don’t feed the marmots: ahimsa

You’ve seen marmots, right? I mean, besides holding the title of cutest rodent name, they truly are the cutest. Their little noses never stop sniffing, they bounce down trails like plink-o balls and they steal smelly hiking shoes for snacks. Adorable, svelt, glamorously silver and long legged. I want to share snacks and stories and sunbathe with marmots.

But omygosh did you know you can kill a little furry creature by sharing trail snacks? Consuming human snacks (on purpose or inadvertently) disturbs the natural cycle of sustenance and wild ecology so deeply that one cheeze-it can kill a marmot.

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I was recently reminded of the power of ahimsa (non-harming) during my two week camping trip in the Canadian National Parks. These landscapes are breathtakingly momentous and magnificent. They are pristine; hundreds of miles of wild forests and mountains and waterways are preserved perfectly.

And because Parks Canada treasures their wildlife so deeply, campers are continuously reminded how damaging it is to feed furry critters. I’m an animal lover. My first instinct is to call and cajole and cuddle them… even the ones with sharp little teeth. So I had to pay careful attention to all my actions: I couldn’t and shouldn’t just do whatever I wanted, which mostly consisted of having high tea with marmots and sharing chocolate with bears. I needed to appraise my actions from the viewpoint of ahmisa first.

Ahimsa, which means compassion and non-harming, is the first of the yamas (ethical considerations of yoga, discussed in previous post) and is the cornerstone by which we build and measure all of our actions. Our marmots, our snacks and our yoga practice are all connected.

We learn ahimsa on our yoga mat when we pay attention to the intimate connection of our breath and our emotions and practice in a way that is laced with gentleness and compassion. The more we practice yoga, the more obvious it becomes: we are SO connected with other living beings. And our actions are extremely important because we are a microcosm of the macrocosm.

Deepak Chopra says it so perfectly:

“If you recognize your individuality is intimately woven into the fabric of life—that you are a strand in the web of life—you lose the ability to act in ways that are harmful to others.  Acting from this level of your soul, you are incapable of being violent because your whole being is established in peace.”

And that is how yoga changes the world. We LOSE the ability to act in harmful ways. We are INCAPABLE of violence because we are established in peace in our hearts and truly, honestly, want to choose compassion in each and every way.  Take your next breath and notice: you are sharing this breath with millons and gazillions of other sentient beings and you are one amazingly awesome strand in the web.

Go establish peace amongst yourselves and your marmot friends.

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scrunchies are back in?!?

The thing about yoga is that is 100% meant to be learned on the yoga mat and then 110% meant to be practiced off the yoga mat. I mean, it’s not really something that I “do.” It’s something I practice. Because practice means: ‘to do that which is not yet fully accomplished.’

Yoga is something that, like being kind and courageous, I get to practice every single day of my life. I can get better at it, but I probably won’t accomplish it fully 100% of each minute, each day.

The practicing of yoga-ing, is the practice of yoke-ing. It’s the act of binding my Spirit with the Divine Light that precedes all creation and to the principles of compassion and ethical living. In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth used that same word: yoke. He was talking about how ‘his yoke was easy’; meaning that deciding to live out his teachings grounded in compassion was something that any body and every body could get on board with. Any body and every body is and was invited to take time to go inward, in prayer, in meditation, in mindfulness with humility and a yearning to yoke to the Divine.

“To yoga with the Divine” sounds slightly bizarre, but ‘yoga’ in Sanskrit actually means ‘yoke’ or ‘to find union with.’ So, yeah, you can yoga with goats or yoga with Pearl Jam or yoga with Sangria or yoga with whatever is the new-bizarre-yoga-class-combo popular right now (real talk: don’t ask me what is popular… I just found out that scrunchies are back in and Justin Bieber is out. For the record, I don’t like scrunchies. And I LOVE Justin Bieber.) but if it doesn’t change your heart to be more:

  1. Kind and compassionate
  2. Truthful
  3. Generous
  4. Humble and Courageous
  5. Trustworthy and Trusting

then WHAT IS THE POINT in doing yoga??

The ethical principles of yoga are called ‘yamas.’ There are 5 of them and they are the primary foundation of yoga practice and yoga living. The eight important pieces of the yoking-to-Spirit-to-discover-ease-in-mind-and-enlightenment-puzzle-called-life are often called the Eight Limbs (Limbs as in, like, limbs on a tree. Not as in, you grow extra appendages.)

For thousands of years, humans have individually and collectively asked the questions: Who am I at my deepest level of Being? How do I live my truth in this community with other flawed-but-awesome humans?

These are the questions, we, as yogis and seekers of wisdom, ask in our Yoga Practice. These are the questions that the Yoga Tradition wants us to look for on the yoga mat; and then practice our answers off the yoga mat.

Over the next few months, I’ll be leading you through the five yamas and discussing how they can positively affect your life on and off the yoga mat. We’ll discover what these ethical principles mean and how they inform our vision of self-care, of care for our families and care for our communities. Together we will learn how to yoke ourselves in mind, body and Spirit to a way of living that affirms the world is abundant, gracious, loving and sustaining.

Send me your questions about the yamas and I will do my very best to point you in the right direction.

Also, don’t forget to do your own investigating; I suggest The Path of the Yoga Sutras by Nicolai Bachman and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga by Deepak Chopra.

Happy Yoking,

-lisa

learning to polish the mind.

When I was little I collected every shiny little gemstone I could get my hands on. I LOVED those big bins of polished rocks at old-timey stores; I loved the treasure hunt of sifting through all the precious polished “gems” (probably just rocks put through a tumbler and not that precious at all) and finding the perfect one to add to my collection. I still secretly scavenge a beach pebble or river rock to bring back home with me when I travel.

Our thoughts, our emotions, our vrtti-s are exactly like these polished rocks.

In English, we loosely translate “vrtti-s” as “thoughts”; this is somewhat accurate. A better English translation is “turnings or cyclings.” All our thoughts and all our emotions are little gems of energy cycling through our field of awareness. In Yoga, the aware mind isn’t just the physical brain. Our awareness is both heart and mind—the citta. Everything we see, hear, feel and experience throughout the day is absorbed in our minds and is turned, over and over again, like rocks in a tumbler.

So, when the Yoga Sutra’s define for us in chapter 1 vs. 2 the primary aim of yoga as:

“Yogah citta vrtti nirodhah”

What it means is NOT that we should completely cease, stop and abolish the turnings and thoughts of the mind, but that we should use the techniques of yoga to polish the vrtti-s until they gleam and point us toward the True Light of Inner Awareness.

Vrtti-s aren’t necessarily a bad thing; we need to be thinking and feeling and perceiving to enjoy living this life as a human. But vrtti-s, when left unchecked, can cycle out of control. If the rock tumbler is left on high all night long, it’s going to start smoking and burn an engine belt. If the vrtti-s are left to their own devices, they can easily spin out of control.

I’m sure you can remember a time when your thoughts were spinning pinballs and your emotions were all over the place and smoke was coming out your ears and your mind was completely trapped in a cycle of unhelpful thoughts. I’m usually an incredible sleeper (thanks to a few hours of yoga classes and Russell Clive walking each day) but every once in a while, my brain just WON’T shut off when I lay down at night.

I have so many ideas! And so many worries! And so many things to do! And probably I won’t get them done! And even if I do, they will probably fail! And I’m not really sure I’m qualified to do all these things anyway! And probably I should just give up and instead sit on the couch all day.

It’s at these times when the vrtti-s are less than helpful, when the constant turning of the mind does not enhance my ability to be happy, healthy, and whole.

We use the techniques of yoga—the breath, the concentration, the meditation, the poses—to help us refine and polish our thoughts and emotions (vrtti-s) so that they do not distort our perception of the world, but instead enhance our perception of the world as being a place of unity, trust and abundance.


The techniques teach us to take in all the things that we see, hear, think and feel throughout the day and polish them up so that our mind is not preoccupied with raw, ragged and rough misconceptions about the world, but instead our mind sees what is true: that there is enough, that we ARE enough, that the inner light of awareness inside our heart is connected with that same light in others. That the Universe wants us to be in yoga, in union, with it at all times. That is a pretty little gem of wisdom worth collecting. 

What is your favorite yoga technique for ‘polishing the vrtti-s’? What helps you enhance your perception of the world as a place of unity and abundance?

I’d love to hear from you! (Also don’t forget to check out my page key yoga learnings for a brush up on terms like citta and purusha.)

-lisa

when no one wants to hang out with me.

My Ironman AND my parents were out of town, my private client cancelled last minute and my dinner plans with girlfriends fell through. I had zero plans after 12:15 pm. On a Saturday.

Immediately, my brain started its persistent forecasting, planning and scheduling: I should call Katie and see if she wants to hang out, and if that doesn’t work I’ll invite her to brunch tomorrow, and if that doesn’t work I’ll just show up at her work and beg to take her to coffee… and if that doesn’t work I’ll put an ad on Craig’s List for someone to PLEASE hang out with me and distract me from all that is going on in my life/brain/heart these days. And also..I have a HUGE e-mail list and housework list and gardening list that I should tackle.

Instead, I sat on my back porch, ate hummus and listened to squirrel chatter. I did nothing.

It was glorious. For about 8.3 minutes; then I was ambushed by an undeniable-pee-your-pants-urge to do something and be ultra-productive.

The idea of Spaciousness (‘kha’ in Sanskrit) is a valuable idea in Yoga Philosophy. As we’ve learned in the recent two posts, ‘kha’ denotes the spaciousness and the quality of the heart/mind (citta) and determines how we interact with experiences in our daily lives. When we feel like our minds are spacious, we feel free. When we feel like our minds/agendas/brains are crowded with ‘too-much’ and ‘you-need-to’ we feel confined, trapped, overwhelmed.

I like the idea that Spaciousness can be appreciated in three ways: Time, Form and Soul.

Space in Time is a gap between activities, agendas and to-do-list items. It’s a vacation from the incessant need to be efficient and put-together and follow-all-the-rules. Time Space is priceless because it doesn’t happen all that often in my life, during which I yearn for space to rest but instead fill up my hours with appointments and classes and clients and laundry and e-mails. Time Space for me is permission to sit still and withdraw from my addiction to efficiency.

Space in Form is that unbelievable feeling of sprinting into a spacious field, flinging my arms wide open like a nut-case and breathing BIG into the uncluttered world that holds me. It’s why I YEARN to be in the mountains every summer and why I will endure 10 hours of hiking to get to the top of a 14er in Colorado. It’s why I MUST, for my own sanity, get out of Westport and into trees and on the trails weekly. Space in Form is necessary for my survival, I think.

Space in Soul is, literally, my mental salvation. It is freedom FROM. It’s learning to listen to my Inner Voice that says: Um, maybe don’t be so stressed about this, Lis, it’s probably not a big deal. At all. (It is, usually, never a big deal.) Soul Space for me is freedom from having to re-act with defensiveness or insecurity when someone criticizes me or what I choose to share on the omniscient inter-web. Soul Space for me is freedom from judging and disapproval when I look in the (fun-house) mirrors at Westport Yoga and instead just being glad that I even remembered to take a shower and put on my shirt right-side-out. Soul Space for me is learning to celebrate other yoga teachers and yoga studios instead of feeling jealous or inadequate. Basically, it’s freedom from having to react from fear because that’s what I’ve been conditioned to do and instead being free to respond from a place of worthiness and love. Oh, that is a sweet, sweet space.

I’d like you to take 5 minutes of quiet time and think about appreciating space in 3 different ways:

Time, Form and Soul. How do these qualities of space (kha) show up in your life? How can you make more spaciousness, more sweet space (sukha) in your day today?

I’d love to hear your answer–

-lisa

p.s. here are three possible answers:

  1. take a yoga class.
  2. listen to a guided meditation.
  3. tell everyone in your house how much you love them.

i appreciate you scooting over.

I haven’t been able to write much lately, not because I haven’t made time, but because I haven’t made space.

Like the genius warrior/writer Glennon Doyle Melton, reading is my inhale and writing is my exhale. I’ve been inhaling everything I can get my hands on for the past two months: self-help books, leadership books, spirituality books, yoga books, chick-lit-Savannah-wedding books, don’t-send-your-business- down-the-drain books. I’ve been inhaling so long and so deeply, I haven’t taken one exhale in months. Do you know how awesome it feels to be so full of breath that your eyes are popping out of your head and your lungs are Blimping it to anywhere but here? There is no space. There is absolutely no grace or conscious awareness or invitation for emotional healing when I hold my breath for two months straight. And definitely no space for writing about it.

In Sanskrit, the idea of space is defined by one little syllable: “kha.”

In the Yoga Sutras, we learn early on that the whole idea of yoga is to teach humans to mindfully breathe their way from duhkha, suffering, (literally: Bad Space) toward sukhaSafe Space.

In yoga practice, we discover sukha almost immediately. We learn that we find sukha through releasing physical pain, tension and fatigue with yoga poses that stretch and open our bodies. We learn that we feel a sense of sweet serenity when we finally trust our yoga mat enough to hold us safely in final relaxation pose, savasana.

And we also learn about Bad Space, suffering (duhkha), very early on in our yoga practice. We learn that pushing ourselves into a pose is a very, very bad idea because we wind up so sore we can only waddle the next day. We learn that holding the breath beyond the natural inhale and the natural exhale brings us face to face with our aversions, our desires, our addictions, our cravings. We learn that the mind will trick us into duhkha with its infinite configurations of distractions and illusions and lies, yelling things like: ‘You have no business being here! Get out now while you still can—before all the perfectly-clothed-bendy-peppy people in this room figure out you’re a big giant faker!

Being in a Safe Space versus a Bad Space is a big deal. It feels like the difference between being a weirdo robot about go berserk and being a real-life functioning person. It feels like the difference between crouching in a dank dark hole and cart-wheeling through a brilliantly sun-drenched glade. It feels like the difference between filling myself with more and more and more and more, still unable fill the void of yearning in my heart, no matter how much I fill it with, and being a person who can sit with herself in silence and actually enjoy it. It feels like the difference between living through the days and actually LIVING LIFE.

And here’s the thing: practicing yoga doesn’t prevent suffering in life—it doesn’t, actually, (even though I really want it to) prevent really crappy things from happening. Practicing yoga doesn’t earn me a free pass from turmoil; it just teaches me how to lead my thoughts away from a continuous loop of turmoil and get my head into a Safe Space where I can find sukha, relief, sweetness.

Over the next few posts I want to explore the concept of kha; what it looks like and feels like to find spaciousness in our lives.

I’m finally ready to explore exactly what kind of kha I’ve been hiding in the past few months as I’ve transitioned from yoga teacher to business owner, left my Ashtanga Yoga home and shepherded a community of grieving students through the loss of our former owner and the change in leadership at Westport Yoga.

I’m finally ready to exhale my way into the spaciousness of sweet, forgiving, Soulful living… and since writing is my exhale, I suppose I’m inviting you along for the ride. I appreciate you scooting over and making space for my Blimp-sized emotional exhale.

-lisa

 

the most important yoga pose.

sitting

An organizer and lesson-planner at heart (and by degree) I try to be 110% prepared for each class I teach. My notes are illegible to anyone else– lots of arrows and stick figures and Sanskrit abbreviations– the usual. But lately, well.. my lesson planning book has been 110% BLANK.

It’s not like I haven’t been thinking about yoga all the time: I completely immersed myself for 5 days by studying with my teacher in Philadelphia and you know, that whole owning a yoga studio thing. But somehow last week, I found myself showing up at Westport Yoga KC with a blank lesson book. <awkwardly-embarrassed-grimace>

Here’s what you missed:

Me: Uhhhmmm… lis? Are you kidding me? What the heck are you teaching today? You don’t have a flow sequence and detailed lesson plan?!? What have you been doing all day?

Me:  Yeah, I know… don’t rub it in. I’ve been working all day.

Me: Great… but still?!? What are you going to teach today?

Me: Calm down, lady. I know Yoga. I know breath. I know meditation. I know how to connect with my Divine Light. That’s what I’m going to teach.

Because what I did I need to remember? YOGA is in the mind. It’s not in the super cool arm balances and super-amazingly-detailed sequence leading to a brilliant peak pose break through. Yoga doesn’t care how well I am prepared to teach some poses in a certain order. The poses are just some ways to PRACTICE my yoga, so that when I show up for life, sometimes unprepared, I still respond with compassion toward myself and toward others.

I’ve found repeatedly, that the most important yoga pose, of all time, is just sitting and getting prepared to approach all the chaos within myself with a sense of grace and compassion. The most important yoga pose is sitting still long enough to be present, to feel yoga.

It’s freaking difficult. It requires so much vulnerability. It requires so much forgiveness. It requires so much tenacity and so much courage. But, I promise you: it’s so worth it. Because you’ll learn to love the choas within and the choas without.

As Swami Rama reminds us:

Yoga teaches you what no one else can, how to love yourself.

If sitting still (quietly) is torture for you, try some of my Guided Audio Meditations (which I even listen to when my mind is going nuts!)

Here’s a good one: “Sat Nam”

And more can be found on my guided meditation page

Go sit outside… take a deep breath… get prepared.

seated

-lisa

how to balance your mind in an unbalanced world.

Springtime. I come out of hibernation and act like a maniac. I want to take all sorts of yoga classes all over town, attend all sorts of events, run all sorts of trails with Russell Clive, plant all sorts of herbs and be ridiculously active until the sun goes down. I think, “I have so much energy now that the sun is shining! I am invincible!”

And then the next day, I need a 2 hour nap and am wearing pajamas by 3 pm.

My reality slackens its grip on the wisdom of “a balanced lifestyle,” something I wholeheartedly endorse as a yoga instructor. In yoga, we call wisdom “ishvara.Ishvara is the collective consciousness that we all have access to if we are quiet enough to listen. However, if we are unbalanced– if our energies and attentions swinging wildly between frenetic activity and forced hibernation, then we are not listening to this wisdom.

Ishvara is a wisdom tradition and also a teacher. Ishvara teaches us to humility by reminding us that there is a wisdom bigger than our individual ego. Each of us has direct access to these teachings through yoga and through meditation.

Isvara doesn’t demand or cajole or plead, it teaches and leads our life back into balance when we are at the end of our tether.

My go-to fix for finding balance in an unbalanced world is a pranayama technique designed specifically to restore balance to the mind and increase focus.  

Nadi Shodana: Alternate Nostril Breathing

  1. Use your right hand. Make a ‘mudra’ of first two fingers extended, other fingers lightly folded in to the palm.
  2. Rest the first two fingers lightly between the eyebrows. The knuckle of the thumb rests lightly on the right-side bridge of nose and the knuckle of the ring finger rests lightly on the left-side bridge of nose.
  3. Take 3 cleansing inhales and exhales.
  4. On an inhale, apply light pressure to the right side of the nose and inhale through the left side of the nose.
  5. On an exhale, apply light pressure to the right side of the nose and exhale through the left side of the nose.
  6. Continue alternating the breath in the nostrils for 10 rounds.
  7. To finish, rest your hands lightly in your lap. Take 3 cleansing inhales and exhales.
  8. Quietly affirm to yourself: “I maintain focus and balance.”

Emerge from this practice feeling focused and balanced. Use it as often as needed throughout the day. It’s perfect before an important meeting, after lunch break or anytime your mind slides towards imbalance.

Happy Balancing,

-lisa

(editor’s note: a version of this story was published April 10, 2017 on mayayoga.com. used with permission.)

universal piggy bank. (karma part 2)

(or: karma can be a friend. Part 2)

Remember Melvin the mouse? The one we forcefully and woefully evicted? (Refresh yourself on what Melvin taught me about karma in the previous blog post published last week.)

Today, as promised, we are going to look at another aspect of karma: the idea of a universal piggy bank.

Melvin’s story was an example of our typical understanding of ‘bad karma.’ But the full understanding of karma in the yoga philosophy is more nuanced than that. According to the Yoga Sutras actions can be good, bad or neutral. Each type of action creates a karmic residue that sticks in your memory and your heart-mind (citta is explained in this post).

Each time you take a karma action that is selfless, compassionate, kind or forgiving the residue of that action stays with you. You create, in effect, a repository of kindness. Yoga scholar Nicolai Bachman calls it a ‘karmic bank account.’  He explains, “Each time you perform a positive action is like depositing money into your karmic bank account.  Each time you do something hurtful or negative, it is like writing a check from that back account.”

And here’s the thing: we all share a bank account. All however-billion-humans are on this little planet share this account.  When I married my Ironman last fall, we talked endlessly about the pros and cons of having a shared bank account. When it comes to karma, I think a shared bank account is absolutely wonderfully amazingly uplifting.  It means that every single time I do something kind, I’m depositing more kindness into the world. And it’s not selfish—I’m not giving you my preferred parking spot at the Plaza Library because I myself want to benefit. I’m actively adding kindness currency into the universal piggy bank and anyone can access it!  It’s like I’m giving you a debit card (not a chip card—those things are more trouble than they’re worth) so that when your funds of compassion are low, you can bank with me.

This is true because like attracts like.  Kindness attracts kindness.

Every time I consciously choose to be generous with a friend, I end up on the receiving end of generosity the next day. Even when I feel like being stingy with my money, I try ardently to avoid the pitfall of ego (and the delusion of scarcity) because I know my generosity will multiply. And it doesn’t have to be money: simply offering five minutes of listening or giving someone a ride home on a snowy day turns out to be a huge deposit in our shared karmic bank account. 

Compassionate actions are said to be motivated by selflessness. Your job as a yogi is to understand how every thought, word, action and deed can positively impact the world around you and hold yourself to the highest standard of ethical and compassionate behavior. Real-talk: even if you are in a terrible mood, don’t take it out on the first person you see. It truly doesn’t matter how much you hate your job or are annoyed by your manager, choosing kindness (no matter what) makes a deposit of kindness into the universal piggy bank. You don’t have to pretend to be happy—pretending doesn’t get you anywhere—but you put a deposit in your karmic piggy bank by choosing kind thoughts, words and actions so that all of us can benefit.

While this requires constant vigilance and mindfulness, it is absolutely worth the effort. Positive attracts positive, clean kitchens stay mouse-free, and communities are uplifted when individuals consciously choose kindness for all other living beings. With this in mind, karma can be a pretty good friend.

Happy Depositing,

-lisa