Category Archives: yoga practice

The CORE of Yoga – Volunteering

As a result of a collaboration between Create QuanYin and CORE (Community Oriented Re-Entry) there is a nascent yoga program at the Westchester Correctional Facility in Valhalla. I heard of the program through the director of Create QuanYin and today attended an almost six hour orientation at the facility in preparation for co-leading yoga beginning with the last Saturday of this month.

The orientation began at 8:30 a.m. and the actual orientation portion, led by Sgt Allen, went for ninety minutes. He handed out multiple Policy and Procedure statements related to attendance, restriction of items that can be brought into the facility, workplace violence prevention, civilian code of conduct, and a Civilian Handbook. He made his points with humor, humility, and highly apparent dedication to both the people who work and volunteer there as well as the people for whom this is their residence due to not being able to make bail or not being given the opportunity to make bail.

Most residents are there for the short-term from a few months to two years, though there are people who have much longer sentences, and the reasons people are incarcerated run the gamut. Sgt Allen made numerous points, the most relevant for me as a volunteer were to be constant and consistent in how I interact, and to develop a rapport but not a relationship.

This morning after breakfast I could feel my heart beating in anticipation of the orientation, having only a minimal idea of what to expect. My friend tried to prepare me by saying “they will try to scare you.” Curiously, the orientation did not scare me; it was the physical facility – populated with barbed wire and checkpoints – that had more of an impact. The orientation was in the headquarters and not in the jail; my first visit in the jail will be at the end of the month.

The second part of the orientation consisted of about ten minutes filling out a form, followed by lots of waiting while 18 of us were fingerprinted and photoed for id badges. I had conversations with a number of people including two nurses who already work there, a recent graduate of John Jay who wants to be a PI (Private Investigator) and will be working in the commissary, and Alan, another yoga teacher volunteer who I had shared emails with prior to the orientation. Alan told me about Liberation Prison Yoga and the two-day training he took through the organization, which he highly recommends.

I have just two concerns about leading yoga. The first is that for the past two plus years I have been leading practice with a community where we all know each other, and this will be my first foray in a long time leading yoga for people I do not know. My other concern is that there is no public record (for the yoga teachers) of what is done each week. Other than a general monthly theme, I do not know how the practice has been building and what the participants are familiar with. I mentioned this to Alan and he said it seems that each teacher does their own thing when leading yoga. I am glad to be co-leading with a friend, and even gladder to be seeing her this weekend so I can get a better sense of the flow!

Although I made the decision to become involved with leading yoga in the jail before talking with my Aunt, I take to heart a comment she recently made to me. She said the two most difficult parts of aging (she turns 87 in just a few weeks) are losing friends to death or cognitive impairment, and no longer feeling she is making a useful contribution to society. If I hadn’t already made my decision, her sentiment would have provided a gentle push.

Art & Science of Chanting Mantras

Yesterday I spent an uplifting 60 minutes attending the Art and Science of Chanting: Mantras for the Body, Mind and Heart at The Westchester Holistic Network. The session was led by Cristina Ortiz, who I have had the pleasure of knowing ever since we met during our 200-hour yoga teacher training. I was tickled to discover three of the seven chants that she shared during the session were already familiar to me.

Cristina opened with a brief overview of the benefits of chanting as outlined in the article Neuroscience and the ‘Sanskrit Effect’. According to the article, neuroscience has shown that chanting mantras can calm the default mode of the mind. Given that mantra means “a tool for the mind” this is not a surprising conclusion.

The first chant was one we had learned from Patty during our first session with her as part of our yoga teacher training. Cristina describes this mantra as a chant to the breath. We learned it with mudras, which have been called “yoga in your hands“, though alas I do not recall the names of the multiple mudras.

Om namo pranaya
Pranaya nama Om     Pranaya swaha
Om namo apanaya
Apanaya nama Om     Apanaya swaha
Om swaha, Hari Om

Cristina labeled the second mantra as a chant to Ganesh, Ganesh being the God with a human body and head of an elephant who is known for removing obstacles. Like the previous chant, this one also has mudras to accompany it, and as with the previous chant, I do not recall the mudras.

Om Gam Ganapataye Namaya

Recently, Cristina incorporated a non-profit, Create Quan-Yin. [I am on the Board of Create Quan-Yin.] Quan-Yin is the feminine energy of empathy and compassion. Among her many interests, Cristina is also a musician so it was quite natural that she put this chant to guitar. In China the mantra is sung as a lullaby.

Namo guan shi yin pusa

The next mantra we chanted comes from Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras (2.16) and translates to “the suffering which is to come is preventable.”

Heyam Dukham Anagatam

Another sutra (2.1) that we chanted was also touched upon during our teacher training, which I wrote about here. The mantra translates to “Strength to change what I can, Humility to know what I cannot change, Wisdom to know the difference between the two.”

Tapas Svadhyaya Ishvara pranidhana Kriya Yoga Ha

Our last mantra is one I know well and have shared with the yogis I lead in practice. Thanks to my first yoga teacher Deb, it is among the first mantras I ever learned. The message is “May all beings everywhere be happy and free.” Sometimes I swap out “happy” for “peaceful.”

Loka Samasta Sukino Bevantu

The evening concluded with a chant in English. We began with call and response and concluded with all our voices as one.

We are the light
of the moon and the sun

We are the light
in everyone
We are the churning
of the tides
We are the whole
deep inside

 

 

Smiling Meditation

Awhile ago one of my yoga teachers, Jillian Pransky, shared a meditation by Thich Nhat Hanh. Jillian called it a smiling meditation, and I have since shared it with the yogis with whom I practice. This evening, while thumbing through Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Being Peace, I came upon the poem again. Here is what he has to say.

I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

“Breathing in, I calm my body.” Reciting this line is like drinking a glass of ice water – you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breath in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

“Breathing out, I smile.” You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why Buddhas and bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile.

“Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here, and I know where I am. This is very important. We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, “Wait until I finish school and get my Ph.D. degree, and then I will be really alive. When we have it, and it wasn’t easy to get, we say to ourselves, “I have to wait until I have a job in order to be really alive.” And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive at all in our entire life. Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment.

“I know this is a wonderful moment.” This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task. “Calming, Smiling. Present moment, Wonderful moment.” I hope you will try it.

Yamas: Brahmacharya ~ Nonexcess

Of the five yamas, this is perhaps a bit more difficult to relate to because it has a very definite spiritual association. According to Deborah Adele, Brahmacharya translates to “walking with God.” While Adele and Donna Farhi each make mention of the relationship to celibacy, Farhi spends the bulk of her writing discussing Brahmacharya as it manifests as sexual energy. Both authors note that there are ways to “enter each day and each action with a sense of holiness rather than indulgence, so that our days may be lived in the wonder of sacredness rather than the misery of excess.”

The process of living with nonexcess, of taking what is needed and no more, reminds me of the Japanese saying Hara hachi bu. The idea is to take only what you need to fill your belly until 80% full, leaving the other 20% of your belly unstuffed. (You can read more about this saying here in a post by Garr Reynolds.) This approach can be applied to all of living, not just eating.

In researching Brahmacharya I stumbled upon this post at The Yoga Lunchbox. Kara-Leah Grant’s approach humanizes this yama as she makes it accessible and something that can be understood. The essence, as described by Grant, is that as we abstain from overindulgence then we will have more energy to apply to our spiritual journey, whatever that may be, as well as any other goal we set for ourselves.

The more I read about Brahmacharya, the more it called to mind a favorite Danna Faulds poem.

Walk Slowly

It only takes a reminder to breath,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgement drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line; that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice 
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

My prior posts on the Yamas:
Asteya ~ Non Stealing
Ahimsa – Nonviolence
Satya – Truthfulness

 

 

 

Yamas: Asteya ~ Not (Non) Stealing

Asteya is the third of the five yamas, the yamas being a personal code of conduct for living peacefully and in harmony with all living beings, including the Earth. Donna Fahri writes

The practice of asteya asks us to be careful not to take anything that has not been freely given.

She goes on to give seemingly mundane examples, yet they are powerful because they are so commonplace. For instance, when calling someone on the phone, asking first if this is a convenient time to talk rather than immediately jumping in and presuming the recipient is ready for the overflow of information. The jumping in and taking of someone’s time is equivalent to stealing their time; better to first ask if the time can be given rather than to immediately snatch it.

Both Farhi and Deborah Adele bring up personal satisfaction and the commonplace action to reference others in determining one’s own satisfaction. This comparing oneself to others often leaves an individual feeling something is lacking, in a sense they have stolen from themselves by not looking inwards. Emma at Ekhart Yoga sums this up succinctly (and you can read more of her explanation here)

The need to steal essentially arises because of a lack of faith in ourselves to be able to create what we need by ourselves

From that vantage point of comparison, it becomes easy to insert oneself into conversations with others so that the conversation becomes about you rather than the person you are speaking with, in a sense stealing from others. To quote Adele quoting Yogi Bhajan:

Be a forklift; you should always be lifting people up.

According to Deborah Adele, “we steal from others, we steal from the earth, we steal from the future, and we steal from ourselves.” She suggests a practice of reciprocity in order to give back what has been taken.

Both Farhi and Adele believe that Asteya necessitates looking inwards to see who you are and who you want to be, and then turning your attentions and actions to the deeds needed to achieve your goals. As Donna Fahri states

Not stealing demands that we cultivate a certain level of self-sufficiency so that we do not demand more of others, our family, or our community than we need. It means that we don’t take any more than we need, because that would be taking from others.

One way to help cultivate that sense of taking only what is needed is to build a practice of gratitude. Acknowledging all that one has to be grateful for is a way to foster a “sense of abundance.” Again to quote Deborah Adele, this time quoting Albert Einsten:

A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other people, living and dead, And that I must exert myself in order to give in the full measure I have received and am still receiving.

My prior posts on the Yamas:
Ahimsa – Nonviolence
Satya – Truthfulness

Yamas: Satya ~ Truthfulness

Satya is the second of the five yamas, the yamas being the first of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Two years ago, for our 200 hour yoga teacher training graduation, each of us led a portion of a one hour practice designed so that any of our guests would be able to participate. I guided the final part of practice consisting of Savasana as well as an explanation of Satya, and a summing up of our group-led practice.

As Donna Fahri has written, Satya is a commitment to Truth, truth with others and truth with oneself. I was particularly taken by her statement to “practice right speech…when we say something we are sure of its truth.” This asks for a commitment to only utter words that you have validated as true; leave out the gossip, innuendo, “office cooler” talk, assumptions and the like.

The practice resonates deeply with me, because I know how easy it is to get sucked into the non-right speech of others. This is also a reminder that to try to construe someone else’s meaning based solely on their actions is likely to yield incorrect non-right thoughts or speech; it is much more effective and accurate to actually speak with that someone else and ask them for clarification.

Deborah Adele suggests that another aspect of Satya is to be your “real” self rather than being “nice”. It is one thing to be polite, another to be nice, particularly if being nice translates to saying words that are inaccurate in an attempt to not say anything that may be construed as uncomplimentary. For many of us who grew up feeling we needed to be nice to everyone, even if it meant telling a fib, it can be a refreshingly newly learned behavior how to speak politely and still tell the truth. One of my favorite quotes from my 200 hour teacher training is from Paula, who said

A good no is better than a bad yes.

Deborah goes on to rephrase the psychologist/psychiatrist Carl Jung in her discussion of how each person’s truth will change over time: What is true at one point for us will, at some point no longer serve us and therefore eventually becomes a lie. After all, we change and grow and develop over time, and as we change our needs and what is “true” for us also changes. We need to change our truth to accommodate our development as humans.

Ekhart Yoga, an online repository of yoga practices, meditations, talks, and readings that I periodically pop over and check out, has a series of articles about the yamas, including this article on Satya. Emma’s post offers another way to look at the meaning of Satya, and provides a way to cultivate a personal practice of Satya in daily life and on the mat.

My prior posts on the Yamas:
Ahimsa – Nonviolence

 

Yamas: Ahimsa ~ Nonviolence

There has been much written in books and on the web about the 8 Limbs of Yoga, the Yoga Sutras, and Pantanjali. Two of my go-to references have been The Eight Limbs, The Core of Yoga by William Doran at Expressions of Spirit-Yoga, and Deborah Adele‘s book The Yamas & Niyamas.

It’s one thing to have access to references, it’s another to actually study the references and learn something! My yoga practice (includes my yoga teaching) has gently brought me to a place where I am ready and open to better understanding the 8 Limbs of Yoga. And so I begin at the beginning with the Yamas.

In my early years of practicing yoga with Ellen, she would have us chant the 8 Limbs, which are part of the Yoga Sutras. The first of the limbs are the yamas, of which there are five. They are, as Ellen explained, the “principles of social and personal behavior for peaceful living” with the first being Ahimsa, to do no harm. 

Donna Farhi, in her book Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, says that before we can contemplate the meaning of nonviolence in broad terms, it is necessary to first look inward and think of nonviolence to oneself. Ultimately, we must practice self-compassion before we can practice nonviolence towards others. (Quick bits about self-compassion here and here.)

Deborah Adele shares her metaphor of purchasing a paint can of a certain color, knowing that “the color of the paint inside the can is the color that whatever we paint becomes.” She continues: The “color” of how we treat ourselves is the “color” of how we treat others.

With self-compassion we can then practice nonviolence towards others. Donna Farhi eloquently states the concept of nonviolence towards the world as 

When we begin to recognize that the streams and rivers of the earth are no different from the blood coursing through our arteries, it becomes difficult to remain indifferent to the plight of the world.

Delving deeper into Ahimsa, Deborah Adele notes that fear, specifically fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, is what often drives violence. This violence can come in the form of words, feelings or actions, and be focused on ourselves or on others. The practice of Ahimsa is to confront these fears, understand them, and begin to work with them, and to do that requires courage. Two people with seemingly bottomless courage and exemplars of practicing nonviolence as a way of being were Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr

Deborah defines courage as “the ability to be afraid without being paralyzed.” We cannot control our amygdala’s automatic response to fear – that kicking in of the fight, flight, freeze or faint stimulus when the brain senses a threat. Indeed, there are times when we need that response to kick in for survival. However, stress is so prevalent in modern life that our fight or flight stimulus kicks in with undo frequency. To reset our inner balance we can intentionally summon our parasympathetic nervous system to calm and center, giving us a moment to consider what is happening and how we want to respond. This is what lets us be afraid without being paralyzed.

Another factor Deborah believes impacts our ability to do no harm is that of balance. which comes from listening to an inner wisdom of what to do “to be vital, healthy, and in deep harmony.” When our balance is off-kilter, our ability to function in a balanced manner becomes difficult, often resulting in small or large acts that may be considered harmful to ourselves or others. She discusses the sense of powerlessness that can arise when it seems there are no viable choices for moving forward. Two years ago, when I first read her book, I highlighted her approach to dealing with powerlessness. She suggests asking:

What do I need to do right now to feel competent to handle this situation?

Her personal approach to outmanuevering a sense of powerlessness is to practice gratitude, trust in the moment and think about others. Ultimately, if we change the stories we tell ourselves, we can shift our viewpoint and find our way towards practicing Ahimsa.

I stumbled upon an article in Yoga Journal for incorporating each of the yamas and niyamas into asana practice. I have not yet tried any of the practices, nonetheless, here is the practice for Ahimsa

Book Review – Bringing Yoga to Life

From my Goodreads Review:

I just finished skim reading this book, which is why no rating has been given. Skimming an entire book doesn’t qualify me to rate it! It also doesn’t exactly qualify me to review it, Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 1.26.50 PMhowever, it’s a book I was interested in and feel comfortable commenting on.

I am on a bit of a Donna Farhi kick these days, this being among four books I’ve read or skimmed plus an enthralled hour spent watching a 2017 youtube video of a talk given by Donna. Reading a book about yoga requires me to have an open mind. As a practitioner of yoga since 2005 and a teacher of yoga since 2016, I am often on the look out for yogis who can guide me to a deeper understanding of both the physical and spiritual practice of yoga.

What I have learned about myself, when it comes to trying to better grasp and perhaps internalize the more spiritual aspects of yoga, is that it may be days, months or years after first being exposed to an idea that I am open to being with that idea. I believe that my own spirituality is influenced by much of what I’ve encountered in my life and how I chose to face each encounter. But I also believe that beliefs are not static, that practice and experience change beliefs, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes in very obvious ways.

When Donna wrote this book in 2003 I had not yet stepped onto a yoga mat. Though we are five years apart in age (I’m older ;-)) she is light years beyond in her practice and embodiment of yoga. I was curious to gather up more of her insight, which is what brought me to this book. Ultimately, as I began reading, I realized this may be a book I return to months or years from now, but at the moment her book (that I’m currently reading) Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit is the better guide for where I am.

Book Review – The Breathing Book

From my Goodreads Review:

Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 1.24.11 PMI practice yoga and guide yoga; from both perspectives this book is a must read. Written in 1996, Donna Farhi’s guide is every bit as helpful and relevant now as it was then. I have been reading this book over several weeks (it was due yesterday!) and have taken copious notes on approaches that will surface in my personal practice and the practices I guide.

If this book or the author are interesting to you, you might find her November 2017 talk, Tradition, Innovation & Evolution – What makes yoga…Yoga, an informative and entertaining way to spend 58 minutes.

Book Review – Deep Listening

From my Goodreads Review:

Over the past several months I have been skimming, reading, reskimming and rereading Jillian’s book, and each time I take something new from it. Of course, this may be aided Screen Shot 2018-04-14 at 1.06.32 PMby my having studied with Jillian in two restorative teacher trainings and four workshops, all sessions she designed to share the benefits of restorative yoga with practitioners and teachers.

What makes Jillian’s teachings so accessible is her down-to-earth sharing that comes from the heart, and is based on her personal experience. What she shares and teaches is informed by her studies of anatomy, neuroscience, Buddhist teachings, and yoga. Her work remains fresh because she is a continual student, and she brings that openness to learning to her students.

Humans tend to learn best when they can experience what it is they are trying to learn. This is absolutely true when learning something physical, like playing an instrument or practicing yoga. Jillian’s book is filled with practices and meditations that are meant to be experienced. This is partially why I continually refer back to the book, and read it in small and big doses – there is much to take in and much I want to share with my students.