Root to Rise

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I was taking a hike the other morning. It was one of the first hikes I’ve taken since winter released her chilly and isolated grip. The sun was shining, the dappled light streaming down through the branches like sunshine glitter and the robin’s egg blue sky aglow with a promise of warmth. Welcome spring!

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As I walked the trails at Peoria’s Forest Park Nature Center, I came upon a tree that had not made it through the icy grip of winter. I noticed that the root system was fairly shallow and thought back to the ice storm we had experienced in December. The tree had not been rooted strongly enough to weather the challenge of this particular winter. It toppled over.

The root system had been shallow. The foundation had not been strong. The journey of this tree was more broad than deep. And now here is yoga.

y8The breadth of yoga is vast. The methods many. This debate over the right and wrong is pointless – the truth is that there are many paths for many people. Your yoga doesn’t need to be the same as someone else’s. As we begin a yoga journey, exploration is required. How do you know where you want to root if you aren’t sure of into which landscape you wish to plant?

However, at some point the endless wandering does need to pause and plant. The exploring gives you a wide number of roots but the staying is where the depth is found. That’s not to say you can’t replant your tree of yoga, but consider that if you are seeking something specific, it may be hard to discover it if you keep skimming just the surface.

Tree-of-YogaThis analogy can be married to whole host
of yoga topics – what lineage is right for you? What pose do you want to achieve? Anatomy? Meditation? Breath work? Supernatural yoga powers?

The point is that if you don’t plant some firm roots for your goal to grow, at the first sign of a storm, the tree of your practice can be easily uprooted. This is where the practice of setting intention can be helpful. Be clear about what brought you to the mat and then revisit your intention every so often and fine tune it.

Choose your own adventure – study it well – do the practice and all is coming. You can weather any storm. You can root down to rise up. You can.

 

To Peel or Not to Peel? (Hint: You Need to Peel)

Quick Experiment: Point to yourself.

DO NOT SCROLL DOWN YET

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Where did you point?

I’m going to guess that you pointed at your chest, more specifically, the heart center. Why didn’t you point to your brain?

You pointed to your heart because you are a being created in love, driven by heart, and haunted by a mind of incessant thinking. You are not your thoughts; you are not your brain. Who is the one watching you think? Who is the thinker and who is the witness?

Study of the Koshas in Yoga philosophy can give us a description of what we are doing through practice and where we are headed if we stick with it. Without actually practicing, it means squat. 99% practice.

I drew this in teacher training. My meditation man is winking at you.

I drew this in teacher training. My meditation man is winking at you.

 

This photo is a little misleading (I’m not the best artist) – we aren’t really sitting under a rainbow of layers, all the koshas (energetic layers) weave into one another like a great tapestry. However, breaking them out in this way gives you an idea of how we practice through the layers.

Annamaya Kosha

  • Physical Layer – Earthy, Matter
  • Literally translates to “Food Body.”
  • Penetrate and purify this layer or aspect of ourselves with physical practice like yoga poses, exercises, clean eating, relaxation, and sleep.

Pranamaya Kosha

  •  Energetic Layer – Water, Fluidity
  • Prana means “life force,” so this layer is all about what moves in your body: blood, air, luymph, elimination systems.
  • Work with this layer through pranayama (breath control)

Manomaya Kosha

  • Mental Layer – Thinking Mind
  • Mind is manipulated by our thoughts which turn to words and then actions. We become an accumulation of everything that has come previously through our system and then react according to memory and habit.
  • Purify this layer with meditation especially on aspects such as compassion, selfless service, and forgiveness.
  • This layer causes us deep stress, anxiety. It is difficult to penetrate this layer without the foundations of asana and pranayama.

Vijnanamaya Kosha

  • Intellect and Discernment, Insight and Wisdom
  • This is deeper than just the conscious mind, this is latent, intuitive knowledge
  • This is not what you read in books or others ideas, it is what you experience and know through direct perception.
  • The difference between thinking and knowing is wisdom, vijnana.
  • Deep self-study and reflection on ancient scriptures and philosophy help tap into this layer.

Anandamaya Kosha

  • Bliss – Joy
  • There is a difference between pleasure and joy, pleasure arises from passing experiences and material objects, joy is a state of being, in which you can be joyful when something is difficult and not necessarily experience pleasure.
  • This is the heart center – the very place you pointed when I asked you to point to yourself.
  • All the yoga practices bring us to this place over time and consistent practice. It’s where we discover our personal truth and where we can hear our purpose most clearly.
Maybe this is a more accurate Kosha diagram - peeling back the layers until you get to your heart center - like an onion, you'll probably cry as you peel.

Maybe this is a more accurate Kosha diagram – peeling back the layers until you get to your heart center – like an onion, you’ll probably cry as you peel.

 

Yoga is a never ending journey. Just when you think you’ve mastered something physically, you can come back and add on another layer of work in order to peel back another layer of illusion. Eventually you have revealed your true self. When you wonder just who you are, point to yourself to remember.

 

The Dark Night of the Soul and Your Yoga Practice

**Please Note** This post contains a swear word.  If this would offend you, please don’t read further.

There comes a point in your yoga practice when you have to stare at yourself and you might not like it.  This is a dark little secret in yoga that some don’t care to discuss, with all the love and light and joy memes.  Nowhere in the Yoga Sutras does it say that all of your life will be blissfully happy – that’s something the marketing gurus selling you a yoga butt invented.

It is OK if you feel rotten, depressed, angry, bored, indifferent, or some sense of negativity in your yoga at times.  Read that again – IT IS OK to be upset.  Yoga opens up things within us and what needs to be taught is that it is NORMAL to not be cloying sweet and happy all your yoga life – you have to process the negative to become more positive.

You have to get deep in that muck and then like the lotus, you will emerge happier, healthier, and open to life – but first comes the mud and sometimes it smells rotten.  No Mud No Lotus

 

This point in your life practice is lovingly referred to as, “The Dark Night of the Soul.”  Basically, you have to get real about your problems.  You have to face the reality of all the actions you’ve taken up to this point of practice, you get to take a very real look at your Karma and sometimes that is ugly, especially if you are a human that has made mistakes (all of us!).

 

You may go through a depression or an increase in anxiety – don’t worry about it (haha and roll eyes).  This is actually a sign that you are clearing up.  You can’t clean what you can’t see.  Yoga shines the light in our darkest places; that can be very uncomfortable.  Those memories you worked so hard to suppress, they bubble right up to the surface and you have to deal with that shit.  And that’s why people sometimes quit on their yoga.  This part can be more painful than falling on your head in crow pose.

In the Dark Night of the Sould, Brightly Flows the River of God

It is at this point in your practice when you need to find yourself a highly experienced yoga teacher that is living this path, that has pushed past this very issue in their own psyche and body. This is not the time to focus on a yoga butt, but the time to enter into the deeper practices of Sense-Withdrawl (Pratyahara), One-pointed focus (Dharana), and Meditation (Dhyana). 

A good teacher can lead you through this valley of dark and shadows in a safe way and illuminate the more important teachings of yoga for you.  Seek out a teacher with years of experience and who still has a teacher of their own.  Be picky, don’t get distracted by shiny pants and tiny tops with great abs – remember that The Buddha had a belly and was never depicted with his foot behind his head – but rather in meditation and mudra.  Sometimes your best teacher may not be a yoga-lebrity, especially when you enter the dark stages of your practice.  10843791_345959338923369_1679910113_n

When people complain that they aren’t flexible enough or strong enough for yoga asana, consider that this is just a mental blockage – you do the asana to build the body strength and flexibility so that the mind becomes more pliable as well. Once you clear up the self-judgement, you start becoming a more compassionate, less judgemental person – that’s how you share your practice to make the world better.

It is true that the world has dark places – you cannot ignore the reality of death and destruction that permeate our planet, nor should you.  But you can remember that out of darkness comes the light and they both exist together.  G.O.D. – Generator, Organizer, Destroyer – rinse and repeat. 

Ask yourself:

Have you been the person that says, “I can’t meditate, I can’t be still, I can’t get quiet.” – yeah, me too.  That shit is hard.  You have to literally stare yourself in the soul and get open to what comes up.  But stay a while longer, Practice and All Is Coming.

The Dark Night of The Soul by St. John of the Cross

Upon a darkened night
The flame of love was burning in my breast
And by a lantern bright
I fled my house while all in quiet rest

Shrouded by the night
And by the secret stair I quickly fled
The veil concealed my eyes
While all within lay quiet as the dead.

(Chorus)

O, night thou was my guide!
O, night more loving than the rising sun!
O, night that joined the Lover to the beloved one!
Transforming each of them into the other.

Upon that misty night
In secrecy beyond such mortal sight
Without a guide or light
Than that which burned as deeply in my heart.

That fire ’twas led me on
And shone more bright than of the midday sun
To where He waited still
It was a place where no one else could come.

(Chorus)

Within my pounding heart
Which kept itself entirely for Him
He fell into His sleep
beneath the cedars all my love I gave.

From o’er the fortress walls
The wind would brush His hair against His brow
And with its smoother hand
caressed my every sense it would allow.

(Chorus)

I lost my self to Him
And laid my face upon my Lover’s breast
And care and grief grew dim
As in the morning’s mist became the light.
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair.

Yoga is in Religion. Religion is not in Yoga.

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Once upon a time we were told there are two things one never talks about for polite conversation: RELIGION and Politics.  This practice leads one to wonder, if we can’t discuss it, how can we understand it?  If we can’t understand it, how can we change it?  If we can’t change it, how can it evolve?  Enter Yoga.

Yoga is in Religion. Religion is not in Yoga. ~SwamiJ~

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As part of our 500-hour teacher training at Prairie Yoga, the group went on a field trip to the Sri Venkateswara Swami (Balaji) Temple in Aurora, Illinois.  Why did we do this?  The tour guide explained it this way:

“I’m not here to convert you to Hinduism, I am here to educate you on what we practice.  Comparative study of religion only helps one to better understand their own faith and own self.  Religion is a tool towards God-realization, different people need different tools and so thank GOD that we have so many paths of understanding.”  ~Sadasivan N~

This man offered up a message I wish we could all hear.  We don’t have to be RIGHT – what would happen if we all just existed together in a kind of harmonious agreement to respect individuality and mind our own business?  After all, the mentality of “I Am Right,” is so arrogant, if God exists, what must God think?  The guide also mentioned this:

“I’ve never been dead, I’ve never met God, so I cannot tell you what you should or should not believe.  The person who tries to tell you what you should believe is probably selling you something.”

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Some people feel deeply uncomfortable with the spiritual aspects of yoga and that’s OK – no yoga teacher should be asking or instructing people to change their faith – that is not the yoga teaching as laid out in the Yoga Sutras.  In fact, yoga isn’t even about your teacher – it’s about what they may inspire within you to explore within yourself.  YOU are your own best teacher.  No sales pitch needed for that.

I can recall a moment from a teacher training with Shiva Rea in which she said this:

“The Yoga Teacher is like a river guide; pointing out what is nice to see, but the one being guided has the ability to look in another direction.”

Some may disagree and that’s OK too.  Personal truth, personal experience, personal belief systems are PERSONAL – yoga offers contemplations to study your own self, your own beliefs so that you becomes more clear about your personal understanding of life.

As I continue to educate myself on Yoga, study my own life and my own beliefs, the resonance of my teachers is clearly influencing my teaching, but I add my own flavor because it is just my own perspective developed through practice and that is all we can share.   No dogma allowed.

As you seek to study yoga, the depth of which you practice may change over time – there is no doubt that once we access that connection through the physical practice of Asana, we open a door and light comes in.  That is what is scary to people, the fear that you may begin to doubt your own faith is real.  But through doubt comes more study – through more study comes more understanding, with more understanding comes more compassion, with compassion we have less judgement, etc… and what you may experience is that through practice, your faith is strengthened or changed, but then again, no journey ever leaves you exactly the same.  As Mahatma Ghandi reflects:

“There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. It transcends the senses whilst everything around me is ever changing, there is a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates.”

 

Anjali Mudra – Reflect to Receive

“Each of us shares a unity with Spirit and all life,
and simultaneously each of us is an individual with free will.
There is a duality to us as separate and as part of the whole.”
~Jonathan Lockwood Huie~

Mudras as an overlooked aspect in modern yoga, especially in the West.  They are not frivolous hand gestures or esoteric spiritual wish sign language.  They are literal energetic connections between two points creating a circuit of energy.  You don’t have to “believe,” in them – they are scientific, in the same way that you don’t “believe” in plugging in a light bulb, you know the plug goes into the socket and links the energy to create a circuit.

One aspect of my personal yoga practice as well as my teaching, is utilizing mudras.  Just as I began with Sutra 1.1, I begin with the most basic of the mudras – Anjali Mudra.  You have probably even done this mudra, but given it little thought.  A simple joining of the hands together in what looks like a prayer – see below.

There are probably thousands of blogs and articles out there on this mudra, so I will share what was given to me as a personal teaching.  Consider that the hands, held in this manner, look similar to a candle flame.  In yoga philosophy and in many religions we are taught that there is a spark, a light, a oneness with Spirit/God/Creation inside us, we are a reflection of God’s image.  To me, this is the light.  When I hold my hands at my heart center, it is a prayer or an affirmation that I recognize a unifying spirit in all things.

In general, we open/close a class with Namaste.  This Sanskrit word has many meanings, my personal favorite is:

The light in me sees and reflects the light in you.

There it is again – CANDLE FLAME!

And if you aren’t into God or Spirituality – think of it as a very basic anatomical reminder – lift your sternum.  Stand taller, chest up, shoulders back.

Until next time, Namaste – lead with love, follow your passion, let your heart come before your head.

The light in me, reflects the light in you.

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Mondays: 7:00 pm @Senara on Willow Knolls

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My Personal Practice

Alignment Authenticity Anatomy Junkie Spiritual Flow Mantras Mudras Continuous Education Practice What You Teach Progress Not Perfection Guiding Teachers: BKS Iyengar Pattabi Jois Shiva Rea Daren Friesen (Moksha Chicago) Marinda Stopforth (Prairie Yoga - Lisle, IL)

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