One Thing At A Time

There have been several recent studies, like this one, that have definitively proven that multi-tasking is not only inefficient, but also Publication2-page-0harmful to the brain. Frequent or chronic multi-taskers use their brains less effectively than folks who focus on one task at a time.

This, of course, is not news to ancient Yogis who knew the value of singular focus and a less cluttered brain. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali talk about training the mind to focus on one single principle or object.

Despite the research, multi-tasking still seems to be a badge of honor and something that is highly valued in a prospective employee. It may take a few years for the research to catch on, but in the meantime we can all benefit from unlearning this “skill”. Not just in our work life, but in our personal lives as well. So much of each moment is missed when our brains are occupied with things that have happened, are happening simultaneously, or will be happening.

Like any habit we’ve formed, in order to change it, we need to form a new habit by repetitively and mindfully choosing to focus on one thing at a time. A regular and comprehensive yoga (meaning, ALL of yoga, not just asana) practice is a good way to train the mind for singular and directed focus. By giving our brains the opportunity and space to focus on our breath and only our breath we begin the hard work of retraining ourselves to operate more effectively and efficiently in a world that is built around multi-tasking.

One breath at a time, one moment at a time, one thing at a time.

Passover Ponderings

We are now two days into the Jewish Passover holiday, a celebration of the Isrealite exodus from slavery in Egypt and a reminder of

By Adaptation by Marsyas (Gill/Gillerman slides collection (Yale)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Adaptation by Marsyas (Gill/Gillerman slides collection (Yale)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

the fact that no matter how difficult or dark things may seem, there is always a chance of improvement. Everything changes, both good circumstances and bad ones. Nothing stays the same, ever.

The Hebrew name for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means a tight or narrow constricting place. We can all relate to feeling stuck, with no idea how to move or get out. In our asana practice we sometimes do noose pose or pashasana, a posture in which we physically experience the discomfort of being bound. Our arms are literally twisted behind are backs, our breathing is restricted, and our body parts are not in their usual places in relation to one another. As with each and every yoga posture, the physical sensations we experience can move us towards awareness. What do these sensations bring up for us and what insight can those feelings provide?

In pashasana it is we who bind ourselves and we who release ourselves, which can teach us a lot about restrictions that we impose on ourselves and the tools we have within to move towards freedom. But sometimes, the tight spaces in which we find ourselves are not self-imposed. As with the story of the Isrealites sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances that typify the feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. What then?

Then, we rely on faith. Faith that though we cannot see a way out, there is one. Passover reminds us of the redemptive nature of time.  We can all move from slavery to freedom, through work, through grace, and through time.

Happy International Day of Happiness!

Tomorrow is the first ever United Nations International Day of Happiness. In 2012 the General Assembly passed the resolution saying ImageGen they were doing so “…recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples…”.

An inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach, not only to economic growth, but to everything is something the world needs desperately. And the recognition that these things are vital to the happiness and well-being of all people is surely something to be celebrated.

We are not happy when we are off-balance, when we are treating others or being treated unfairly, or when we are excluding others or being excluded. This is, I believe, common sense. But if Yoga has taught me anything through the years it is that any action or behavior, positive or negative, starts with us. If we want to be fair, balanced and inclusive in our dealings with others, we need to be treating ourselves in that way as well.

Are we fair in our assessment of ourselves? Are we balanced in our expectations? Do we accept, wholly and completely, who and what we are?

Action for Happiness is one organization that is focusing on happiness in ways both big and small. Making ourselves happy, making others happy, and helping the happiness to spread.

When we observe the world, we don’t have to look very far to find barriers to happiness. Let’s work on tackling the barriers within as well. The Golden Rule applies to the self. Treat others (and yourself) the way you want to be treated. Be kind, be compassionate, be fair, be inclusive, be balanced. And then go out into the world and be a bearer of happiness.

Happy Happy Day, yogis!

The Power of Stories

Brainpickings.org is one of my favorite websites because of things like this:

The Neurochemistry of Empathy, Storytelling, and the Dramatic Arc, Animated. 

I’ve just happened to read or listen to a lot of things recently about brain plasticity. I was particularly struck by a quote from the post on Brainpickings:

 “Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature.”

Our brains are constantly rewiring themselves based on what we consume and what we experience. The stories we read, the stories we listen to, and the stories we tell … all of these have the potential to affect the wiring of our brains. The implications of this are huge.

B0007846 Pyramidal neuronsYogis talk a lot about self-talk, and how the things we tell ourselves can either promote or inhibit our spiritual growth. Is our self-talk damaging or nourishing, critical or compassionate? And are we surrounding ourselves with ideas and images and people who are wiring our brains for love and connection or for separateness and competition?  How are the stories we tell ourselves about our past, our present, our future, our abilities, our successes and our failures affecting the development of our brains?

Big questions worth asking, I think.

Namaste, yogis.

The Beginning of the End of Violence

There’s a lot of talk in the US right now about violence; Where does it begin? Can it be avoided? Are violent video games and movies to silenceblame for recent spate of mass shootings? How do our current gun laws contribute to or prevent violence?

I have lots of opinions, but no answers. The only thing I am sure of is that it is a multifaceted problem, and one that will not be solved only through legislation or personal changes or societal changes, but rather a confluence of all three.

I recently downloaded an album* which contains a song with the lyric, “Will I ever know silence without mental violence?”. What a profound question and one that is probably not unfamiliar to folks who practice meditation or Yoga or anybody, really, who has sought to become aware of their inner dialogue.

I will venture to say that most, if not all of us, struggle with negative self-talk and thoughts that we may not consider to be violent but which are in fact unkind, unhelpful, and can be quite damaging. They go something like this: I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough, I’m not thin enough, I’m not good-looking enough, I don’t deserve this, I am unlovable.

According to yogic wisdom, the first and most important of the yamas and niyamas (the ethical guidelines for living) is ahimsa. Ahimsa is radical non-violence. Radical, as in fundamental and absolute. Non-violence means not doing harm to any living thing, in word, thought or deed, including towards ourselves. Of the three, not doing harm in thought is the most difficult.

Most people on this planet are good and operate with good intentions. We hear more often about the unfortunate and the bad because that’s what makes money. And why does it make money? Because we continue to consume it. Violence towards ourselves and others is something that we consume with abandon. I’m including in this not only the gloom and doom of the media and unquestionably violent entertainment, but also books and magazines that tell us to lose more weight or to change our hair style to appear more attractive to whomever we’d like to attract. The message coming at us from all sides is the same as the negative self-talk that we hear when we stop long enough to allow it. It is coming from within and from without and it’s hurting everyone. The result is a society full of very busy people avoiding silence and stillness, lest they be confronted with the mental violence head on.

This policy of avoidance does not work. There are people who are mentally ill who have no control and who need our help to protect them from doing harm to themselves or others. But for those of us who have the capability to change our mental patterns and to choose to see ourselves and the world around us differently have an obligation to do so.

I’m not saying everyone should do Yoga and meditate (though I would love to see it!). There are other avenues towards inner peace: religion, therapy, community, to name a few. I’m also not saying that everyone has the support they need or the access to these things. That is an unfortunate reality of modern society. What I am saying is that for there ever to be an end in sight to the senseless violence we have to go to the source. As a wise person once said, you can only begin at the beginning: ourselves.

May all beings be happy

May all beings be safe

May all beings be at peace

May all beings know silence without mental violence

May all beings be free.

* Album: I and Love and You by The Avett Brothers. Song: Incomplete and Insecure

Happy Lunar New Year!

The snake the littlest yogi and I made to celebrate Seolnal.

The snake the littlest yogi and I made to celebrate Seolnal.

Happy New Year, yogis! I am very excited to be here in Korea for the lunar new year. Last lunar new year I was in the US, so I missed this most important of all Korean holidays. I was sure I was missing a great deal of fanfare, but truth be told, I’ve never seen Seoul this empty or quiet. It’s almost unnerving.

Korean New Year is called Seolnal and is generally celebrated for three days. It is a family holiday and most people travel to their homes and participate in a ritual to honor their ancestors. They also honor their living elders, wishing them blessings in the New Year, and children are given money for good luck. The traditional food consumed is dduk guk, a rice cake soup,  and various types of hangwa, or traditional sweets.

We are now in the year of the snake, which I learned recently is meant for steady progress and attention to detail. Sounds like a great year to be a yogi.

Wishing you all many blessings, good luck, and lots of steady progress and attention!

Namaste.

Lent and तपस् (Tapas)

Buckle your seatbelts; it’s February. Yes, already. If, like me, you thought New Year’s was just a few days ago, you might also be Meditation_by_Kokuzosurprised to realize that we’re already several days into the second month of this year.

Ash Wednesday is coming up very soon, marking the beginning of the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter. I have never observed Lent as it wasn’t in my tradition growing up, but I have become familiar with it through the years. It is my understanding that it is a time of purification and renewal of commitment to faith proven through sacrifice, prayer, and good works. All of this, of course, in preparation to celebrate Easter Season, specifically the resurrection of Jesus.

These ideals of purification, sacrifice, good works are not unique to Christianity and can be found in all major religions and world philosophies. Yoga is no exception, although there is not a great deal of emphasis in yogic philosophy on penance mainly because the idea of sin doesn’t really exist within Yoga. Impurities, yes. Bad habits, absolutely. Mistaken thoughts, definitely. Bad choices that result in bad karma, most certainly. Original sin? Not so much

Despite this difference, I think there is a lot of common ground to be found between Lent and the yogic tapas, particularly if we choose to see the idea of Christian penance as corollary to the idea of facing karma.  Tapas means heat and the idea is to burn off the negative energy that we gather as we move through life in order to move ever closer to spiritual enlightenment. Tapas are not penance, but they can be done as penance, i.e. a means to liberate oneself from bad karma caused by a wrong thought, word, or deed. More commonly, however, tapas are thought of as a disciplined approach to our practice. They are the efforts and sacrifices we make to be self-disciplined as we purify our hearts and minds through our practice, moving closer to our spiritual goals.

So, as Lent prepares the believer, tapas prepare the practitioner, each for their chosen path. Something I find especially appealing about Lent is the idea of this practice being a form of justice.  The 40 days of prayer, fasting, and good works are forms of justice to God, oneself, and one’s neighbor, respectively. If we think of doing justice as “appreciating properly”, then we can see Lent and/or tapas as a practice that helps us to fully appreciate and recognize the Divine, ourselves, and all others.

The other thing this has me thinking about it how there need not be any conflict between Christianity and Yoga. It seems that a few times a year this debate heats up – can Christians practice Yoga? To me, the answer is clear. Of course they can! Though they may diverge on certain specific beliefs, the overarching message of both is the same: love, kindness, compassion, devotion, forgiveness.

Wishing you all an enlightening Lenten season, if that is your practice. For the first time this year, I am planning on doing my own 40 day meditation practice during Lent. I have done 40-day practices before, but never during the Christian Lenten period. I’m looking forward to sharing the energy of devotion with my Christian brothers and sisters.

Namaste.

When Practicing Yoga Means Not “Doing” Yoga

Several years ago, as a very earnest and eager new yogini, I injured my right knee during a rather vigorous yoga class. Quite frankly, it3655834007_dbd6a5f804 was a class I shouldn’t even have been in, given my lack of experience in asana practice and my inability to do a lot of the postures with proper form. Unfortunately, people being in yoga classes beyond their ability and teachers keeping them safe in these classes is a real problem in the yoga community. (Which is why articles like this show up in the New York Times)

Long story short, after the injury I insisted on continuing a physical yoga practice until I literally could not go up or down stairs and could only walk with excruciating pain. Finally, I surrendered. I listened to my body, I rested my knee, which meant absolutely NO ASANA from the waist down, and slowly but surely my knee healed. It took months. Many long months.

The first of those long months I pouted. But after a few months of pouting, I got back to a real yoga practice. No asana, but Yoga just the same. Within a few weeks of a daily non-physical yoga practice, I stopped pouting. I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I stopped resenting my body and its imperfections and I started feeling compassion towards myself and especially my poor knee that had been so abused by me, its owner. And, most importantly, I felt a profound empathy for people with limited mobility and those living with chronic pain.

It was this experience with my knee injury that fueled my passion for making yoga accessible for persons of all abilities. Not only because I think that every single person can do asana to some extent, but because I know that every single person can practice Yoga whether they have an asana practice or not. Asana is just a small part of Yoga on the whole (not that you’d know it to observe how it is practiced in the West).

Throughout the years I’ve had many students approach me with questions about how they can modify their asana practice because of an injury and many times the answer is: stop. Stop doing asana for a while. Your body must rest. I can count on one hand the number of students who have accepted this answer immediately. The usual response is: “Oh no, I can’t do that”.

I do not judge this response because I know it well. I understand the reaction. And it may be that these students need to do what I did – essentially ignore their bodies to the point of debilitating pain – before they can surrender and listen to their bodies. But until we learn to do just that – surrender and listen – we are not actually practicing Yoga. We’re just exercising.

Yoga means acceptance of what is, compassion towards ourselves and others, and holding space for ourselves to heal and be whole. We cannot be healed or whole when we are hurting our bodies through an insistence on a physical practice. When we are so attached to our physical practice that we do it even when our bodies are telling us otherwise, we have allowed our practice to become yet another “thing” that keeps us from having a clear and calm mind.

A few days ago I felt a sudden and familiar twinge in my right knee. My first reaction was, “No! Not this again!”, followed by “it’s probably not that bad”. It took a few days of this (and lots more pain) for me to once again accept that what my body needs more than anything right now is rest. After many years as both a teacher and a student of Yoga, this is still very hard for me to do.

Sometimes, practicing Yoga means not “doing” Yoga, but practicing all of the things that our asana practice is supposed to teach us and reinforce about letting go, surrender, and acceptance. It means that sometimes we stop doing and we start being.

Embraceable You

Happy New Year, yogis!

Please forgive me for being approximately (or exactly) 11 days late in wishing you a good new year. My tardiness does not properly reflect my wishes for you to have a healthy, heartful 2013.

I don’t ever set resolutions at the new year, though I do find that it is often a convenient time for me to begin a new practice or to change a behavior or to assess what is working and what isn’t working in my life. This year, prompted by conversations with others, I’ve thought of a few words that I would like to focus on in 2013.  All of the words are connected, but if I had to choose one to encompass all the others it would be embrace. This year, I really want to wholeheartedly embrace.

Embrace1

For me this goes beyond letting go of judgments and accepting. This means truly enjoying, celebrating and owning who I have been, who I am now, and who I may become. And not just me. Others as well: my friends, my family, my nearest and dearest as well as perfect strangers and those I’ve kept at a distance.

Shiva, help me. This is going to be a tough one. But I embrace the challenge. Or, at least, I try to.

What about you, yogis? What are your words for 2013?

Namaste.