Checking in

For the past month or so, I’ve been hosting a weekly yoga class. My intention was to gain teaching experience while helping my friends better cope with the challenges of the difficult times that we’re living in.

I’ve realized that the real value of the weekly sessions are to connect and check-in. While I usually just teach impromptu without much of a plan, I can find a groove based on the general mood of the group to quickly decide what is most needed.

As a heavy consumer of media, I’ve been reminded many times since March to reach out and check in with folks. Yoga gives me an opportunity to not just ask how they’re doing, but sense how they’re doing based on body language and their requests.

Most people are feeling exhausted and drained, particularly in the evenings. Even though social isolation seems to make time slow down, the days and weeks seem to be passing quickly. It is difficult to truly process all that is happening in the world right now, leaving a deep emotional imprint that we each carry with us.

So, what about the check-ins? Reaching out to friends to ask how they’re doing generally results in an avalanche of complaints, gripes and long venting sessions. All understandable, but my takeaway is usually that they are irritated but not truly struggling. Because truly struggling generally results in silence and introspection, followed by (hopefully) strength and courage.

Yet irritation demands attention, like a gnat that just won’t go away until we attend to it. I believe that venting and complaining are avoidance strategies, but not true coping mechanisms that will ultimately serve to resolve issues, rather they only perpetuate and spread them.

And if we don’t attend to minor irritations, we tend to get bigger challenges until we finally relent and acknowledge the struggle, which is the beginning of coming to terms with it.

When the pandemic started, I recalled all the conversations I had with my spiritual mentors at Yogaville who believe that difficult circumstances are a Kali Yuga, or a time of upheaval that can ultimately be transformative.

While it is easy to fall into the trap of reacting, awareness and patience an turn a bad situation into a potential lesson and opportunity for growth.

Easy to say, yet hard to do. In Emerson’s words, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.”

While I have managed to commit to teaching yoga once a week, I have neglected to write because it requires honesty and authenticity and right now, it is hard just to get through my day. Creativity remains largely elusive for me. I haven’t painted in months. I feel numb and overwhelmed most of the time.

The majority of my efforts in life to connect with people have fallen flat and while I know how important connection is, mostly I just want to disconnect. Social isolation has made me want to isolate permanently and I have less agitation in my life when I don’t attempt to connect to new people.

I look forward to weekly yoga classes all week, and checking in even if I hear so much irritation. While I don’t usually share my own irritations because I try to focus on widening the lens more than anything else, it is comforting to know that I am not alone in having them.

I hope that the great changes in the world and in the struggles and tragedies that we all face only lead to positive outcomes achieved through awareness and patience. I hope that these times lead to profound growth and greater connection.

My hope for all yogis is a deeper understanding of the minor irritations that can lead to a greater self-concept and more serious commitment to the journey of growth and experience.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

 

Progress may be a stretch

I am a firm believer in habits, good or bad… they work. So, if we get to choose good habits and choose bad habits, we should do so carefully.

This was the theme of my January. I kicked the month of strong – Aiming to meditate just 10 minutes each day. Up to this point, I had only participated in very long meditation sessions (up to 90 minutes) but I had never had a regular meditation practice.

I quickly shifted from 10 minute sessions to 20 minute sessions because I thoroughly enjoyed the silence. But then I got sick, and everything went out the window. Then I got better and failed to find my way back to my meditation habit.

February started off strong by adding in a 10-minute yoga session each night. This lasted about a week before I got busy, got distracted, got brain numb.

Occasionally, I will meditate… and occasionally I will do 10-minutes of yoga before bed. Several times a week, I have a regular yoga practice but it’s the before bed part that I am struggling with…

Despite the minimal progress, I wanted to focus on a challenge each month to consider why it’s so hard to form habits and what can be done to turn it around because I know these habits would be life-transforming.

Here is what I have learned so far:

  • The weight of the January challenge has sufficiently convinced me to take more quiet moments during the day, and work with a mantra while I run so that it becomes a moving meditation. Lord knows I spend a lot of time running, so this has essentially become found time for meditation. And it is working as I am becoming more contemplative and better able to slow my thoughts and focus.
  • The weight of the February challenge has convinced me to connect movement to pleasure, so when I wake up in the morning I am instantly moving and stretching. (I am learning this from my dog!) While this is not what I intended, I do consider it a solid 10-minutes of am yoga. As for bed time, I am doing more long deep stretches (yin) and twists, which are excellent for improving my sleep.

If I can count lessons as progress, then I am making progress. If reaching my goal was all that mattered, then progress may be a stretch.

Perhaps most importantly – and I hope others find this valuable – what I have taken away from the process of trying to create habits is that I have become a habit-creating machine.

The discipline has moved to other areas of my life, including nutrition and hydration… I’ve made many minor changes that are paying off. I would not have this natural inclination to start up new healthy habits unless I had already been in habit-forming mode.

As I have learned from running, I am choosing to let go of my failures and shortcomings because holding on to them does not serve me. Instead, I am going to focus on the positive changes that I have made and will continue to make.

The destination isn’t the journey for me, the journey is the journey.

Jai. (Victory!)

Dude-asana

The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorite movies. But it had been years since I watched it and recently found myself wanting to check out of reality and clicking on the Dude.

Since I had last seen it, I have spent hundreds of hours on the mat and another 200 hours or so getting certified. So, imagine my surprise when I noticed all the references to yoga philosophy.

The most obvious, and therefore perhaps least compelling, is near the beginning of the movie. Jeff Bridges who plays the Dude actually does a rather inspired yoga move before bowling in which he arches his head back and splays his arms out and seems to have a moment of quiet contemplation. (I’m definitely using this, calling it the Dude-asana.)

But the over-arching theme of the movie is the most relevant – throughout the movie he struggles to find peace from the crazy characters who relentlessly try to disturb his sense of calm.

The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott, mysteriously appears at the bar in the bowling alley twice during the movie to explain to viewers the point of the story. The line that he highlights – the Dude abides – is actually a reference to Ecclesiastes 1:4. “One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the Earth abides forever.”

This refers to how the Dude, like the Earth, can remain the same in spite of any changes or chaotic stirrings.

In yoga terms, these fluctuations are referred to as “citta” (prounced chee-tah) or mind stuff or stirrings that threaten to disturb our peace. One of my teachers at Sun and Moon described it as similar to a washing machine mixing up our thoughts and our clarity.

These stirrings come in many forms – from thugs urinating on our rugs, to unpredictable and bold best friends who rip the rug out from under us just when we think we have it all figured out, to green toenail polish-wearing seductresses who appear to be an angel before we realize that they are the devil in disguise.

Two terms that can be helpful for understanding how best to overcome fluctuations of the mind are parusha (supreme knowledge) and prakriti (experience of life). When faced with challenges, recognizing these experiences as such – prakriti – to help overcome any disturbance to knowledge of the higher self – parusha – can be helpful in returning us to peace.

A question that is often posed for further consideration is whether or not we are spiritual beings having a human experience, or human beings having a spiritual experience. Each of us must answer this question in our own unique way.

The Dude answers this question by using the word ‘man’ exactly 147 times during the movie, or approximately one and a half times per minute. This seems to be his way of level-setting, in addition to drinking many white Russians.

Here’s a bit of real-life commentary based on the movie, Metallica is referenced in the movie as the Dude says that he was once a roadie for the band, but called them a bunch of “ass holes”. Apparently, members of Metallica appreciated being mentioned in the movie and loved it. BUT, Glen Frey did not like the fact that the Dude did not like the Eagles and even told the Coen brothers when he crossed paths with them at a party.

Finally, for anyone familiar with the band Kraftwerk – they had a single called Autobahn… and in the movie there are a few cameo appearances from the fictitious although based on a real-band band (Autobahn), which coincidentally included Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Dude is an inspiration and I’ll enjoy his unique asana… and I don’t think I’m alone. Whether or not it works is the subject of many miracles to be realized and those that will never come to fruition either through yoga or on the big screen but are great fodder for endless commentary.

Om Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

 

Sharing the journey

beach yoga

I led my first beach yoga class recently and, naturally, started with OM. It was a beautiful day in Naples, although the sand fleas were particularly feisty and left me in an itch coma for days afterwards.

This is a good example of how deceiving pictures can be since there was a lot of yoga-bliss out there, but we were all dealing with a biting reality that is ever-present in yoga and in life. Nothing is ever as perfect as it seems and once we find peace and stillness, something will always come along to knock us off balance, even microscopic bugs that leave behind mega discomfort.

During the session, I practiced mind over matter and refused to acknowledge the discomfort in hopes that others would follow since, just like a sneeze, giving in to discomfort can be contagious.

After the session, I continued to focus on not giving in because I know that once I started itching, it would only get worse. Then the next day, the small bites had turned into small blisters all over my body – I had about 40 or so. They didn’t just itch, they hurt. So, I started taking ibuprofen, which I rarely take, and stayed on a steady diet of anti-inflammatory meds for the next several days. I lathered on the anti-itch crème and aloe. I took cold showers. I made a promise to myself that I’d never go to the beach ever again, which I knew I would break even as I was mid-vow.

While miserable, this is the practice. While not perfect, this picture tells a perfect story that helps understand the nature of reality and duality or the paradox of being alive. Without the misery, we would not be able to experience the beauty. Without the discomfort, we would not be able to experience the joy of being free from discomfort. Without being alone, we would not be able to experience the joy of being together.

As I learned in my training, ‘energy follows awareness.’ As Krishna Das describes it, ‘we have to wake up within the world we are in.’ The world we are within is full of misery and sadness and discomfort while it is also filled with joy and peace and wonders beyond belief. As Jack Kornfield has said, ‘mindfulness is the invitation to freedom.’

Most of my thoughts were focused on me during the session and in the days after the session since I was dealing with significant discomfort, yet the freedom was available in recognizing that I shared the journey with others and I was grateful for their presence. Freedom was available in recognizing the magnificent sunset and powerful waves in front of us. Freedom was available in appreciating when the discomfort began to subside, giving way to a renewed sense of well-being.

Is it challenging?… Always. Is it intuitive?… Never. Is it worth it?… Yes.

I fail more than I succeed, regardless of how big or powerful the crustacean is, and once the current crustacean is finished with me… there will be another one right behind him.

Or as Lao Tzu describes it – “Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the world belongs to you.”

This is yoga. This is OM.

 

 

 

 

 

Go with the flow

flowThis book – Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – was on my reading list for as long as I can remember and it did not disappoint. It is a book about yoga… it is a book about running… it is a book about life and how to find happiness.

Not the superficial kind of happiness that leaves you feeling hollow but the deep-down rock-your-world happiness. In one word – flow… it’s all about flow.

Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’ (Sound familiar, ultra running friends??)

He cautions that problems can arise when people are so fixated on what they are trying to achieve that they don’t derive pleasure from the present moment (the golden present!). Here he starts to uncover the secret to contentment in life…

Many beautiful concepts in this book center on the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. Again, meaning of life stuff and reminiscent of many foundational yogic philosophies that connect state-of-mind and perspective with inward bliss.

So many profound truths in this book, here are a few:

  • We create ourselves by how we invest our energy
  • Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it
  • To improve life one must improve the quality of experience
  • The meaning of life is meaning: Whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life

When I read this passage, I put the book down and cried happy tears for a while because it perfectly describes the flow experience that I have had difficulty relating to others who aren’t familiar with or who don’t regularly experience ‘flow’…

Flow helps to integrate the self because in that state of deep concentration consciousness is unusually well ordered. Thoughts, intentions, feelings and all the senses are focused on the same goal. Experience is in harmony. And when the flow episode is over, one feels more “together” than before, not only internally but also with respect to other people and to the world in general

And…

The self becomes complex as a result of experiencing flow. Paradoxically, it is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.

All truly dedicated yogis/yoginis and runners and lovers of life know what this is all about, but it helps to refine our thinking around the flow experience and this book explores every dimension in-depth.

Check it out!

OM

 

 

Why start with OM

Friends, I have a new blog to share yoga practices that can help and support runners and people who are new to yoga. Please visit and sign up to get emails.

Why start with OM? I believe that the greatest benefit of yoga for runners is meditation and pranayama (breathing) practices to build a foundation for developing a stronger mind-body-soul connection. Asanas (poses) flow more freely from this deep connection, and running becomes a moving meditation and celebration of the self.

Starting with OM is a reminder to tune into the golden present. Most yoga classes start with a simple OM chant or a moment of peace through silence. The OM discipline is profound and life-changing, and while I’ve only experienced it briefly in my life… I hope to explore how to instill a greater commitment to OM through practice.

My next exploration will be following the Daily Schedule that is used at Yogaville for one week. So, here it is – The Daily Schedule:

5am – 6:15 Morning Meditation

6:20 – 7:50am Hatha Yoga

Noon meditation (30 minutes)

5pm – 6:30 Hatha Yoga

6:30 – 7pm Meditation

And of course, no alcohol, no caffeine, no sweets and vegetarian or vegan diet. I will be journaling everyday to record my experience. I have followed this schedule at Yogaville, but I’m interested in assessing the effects of the Daily Schedule integrated with my life in Arlington, which is very different than my life at Yogaville.

Looking for others to join, let me know if you are interested! Ooh and sign up for my newsletters, please and thank you!

Hari OM.

meditate

Attitude is everything, particularly for runners. Attitude and outlook can be improved with intentional effort.

Meditation can be loosely described as intentional effort that can lead to greater peace through self understanding and increased mental focus and clarity.

Yogic philosophy provides a wealth of insights to build a meditation practice and develop a more optimistic, positive attitude that can benefit your running performance.

There are a variety of guided meditation exercises that can help guide your performance. From using guided meditation to visualize the big finish and challenges that may be presented during a race, can help you prepare in advance and overcome them.

Since everyone is unique, I can guide you through these exercises individually that will work best for you. Generally, it is more helpful to first be guided through these exercises working with someone. We call this ‘yoga nidra’ or guided meditation.

Once you have experienced the positive effects of this guided meditation exercise, you can work with it on your own as you incorporate it into your relaxation and breathing practice.

Learning key concepts from yogic philosophy can also help to improve the mental game by releasing yourself from mental attachments that can hinder performance and prevent you from negative spirals. Since everyone is unique, I recommend discuss this directly so it is appropriate for what you need.

In addition, working with a mantra can help to improve flow while running and keep you focused and strong. Mantras are personal so choose a word or phrase that is empowering and makes you feel positive. The repetition of the mantra is key for creating a flow state while running and blocking any negative thoughts from creeping in.

There are various meditation practices that can be helpful, and can be combined with breathing practices that create a deeper and richer experience.

In her book, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with your Mind, Pema Chodron opens with a quote from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to describe the practice of meditation:

“The principle of nowness is very important to any effort to establish an enlightened society. You may wonder what the best approach is to helping society and how you can know that what you are doing is authentic and good. The only answer is nowness. The way to relax, or rest the mind in nowness, is through the practice of meditation. In meditation you take an unbiased approach. You let things be as they are, without judgment, and in that way you yourself learn to be.”

Being present is a practice that takes time to cultivate. If you are new to meditation, it can be frustrating if you feel that you are not doing it right or feel that you are not good at it. Let that go.

Listen to this brief audio clip of Pema Chodron sharing the key to meditation as she discusses how to develop the right mindset for meditation and steps to begin a practice.
I’ll be sharing more resources and suggestions for building your meditation practice here, so follow me and get ready to experience the limitless and expansive now.