Building Faith

I just read this post in the Well blog at NYTimes.com about a recent study which seems to 2315799128_34796ccc7d_zhave found a correlation between a person’s faith in something bigger than themselves and the effectiveness of therapy. Those who professed a belief in God or Spirit seemed to respond better to treatment and have more positive outcomes. One possible explanation is that faith, once attained, extends beyond the spiritual and into other aspects of our lives.

Faith is basically saying “I’m not sure how or why, but I believe…”. Some might call it wishful thinking. Some might, less generously, call it sticking your head in the sand. And some might see faith as an ability to reflect on past experiences and, using the knowledge and wisdom gained from these experiences, feel confident moving forward.

The findings of the study quoted in the NYTimes were not at all surprising to me. As someone who has spent many years in therapy I see a direct correlation between a person’s ability to let go of the need to know/control/understand everything and the ability to build and maintain healthy boundaries and relationships.

For me, letting go is the very definition of faith. Admitting that we can’t control anything beyond our own actions and that we will always live in a sea of unknowns and that much of it will not be clear to us until after the fact, if ever, is both freeing and terrifying. The terror is managed by the faith.

The conversation in my head goes something like this:

“Things I’ve never wanted to experience have happened. They have been difficult and devastating. But I’m still here, I’m still breathing, I’m still learning and growing and changing. Despite the fact that I have no control over anything that happens outside of me, I’m still okay. I have no reason to think that this will stop being true anytime soon because as far as I can tell, it’s always been true.”

Faith, like everything else that is healthy and good for us, requires effort. To build muscles, we must exercise them continuously. To create good habits, we must do the same things over and over again. To have solid faith, we have to practice letting go. The more we let go, even when it feels impossible, the easier it will become.

I think about this in my asana practice, especially when I’m in a posture that is particularly challenging for me. Agnistambhasana (fire log pose) comes to mind. Nearly without exception, each time I enter into that posture, my mind goes crazy. “This hurts! I hate this! Can I get out now?”. But my years of practice have taught me two things: 1. I’ve never left an asana practice feeling worse than when I went in, and 2. Every pose feels better/works better when I find proper alignment and then release tension. Letting go while in my deepest expression of the pose allows me to experience it and its benefits more fully, even though initially it feels impossible to do.

For asana to be satisfying and beneficial to the body, we must strive for the balance between effort and ease. Trying and letting go.  Life is no different. We are in the Yoga state when we are both doing our best and letting go. This is faith. Do what you know to be good and healthy and right, and let go of the outcomes, trusting that everything will be ok. This is true whether we can name where our faith comes from or not. Is it in God? In Spirit? In Humanity? In the Higher Self? Faith allows you to not even have to answer that question. Knowing the source of your faith will not make it stronger. Only using it will.

Namaste, yogis.

Yoga Therapy: Strengthening the Core

My self-prescribed yoga therapy for the last several months has included  a great deal of uttihita chaturanga dandasana aka plank pose. I’ve had low back pain for as long as I can remember due to a combination of my personal body composition (long torso, short legs) along with the years of abuse I’ve heaped upon it through excessive running and innattentive asana practice. Add to this the toll that pregnancy, childbirth, and carting around an ever-growing child take and it is no wonder that my back is constantly crying for some attention.

In the few months since I have added plank to my daily yoga therapy sessions I’ve gone from holding it with proper alignment and breathing for about 30 seconds at a time to up to 8 minutes. My back feels better than it ever has, and my arms and shoulders and abdominal muscles are stronger than they’ve ever been.

Beyond these physical benefits is where I’ve found the really good stuff, though. At our core resides the manipura chakra, right in our solar-plexus-manipura-chakranavel, and it is from this place that we act courageously. Our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth, our fire comes from this energy center. By strengthening and nourishing this life-affirming energy, we can move through the world from a more solid place.

Sometimes when I talk or write about the chakras it feels a bit … fluffy. The language surrounding the energetic body doesn’t seem quite right – always a bit too esoteric and theoretical. And yet, the experience is very real. By strengthening the physical center of my body and attending to the weakness and pain in my spine, I am inhabiting my body in a more assured and comfortable way. Feeling at ease in my body helps me to be more in tune with myself and more grounded in general.

It seems strange that performing a physical exercise with your body can affect your psyche in such a way, but it does. There is something incredibly meditative and calming about plank pose once you move past the initial 45 seconds or so. Breathing deeply, relaxing the jaw, and drawing all of your energy into the space behind the belly button.

It’s done great things for me. I feel solid, strong, capable and this, in turn, empowers me to act courageously; to choose to behave in a way that reflects who I am at the very center of my being, even when I’m fearful of an outside situation or the opinions of others.

Yoga can do all that? Yes it can.

Namaste, yogis.

 

 

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.

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

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.

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

Wholeheartedness

I recently got a message from someone I’ve never met in person. This message was honest, open, and real. I was immediately struck by this DGbadgeperson’s willingness to be vulnerable, with me, a near-stranger. The admiration I felt was immediate, especially given my interest and enthusiasm for the research of Dr. Brene Brown into vulnerability, shame, authenticity, and courage (see previous post).

The definition of wholeheartedness in most dictionaries is usually something like “unconditional commitment” or “completely and sincerely devoted”. What Dr. Brene Brown means by whole-heartedness goes a bit further. In her own words: Here’s what is truly at the heart of whole-heartedness: Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.

Feeling worthy as we are, right now, in whatever state we find ourselves in, is not easy. As Yogis, though, this is at the heart of our practice. When we begin, we slowly start to observe the Divine nature of all things. As we progress, we recognize that we ourselves are part of the Divine and worthy of the same admiration, love and respect that we afford to those things that we deem “good enough”.  We are not separate or other. We are it. As we are. Right now.

If this is a concept you struggle with, congratulations! You’re one of us.

Early on in my own Yoga practice, it occurred to me that I was allowing my practice to become yet another area of my life where I wasn’t measuring up. When I sat in meditation and my mind began to wander, I started to feel like a failure. When I wasn’t as flexible as I had been the day before, I resented my body’s limits. When I struggled with equanimity, I would berate myself. Basically, I was completely missing the point. It took me a while to climb out of the whole I’d dug for myself, and to be honest, I sometimes come dangerously close to falling back in. But falling in, climbing out, dusting ourselves off, and being honest about our struggle – that is being whole-hearted. Making mistakes, learning from them, and being courageous enough to keep making mistakes is what it’s all about.

Namaste, yogis. Wholeheartedly wishing you wholeheartedness.