surrendering into a pose.

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Autumn leaves in Kansas City, Missouri

“Oh Autumn leaf, be still and yield

When the wind wants to take you away.

Do not resist, be a player in the game.

Surrender to the dancing changes.

Let yourself be broken, seized

And blown to your next home.”

– H. Hesse

‘Surrendering’ is one of the most elusive aspects of a yoga asana practice.  Teachers always say things like “Follow your breath… surrender to the pose” or “Let go of the tension in your hips…let yourself surrender”.  And I think: ‘Sure. Good idea. I’m breathing, and I’m trying to surrender to this pose, but my right hip is frozen like cement.  And also screaming so loudly that dogs are barking down the street”.  

I’d been working on the mother of all hip-openers: Eka Pada Sirsasna (also known as Good-Lord-why-is-her-leg-behind-her-head?-pose) diligently for almost one year, coaxing my right hip open after years of running and dancing related injuries.  So many days I struggled to find the discipline to practice. So many mornings I wanted to cozy up on my couch and read books or hang out in my kitchen and bake treats.  And so many mornings, I glanced at my ‘Resolve’ frame (where I write my monthly Resolutions, check it out here) and reluctantly dragged myself out the door and into the practice room.  And every day was different.  Sometimes my hips felt supple and sometimes I felt like the Tin Man. Sometimes I found myself dreading the Ashtanga Second Series postures of One-Leg-Behind-the-Head (there are a few of them…) and frustration crept in.  I added a few wrinkles to my forehead trying to yank those ankles behind my neck. (Lame. I’m too young for anything but smile-wrinkles!)

The left leg?  Easy.  The right leg?  A joke.  On an especially balmy day I kept my right leg behind my head for 4 postures in a row (ha! breakthrough! success!) and then the next day I could barely walk, let alone practice asana with ease.  This is lame, I thought. and I gave up.

Literally.  Gave Up.  I watched a few online yoga videos, looked at some Instagram photos of my friends with their legs behind their head, decided that wasn’t going to be me for a decade…and gave up. I stopped being attached to the results.  Basically, I stopped trying to achieve and I started doing yoga.

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i learned this! summer goal accomplished!

Finally, I experienced a breakthrough in July.  It worked!  It stayed!  I was so excited that I’d learned this new pose and met my summer goal that I shared it on social media.

And then I went on a epic journey to Peru (Peru travel-asana pictures can be found here) and I came home and jumped on my mat, feeling rested and excited, and… my hips were frozen in place.  My ego took a huge hit.  Then, slowly, patiently, my ankles tucked behind my head.  On a good day I would be able to find the full expression of this pose, at the expense of my shoulder and poor little neck.  Not yoga.  Just ego and effort, apparently.

So again, I gave up.  I began to surrender.  I read this poem by Herman Hesse and decided I could yield to the changing winds and the energy of the moment, adopting the philosophy of the autumn leaves now adorning my front porch.

“Oh Autumn leaf, be still and yield

When the wind wants to take you away.

Do not resist, be a player in the game.

Surrender to the dancing changes.

Let yourself be broken, seized

And blown to your next home.”

– H. Hesse

 

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yeah, that’s the left leg… but you get the idea

And, unsurprisingly, surrendering worked.  Letting go of my attachment to the result of my practice (which is the phrase from the Bhagavad Gita that I’ve been teaching in my classes recently) actually worked.  Surrendering is possible when my face is soft, my ego is checked, and my body is concentrating on breathing rather than moving.  (Practice what you preach, right?)

I mean, it’s not perfect, and I’ll probably be confronted with the same lesson again in a few months. But it’s getting there.

Most importantly, I learned to surrender: I realized I was gripping my perception of ‘success’ so tightly that my muscles could never surrender and let go.  It’s a humbling question to ask yourself:

What can you surrender?

should yogis watch the news?

should yogis watch the news?

I mean, the morning/daily/nightly news is filled with disturbing, stressful stories.  And as yoga students, we are learning to transform our hearts and our minds to become peaceful, content, calm, and free from unnecessary fear and suffering.  But what we absorb from the local/national/world news is full of fear, anger, sorrow… should we even pay attention to it?  Watch it?  Listen to it?  Read it?  Recently over lunch in Waldo, my friend who is a local newscaster confided in me that her work day is focused on three things: reporting who died, reporting who almost died, and reporting who’s upset about it.  That’s grim.  And slightly unsettling.  And very disheartening.

Spending our time and energy becoming absorbed in major news events can induce stress.  A recent article on NPR.org proposed that repeatedly watching the same clips of disturbing, violent images in the media can produce symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.  You can read the full article, “Binging on Bad News Can Fuel Daily Stress”, here.

Yoga teaches us that the fullness of experiencing a life here on Earth includes experiencing the ‘good’ and the ‘bad.’  The God-Spirit is omnipresent, encompassing all things and events.  Right?  Well, not exactly, because then: yoga teaches us NOT to assign the labels ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to anything.  This is the quality of equanimity, which the Bhagavad Gita uses as the principle definition of yoga.

“Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results.  Open to success or failure.  This equanimity is yoga.”  (Mitchell’s translation of B.V. v 5.24)

Meaning, you may not be able to control everything, but you can surely control your reaction to that ‘thing.’ 

Christian theologian Thomas Merton says this: “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood whether we want it to or not” (Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 1992).

Meaning: here we are.  On this Earth we are in the midst of vacillating joyous and sorrowful experiences.

photo cred HM.  equanimity is a little like balancing on one foot, on the top of a mountain, in Africa.

photo cred HM. equanimity is a little like balancing on one foot, on the top of a mountain, in Africa.

So, I guess the question is this:  how do we maintain a sense of inner peace (not anger, however righteous it may be) and avoid fearful, anxious existence, even when our communities at large experience suffering or are plagued by violence?  Should we just shut off the TV (yes, I have one now, Bonyen, and I will one day watch your newscast) and never listen to the news again?  Should we become hermits (that sounds really enticing, until I remember that hermits don’t walk to their favorite Vegetarian restaurant with friends on a Monday evening) and block out all ‘bad news?’

Can we find a way to ‘stay present’ in our communities without experiencing despair?

I once heard this analogy:  If an ambulance driver responded to an outrageous car accident and immediately started freaking out, yelling about the catastrophe, weeping uncontrollably about the ‘state of things,’ and attracting an anxious/terrified crowd… who would help the victims inside the cars?  We expect a first responder to arrive at the scene of an accident and maintain serenity, choose action over fear, address the situation with loving-kindness, and offer all the help he can.  You are the first responder.  And I suppose the car accident is the news story.  (Think on that for a few days.)

So, yes, my heart hurts every time I see the front page of the newspaper covering the violent assault on Gaza and the drowning death of a young autistic boy.  It does.  But then I remember that if I didn’t know about these sorrowful events, I wouldn’t know to pray for these victims of war and this family in grief.  In fact, I purposely listen to the 4 minute newscast on my NPR app on my way to my 6:00 am classes so that I can dedicate a piece of my yoga experience to anyone I hear about on the news who needs extra support and good energy.

So I guess it goes two ways when you read the news:  you can choose desperation or you can choose hope.  

photo cred EMA

photo cred EMA

Or maybe, in the spirit of equanimity, somewhere in-between.

 

What do you think:  Should yogis watch the news?  How do you get your news?  How do you respond?  I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

Tell me!

-lisa

P.S. Haven’t read the Bhagavad Gita yet?  You totally should.  I have two favorite translations.  The translation I used here is by Stephen Mitchell, published by Three Rivers Press, New York.

 

 

Just in case the link to the NPR blog didn’t work, here is the full URL: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/07/10/323355132/binging-on-bad-news-can-fuel-daily-stress

 

the art of transfiguration.

**Author’s note: I’m travelling abroad this month (I’ve been dreaming of seeing the rainforest since kindergarten, and dreaming of climbing Machu Picchu since I was in undergrad), and as I prepared for this journey to Peru, lessons I encountered a few years ago while on a journey across the western United States kept occupying my thoughts.  This article was originally published on sf yoga mag in 2011.  I’m re-posting my own words… you’ll want to read until the end, because I recommend two must-read books.

 The art of transfiguration.  

by Lisa M. Ash, 2011

Peering up from the highway to the ridge of a jagged, red-rock horizon, I was awed by the evidence of creative transfiguration that is manifest in exquisite landscapes. Nature’s features, simultaneously time standing ascetically still and time moving at the staggering speed of creation.  I recently drove from Kansas City, Missouri, to Orange, California: camping, hiking, and meditating along the way. The myriad of scapes racing past my window as I traveled across the country served as a humbling reminder that nature’s course was chosen millennia ago.

What I saw was a blessing of the moment.  It was just one momentary meeting of the immutable, and undeniably phenomenal, cooperation of wind, water, movement, change, and Nature in motion.

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photo cred: EMA

 

Gorgeous landscapes—whose rock faces, sandstone formations, and courageous fauna are in the midst of constant tumultuous change—simply accept the change as perfectly normal.  Continuous molding, drifting, forming, burning, growing, shrinking, living and dying are all unceasingly embraced.  This embrace of transformation honors the natural ritam, or rhythm, of life as constant transfiguration.  This embrace honors Being. This honors the spirituality of the yogi:

“Spirituality is the art of transfiguration.  We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any predetermined shape…. It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than with the idea of will.”              –J. O’Donahue

An inspiring example of this is the sandstone formations that shelter the rugged, unforgiving terrain of southern Utah.  The unique formations reveal millennia of rock layers shaped by the forces of erosion and weathering acting in concert.  Made famous by the extreme sport and tourism industry of Moab, Utah, these tall, proud rocks are the face of a drastic desert-scape that inspires adventure.  For the yogi, the constantly evolving desert formations inspire contemplation; they are visible evidence of the Bhagavad Gita’s charge to embrace change as a necessary part of physical existence, understanding that the Essence of Life remains immutable even in the face of the storm.  In my eyes, the absolute power of the Living God is the invisible face of this ever-weathering sandstone.

The cavernous formations not only inspire a sense of humility by their sheer enormity, but they lend testimony to the miracle of transformation through surrender to creative power.

What if we, like the rocks, began to trust in the creative power of transformation through surrender, as opposed to personal will?  What if we, like the rocks, sensed the Divine touch of wind and water shifting and moving little bits of our lives, not with resistance but with a welcoming of erosion?

photo cred: McCormick

photo cred: McCormick

I believe the challenge of a yogi is, in fact, to embrace the immense creative potential in each gust of wind and in each passing breath. There’s really nothing new in this: for centuries, humans have been humbled and awed by the role of wind in the crafting of nature.  Just as each whisper of wind shapes the wild vastness of an epic rock-scape, one mindful breath can awaken creativity, change, and transfiguration in the lived experience of an individual.

The testimony of the desert-scape is that

creation is meant for transformation through breath.

 The challenge is to use our yoga practice as life practice.  The challenge is to breathe into the forgotten spaces of our lives, trusting in the embrace of this breath will be an embrace of the transfiguration of our spirit.  I challenge you to breathe with me.

-lisa

When has a travel experience changed your outlook on life?  Tell me where you went and how you learned to breathe?  When has your life been changed in drastic ways and you’ve learned to trust the movement of the breath?  I’d love to hear your stories….

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photo cred: EMA

Further Reading:  

Hawley, J.  The Bhagavad Gita: A walkthrough for Westerners.  New World Library: Novato, CA. 2001

O’Donahue, J.  Anama Cara: A book of Celtic Wisdom.  Harper Collins: New York, NY. 1997

 

 

 

Aparigraha April Challenge #4: No-Waste Kitchen.

Welcome back!  How are your challenges going?  Feeling overwhelmed?  Inspired?  Intrigued?  In love with the Earth?  Tell me about your successful and not-so-successful moments.  Use the form at the bottom of this page or email me.

This challenge, the No-Waste Kitchen Challenge, was simultaneously the most fun and the most frustrating.  Fun because I learned so many ‘live-simple’ ideas, and frustrating because there are about a million more ideas that I don’t have time to try.  I spend a lot of time in my kitchen.  Here’s a rule: remove the trash can from your kitchen sink and hide it outside.  Game.  Changer.  I quickly realized how much extra food packaging I was tossing—most of it goes in the recycle bin anyway, but it’s still wasteful.  Remember, we are working to reduce our waste at all levels, in order to cultivate a wiser and healthier relationship with the Earth’s resources.  And with the Earth itself.  Even the Bhagavad Gita advises us to do this:

“Touched in this way by God, the yogi sees unity and the True Self (Divinity) everywhere, in every creature, in all creation.”  BG 5.29

So here you go:

Aparigraha April Challenge #4: No-Waste Kitchen.

  • Hug your food.  Stop buying Ziploc bags and disposable plastic wrap.  If you have some in your cabinet still, remember that a Ziploc freezer bag can be used a few times.  However, what’s even better?  Use glass Pyrex dishes for food storage.  These never need to be thrown away.  The most exciting thing I found when taking this challenge: Food Huggers.  Adorable, re-usable Food Huggers, silicone food savers that “hug” the half of any fruit or vegetable you want to save in the fridge.  Seriously?  Have you seen anything more adorable?

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  • Re-imagine your morning routine.  Most of us love a warm morning beverage.  Most of us create an entirely ridiculous amount of waste to satisfy this craving.  At home, here’s your challenge to reduce your waste: avoid all single serving items.
    • Loose-Leaf tea.  (Have you ever thought about the extra waste from one TEA BAG?  Why even have a paper tag on the string of each tea bag?  Why have a string?  Wait… why have a bag?)  Buy a small tea filter and head to the local herb store to buy loose-leaf tea.  Much more delicious, much more sustainable.
    • French Press Coffee.  (No coffee filters needed.  No tiny one-time-use plastic cups for your coffee grounds.  I’m sure you can guess how I feel about Keurig cups.)
    • Add-ins that aren’t single servings.  Even when you are at a coffee shop, opt for the pourable raw sugar instead of tearing open a sugar packet.  Better yet, learn to sweeten your tea and coffee with honey.  Local honey companies will refill your empty plastic or glass honey jar.photo (8)
  • Can Cans.  Sure, aluminum cans are recyclable.  But it takes in exorbitant amount of energy (often fossil fuels) to recycle.  The goal here is to reduce ALL waste.  An average American produced 4.6 lbs of garbage every day, and about 1/3 of that is recycled (Loux, Easy Green Living).  Beans don’t grow in cans.  Tomatoes don’t grow in cans.  Stew certainly isn’t made in cans.  Buy dry, buy fresh, buy ingredients and make your own.  And do I even need to talk about soda cans?  Really?  Are you 12?  There are about a million harmful substances in soda that do not need to go in your body, and about a million un-recycled aluminum soda cans on my street alone. (I hereby give any person standing at the bus stop on my corner to put their Cherry Coke cans in my recycle bin.  Please stop leaving them on my sidewalk.)  This is the MOST wasteful.  Buy yourself a lemon and stick it in a glass of water.  Trust me on this one.
  • Chop it, Don’t Toss it.  Food waste makes up about 13% of the total solid waste amount in the United States.  Learn to use the ENTIRE vegetable for your cooking.  From Root to Stalk.  When chopping celery, broccoli and cauliflower, chop the stalks into small pieces, put them in your freezer, and throw them in a soup the next day.  Challenge yourself to use the entire vegetable.  Beet greens?  Sautee them and top your curried quinoa.  Carrot tops?  Blend them in tomorrow’s root-to-stalk1smoothie.  Stop buying fruit and veggie trays.  You don’t need the extra plastic platter and you are telling grocery stores that you prefer they throw away perfectly good (and nutritious) vegetable parts.  Take a look at Tara Duggan’s Root to Stalk Cooking which explains the Art of Using the Whole Vegetable.  I think we throw food away because we don’t know how to eat it.  Chop it, don’t toss it.
  • Make friends with your own dishwashing soap.  I used to buy the single-serving packets of dishwashing soap because they were adorable.  Yea… the plastic that holds together these cute little packets is completely irrelevant and unnecessary.  Just buy a giant box of dishwasher detergent (try Seventh Generation, because it’s been reviewed as one of the best “green dish detergents“).  I tried a DIY recipe for dishwashing detergent found on Mama Wellness’ blog and found that it worked well.  I understand if you don’t have time to make your own detergent (I only run my dishwasher once a week, so it wasn’t a big deal to make a big batch of detergent because it lasted about a month), but at least avoid unnecessary waste if possible.

Throughout my month-long experiment to reduce waste in my kitchen, I became increasingly aware how difficult it is to avoid food packaging.  As a general health rule, I try not to buy food that needs a nutritional label on their package.  This helps avoid sugar/sodium/processed death traps like crackers, cookies, and other goodies.  But during my aparigraha challenge, I noticed just how many fresh food stuffs I buy that are “packaged.”  Strawberries need their own plastic house?  Cucumbers come wrapped in plastic?  Even my health foods like soy milk, raw honey, olive oil, and cinnamon all came in their own disposable packaging. After much thought, I’ve decided on a list of Things I will not give up, even though they are inherently wasteful:

  • Soy milk cartons.  But I’ve cut down to one a month, which I think is pretty good.  I’m not adventurous enough to make my own almond or soy milk…yet… if you are, I’d love to hear your tips!
  • Chocolate bar wrappers.  Because I’m not sure how to buy chocolate that isn’t in a wrapper.  And we all know that chocolate cures everything.  Last fall, this article on CNN.com sold me on chocolate for life.
  • Trader Joe’s boxed soup varieties.  I mean, all of them are delicious.  I, of course, keep all my veggie scraps and crock-pot them with water to make my own stock if possible, but everyone needs to try TJ’s black bean soup.  Oh my word.
  • Aluminum foil.  I hate scrubbing pans.  Have you ever tried to scrape baked tofu from the bottom of your baking pan?  It’s not easy.  Aluminum foil I will keep.  It can be wiped clean, re-used two or three times, and then put in the recycle bin.  And of course, it’s my new re-usable dryer sheet!

Ok, for real, tell me how it’s going.  Happy Kitchen Cleaning.

-lisa

touched in this way, the yogi sees unity in everything

touched in this way by god, the yogi sees unity everywhere and in everything.