Friday, June 16, 2017

Yoga Off the Mat: Why, Charlie Brown, Why?



"Don't take it too hard. I've done a lot of stupid things in my life too" -Charlie Brown


#iamlucy

Charlie Brown needs yoga. Lately, yoga "off the mat" seems more challenging. That might mean that there is something off-balance, emotionally speaking. We all need to check in from time to time. We all have bad news from time to time, so how do we deal with it?

Yoga, meditation, going for a drive, a walk, playing an instrument. We need a filter in this life, so that we don't get so many grounds with the coffee in our cup. What do you do to check in with your body and mind? And equally important, is it working? Lord knows everyone needs to zen out a bit more....
Maybe...





"My life has no direction, no aim, no meaning. And yet I'm happy. I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?"
-Snoopy


Stretching the sides of your body. Moving the spine in its 5 directions, increasing flexibility and balance. Bending over to reach your toes. "Good grief!" You may say. What trouble! But this is the beauty of yoga, Charlie Brown. This is the beauty of making time for you. There are a lot of reasons to stretch and do yoga. For example, 1. Life asks us to be flexible, 2. Life asks us to recover 3. If you have tightness, you can take time, relax and breathe into it - and suddenly, you're not thinking about stupid stressors 4. It just feels good. Being conscious of our physical equilibrium can help us stabilize. We have all been weak or tight on one side. And then, the laws of compensation take over, causing more damage. The strong side compensates for the weaker side: Not good. This goes for living off-balanced too. Daily life involves every aspect of our being, even parts we are ignoring or shutting off. My recent hope and revelation: Balance on the mat can help with balance off the mat.

When facing some big decisions, a deliberate increase in physical activity / time on the mat gives the grounding we need to take some steps. When I was having a discouraging moment in my PhD process, I started hiking Stone Mountain 3x/week by myself. Seeing the sunset at the top gave me the oomph I needed to re-engage my commitment, and to be happy about it rather than discouraged with where I was at. It sounds trivial, but I promise it was fundamental to my wellbeing, and my wellbeing was fundamental to doing my best work and finishing the dissertation.
Charlie Brown, you need to relax!


Being there in your body, getting in tune,
releasing tension,
working those muscles, relaxing them
reaching through the toes, the fingers, ...breathing

yoga
Santosha: contentment


Yoga helps train our mind - and our body. When I think of the fact that behind this practice lies a beautiful, long, ancient Indian tradition built by devotees, then comes: respect, awe, wisdom. This peaceful tradition makes me (and you) want to respect the tradition's tenets and discover more the ethics of yoga, the yamas and niyamas (see my previous post). They are the gateway through which we connect deeper with the tradition that supports our yoga on (and off) the mat. 


Reading sacred texts
Scanning the body too

Listen to the body. We can listen to the silence through this movement, take air and light in through our senses - especially outdoors. The mind is calmed in this pose that enables us to breathe in a different way. Reading our body can help us address and cure any psychosomatic issues that may arise (psychosomatic issues: manifestations of physical imbalance in which emotional components have a strong part [source]). We can clear our body of negative energy, and our mind too. We are not empty-headed yogis: We are clearer-minded seekers.

Just as we wish both sides of our body to be balanced, strong, and as structurally supportive as possible, we also wish our mind to find balance. I know I do. Perhaps it is in yoga that one can witness the balance that one does in fact have - if we've been practicing awhile or if we've been keeping in tune other ways (running, dancing, walking, what have you). Physically, there it is. It's easy to see when you're doing balance and strength poses  that the right side & the left side can do about the same thing, though they may feel slightly different. Does encouraging our physical balance make us feel stronger or simply be stronger in life? Perhaps so. Some of us need that - and are happy to have yoga as that oil that helps make the engine run.

meditation

Test: Hold tree pose on each side, breathing deeply for a few moments, and see how you feel after. Or sit comfortably and breathe in slowly through one nostril and slowly out through the other a few times (use finger to close the unused nostril,), and then change sides. Or: Sit and enjoy nature this summer (easy yoga). Breathe.

Yoga
Clarity may come with a little effort & a little balancing. And harmony and peace of mind-body.


I wish we could all go to bed like that, then awake: And sustain it.

And spread it like pizza dough.
We can try.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Feet, Wonderful Roots of the Body

The Pope washes the feet of Muslim refugees, a beautiful message for today's world. 

Pope Francis washes the feet of 12 young offenders
at a detention centre in Rome

Symbolically, the feet already have great meaning in the Judeo-Christian world. But do we pay attention to our feet? They can't just be the donkey of the body, can they?

If you want deeper understanding of the body during yoga, and of your body in daily everyday motions of life by extension, study the importance of the feet. How well are we appreciating all the weight that they hold up, all the balancing, all the weight they carry?

Look at your toes; wiggle them. Those two middle toes after the big toe are connected to the eyes. The little ones on the side, they are connected to the ears. This ain't no revelation I had -- it's what I read in a cool book that reprinted ancient ritual symbols of the bottoms of the feet. In one diagram, various hills and valleys of the foot were marked with a six-pointed star, a swastika (a symbol from the ancient world before Hitler abused it), a temple. In a foot reflexology diagram, we see how each part of the foot connects to an organ or part of the spine. The author of this modern compilation of ancient and new wisdom Yoga of the Subtle BodyTias Little, also gives you exercises to feel how to spread the webbing between your toes, and how to appreciate the different arches in your feet, the different sides of the heel, and how to properly stand in mountain pose, for example: by engaging the lift in the arch, by pressing into the four corners of the foot - and he tells you where those four corners are - you can engage pada bandha (click on link for more on the bandhas).

This chapter on the feet does good: It's like becoming more aware of your blessed feet as you read, wanted to give them more attention and exercise in your next yoga session. You read that your toes are like the roots of a lotus flower or a tree that sip up the water, and somewhere higher in your foot is where the stream of chi energy that you're taking in becomes like a river, then gushing to knees to be redistributed via nadis to the various organs and parts of your whole entire body. Prana everywhere. The feet are how we ground ourselves to the earth, its magnetic vibe - it's basically how we stand stable. In activating them, we activate a whole current of energy, as Little says that they, along with the hands, are antennas of energy.

Tadasana,
or samasthiti
In tadasana, or samasthiti, you can feel your sacred axial line. What a beautiful phrase and thought: there is an axial line in our body, that gives us life. "In tadasana, we stand in the sacred midline of the body. In the meditative arts, the mountain is not limited to a postural stance but suggests the embodiment of wisdom" (27).

Zen master Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Japanese Buddhism in 1240, wrote that mountains  are "the bones and marrow of the Buddha ancestors" and the "realm where all buddhas practice."
Zen master Dogen
And if you think any of that is beautiful, then file this full length movie about Zen master Dogen away for later. (Bookmarking for myself too)

The feet. Mounds of hills and crevices, like another planet, storing the connections of our body to pressure points on our feet. Pressure points that Eastern arts know better than Westerners. But it's available, out there to pay for if you want. If I knew that any local acupuncturist was the best, knowing what the ancients knew, I'd go to him for sure. And even if he knows some...

Then, this blew my mind: "The feet help orient to a sacred axis through the temple of the body a pillar of self-organizing radiant vitality, revered in hatha yoga as the primary pathway for the movement of the deepest life-force (kundalini) Contemporary physiological renderings of this central axis involve the spine, spinal cord, and brain-that is, the central nervous system-yet we can imagine the central axis beginning in the inner foot." (29). A pillar of self-organizing radiant vitality, so perfectly said. I stopped and reread that a few times over my morning tea yesterday at Daylight Donuts (where you heard the old guys catcalling each other as they walked in and saw the whole group: "Rocky babyyyyyy!").

Our body has a pillar to conduct energy for our very life, breath, vitality - thus PRANA, what we work so hard for, and need to relax into and make time for, in yoga. That it why it is so important to take care of the spine and not lose flexibility. Vitality. That is why we breathe, and do yoga, and let the pose serve the breath, and let the breath help us extend along our axials... we are preserving and honoring our vitality, connecting to it, hoping to have some leftover connection and light to give to others who we meet with a smile, or peaceful nod. Recognition that we are all a body and soul, a breath.

So amazing. The feet.

Now I know why my Ballet teachers would say "Lift those arches!" and study our arches to see who had the highest one in class. Pulling up the arch, not letting it collapse, affects the gait and alignment and centering (or off-centering) of our whole body. Its amazing, when we really look at the interconnectedness of the body. And by extension, of the world.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

How Wonderwoman Made Me Feel Vulnerable (for a sec)

So, I was thinking the other day: are we all just crazy chameleons? Walking around doing as we do?

Society, pfft. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau looked down on you, especially at the end of his life. Paranoiac, perhaps. He became so disenchanted in old age with society. In his last and unfinished book, Reveries du promeneur solitaire, he reflects and says that our states of being are always in continual flux. (Now add to that the looks/judgements of others.... isn't that society?).

And of happiness, Rousseau made this point: Everything is in continual flux on this earth: Nothing maintains a consistent form, and our affections which attach to exterior things are just as changing as those objects. So yea, I think it's right: we are all just crazy chameleons. Rousseau may be right: we only have pleasures which pass. As for enduring happiness, he doubts that it can be known here on earth. He writes: Hardly is there an instant in one of our most amazing pleasurable moments that the heart can truly say "I hope that this moment lasts forever." He goes on to ask: How can one call happiness a temporary, fleeting state which in fact leaves our heart anxious and empty, and either makes us miss or regret something that came before, or desire something that would follow after?

We already kinda know we're going to die... And as Woody Allen likes to say, Life is how we live with the ways in which we distort the reality of that fact.
Jewish cemetery in Prague.

What is the ole adage? O yes...
"It is what it is."

In other (perhaps more positive) news, a strange thing happened today: Wonderwoman made me feel vulnerable, and I'm not quite sure how it happened. First, I was shopping at Target and throwing a retro sports bra of her face in the basket (you know how that goes at Target... flinging into the cart stuff you don't need), next I am trying it right on at home and to my surprise it looks kinda cute and I won't have to return it, and then I'm taking a selfie with my wonderwoman sports bra, smile, and stomach scars in a pic. Then, I'm texting a friend goin' "She may be wonderwoman but she doesn't have my scars." And then I do yoga, and I feel my body still need healing from all it has been through, and I start getting down on myself, somehow, about my disability situation and the rut I feel it has thrown me into: the indecision, the uncertainty, the lack of real improvement.

And then I think of my scars and I start to feel proud again. Wonderwoman? She's just a face. I mean, she may be real to some, but it's besides the point: I know deep down that I'm a real wonderwoman. So vulnerability because of disability? Yea, sure, I got that. Today was the first day that I let myself kinda complain to myself. And I thought: oh no, I must confess this, because I can't let my gratitude lessen. My sheer gratitude helped me see the amazing positive of my disability - because I am still ALIVE because of those operations - duh! How could I get down on myself and this condition? 

Well, you can't keep me down in my self-image - cuz I have the scars. They are evidence of my strength and of the love that went into me. The love of God and the love of my parents and friends and family who prayed for me. I might need a picture to see them so that I can recognize what I have been through. I might need to still crawl out of my trauma, but I'm letting go with every pigeon and tree pose - and in many other moments in yoga. I'm letting go. I'm feeling myself as strong as ever. And I remember, hey, I saw a some strong abdominal type people in the Colondar magazine, showing not only their scars like mine, but also their in-shape-ness. There is something about being sick and weak and down at the pit of earth when you're getting out of a total colectomy - and all that ensues after it.... So yea, it's no wonder that some people want to get in tune with their body and feel stronger through their body by embracing their relationship with it, this wonderful body, conductor of... Life.

Getting in child's pose, almost a fetal position, made me feel better today. No coincidence in that, I realized afterwards. I stayed their a while, forehead to the mat.

Thanks for listening.

Yoga helps us be a self in awakening.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Tree Pose: Running to Stand Still


The Art Institute of Chicago has an amazing, zenlike garden adjacent to it
Balancing in tree pose for some time last night, it seemed all at once that I achieved a new level of breath. The obvious tension of recent stresses vanished and I felt clear all of a sudden. I felt my breath achieve a place where it became deep, like a well of fresh water. The breath was so long and free and deep that it almost felt as if my body was drinking it. My arms rose like the branches of green that I admired out there in front of me as the vital life force of prana within was finding echo in the woods around me, with the birds singing in the cooling evening air. The wind carried the leaves gently side to side. I looked out at all these trees, peaceful bastions of the earth from which they grow, and I felt myself thinking about their lucky lot in life: trees get to stand still. Very unlike us, no?, we who flutter here and there and try to construct a life via job, friends, activities, duties.

Piedmont Park, Atlanta. Skeletons of trees,
veins and arteries ascending toward a painted sky above
It is always a matter of time and of intention, the time we give ourselves to stand still, to root down in order to lift up, to be tranquil amongst nature, and to enjoy the utter pause. In this place, we need not give attention to the self, but be low like water. 

The leaves are not pretending to be.

 
Greek columns in Paestum Southern Italy have withstood il tempo (in Italian, tempo means both time and weather).
They are like trees, erect yet fragile.
The notion of trees standing still while we run about collecting and depositing and throwing out.... reminds me of the U2 song: Running to Stand Still. Cuz isn't that we do at some times in our lives? We do so much in order to just be. (Alas, Joshua Tree, one of U2's best albums ever).

The body as a tree is one of the oldest analogies in the yoga tradition, according to Tias Little. He reminds us of the feet as tree roots: "The toes and feet nourish the body in the same way that the roots of a tree draw water, nutrients, and minerals out of the ground in order to support the vitality of the trunk, branches, and leaves. In turn, the spine supports the growth of the arms and hands like a tree trunk supports the branches and leaves. Ultimately the roots of the feet help metabolize prana by remotely providing support to fine twiglike structures within the lungs (bronchioles) together with their alveoli leaf clusters." from Yoga of the Subtle Body. One can even go deeper with this metaphor, and consider the tree a metaphor of the soul. I always think of this when I see two tree growing together... it is as if they have found their soulmate, and I am happy for them because they are obviously committed. Rooted together, reaching for the sun together, drinking water together, weathering the storms and years together.

Flowers in Sicily in Summer
My commitment as I move forward with my practice is to remember to hold tree pose longer than usual, more intentionally, and more often.

With this, a poem that I published in 2011 in a review online, Ishaan literary review, which is no longer in publication I recently discovered (darn). Thank goodness I still have the poem; in it I buried memories and images, nature and childhood.



Thoughts from a hammock
Studying under the shade of a tree in Paestum

There is a hammock that floats in a wheat field bordered by berries
Godlike design seems to play upon the wind that scurries about

I bend my ear
As I lift rocks for facts and reflection

The wind carries moments of my childhood
It is like an attic that I crawled through with pride

Shining jewels embedded in my imagination
Despite the winding tunnels of the past

In my grandparents’ house
I learned masculinity and age through my grandfather’s cough

Oh! Everyone was tough and sweet
The finest you could meet

When I tried to uncover their mysteries
Those silly whispering voices grew silent

As I reached for the dangling fruit
I felt curiosity and a stronger appetite

My head is now too replete with sugar and summer
Fresh like a cold mountain creek

Afraid of serpents hiding in the green plants
I suddenly realize that the carpeted forest floor does not reveal its paths

I walk with a stick in my hand
And wonder how to welcome old wisdom and deeper love

I think about reflecting on the stars I used to go to
I think about loving all who once loved me

I want to love the world in a person
Or in a tree, it is all the same to me

Love asks for my hand
I hold fast and run toward the forest’s edge

There I will have a playmate
To examine with me its treasures

Secret are the forces of the sky that cushion the trees
And the murmuring creek that bathes their roots is no different

Bubbles are blown from the mouths of children
And kisses are all we have to cling to as adults

I whisper and I sigh as I laugh with my love
He is as green as my favorite springtime

And that is why I am like a bumblebee
Making honey for our tea

Crushed flowers are like an elixir
When mixed with the fluid of our bodies

My love flows before me
Both as himself and as my desire

My affection is tied to this spot
To which I return for restoration and speech

I would like a bed of grass like jade to pillow me
In peaceful slumber and waking glories

Yes, I think it would be nice to be awake
So I might hear God when he asks for me

But first, I would like for some spirit to father me
Like a real person might have done

I would like to trust a man
Like I trusted in storybooks when I was little

And finally, I would like to contemplate the wonders of nature
In quiet gratitude and strength

From the breath of creation I borrow sustenance
And in magnificent trees my heart grows feathers

Yes and once, my heart took flight
Unto the setting of the night

-dna




More on Prana...
Prana moves along the spine, via three major channels, called nadi (see diagram to left). It is worthwhile to look into pranayama, which is the practice of bring prana into the organs and all the areas of the body. This blurb, from a wonderful article, is just the tip of the iceberg: "According to yoga, tantra and the science of kundalini, prana is supposed to originate in pingala nadi. Within the framework of the spinal cord, there are three channels known as nadis in yoga. One is called ida, another is pingala and the third is sushumna. Ida nadi represents the mental energy, pingala represents prana or pranic energy and sushumna represents spirit or spiritual awareness. These three nadis originate in mooladhara chakra, which is situated at the perineum or cervix. Pingala nadi flows to the right from mooladhara and continues to cross ida at each chakra all the way up to ajna. [....]
Prana is not merely a philosophical concept; it is in every sense a physical substance. Just as radioactive or electromagnetic waves exist even though we can't see them, in the same way, in this physical body, there are pranic waves and a pranic field. Now, each of us has a certain quantity of prana in our physical body and we utilize this in the course of our day to day activities throughout life. When our prana diminishes, sickness sets in, and when we have plenty of prana, every part of the body is in perfect health. If we have an excess of prana, it can be transmitted to others for healing or magnetism."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Glad to Be Home

 Mom got tix for her 60th birthday - this was on front of the card.
"Is that Rod's rod?" her and her friends all examined...
I love the outfit.

So, it's Julien's naptime and I am happily out in the sun, on my mat, taking a break to write, so that yea, I don't get all my thoughts simply stuck in my head. Sometimes it is good to share what you're thinking -- even if it's just for you, for a later date. Or just to reflect from inside the head to the world via a computer screen. And here it is, that which I was just thinking as I breathed and folded and planked: there's something about doing yoga out on a deck on a beautiful Adirondack May morning, with spring greening all around you. The sun is not quite directly above you but it is there down at an angle, and just above the trees on the hillside you live near. And then you think, hey, isn't it nice to live back home again. I lived in Florida and Atlanta for 10 years plus, Illinois 4 years, and Utica 3-4 years with summers always somewhere in Florida or back home in the 518. I was forced by academia to go off to two towns that offered me something very different from what I was used to - either a city or a hilly, mountainous zone: what to me meant home, friends & family. So, isn't it nice that even though I had to get sick and go through a lot to get back home, here I am.
Question: Is it still yoga if you don't do a sun salutation?
Answer: yes
Recommendation: But do them toward the sun and whenever you want to.
Happiness restored. Body and mind join in peace.

Forgive the finger blur - I thought it added a dash of color to the composition

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Trans Bodhisaatva: Representations of Mercy


This week marks the one-year anniversary of my life-changing surgery. It is very interesting to relive memories, since it was this time of year that my whole world was turning.

Today, I see Spring budding all around me - especially as of yesterday, and I remember that I was in the hospital in New York City for two weeks, unable to see my baby, and unable to see Spring bloom. When I came out of the hospital, it was like I had escaped Vietnam, and everything was green with new hints of pinks, whites, and spring yellows from the transformation that the world had taken on, seemingly without me, while I underwent my own transformative experience indoors on the 15th floor of Memorial Sloan Kettering.

A few days ago, to commemorate my one year anniversary of my total colectomy last April 19, I found myself in Troy for a pleasant stroll on an overcast, cold day. There, in an antique store there, I "met," if you will, a bodhisattva I had never heard of before. The statue was in the corner, elevated on a green pillar, brilliantly colored. I fell in love instantly. I did not know who this person was, nor how significant in all of the Asian world he/she is. But research would prove her significance, and give great meaning to "meeting" her there in an antique store on an unintentionally special day in not-far-away-upcoming-old-industrial collar city NY. My appreciation of the statue led me to read up on her and appreciate her: Quan Yin is a basically bodhisattva who has transcended time and space to ease the suffering of those on earth - all because she heard their cries. Her Chinese name refers to this hearing - real hearing - of the anguished. And her decision to go back to earth instead of walking into the eternal bliss she had earned through her life. This is what makes her a bodhisattva. Her name is Quan Yin.

Quan Yin, as she first appeared to me visually
There are many reasons to admire her and relate to her, now that I know of her life journeys and have had my own recent ones. It was a bit like love at first sight. I did not take her home, but I wanted to (we would all be wise to not bring a first date home lol). The next morning at 4am I was unable to sleep and was so inspired reading about her that I got up to meditate before the sun rose. So many coincidences with my recent experience with grace and mercy: she brings compassion and healing to those who suffer illness and she brings baby boys to women. It is almost as if what she incarnates had already touched me this past year. She is known for her deep compassion for the suffering, and her mercy. When you think of mercy and grace, what comes to mind? The symbol of a woman who gave of herself to help those suffering is one that evokes characteristics that both reassure - and inspire. All over the world, we all have our symbols and our reminders of values like mercy and compassion for the suffering and the sick.


There happens to be an intriguing and informative summary of her in Wikipedia, where a list of her names is given, already giving a taste for how she has impacted the world over the centuries. Her name Guan Yin is from the Chinese, and she is known as these names (which are fun to look at):
Guanyin statue on Putuoshan Island, China

I観世音
관세음
กวนอิม
སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས
ကွမ်ယင်မယ်တော်
Quán Thế Âm

In shortened form of the name, Guan Yin means One Who Sees and Hears the Cry from the Human World. Her Chinese name signifies, "She who always observes or pays attention to sounds," i.e., she who hears prayers.
Nitin Kumar has written a wonderful article
called Kuan Yin, Compassionate Rebel
The Sanskrit name of this bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara. Brittanica has an entry on Avalokiteshvara (click here) that is fascinating, featuring many links for your rabbit hole reading, and is worth reading at length.

In a way, Quan Yin or Avalokiteshvara is transgender (or perhaps androgynous or without gender), which is cool and reminds us that suffering and mercy is universal and that the Atman itself transcends gender. Brittanica gives this summary of the transformation from the male to the feminine image, with interesting traces of masculinity still remaining in some representations centuries later in the form of a light moustache. Quan Yin or Avalokiteshvara is a "Trans Bodhisattva." Like love itself perhaps, she is transcultural, transtemporal, and transgender.


What symbols of mercy and compassion speak to you?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Tolerating Distresses in Life

My son Julien, a couple days old, January 2016

The birth of my son in January 2016 coincided with a battle for my life. How to stay resolute? I would have to dig deep and summon all the goodness that I had witnessed hereto in my life and in those around me. Gratitude for my son, amazement that he saved my life, awe in a bizarre, bigger plan. Without circumstances falling as they had, I would be dying now. At the time of my diagnosis when he was just 5 weeks old (and up until my colectomy nearly two months later), I did not know how many options I had left.

“The nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.”

This verse (2.14) of the Bhagavad Gita is beautiful in its universality, in its meaning, but it is also harrowing. It is beautiful because it represents a relationship with a source of peace -- such that it is well with the soul even when the boat is rocking. It is a bit like Jesus telling his disciples to not focus on the storm. It promotes balance through the awareness that all things shall come to pass. Knowing that impermanence is a fact of life brings wisdom and acceptance: one understands that what is essential are things like harmony, grounding, staying firm in one’s faith. I learned even more this past year that we are wise to accept all gifts and trials in life with this perspective. I learned this through my very real health battles and trials this past year. One may be worried or deeply stressed (as I was about a genetic life-threatening disease discovered weeks after I gave birth to my son), but we are encouraged to not focus on the swirling flux and chance in circumstances around us. This verse, like life itself, drives us to search for what is long-lasting. As the Little Prince said, “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.” Throughout my life, I have definitely felt a presence buoying me, saving me, rescuing me, looking out for me, guiding me, gifting love to me; I call it God, and believe He has guided me through the toughest times. Let's say that He gave me my son at age 39, when I thought I couldn't have a child anymore, and this saved my life. Basically, there were not many crises in my life that were surmounted without asking for God’s help - and for this last crisis, I was joined in prayer by so many brave, good souls. I cannot thank people enough for the prayers said for my health and recovery. Even just asking for God's help brought me hope and steadiness where things were bleak.

This verse offers a unique perspective on life’s stresses: happiness AND distress are both sense perceptions, and we "must learn [learning is a process] to tolerate them without being disturbed." And because life’s stresses can sometimes be so devastating, this verse is also harrowing because life can truly bring you loss, great loss, and none of us are totally exempt from such heartache. I am not speaking of simply a bad day, but of something so bad as say, the separation of parent from child, for example. Why does a mother worry so? It is because her whole heart is invested in her child. How is it possible that in this world, for example, a child may lose his or her parent, or a parent lose his or her child? How to reach a point of tolerating such a loss as the world may choose to throw at a person, even a good person, is quite a challenge. I take this “distress” to the extreme, because I do not believe that sacred texts are dealing with superficial experiences. At least, I hope not. I am not sure how I would deal with such a distress as the one above (I have dealt with similar ones, and the grief was intense enough), and yet that is the deepest fear I probably have. Each day that I waited for biopsy results was torture, and the not-knowing of if we would catch it in time to save my life. And my life had just become my son's life.
My son and I, weeks after my first surgery

Perhaps this verse is dealing instead with normal stressors, and not the deeper tragedies of life. But even in tragedy, one must root oneself all the more in something like faith – and be honest in that faith, even if angry with God. Because anger is a movement. Anger never really seems to last. I was not angry with God when I received my diagnosis. I knew to ask Him for help, and I prayed that my son would not be without a mother most nights as I lay awake worried.There are many times where I do not talk to God, but it does not mean I forget about him. God is always benevolent. Even in the silence, even with the clouds, we all know that the sun is still there – and that God is, even more so. Thus, the light that God gives is everywhere. We just may need certain rays to be highlighted for us. Gratitude is stopping to be like, Wow look at that! that must have been divinely influenced how that cool thing happened! And the more we appreciate what we do see or feel of God, perhaps the more we recognize it. I cannot help but see how all things conspired for my life to be saved, in some weird way, for some unknown reason. I just know that I would be finding out I had colon cancer right about now if I had not had my son. Being pregnant brought about the symptoms that I never had, though the polyps had been growing for over two decades in my large intestine - which explains why some of the thousands of polyps were as big as 2cm and high grade dysplasia. The key to getting through seasons of distress and of joy: giving gratitude through it all, and knowing that one can always find recourse in divine love. We can always turn to meditate on that. And the more we store up our recognition of God’s love, the easier it is to return to those moments in our mind when we need that faith when the skies are darker.

So, I guess that what I have learned after years and years of struggle and of relationships, and most recently, of a very trying health battle, is this: Where there is evidence of strong, pure love, it is hard to focus on the darkness. And I guess that that is how I feel about life. There is strong pure love we have all been shown, and that love, God’s love, is greater than anything He allows to happen to us. Therein is my peace. It may not solve problems, but love is there for the taking. And that taking is for when we are ready for it.

And now, I will share a journal entry I wrote one year ago today, following my total colectomy where the surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering robotically removed my large intestine... This I do to commemorate something so awful and amazing at the same time, but in some ways... it was another rebirth. It brought me spiritual wellness, strength, faith, love, and gratitude. My 40 days in the hospital this past year, my ER trips, my worries, my health and bodily problems and issues taught me the meaning of the verse above: I can honestly say it was much more graceful and easy to tolerate the distresses I had to endure (and even joke about them with nurses and doctors at times) than to fight or bemoan them. Doesn't mean my heart was not wasted for missing my son while being almost incapacitated and helpless for two weeks in the hospital and for days here and days there. It just means I tolerated these sense perceptions and focused on the prize.

Here begins my writing from my hospital bed:

Recovery
Journal entry by Domenica Newell-Amato — 4/20/2016

Entry 5.

Greetings from the recovery room. The operation was an open surgery and began yesterday morning and was over seven hours. I am told it went well and that the connection was good. I went with the jpouch. However, I have the ostomy bag now and for three months approx. until my second operation. I have not looked at my stomach but I know he decided to cut me in one vertical line, about 6-7 inches if I recall what he had said Monday.

I am alone now for a few hours (with exception of roomate and her visitors on other side of curtain) and felt like writing, as I asked my mother to be with my baby over me, so he will have more comfort and someone who reminds him of me. He is in good hands with his father, and great-grandmother, but his father goes back to work tomorrow and friday. When I left for the city I bathed Julien's head in tears. Looking at his photos and thinking of him bring me joy while here.

I had to fast Monday and yesterday and cannot eat yet today. Yesterday morning in the surgery prep area was full of jokes and cheer. My two nurses were from Ireland and so sweet.

Then I woke up post-surgery in recovery room, not nearly as nurturing an arena.

My mother and best friend, Carol, were right there, with time only for a quick hello before they had to leave. My mom relayed info from surgeon about how it went well, the connection was good, and it was 7hours long. I'm not sure what happened next but two nurses came to wheel me to my room. In the elevator they talked only to themselves and I got the feeling they didnt care much about me. They wheeled me into room where I am now and said, here's your call button and the pain button and literally left. I felt like I had just gotten out of Vietnam and no one cared. I couldn't wait to see my mom again. I don't know how long it was. I think I hit call button and said I needed to talk with someone. It took awhile, and so I think I was crying when nurse arrived. I said I needed to have my bearings... Nightime was awful, so much pain. Pain as a word achieved a new meaning for me. The hospital bed is horrible on your back, and with my abdomen in such pain I could only lay on my side. For maybe an hour at a time, and so that is how I slept: interrupted. Then, a roomate was wheeled in late at night. I had a hard time emotionally, and physically. I have an epidural in my back and two drains hanging off my front that collect blood and fluids from surgery, I have something in my butt, and of course an ostomy. I only discovered all this in stages and as I moved or had leakages.

In the morning, I was doing my usual side switch roll - very carefully - when my hand went in something... My ostomy bag had come off and I had my own waste on my hand. I called for nurse and began crying, slow whimpering. Just cuz I was alone and in shock I think. The nurse came and told me it was going to be alright and cleaned me up. Soon after, my mom came. I was still upset at how callous the nurses on this floor had been, and she assured me she'd call me dearie and sweetie and be there. So much pain still, I had told nurse, and she would walk out. I felt like I was in the middle of a conversation. But when I looked she was gone. The nurse from the night before was like, yea you're in pain from surgery. Finally, a pain nurse came to check how I was doing and responded by changing my medication.

after some napping it was time to walk. I thought this would be impossible, but I was able to make it a little ways down the hall holding onto my iv pole and Rosalie, a nice lady. I started overheating and said ice, ice. I need ice. It was too late. I was about to pass out. I said so, and went slightly limp. Rosalie held me tight and called for a chair. I was fading and seven people surrounded me and slid me in chair back to my room.

Another nap, and my surgeon and his team came. He told me that over time, my output would have consistency of pesto. I started to laugh and it hurt, he told me he says this to all his patients, not just the Italian ones.

i'm going to stop here, as I'm exhausted. Thank you all for your thoughts, prayers, and caring.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Eternity for a Pose: Forward Fold as Prayer

Do you ever feel like you could hold a forward fold pose for an eternity? Bending over, reaching your heart past your toes, letting the head hang, stretching the hamstrings... It feels good, right? I feel like I could go on forever when I'm bowing in some form or fashion.

As we bow our head and let it fall toward the ground, it somehow feels great. Is our body comfortable in this fresh view of self? Is our mind (now joined with our body because: yoga!) curiously intrigued by this unusual state of reverse-seeing the world? Does the posture itself carry meaning that brings us into a more content state of mind? Is this bowing posture intrinsically set up for humility or devotion to something greater than ourselves? How many paintings of people bowing to kings, royalty, friends, angels, or gods exist in earlier periods of the art world? Inclining self to other was often just the basics of greeting and relationship, let alone the tone of devotion it can take in a more spiritual or religious sense.

Forward folds naturally trigger self-reflection. In a forward fold, your heart is positioned above your mind. A reflection that is naturally induced as the body folds upon itself - it just feels so good.

The heart knows certain things better than the mind, and placing it physically above the mind brings it to that psychic place of primacy too. Mind-body connection thus becomes heart connection. Why place the mind lower on the body totem pole of sensory?

The mind is a terrible thing. A wonderful thing. A terribly incomprehensible, sometimes comprehensible thing. It has a mind of its own, the mind. How many of us our victims of our own mind patterns? Most of the time (optimistically speaking), our mind does us good. The mind helps us live in this world, sense and deduce, speak and act, wonder and fear, desire and enjoy. It also helps us go through the yoga of the action of our daily lives - this is the yoga written about in the Bhagavad Gita. The mind houses our language. It sparks our words, hears our fears, knows our strategies. It is the engine behind the actions we choose as we live, here, in this world. In order to process all that we perceive and be able to respond to it, we need our thinking, our imagination, and our metaphorical ways of conceiving of the world.

Everything is made up of the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas. According to the ancient school of Indian philosophy, when you boil the world and all its material and psychological contents down, there are the three gunas. This includes the mind, for it is material, and thus a blend of the the three gunas. If we want our mind to be more at peace - avoiding the rushing, the mini-explosions, or even the sleepy cloud of unawareness the mind can cast instead, then our mind must be brought to a more sattvic state. Sattva is not the red hot tone of desire or rage or drive of rajas. Sattva is not the ignorance or numbness of tamas. When the mind is sattvic it is clear, productively joyous, aware. We can move from rajas and tamas to saatva (of the three gunassattva is the preferable one): we can transform the very matter of our mind, says Dr. Edwin Bryant, specialist in Vedic literature and the Yoga Sutras. We do this through contemplation of the good, meditation on the breath or God: It seems right when they that we can only contemplate the divine after we have embraced an ethics of how we treat others and ourselves (see my post on the yamas and niyamas).

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Embracing Ethics: The Core of Yoga

Most people may not know that the yoga we hear about or see is just 1/8 of what this tradition is really about. Asana (Sanskrit for "pose") is just the tip of the iceberg. Poses are what the onlooker sees. But below the water's surface the teachings of yoga go even deeper, into the internal workings of the mind and soul. Yoga is beneficial just as movement and stretching; but come closer and you will find that it is much more - it is self-inquiry and a path of wisdom that has been developed for thousands of years, and brings about the unity of mind, body, breath, and faith.

Yoga is more that what is visible to the eye
Yoga is not a faith; but it is a practice that gives real shape to our spiritual and physical wellbeing. As such, it involves all of our life, and gives instruction and discipline in how we live and how we think and how we tap into our own faith in God. As I mentioned in my post on the Atman, Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, is nonsectarian. When he refers in the ancient Yoga Sutras to meditating on God, he wisely uses a term that can be adopted by anyone: Ishvara is a philosophical category rather than a name of God (oh so many in this world). As Edwin Bryant explains, it is a title, not a person; it's like saying "the President" - this could be Clinton or Reagan or Obama. Insert who you like. So if the third limb of yoga, asana - downward dog, Warrior 1, tree pose, etc. - is just one of the many aspects of yoga, what are the others?

yoga
Mara Carrico gives a very concise introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga her article in Yoga Journal: "In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb).... They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature."

Today's post will introduce the yamas and niyamas, just two of the 8 limbs of yoga, which deal with moral, purposeful, and ethical conduct and call upon our self-awareness and discipline. I appreciate how Carrico links the yamas and niyamas to one's health. I recently have been musing on the interconnectedness of our spiritual and physical health, as I am coming up on my one year anniversary of my total colectomy and the six month mark since my j pouch surgery. Being in and out of the hospital so many times over the past year has given me a unique perspective on the difference between physical and spiritual health, and the importance of both. My body is not where I want it to be (doctors say that it could take up to a year from my j-pouch), but yoga is giving me healing to continue my fight toward health. I don't know if I'll get to whatever "normal" feels like without a large intestine and with my genetic disease, and I may feel like I take one step forward two steps back some days. But I know I'm going to keep walking with love and light, gratitude, and discipline (tapas) to live a more centered life.

So, the first two limbs of yoga are are a set of ethical principles regarding our treatment of others, the yamas, and our treatment toward ourselves, the niyamas. In thinking more about them, and becoming more aware of how we can live according to them, we have the benefit (free gift!) of leading a happier, more peaceful and fulfilling life. The frustration that arises from not understanding these principles is really quite detrimental and harmful to ourselves, and to others by extension. Our actions matter so much, and so too do are thoughts. (And then there is karma, a single word for "action" and "reaction" which tells us that ethical principles are real, sometimes by kicking us in the head).

fort fortelezza
A photo of me from a trip to San Juan in 2012. I have always been reflective, but I was too carefree.
In some ways my illness has helped me go deeper into what I actually believe, and who I want to be.

And here is some more wisdom: As Gaura Vani said to me in a recent visit to Yoga Mandali (as his guru once said to him), "It is not so much what we do that God is concerned about, but how we do it." This is so true. Think about it. How someone goes about doing something can leave either a bad taste in your mouth, or a much more palatable one. And likewise for the taste we leave in others' mouths. The effects of how we relate to others (and to self) is palpable. My question to Gaura Vani had been: what if we have been asking God what we should do about a really hard personal decision, and we cannot come to a decision no matter how we struggle. A greater understanding of the principles that yoga teaches is helpful, and then the relationship decisions we need to make will follow. Life is about relationship with others and relationship with self. Thus, in each action or decision, it would be wise to keep in mind the following:


The 5 yamasAhimsa: nonviolence, Satya: truthfulness, Asteya: nonstealing, Brahmacharya: continence, Aparigraha: noncovetousness



The 5 niyamas:
Saucha: cleanliness, Santosha: contentment, Tapas: the fire of discipline; spiritual austerities, Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of self, Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God

Sound easy? Yet each one of these could be a lengthy introspective diary entry for each one of us. If you search the web, you will find a lot written about each one. When we reflect on any one of the yamas or niyamas, we see new ways to consider these principles. For example, aparigraha. We may not covet someone's wife or husband, but we may be a hoarder. What's wrong with hoarding? When we look deeper we can see that hoarding, as my teacher, Gopi Kinnicutt, pointed out, is not trusting (God) for what we need. As Yoga Amrit Desai has said, "Once you realize that the source of all solutions that you seek outside yourself are always present within you, asteya naturally happens." If this sounds like my Wizard of Oz analogy of the Atman (Sanksrit for "soul"), where Oz steps out of the projection booth and lets himself be seen as a real person and says, "Everything you were looking for was right with you all along," it must be because we are onto something here! (See post). Anyway, we all have ways in which we can improve on our ethical code (and by extension, true happiness), even if when we first look at the yama or niyama word and think, hey I'm good, I don't do that! As I grow older, I trust that life will reveal to me deeper levels of these principles, deeper ways of being honest, pure, and of studying self or wisdom texts, etc. I am happier already when I realize that peace will come through pursuing such principles, and through self-checking when I/we have lost our way in one of these regards. I find the words of Swami Kripalu to be very encouraging: "In firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of yama and niyama."

In this introductory entry, I will give my take on asteya (nonstealing). At first, I felt like does not apply to me in the strict sense because I do not steal. Then, I read that asteya can also mean not taking that which is not offered. Now that is something to ponder. Also: I came across the notion of wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy that teaches beauty in imperfection or impermanence. I found this while reading a blurb on asteya on the yoga international site; the section of the article in Yoga International has the interesting headliner: "Appreciate rather than conceal." This reading got my wheels turning about my own level of contentment with the world around me and how I could appreciate it - and others (and maybe myself too) - more. Wabi-sabi is an alternative perspective to our quest for sleek, mass-produced products or the desire for guarantees that generally don't generate what we want anyway.
Maybe wabi-sabi is in the elegance of decrepit abandoned factories in Detroit, or it is in the seconds of a beautiful sunset that will not stay, perhaps wabi-sabi is in a chipped statue, the old bent wooden floors that creak, the garbage bags strewn along a brick wall showing human life, not just waste. It is the beauty, muted by society's rules and standards, of something that at first appears ugly. Perhaps asteya is not stealing beauty from something that, if you look close enough, still holds beauty. Wabi-sabi is a reassuring perspective: it is not rejecting what is there. It is authenticity. The beauty may be in the how: how it reveals itself to you, and you alone. Perhaps wabi-sabi is the beauty in upstate NY on a week where the sun doesn't peek through the colorless sky, yet the grey somehow cradles us, insulating our thoughts, memories, and actions in its strange way, not to last.

wabi sabi
Further regarding wabi-sabi, and the beauty in impermanence: The author of the aforementioned article on asteya, Michelle Marlahan, writes that yoga is “training yourself to be aware of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions present in any given situation. Rather than running off in the story of those thoughts or feelings, see them as ever changing and watch their fluctuations like clouds in the sky.” That seems to me to be a way to celebrate impermanence, rather than to fear it. I want guarantees and a permanent situation, especially given the huge turn of events in my life given my diagnosis, surgeries, changed body, and continuing disability. But that is neither possible nor in fact, desirable. I must embrace impermanence, and live in the moment – which is exactly what yoga helps me to do.

                w     a      b      i            s       a      b      i
Perhaps wabi-sabi is seeing as Swami Kripalu saw: Everything was alive to him.


On a last anecdotal note about asteya, sometimes I have to admit that I can be greedy about food, especially because I love the unique preparation of food so much. How awful that I am not willing to share a bite! On the other hand, if I am cooking or enjoying a nice moment at a restaurant, I will love to share food with others and will insist that someone try something. I think I better prefer being genuinely generous!

Perhaps I was practicing wabi-sabi during that San Juan trip in 2012
without realizing it when I took this photo?




Monday, April 3, 2017

What is the Atman? Lessons from Wizard of Oz



In ancient wisdom texts like the Bhagavad Gita (written between 400 BCE and 200 BCE) and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (written thousands of years ago), we read that the Atman is eternal, and that we are Atman. The Atman is the soul or the seer within us, yet it is not be confused with our mind, our persona, or our faculty of seeing. The Atman is in essence "the man behind the curtain," to invoke a favorite line from the 1939 American film, The Wizard of Oz.

In this classic film, the great Oz tells Dorothy and company to not pay attention to the man behind the curtain once they discover him. They have traveled far to the Emerald City to ask the great Oz for that which they lack: a heart, home, courage, a brain. And so, naturally, they will not leave without a response.


When they finally stand before his presence, anxiously awaiting his response, the ghostly green face of Oz speaks thunderously from a cloud of smoke above the throne. Yet this projection begins to break down. The technological malfunction points to an error, and the three-dimensional emerald face is confusedly revealed for what it is. Toto sniffs out the real Oz: a man behind the curtain. The great image of Oz was a constructed persona, designed to create awe and fear. This little man that steps out from the projection booth does not appear to be as powerful or omniscient as the image and reputation that he had worked so hard to "be."


Yet when he has to admit who he really is, a change occurs. As he begins to interact with Dorothy and her friends, we see him, a much kinder self; all that orchestration was a smoking mirror and a lifeless prop hiding a true, more inspiring Oz. Oz soon dismisses that projected self and steps away from the loneliness that it had created. How was it that he had not seen that his true self - his Atman - would free him from his bondage to what he believed in his mind that he was, i.e. this projection he had created? His inability to be who he truly was led, in the end, to nothing but frustration. Free from his booth and his efforts to control all the gadgets, bells, and whistles that constantly needed to be updated in order to maintain this projected self image, the actual man behind the curtain is happy and generous. He is no longer driven by an image; he is in control, and he seems blissful, happy, and fulfilled, as he bestows his newfound wisdom upon Dorothy and her friends: "Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along," he says.

Likewise, we would do well to realize that we too are the man/woman behind the curtain. We are not all the wandering thoughts, correct or incorrect, fears, or imaginations of our mind. Patanjali reminds us of the need of the separation between the seer and the seen, for the Atman, consciousness, is not made of the limited psychic material of our mind, just as Oz is not made up of the lighting and smoke he selected for his projection in the world. A good step (and Patanjali offers a few) to steer our minds in a more enlightened direction is to study wisdom texts, and to learn what the tradition we opt for has to say. In focusing on the eternal, in meditating on whoever our God is (Patanjali does not name God), we begin to separate ourselves from the identity we have taken on through our birth - that is, an identity that is projected/constructed in some ways by our color, our gender, our culture, our politics, etc. Behind that projected self, there is the man or the woman behind the curtain. Beyond all the vritti (Sanskrit word referring to the activities of the mind: our right thinking, our wrong thinking, our metaphoric thinking, our fear of death, our clinging), there is the Atman, the soul: consciousness. Thus, in the second line of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali very concisely defines yoga:

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः॥२॥
Yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ||2||

Yoga (yogaḥ) is the suppression (nirodhaḥ) of the modifications (vṛtti) of mind (citta)||2||

Yoga is the stilling of the mind. The 8 limbs of yoga are the path to stepping away from the projection booth. And like Oz, we realize that what we seek has been with us all along.

My deep thanks go to Edwin Bryant, guest speaker at Yoga Mandali of Saratoga Springs March 31-April 2, for illuminating so many of us this past weekend as he expounded upon this verse and many others in the Yoga Sutras. I could not help but think of The Wizard of Oz as I reflected on all that Dr. Bryant shared, and I hope you all enjoyed the allegory as it is meant to be anecdotal.

If you are interested in reading Edwin Bryant's thorough commentary on the Yoga Sutras, I highly recommend the reading as it is accessible and well-researched. You can find his books in virtually any bookstore - and here.