The Veil is Thin

This time of year, we sometimes say “the veil is thin” — the division between the waking world and the sleeping world, the conscious and unconscious, the embodied and transcended.  Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) gives us a chance to remind ourself that we’re all just dressed up in costumes and masks all the time.  My teacher Mitchel Bleier once suggested that we get all dressed up not to disguise who we are, but instead to discover who will recognize us despite our external trappings.

We all know that feeling of walking down Frenchmen Street in 7″ platform boots, giant wings, a mask, elaborate costume — only to have someone see us, recognize us instantly.  Maybe you don’t know the feeling of platform boots and the smell of Frenchmen Halloween — but that recognition, that being seen, is something we all deeply crave.

But what is it that we’re seeing when we see another person like that? And how do we cultivate that vision?  Is it their walk?  Their “aura”? (Aside: I hate words like aura — I think they separate us more into the in-the-esoteric-know and otherwise.)  Do we hear that specific lilt in their voice, glint in their eye?  Why is it that the year I dressed us as The Angel From Montgomery, my fake white eyelashes veiled me from the man I was sleeping with at the time, but not my yoga DJ?

How do we reveal our own true self – not the one we costume with careers and status, fancy clothes and perfect hair – but the one that those who know us recognize?  And how do we train our vision to look beyond these external veils, to the true nature of the people around us?

When you mask this Friday — I encourage you to explore if you are trying to hide or reveal your light.  Sometimes, when we entirely change our external layers, only most real parts of ourselves remain.

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Die in a Fire: Kali, Full Moons, and Transformations

“Go die in a fire.” It’s one of my favorite off-the-cuff, half-joking missives. I try not to use them so much anymore, especially in mixed company, but my Edward Gorey-loving self still holds on tight to those passive aggressive idioms.

Kali, by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This morning was a “blood moon eclipse” – which even if you aren’t superstitious sounds pretty foreboding.  According to astrology experts on the internet, any eclipse is a sign of transformation — a changing from one thing to the next.  Add blood to that.  Woof.

Sometimes transformation happens gradually, like the unfolding of a beautiful flower. Usually, however, it’s uncomfortable, frustrating, and downright terrifying.  Fire is a central element in most pujas (Hindu religious ceremonies) — and not by accident.  We offer things to the fire to be devoured, destroyed, permanently transformed.  What do want to be transformed, to be burned up, to be completely dissolved in order to make way for something new?

That’s Kali. She is fierce, transformative. She is the darkness — that we can’t quite see, the fire in our belly we don’t quite understand. She is nearly uncontrollable, as we see in the end of her myth, which goes a little like this:

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, a band of demons had taken over the earth.  They were pillaging towns, taunting yogis, and tipping cows.  The humans on earth grew very frightened, and began to pray to the gods above to rescue them.

The gods looked down from their celestial mountain tops, and saw all the devastation happening on earth.  They gathered a group of their greatest warriors to go down to defeat the demons.  They were gods, after all – what could go wrong?

The gods descended to earth and began to fight the demons – chopping off heads with long sabers, skewering torsos with tridents – but something went wrong.  The enemy only seemed to get more plentiful as they fought.  Finally Shiva, one of the most powerful gods, realized every time a drop of the demon blood hit the earth a new demon sprang up.  They were Raktabijas — literally “blood seed” demons.

Once the gods realized their usual methods were useless against this opponent, they retreat back to their mountaintops. They gather in heaven, a little panicked and afraid themselves.  After much discussion, they finally turn to Durga – the chief goddess – and plea for her help.

After much urging, Durga transforms into Kali – the black one – and descends to earth. Kali is vicious, ferocious, with her near-black skin and long tongue. She begins not just to fight the raktabijas, but to devour them whole.  She continues fearlessly, fiercely, until she has consumed all of the enemy.  She’s like a whirlwind of destruction.

The gods and humans are grateful for her victory, but then something terrifying happens: just like a fire that spreads through a forest, uncontrollable, Kali has developed a blood lust. She begins searching the countryside for more demons, becoming almost as terrible as the demons.  She’s not

Shiva, Kali’s consort, descends to earth trying to snap her out of it — but she even doesn’t know him, she is so singly focused.  Unable to get her attention, Shiva literally stands in her way, and allows himself to be trampled by her fierce dance.  Once he is under her feet, she realizes what she’s done — and her rage settles.  Shiva and Kali return to heaven, and the villagers on earth begin to return to their lives.

Yoga is traditionally a practice of transformation.  We use tapas (heat) in our practice to burn up the things we don’t need anymore.  My favorite translation of yoga sutra 2.1: “Purification, Refinement, Surrender: these are the practical steps on the path of yoga.” Some days the purification is a slow burn: allowing our practice to work gradually but inevitably in our bodies and minds.  And some days we need to light a firecracker in the middle of the TNT in our spirits, and watch the sparks fly.

That’s Kali.  Kali is the beast unleashed.  She’s in each of us, waiting, ready to pounce.

Sometimes by lighting that match and putting it to the proverbial fuse, we break through the barriers that won’t be eroded by the gentle, gradual process.  Let me clear: this is not comfortable.  It’s usually not fun.  But sometimes, Kali is necessary.

Kali’s blackness is relevant. Even as children, what we fear the most is that which we can’t see. It’s the sound in the darkness that starts our overactive imaginations building giant monsters on their way to devour us — at least when we’re kids they give us night lights. In my own life, it’s the things that are just beyond my vision or grasp that are the most frightening. That amorphous foreboding feeling that I can’t quite wrangle. Like my finances. Or my future.  In fact, sometimes Kali is translated as “time.”

I encourage you to own the darkness in your life that is growing like a monster in your childhood bedroom.  Recognize the thing that you’ve been avoiding, that has morphed in the background into a giant demon before you knew it.  And then give it to the flames.  Tell it to go die in a fire.

And then just wait.  Let the fire do its work.  After the last ember burns out, see what’s left in the ashes — it might just surprise you.

An important post script:

“Purification, Refinement, Surrender: these are the practical steps on the path of yoga.”  Yoga doesn’t end with the purification — Kali cannot be left to run wild.  We can’t live in Kali energy all the time.  As Nietzsche says, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

Shiva, Kali’s lover, descends to earth, to stand in her way.  He represents pure love in that moment, willing to sacrifice his self, his ego entirely to rescue Kali from herself.  I wouldn’t be a yoga teacher if I didn’t add: Love is the antidote for transforming permanently into the monster.

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Never Without Fear

Nataraja’s Abhaya Mudra

One of the more common mudras in the yoga tradition is the Abhaya mudra.  Bhaya is often translated as fear, and a- is the negative modifier, so the abhaya means literally “No Fear.”  The gesture means “be not afraid,” or “have no fear.” It’s a welcoming, inviting mudra, and we often see the murtis (statues of hindu gods) with one of their hands in this position.

One of my teachers, Douglas Brooks, has a fascinating translation that may appear counterintuitive for this word – but I truly love it.

“While the raised open palm may appear to us a signal of caution or even warning, it is also an invitation and an opportunity to approach, then come closer, open the heart, and accept the journey of self-inquiry. Fearlessness is the beginning of all such journeys, not just the end. Fearlessness is never without fear but rather that way in which we step into our courage and bring the heart, mind, and body into a deeper appreciation of each and every situation.”

Douglas also suggests that a hero does the thing we are afraid to do, so that we don’t have to watch him do it.  In the oldest sense of this, we don’t want to watch the warrior defeat the enemy — we know without thinking that witnessing slaughter of another human would be traumatic — but we understand this is a “necessary evil,” and we’ll even throw him a parade when he returns.  Once we have matured past a certain age, we know that heroes are human, and if fact we want human heroes, since those who find joy in the slaughter are monsters, not heroes.

So is it possible that what makes a hero is her fear?  One who knows the power of her action, who steps strongly the direction of the task at hand although they may be terrified of each step.  The hero must understand the gravity of her action, and be aware of the inherent conflict of taking such a step.  The true hero is never without fear.

So for us, today — who hopefully have no experience of armed combat — what are our fears?  And how can we walk both fearlessly and never without fear into the things that frighten us the most?

What’s it like to walk into a room of people you haven’t seen in over ten years?  Or to start a new job or business?  How does it feel to walk into a first date with someone you don’t know well?  Or to ask someone on that first date?  How does it feel to ask for a raise? To stand up to your parents (or your partner, or your best friend, or your children) when you make a decision that they don’t like? To tell your partner you’ve been fired?  To end a relationship when you know it will devastate the other?

Instead of repressing that feeling, that anxiety, that fear, can you lean into it?  Can you be never without fear, instead using your fear as a guidepost, accepting it for what it is, and allowing it to inform your actions without ruling you?  Fear can only paralyze us if we resist it.  Next time, can you instead raise your hand, abhaya — fearless and never without fear, breathe, and take steady steps forward into and through it?

This playlist invokes Kali – that fierce quality in all of us that defends the ones we love – and Nataraja, the dancing face of Shiva who’s abhaya mudra invites into the dance of life, both through and despite our fears.

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Into the Bhav: Bhakti Fest Day 1

The sun wakes me for Day 1 of Bhakti Fest. My bed is positioned perfectly for the sunrise glow to gently wake me — which I love.  One step out of bed says the pain in my knee from yesterday is not temporary.  As my teacher Heide says at home: if the pain lasts for an hour after your practice, it’s probably okay.  If it lasts for a day, you did too much.

Thanks, Heide. I did too much.

In some state of denial, I limp down to the Info tent to register for afternoon classes.  “I’ll just take it easy,” I think.  I meet some delightful yogis from the Denver area.  You can tell that it’s not someone’s first Bhakti Fest when they already greet you like family at 6:45am on Day 1.  By 6pm on Day 2, everyone is hugging and kissing hello, greeting apparent strangers with “I love you, brother,” – but on Day 1, the newbies look at you a little crazy when you jump right in.

I register for Saul David Raye’s 3pm class — I know better to return to Dharma Mitra’s class which I pre-registered for “Just in case.”  Just in case what, who knows? Just in case I wasn’t quite finished “getting enlightened” in six hours on Wednesday.

By 7:12 a.m., my day is fully planned.  I buy overpriced coffee just because.  Because sometime iced lattes are the only way to go.

I wander down by the main stage, which still isn’t totally set up, just to see what things look like before the bhav takes over.

It looks like this.

It looks like this.

* * * * *

At 8am, it’s time for the Hanuman Chalisa.  The first time I ever sang the Chalisa was exactly one year ago at Bhakti Fest.  It’s a 40 line prayer to a monkey god, but including the opening and closing it’s more like 50 lines of Hindi that takes about 11 minutes to sing.  I know that sounds nuts, but I’m okay with it.  I think it’s actually a crucial part of why Bhakti Fest last year was the beginning of the end of my old life.  I went home, and began to methodically learn the 50 lines — words in a language I don’t know, just sounds strung together.  It seemed impossible at first, but I was encouraged that so many other people had clearly learned it before.

This morning, I sit down near the front, and sing all 40 lines without a cheat sheet.  My mistakes are covered by the singing of the crowd, led by our dear friend Govin Das of the Bhakti Yoga Shala.  I think this is my favorite singing of his the whole weekend.

* * * * *

9:30 brings class with Mark Whitwell.  Back in carpeted Yoga Hall I, it’s very different and yet very similar to Dharma Mitra the day before.  I practiced with Mr. Whitwell last year — so I knew it would be a gentle enough practice to not cripple me any further.  He spends the first 45 minutes lecturing, cajoling, teasing us a little about the practice in so many western yoga studios.  “This is not the real yoga,” he says.  This rhetoric is so similar to DM, and I can’t help but chuckle.  It becomes a common refrain, almost predictable: “My guru taught me the ‘real yoga,’ and I’m teaching it to you.”  We hear it often over the weekend, although not from every teacher.

This may be my favorite thing about being a yoga teacher and practitioner at this moment in time: nobody agrees about what it is. It’s like trying to define philosophy. The old line teachers say their way is the “right way,” but the very nature of the practice makes it impossible to prove their way definitively right or wrong.

But I enjoy Whitwell’s way.  It’s very linked to breath, and he even integrates bandhas in the practice.  It’s simple, accessible, and transformational.  You can’t help but feel great afterwards.  It occurs to me that I’ve been brought here in preparation for my upcoming work at Odyssey House in New Orleans — offering yoga to newly recovering addicts.  I’m hopeful that simple and accessible will be a helpful tool in their recovery.

* * * * *

I grab snacks and water and head over to Patrick Shaw’s Chaiyurveda workshop.  It’s in the bright, hot, outdoor Workshop Hall II.  The sun is high overhead, beating down on us in this white modern yurt, and poor Patrick is standing in front of burners of boiling water and heating milk.  He’s using Chai to teach about doshas and the karmic action of food.  It’s a sneakily fascinating workshop.  I’m sad to have to leave before it’s over to head to my bodywork appointment.  Doubly sad to miss the chai, even if it is 97 degrees out.

And now my world is totally rocked by Karin Pine.  She’s a Cranio-Sacral therapist and myofascial bodyworker like none I’ve ever met.  She fixes my knee.  She starts working on a 20 year-old hip injury.  All outside, with Gina Sala play in the background on the main stage.  Nearly to the end of my appointment, based on the intensity of the work she’s done, I ask, “I should cancel my afternoon classes, huh?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says.

I leave feeling like I have had a truly spiritual experience.  I make a second appointment immediately.

* * * * *

I wander around in a daze, finding my way home.  I draw a bath.  I haven’t taken a bath in at least 4 years.  I pretend to read.  I hum kirtan.  I finally pull my way out of the tub, make a snack, and wander back out into the desert.  I am the bhav.

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Into the Desert: Bhakti Fest i

I’ve just returned from five days of Bhakti Fest – what I lovingly refer to as Yoga Heaven.

In the middle of the Mojave Desert, at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, about 5,000 yogis and bhajans come together to sing, practice, and pray for four days. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be at Bhakti Fest, but I want to give it a shot to share it with you all.

* * * * *

Windfarm

I arrive on Wednesday mid-morning, after a three hour drive from my brother’s place in Pasadena. Los Angeles has a magical quality, sandwiched between the ocean and the mountains. But Joshua Tree is in the desert beyond the mountains, and the drive there is a metaphor for the journey we’re embarking on. We leave behind the beaches of Santa Monica, and hikes in Hollywood Hills, drive through gaps in the San Bernadino mountains, past giant cities of windmills, beyond Palm Springs’ 100 golf courses and the Native American Casinos to arrive at the Institute for Mentalphysics in Joshua Tree, CA. (Yes, that’s what it’s called).

The Retreat Center is well worn, with a few central buildings – the Sanctuary we use for workshops, the carpeted “exercise” hall that transforms into Yoga Hall I – surrounded by modest housing designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his son. Don’t get too excited – it’s no Falling Water – but the stark design of the apartments and caravansary don’t distract you from the landscape.

The desert of Joshua Tree

The desert of Joshua Tree

And then here in the middle of the desert, is a giant outdoor stage, along with two other yoga halls, and a tiny village built for all of us to come together to sing, practice and pray. We drink chai and vegan protein shakes, eat delectable dosas stuffed with kitcharee. I’m grateful they have a coffee stand, and the chunky monkey (blended bananas and cacao nibs) ain’t half bad.

I settle into my apartment, a bathroom and workable kitchen (except the stove is just for show), which I share with six other women – five of whom are strangers. I describe my sleeping arrangements as “bougie,” to a friend who (like most attendees) is camping in the desert nearby. I know myself well enough to know that I’m not enlightened enough to go without A/C and my own shower for five days in the desert.

* * * * *

My first day is spent in an intensive with Dharma Mitra. He’s one of the old masters; a 70-something Brazilian who you might accidentally mistake for Indian — especially when he effortlessly demonstrates a two-fingered headstand. Like most of the spiritual teachers of the weekend, I am reminded that humor is mandatory to be successful in this business — whether because it attracts students or keeps you sane doesn’t seem to matter.

Mitra tells us at least a dozen times to “extend our compassion beyond our pets,” which is a much milder version of vegan promotion than his previous edict “If you eat animals, you become an animal.” I do my best to meet teachers like this with a blend of compassion and humility, for both of us. We do an old school practice that requires a lot of long holds of deep poses, including lizard as pose #3. There are lots of invitations to bring lotus or half-lotus into our postures, which I politely decline.

Like many old school teachers, he goes around the room giving less-than-gentle adjustments. It almost looks like he’s throwing people into poses, teasing them when they cross the wrong leg in front, openly scolding people who can’t follow his direction. He can get away with this approach, yet it stands in such contrast to the gentle coddling I give my own students who don’t have a highly developed sense of body awareness.

Within half an hour we’re doing a number of headstand variations (again: on carpet under yoga mat), followed by shoulderstands. These are the “king” and “queen” of poses, but I try to remind myself to take it easy and not push too hard — I can do the poses, but I know my ego still makes wagers my body can’t cash in on. I’m a little worried for the students who are less aware or less careful, considering these are also the most injurious poses in the practice. I’m surprised that Mitra pairs us up at the end of practice for a couple of acro poses, and grateful when he gives us an extra long savasana. That is something the old school teachers get right every time.

We’re given a 20-minute break, and return for a dharma talk about the philosophy of yoga. Without telling us that’s what he’s doing, he’s breaking down the first three chapters of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. I find it nice to start here. The Sutras may not be everyone’s favorite text, but it seems important to start weaving the tapestry of the weekend with this as the base layer. We’ll hear competing advice over the weekend to the “nirodha” yogis (withdraw your senses, retreat inside, and discover the magical gem of your true nature), but Mitra offers it sincerely and honestly as “the right way.” He goes into the koshas and the kleshas and atma bodhi, and teaches some pranayama. He tells us to skip the first two chapters of the Bhagavad Gita (bless his heart).

He uses computer and cell phone metaphors, which seem ubiquitous nowadays in the yoga crowd. But it’s a nice way to think of it: what makes a cell phone useful is the signal, not the hardware. You’re gonna trade in for the newest technology every two years anyway (if you’re lucky enough not to crack your screen) — so better not to get too attached to your current device. Remember: the signal is what matters. “If you don’t see the bliss in you, you’re blocking it.” It’s both a hopeful and hopeless sentiment.

He tells us he loves to play pool. He gives practical advice about how to put these lessons into action: do your meditation like you take a shower. Do it every day. Don’t beat yourself up when you miss a shower, you just take one the next day. He closes with a perfectly luxurious 30-minute yoga nidra (usually translated as “yogic sleep,” but that he calls “psychic sleep” — I prefer this translation.)

* * * * *

I limp back to my bougie apartment to eat, shower, and prepare for the opening kirtan. My knee hurts, and I know instantly that my chronically tight groins were not okay with the deep groin work, even if I did skip most lotus attempts. I promise myself I’ll make an appointment with a body worker in the morning.

 

More to come…

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The Yoga of Film: The Wizard of Oz

I am so excited to be teaching this yoga workshop about The Wizard of Oz.

In the U.S., our common cultural mythologies often come out of Hollywood.  The epic story of Dorothy lost in Oz, as well as all the archetypal characters, have made it one of the most watched films in history.  We’ll explore the broad themes of the film on our yoga mats, and thus in our lives. 

Come play!

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The Transition

The transition from Mardi Gras to Lent is always a tough one.

Yet, I see it as a microcosm of life in New Orleans — and life in general,  but everything in New Orleans seems to be distilled. Someone once described New Orleans to me as a city of Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. It’s a city full of intense loud living, over-indulgence and binges of all sort. But its also a reverent city, a holy city, where every sacrifice is sacred. Anyone who thinks New Orleans is only Bourbon Street doesn’t realize that it’s smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and there are nearly as many as churches per capita as there are bars. (I said nearly).

Even for the die hards, after six weeks of nonstop celebration, party, and indulgence, we are exhausted. We need a break. Most of us are secretly happy when we can stop eating king cake, and meat on Fridays, and anything else we can think to give up.  Few of us are really Catholic.  We’re secular Catholics who claim the ritual and routine and cycles of the year for their own.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday represent the fleeting nature of life — the insignificance of each of us. If nothing else, it gives us pause. After being totally externally focused, building costumes, partying, living without rules — we now withdraw into an inner life.

Ash Wednesday mass reminds us to turn our attention inwards. We are encouraged to fast, to give alms, to spend time in quiet contemplation. Perhaps the most important part: we do not let people know we are doing this. “Anoint your head with oil,” and “let your right hand not know what the left is doing.” Do all the right things, and don’t just not seek praise or attention — hide any outward sign of those things. Don’t just act without expectation of the outcome, act to avoid that outcome.

Because Lent is the opposite of Carnival in every way.

I hope in these 40 days you can find a balance to the last 40. I hope you are able to cultivate your inner life, and discover that sense of stillness that you have been craving. And when you find it, I encourage you not to announce it – but rest in the knowledge of your own inner quiet.

“For Equilibrium, a Blessing:
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.”

― John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

 

And the playlist:

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