Archive by Author

Routine vs. Wonder

“Yoga practice is like life. Each circumstance in which we find ourselves is like aDSC01851 pose. Some poses are hard to hold, others are pleasant. It is how we hold the pose that determines whether or not we will suffer or grow, and whether or not we will listen to the drama of the ego or the wisdom of the spirit.” Darren Main

In our asana practice, just as in life, we are guided through a sequence of poses that range from familiar and “easy” to novel and “difficult” or even sometimes “impossible” (at least in the moment). It may not seem obvious at first, but everywhere along this spectrum we encounter both challenge and possibility.

In an “easy” pose like bharmanasana (table pose), we risk being too casual, of dropping our experience down to the level of routine.   Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said “routine is resistance to wonder.” It denies our connection to bliss and the Divine, and instead fetters us to suffering. Here we are on hands and knees. When can we move, to do something? Hands anywhere, anyway, knees assymetrically arranged, feet forgotten somewhere back behind us, our gaze and mind shifting forward or wandering elsewhere to something shinier and seemingly more significant. Our body squirms and fidgets independent of the rhythm of breath. Rolf Gates often reminds us that the pose is just what we are doing, Yoga is a particular way of being in the pose. How can we use a simple pose like this to express Yoga?  Each pose can be approached in three parts – our breath, our gaze or drishti, and of course the physical form.  The physical form begins in our foundation – wherever our body meets and draws energy from the earth. In bharmanasana we need to establish and stay connected to a slow, deep and steady breath; to set our gaze down and forward; and be mindful as we carefully organize hands, knees and feet and then spine. If we do all these things skillfully, attentive to whatever arises with a gentle inward smile, we experience a union with all that is sacred and miraculous in the present moment.

At the other end of the spectrum, we may be led towards an asana or through a transition that is beyond our current ability, for many possible reasons.   Sometimes we grimace or resist, give it a chagrined effort, or even launch ourselves heedlessly with excessive effort and insufficient skill. Maybe we look around, compare ourselves to others and feel separated from a universe conspiring against us. We are self-critical regarding our failure or outwardly critical of our circumstances. We long to get away from this moment (aversion, dvesa) to another moment (craving, raga) that will be better. However, if instead we are immersed in our breath practice, set our gaze until our face can be soft, our heart tranquil, and then start working the physical form from the foundation – what a different experience! We set our body on the earth carefully and work from there physically and energetically until we find a balanced expression of the asana.

Whether or not we contort ourselves or levitate, our pose is perfect for NOW. The pose might be bharmanasana (table) or bakasana (crane). The pose might be standing in line at the grocery store or being with a loved one in the midst of trauma. Yoga is how we want to be, regardless of what we do. We let go of the drama of the ego, and bask in the wisdom of the spirit. In this way we connect to what is sacred, recognize the omnipresent miracle and fill ourselves with wonder!

Be Bold. Begin Now.

As we examine our life, no matter how far we are into it, we can see in retrospect Beginitchoices or opportunities that seemed to change our course. We made agonized decisions or we dove unthinkingly into coincidence and instinct, but either way we look back and see certain moments as pivotal. More often than not we over-think decisions that in retrospect seem to not matter at all in the long run. On the other hand those places where our heart drew us against conventional wisdom or without much consideration of pros and cons are often the treasured sparks of inspiration and alignment that we can identify as essential to our stories. For myself I can look back and finger certain experiences as key to my personality – the second time I watched Star Wars (I was a too young the first), my first experience living abroad, my fatigue with academia at the exact moment I should have been applying to grad schools, that part-time job in a wine shop that led to a fulfilling 18 year career, meeting my exquisite husband, and Yoga teacher training. They almost all had this in common: they were not forgettable events at the time, but they also didn’t have an exponentially greater sense of importance than other happenings in my exciting life. In other words, in the moment I was not fully conscious of the shift that took place in me and how it would change my life. Yoga teacher training was different.

I was aware during that first weekend of training that my life had changed. My
sensory experience was different, my attitude was different, my relationships were different, and I knew it right away. I sat at the dinner table with my husband and told him that I moved through the world with a fresher understanding, one that made so much more sense than any of the ideas I had explored up until then. You may say I was on the cusp of some of the realizations that came to me. I had been reading, listening, talking and thinking in terms of spiritual and ethical considerations since I was a teenager. (It was not until later, by the way, that I welcomed the body into these contemplations. The mind and body were quite separate things to me at that time.) Not everyone’s experience is guaranteed to be so dramatic but I have never met anyone who regretted embarking on Yoga teacher training, even those who don’t formally teach Yoga.

I had two “yoga moments,” within a short space of time. For two years I had been 11390118_910716748990247_702657078241727207_nputting my honest best into a job that offered financial rewards and prestige. In my heart though, I dreaded going through what I saw as ethically bankrupt interactions. As part of Yoga class one day, my beloved teacher and friend Toni Gilroy quoted Seane Corn that “Being inauthentic is exhausting. Being true to your self is effortless.” I started crying and couldn’t stop. Downward Dog with tears in my nose – not feeling pretty I can tell you. A few weeks later Toni announced Vinyasa teacher training to be held in the same facility where I took classes. I didn’t know what Vinyasa was! I didn’t care. My heart absolutely doubled in size and I teared up again (like I do every time I think of Han Solo shooting Darth Vader’s tie fighter out of the trench so Luke could blow up the Death Star).

Without knowing what would come of it, I committed to become a yoga teacher. I
would learn how to pass on what my teachers taught me. I would learn how to be something different than what I had been– something I believe I was meant to be. Of course I had my moments of doubt, of being too much in my head. Occasionally I equivocated that I would only teach part time, or that I would only study to deepen my own practice. These are both outstanding paths that completely legitimize teacher training.  But for myself I knew from that first weekend that taking all the skills I had used to other aims in prior occupations, and adding to them from the bottomless well that is contemporary Yoga would help me continue a Dharmic path that looking back would seem inevitable, led as it was by my heart’s true desire.

I have several times now thrown everything up in the air, and trusted that things would fall into place when I needed them to be there. The first time I did it, a friend shared with me this quote by W.H. Murray, and it has inspired me ever since.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, alwaysYFAB_TT_postcard-01 ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.  A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’ ”
Yoga For All Beings teacher training starts September 2015. Be bold! Begin. Join us..

Faith in Peace

Maybe this has happened to you. Your Yoga teacher is cueing something really hard WI sunset 2– an arm balance, inversion, big back bend or one of those ‘put your foot behind your something’ asanas -something definitely out of your usual range of motion or strength. The teacher says that maybe instead of actually accomplishing the pose today, you get yourself going in that direction, close your eyes and imagine yourself doing the pose. Maybe you think it is a joke, and a dark one. Yeah, right! Isn’t that the same as failing, or just denying the fact that you’re not able to do something? What good is it to just visualize yourself?   And yet, I am often that teacher. I assure students, for example, in attempting a handstand, that if they do not believe they will go upside down today, they assuredly will not.   What we believe matters sooooo much in terms of what we can accomplish. I was thinking about the other night as I listened to Sakyong Mipham, the leader of Shambhala in a lecture titled “Making Peace Possible: The Shared Wisdom of the Human Heart.”

The Sakyong answered the question “Is peace possible?” by saying we needed to focus on the word “possibility.” As he addressed a crowd of about 400 people of varied faiths and backgrounds, the Sakyong repeatedly spoke with compassion to us as individuals who were certainly interested, if not deeply involved, in peace programs in local and global communities. Despite “preaching to the choir,” he acknowledged the challenge to stay faithful to a vision of deep human connection independent of commodity transfer, and gentle loving-kindness in the face of systemic violence and injustice. Citing his own Tibetan roots, he reminded us of his father’s response to violence and oppression in his homeland.   Instead of becoming bitter, vengeful or angry, he instead confirmed our shared humanity and greater need for powerful love.   He took his message of compassion and justice outward to form an international organization based on mindfulness, meditation and active peace-making. It is easy to lose momentum, to become apathetic and view the world’s problems as too big and too complex. We are coming up against something outside our usual range of motion and strength. The pose feels insurmountable. We sometimes bury ourselves in distractions or the temporary dulling of our senses, or lose our faith entirely in the shared wisdom of our hearts.  But this leads to us feeling like we are dying of thirst, sometimes for something we can’t even name.

He compared this challenge of keeping faith to the challenge we might face during meditation. The practice is to return again and again to the focus of attention. If we repeatedly notice that our mind shifts, and repeatedly allow it to resettle onto the object of meditation (the breath, mantra, feeling, etc.) then it is a good practice. Speaking of Yoga asana, he says the intention is to come up against resistance and respond with breath and mindfulness — over and over. He suggested that very inflexible people might have a better chance experiencing Yoga, because they have more opportunities to come up to an impediment against movement and respond skillfully. The super strong and flexible in this scheme do not get as much “practice.” Weylon Lewis, the founder of Elephant Journal reminds us we should value our meditation practice even when we feel it “goes badly,” just as in our physical practice sometimes we feel we are losing ground or strength or flexibility or our sense of balance and ease of breath. The point of meditation, of asana, of challenges in our world, is to simply keep showing up and practicing. The first part of that “showing up” is believing that our visions and our deepest, highest intentions are indeed possible. Point your heart in the right direction, and keep practicing. The answer is “YES!”

Fear of Falling

Finnish CartwheelI once wrote a piece called “Ladders to Where?” about an experience hiking in Australia. The hike involved climbing a ladder up a rock outcropping overlooking a breathtaking expanse of forest. It also involved gusting winds that made the climb very frightening. I compared the courage it took to climb that ladder to my earliest memories of learning to balance in ardha chandrasana, half moon pose. Indeed, the skills that I learned in that pose helped me to get up the ladder to enjoy the amazing view and divine experience at the top.

I was remembering that episode recently when I fell down. Actually, I fell down dozens of times – purposefully! I attended a workshop on falling out of inversions and arm balances with Nolan Lee, a Chicago yoga teacher, martial arts enthusiast and chiropractic physician.

Nolan started the session by asking us if we were afraid of falling, and then why. We were afraid of getting hurt, but we also had fears of being embarrassed, of calling attention to ourselves, and even of being hurt long term in ways that would negatively impact our lives, our jobs, our families, and so on. Our minds can dig in, exaggerate, defend and rationalize our aversions in ways that make our thinking appear to be conscious, chosen, and wise. Really, we are just scared and usually without need. He suggested that once we got used to falling, skillful in our falling, skillful in rolling out of a fall, then the greater risk was in not challenging ourselves to do new things. So we practiced falling with skill. We started practicing while we were sitting down. This looked a little silly. We felt a little silly. We began to have fun and laugh. Our bodies loosened up, and so did our minds.

Next, we fell from a low squat, and then from standing. Over the two hour period, we fell sideways, forwards, backwards, from our crow poses, from handstands, from headstands, and from fledgling entries into these. True we got a little bruised and, for a couple days, I felt a bit jostled. But there was no blood shed, concussions, broken bones, nothing strained. Even our egos stayed intact. We started to feel pretty pleased with ourselves and left on a definite high note.
It’s true I am a little bolder now about going upside down and do start my inversions farther from the wall but I think the workshop offered greater insight than that.

Our fear about falling from an upside down hand balance becomes habitualized and manifests as a fear of falling from a squat eight inches off the floor. Our terror of falling off a cliff becomes fear about climbing a ladder in a state park. Our worry both of being stalked and rejected prevents us from casual conversation with strangers. Our dread of embarrassing ourselves (note, even TO OURSELVES) as we learn and practice a new skill prevents us from trying new things. Our disinclination to experience anything not familiar and pleasing gets in the way of finding new pleasures. Our fear of being adrift impedes our willingness to reach out. Our fear of loss becomes a fear to love. Abhinivesa is the last of the yogic klesas, the five hindrances or obstacles to enlightened living. It is translated both as the fear of death and at the same time the fear of life, for these are intertwined.

Foolhardiness is not celebrated here, nor is fearlessness given real credence. We are wired to avoid danger and stick closely to routine and safety so that we can survive and procreate. Our evolution did not favor happiness, but our evolved consciousness entails the potential for liberation. Our journey involves hazards and hurts, some of them avoidable and some of them not. Courage is cultivating awareness and steadiness in the midst of fearful situations so we can respond skillfully, dodge the danger, roll out of the fall with enough velocity and forward trajectory to land safely, ready for the next moment.

Jenni Antonicic Padangusthasana

In Celebration of Vinyasa

By Jenni Antonicic

Jenni A HappyThere is a vision of myself that I treasure.  It’s from one of my first Vinyasa classes at a new studio.  The lights were dim, the music and teacher were exuberant, and things had gotten pretty sweaty.  We were cued to “flip our dogs,” taking one foot high in adho mukha svanasana, bending that knee, stacking our hips and then bringing our foot to the floor behind us, pivoting hips and heart and throat up towards the ceiling into an arcing backbend that felt like flying.  My front-body open, grinning chin lifted to the ceiling, free hand reaching for the horizon – I was in euphoric expansion, anchored firmly to a solid foundation.  This experience was reinforced by a friend who walked by the studio window at just that moment and said to me afterwards “Wow, you looked like you were having the time of your life!” This vision and its emotional and spiritual components encapsulate what I love most about Vinyasa – its joyous and creative expression, its element of deep play, and its emphasis on stillness and connection attained through movement .

After twenty years of accepting chronic pain in my body as just “part of life,” I have healed myself of back, hip, feet and wrist injuries, and certainly more that was brewing.  There is a freedom and ease in my physical experience that I never expected to feel increasing as I get older.  Alignment-based asana gets the credit for the feeling that I am in the best shape of my life.  I also acknowledge my meditation practice and a sincere effort at making ethical choices as contributing mightily to my mental and emotional health.  Harmonious relationships, enriching opportunities, and the conviction that my work is of service to others are all pivotal to my overall sense of well-being.  Soft forms of yoga like Judith Lasater’s restorative and Yin have a weekly place in my routine.  I have been blessed by teachers with a thorough understanding of alignment, and the geek in me is quickly taken in by precision.  Relatively static forms of yoga based on distinct, held poses adjusted by a teacher have an important place in the yoga universe.   I like to learn through many styles, especially from therapeutic teachers.  Nevertheless, I bellow a hearty endorsement to alignment-based “flowing” Vinyasa – a practice of movement, breath, and strong fluid transitions.  It offers intense pleasure in the body – the grossest part of our selves, but a viable portal into other aspects of our experience.  The joy of sure and rhythmic movement; the regaining of steadiness when surety is bobbled; the application of just the right amount of exertion to allow the emergence of subtle sensation; sweet trembling fatigue after an offering of energy and strength; and that precious, delicate skill of prioritizing stability over extension – all these things reward me richly.

choose happinessAt some point in my early 30s, my grandmother was expressing disapproval of my chosen life.  “I’m happy,” I said. “Hmmph!” she replied, “Life is not about being happy.” I adore her, and value every memory of her I can retain, but I think she got this wrong. We are aligned with the Divine when we are truly happy  –  anything on the spectrum from quiet contentment to supernova explosions of glee  – and that IS what life is,  about.  Dr. Wayne Dyer encourages us to “vibrate at a high frequency,” a phrase I embrace and repeat with gusto. When our energy is occupied with creative and generous love and beauty, when we offer and accept that energy by practicing strength and skill, even when we stumble, our motions are Grace-full. That flipped dog pose is still one of my favorites. It makes my body, heart and soul unleash ecstatically!

 

Jenni Pic Wedding TreeJenni Antonicic has been exploring her spiritual and physical existence with great gusto since she was a teenager.  She spent more than two decades sharing specialized beverages with fellow connoisseurs before shifting her focus to share specialized practices of body and breath with fellow students.