Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I've been at a yoga training for 10 days now. It's at a lovely ashram in California that is kind of rustic. I knew there would be things I would have to forego while staying here: wine, chocolate, my own bathroom, as a few examples. I didn't realize there was also a water restriction in place. We were told the first day that we must turn off the shower while we're soaping, then turn on to rinse, etc. That didn't sound so great to me, because I love a long hot shower. You might even say I'm attached to my hot showers.

But a funny thing has happened the longer I've been here. I don't crave Starbucks chai, I don't wish for a glass of wine after dinner, and while I don't relish the shower rules, they have become a total non-issue. I suppose it's like any change in habit or routine. Initially we react strongly, then we notice it less and less, until the new habit becomes our norm.

But, we have to release our grasp on the old in order to embrace the new. If I spent every morning moaning and complaining about the shower, I would constantly be reminded of what I'm lacking. My attachment would continue and certainly a bad attitude would follow! I'm not saying I won't hop into a nice long shower when I return home, but I have felt good about being able to change without huge pain. This can be a lesson for future changes: if I allow what needs to be to unfold, observe and not stay stuck in the past, I will adapt. I will release the attachments to the old and step into the new.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sing out loud

I am new to the practice of chanting. I have felt the power of a group Om, and I have recently had the opportunity to experience more complex Sanskrit chants. The energy created by a group of voices chanting in unison is incredible. A recent lecture explained that ancient sages taught chants to pass along sacred texts, but also to align the chanter with the spirit of the text and it's meaning. Simply chanting the text by heart opened the singer to enlightenment. Whoa!

But raising our voices doesn't have to include ancient languages to affect our mood. Singing out loud is an uplifting experience. Think of sacred hymns, or national anthems. Something so deeply personal can be revealed in a vocal song. Plus, singing in groups adds a social aspect, engaging members in a complete community effort. Then everyone is working together toward a common goal.

But the best singing is often done where no one else can hear. There's nothing wrong with that, because the act of singing itself has benefits. When we sing, we must start with a deep inhale. As we vocalize, we lengthen and slow the exhale to produce the tones. These are the same breathing techniques taught to calm anxiety. We increase the capacity of the breath, and calm the nervous system with deep belly breathing and lengthening the exhale. The next time you feel anxious or short of breath, try singing a simple song, or chanting a long Om. The calming effect can be felt quickly, and will be music to your ears.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Emotional Body

Feelings come and go throughout the day. I may get angry at someone who cuts me off in traffic only to feel happy when I get to work and find cookies in the kitchen. Some feelings stay with us longer, though, especially if they're tied to negative events in our lives. The anger over a betrayal by a friend or loved one can stay lurking around for years. But where do our emotions lie? Are they simply our thoughts, in our heads? Or do they take root in the body? I know from yoga classes that certain poses can evoke an emotional response. Back bends create a happy, energetic feeling, while hip openers can trigger tears or anger. Where do these emotions come from when my mind is not thinking about anything in particular? Maybe my body knows something my mind hasn't figured out yet.

Maybe you've experienced sadness as a hollow pit in the stomach, or fear as a tension in the chest. We know emotions create a physical response. When we're afraid, stress hormones are released, our blood pressure and heart rate change and muscles tighten up. There are noticeable effects in the moment. But then a few minutes pass, and our breathing slows again, we release the tension and start to return to a more normal physical state. We have a mental memory of the fear, but can the body "remember" too? If you try to remember a time you felt fear, can you feel that same tension in the chest? Does your body still have a memory of that event? I never tried this until recently, and was amazed to discover the physical sensations that came with memories. The anger in my solar plexus, the sadness in my throat, how had I never noticed this before?

I have spent a lot of time hiding emotions. To open up to "negative" emotions like anger and sadness creates a vulnerability I couldn't handle so I would stuff the feelings and ignore them. Well, that energy had to go somewhere. I have read about sitting with emotions, breathing into the feelings and actually living in sadness, or anger, or whatever is coming up. Then the energy can naturally dissipate as it should, without coming back to haunt the body or mind years down the road. This can also be done with past events. I can look back on times of sadness and fear, I remember them in my head, but if I really pay attention, I can feel them in my body, too. Then I breathe into the sensation, I allow it all to happen without stuffing or running away. It is difficult, it leaves me raw and open. But the sense of lightness and peace afterwards is truly amazing.

This is challenging emotional work, and best done with the supervision of a trained therapist if you have a history of trauma or abuse. The power of the memory is obvious, but allowing and recognizing the physical sensations adds an intensity that can be disarming. In the long run, that is my goal, though. To disarm. I hope to lay down my defenses that no longer serve me and allow myself to open up to grace. Practicing feeling and acknowledging my emotions is a start. Sensing their place in my body acknowledges that I am a whole being, not just my thoughts or emotions. My body is not just a vehicle for my mind, after all, it is the container for the soul.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Too Much Stuff

Every January, a friend of mine posts an invitation to the "Month of 100 Things" on Facebook. It is a call to donate, recycle or otherwise dispose of 100 things we no longer need. I never find this too challenging, because I am the opposite of a pack rat. I can easily donate clothes we no longer wear, toys that are no longer played with, and books that I won't reread. The challenge for me is to not fill the emptied space with a bunch more stuff. I am not an excessive shopper, but I like to buy clothes, shoes, books, and toys for my kids. I know we have plenty, and possibly even way too much stuff, yet we always seem to accumulate more. I also recognize that it feels good to purchase something I like. I like getting rid of 100 things every January, but I see that it's pretty scary that I have 100 things I can easily part with!

I was recently reading a translation of the Yoga Sutras in Desikachar's book, The Heart of Yoga, and I was struck by sutra 2.7: "Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness." I interpret this to mean that we are searching for happiness from our stuff, believing it will take away the pain of everyday life. We find it difficult to part with things (or to stop getting more things) because, for a short time, something new makes us excited again. The new toy is always played with the most, but it will eventually end up forgotten at the bottom of the toy box. Once the newness has worn off, we are no longer interested. We feel the same old feelings of loneliness or isolation, sadness or irritability. What do we do? We go shopping for something to make us feel better again. But everything loses its luster over time, even people. We age, our bodies and faces look different, and not in a good way. It happens to all of us, yet as a society we spend so much time and money trying to fight against it. We try to keep our external appearance shiny and new, just as we search for the newest car or phone to fill us up again. We keep looking and looking outside, we buy and buy and yet we aren't satisfied.

I think this sutra is pointing out that we aren't happy because we are looking in the wrong place for fulfillment. Yoga teaches us that inside, we are all whole. Instead of facing outward, searching for pleasure and avoiding pain, we need to turn inward. Our true essence at its core is perfect, in every one of us. When we attach to stuff, we lose sight of our own capacity for joy. I don't need a new iPad to feel content, peace is always with me if I choose to access it. I can sit quietly, listening to the wisdom of my own heart. I can allow this moment to be, without wishing it were something else. I can open to the universe and feel a part of it all. I can do all this anywhere, I don't need a new cushion or special chime to find bliss. I recognize that I have all I need, and I can continue to work on releasing the itch to acquire more.