Lessons Abroad – Part III – There Will Always Be More Sunrises

When I was doing my yoga teacher training, I had the privilege of studying alongside a woman from Portland, Oregon named Cory. She

The sun rises over The Land of The Morning Calm

The sun rises over The Land of The Morning Calm

was about my mother’s age, but the similarities stopped there. On our last night of teacher training I invited her to come watch the “last sunset” with all of us and she said, “Is this the last sunset? There will always be more sunsets, but if you’d like me to share this one with you, I will”.

I thought of this as I watched the sunrise this morning. Our apartment, which we have now moved out of, was west-facing and we used to watch the sunset over the mountains. The hotel we’re staying in until we fly on Saturday is east-facing, so we’ve traded sunsets for sunrises for our last few days here. As I watched the sky go from purple to orange to blue I heard myself thinking, “One of our last sunrises.” And it is one of the last sunrises I’ll see in Korea, but of course, it is not the last sunrise I’ll ever see. Even if it were, the sun would go on rising and setting without me.

Cory’s wisdom came flooding back. The world, the universe, keeps moving in it’s rhythm. Life goes on as it always has and as it always will. We’ve been gone for three years and this has been true about life back home. Our friends and family have changed and grown, through both circumstance and choice. And life here in Korea has been humming along. The changes we’ve undergone as individuals and as a family have been huge.

Our time here has been so special and I have cherished it so much. I have to remember that all of the learning and growth and change will continue, no matter where we are. A lot of what we’ve experienced and learned has been because of where we are, but not all of it. And the human experience is much more common and similar than geographical boundaries, cultural differences, and language barriers would have us believe.

Humans are far more alike than they are different, and we all watch the same sun rise and set. There will always be more sunrises.

Namaste, yogis.

Lessons Abroad – Part II – Social Harmony

Nine days to go! Now that the movers have come and gone and we are 3281330927_d5fd02d9ab_oliving out of suitcases and sleeping on air mattresses, the impending move is becoming much more real and I am closer to making my peace with it.

One of the things I’ve been reflecting on quite a bit, as I prepare to return to the land of individualism, is the Korean emphasis on social harmony. Having been born in a country that is defined by it’s emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, this has been quite an eye-opening experience.

Korean culture is changing rapidly, so who knows what it might look like in 25 years? For now, though, it is still very rooted in Confucian principles, the entire goal of which is social harmony. Ideally this means that every interaction and choice is framed within the question: what will create the most harmonious outcome?

While the benefits of this are many, there are also some drawbacks. There is a great deal of emphasis on the common good, which benefits everyone immensely. The flip side is, there isn’t much space for individual expression or carving out a new way. It can be done, but with a great deal of resistance.

But I’m not here to debate the pros and cons of the way Korean society organizes itself. I can only speak to the way it has impacted me and the way I see the world and operate in it. And while before coming here I considered myself as someone who made an effort to be aware of the common good and to always operate from this ethical point of view, existing in a society where it is practiced almost without exception, I have become aware of how much room there is for improvement.

For me, the word harmony is really key. While conflict should not always be avoided, it sometimes can and should be. I recently saw somewhere the phrase, “You don’t have to attend every argument to which you are invited.” I’ll be the first to admit that I have a tendency to be argumentative and confrontational, when perhaps this isn’t necessary or helpful. It’s been easy to justify this by saying I’m just expressing myself, or standing up for myself, or being who I am. Notice the theme? Me, me, me, I, I, I, myself, myself, myself.

Of course, the answer never lies in one or the other, but a balance of both. Choosing harmony and peace whenever possible and knowing when we need to assert ourselves and stand our ground; this is a tricky balance. One I’m working towards, bit by bit.

Namaste, yogis.

Lessons Abroad – Part I – Letting Go

Wawwojeong Temple

Wawwojeong Temple

Our time here is very quickly drawing to a close despite my best efforts to pretend otherwise. Each time I’ve sat down intent on writing about and reflecting on all I’ve learned while living here, I am overcome with sadness and  a deep desire for more time. I’ve known since we arrived that my time here would be limited and yet I am still having a very hard time accepting that these really are the final weeks.

This strikes me as amusing, to say the least. I sit here struggling to let go of my experience here, even as most, if not all, of what I’ve learned here can be summed up as learning the art of letting go. The past three years have been an exercise in nothing less.

From letting go of control and daily involvement in the studio back home, to letting go of the plans and expectations I had about birthing in the US, to letting go of close contact with my friends and community, the whole process of moving here was a long series of goodbyes and releasing of control and facing the unknown.

After arrival, my first big lesson in letting go was saying goodbye to my perfectly imperfect dog Fletcher.

Weeks later I was moving into motherhood and letting go, not only of all of my (completely wrong) ideas about motherhood, but also the very specific identity that I hadn’t realized meant so much to me. I struggled for a long time to see my new role as mother as an enhancement or addition to who I previously was, rather than a replacement of who I had been. As months passed and I began to have more time and space to reconnect with myself, I discovered that while I was still there, the experience had changed me deeply. This required further letting go of what was and concentrated effort to accept new realities. (An ongoing process)

Living as an expat among other expats provides ample opportunity to practice letting go. The shared experience of navigating a culture that is not your own makes for quick formation of intimate friendships that are, by nature, completely temporary. You make a friend, become close, and with little to no warning, they receive another assignment and are off to the next locale.

And, of course, the backdrop to all of these opportunities for growth has been Korea, a unique place with a unique culture that I had never experienced before coming here. There has been a lot of letting go of preconceived notions and ideas I had about Asia and Asian culture and society as well as a great deal of learning about and adopting new customs and social rituals as best I can as an outsider. Within this context, I’ve had to become very aware of the ways I am distinctly western and how this affects the way I see the world. In order to enjoy my time here, I’ve had to, at least temporarily, let go of the western way of doing most things. At times I’ve done so willingly, at times kicking and screaming.

And now I am struggling to let go of the life we’ve built here and all that I love about it. Korea has been good to me and overall I have been very comfortable and happy living here. (Plus, I really love our apartment! How will I ever live without floor-to-ceiling windows again?) The trick now is to cherish and be grateful for the experience, the memories, the lessons and let go of the desire for more.

I’m working on it.

Namaste, yogis.

The Monsoon

The monsoon, or changma as it is called here, is winding down. We had a few weeks of 20130731-135733.jpgalmost nonstop rain, and have now experienced a few days with some spots of sun. Weeks ago when we were all going bonkers from being locked up in the house for days on end, I was desperately wishing for the monsoon to end. Now that it does seem to be nearing its conclusion, though, I feel a bit sad, unready to let it go. It could be that this will be my last monsoon season here in Korea and that I am not likely to experience this kind of torrential rain ever again. Or it could be something more.

Before the monsoon begins, the entire peninsula is enveloped in a heat that can only be described as oppressive, a heat that is made less bearable by living in a densely populated urban environment. (Fresh air? What’s that?) Then the rains start and the peninsula is enveloped in -wait for it – more heat with the added bonus of air so thick and humid you think it may choke you. The rain provides zero relief from the heat and only exacerbates the physical discomfort of existing.  And yet, it is quite beautiful and somehow still refreshing. Everything feels cleaner and fresher, even if you yourself are rather smellier.

Gashmuit is a Hasidic concept meaning serving God through the physical or material world. The word comes from geshem, a Hebrew word for heavy rain. To use rain to encompass the physical and material, as opposed to the spiritual, does not seem an obvious choice. Rain is not solid like earth or rock. It is, literally, fluid and difficult to harness, in many ways not unlike wind (the base of the word used to describe the spiritual world). But rain we can see, we can feel, we can smell, we can taste.  And rain does have a heaviness to it. Not in the individual rain drops, of course, but in it’s cumulative effect and in it’s capacity to completely soak you in minutes. You can’t outrun it, you can’t escape it, and when it is ready to fall, it will fall. It must be taken seriously, even though you really can’t get your hands on it.

If you think of monsoon rains as something that you cannot control in any way but can have complete and utter control over you, it is perhaps a very fitting symbol for the physical world.

When the rain stops, Seoul will be spotted with lush greenery. The yellow dust that blows through in early summer will have settled. Every body and every thing will be ready to soak up some sun in preparation for a very cold winter. The monsoon will have cleansed and nourished the Earth and reminded us of just how powerful and fierce Nature can be.

So much of our time is spent trying to control, manage, and change physical reality. When we, instead, make an effort to live in harmony with Nature, it settles the dust that clouds our minds and hearts, cleanses and purifies us, and nourishes us for growth.

The last few months have been a time of intense emotional experience for me and I have craved clarity and new beginnings. Perhaps it is this craving that makes me feel unready to let go of the rain just yet. But I have been nourished, through my practice, through my relationships, through my internal rain, and when the rain stops, I will be well-prepared and nourished for growth.

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.

Zen Martial Arts

If you read the title of this post and did a double-take, I can assure you that I did the same when I first saw these three words put together. I recently witnessed zen martial arts up close and personal and I can tell you that it is not at all as contradictory as it sounds.

Nestled in the mountains just outside the town of Gyeongju here in South Korea lies the Golgul Temple, home of Sunmudo, a zen Buddhist form of martial arts. I was there as part of the Templestay program run in collaboration with the Korean Tourism board. Hundreds of temples across Korea open their doors for people to experience temple life. While there you are given appropriate clothes to wear and are expected to follow the schedule and practices of the monks and nuns who reside there including rising well before sunrise for morning chanting and meditation and avoiding all animal products. I was given clear instruction and guidance on how to behave within the temple walls in areas such as Community Life (be considerate of others), Silence (reduce talking to have ample time for self-reflection), Greeting (a half-bow with a respectful mind), Chasu (the posture used when walking within the temple – right hand over left hand at the center of belly) Yaebul (chanting – you must be in attendance for all chanting sessions), Gongyang (meals – eat in silence and do not snack in between meals), Ulyeok (community work – part of the practice of temple life), Hygeine (keeping the temple clean is everyone’s job) Sleeping (lights out at 10pm, no exceptions), and Other (only loose clothing, do not leave temple grounds during your stay, behave respectfully to yourself, to nature, and to all others during your stay).

There are many temples to choose from including many much closer to home in Seoul, but I chose Gogulsa when I learned about Sunmudo, which I read could be described as a combination of Yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and martial arts. After having participated in a limited way in their training and having had the privilege of observing some of the monks who have years of practice, I would add Dance to the description. The movements are a display of strength, reserve, flexibility, fluidity and absolute grace.

The stated purpose of the practice of Sunmudo is to harmonize body and mind in breath awareness, awakening to your True Nature. Much like Yoga, immense attention is given to the breath and to the control of the breath. Movements are synchronized with breath and the sign of a truly masterful practitioner is one who is able to keep their breath calm and even through periods of intense dynamic movement.

Golgul Temple sits on a site with a 1500 year old carving of a Buddha seated in meditation posture. During the 18th century there was a fire that destroyed the temple and surrounding forest and until about 20 years ago it remained in ruins. The temple was restored by Grand Master Seol who revived the ancient practice of Sunmudo and it has since served as the home of this art of movement.

The daily schedule at the temple varies very little. Each day begins at 4am with waking and washing for 4:30 chanting and meditation. The ceremonial Buddhist meal of Barugongyang is served at 5:50 on Sundays. The rest of the week breakfast is served at 6:30. Barugongyang is a practice in self-discipline and self-control. The meal is enjoyed in complete silence, thus allowing the other senses to fully experience the food. As with all Buddhist meals, not a grain of rice is wasted. One never takes more than one can eat and one never eats more than what one needs. During the week breakfast is followed by 90 minutes of Sunmudo training and then 108 bows and meditation practice. Tea is served before lunch. On the weekends one has an opportunity to share tea with a monk after breakfast and to ask questions about temple life, Buddhism, and the life of a monk. After lunch there is either meditation (M, W, F) or archery practice (T, Th, S) followed by community work. Dinner is served at 5:30 followed by evening chanting and meditation and then up to two hours more of Sunmudo training. Then it is off to bed to start all over again tomorrow.

I only had two days and one night to spend at the temple, but even in my limited time there, the rhythm of this life was both completely exhausting and thoroughly relaxing. The fresh mountain air was a welcome alternative to Seoul and the opportunity to learn about Sunmudo was very much appreciated. When we first began Sunmudo training after dinner I thought “Oh, this is pretty easy!”. It was a lot like Yoga, the movements we were doing,  and I was keeping up just fine. That is until I realized that that had just been the warm-up! The real training began after 30 minutes of pretty intense yoga-like movements and it only took about 5 minutes for me to question my decision to give this a try. To say that it is challenging is an incredible understatement. It felt nearly impossible. I had a whole new appreciation for the ability of the monks I’d witnessed earlier as they appeared to effortlessly transition between movements.

The monks and practitioners at Golgulsa see meditation and Sunmudo as a means of facing themselves. It is not a martial art intended for any violent purposes, not even self-defense. This reminded me of of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita and his realization that the battlefield represented the war within. In our asana practice, each time we find ourselves in a warrior pose we are reminded of this battle and the courage and resolve it takes to stand firm in the face, not of an outside enemy, but in the face of ourselves and our internal conflict. It is only through dedicated practice that we resolve this conflict.

So, zen martial arts? Yes and yes.

Atop the hill at Gogulsa in my temple uniform with the main shrine in the background

Atop the hill at Gogulsa in my temple uniform with the main shrine in the background

Sunmudo demonstration

Sunmudo demonstration

guest accomodations

guest accomodations

The carved Buddha

The carved Buddha

an altar on one of the many craggy rock formations

an altar on one of the many craggy rock formations

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.

The Yoga of Korean Temple Food

A major bonus of living in Korea is undoubtedly the food. It is simple, colorful, mostly healthy, and often spicy. All of my favorite things.

Korean temple food is the cuisine that has developed in Buddhist temples around the country. It is vegetarian and like all other Korean food, simple and healthful. What makes it such an experience to enjoy, though, is the focus on balance, moderation, and pleasure. There are generally small amounts of many dishes, each dish meant to satisfy different taste buds. There is a seemingly perfect combination of sweet, salty, tangy, bitter, and savory. The food itself is served in a beautiful way, the colors of the food varied and balanced. Some dishes are served hot, others warm, others room temperature, and some cold. There are many different textures.  A meal of temple food is a completely satisfying sensory experience. And because all of the senses are completely engaged, it becomes a very mindful experience.

Yogis have long known the importance of eating with mindfulness and intention, of managing the senses, and of caring for the physical body as a way to ensure the health of the mental and spiritual bodies as well. Temple food is right in line with the yamas and niyamas (attitudes and behaviors towards self and others) which Patanjali laid out in the Yoga Sutras. From the yamas of non-harming and moderation to the niyamas of purity, contentment, and discipline.

How and what we eat is a big part of our life, considering we do it every day, usually at least 3 times a day. And the choices we make do affect our body, our mind, and energy, our intellect, and our spirit. Aphorism 2.43 of the Sutras says that it is by living a disciplined and well-balanced life on all levels that we achieve “perfect mastery over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions”. A healthy body and mind allow us to effectively manage both the quantity and quality of our energy. It is this vital energy that prepares the way for connection with the Divine and Ultimate Reality.

Even when we know this, it can be difficult to maintain balance. When was the last you felt you got exactly enough time for eating well , sleeping well, exercising, spiritual practice, and personal relationships? I know I couldn’t tell you.  There have been pockets of  time and moments, but it remains a challenge. I know the goal for me is to have these pockets and moments of time get longer and longer, until there’s no break in between. (I may have to move somewhere with no access to cream for this to happen)

In the meantime, I am feeling so very grateful for temple food. Grateful to have access to it, to be nourished by it, and to learn from it. Each time we enjoy it, my commitment as a yogini to a well-balanced and healthful life is reinforced and nurtured.  You don’t get that from a McDonald’s, that’s for sure.

Mending

I am very quickly growing to love Korea. The food is exquisite, the people are wonderful, and the city of Seoul is vibrant. There is a lot to love about the culture as well, and one thing that I am particularly fond of is the embracing of sustainability. Korea is not a throw-away culture, unlike, ahem, the land of my birth. Every bit of garbage is separated and recycled here. Food courts in shopping centers serve food on real plates with real cups and real eating utensils. When you order takeout, it is delivered on real china and then picked up later. There seems to be no end to the Korean people’s desire to not be wasteful.

This willingness to forego the convenience of disposable everything for the sake of the greater good is not surprising to me within the context of this culture. Quite the opposite of my homeland where individuality and personal freedoms reign, Korea is a nation that firmly believes that we’re all in it together. Everything is done for the good of the whole.

I’m not saying that the Korean way is better, but I kinda am. Surely a balance between the two opposite ends of the spectrum could be achieved, but in the meantime I’m enjoying being among people who truly understand the cost of things. Which brings me to my actual point and the title of this post – mending. Beyond simply mending things for the sake of sustainability or thrift, there are much deeper implications when we choose the opposite of throw-away. If you subscribe to the notion that everything is connected and that within everyone and everything exists all, then by taking the time to mend or fix an object we are also mending a part of ourselves, and in turn the world as a whole.

I’m not saying that sewing the hole in your shirt rather than getting a new one will bring about world peace, bit I kinda am. Not immediately will Israel and Palestine settle their differences, but the ripple effect over time… It could happen. The fact is, we have to ask ourselves what it says about us when we are so willing to throw away that which is no longer perfect or whole. How does that translate to the way we see ourselves and others? Inner peace, and by extension world peace, will never be achieved as long as we consider people – any people – disposable. We must believe that people and institutions that are broken and imperfect can be mended and made whole and useful again.

Our Yoga practice is invaluable in learning to do this. Being able to sit with that which is imperfect and fractured is a first step to real and lasting change. The very popular idea of reinvention is a slippery slope. To think that we can just dispose of who we are to create a newer better version! The fact is, we can constantly evolve into a newer perhaps better version of ourselves, not by throwing away any part of the Self, but by mending the parts of our Self that need healing.  So we’re not reinventing, we’re reworking, recycling.  As we do that very important work on ourselves, hopefully our perspective shifts and we begin to see everyone and everything else as worthy of our time and patience, as mendable.

So, what object have you mended lately? What part of yourself have you mended? And what part of the world are you mending?

I’m Confuciused

Korea has a long and rich spiritual history. These days there is a mix of mostly Buddhism, Christianity, and  a very small part Mugyo which is shamanism. Underlying all of these is Confucianism which was originally brought to Korea from China. Over time it was altered to suit the people of the peninsula so there is a distinction between Chinese Confucianism and Korean Confucianism. It is not a religion so much as a way of behaving in the world and it is very deeply infused into the Korean culture and psyche affecting everything from art to law to education to social moors.

Social harmony is the ultimate goal of Confucianism and in order to achieve it there is a very specific social order.   Age is always given deference, but those who are senior are meant to be tender-hearted toward those who are younger.  Each person is meant to know their place in the order and to play their part as best they can. If everyone plays their part, social harmony will ensue.

I’ve only been here a short time, and I don’t understand the language, so any observations I have about the people or the culture here are informed by these limitations.  So with that caveat, I will say that what strikes me as most interesting about all of this is how harmoniously blended these different spiritual traditions are here in the South. It seems to me that while a person might say they are Buddhist or Christian (if they are inclined to identify themselves as anything at all) they are really a wonderful mix of all of it. This underlying theme of social harmony is an ideal held by all, no matter their faith. They could be called Confucian Christians or Confucian Buddhists as the ethical principles of Confucianism seem to be the basis of behavioral norms.

Where I get confused is when I observe how Confucianism is sometimes diametrically opposed to a Buddhist or Christian belief and yet there does not seem to be any difficulty accepting and integrating. This goes for shamanism as well. There seems to be no compulsion to reconcile the differences. I really admire this ability to just accept them all, observe what they like about each, all with no need to judge whether they are right or wrong.

As I’ve learned through my Yoga practice, and as I’ve written about before, even-mindedness or equanimity is key to inner peace. And the Koreans seem to have it in spades. Who knows? I may learn the language and after a few years realize that this observation is completely wrong. But, in the meantime, I’m taking a lesson from my new neighbors and friends.