An enthusiasm for cleaning

Am I the only person in the world who looks forward to cleaning house? Yeah, I know—it’s kinda weird. But I love it when the weekend arrives, and I can leave my desk to spread some love around my home. I admire the light coming through the windows, watching it shift with the seasons, highlighting mini-still life compositions around the rooms. I’m grateful to have the shelter of a roof and the ability to do physical labor. And I show my appreciation by caring for things—washing, polishing, sweeping. (Dusting? Meh—that’s another story.)

Of course, with possessions comes the potential for attachment, including attachments to the past or to an idea of one’s identity or worth (i.e., ego). But when I’m housecleaning, I seem to be able to appreciate things for themselves, even if they’re not new, perfect, or valuable. Even the humblest, shabbiest item—a wooden spoon, a tattered book—can hold a certain beauty. In the Zen concept of wabi sabi, the transient and imperfect are seen as reflections of the natural world. Things with the patina of age inspire present moment awareness, and imperfections like chips or cracks can help us transcend the material.

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A shabby teddy bear or a meditation on impermanence?

And by the way, I don’t only clean on the weekends. Some days seem like an endless loop of dishes, tidying, laundry, etc. But one of the foundations of yoga is saucha (purity), and the cycle of housecleaning is symbolic for the cleansing that is essential to yoga practice. I’m not strictly referring to jala neti or the shat karmas. Nearly all of yoga’s practices are cleansing in nature: Asana purifies the body. Pranayama clears the energy fields. And meditation cleanses the mind.

Many yoga teachers have compared the body/mind to a mirror. We clean the mirror so that we can see the reflection of Atman—the true self—shining back when we look within. Now, I don’t necessarily think of all these things while I’m cleaning, but they do elevate an action that many of us take for granted or even hold in aversion (dvesha). To shift this, it helps to approach cleaning house like karma yoga, when we act for the action’s sake, without thinking of rewards or goals. We act because it’s the right thing to do, the householder’s dharma. It is an expression of love, not for things, but for God.

The right music, of course, is also helpful. Mantra is a natural choice because it cleanses space the way a damp soapy rag cleans the floor. My housecleaning playlist includes Krishna Das, Deva Premal, MC Yogi, and traditional Vedic mantras like the Gayatri or the planetary chants. But at the very top of the list is Jackie Wilson. His music is brilliant and effervescent, his enthusiasm contagious. Enthusiasm, more than anything, is my secret for housecleaning. My yoga teacher of many years, Rama Jyoti Vernon, likes to remind students that the word’s Greek roots, en theos, mean “in God.”

I could end with a bad pun—“In God we dust”—but since I’m still working out my aversion to dusting, I’ll leave you with this quote from Brother Lawrence, an uneducated Carmelite monk who lived during the 1600s and whose words continue to inspire people today: “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which is performed.” That’s enthusiasm.

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The art of letting go

In asana, the limb or aspect of yoga most commonly practiced today in the West, we learn to surrender fully into a pose. When asana is practiced with awareness, we are not just physically stretching, releasing, and opening, but also detaching from egoic I-ness to become dispassionate observers. The consciousness lightly moves from one body part to the next, sensing areas of tension and responding by relaxing or letting go, bypassing thoughts, comparisons, reactions. By developing discernment and fine-tuning the awareness, the body becomes the teacher.

Because asana is how most people experience yoga, it can become a gateway for deeper practices, and for integrating the eight limbs and other yogic principles with daily life. The Yoga Sutras (I:12 through I:16) tell us that vairagya (non-attachment) and abhyasa (practice) are essential to going beyond the egoic mind and recognizing true self. For example, as January stretches on, many of us find our New Year resolutions falling by the wayside. A common response is to push harder, to wrestle with the mind to overcome resistance or to “think positive thoughts.”

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The story of the elephant-headed boy, Ganesha, is a metaphor

for cutting off the egoic mind.

But working with the mind, the yoga sages have said, is like trying to tame a wild beast. I think of it like the game Whac-a-Mole. Just as the moles win every contest, so do the thoughts whenever you challenge them. Zero in on one thought to zap it and another quickly takes its place. It’s more effective to bypass the thoughts altogether, to let go and metaphorically “lose your mind.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. There’s no magic wand or instant solution; it’s all practice. But every day holds a multitude of opportunities for practicing non-attachment, and it’s through practice (abhyasa) that we realize non-attachment (vairaghya). Even something as simple and natural as the breath can be a teacher. Before every inhalation, there must be an exhalation—a letting go. If you don’t fully release the old breath, there isn’t enough room for the new, the in-spiration. Simple, yes? But also profound.

Make your New Year’s resolution or practice as automatic as breathing. Let go. Don’t think so much. Lace up your running shoes without dwelling on how cold it is outside, before feelings of resistance take root. Do the dishes before they pile up and become a trigger for displeasure. Walk into your office with a mind like a clear, still pond, free of resentment or expectations.

Too hard? Then return to your asana practice and let it be your teacher. Stop obsessing about your hamstrings or the person on the mat next to you and focus on your breath—especially the exhalation.

Notice how profound these little victories are and build on them, reinforcing healthy non-attachment. Go ahead—what have you got to lose? Except, perhaps, your mind.

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The flavors of attachment

The other day, while working on piece about yoga and conflict resolution for a blog (www.yogabasics.com) that I contribute to a few times a month, I was reminded yet again what a rich resource Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are for dealing with life’s daily concerns. Though Patanjali compiled this collection of 196 brief sayings roughly two millennia ago, it remains fresh and relevant today.

As I was writing about how the sutras offer a path for resolving inner and outer conflict, I realized that the seeds of conflict, and of so many of life’s difficulties, arise from attachment or (in Sanskrit) raga. But the yogic concept of attachment is often misunderstood or considered problematic by householders. How, we ask, can we be non-attached (practice vairagya) and still love family members? What if I don’t want to detach from the things I enjoy, such as art and music, worthy causes, my work, etc.?

In traditional Indian culture, where yoga philosophy developed, the four ashrams or stages in life lead to renunciation. Most of us in the West will ever remain in the second stage (grahasta), as householders. But just because we don’t intend to renounce our worldly attachments and become sannyasins doesn’t mean we can bypass raga/vairagya. Every day as a householder brings new opportunities for considering various aspects of attachment and non-attachment.

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Even Nature can teach us about the art of letting go gracefully.

For instance, much of the conflict we experience in life—with others or within ourselves—arises from what Patanjali calls asmita. This word is often translated as “egoism,” another easily misunderstood concept. In terms of yoga, “ego” doesn’t refer to being prideful. Ego is simply the personality or shell that we’ve unconsciously crafted over a lifetime. Asmita is mis-identification with (and attachment to) this false sense of self. When this ego structure feels threatened, it tends to react in certain ways—anger, fear, retreat, stonewalling, etc. Conflict—inner or outer—is inevitable. Yoga practices lead us away from this false identity to the true self, a process of detaching that grants us healthy perspective. We become dispassionate observers, noticing what pushes our buttons and choosing our responses instead of reacting blindly.

Another flavor of attachment is abinivesha, usually translated as “clinging to life.” Recently, I’ve seen this as holding on to “the way things used to be” (even if “the good old days” never really were that great!). Resistance to change, fear of letting go or losing face, suspicion about people and places that are new or different—with these fear-based attachments we box ourselves in. Like asmita, abinevesha is another obstacle (klesha) to growth, and another area in which a householder can practice non-attachment.

We also cling to things—not only possessions but also information. I’m particularly guilty of the latter; my bookshelves are crammed with reference material, and I could happily spend years researching a book without finishing the writing. In the U.S., hoarding is a common enough cultural meme that entire television series focus on it. This form of attachment is one householders face in myriad ways, large and small. (Think of sorting through your junk mail or cleaning out the refrigerator as a yogic practice and it might not seem so trivial or tedious.) In fact, the opposite of hoarding—aparigraha or non-covetousness—is one of the five yamas, the ethical guidelines that mark the beginning of yoga’s eightfold path.

Next: The yoga of letting go

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Gardening and karma

Over the weekend, I spent some time digging out silverleaf nightshade, a pretty plant that loves the hot, dry Arizona summers. It can quickly overtake other plants; hence, it’s largely considered to be a weed. Last year, it dominated an entire corner of the backyard, reseeded after years of benevolent neglect by previous property owners. This year, I’m continuing to battle the pesky plant.

Solanum eleagnifolium is popularly referred to as poisonous nightshade because its highly alkaloid leaves and fruits are toxic to livestock and humans. A member of the same species as potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes, its ripe fruits look like miniature yellow tomatoes. Any illusions I’ve had about letting it be and enjoying its lavender flowers and gray-green foliage are dashed by the memory of a child holding up a handful of the fruit, her mother asking me (I was then working as a docent at popular archaeological site) if it the little girl could eat the “pretty berries” she’d picked along the trail. Nope, not growing nightshade in this yard, thank you very much.

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One way to get rid of silverleaf nightshade is to burn it, destroying plants and seeds, and that’s simply not an option in a residential neighborhood, especially when the humidity is low and the winds are high. That leaves digging it out, plant by plant, before the seeds have a chance to drop to the ground. When the sprouts reach a certain height, they fight back with sharp spines that penetrate gardening gloves. Digging them out of the dry, rocky soil is hard work and not especially pleasant, so naturally the mind wanders, and I find myself making comparisons to the yogi’s work of mitigating karma.

My teacher, Rama Jyoti Vernon, has often said that through our yoga practices we can scorch the seeds of karma before they take root. The cycle of karma, basically the law of cause and effect, has three stages: prarabdha (likened to dharma or destiny), kriyamana (the result of free will), and sanchita karma, the accumulated karma of this life and all previous lifetimes. The seeds of sanchita karma (our actions and thoughts) have been allowed to ripen and fall to the ground (the subconscious), where they will remain dormant until the conditions are right for them to sprout and reappear.

Our job as yogis (and gardeners) is to eradicate the seeds so that they can’t germinate and perpetuate the cycle. As householders, however, we must do this without withdrawing from the world of action, just as Arjuna chose not to withdraw from the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita. Like Arjuna, we can keep the karmic seeds from sprouting by following the karma yoga path that Krishna outlined in the Gita. Krishna (acting as Arjuna’s charioteer) instructed him to find the inaction within the action. This means going beyond what binds us to an action, i.e., performing an action in an egoless state, without attachment to praise or blame or even to results. We perform an action solely for the action’s sake.

This is harder than it sounds, and we need the fiery determination of tapas to practice karma yoga. It is extremely difficult to break free of attachment–or aversion, fear, delusion, separation. These are among the vrittis or mindwaves that Patanjali refers to in the second (and most definitive) yoga sutra: Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, or “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” In subsequent sutras, Patanjalini tells us how this is done.

We can certainly begin practicing karma yoga on the mat, noticing whenever we are “performing” asana for goals or rewards, or whenever ego (self-identification) is engaged through judgment, comparison, over-efforting, etc. But why stop there? Every word, every thought, every action presents us with another opportunity to practice. Yoga is in everything we do, from practicing Downward-Facing Dog Pose to pulling weeds.

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Honoring the Mother

This Sunday, we honor mothers. Relatively young as holidays go, Mother’s Day dates to 1907, when an American woman held a memorial service for her mother. She campaigned to make the second Sunday in May a nationally recognized holiday, and in 1914, her lobbying paid off … at least for greeting card companies, floral shops, candy makers, etc. She went on to protest the empty commercialism of the holiday, but by then it was a wrap … in pink ribbon and tulle, of course.

Here in the states, we give moms flowers, candy, jewelry, and 140 million Mother’s Day cards, spending nearly $2 billion on flowers alone. But if we look beyond the commercialism, we see that there is a long tradition across cultures celebrating motherhood, often in springtime. Fertility, renewal, and childbirth are associated with the feminine aspect of the universe, along with Earth and its satellite, the moon.

Roses have been associated with love, beauty, and hidden knowledge.

We find male and female symbolism throughout yoga. Samkhya, one of the traditional philosophical systems of India, and the foundation of yoga and ayurveda, is based on a dualistic view of the cosmos: pure Spirit (male) and the creative force (female). In asana, we honor the feminine with Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose), forward bends such as Upavista Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold), Balasana (Child’s Pose), and most especially, Salamba Sarvangasana, the shoulderstand, considered the queen of all asana.

There is a cooling, relaxing element to feminine asanas, which focus on the parasympathetic division of the nervous system, our “rest and digest” state. Left-nostril breathing, the pranayama known as chandra bhedana (“moon passing through”) also cools the physical body and is excellent for treating sleeplessness or a restless mind. All these practices are nurturing and regenerative—qualities that we associate with mother love. More than ever, we need these qualities in order to find balance in our fast-paced, thought-dominant society.

Earth herself is nurturing and patient, endlessly giving—she holds us in her arms during Savasana. She supports and grounds us during meditation and pranayama. Prakriti—the feminine aspect of the cosmos—is the mother of us all, shaping our experiences and connecting us by our humanness.

On Mother’s Day, we honor those who’ve embodied the feminine aspect in our lives. Along with the flowers, the candy, the cards, we can also celebrate by remembering the creative, regenerative power that is essential to our earthly experience.

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To ghee or not to ghee…

A few days ago, I made ghee for the first time in many months. According to ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, ghee is food, medicine, and more. Because it is sattvic—pure, balanced, wholesome—it is an ideal food for those who practice yoga.

For years, a jar of ghee or two, delicious and lovely, sat on my kitchen counter for daily use. But even though ghee (similar to clarified butter) is not difficult to prepare, I started making it less and less often. My routine changed with a couple moves to smaller kitchens and electric ranges, and I started using virgin coconut oil, more convenient and equally delicious.

Some people avoid ghee because they have high cholesterol. A handful of studies about ghee and cholesterol show mixed results, including one that says ghee decreases serum cholesterol slightly, another saying that while ghee raises total cholesterol, it does not create fatty deposits in blood vessels. The latter fits with what ayurveda tells us, that ghee clears the body of toxins. Add that to the plus column.

In the minus column, ghee is expensive. I don’t bother to make it unless I’m using organic, unsalted butter, and over the years I’ve found that cheaper brands usually contain more water and solids than expensive ones, yielding less ghee. Making ghee is a simple process (see Dr. Vasant Lad’s recipe here), but in a moment of inattention, ghee can burn—and wasting a pound of organic butter is a sad event.

But even if ghee does raise cholesterol and cost more than cheap butter or margarine (which is often loaded with trans fats), its benefits are many. As mentioned, ghee helps to detoxify the body’s deep tissues, and it has been used for centuries as part of ayurvedic cleanses. As it cleanses, it also rejuvenates. Dr. Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, recommends ghee for yoga practitioners because it lubricates connective tissues and prepares the body for stretching. Also, many nutrients are difficult to absorb without fatty acids, and ayurveda has long used ghee as a delivery system for healing herbs.

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The Charaka Samhita, an ayurvedic text dating to about 800 B.C., describes ghee as “the best of oils.” 

Beyond the physical benefits, ghee has many spiritual associations. In India, cows are considered sacred. Shiva’s vehicle is Nandi, the bull. Krishna, the god of love, was a cowherd. Butter, given freely to us from the cow, is like a gift from the gods. When butter is transformed by fire into ghee, it becomes the earthly equivalent of ojas, the fluid of life. Ghee has been used for centuries in lamps, to bathe murtis (figures of the gods), and to feed ceremonial fires.

Tradition has always fascinated me, the things that connect us to those who came before. I am especially fascinated by the traditions that we often participate in without thinking about as we go through our daily lives. To me, making ghee is like baking bread, or drinking wine, or even eating breakfast porridge—sharing in a food technology that has extended through the ages. In yoga, we talk often about lineage in regard to our teachers, their teachers, and the teachers who taught them. It is said that when we honor the lineage, it protects and supports us. I believe that food (at least the foods our great-grandmothers would recognize, to paraphrase Michael Pollan) is part of our human lineage, a touchstone that connects and grounds us as it nurtures. 

I am also a strong believer that food heals. In fact, my recent return to ghee was spurred by a visit from a friend with a chronic illness. Serving ghee was a small and simple way I could help him. So today, once again, a jar of ghee sits on my counter next to the olive oil. And when I have some every morning on my porridge, I remember that I am feeding the spirit along with the body.

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Practicing yoga outdoors: the scorpion’s sting

Maybe it’s lingering inspiration from Earth Day or the magic of spring, but lately I’ve been taking my yoga practice outdoors. Practicing in nature is a doorway to the very origins of asana. Yoga’s roots lie in the early shamanistic traditions of India (later influencing and being influenced by Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). It is said that the rishis (seers) closely observed nature, and that this is why yoga postures celebrate the earth and its life forms.

Balance next to an ancient juniper—whose roots penetrate rock and whose branches withstand lightning and withering heat—and you begin to understand the essence of Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Feet root into stone as leg muscles engage, creating stability and a sense of groundedness, while the upper body rises toward the sky, sparking a dynamic polarity between earth and heaven.

Yoga postures celebrate the earth and its life forms.

Lie belly-down on sun-warmed sandstone in Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and you’ll stimulate the body’s fire center, the area of the body where digestion and assimilation take place. We take in not only nourishment but also experiences, and it’s here at the solar plexus where we process both food and feelings.

In the controlled environment of a studio or home, we can easily practice ekagrata—one-pointedness—by fixing the gaze (drishti) on a single, unmoving point, perhaps a houseplant or the area between the eyebrows. For each asana, there’s also a primary physical action to focus on. In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), we focus on lifting the tailbone. At the same time, the complexity of the pose teaches us to scan the body field lightly: Have the shoulders begun to creep up around the ears? Are the heels on the floor before the hamstrings are ready?

Even in relatively simple poses, it can be challenging to maintain multiple points and levels of attention. In Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), the heart center may be lifting, even as the feet flop like dead fish, dropped from the field of awareness. The challenge then becomes making adjustments to the body–engaging the feet, lifting the ribcage–without disturbing the field.

Taking your asana outdoors requires a different awareness. Where a pebble underneath the ball of the foot can become a nagging distraction, dharana (concentration) must be especially strong. And yet, the field of awareness needs to extend even further: A sudden breeze can affect balance; a rocky surface might injure knee joints. Blowing dust, a passing bird, a laser-like shaft of sunlight–the natural world is full of surprises.

Once, while I was practicing asana in the shelter of a small canyon, Mother Nature surprised me with one of her “teaching moments.” I don’t take a mat with me to practice outdoors, preferring the grippy feel of sandstone beneath my feet. The canyon, reddish slickrock sculpted by water,  was so comfortable and peaceful  that I was able to focus deeply on each asana. Only vaguely did I notice a sensation on the sole of my foot. Later, that spot burned fiercely and for days afterward, it ached and ached.

I’d been stung by a scorpion.

Now, I could spin all kinds of stories about having a Scorpio moon or, as in the old teaching fable of the scorpion and frog, I could blame scorpion for his aggressive nature (though most likely I stepped on him first).

But, as is usually the case, the simplest explanation is the best. The scorpion sting reminded me that awareness needs to shift with the environment. The outdoor environment is different than the controlled environment indoors. Walking an urban street calls for a different level of awareness than strolling down a country lane.

We can be centered and focused, but we are creatures of the world, and we need to be mindful of our place within it. The scorpion could have been work, or family, or the car next to me on the freeway–if I’m not in tune with my surroundings, I may experience consequence. It may be as gentle as a reminder from a loved one, or it may be a scorpion’s sting.

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