and question. One of my teachers at one point (wisely) said that wisdom is not something gained by memorizing the sutras or perfecting the poses, etc. but by a lifetime of experience paying attention while you do so.

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Giving Thanks

ThankfulThis month, my wife has started keeping a little notebook of gratitudes that the whole family has been contributing to each day. We usually do it at breakfast and go around and talk about the things we are grateful for. Some days, it’s the big stuff (love, family, friends, etc) and sometimes it’s the little things (my son’s gratitude yesterday was that there was soy sauce on his rice). This has been a wonderful practice in many ways. One of the things that has surprised me a bit is that I’ve been noticing how that for me at least, it’s noticing the small stuff that actually has the most impact on my day. When I get into the mindset of being thankful for the little things, all of a sudden, my day becomes filled with gratitude. The big things do of course matter, but so does the small stuff and there tends to be more of that. The little moments that life is made up of and that can contribute to our overall sense of well-being when we just take the time to pay attention.
In this month of giving thanks, I’m thankful for my family, for my friends, for my career and all that it allows me to do, for the continued curiosity that drives me and keeps me looking forward to the future and engaged in the present, for the fact that I enjoy relative peace when so many do not, for the cup of cappuccino in front of me, for a body that is healthy, for getting to sleep in this morning, for the preschool that my kid enjoys so much, for new hobbies, and for all the people that make my day so enriching and stimulating. Grateful for each and every moment.

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Integrating The Travel Experience

Integrating_post_imageI’ve been remiss in posting on this blog for a while…..OK, I totally dropped it a few years ago – but I’m going to give it another shot. This stems partly from some conversations I was having with one of my students on my retreat in Italy a few weeks ago. This student is a writer and was noting the similarities between writing and yoga. Both require you to be as present as possible, dropping your expectations in order to truly see the world around you and within you. An internal honesty that is easy to miss sometimes in the day to day grind of work, responsibilities, etc.

As I was reflecting on this, I realized that it is partly what I love about travel as well. We are out of our routine and have explicitly signed up for the experience of being present to our moment and noticing with new eyes. And it’s easy to see with new eyes when you are seeing things for the first time.

The trouble for me is that when I get back, it’s so easy to fall back into old patterns and habits. I always struggle with how to integrate the experience of travel and all the good stuff that comes along with it into my life back home. I often get back home and spend my time either holding on to the experience of travel or already looking forward to the next trip, while not being present to all the good stuff right in front of me at home.

So I’m again going to try to integrate moments of conscious attention into my daily routine. I started drawing a bit (even before the trip), and I’m going to try and get back to writing more also. Just like the physical practice of yoga, I believe we can start small with practices that cultivate presence, and that those small moments then over time become habit.

I’ll try and keep a somewhat regular posting schedule here (somewhat) and would love to hear from any of you as I do.

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One of my loves (and something I’ve been spending a lot of my free time on this last year) is the art of hand balancing. Ever since I was first introduced to the circus arts, I’ve been totally inspired by the acts I’ve seen. It is a beautiful art and requires an insane amount of control and flexibility. I thought I’d share some of my favorite acts here on the blog (at least the ones that are on Youtube). I hope you find these as inspiring as I do.

Anatoly Zalievsky – Amazing act. His style is so graceful. Just beautiful to watch.

Jarek and Derek – Hand to Hand. I saw these guys when Cirque de la Symphonie came through town. The rest of the show was a little underwhelming, but these guys blew me away. Even better in real life.

Dima Bulkin – Umm, wow. That spine!

Andrey Katkov – Cheesy act, but his skills are incredible and his form is just perfect.

Artur – The opposite of above. Imperfect form, amazing act.

Ricardo Sosa – Another cheesy act, but he is one of the masters.

Marco and Paulo Lorador – Another Hand to Hand act. It’s a little old and slightly dated at this point, but these guys are amazing. Muscles anyone?

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Parenting as Yoga

My wife and I recently had our first kid, a baby boy named Octavian. While I am brand new to being a parent, one thing that struck me immediately was how similar in some ways being a parent is to meditation. Both require you to stay with the moment, to simply be present with what is happening, and both require a certain balance of effort and surrender.

While I’ve had a meditation practice for a while now, I will admit that at times, it’s been hard for me to see concrete examples of how I’ve grown through that practice. I might be able to stay with my breath a little longer now than when I started, but I wasn’t sure that my life had changed much as a direct result of the practice. It ‘s sometimes easy to think of yoga as something that you do only in a controlled environment – either at the studio or in a meditation corner at home, while the rest of life continues on pretty much as normal.

As a new parent however, I’ve had to call upon my mindfulness practice repeatedly in order to be fully present for my child. A meditation practice has given me a valuable tool in beginning this new journey, and conversely, bringing mindfulness to my every day life allows me to practice yoga wherever I am.

Being a parent has reminded me of why we practice – so that when life calls on us to be present, to deal with a crying child without crying ourselves, to experience the rush of rush hour traffic without losing our sense of calm, or to be there for a friend in need, we are able to call upon our experiences and remind ourselves that ‘I know how to do this. I know how to stay with this moment and be centered even when other thoughts might be trying to draw me away from that center”