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.

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.

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.

* * * * *


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…

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:

The Greatest Love Affair You’ll Ever Have

It’s February.  So we’re going on the obligatory love story trip.  But instead of getting stuck in the commercialism of Valentine’s Day that reinforces everything we lack, lets turn the paradigm on its head.  Let’s look at the life-long love affair that each of us can develop: the one with ourselves.

Before you throw up in your mouth a little, just go with me for a minute.

I once gave a friend some unsolicited advice (bad habits die hard).  Our own history was a little checkered: we dated briefly, he admitted he wasn’t looking for a relationship, and we continued to spend… time together. (Mom reads the blog sometime, so I’ll leave it at that).  Some months after we had gone fully platonic, he was bemoaning his romantic life and psyche in general.  I said to him: “How can you expect anyone else to love you if you don’t love yourself?”  He stopped, dead in his tracks, looked at me with a pained expression and said “That is the cruelest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

It was clear in that moment that he was so far from loving himself he didn’t even think it was possible.  He thought I was sentencing him to a loveless life — without realizing it was he who did that.

Self-love is perhaps the most difficult affirmation practice, and not just because it makes us feel like heading straight for self-help aisles in bookstores and resigning ourselves to being new-agey and wearing organic, hand-knit, alpaca sweaters and magnetic bracelets.  My friend is a great example of why.

Try it for a minute and see.  Go stand in front of your bathroom mirror (or any wall mirror) and stand close enough that you can see all the details of your face.  Take a good look – examining the ridge of your nose, that place in your eyebrows where the hairs change direction, the pores on your chin, the flecks of color in your eyes, the curve of your lips.

Notice the thought patterns that come up when you do this.  You don’t have to even try to think something — you just look at your face and you think something.  Notice that.

Do you admire your latest wax job? Love the color of your eyes? Or, like me, do you see all the things you wish were different? Do you see the roundness at the end of your nose that you wish were sleeker? Wonder how anyone can stand looking at those pore-craters? Maybe you see things you hate, things you’ve hated for so many years that that hate has grown into resentment.

Imagine: resenting your own face.  The impact of a realization like this — and the genuine pain of it — is incredibly powerful, and can be overwhelming.

In case you aren’t feeling awkward enough, now comes the really hard part.  Look at yourself dead in the eye, and say “I love you.”  Now say it again, like you mean it.  Say it until it doesn’t feel awkward or like a lie or like you belong on a 1980s meditation tape.  Say it until you can fill it with enough back-up and texture as when you say it to your best friend, your mom, or your lover.

If that sounds like an impossible assignment, you aren’t alone.  This is one of the most difficult spiritual practices there is.

There are five ways of showing someone you love them, according to a dude named Gary Chapman.  The basic theory is that we each learn how to give and receive love in some combination of the five ways:  Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, or Physical Affection.  (If you’re curious to read more or to discover your primary ways check it here).  You probably already have a hunch, based on the fights you’ve had with exes about they don’t (touch you / talk to you / spend time with you) enough.

So here is your assignment: pick one example from each of the five “languages,” this week, and do/give that to yourself.  Do this especially if the mirror exercise is hard for you.  Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is by doing it.

– What small gift can you give yourself that would make you smile each time you saw it/touched it/heard it?  What would you want someone to give you for this Valentine’s Day?  Or what would you give to your significant other to show them exactly how much you love them?

– What words can you say to yourself to reinforce this love? What do you love most about yourself? Conjure up a powerful compliment. Again, remember the quick displacement exercise: what would you tell your lover to show them how much you care? What would you want them to tell you?

– What event could you take yourself out to this week? It could be something fancy like dinner out or a live music show, or it could be something simple like a post-prandial walk.  What would you usually be doing while holding hands with your boo?  Do that.  You can hold your own hand, but only if you have a marsupial sweatshirt – it freaks out strangers otherwise.

– What tedious task do you put off because you hate to do for yourself that you would do for someone else in a heartbeat? Fold their laundry? Change their oil? Cook dinner? Wash the dishes? Do that thing, but for you.

– Giving ourselves physical affection is weird.  I know.  There is one very common practice that we all do that we tend not to talk about in yoga classes or other “enlightened” gatherings.  When you do that, watch your mind.  Are you thinking “Let me get this over with,” or even, “I feel so guilty/dirty doing this?”  What if you were with someone who was thinking that when they touched you?  How can we cultivate the same physical passion with ourselves as we share with someone else?  If that feels hard, there’s an Ayurvedic practice called Abhyanga — it’s just self massage.  Google it if you need more instruction, but it can be a powerful practice.  It’s the same challenge as before — watch your thoughts, be mindful of what you tell yourself about touching yourself.

We grow the most when we’re doing something we don’t know how to do.  When it feels weird and awkward and wrong and all we can think is “I’ll never be able to…”  – remember that you are growing the most in that moment.

And you are growing the most important relationship you have  in your life – the one with yourself.  You are the one you can’t escape, you can’t dump, you can’t estrange, you can’t divorce,  you can’t emancipate.  Instead, you can begin to learn how to fall in love with yourself – one awkward, painful moment at a time.


Come practice this in your body with me at Wild Lotus Yoga.

Playlist on Spotify here.

Everyday Gods and Goddesses

Things are a little crazy down here in New Orleans.

We are hosting one of the biggest parties in the U.S. just a week before Mardi Gras, the other biggest party in the U.S.  Everything is a little out of control.  And now the tourists are coming.

And this party is here to watch two teams of grown men aggress each other for three hours over an oblong ball, which is also crazy.  It doesn’t even bounce.  And there are so many rules!  I have to admit, I’ve become quite the Saints fan in the past 10 years, and I know the difference between a flea flicker and play-action, but really?  Really?

And on top of that, our society idolizes these men.  It worships them.  They become role models for upper-classes and poor kids alike.  Their physical prowess is amazing, certainly. Their training and dedication is inspirational.  But god-like?

How often have we seen these players fall and fail and be human? Their humanity has expressed itself in scope from Michael Vick’s tremendous ethical lapse to our dear Steve Gleason who suffers with ALS.  We put these athletes on pedestals, leaving them that much further to fall.  It’s a delicate business.

So we must be cautious who we honor, worship, and devote our lives to.  (Mom will hate that sentence-ending preposition.) We must be thoughtful.  Here’s the thing: we can idolize anyone.  We get to choose in whom we put that faith. (Welcome, mom.) (She’s a grammar goddess, y’all.)  We can bequeath any person superhuman powers if we believe what they do is MORE than we think humans can do.  What if you decided to put that faith in yourself?

Just for today: how do you idolize yourself? What do you do that’s MORE than humans do? How can you live your life in devotion to yourself? What’s your superhuman power?

If it’s surviving traffic and crowds and patience, you’re in luck.  Because I think these next couple weeks are gonna be crazy.

Mantra:  Om Nama Shivaya

We honor Shiva, and the divine power inside us that transforms and transcends.

Playlist forthcoming.


So after a month of teaching, I’m going to finally offer an explanation of Sankalpa — feel free to comment below where I err.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – The Original Spiritual Gangster

My teacher wears an array of clever yoga t-shirts.  One says Spiritual Gangster.  I’ve often wondered what that actually means. Does he intimidate with his vast spirituality?  Takes karma as payment for not yoga-ing you to death? Or that being spiritual doesn’t automatically mean being well-behaved?

In the frame of Sankalpa, I have been meditating today on Rev. King and the work he did.  Sankalpa is a deep intention – if your dharma could talk, it would be a sankalpa.  If you’re a yoga nerd, that may make sense to you; but how many yoga nerds are really out there?

Each of us has a deep seated belief about who we are and what we are here to do.  It’s specific and unique to each of us, although on the surface it may seem similar.  Sometimes it’s possible to ferret out that purpose (or dharma), and to explain it in words.  Sometimes it’s so deep that we cannot find a way to express it verbally, and it only comes out in our actions and our values and the decisions we make.

One of the things that made MLK so very special was his ability to simply yet eloquently express his Sankalpa: “I have a dream.”  His dream, his belief, of black children and white children playing together with no knowledge of race was so important and so central to his own existence that he pursued it mercilessly.  

Marianne Williamson says, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Dr. King was liberated.  He was liberated from any fear by this deep desire, this deep intention, his Sankalpa.  And by simply living, he liberated each of us — he inspires us to follow the deep knowledge we have about what is right and what is just.


So today, in his honor, ask yourself: What do I believe so deeply?  What is this deep desire that is so central to my existence?  And how can I use it to liberate myself from the fear of pursuing it?