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

They Grow So Fast

In just a few days, Samdhana-Karana Yoga will be celebrating two years of making Yoga accessible and available to persons of all incomes and abilities.  My heart swells with joy and pride and immense gratitude and I am so pleased to see my first “baby” thriving.

It is hard to believe that two years have passed since my co-founder and I opened our doors, brimming with hope and anxiety and unbridled passion, praying fervently that our community would embrace a non-profit Yoga studio. Embrace it they have and I am once again reminded of the immense rewards that come from being willing to take risks, to fail, and to learn lessons the hard way.

It is only when we are willing to fail that we learn not only what we are truly capable of, but how willing others are to join in to help us succeed. Samdhana-Karana Yoga is thriving today, not because of the vision that Pamela and I had, but because of the students and community members who have supported that vision.

So, thank you to all of my students, all of the folks in Tacoma, WA and beyond who’ve shared the yoga love, and especially to Pamela and Kate who keep my baby alive and well so I can enjoy watching it grow from afar.

Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

 

Enthusiasm + Compassion

I’m back from Hong Kong and the Asia Yoga Conference, dear yogis. It was a fantastic trip and a great experience.

I spent seven straight hours with Sri Dharma Mittra and, as I imagine many people are, was thoroughly moved to be in his presence. The man is pure heart and a living example of dedication. He imparted many gems of wisdom in those hours and hopefully my quickly-scribbled notes will allow me to share them over time.  (I also spent two wonderful hours with Jason Crandell. More on that as well in future posts)

This man is 73 years old!

Today, though, I wanted to share his most frequent and passionate message: enthusiasm and compassion in your yoga practice and in your life will lead to Realization*. It seems so simple because it is, and yet as anybody who has attempted to be enthusiastic and compassionate in everything they do knows,  we can make simple much more difficult than it needs to be.

Enthusiasm can be defined as “absorbing or controlling possession of the mind by any interest or pursuit”. For me this definition is a bit revelatory as I had never considered the role of controlling the mind in being enthusiastic. According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one definition of Yoga is “the ability to direct and focus mental activity and the ability to still the turning of thought.” Looking at these two definitions, it is clear how interconnected the two are.

Finding and maintaining enthusiasm about our practice and our life requires focus; what do we want? what do we hope to gain? what do we hope to refine? Without this focus, enthusiasm and joy will wane. How can we maintain enthusiasm and focus?

By applying compassion towards ourselves and others. Compassion involves not only commiseration, mercy and tenderness but is a feeling always accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate suffering. The ability to be kind to ourselves, to recognize when we need to move away from the plan we’ve laid out for ourselves and perhaps shift our focus onto other things, as well as to recognize that a loss of enthusiasm and/or focus (i.e. suffering) is not something we should berate ourselves for, but rather an indication that it is time to reassess, time perhaps for a change.

I think sometimes in our culture, specifically in competitive settings, we see focus as an ability to remain fixed on a goal in such a way that we are able to ignore everything else around us. While this may be useful for winning a race or a  job or a contract or a client, we have to ask ourselves, if we focus to the point of exclusion of all other sensations, how holistic and balanced can our approach be to life? And is it possible to maintain enthusiasm if we are ignoring so many other parts of ourselves? Eventually, whatever we’re ignoring – our bodies, our families, our spiritual life – will need to be addressed.

What if instead we see focus,  not as a mental override, but through compassionate eyes as a mental attunement? Something that clarifies our path as we move forward, rather than something that keeps us on a path we may have chosen. After all, we can always change our mind! Changing our mind does not necessarily mean we lack focus. It simply means that we see things differently and/or more clearly than we did before and are making necessary adjustments.  In this way focus allows us to find harmony among our physical, energetic, mental, intellectual, and spiritual bodies.

This is what I’m pondering now, dear yogis. As I said, I have lots more to share from the conference and specifically my time with Dharma Mittra, so stay tuned.

Namaste.

 

*more on Realization in a future post

 

 

Renewal

Spring greetings, yogis and yoginis!

Here in South Korea, spring has sprung. We went to the 50th annual Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival this past Friday and it was gorgeous.

These pillowy, ethereal blossoms are a stunning notification that springtime has arrived and a powerful reminder of the fleeting nature of all things. Just as quickly as the trees explode into blossom, the white and pink petals fall to the earth, the spectacular show over. At least until next year.

For many Asians, the cherry blossoms are the ultimate metaphor for Life. For Koreans, there is a mixture of joy and sorrow each springtime when the trees begin to blossom. For them the trees are not only a reminder of the beautiful and fleeting nature of all things, but also of a dark period in their nation’s history. Most of the cherry trees in Korea were planted by the Japanese during their occupation of the peninsula. For many years after the liberation from Japanese rule, the trees were cut down, seen as invaders. Recently, though, botanists have discovered that the cherry trees that were planted by the Japanese were a species that originated in Korea. They had been taken from Korea to Japan and then back again when the Japanese planted them as a means to claim land. This discovery has helped to heal the wound somewhat, though it is still a sore subject for many.

Despite all this, the Koreans still celebrate the blossoms. No matter how they got here, they are beautiful and powerful symbols of renewal and hope. The Koreans’ ability to sit with these very layered feelings and to celebrate nonetheless is something I deeply admire.

As we walked around Jinhae and Changwon, taking in the cherry blossoms, the forsythia, and the magnolias, there was a warm spring breeze, bright blue skies, and that wonderful smell of spring that carries with it the promise of longer days, warmer temperatures, and a world bursting into color.

For many of us this time of year coincides with a religious tradition as well. Whether that tradition be Christian, Jewish, Pagan, or otherwise,  all are centered on renewal, resurrection, hope, liberation and the new beginnings that spring from those things.

In our asana practice, each time we end our practice with savasana, we are meditating on these very same things. As we lie on our mat, dead to the world around us, we let go of all of the things we have gathered and are carrying with us. We let go of our expectations, our worries, and our identities. For those moments we simply exist as our essential, stripped-down self. We become like the cherry tree that has gone deep within during the winter months, gathering energy from the Earth, preparing for the rebirth and renewal that will happen come springtime. It is this shedding, this letting go, that readies us for the growth ahead.

As we slowly allow our consciousness to return, gently awakening from savasana, we make our way back to an upright position. We are resurrected from our dead state, and from this place of bareness, or newness, we can blossom.

We have risen. We have risen, indeed.

At least until the next time we step on our mats, and then the beautiful cycle starts all over again.

Wishing all of you a joyful spring and blessed holidays.

I Change, therefore I Grieve

In 1991, the Grief Resource Foundation of Dallas, Texas found that, for them, a good working and practical definition of Grief was “the total response of the organism to the process of change”. Or, if you’re into equations, Change=Loss=Grief.

As a Yogini, I find this definition makes perfect sense to me. In our Yoga practice, particularly asana, we are doing the work of accepting and moving through change. We learn that the nature of all things is that they change. This lesson is reinforced as we move through our physical practice, changing our bodies breath to breath. Our bodies are the metaphor for everything in the external world – ever evolving.

We are all familiar with the emotions that can bubble up during a Yoga practice.  Before we get to the good stuff – the bliss – we often feel what can be described as discomfort, unease, frustration, perhaps anger, maybe even queasiness. Could these be grief? What if we saw our practice as a means to grieve the loss we are experiencing because of the changes that are occurring as a result of our dedicated practice? Notice, the definition of grief does not specify what kind of change. Just change. Positive or negative, all changes require us to let go of whatever was there before. Loss. We lose whatever our idea of reality was before we adopt a new reality.

So do we allow ourselves the space to grieve our losses, not only in our Yoga practice, but in our life? So often there is a negative connotation to the word grief but perhaps if we shift our perspective. If we apply some equanimity and begin to see grief as simply a part of change. It is good that we lose some things as we change. What if we had to hold on to everything we ever gathered, physically or otherwise? We’d be very weighed down!

In my own personal practice  I’ve been working with this – allowing myself space to grieve that which is changing. For me, it has been a very powerful exercise. It has helped me to be more focused, more aware of what I’m feeling, and ultimately, more compassionate. Grief and loss, like all emotions, are just part of the experience. By accepting and moving through them, rather than resisting, we enhance our entire experience of life.

(Change=Loss=Grief)+(practice +acceptance) = Compassion=Love=Oneness

Twitter got me thinking …

Since I am up at all hours these days, I spend more time than usual reading through my Twitter feed on my iPhone while the little one feeds. The other night/day (who knows?) I read the following tweet from Deepak Chopra: Real change is accompanied by a new insight. Insight is an impulse of love dissolving some old imprint. This got me thinking about the relationship between change and love and the nature of the two.

Love cannot be avoided, though we spend a great deal of our lives alternately chasing after and retreating from it. We all want love, but the experience of it can be a bit scary since all love – romantic love, familial love, neighborly love, self-love – requires us to be vulnerable. In our Yoga practice, we experience love. We learn to love our whole selves – body, energy, mind, intellect, and spirit – and we learn to radiate this love out to others. This love tends to result in change, which also cannot be avoided. As we grow in love, the way we experience the world changes and this shift in perspective often leads to changes in behavior. Many times, these changes are changes that we seek. For most of us, that is why we were drawn to Yoga or a spiritual practice in the first place. It is the realizations that we have as we grow in love that help us to make necessary changes.

So, we make true and lasting change when we have an insight. And these insights result from love ridding us of some old idea or habit that we need to alter. But the word that Deepak used that really got me thinking was “impulse”. Insight is an impulse of love. An impulse is something that is involuntary, sudden, perhaps instinctual. To say that love can have an impulse introduces the idea of love, not as only an emotion felt by us and emoted from us, but rather an energy with its own agenda. And this love-energy, whether we realize it or not, is the motivating force for real change within us, because that is what it is impulsively motivated to do. Love “wants” us to evolve to our highest Self.

This means that beyond giving and receiving love, we need to let love. We need to allow it to flow through us and around us and beyond us. That saying “Let go and let God” could perhaps also be “Let go and let Love”.  If the nature of the world around us is to change, and Love is the source of change, then Love is also the nature of the Universe. I love the idea of the world around us, everything we encounter, conspiring to make us the most complete and truest version of our Self.  For, if everything is everything, then we too are Love.

Ode to Fletcher

Those of you who have taken many classes from me have probably heard me talk about my dog, Fletcher. He is among my greatest Yoga teachers. Not a day has gone by since we’ve had the pleasure of being his humans that he hasn’t reinforced a lesson or taught me something completely new.

I grew up with dogs, and have had many in my life. Fletcher is the only dog I’ve had as an adult and he is by far the quirkiest. To say he has personality is an understatement. He is smart, incredibly stubborn, and only motivated by human affection.  His capacity to love is giant and marvelous and beautiful. All day, every day, is about giving and receiving love.

A dog’s ability to be loyal, humble, joyful, playful, curious and always in the present moment serves as an excellent example of how to approach our Yoga practice. In Hindu imagery, Shiva is often depicted with dogs. Dogs can represent the lowly ones of society, but are also sometimes representative of faithfulness. Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras that by approaching our practice from a place of faithfulness and humility, without any attachment to the outcome, we will progress.

Fletcher has been a living example for me each day. He has taught me incredible patience both with myself and others. He has reminded me of the necessity to love and accept people, including myself,  as they are in each moment, trusting that where they are is exactly where they are meant to be. We have spent many hours together walking, smelling, exploring and enjoying the simple pleasures of each moment. Most of all, he reminds me to let all of my actions spring from unabashed love.  Allowing others to see our desire to love and to be loved can be a very vulnerable experience, but it is always the right choice.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Fletcher made it across the big sea like a total champ. He came out of his crate after the long journey happy as always, affectionate, a little thirsty, and excited to see us. He immediately started investigating his new surroundings, being sure to never wander far enough away from us that we would be out of his line of vision. For a few days all was well as we started to settle in. Then, one day, while out for a walk, he suddenly started yelping in pain. We had no idea what happened, but it was clear he was experiencing some pain in his hind legs. We got him back to the apartment as quickly as we could and immediately got in touch with a vet. The vet told us to treat him like an injured athlete – rest and pain meds – and to call if it didn’t get any better. Over the next few days it got progressively worse and so we brought him in. Now, weeks later, we’ve been back and forth to the vet several times, and still don’t quite know what is wrong. We do know that he is in a great deal of pain. We know that he is suffering. We know that there is nothing that can be done.

We’ve made the impossible decision to let him die  peacefully and it seems my dog, my Fletcher, is teaching me the hardest lesson yet – letting go. This whole year is shaping up to be one giant lesson in non-attachment and acceptance of change. It is one thing to recognize that intellectually, but it is another thing entirely to actually move through acceptance. I am beyond attached to Fletcher. Letting go of him feels like letting go of an organ essential for life. I NEED him. Or so it feels. And yet, I know through my Yoga practice that all beings enter our lives for a reason, leave for a reason, and that a part of them stays with us always. Change is eternal. Dogs are not.

The timing of all of this feels awful, but when is a good time to lose someone you love? We will be welcoming new life into our home so very soon, and I know that this baby will become one of my Yoga teachers. My heart will expand in ways I cannot even imagine and the love in our life will increase exponentially.

The Universe, in her entirety, is full of lessons. Every being, every living thing, has something to teach us, if only we are open to it. Right now, in this moment, I am trying to celebrate Fletcher’s life, appreciate all that he has taught me, and be grateful for the opportunity to learn from a humble, loyal, quirky, stubborn, magnificent dog.

Seoul!

Well, we made it. We are in our apartment, which is lovely, though we still don’t have any of our stuff besides what we brought with us on the plane. So, it’s a bit like camping … in a really nice apartment. We have clothes, an air mattress, one pot, two bowls, two spoons, two forks, and two knives. Turns out, that’s all we need.

In the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the five activities of the mind. One of these activities is conceptualization or imagination. The sutra can be translated as: Imagination (vikalpa) is a thought pattern that has verbal expression and knowledge, but for which there is no such object or reality in existence. Our imagination is directly linked to our creativity and is not in and of itself a bad thing. It can be used to create joy.  But it can also be used  to create worse-case scenarios. For example, when we have to go to the DMV, we very rarely think, “I’m going to have so much time on my hands while I sit and wait at the DMV. I can get some reading done!”. Rather we usually think something like, “The line is going to be so long, this is going to take FOREVER, those people are always so rude …”.  When we use our imagination to create ideas and expectations that have no basis in reality we always suffer. When things turn out better than what we imagined, we’re so stuck in our false imagined reality that we don’t appreciate it. When things turn out worse than what we were imagining, we feel slighted, as though reality has just slapped us in the face. Even when things turn out exactly as we imagined, we sometimes find fault and wish that things were different.

I’ve been thinking about this sutra because it is, of course, something I need to work on. The morning we left for the airport with all of our luggage and our animals, I was imagining absolute chaos. How were we going to get the animals into the airport? Were we going to be able to find a cart? The airline staff probably won’t be very sensitive to my concerns about the animals traveling. What if the animals get left in San Francisco when we change planes? They’ll probably get sick. What if they die? And on and on and on. Never did I imagine a scenario in which everything went smoothly, everyone was pleasant, and we all arrived safe and sound with minimal stress. And yes, that is exactly what happened. I had wasted all this energy wondering about all the horrible things that could or might happen, and in the end, it was a breeze!

The problem with what I was doing is not only that it undermines my ability to see the present moment for what it is, but it also shows a lack of trust in the goodness of others to do their part. I had an “us vs them” mentality, which was completely unfair to the multitude of airline staff who worked very hard to make sure our animals were safe and comfortable and that we humans were safe and comfortable.  Even as the travel was progressing and things were going well, I was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. My husband would comment on how well things were going and I would immediately begin to think that just by uttering the words he was tempting fate to turn on us. So silly.

Once we got to our apartment, everyone safe and sound and happy, I was finally able to see reality. I saw how smoothly the day had gone, how wonderful everyone had been, and what a great trip it had been. I was able to reflect and see the trap I had gotten myself into with my imagination and I am grateful for that awareness. It is an awareness that I would not have had if not for my Yoga practice. The me of several years ago would not have been able to see clearly what my mind had created, dismiss it, and accept reality. Instead I would have continued to create a version of the trip that matched my very low expectations.

As these next few weeks unfold, I will be working on this. Big changes continue to come my way as we get settled into this new city and new life, and as we welcome new life into our family. The greatest gift I can give myself is to use my imagination to express my creativity fully, rather than to envision scenarios that may never come to pass. Whatever is going to happen, is going to happen. The present moment, aware and content, is where I need to be.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

The movers arrived this morning. It is no longer possible to think about this move as something happening in the future. It is happening right now, and right now I am unsettled.

My last class at the studio was almost two weeks ago and I feel as though I am recovering from a break-up. You know those breakups where there are no hard feelings, and you both know it’s for the best, but it still smarts a bit? That’s how I feel. I miss the smell of the studio, and the statues of the Buddha and the daily exchanges with beloved students. The familiarity and comfort of a routine is so hard to give up. I find myself wondering how the classes are going and who is attending and how everybody is doing, the same way you wonder about an ex-someone.

Considering that my life will be thrown into glorious and joyful upheaval when this baby is born (in just 7 weeks!) I consider this current moving business to be good practice.  As each box is filled with the familiar objects that have surrounded me in this house that I love, I am reminded of the constantly changing nature of all things. These same objects will be unpacked in our new home, and although they will be unchanged they will seem different in their new environment. Perhaps in the different light cast upon them in our new home, I’ll come to appreciate something new about each item. Just as, in a new environment and on a different continent, my perspective will shift and I’ll see the world a bit differently than I do now, perhaps appreciating things I did not appreciate before. And then, when this child joins us here in the outside world, my perspective will undoubtedly change once again.

The great thing about the challenge of change is that it can always lead to growth and expansion, if we allow it. This has been, without a doubt, one of the biggest lessons I have learned from my years of practicing Yoga. Remaining open to changing perspectives is hard but invaluable work.

Breaking up IS hard to do, but with each parting and each new beginning, comes an increased sense of Self, of connectedness, and expansiveness.

What have you learned from partings and new beginnings?

Change is in the Air

A letter to my students at Samdhana-Karana Yoga

“Change has long been a fearful thing for human beings … and at the same time, it is our most Divine opportunity. Clinging to the banks of the river may seem safe and more secure, but life’s possibilities are truly engaged only when we trust, release and become part of The Flow of the Universe.” – Chelle Thompson

As winter winds down, and spring returns we are reminded of the endless cycle of change. With each season, the natural world around us transforms. The same basic materials – earth, water, fire, and air – take on seemingly endless new forms and shapes, allowing everything to feel new once again. The wisdom of the words of the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer becomes obvious: “Change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal”.

Never has this theme of change that occurs each Spring been more apparent in my life. Not only are my husband and I preparing to change our family dynamic with the birth of our first child, but we’ve also just found out that we’ll be moving our family to Asia! My husband’s job is taking us to Seoul, Korea for the next 3-5 years.

My initial reaction to this news was a combination of shock, excitement, pride in my husband and his achievements, and sadness. My thoughts were, “No! I can’t leave the studio!”, “My dreams!”, “My students!”, “My house!”, “My Pamela!”. Despite years of study and practice, non-attachment and change are still a challenge, and I expect them to be for years to come. No matter how much we know that the inherent nature of all things is that they change and transform, it is so hard not to cling to the comforts of familiarity.

Now that the news has settled in, we are getting very excited for our adventure. This is a great opportunity for my husband and for our family. This excitment is still mingled with sadness, which is unavoidable when faced with the reality of having to say goodbye-for-now to all of you. I had a yoga teacher back in NYC who used to say each week, “I love you guys, whether you believe or not”. I used to secretly roll my eyes and think: “Yeah, whatever, lady”. Now I have to laugh at myself because as a yoga teacher I know exactly what she meant. You do come to love your students very much. To be a facilitator and an observer to your individual growth as a yoga practitioner is one of the greatest honors of my life.

The sadness in leaving is also mixed with deep gratitude.  I am so grateful for the time I’ve had here establishing Samdhana-Karana Yoga. Though it was a long-held dream, I never knew if it would become a reality. Together with Pamela, to have created this space and witness it grow into what it is continuing to become is truly remarkable. I am so excited to see where the next few years will lead.

My last day at the studio will be Thursday, March 31st. I will teach my 9:15am Gentle Yoga class that day. On April 3rd at 4pm, we’ll have an Open House at the studio so I can visit with and say proper goodbyes-for-now to all of you. If you have time, I’d love to see you there. If you don’t make it, it’s okay because I’ll be back for visits and plan on teaching a class or two when I am here. I’ll also be staying in touch with the studio through this blog that will be linked to our website.

More than anything, I want to express to each and every one of you a heartfelt “Thank You”. There are no words to describe the joy, the lessons, the challenges, and the satisfaction that the studio has brought to me. Your support through attendance at classes and donations has made something truly incredible happen – we are fulfilling our mission of making Yoga accessible and available to all.

May you be happy, may you be safe, may you be at peace, may you be healed, and may you be a source of healing in this world.

 

With deep gratitude and affection,

 

Vania