stress less. #MeditationThoughtMondays

stress less

That’s great advice… but, um, how can you possibly “stress less” when life is hectic? My meditation students never fail to ask, “When am I supposed to give time to sitting around and meditating during the day?”

You might not have twenty extra minutes in a day to experience the stress relieving benefits of meditation.  But, when time is precious, do you have extra minutes in a day to GIVE To Stress? Stress steals moments.  Stress steals your ability to be effective, efficient, and compassionate.  Because your body is most concerned with survival, it doesn’t have time to be concerned with anything else, even staying healthy.  You can read more about stress and your immune response here.

Stress is a normal physiological response to, well, just about everything in your current environment.  Your body does not discriminate between physical stress and emotional stress: it reacts to both by releasing the same hormones and vamping up your sympathetic nervous system to all stimuli– real, imagined, positive, or negative.

During April, National Stress Awareness Month (yes, one more thing for you to stress over forgetting!), my Introduction to Meditation Workshops at Westport Yoga have been packed.  The best part?  In between our afternoon Sunday sessions my students have shared with me inspiring stories about how a one-minute morning meditation has reduced their daily stress levels.  Kara told me how she didn’t even get upset when her car was rear ended at a red stop light because she was practicing Mindful Breathing.  (I assigned the homework called “Red Light Breathing” to encourage students to stay mindful even during a stressful commute!) That’s extreme; I’d still get upset if my unsuspecting Subaru was hit by some knucklehead who was driving too fast.  But Kara’s Red Light Breathing must be super powerful.

Even one minute of mindful breathing can reduce stress and create relaxation in the body.   Whether you have one minute, or sixteen years, here are 9 tips you can utilize to reduce your stress level and lead a happier life.  (Number 9 is my favorite!)

The following was featured in Outside Magazine’s October 2014 Issue.  You can read the full article here.  It was written by Eric Beresini

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If you have: “10 Seconds: Laugh

Even just anticipating a chuckle is enough to relieve stress and elevate hormones that combat depression and boost immunity.

If you have: 5 Minutes: 
Chew Gum

Chewing two sticks a day for two weeks can fight off anxiety and fatigue and improve mood.

If you have: 15 Minutes: 
Meditate

Research has shown that a quarter of an hour of guided meditation performed in the office can kick psychological and physiological markers of stress. You don’t need someone in the flesh to help lead your thoughts; UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center offers free weekly meditation podcasts to download or stream.

If you have: 30 Minutes: 
Go for a Run

Five days a week at a moderate pace of around ten minutes per mile can boost your mood, concentration, and sleep quality—not to mention your cardiovascular health and muscle tone.

If you have: 45 Minutes: 
Take a Nap

A 45-to-60-minute daytime snooze boosts your cardiovascular system, bringing spiked blood pressure back down to normal.

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yoga and movement help reduce stress.  check out Lisa’s yoga teaching schedule here.

 

If you have: 90 Minutes: Stretch It Out

Studies have shown that yoga relieves tension in everyone from medical students to flood survivors. Ninety minutes twice a week erases anxiety and replaces it with calm, though sessions half that long can also work. (Check out Lisa’s full yoga teaching schedule here.)

If you have: 1 Day: Walk in the Woods

Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term meaning “walking or staying in forests to promote health.” Just a day in the wild, researchers have found, is enough to reduce stress, even in chronic sufferers.

 If you have: 1 Year: Move to Switzerland

The country topped the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index for life satisfaction. A strong sense of community, high life expectancy, and low unemployment make the Swiss life sweet. That and your in-laws probably don’t live there.

If you have:16 Years: 
Get a Dog

A pup will lower your blood pressure and generally improve your psychological well-being. And bringing it to the office can increase job satisfaction.”  – Eric Beresini  You can read the full article here

Russell Ash being coy

Every time you come home, your dog will welcome you with open arms, no matter how stressed you are.  You should get one.  

Which of these tips can you utilize tomorrow?  Which one is your favorite?

(I’m sure you have time to stress less.  I can’t imagine you have time to stress more.)

Happy Living,

-lisa

stress less

full gratitude meditation: For this moment and for so many more, I give thanks, with a grateful heart.

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gratitude balasana

gratitude meditation.

Practice this Gratitude Meditation to uncover a deeper present moment awareness.  Why?  Because the only reasonable response to being alive is Gratitude.

Read each sentence aloud, mindfully.  Take a deep breath after you read it.  Pause.  Mean it.  Re-define your Gratitude.  Your whole life will change, I promise.

gratitude meditation.

“I live in gratitude.

Every day that I awaken and breathe, I am grateful.

Every day that I think a thought and feel my heart stirring, I am grateful.

Every day that I am upright and whole, I am grateful.

Every day that a creative idea becomes solid matter, I am grateful.

Every day that I face that thing of which I am most afraid, I am grateful.

Every day that I am given awareness of the smallest of beauties, I am grateful.

Every day that I am enlightened, given insight, have an epiphany, I am grateful.

Every day that I exercise compassion, understanding, and patience, I am grateful.

Every day that I encounter another living creature and engage, I am grateful.

Every day that I am hugged, kissed, and loved, I am grateful.

Every day that I laugh, I am grateful.

Every day that my family is healthy and happy, I am grateful.

Every day that my friends do well in the world, I am grateful.

Every day that I change someone’s life….. or that someone changes mine, I am grateful.

Every day that love is evident in my life, I am grateful.

Every day that I act out of anger, or from a place of frustration or a broken heart, I am grateful because each affliction offers an opportunity to learn about myself and my fellow man.

Every day that brings me a challenge and tests my spirit, I am grateful.

Every day that I am humbled by a mistake, I am grateful.

Every day that I am faced with seemingly unbearable odds, I am grateful for the lessons I have learned and my spirit that is strengthened by these things.

Every day that I try, I am grateful.

Every day that I try AGAIN, I am grateful.

Every day that I can have some time to myself for quiet and reflection, I am grateful.

For every day that is NEW, I am grateful.  For every blessing, surprise, breath, song, word, hope, reason, and heart, I am grateful.

For this moment and for so many more, I give thanks, with a grateful heart.”

 

Which sentence rings most true to you?  Today, where will you focus your gratitude?  Tell me about your Gratitude Challenge this month.  I can’t wait to hear about it!

Happy Living,

-lisa

every day that I awaken and breathe, I am grateful.

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gratitude meditation challenge day one: November 7.

“Every day that I awaken and breathe,

I am grateful.”

Steps to completing the gratitude meditation challenge:

Read.  Breathe.  Smile.  Sit in stillness.  Read again.  Express your gratitude for this moment and for all of the many blessings which bring you joy in this life.

day one november 7

Why gratitude?  Because it’s the only reasonable response to being alive.  Read more here.      

With gratitude,

-lisa

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part three: walking slowly.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part three: walking slowly.

I’m a really slow walker.  I’m a painfully slow walker, according to my sister.  I love to dawdle, and gawk, and sigh, and look, and hum, and sing, and pray, and meander.  And maybe take a few steps forward.  Slowly.  Guess where this was not super welcome/ expected/ appreciated… on a four day trek up the Salkantay Mountain pass in the Cusco region of Peru.  Apparently, when you have more than 30 miles and 12,000+ feet of elevation gain/descent to cover in a few short days to get to Machu Picchu, you walk at a quick clip.  Even if you have short legs and are still sick to your stomach from some apricots bought in a local market the week prior.  No time for meandering.  Only to time for putting one foot in front of the other.  Again.  And Again.  And Again. 

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walking into the cloudy abyss…

The four day trek (sleeping in tents along the way!  yay!) through the Salkantay Mountain Pass in Peru was the highlight of our Peruvian adventure (see this post to figure out why I was in Peru).

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our camping sites along the trek in Peru were insanely beautiful

The trek was challenging.  My adventurous spirit was squelched by altitude sickness.  But it was remarkable.  Why?  I learned, for the first time, how to truly offer every step I take as a walking meditation.

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one step at a time, for many days and many miles

We left our backpackers hostel in Cusco at 3:45 am on a Peruvian winter morning and by lunchtime we were deep into the remote trails of the Andean cloud forest with our native guide Edson and a group of seven fellow hikers.  We did not choose the traditional-tourist ‘Incan Trail’ hike to Machu Picchu.  We yearned for a more secluded, intimate experience.  The Salkantay Trek follows a remote footpath and pilgrimage route for native Peruvians who paused to worship the glacier capped ‘Savage Mountain’ on their way to Machu Picchu.  For hundreds of years, Quechua, Incan, and other tribal Peruvians have put one foot in front of the other on this same trail.  They probably walked much faster than I did.

 

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the landscape was rugged and gorgeous

In Andean cosmology, mountains are Gods.  Their peaks are the highest point of contact with the Milky Way, which is the most sacred living space of Spirit.  Nevado Salkantay summits at 20,574 feet above sea level and the Southern Cross illuminates its highest peak at the height of the rainy season.  Rightly so, Incans believed this wild, uncivilized, unconquerable mountain governed the fertility of the region.  Had I known that the mountain pass I would stumble up (thank goodness my Ironman carried our water in his backpack) was christened ‘unconquerable,’ I would have prepared for the physical demands of the hike more seriously.  (As it was, I mostly prepared by walking our dog Russell and up and down our hilly block a few times.  Better luck next time.) But I did it.

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In Andean cosmology, mountains are Gods. Their peaks are the highest point of contact with the Milky Way, which is the most sacred living space of Spirit.

 

The weather was pristine.  The day before we arrived at the pass, trekkers were caught in a snowstorm; Salkantay hid behind dark cloud cover.  I’ve read narratives from Peru-lovers who’ve hiked Salkantay three times (masochists) and never been granted a clear view of its jagged peak.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky when we turned the corner of the trail and landed ourselves in the shadow of the most sacred mountain in the region.  We were blessed.

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There was Navado Salkantay or ‘Savage Mountain’, just over the next pass.

Just a few miles earlier on the trail, our group paused to perform a native Andean ceremony.  It was the most remarkable moment of the entire journey.  It was a welcome respite, a much needed break.  After several mornings of pre-dawn wake-up calls, wearing mittens to breakfast, and eating pancakes by candlelight in the cook tent, I was a little tired.  (Actually, the wake-up calls were one of the best parts of our fully-guided trek.  At 5:00 am, we’d hear a gentle knock on the outside of our tent and a sing-song “Buenas Diaaaas” signaling that steaming mugs of coca tea would magically appear right outside our zippered door.  That’s room service.)

Still, after two grueling days of hiking at altitude (much, much faster than I would have liked, thank you very much.  It’s not that walking is difficult.  It’s that walking FAST is shockingly unnecessary), I was tired.  I was ready to give up.  I was counting steps.  I was making myself deals and setting impossibly low standards:  just make it to that next rock, just make it through the next five minutes, just make it to the next micro-break, just make it through the end of the next story this chatty Santa Cruz hiker is telling.  I was exhausted.

Finally, we stopped.  I sat down.  I sat my meditating-loving butt on a mossy boulder and refused to get back up.  My Ironman prodded me to get stand up and bundle up.  My day pack transformed into weightlessness as I layered on extra vests, gloves, hats and adorable Peruvian knitted legwarmers, struggling to keep my body temperature comfortable.  (Why I actually thought this trip would be comfortable is still baffling.)  The view was stunning.  I decided I was staying right there.  I didn’t know where ‘right there’ was.  In fact, turns out it was six hours away from camp.  I still had an entire day ahead of striding up hill and tottering downhill:  putting one foot in front of the other.

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Our guide Edson gathered our group together to teach us an ancient Andean tradition.  Even though I didn’t want to take one more step, I got up and hobbled over to the group, eager to participate.  Edson spread a small stash of coca leaves in a wind-protected crevice of a nearby boulder.  He showed us how to choose the best leaves; two leaves in the right hand and three leaves in the left hand.  He explained that we were approaching the mountain pass and it was now the time to offer our journey as a sacred pilgrimage. 

 

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it was now the time to offer our journey as a sacred pilgrimage.

It was a light bulb moment.  My job is to teach people that movement is prayer.  And here I was: treating this hike as arduous– something to be conquered and endured.  The Mountain was not be conquered, it was to be revered. The trek was not to be endured, it was to be offered.  I held the coca leaves gingerly in my mittened hands, and remembered this poem:

 “I appear in the wind, in soil, in stardust, in the sun,

I appear in mountains and desert rain

am the star

and I am the stone.”   

(Find it here: ‘Be Love Clothing’ )

These words eloquently remind humans that the Spirit of creative forces is manifested in every phenomenon, not limited by our cognition and rational mind.

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It was a light bulb moment.  I learned that experiencing the living pulse of nature, in true reverence, is learning to hear in my own racing heartbeat the rhythm of the living earth.  It means listening to the wind.  Listening to the moving water.  Listening to the hummingbirds.  Listening to the stories written by hundreds of pilgrims’ feet scribed in the mud of this footpath.

My mindset changed completely.  Moving forward was no longer a battle of will.  Walking forward was now an act of deep reverence.  Every step was an offering.  I was honoring Creation in every step.  For the next six hours, I barely spoke a word.  I was immersed in continuous meditative prayer, using this mantra with every step:

“I offer you the breath in my lungs.  I offer you the sound in my heart.  I offer you the sweetness of my Spirit… Let me be silent.  Let me be still.  So that kindness and grace may hover over me.”  (Adapted from Carolyn Myss and Andrew Harvey.   You may need this book.)

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With this mantra, I was not struggling.  Now I was on a pilgrimage, sharing this experience with the history of the Mountain and the Spirit of nature.  I found renewed energy.  I actually wanted to walk forward, to move, to breathe, to offer.  I wanted the trek to never end.  (Until I saw our campsite off in the distance.  Then I was super excited to curl up in my tent and nap before dinner.)

It was the most powerful experience, to practice true walking meditation.  I hope that every day I wake up for the rest of my life, I will remember to use this mantra:

 “I offer you the breath in my lungs. 

I offer you the sound in my heart.  I offer you the sweetness of my Spirit… Let me be silent.  Let me be still. 

So that kindness and grace may hover over me.”

What can you offer today?  Think about and let me know.  Thanks for listening.  Stay tuned for the next part of our journey: the Sacred City of Macchu Picchu!

-lisa

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We made it. Two thumbs up.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part two: art of impermanence.

Tiny Peruvian Pilgrimage, part two:  art of impermanence.

(location: Island Amantani, Lake Titicaca, Peru)

Our first adventure site in Peru (see previous post if you are wondering why I’m in Peru) was a lake excursion to the unique islands on Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world.  It is breathtaking.  (You can learn about Lake Titicaca here).

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Lake Titicaca from Island Amantani

What’s marvelous about Lake Titicaca is not only its size, but that it is where worlds collide.  The urban bustle of Puno (if you’ve ever been to a developing world city, you know that ‘bustle’ is a nice way of saying ‘chaos’) contrasts starkly with the absolute stillness of ancient agrarian farmsteads on the islands in the lake.  The lake is the birthplace of the Incan civilization according to Andean mythology the first God of the Incans was born from these waters nestled at an altitude of 12,500+ feet.  Viracocha emerged from the lake to create the sun, the stars and the first people.  Quecha-speaking descendants of these first Incan people still live on the secluded islands today and maintain the traditional ceremonies of honoring the sun at special times of the year from the top of their highest island peaks.

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legit fesitval. school was cancelled on the island for two weeks for this traditional festival

Our Lake Titicaca tour included three stops so we could learn about the cultures of three different island communities and stay in a local home on Lake Amantani.  After stepping of the rocking boat in the shimmering sunlight of mid-afternoon, we stood awkwardly on the banks of the lake while we were assigned host families with whom we would spend the night.  Our host mother was the tiniest person you’ve ever seen in your life.  Her mantle-adorned head barely reached my shoulder… and I’m not tall to begin with.  She led us, wordlessly, grinning, to her home on the side of terraced fields.

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walking up the path to Mathilde Maria’s home

Having no common language, we communicated brilliantly with smiles, shrugs and nervous laughter before settling into our guest room.  My Ironman had to duck to get in the doorway.  Classic.  Air BnB in Willy Wonka’s Shrinker-machine.

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Air BnB, Peruvian style

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note the height of the doors

A quick lunch of quinoa soup (score) and then it was up the mountain, walking the path that would deposit us at the peak of the island: the place where the Spirit of “Pachatata,” or Father Earth, resides.  On the other side of the valley rises “Pachamama,” or Mother Earth.  Modern inhabitants of the island venerate ancient Incan ruins and traditions on these barren, wind-swept peaks.  They, clearly, are used to walking up-hill at altitude: I was repeatedly lapped by grandmas carrying bundles of corn on their backs, babies in their arms, and who knows what else in the folds of their giant skirts.  I’m pretty sure you could fit a lamb in each pocket.  But the ‘45 minute leisurely walk’ up to the highest point of Amantani Island was worth it.  It was uncomfortable, but it was worth it.  Until you’ve seen a sunset at the top of the world, you haven’t seen a sunset.  

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the sun setting over Lake Titicaca, view from Pachatata, Father Earth

As the sun disappeared behind the Andes-framed expanse of water in front of us (cordially stealing all prospects of warmth and the feeling in my fingers), my Ironman and I mimicked the sacred tradition of circling the Quecha priests’ ceremonial site four times.  As I walked, unsteadily (thanks, Altitude Sickness), head bowed against the harsh wind, fingers tucked in my armpits for warmth, I noticed the worn path beneath my hiking boots and thought: all manner of feet have walked this path.  Bare feet, hooved feet, truck-tire-bottom-sandaled feet, touristy-Solomon-shoed feet, hiking-boot-clad feet.  Literally, since the beginning of (Incan) time, feet have been circumnavigating the highest point on this island, praying for blessings.

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This revelation was humbling because it reminded me of the impermanence of life.  I like to tell my Vinyasa yoga students that the only thing CONSTANT in life is CHANGE.  Circling the weathered stone walls of this tiny temple was an act of showing up to celebrate the impermanence of life: of the inevitable setting of the sun, of the slow rising of the moon, of the constant movement of the waves, of the gently persistent wind.  And it was an act of reverence to the fleeting nature of my own life, which is a short blip, but an important blip, in the grand scheme of the universe.  It was an act of yoga.

“Yoga, like art and like music, is understanding the art of impermanence. 

It is a way of learning the spiritual discipline of showing up for a sacramental event even if you don’t know what your experience will be, how your performance will be received, how your spirit will be expressed, or what you will learn.”

 

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ready for anything

Here’s my lesson: Although life is sacred, it is fleeting.  Although our troubles are arduous, they are fleeting.  Although our blessings are unlimited, they are fleeting.  There is an art to embracing the sacredness of creation and the sacredness of impermanence without futility overshadowing this lived experience.

And there is an art to showing up.   Even when it’s freezing and your fingers are numb.

Even when your head is about to explode.

Even when you don’t speak the same language, and you don’t know how to count the local currency, and you don’t share many of the same customs: there is an art to showing up: ready for anything.  You never know what you will learn.

So, here’s my question to you: When did you ‘show up’ to an experience, feeling totally underprepared, but ready to live life to the fullest?  What unexpected blessings or unexpected stumbling blocks arose?  What did you learn?  (If you don’t have one of these moments… book a plane ticket, quickly!  There are so many places to explore in this world!  Better yet, just walk outside your workplace and strike up a conversation with the first person you meet… you never know what your experience will be and what you will learn!)

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“Yoga, like art and like music, is understanding the art of impermanence. It is a way of learning the spiritual discipline of showing up for a sacramental event even if you don’t know what your experience will be, how your performance will be received, how your spirit will be expressed, or what you will learn.”

Can’t wait to hear back from you,

-lisa

 

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

 

 

 

god is the breath.

god is the breath.

 

God says…“Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.  My shoulder is against yours.  You will not find me in the stupas, not in the Indian shrine rooms, nor in synagogues, not in cathedrals: not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck, nor in eating nothing but vegetables.  When you really look for me, you will see me instantly—you will find me in the tiniest house of time. … Tell me, what is God?  He is the breath inside the breath.” – Kabir

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photo cred EMA