Friday, December 5, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
The ethics of teaching yoga are complex, controversial and often dry issues that are nonetheless absolutely essential to a solid teacher training program. The ethical quandaries that can arise in and outside the classroom affect us all whether we are a student or a teacher, male or female. My intention is to generate awareness and dialogue around the subject of ethical teaching so the art and practice of yoga can continue to flourish.
Initially I was so overwhelmed with the logistics of teaching classes that did the authentic practice of yoga asana, pranayama and meditation justice that I didn’t give too much thought to the ethical responsibility of teaching. Ethical inquiries were certainly addressed in my teacher training but I didn’t take the time to establish my own personal code of ethics until much later. This code of ethics continues to morph and grow with every class I teach. In the beginning I handled each situation as is arouse and did my best to follow through with decisions and actions that felt ethical in both a narrow personal sense and a broad universal sense. I certainly made my mistakes and to this day I don’t claim to have all the answers. I do know that the journey to this point was invaluable in the development of my own internal ethical compass, boundaries, and intuition. I am grateful for the opportunity to teach the Ethics of Teaching segment of the Yogalife Teacher Training in Seattle, Washington for it has proven to be yet another avenue for self-discovery, clarification and reflection. In my research and reading on the topic I’ve found my personal beliefs resonate most strongly with Donna Farhi’s. Her book “Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship” and accompanying CD “Holding A Heart In Our Hands” have been instrumental in my own process and in the creation of this teacher training segment.
When discussing the ethics of teaching yoga it is helpful to first inquire into the purpose and meaning of yoga. The longer I tread the path of yoga the more it is a means for me to return to something that is and always has been complete, full of love, joyful, and free – the True Self. Those on the path will attest to the dedication required to meet and welcome the suffering of our own creation the practice reveals. When we attach to false perceptions about ourselves and believe that we are limited to the vehicle of the body, and the fleeting feelings, sensations and thoughts of the mind we forget who we really are and become defined by alternating waves of fear, love, pain, pleasure, comfort and discomfort. Yoga shows us how to systematical deconstruct and dis-identify with all that we hold true about ourselves, both positive and negative, to reveal a clear and discerning light within. What speaks to me about the eight-fold path of yoga is its affirmation that the journey is not about changing or creating anything new but restoring an awareness of that which has always been. Yoga is something we are. Yoga is a way of life. It is a commitment to living life as fully as possible according to the ten ethical precepts recorded by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
The Yamas and Niyamas are often viewed as the ten commandments of Yoga. We all fail at times and everyone makes mistakes but we are redeemed through the intensity of our aspiration and a heartfelt desire to live by these precepts. Richard Miller stated that the Yamas and Niyamas are emphatic declarations of who we are when we live connected to our True Nature. We are peaceful, truthful, generous, pure, joyful, self-reflective, grateful and devoted beings and through the practice of yoga these qualities shine brighter and brighter. The Yamas and Niyamas are also referred to as inner and outer restraints. I believe that we, the human race, are not inherently “bad” and I am grateful for Donna Farhi’s clarity around the purpose of these restraints. What we are trying to restrain is the deeply rooted belief that we are separate and the tendency to see the world in shades of us and them, me and you. When we loose sight of the intrinsic interconnectedness of all beings everywhere it may make it easier to act outside of the precepts of True Nature and engage in harmful actions, words and thoughts.
Now that I’ve shared a few thoughts on the meaning of yoga, an inquiry into the role of a yoga teacher follows. The word “to educate” comes from Greek midwifery term “educari” which translates as “to be present for the birth of.” As teachers of yoga we hold sacred space in which the student can safely undergo the fiery process of transformation. The teacher-student relationship is an incredibly potent one that can change the trajectory of a life in an instant. Hence the two-fold need for a strong desire to facilitate the blossoming of a student’s greatest potential and clear boundaries. Implicit in the teacher-student relationship is an imbalance of power. We often work with students at a critical point in their life where they sit on the precipice of repeating history or creating new patterns of thought and behavior that lead toward future healing. The teacher in whom the student has placed their absolute trust can affect the direction they go for better or worse. As much as teaching yoga is about boundlessness it is also about the creation, maintenance and defense of healthy boundaries so as not to abuse this power. Boundaries are necessary throughout the process of transformation. Without them the process gets blurry and effectively ends. Thus, as teachers we constantly engage is self-reflective study. Asking questions such as “Would I like to be treated in this manner?” “How will I feel about this later?” “Will this behavior require me to lie, be untruthful or cause suffering for me or another?” and “Is this action a departure (abuse) from the purpose of teaching or selfishly motivated?” can help us hone our internal compass and firm our boundaries.
The yoga teacher wears many hats. Some hats are consciously assumed while others are unconsciously projected and transferred from the student onto the teacher. The teacher may simultaneously or alternately live in the students mind as the teacher, healer, priest, therapist and coach archetype. The teacher may live larger than we know in the student’s mind and the experience of being unconditionally seen and accepted by another can be as intoxicating and addicting as a drug. The dynamic of this relationship can facilitate the abuse of power and has the potential to breed a co-dependence that can inhibit the ultimate aim of the Yoga – the recognition of the inner teacher. Adoration can lead to self-aggrandizement on the part of the teacher and an unhealthy yielding of power on the part of the student. A teacher in the truest sense humbly steps off the pedestal and encourages the development of self-reliance and freedom thereby passing the torch and igniting the students own inner light and wisdom.
In the end as Banner and Cannon so succinctly suggest in their book “The Elements of Teaching,” “Teachers are ethical not only because the trustee role requires it, teachers are ethical so that their students can learn to be ethical too.” This is no small feat. At times in my teaching career I have felt like an isolated island in an archipelago of other teaching islands. Actively reaching out to colleagues and senior teachers in my community has been an amazing source of support and affirmation in the search to live ethically and authentically within my boundaries. I hope that this brief article supports you in your teaching and allows the greater teaching community to take another step forward in creating a safe yoga environment for all practitioners.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Accidents happen and lately they have been happening close to home. Lisa and Sandy attacked by a dog, Cameron's bicycle accident and tonight when the elevator door opened I stared into the battered and bruised face of a man who looked as if he'd done a face plant into a storm drain. In times like these it can be difficult to see the silver lining yet is important to remember that even injury can be a teacher and often it is one of our greatest teachers. Something as individual as a misunderstanding with a colleague or as global as the abuse imposed on our planet are tremendous opportunities for growth.
I’ve had a few minor injuries and one serious injury in my Yoga career thus far. The minor injuries were wake up calls that underscored the importance of being truthful about my body’s capability and the value of being content with one’s own practice at any given moment. The serious injury completely transformed my approach to teaching, practicing and living Yoga.
I broke my leg during a period of major transition that left me feeling completely ungrounded and desperately in search of my center. Hobbling around on crutches was a poignant reflection of my inner state. Once I moved through the initial shock, pain, restlessness of being temporarily disabled, my injury catapulted me into a deep inquiry around the unresolved residues that led to my accident, the trauma itself and the ensuing emotional aftermath. At this point I had found Yoga Nidra but not my teacher Richard Miller. I had yet to develop the language to describe the step-by-step reintegration of mind, body and spirit I was experiencing. Looking back it is clear that Yoga Nidra was one of the major lines that pulled me up and out of the mire and back onto a path where work and play, offering and receiving are equal. Two years later, this process continues to unfold and reveal more guests to welcome into my cozy living room.
The first set of emotions and beliefs I welcomed related to my ideas regarding work, work ethic, discipline and competition. I loving refer to myself as a recovering type-A personality. The qualities of a type A personality are essentially beneficial if kept in proper balance. When out of balance however these qualities can threaten physical vitality and emotional health. The same is true of other personalities, though the type A's are notorious precisely because their determined and outgoing energy makes them difficult to miss. Historically it is always been challenging for me to do “nothing” or to just “be”. I have a very busy mind and am always on the move. I equated even momentary stillness with laziness or failure and was frantically avoiding the discomfort of sitting alone with myself. I had fully adopted the belief that I am a measure of what I do rather than who I am and this was the flame that led to my self-combustion. The heavyweights in the arena of self-defeating inner dialog are shame, blame and guilt and the accident left plenty of all three to wrestle with. When able to transcend this trio I moved deeper into the intricate web of my psyche in search of the core belief that led me to take an action that put my physical well being behind that of an automobile’s.
My type A tendencies were also present in my yoga practice. Initially I was extremely goal oriented and the concept of enjoying the journey flew right over my head. Practices that involved movement for movement’s sake or body sensing where foreign and uncharted territories I dared not enter. After 15 years of gymnastic training, everything was a competition and I was my own biggest rival. I was, and continue to be, drawn to physically challenging and acrobatic styles of yoga. My unexpected injury not only forced me to slow down but it provided an opportunity to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. The simultaneous discovery of Yoga Nidra was a blessing. It softened my perfectionist tendencies, ameliorated self-imposed pressure and taught me to enjoy being instead of always doing. The gem of the practice is that it pacifies the harsh voice of my inner critic by simply welcoming it. When this happens I have effectively created a space for the whole of myself to shine.
Yoga and Yoga Nidra teach us that we are more than the collection of labels and roles we assume unconsciously or by choice throughout our life. Thus it follows that I began to examine the many ideas about the role of a yoga teacher. Right away I was confronted with the fact that being injured I was no longer able to perform and demonstrate the postures I taught daily. I also became acutely aware of the pedestal I had put myself up on through the encouragement of my ego and the projections of students. A belief that yoga teachers are immune to the trials and tribulations of life and are perfectly healthy, selfless and equanamous beings announced itself. A motto I picked up from a Portland based teacher resonates, “Yoga teachers are human too!” As a yoga teacher it is my intention to mirror my own commitment to authenticity, balance and self-study so that students have permission to walk their individual paths and let their inner teacher light the way. All teachers will inevitably make mistakes both in and outside the classroom; this is part of being human. But being human isn’t a loophole. We must take responsibility for our thoughts, decisions, words, and actions.
And so I did. There was a part of me that wanted to avoid the studio and my classes but I hobbled in, sat myself down, crutches and all, and taught anyway. The mutual learning that resulted was immediately obvious. I found that I was rather attached to practicing along with my students and that they in turn were attached to me showing them. Not only was this an unwise practice for the longevity of my teaching career, but it prevented students from learning through their own experience and from one another. Everybody is different and the importance of finding your own way into a pose became a central theme in my teaching. I also realized the potential for comparison that arose out of my constant demonstrating and that my body perhaps wasn’t the most appropriate tool for learning. Being stuck at the front of the studio I also saw how vague my instructions were and could continue to be when I was doing the postures along with the group. The mindfulness involved in speaking clearly and succinctly while remembering a complex sequence is incredible. Often I was more exhausted than if I had been practicing the entire time! Lastly, I realized that by practicing while teaching I was unable to truly be there for the student. I couldn’t see where they needed clarification or assistance and therefore couldn’t truly teach or teach responsibly.
Ultimately, breaking my leg deepened my knowledge as a teacher and student of yoga. When I finally got out of my cast, I learned an array of modifications that I can share when necessary. I was given a small view into what it is like to being disabled and the experience left me with a profound respect and empathy for individuals permanently or temporarily handicapped. Two years latter I am still digesting and healing from the experience. Balance in all its manifestations is something I strive to maintain in my life.
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Monday, October 13, 2008
Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition, science and art of living founded upon the knowledge that all life is interconnected. Yoga, often inadequately translated as “union,” refers to the action of awakening to, as well as a description of, the unified nature of the True Self. When we perceive ourselves to be separate from life we suffer. As a result of this misperception our actions in the world may be misguided, causing unnecessary pain to ourselves and others. Yoga teaches that we can free ourselves from of unnecessary suffering by recognizing that no “one” and no “thing” is separate from us. We achieve this undivided state through an earnest and careful practice of the eight limbs of Yoga as recorded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The eight limbs are the very foundation of yoga. Though many volumes can be devoted to their meaning and application, it is an endeavor that is beyond the scope of this paper and I will keep my description brief. The eight limbs consist of moral codes for living (yamas and niyamas), physical practices (asana) and breath awareness techniques (pranayama) designed to purify and strengthen the mind and body so that attention is free to turn further inward. Through consistent practice we begin to dis-identify with the objects and thoughts held captive by the five senses (pratyahara). We recognize the impermanence of the contents of our consciousness and are invited to concentrate the mind (dharana) on what is unchanging and of lasting value. In time we learn to surf life’s waves with grace so that even in the face of monsoon season, we are able to maintain our equanimity (dhyana) and thereby liberate ourselves to attain our highest potential (samadhi). This may sound all well and good, but the practice of Yoga requires a genuine commitment to become established in the state of freedom. Yoga is for those who are disciplined and perseverant, devoted and humble in a field where everything is verified and understood through first-hand experience. Fortunately, it’s called Yoga practice, not perfection. On this path I think you will find your practice to be your greatest teacher.
The beauty of Yoga is that it is not a religion. Yoga is a philosophy of existence free of dogma and a paternal figure that actively defines your progress. Yoga allows you to come as you are and meet what is arising in the moment. With the veil of perfection raised there is enough room for all of you to show up, even the parts you question, judge and would rather deny. My own personal definition of Yoga has to do with holding space for all aspects of the self. In order to embrace the union of Yoga we must welcome all of ourselves into the room. Yoga isn’t about rejecting or repressing certain things while elevating others. It’s not a power struggle of sacred and profane. It’s about being with it all just as it is, equally. In this way we transcend our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior and resolve residues of unfinished “business.” We step off the figurative wheel of suffering.
Now that you’ve committed yourself to the practice of Yoga and perhaps teaching, you’re probably wondering what comes next. The two pieces of wisdom I will impart from my own experience as a student and teacher of Yoga are: Start where you are and never take off your student “hat.” Most of us are drawn to Yoga through the practice of physical exercise or asana. If you are a considering teaching Yoga this is a fantastic place to start as the largest part of most mainstream studio and fitness club classes are devoted to the art of sequencing, adjusting, demonstrating and calling postures. For this reason, a dedicated asana practice, whether at home or elsewhere, is essential for beginner teachers. The Yoga tradition is not interested in textbook explanations and diagrams. It is primarily concerned with first hand knowing of its observances, physical and otherwise. Practicing asana is especially important in finding unique ways of describing sensation and succinct ways to language technical cues. When you first start teaching you will be amazed at the various ways a simple physical instruction can be interpreted! You are not alone if as you read this you are badgering yourself for not currently having a home practice or are stuck with the quintessential “blank screen” syndrome. Remember your practice is for you and you alone. Try to let go of the “right” way of doing things and find your own way into the practice.
There are various ways to cultivate your home practice. My personal practice involves taking a moment to settle in and listen to what is arising in the moment. This can be done by coming to your seat or to stand and feeling into your body and breath. Open all of your senses and notice what is present. Welcome all physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and images into awareness. There may be an overwhelming amount of messengers or not a one. Nothing is still something and if continue to feel stuck notice if you are striving or thinking your way in to your body. Can you melt your eyes and mind into your heart and feel the body from there? Usually something will announce itself quite adamantly. It may be stiffness in the hips or a tired feeling that leads you to a hip opening or restorative focused session. If you need more structure to your practice try focusing on a certain area of the body or category of postures (i.e. forward bends, back bends, standing poses). You can refer to books, videos and sequences you remember from classes you’ve attended to supplement your intuitive process. It may also be helpful to set aside twenty minutes rather than an hour and allow your practice to grow organically. It’s worth saying again; your practice is your teacher. It is only through consistent practice that you become your own unique flavor of teacher.
Cultivating a home practice means never taking off the student “hat.” As teachers, particularly new teachers, we are vulnerable to getting carried away by the many demands and “hats” of the role. It is easy to get so swept up in teaching that I forget to make time to nurture myself as a student of Yoga. For this reason it is crucial to continue learn at home or with other teachers in your community. This alone establishes a fertile ground of inspiration for the teachings of Yoga to naturally and authentically travel through you to your students, family, friends and colleagues. As Donna Farhi states in her book Teaching Yoga, “In the study of Yoga, the teacher can lead the student only as far as she has gone herself. She can shine the light only into places that she herself has been willing to go.” This is no small task and may take a lifetime to explore. The Yoga Sutras define practice as the ability to remain there (I.13). Thus we come full circle; start where you are and continue to evolve and grow as a student of Yoga. Make it your own and teach what you practice. Students have an uncanny ability to sense ingenuity but when it comes from your heart and first-hand experience you can never go wrong. As teachers we mirror the student’s search for authenticity. We will all undoubtedly fail at times but what is most important is the teacher’s sincere and deep commitment.
Lastly, I feel it worthy to mention the practice of Yoga is not limited to physical postures. Your individual work may involve breath awareness, meditation, mantra, reading sacred texts or related books, reflective writing or other creative expressions. If done mindfully, you can be doing Yoga while washing the dishes, walking to work or talking to a loved one. Your practice can blend seamlessly with everyday life and completely transform the way you experience the world.
The place of light within me greets, honors and welcomes the place of light within you. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one. NAMASTE.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
During the workshop, participants create a mala and use it to repeat the Gayatri Mantra 108 times. Please visit my Blog, Gayatri Mantra: The Celestial Song of Light, for more about the meaning of this beloved chant. Participants learn how to use the mala, the significance of each bead, and the meaning of 108. Also included is a discussion of the yamas and niyamas. Please visit Samantha's Blog on the meaning of the yamas and niyamas.
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Gayatri Mantra: The Celestial Song of Light
It is the support of every seeker after Truth who believes in its efficacy, power and glory, be he of any caste, creed, or sect. It is only one's faith and purity of heart that really count. Indeed, Gayatri is an impregnable spiritual armor, a veritable fortress, that guards and protects its votary, that transforms him into the divine, and blesses him with the brilliant light of the highest spiritual illumination. – Swami Sivananda
Meaning and Origin
To recite the Gayatri Mantra is to enter the stream of generations of spiritual seekers who have repeated the sacred incantation for thousands of years. The Gayatri is considered “the essence of the Vedas.” The four Vedas are the oldest and most revered of the Hindu sacred texts. Veda means knowledge, and thus this mantra illuminates your intellect and lights your path. The Gayatri is an appeal to the Divine to awaken and strengthen the powers of discernment and wisdom. Chanting it fosters and sharpens the knowledge yielding faculty and bestows all that is beneficial to the chanter. The Gayatri is highly revered in Hinduism, second only to the mantra AUM. It is a prayer that asks for a clear intellect so that the Truth may be reflected therein without distortion. It is universally relevant for any spiritual seeker for it is a revelatory song about Light: the Light that represents our True Nature as unchanging and undivided Pure Presence. The Gayatri is an earnest exclamation that everything is an expression of Pure Presence. Understanding and purely loving the essence of the Gayatri Mantra is seen by many to be one of the most powerful ways to awaken mind and soul. Just as we take bath to cleanse our bodies, so we chant the Gayatri Mantra to purify our mind and intellect.
Gayatri is the name for a Vedic poetical meter that contains three lines of eight syllables each. The word Gayatri is a combination of Sanskrit words: gaya (vital energies) and trayate (preserves, protects, grants liberation). The word mantra means “instrument of thought, sacred text, or a prayer of praise.” Together the words gayatri mantra can be translated as “a prayer of praise that awakens and protects the vital energies and gives liberation.”
There are, therefore, many gayatri mantras, but the one shown above is the oldest and most well known of all. In Hinduism each God and Goddess is associated with a particular gayatri mantra. There is a gayatri for Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi and so on. Most people are unaware that when Hindus refer to the Gayatri Mantra they mean the one discussed below.
The deity associated with the Gayatri Mantra is the Sun, Savitri. The more common name for the sun is surya as in surya namaskar (sun salutations). Generally surya is the name for the sun while it is above the horizon and savitri is the sun as it is rising and setting just below the horizon. There is a great metaphor in Hinduism that when understood explains a lot about the Hindu way of seeing the universe. The metaphor is: “the sun equals light, which equals knowledge, which equals consciousness.” This metaphor applies not only to the Gayatri Mantra but also to the design of temples and homes and to details such as the clockwise circumambulation involved in rituals and prayer.
The first line: om bhur bhuvah svah is not technically a part of the Gayatri Mantra. It is a special invocation that has been added to the beginning of this famous mantra. This invocation is important and will be discussed after an explanation of the Gayatri Mantra itself. The three lines of the Gayatri Mantra are: 1) tat-savitur varenyam 2) bhargo devasya dhimahi 3) dhiyo yo nah pracodayat.
The word tat is a neuter pronoun meaning “that.” It is a direct reference to Savitri. According to the metaphor mentioned above, the Sun, as the source of illumination, heat, food and so many other precious things in our life, can be seen as a symbol of God.
There are two verbs in the Gayatri Mantra: dhimahi and pracodayat. Dimahi means, “let us meditate.” So the second line of the mantra is “Let us meditate on the Light (bhargo) of the Sun which represents God.”
The verb pracodayat literally means, “it should push.” It can be more poetically translated as, “let it inspire.” Dhiyah is “thoughts” so the final line of the mantra is, “let our thoughts be inspired.”
The most literal meaning of the Gayatri Mantra is, “Let us meditate on the Light of the Sun which represents God, and may our thoughts be inspired by that divine light.” My favorite translation is:
We recognize the glory of the Light that illuminates the three planes of experience: the physical, astral and celestial.
Let us meditate on the sacred Light of the effulgent source that shines within us.
Let that inspire our thoughts and awaken the Self as the Light that pervades the entire Universe.
The Great Utterance
As mentioned above, the first line of the mantra, om bhur bhuvah svah, is not part of the Gayatri Mantra itself. This special invocation is called the mahavyahriti or the “great utterance.” AUM is the voice of the universe out of which everything emerges. It is the great vibratory symbol for unitary Consciousness. The three words, bhur, bhuvah and svah express a “call to creation.” Taken collectively they honor and invoke the light of the Sun (or the Light of the Sun God, Savitri) that shines on Earth (physical plane), the sky (astral plane), and in space (celestial plane). The implication here is, “let that light also shine on me.”
The technical explanation of mahavyahriti has to do with more esoteric yoga practices. Simply put, the Earth is one of many planes of existence. In fact, above Earth are six higher planes or heavens. Including Earth, there are a total of seven higher planes (heavens) and seven lower planes, or hells, below this earth. Earth is in the middle. If you have ever heard the expression, “he is in seventh heaven,” this is a reference to the Hindu idea of heavens. The seventh heaven is the highest heaven. The first three of these planes starting with Earth are named bhur, bhuvah and svah. The great utterance, therefore, refers to the first three subtle planes of existence that may be reached in meditation by a yogi.
When and How to Chant the Gayatri Mantra
The Gayatri should not be chanted casually. Each word should be pronounced as clearly as possible, without haste. The Gayatri Mantra is synonymous with Divinity and therefore must be approached with humility, reverence, faith and love towards. Chanting with humility, reverence, faith and love is more important than mechanical repetition and pronunciation. The more one chants the Mantra, the greater benefit to the chanter. This mantra is ideally chanted three times a day – dawn, noon and dusk. The mantra is not, however, bound by these three times of day can be chanted anywhere and at any time. Chanting the mantra 108 times is said to result in the maximum benefit. One may chant it for 3, 9, 18 or any division of 108 when pressed for time.
A mala is a set of prayer beads used during chanting, meditation or pranayama (breath practice). The word mala means “garland” or rosary in Sanskrit and is commonly made from a 108 beads. A mala is used to focus one’s awareness and concentration while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra. This practice is known as japa in Sanskrit. Japamala is the practice of using a mala to focus one’s awareness and concentration while reciting, chanting or mentally repeating a mantra. Japamala has been used as a meditative aid by practitioners from many disciplines for thousands of years and is a form of Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Devotion) in its own right. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali state that repeating a sacred syllable and pondering its meaning lead to its understanding (Sutra I.28). It is said that through contemplative repetition of mantras, the effectiveness of yoga is improved, and through yoga the chanting of mantras is improved. With the glory of such chanting and such yoga, the highest Self is revealed.
Iyengar, BKS. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993).
Monday, September 15, 2008
For Cameron. Thank you for being. Thank you for holding space for me to be.
I’m back in the good old US of A or what the Balinese admiringly refer to as America. Though the experiences of the last three months continue to live and breathe in me, some closing reflections feel appropriate. The first day on the farm in Widgee, Australia I burnt my leg and hand with a pot of boiling water. What started as an ominous Australia shaped blister faded into a heart shaped scar, a scar that has grown on me (pun intended) and now symbolizes the underlying intention of my journey.
Tattoos can be a beautiful form of self-expression. I, however, do not have any tattoos. This is partially because I could never settle on something I could live with forever but mostly due to my preference for mother nature’s tattoos – the birthmarks, freckles and scars that give a person character. I have a secret love affair with the flaws that define the skin’s perfection and tell a person’s story. Alas, the universe has given me a poignant mark to remember her by. And this patch of discolored skin says much more to me than “never pour boiling water into a glass pitcher”.
My travels in Australia and Bali were above all an opportunity to feel deep into myself. A period devoted to making room for all the complexity and wonder that I am. It was a time to open into the mystery and to get comfortable in the discomfort of the unknown. Above all it was about opening my heart to a deep sense of self-love and acceptance and watching the wings of unconditional love sprout and take flight in my life. The fact that my travels draw to a close with an advanced training course in Integrative Restoration (iRest) took this acknowledgment a step deeper.
iRest draws heavily on the Tantric teachings of Yoga Nidra. My teacher, Richard Miller, calls iRest the meditative heart of yoga. Through a genuine welcoming of the entire contents of consciousness iRest helps integrate the psyche and brings about a sense of harmony that restores recognition of our true nature as Pure Presence. It is a heart centered practice in its welcoming of everything just as it is without judgment or a need to change what we find. The desire to be other than we are or to be more of what we are not is a form of self-hatred stemming from a core belief that we are not enough. In iRest we are not trying to change anything, just as we are not trying to create anything new. Rather we are restoring an awareness of something that has always been there in the background.
iRest invites the background into the foreground and provides an opportunity for the first-hand knowing of the container in which everything - thoughts, emotions and sensations - arise. Some call this container Awareness others call it stillness, Consciousness or Pure Presence. When we practice iRest over a long period of time it teaches us how to be better human beings. This is not a moral statement with a rap sheet of do’s and don’ts. The emphasis here is on the word being. We are human beings and when we take a moment to step back from all our human doings being-ness shines forth. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself in your favorite place with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Perhaps you are sitting in the afternoon sun, your favorite beverage in hand, gazing out into the horizon – just being. Enlightenment is that simple.
So many of us carry around the belief that enlightenment is something special, something that you have to spend a lifetime cultivating. This week I experienced the utter non-special-ness of it all. It’s been there all along but we generally don’t notice it. We are just too distracted by the content of consciousness, the striving and the trying to figure it out. A teacher once referred to these momentary glimpses of enlightenment as A-ha moments and that is exactly what they are. The trouble is often the contents of consciousness distracts and overwhelms us and so we can’t stay with it for more than a moment. We get caught in the push/pull of emotions and thoughts as we identify, react and act on them.
iRest helps us to learn how to surf the big waves – the Pipeline events of our lives. And just like anything else, we have to learn how to successfully negotiate the beginners break first. iRest assists in the cleansing of the body/mind so that attention is free to rest in Pure Presence. It supports residing in Pure Presence so the practice can continue in daily life as one uninterrupted iRest experience. When we begin to inquire into the essential qualities of Pure Presence we find love and a joy that is not dependent on anything – a joy that is here for its own sake. If we feel deeper we discover that we are that very love and joy itself. The totality of the practice is expressed in the realization of our non-dual nature. When we can fully meet, greet and welcome ourselves just as we are we start to realize that there is nothing to welcome because we are welcoming itself. When we set ourselves free to be exactly who we are wings of compassion extended from our heart to embrace not only ourselves but all beings everywhere. When there is only love, everyone and everything becomes an extension of ourselves. We see that we are not our body, our mind or our accomplishments but something greater. In reality we are being human not human beings is illumed. We are Pure Presence having the experience of being human. When I ponder this idea Richard voice echoes in my head, “This realization would mean the end of war. Not of conflict, but of war.” The war within and the war without.
It is no coincidence that I arrived at this weeks training with a heart shaped reminder of the love, perfection, divinity and wisdom that we all inherently are emblazoned on my leg. The spiritual heart isn’t a place but a portal. An opening into the mystery.
Friday, August 29, 2008
I'm having way too much fun teaching and touring Bali to make time to blog. Cameron is keep a day-by-day account of my yoga retreat complete with beautiful photographs. Take a sneak peak, see what you're missing ;-) and subscribe at www.mytb.org/cam2yogi
Sampai Jungpa Lagi (See you soon)
Thursday, August 7, 2008
In Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling novel Eat Pray Love, Bali is a place of balance: a place where the indulgences of Italy and the spiritual fervor of India join to form the quintessential middle path. My experience of Bali however is far less about balance and much more about counterbalance. I worked my way through Australia if only to exert myself as little as possible in Bali. Fortunately, I have arrived in a place where my beer budget can eclipse my champagne tastes.
Another long day of travel brought us to the Denpasar airport. We stepped into the long awaited warmth of the night air and were immediately welcomed. Cameron’s high school friend Lily and her partner Randy relieved us from the demands of uncharted territory and without any strain of mind we were quickly enroute to our first destination, Bali Mountain Retreat. The pair have been teaching English to this budding hotel’s staff and tutoring the children of the generous Australian owners for the past nine months. All of who ensured our every comfort and tilled the soil for future yoga retreats.
For the last week we have been bungalow hopping our way through paradise. Bali Mountain Retreat nestled in the foothills of Mount Batu Karu, Pondok Pisang, oceanside oasis just outside of Candi Dasa and finally Balian beach’s secret hideaway, Pondok Pisces. With the exception of a brief shopping expedition, we have thus far been true to form in our avoidance of tourist traps. Even Kuta with its tourist ghetto reputation proved to be the perfect dose of sensory over-stimulation and material prowess.
Bali has it’s own interesting relationship with balance. It is a place where the slower pace of tradition and culture juxtapose the backbreaking speed of modern day hedonism. It’s a contemporary rendition of the fabled Tortoise and the Hare and I’m still rooting for the latter. The depth of this opposition is noticeable in the sound bytes singled out by my finely tuned ears. The bass of a 24/7 party, the buzz and rattle of motorbikes and the innumerable solicitations for transport miraculously transform into the rustle of banana leaves, the bark of geckos and the constant song of the sea. Kuta's only recognizable bird songs include that of giant homemade kites and airplanes but this morning, safely sequestered in my mosquito netted bed, I woke to the pride of a neighboring rooster. Moving from concrete labyrinth to terraced rice field is merely a matter of distance and desire.
Despite this collision of worlds, Bali and her people are amongst the most relaxed and accommodating I have come across in my travels so far. The triumph of simplicity and directness are perhaps most evident in the language. Verbs don’t change their form to show person or number, or even tense. Whether an action is past or present is indicated entirely by context. I cringe recalling how many hours labored memorizing irregular verbs and tenses while learning Spanish? Indonesian is also more phonetic than Spanish. Words like restoran (restaurant), parkir (park here) and joos (juice) amuse me in the way the cut out everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Some grow impatient with the Balinese pace of life and judge that it reflects a want of ambition or ingenuity. Those who agree might do good in considering whether they desire too much too quick or are attached to the false sense of importance or purpose which complexity imparts. I would argue that it stems from a profound connection to their family, cultural history and a true appreciation of the moment. According to Jack, an ex-pat with whom we hitched a ride from Candi Dasa to Kuta, the presence of outsiders in Bali, like in so many other countries before it, is drastically changing traditional family and village infrastructure.
Jack has been living the dream of following the surf around Indonesia for the past twenty-five years and knowledgeably shared and argued in favor of the Balinese. I can’t pretend to know anything about the complexities of Balinese social, religious and political interests, nor can I deny that in the end I am a tourist seeing what has been carefully laid out for me see. Further I recognize how easy it is to demonize your own culture while enjoying only the best of another. To the point Jack said, “You think the US democracy is messed up, the Indonesian government is twice as corrupt.” Some things don’t change know matter where you are: if you have money you can get off the hook. I can confidently say that tourists are welcome in Bali now more than ever to alleviate the devastating affects two bombings had on the tourist industry. No doubt Danu Tours will share a more genuine view of the culture, dance and ceremony with the upcoming yoga retreat. For now I will continue to enjoy the sweetness of the banana pancake, the bold thickness of the “cowboy” coffee and the ecstasy of the daily massage included in my bungalow package. It is easy to understand why Gilbert decided to devote the chapters of her book about Bali to love. What is not to love about Bali?
Don't forget to visit Cameron's blog for more beautiful pictures and words about our adventures.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
WWOOF, WWOOF, WWOOF, WWOOF…. I apologize for the reference to one of the most obnoxious songs ever to be stuck in my head, but it had to be done. We survived our month in the bush and, by the looks of the above “Australian Gothic” photographs, we are now hardened WWOOFers. I am thankful for the experience and can see myself WWOOFing my way around the world. Next stop South America. In many ways the experience was reminiscent of living in the home of Senora Rosa in Seville, Spain – an opportunity to learn the local lingo, way of life and, in this case, the native plants and animals. Deepest gratitude to Helga and Claus for sharing your piece of paradise.
As life in the Pacemaker caravan drew to an end, we followed our intuition and ended up on the Sunshine Coast. We found a clean and quite bungalow style hostel just a few blocks from Sunshine beach near Noosa. Noosa is a trendy holiday destination for Southern Australians wanting to escape winter’s grey skies. The coast is lined with modern construction boasting spectacular views – the ocean as far you can see. For a minute I imagined myself doing my morning practice on one of those balconies. It would no doubt be followed by a quick swim or surf. Noosa National Park features a two-hour costal walk along its pristine beaches and looming cliffs. On the other side of those cliffs we found a nude beach where we tanned our white bits and continued reading the Gita. (Is that sacrilegious?) On Saturday we took the bus to Eumundi where we strolled the isles of an out door farmers market three times the size of Pike’s. One of the highlights of these four fairy-tale days was, of course, food related. I love food. I constantly day dream about preparing it, eating it and sharing it. In a previous life I must have been a gourmet chef, food critic or at least pleasantly plump. Cameron treated me to an amazing three-course meal at a waterfront restaurant where we enjoyed exceptional wine and service. This was quite a treat as up until that point we’d been cooking nearly everything from scratch. It was lovely to be waited on and even better not have to worry about cleaning up. It’s amazing what you take for granted when all “conveniences” are at the tips of your fingers.
Noosa was definitely a large step away from the silence we would have encountered at the ashram, but only a small step toward real life. We decided together that a little bit of civilization was just what we needed. Although we didn’t have the strict schedule and required silence of a Vipassana retreat, our time on the farm was equally profound. To shed the layers of our conditioned existence and move inward toward the Self proved to be emotionally and spiritually intense. To wipe the mirror clean is to stand naked and vulnerable before it with all your hopes, fears, mistakes, patterns and loves lying neatly on a table like glistening surgical instruments. A fully licensed doctor can rattle off the names of each without a moment’s hesitation and leave only a small row of dissolvable stitches. The self-taught makes a bloody mess and a Frankenstein scar serves as a constant reminder that denial makes the experience no less real. The learning curve is steep and risky. I think Eeyore said it best, “Can’t go under it, can’t go over it, gotta go through it.” In the end it’s all worth it. All that remains post-op is a rush of inspiration and an expansive feeling.
Don't forget to check out Cameron the camel's blog at www.mytb.org/cam2yogi
Saturday, July 12, 2008
I’ve just finished reading Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food in which he encourages, through much research and scientific data, a diet that adheres to the motto “Eat Food, Mostly Plants, Not Too Much.” He points out that as a result of industrialization and the birth of nutritional science, which views food in terms of its individual parts, most of what we buy at supermarkets no longer qualifies as food. Highly refined, processed, and genetically engineered then artificially flavored, enriched and preserved, the stuff that we consider food has changed dramatically in the last several decades. All this occurs post harvest, but I’ll leave the other details of food’s plight to Michael. I was, to a certain extent, already aware of much of what the book brings to the table but its candid description of the degradation of food is shocking. On the bright side, I am even more grateful for the big basket of organic fruits and vegetables Helga supplies us with every few days.