Exploring Wisdom: Why Life is Easy
Life is easy.
Don’t get me wrong – I know full well that this is not the experience that people are having. I get that. But the mechanics of life, essentially, are easy.
We’re great at making easy things hard
Relationships are basic. We’re human beings, and therefore we must engage in relationships. These relationships become better, deeper, more fruitful, and more powerful as we become more intimate, and that this intimacy requires a certain degree of vulnerability, and vulnerability requires a certain kind of self-confidence. So self-confidence is the key to good relationships. That’s very basic. That’s very straightforward.
Health is also very basic. Our bodies run on a couple of different fundamental systems. In Chinese medicine, we call the energy of life “Chi,” and it circulates around the body and is made up of specific components: air, which you receive through breath; food, that you choose to ingest; environment, or the colours, structures, and living things that you surround yourself with. This is basic stuff.
Stop resisting your flow
Unfortunately, our lifestyles make all of this basic simplicity hard, because our lifestyles are designed to resist our natural flow. We resist the easy things on an almost unconscious level and for very personal reasons. We each have our own personal history of physical, mental, emotional, and energetic traumas, and those traumas set up stopping points or interruptions fo us. But here’s the thing–when we can identify what those self-interruptions are, we can begin to do something about it.
For example, I take it back to the physical with my Tai Chi practice. How does the body resist easy movement? We become confused, we tell ourselves that we can’t perform certain actions. What we’ve got here is not magic. It’s not a mystery. It’s a pattern of resistance.
Misdirection and moving from the center
One of the common patterns of resistance is something we call “misdirection”. Misdirection is the tendency to pay more attention to the things that you favour–whatever’s on the surface or periphery of things, and at the same time, avoiding whatever’s at the center of something.
In Tai Chi, for example, we have a whole set of principles around moving from the center, finding the center, establishing the center, and remaining in the center. And then we look at people moving, and we see that the focus is not on the center at all, but on the movements that are supposed to be rooted in the center.
Focus on what’s important
This is a common pattern. We seem to place our focus on what is less important, and not on what is most important. There’s a reason that we get stuck in this misdirection. It’s because we’re getting rewarded for it on some level. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually, or energetically, there’s a reward that you’re receiving for this misdirection, over and over.
This reward is instant gratification. Instant gratification is the thing that is keeping us from making progress on our spiritual path, from approaching that place of happiness and contentment and community. Every one of these resistances gives us instant gratification instead of authentic growth.
How to be happy
So next time you find yourself lamenting about the difficulty of life, I encourage you to search for your center, and try to identify what instant gratification you’re reaching for. Choose discomfort and centeredness over movement and gratification, in your physical, spiritual, and emotional lives, and watch happiness become more attainable.
Grandmaster David-Dorian Ross has introduced more students to Tai Chi than any other teacher in America. Master Ross has written, produced and starred in more than 150 educational dvds and television programs. He is the founder and CEO of TaijiFit, the creator of the TaijiFit mind-body exercise program, and is the director of the first online Tai Chi academy. Trained in China by championship martial arts coaches, Master Ross has had an illustrious career in competitive Tai Chi, winning eight U.S. gold medals, a world silver medal and two world bronze medals —the highest awards ever given to an American for international Tai Chi performance.
Interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the programs at the Art of Living Retreat Center? Check out our annual catalog here!
The Law of Attraction and Trojan Horses
People talk about “the Law of Attraction” as a way to hook Hollywood headlines, Washington power, and Wall Street wealth. I believe in the Law of Attraction, but I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, I direct a slightly bitter laugh at the whole concept of thinking ourselves to success. Haha.
Here’s the sobering truth: We don’t attract what our minds want. We attract what our souls want. The mind, despite its amazing abilities, is powerless to do miracles unless it’s in cahoots with the soul. And what do our souls want? Not the cabana on the beach, not the well-oiled, nubile partner, not our names in lights.
Our souls want us to wake up.
Because of this, we draw into our lives—inexorably, unintentionally, with maddening repetitiveness—exactly the things that lead most directly to awakening. In many cases, that’s our deepest suffering.
You know how the road to hell is paved with good intentions? Well, the road to heaven is paved with apparently horrible mistakes. In order to wake up, we must not only observe people who bring up the most unenlightened parts of our egos—not even merely encounter them. We must give birth to them, move in with them, invite them into the bathtub and the bed right along with us.
So many of the things that transfix us, the things that make us fall madly in love, are Trojan horses. We think they’re a gift that will make us happy, and for a while they do. But then our time to awaken arrives. The new baby who’s slept angelically for two weeks develops colic. The perfect lover quits antidepressants, cold turkey. The friendly new coworker smilingly throws us under the bus in a meeting.
The soldiers are out of the horse.
There’s an awful period of resistance when this first happens. We go through all the stages of grieving our own deaths, because part of us is dying: the ego’s attachment to the story of the thing that’s going to make us happy forever.
So, here we go. You know the steps to this dance:
This isn’t happening. At worst, it’s just a blip. Everything will go back to normal soon.
If I try harder, if I do a better job and really make them happy, everything will go back to normal.
I WILL NOT PUT UP WITH THIS HAPPENING! EVERYTHING HAS TO GO BACK TO NORMAL, NOW, NOW, NOW!!!!
Nothing’s ever going back to normal. I want to die. I can’t get out of bed.
Maybe I can find a new normal. True, Troy is now being run by the damn Greeks. But on the other hand, we’ve got a really nice big wooden horse.
This sequence happens when we fail to get an expected email or our favorite sitcom gets cancelled, let alone when we lose a job, a love, or a lifestyle. I’ve been through it several times lately, on a moderate scale. And here’s what I’ve seen, every time:
I’ve seen that what we’re most afraid to lose is never a thing, person, or situation, but our story about how that thing will make us happy, conform to our ego’s desires, and remain forever unchanging. This is true even when the thing is our own body.
I’ve seen that when we relinquish our stories—when the truth of our soul kills the narrative we’re spinning out to impress ourselves and others—we reach acceptance and suffering ends.
I’ve seen that on the other side of death lies peace. Not the peace of the unsuspecting Trojans before they got that awesome horse, but the peace braided through their epic poetry and psychologically compelling myths.
This is what our souls attract. This joy, this disappointment, this euphoria, this depression. This death after death after death. Ultimately, I believe that we can let all our stories die. Then we’ll accept every Trojan Horse, every betrayal, as precisely the gift we most needed in order to awaken.
The meta-learning I take from all this is simple: know that your story is your own invention, and that it will die. Hold it lightly. Enjoy your gift-horse. And when the Greek soldiers pour out of it, offer them your sword.
Join Martha at the Art of Living Retreat Center from September 28th-30th for Navigating the Storm, a retreat designed to give you powerful tools to navigate uncharted territory in your life.
Dr. Martha Beck is a life coach and the New York Times best-selling author of these popular resources for finding your life purpose: Finding Your Own North Star, Steering by Starlight, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, The Joy Diet, and more. She’s also the author of the bestselling memoirs Expecting Adam and Leaving the Saints. Beck’s latest book, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening, is her first foray into fiction and is the first installment of her Bewilderment Chronicles series.
This article first appeared on marthabeck.com.
In House: Jurian Hughs on Living Yoga
Thirteen years ago, on a July 4th weekend, I was desperate to get out of New York City, where life was stressful and not heading where I wanted it to. I’d spent most of my life up until that time as a theatre actress (Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theatres around the country, and a little film and TV), but that career felt complete, and I’d fallen into producing corporate events, which didn’t seem to suit me at all. Despite the fact that I was making more money than I’d ever made in my life, I was irritable, depressed, tired, and lost.
What even happens at a yoga retreat?
The idea of a yoga retreat center was exotic and strange, and it filled me with more than a little angst: “What did one do there? What did one wear? You mean I can show up on my own and not feel like a freak?”
My angst disappeared quickly. I’d chosen to stay in a simple room for two. I’d been paired with a lovely woman whose name I’m sad to say I can’t recall now, but whose being I remember well otherwise–how welcoming she was; how we sat on our beds and talked at length like old friends; how she made sharing a small room with a stranger feel like the most normal thing in the world.
Figuring out the dining hall etiquette helped set me at ease as well: Sit down and join others without waiting for an invitation, or simply enjoy eating alone without feeling like an outcast. What a novelty.
More tears, more laughter, more freedom
With my sleeping and eating concerns taken care of, I threw myself into yoga and dance classes, workshops, hikes, massage. I recall crying that weekend. A lot. And I remember what a great relief it was to be in a place where no one seemed to think me odd for that. And so, I let go more. More tears, more laughter, more of myself free to let go of things I didn’t even know I was holding onto.
The highlight of that visit was a noon Let Your Yoga Dance® class with LYYD founder Megha Nancy Buttenheim. I didn’t know what magic this woman was working, but it made me feel giddy and powerful and childlike and so alive! I couldn’t possibly dream then that this woman would become not only a mentor and colleague, but also, finally, a cherished friend and business partner. I had no idea that this ‘dance of the chakras’ would change my life forever. After that weekend I went home, signed up for the training, somewhere along the way quit my job, and eventually moved to the retreat and never looked back.
Living yoga off the mat
The next couple of years were some of the happiest I’ve had. As a Yoga Intern I worked–and laughed a lot!–alongside amazingly creative and talented teachers; generous and courageous souls who taught me so much about passion and service, the yoga of asana, and — more importantly –the yoga of relationship. I was–and still am–so proud to have joined the long lineage of yoga teachers. Observing, learning from, and ultimately teaching beside my mentors was life-changing.
In all of my teachers I saw a dedication to truth, a passion to keep growing, a generosity of spirit that extended to me and to every person that walked in the room, and an intense determination to live yoga off the mat.
The yoga of life
This is the yoga that excites me the most now. Though I still love, teach and practice hatha yoga–asana and pranayama–it’s the yoga of life that intrigues me the most now. The yoga that moves off the mat and into the living room, the grocery aisle, behind the wheel of my car. I want the yoga practices of compassion, contentment, truth, surrender to be so ingrained in me that they follow me through every part of my day. I may not do them perfectly–oooo, not by a long shot sometimes!–but I endeavor to
be yoga to the best of my ability at any given moment. I dare say that I like who I am as a human being more because of it. That my livelihood as a teacher of these practices now gives me the opportunity to pass on some of that to someone else is inspiring, sometimes daunting–and never short of amazing.
Jurian Hughs, E-RYT 500, MFA, is founder of the Yoga of Voice; co-founder of A Wild Life Sanctuary™; co-creator of The Yoga of Yes; a Let Your Yoga Dance® teacher trainer; voice coach; personal mentor; writer; speaker; and theatre performer known for her passionate, playful, and engaging teaching style. As a senior faculty member of the Kripalu School of Yoga since 2006, Hughes has led thousands of workshops and programs and trained more than 1,000 Kripalu yoga teachers.
Healing Journeys of Ayurveda: Ayurveda for Psoriasis
As though overnight, patches of my skin began to become flaky. Literally, I woke up and started finding patches of scratchy skin, more of them each day. What was worse, they grew. More and more of my skin, day by day, became a scratchy source of flaky consternation.
Not being in a relationship, I wasn’t so concerned about the look of it, but it was terribly uncomfortable. It had me worried, and in my worry, I wondered — what is this? Would it just go away?
So I did what any self-respecting millennial would do: I researched online. Several vague, unanswered questions later, I sought out a real doctor.
The first doctor gave me a misdiagnosis. The second did too. Here’s an approximate rehash of our conversation after the labs came in:
“The lab results came back, and I’m sorry, but it looks like it’s cancerous.”
“Your mole is cancerous.”
“… I didn’t have a mole tested.”
“… Give me one moment please.” A long pause. “Sorry, wrong person. Your test shows psoriasis.”
I was relieved not to have cancer, but troubled to have psoriasis–psoriasis is apparently an incurable issue. The dermatologist’s treatment options were bleak: There is no cure, but we can give you steroid injections to reduce the symptoms. Frustrated, I declined. Most of my online research at the time also suggested that there wasn’t a total cure or even a complete understanding of the cause of this skin condition.
The doctor who recommended Ayurveda
Discouraged, I saw a third doctor, a family friend, who referred me to Ayurveda. He said that Ayurveda has a great approach to dealing with skin issues.
While I was relatively familiar with Ayurveda, it was my first time relying on Ayurveda to help me manage an acute condition. While Ayurveda is not formally recognized as a medical practice in the US, abroad it has thousands of years of history of being used for preventative care and relief.
I saw an Ayurvedic expert who told me that the root cause of my skin condition lay in my digestion. He suggested that by altering my food habits and adding a few natural herbs and buttermilk to my diet, I could find relief.
Can Ayurveda help psoriasis?
I ordered the herbs and waited eagerly for them to arrive, trying desperately not to scratch all the while. It was winter, and it seemed to me that the cold climate only dried my skin further and worsened my condition.
But I waited.
Once the herbs arrived, I quickly started taking them. I also made a few key changes in my diet. I cut out pitta-inflaming foods, like tomatoes, oranges, chips, and spicy food. I started drinking more buttermilk and eating more fresh leafy greens, as I’d been advised.
The results astounded me. Within a couple of weeks, the condition started clearing up. Not only did I feel lighter and more refreshed, but my skin looked more clear and less itchy.
The best part is that the results lasted.
Since then, I’ve continued learning about Ayurveda and incorporating it into my life, and I’ve done a few seasonal Ayurvedic cleanses to maintain my digestive health. I’ve also adopted many parts of an Ayurvedic nutritional plan that is tailored to my own personal constitution, or dosha.
For years now, I’ve had my psoriasis under control. Occasionally, it will still flare up, when the winter gets very cold or I don’t eat right, but it always returns to rest. I haven’t had to worry about the pain, the itching, or the look of flaky skin, as long as I take care of myself.
I feel extremely grateful to Ayurveda. If you haven’t explored Ayurveda yet, I encourage you to consider it, especially if the quality of your skin concerns you. Once understood, the principles are simple and useful, the cleanses feel amazing, and the practice supports an active, mindful lifestyle.
Disclaimer: This article is written from a personal experience. It makes no claims and is not designed to diagnose or treat disease or offer medical advice.
Exploring Wisdom: Jealous? Here’s Why
In her phone session with me, Katy was completely perplexed about her jealousy.
“As you know, I broke up with my boyfriend, Jared, 6 months ago. By the time I broke up with him, I was really done with the relationship, and I have no desire to be with him. But last week I found out that he has a girlfriend and I feel jealous! I can’t figure this out. It makes no sense to me at all.”
I asked Katy to open to learning with the jealous part of her – an aspect of her wounded self.
The need to feel special
Katy’s 12-year-old wounded self quickly started to talk.
“I always want to be the favorite. I wanted to be Mom and Dad’s favorite and I was always upset when my brother seemed to be the favorite. Even though I don’t want to be with Jared, I want to be his favorite. As long as he didn’t have a girlfriend, I still felt like I was his favorite.”
When asked what being the favorite means to her, she answered, “It means that I’m better than other people. I always want to be the special one. I don’t like it when I’m with my friends and they pay more attention to their children or even their dog than they do to me. I know that it sounds crazy, but I hate it when my best friend brings her dog along when we get together. I feel upset about the attention she gives her dog!”
Katy was not valuing herself. Her jealousy was a symptom of her own inner abandonment. What her inner child was saying to her was, “I don’t feel at all special or important to you. I am not your favorite. You don’t think much of me. You rarely pay attention to me.”
When we are not loving ourselves, our wounded self may look to others for confirmation of worth. To our wounded self, who may constantly compare us to others, being “better than” – which may be determined by getting special attention from others – validates our worth.
Because Katy had spent most of her life making others responsible for her self-worth by trying to get their attention and approval, her inner child felt abandoned and worthless. Of course she felt jealous! And she would continue to feel jealous in many different situations until she felt loved and valued by loving adult Katy.
“Now I know you love me”
As Katy began to devote herself to practicing Inner Bonding, she started to recognize her own beautiful qualities and take care of her own feelings. The more she did this, the more loved and special her inner child felt. One day her inner little girl said to her, “I know that you love me. I know that I am your favorite. And I love you too.” Katy tearfully reported to me that she did indeed love her little girl and that jealousy was no longer an issue for her.
Feelings such as jealousy are always a symptom of inner abandonment. Jealousy, insecurity, neediness, fear of rejection – these feelings are not the issue. They are the symptom of the fact that we are abandoning ourselves through:
- Self Judgment
- Not attending to our feelings, ignoring them or using addictions to numb them
- Making others responsible for our feelings of safety, lovability and worth
No other person can ever take away these painful feelings. No other person can make up to you the lack of valuing you might have experienced as a child. No matter how much others love and value you, as long as you are not loving and valuing yourself, you will feel unsafe, insecure or jealous.
The power of Inner Bonding is that, through practice, you learn to give yourself what you didn’t receive as a child and always wanted and needed. This is what heals jealousy, as well as insecurity, neediness, and fear of rejection.
Dr. Margaret Paul is a bestselling author and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bonding® self-healing process, and the related SelfQuest® self-healing online program – recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette. She has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including Oprah. Margaret holds a PhD in psychology, is a relationship expert, public speaker, consultant and artist. She has successfully worked with thousands and taught classes and seminars for over 50 years.
Join Margaret at the Art of Living Retreat Center from May 18th to 20th to heal the cycle of shame and self-abandonment, learn to love yourself, and move into a healthy pattern of decision making at her retreat, Inner Bonding.
This article is reposted from margaretpaul.com with permission from the author.
Exploring Wisdom: Can Enlightenment be Obtained through Spiritual Practices?
“Can spiritual practices really lead to enlightenment? I have been doing my practices for over 25 years regularly and sincerely. I undoubtedly see many benefits, but I don’t see myself anywhere near enlightenment. I also do seva regularly and have sincere devotion in my heart. I don’t know what’s missing. Could you please share your thoughts on it.”
Spiritual enlightenment is a flashy and vague term. It can mean many different things to different people. I don’t know what it means to you, and what exactly are you trying to achieve?
The Yoga Scriptures don’t use the term ‘enlightenment’. Instead, they inspire the seekers to become mukta (free or liberated). Becoming mukta is a meaningful, clear, and achievable goal of spiritual journey. It means freeing yourself from all that you have created in your mind. In the Bhagvad Geeta, Lord Krishna repeatedly says that a yogi is free, and inspires Arjuna to become free. He doesn’t tell Arjuna to become enlightened.
Spiritual practices have their limitations
Spiritual practices are very essential for the wellness of your body, mind, and Spirit, but they also have their limitations. The practices are something similar to sunbathing. When you sunbathe, you experience the presence of Sun, but you are nowhere close to the Sun. You can sunbathe a million times, your tan will certainly become darker, but the distance will still remain.
Similarly, in meditation you experience something beautiful that is being emitted from the Spirit, but you are nowhere near the Spirit. You can meditate for many years, your experience will certainly become deeper, but you may still be nowhere closer to the Spirit. Though the Spirit is omnipresent, it is not accessible to all. Its presence is.
Cultivate freedom of the mind, not enlightenment
So, drop the desire to be enlightened. It is only a concept. Instead, cultivate the desire to be free in your mind. You have bound yourself, and now, through knowledge and self-effort, unbound yourself. When the mind is free, it will open the doors to the Spirit, and the drop will merge into the Ocean.
A free mind doesn’t have the desire to have its own identity, and therefore it merges into Infinity. When you are desiring for enlightenment, you have the desire to exist. You want to exist as an enlightened being, which is not possible.
Join Krishan for the Yoga Teacher Training Program this fall. Considering becoming a yoga teacher? Speak with a yoga ambassador to learn more: Schedule a call
Krishan Verma is a seeker, student, teacher, and teacher trainer on the path of yoga for over 35 years. In his programs, he firmly yet gently guides each student to experience the effortless union of body, mind and spirit. The student emerges rejuvenated and serenely dynamic. Under his tutelage thousands of teachers now share the knowledge of yoga all around the world.
This article first appeared on Shudam.org.
In House: Cyndi Lee on The Complete Package of Meditation and Yoga
It came without warning right at the beginning of the day trip down the river. I really don’t like water and I am a weak, underconfident swimmer at best. But people I trusted said it was fun and not scary at all. If you did fall out, you would land on a little rock and immediately be picked up in the next boat.
So I went and on the very first bend in the river, I slid out. There was no warning and no big inhale before plunging into icy cold, wildly churning water. And then there I was, trapped under a rubber boat in the whitewater rapids of the Pacuare River in Costa Rica.
No breath in my lungs and nobody can see where I am. I thought, “Wow, this is how it happens,” and I visualized a small obit in The New York Times: “Yoga Teacher Drowns Leading Retreat in Costa Rica.” My mind raced and my lungs tightened, but somehow I didn’t panic.
I never fully realized it before, but the yoga, breathing and meditation practices I had been doing for years had prepared me for this very moment. Practicing awareness, manipulation and retention of the breath allowed me to know intuitively that I could go without breathing for way longer than was comfortable. My daily twisting and inverting enabled me know what was up and down and to maintain a highly fluid sense of balance. Meditation had trained me to stay focused on the task at hand even while thoughts of my own death ran rampant through my head. I groped my way along the bottom of the boat and popped up into the rapids.
A very long minute later, a body-builder/yoga student of mine grabbed me by the collar and plopped me into his boat. My Buddhist teacher, Gelek Rinpoche, had taught me that to meet the dharma in your lifetime is as fortunate and rare as a tortoise’s head popping up into an inner tube in the middle of the ocean. In that moment I felt just like that tortoise. Sitting in the haven of boat #2, my heart hammering, my adrenaline rushing, my lungs gasping, I was as scared as I’ve ever been. But when I was under the boat I had not been scared. I was wide awake, balanced and steady. Mindfulness meditation, yoga asanas and pranayama are each powerful practices that can affect our lives deeply. But there is no doubt in my mind that in this life-threatening moment, it was the combination of the three that saved my life.
What do I do with this body and this mind?
As a yoga teacher, I am passionate about yoga and have been fortunate to share this passion with many students over the past 20 years. I have been a student of Tibetan Buddhism for more than 10 years and it has been a natural evolution for the two lineages to merge in my teaching. Yoga and Buddhism offer insights and experiences that complement each other and together complete a basic homework assignment for human beings: What do I do with this body and this mind?
Back in 1972 I started taking yoga classes for an easy P.E. credit in college. The feeling of being cleansed-like taking a shower from the inside out-was unmatched any other kind of exercise I had experienced. My teachers were inspiring and I was highly motivated. It didn’t take long for me to be able to hold my breath for over a minute or to stand on my head for five minutes. I was hooked.
I got left behind, though, when it came to the “spiritual” part. I just didn’t get it when my teachers quoted Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutra, who wrote, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” They closed their eyes and somehow seemed plugged into a big bliss cloud of happiness. I tried to feel blissful, but then the class was over. Walking down the street, my body was strong, clean, juicy and open, but I felt inadequate and cranky.
Yoga is a mirror
It turns out that my experience wasn’t that unusual. While most people do walk out of yoga class in better physical shape than when they walked in, personal awakening may still elude them. Yoga is an unparalleled method of strengthening muscles, enhancing breathing, cleansing toxins and soothing the nervous system, but the sense of harmonious rejuvenation that arises by the end of the class may dissipate once our feet hit the pavement in front of the yoga studio door. A person’s body may change but their mind will still be jumping, their heart still buried under layers of tension and fear.
As a teacher I have seen again and again that if you are a Type A personality, you will do your yoga practice with the same aggression and competitiveness that shapes the rest of your life. If you are sloppy, your posture will reflect that. If you are easily frustrated, the challenges of yoga may magnify that tendency. It has been my experience that the physical practice of hatha yoga alone is not strong enough medicine to alter those patterns-particularly in the maelstrom of today’s world.
Awakening to Buddhist meditation as a companion for yoga
My dissatisfaction with yoga left me with a longing for something more, a sad empty feeling. Remembering that my dad’s prescription for loneliness or depression was always to do something helpful for someone else, I began to search for a way to take the focus off myself and still be myself. I read about maitri, the loving-kindness aspect of Buddhism, and was drawn to explore that. So when a friend of mine invited me to attend teachings with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I signed on for two weeks worth of teachings.
The first week was slow going, what with translators explaining to us Westerners the teachings of these great lamas. Some of the teachers wore business suits, some wore elaborate robes and exotic hair-dos. I didn’t have a clue who they were or what they were saying, but I liked being there. The second week His Holiness explained what it meant to be a bodhisattva, and without hesitation I signed on with a bodhisattva vow.
Through a friend I met the Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche. For at least the first year I studied with him I struggled to follow the teachings, and even to stay awake during his all-day talks. But although I didn’t exactly know what he was talking about, I always felt that he was talking right to me. It seemed like he always knew exactly what was problematic in my life and would frame his talks just to help me. I noticed that I was becoming more grounded, more patient and more conscious of others, and over time, inspired by the kindness of my teacher, I began to share what I learned from him with my yoga students. The teachings and techniques were a natural fit with yoga asana practice.
As my Buddhist practice developed I learned to watch my thoughts come and go like watching birds playing in the sky. This mindfulness training began to seep into my yoga practice. Rather than looking for bliss by dropping out, I dropped in, taking notice of my physical sensations and the thoughts that arose in connection to them. I realized I had the same thought every time the teacher said, “Let’s do backbending.” I thought I didn’t like backbends, but my relationship to backbends changed when I recognized that thinking pattern.
Applying Buddhist meditation instruction to how I did yoga postures slowed me down enough to feel my breath, my heart and my mind. My sense organs softened and opened, allowing me to experience each individual new backbend. I discovered that my backbends were different all the time and that was interesting to me. In fact, meditation gave me license to just let that happen, instead of trying to stifle my thoughts and become something different than who I am.
My Buddhist teachers said mindfulness meditation was “synchronizing body and mind” and I understood that conceptually. But after sitting on the cushion for a whole weekend I thought, “What body?” Didn’t the Buddha ever walk, stand or climb stairs? History tells us that he did engage in extreme yogic practices and ultimately found them unsatisfactory. Finally, after sitting still under the Bodhi tree he became enlightened, and then got up and began to move through the world again.
The Eight-Limbed Path
Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutra about 150 years later. Although yoga is often associated with Hinduism, it is most closely aligned with Sankhya, one of the six classical Indian darsanas, or “ways to see.” Sankhya is an attempt to explain the nature of all existence by dividing it into purusha, that which is unchanging, and prakrti, or matter. It tells us that the separation of these two states is the cause of our suffering and that the path to liberation is through repression of our thoughts, withdrawal of our senses, and denial of our body in order to reconnect with our true Self. This re-union is the state of yoga, from the verb yuj; to yoke or bind.
The practices of introverted concentration associated with this state are described in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali as an eight-limbed path: yamas (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). The limbs begin by refining our behavior in the outer world and then lead us more and more inward until we reach samadhi. Most people doing yoga today are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of immobility.
Buddhism begins with the premise that life is suffering but ultimately leads us outward, rather than only inward. We start the Buddhist path by sitting still and stabilizing our mind. From the spaciousness that arises during this practice of calm abiding, we naturally begin to feel our heart. Combining the practice of non-grasping wakefulness with exercises that generate compassion gives us a recipe for how to interact intelligently, soulfully and spontaneously with ourselves, each other, our family and the world.
These teachings invite us to open up to who we already are, rather than look elsewhere for connection, because the seed of awakened heart is within all of us already. It’s our heritage as human beings. It’s just that we can’t always feel our beautiful lotus heart blooming because we get stuck on ideas of fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, greed.
Remaining in the immediacy of everything
But Buddhist meditation techniques reveal that none of these emotions are solid and with practice we learn how to watch them arise and fade away and still stay steady on our seat or on our feet. We learn how to remain in the immediacy of everything, for example, backbending, rather than what we are thinking about backbending. Then loving-kindness invites us to approach our backbends with at least an inner smile and a little less crabbiness.
At OM Yoga Center in New York we practice a form of yoga called vinyasa, which is a series of flowing movement sequences coordinated with rhythmic breathing. We approach the vinyasa style with great attention to detail, especially regarding alignment, to ensure that students do not get injured and get the most benefit from their practice.
The other element of OM yoga is meditation in action, which invites the yogi to observe and become familiar with mental and physical habits, to relax the grip of thought activity, and kindly abide in the asana. All this is done while maintaining a sense of vipassana, or clear seeing, which opens the yogi to the world around them and creates a healthy balance to the refined inner vision of yoga practice. The flow, precision and mindfulness of our yoga practice are all supported by Buddhist principles.
The flowing form is the physical manifestation of path without a goal: each pose is connected by a transitional movement that has as much value as the pose itself. This approach relates to equanimity, not knowing when our actions will bear fruit, and helps us break through the goal-oriented mentality we know so well and which is so prevalent in our relationship to our bodies.
The lessons of a forward bend
This shows up a lot in forward bending. Many people have a desire to be able to bend forward and touch their toes. But guess what-I can do it and can definitely tell you that touching your toes does not make you happier. I do enjoy the lengthened feeling in the back of my legs and the openness in my spine-most of the time. But just like everything else that is transitory and conditional; sometimes it feels stressful or boring. So in our yoga practice we pay attention to how we get into the pose, what happens in our body, mind and breathing while there, and how it is to move out of the pose and on to the next thing.
You can try this without even bending over. The next time you decide to go from the couch to the refrigerator, feel yourself moving through space. You can go slow or at an ordinary pace, but feel the floor beneath your feet, look and really see everything along the way, feel the swinging of your arms and what your breathing is like today, right now. If you are going to the kitchen because you are hungry, feel that. If you are going because you’re thirsty, feel that. How many times have you opened the refrigerator door and realized you forgot what you went for? This time feel the coolness when you open the door, and feel the softness of the sofa cushion as you sit back down. We take lots of little journeys like this every day, driving in our car or rolling over in bed. Try to actively participate as you travel through your world, rather than making only about your end point.
Cultivating physical precision
Precision is a way to develop clarity of mind at the same time that we develop accuracy in our physical placement. Applying specificity to where you put your hands and feet creates a wakeful mental attitude. You simply can’t think clearly if your alignment is sloppy. For example, what is your posture right now as you are reading this? Try changing your position, or even walking around and see if you feel sleepy or clear.
It is also difficult to feel openhearted or uplifted if your chest is sunk and your spine is sagging. Not only are your cardiovascular functions diminished, but your body is a cage. This curling in creates dukha, suffering, which is the opposite of sukha, joy, and can relate to the physical and emotional space created through good posture. Hatha yoga aligns skin, muscles and bones so that each can support each other with more ease than effort. Proper alignment opens energetic blockages which can be caused by diet, stress, illness and emotions, or even tight belts, wristwatches and fabrics wrapped around our bodies. Physical precision extends to your clothing, environment and personal hygiene.
We are also attentive to how we arrange our practice space. Each person at OM Yoga has a mat and organizes their yoga props-blankets, blocks, straps-in a neat and orderly fashion, because a jumbled heap of stuff in your line of sight creates an obstacle as well. Everybody who has a messy desk knows this to be true. The spacious discipline of precision gives the yogi a sense of open heart, open mind and open agenda.
Opening to Prana
We apply meditation instruction to our yoga practice by using the breath as a reference point for resting the mind. But in yoga we also manipulate the breath in various ways that soothe our nervous system, cleanse our sinuses and oxygenate our entire body. Prana, which means “to bring forth mystical vibration,” exists in sunlight, water, earth and all beings. For human beings, the most direct way to feel this universal life force is through the wave-like nature of our breathing, which reminds us that even though everything is changing all the time we can still feel peaceful as long as we keep in rhythm. Whenever you feel out of sync, take a moment to lengthen and equalize your inhale and exhale, and right away you will feel more balanced.
Try this. Stand with your feet firmly planted on the floor with your arms down by your sides. Close your eyes. Don’t do anything. Just stand there. You will soon begin to notice quite a lot of movement within the stillness of simply standing. You will feel the movement of your body, expanding and contracting as you breathe; you will feel the pulse of your own heartbeat; you will feel your entire body swaying slightly in order to stay balanced on this big round ball we live on. In fact, if you were truly static, the earth’s movement would eventually tip you over. Can you relax and let your body, breath and heart do this dance of balance?
All of these exercises sit on a bed called ahimsa , non-violence, in yoga, or compassion in Buddhism. What’s the good of being awake if you can’t let your heart be like your lungs, giving and receiving with every pulse? Mindfulness helps us recognize when we have habits that are harsh, and creates a gap between an impulse and the action that usually follows. It creates a space for us to dip into our hearts and come back up with a pearl of kindness.
Since for most of us a major part of our self-identity is tied to the appearance and health of our physicality, our body is an excellent reflective surface for getting to know our habits and applying ahimsa to what comes up. In the wordless conversation between our body and our mind, everything that happens in all our relationships-frustration, aggression, love, tenderness, boredom-will arise while doing downward facing dog. Yoga and meditation help us recognize our form of effort, whether it is too tight or too loose. Either way, effort is related to goals. So instead, with sensitivity, we apply exactly the right amount of action. Right action is a balance of body, breath and mind using the ingredients of rhythm, movement, direction, energy and intention, but never aggression.
When you apply this mind/heart training to the process of doing yoga asanas it becomes a way to understand the whole world in the form of you. It provides the means for working with all of those relationships right there on the yoga mat while you become fit at the same time. And for us busy people who are both meditators and yogis it is helpful to be able to combine practices.
Yoga helps Buddhists embody their meditation. As the meditator’s body becomes more mobile, strong and functional, it becomes a support for meditation practice rather than the more familiar and painful distraction of creaking knees and whining spines. Similarly, the specific focus of Buddhist mindfulness and compassion helps the yogi’s mind become unbiased, wakeful and connected in whatever physical shape they assume and demonsrates the transient nature of all things, including mastery over body.
Sitting cross-legged at the end of yoga class, I feel elemental. My breath is the wind and my mind is a raft floating on the oceanic tide of prana. The fire in my belly radiates out and makes the sweat on my skin feel like rain and earth mixed together. My heart rests in a big, big space.
Then I get up off the mat and go back to running the yoga center. Hopefully, today I won’t have a life-threatening experience but still I’m grateful for my practices. Life might not be a bliss cloud, but through the wisdom and compassion of yoga and Buddhism, it has become supremely workable.
Join Cyndi Lee on a journey to invite your body and mind back into balance at the Yoga Body, Buddha Mind retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center from May 18th to May 20th.
Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching. Founder of NYC’s OM yoga Center (1998-2012) she now teaches yoga, meditation and resiliency workshops worldwide. Cyndi is a formally trained Buddhist Chaplain, and has been teaching yoga for 40 years.
This article first appeared on lionsroar.com and has been republished with permission from the author.
In House: Why Should I Go on a Retreat?
Reconnect to the deepest part of you at a meditation retreat
Being on a meditation retreat for a day or a week can be a unique opportunity to unplug, spend time exploring your own inner world, and to find more appreciation for your life.
A meditation retreat can be a reset button and can even create a new normal: one where you are more present to what matters to you, responsive rather than reactive, and have a deep inner peace.
Some of our meditation and mindfulness retreats focus on cultivating creativity, others give you the opportunity to dive deep into your meditation practice, and there are those that offer the opportunity to explore and heal a particular emotional issue.
Techniques, not traditions
All of the retreats that Sarah McLean facilitates are secular in nature, yet are deeply spiritual. She says she teaches techniques, not traditions.
Sarah creates a safe and open atmosphere designed to encourage participants to find out who they are, what they really want, and be more intimate with their lives. Each retreat includes instruction in meditation and mindfulness, deep meditation practices, interactive exercises, mindfulness experiences, time in nature, and some offer an opportunity to explore gentle yoga.
Meditation is an undeniably powerful practice to create more balance in the body, spaciousness in the mind, and a new appreciation for everything and everyone in your life.
Each retreat is designed to create a touchstone of feeling whole and good—and a new perspective. It’s a meditation vacation!
A sustainable practice of meditation
In a meditation retreat with Sarah McLean, you’ll discover the secrets to how and why meditation works, and whether you are new at it or are a seasoned meditator, you’ll learn a sustainable practice of meditation.
When you return home you can bring the practices with you, so you can create a mini-retreat every single day. You also might notice that you are experiencing some subtle changes. Perhaps you order something different on a menu, or have more patience with your children, or you are less concerned about what people think.
You might sleep better, feel more balanced and energized, or find more creativity or confidence. With a continued meditation practice, more profound changes might follow as you explore your relationship to your job, or where you live, or you find a renewed purpose or passion in life.
The Power of Attention
Join Sarah McLean for her upcoming retreat at the Art of Living Retreat Center, The Power of Attention, from May 10th to May 13th. The Power of Attention retreat will take you on a journey into mindfulness and meditation to increase your understanding of the value of attention. A value Sarah calls your superpower: the most important ingredient for living a powerful, purposeful, love-filled life.
Sarah McLean considers herself an American Transcendentalist. She’s dedicated her life to exploring meditation: living as a resident of both a Zen Buddhist monastery and a traditional ashram in India, as well as living and working in a Transcendental Meditation center. She headed up the education programs at Deepak Chopra’s center in California and Byron Katie’s School for the Work. Sarah is a best-selling Hay House author of the books Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation and The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and its Unlimited Potential with Meditation. She’s also a sought-after speaker who is determined to create more peace on this planet by helping people wake up to the wonder and beauty of their lives and the world around them through the practice of meditation.
This article first appeared on mcleanmeditation.com.
Articles We Love: Happiness in March
Spring is here, and what better time to refresh your outlook, brush the dust out of the corners of your mind and heart, and refocus yourself and your goals? The UN’s International Day of Happiness falls on March 20th this year, and we think it’s a perfect opportunity to spend some time in reflection on how to become your happiest, healthiest self.
The articles we love this month focus on digging into that inner well of happiness within yourself, and opening up the windows of the soul and letting in some fresh air.
Monique Serbu for MindBodyGreen
Spring cleaning doesn’t have to be limited to your physical environment. Monique Serbu shares four great tips on how to clear out your digital life so you’re feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to leap into the new season.
“Spring is steadily approaching, and that means spring cleaning is on the horizon. While many of us dread this annual ritual, it doesn’t have to be such a pain. Think of it more like an opportunity to clear any excess from your life—an exercise in releasing that which no longer serves you.”
Nicola Albini for Sivana Spirit
With the International Day of Happiness on the horizon, you might be inclined to focus on external ways to find satisfaction and fulfillment in your life. In this article, Nicola Albini details a few ways in which happiness actually comes from within, and shares affirmations and strategies for a pursuit of happiness that is drawn from your own mind, body, and spirit.
“[I] could no longer blame my parents, girlfriend, teachers, friends or anyone else for my own unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Underneath my complaints about what others were “doing to me” was a need to accept myself. I needed to take full responsibility for my experience and change my life from the inside out.”
Dakota Steyn for Thought Catalog
Real happiness is within your grasp. Dakota Steyn shares her thoughts on why happiness is a choice and a result of your actions, not a carrot on a stick to be chased.
“Let me share with you the secret to life: there is no “dummies guide to life,” there’s no one telling what to do or how to feel- at the end of the day life is made up of choices, the choices that you make. How your whole life goes; that’s up to you. You can choose to be negative about everything or you can make the most out of every second of what you do.”
Articles We Love: A Love-Filled February
Ah, love. It’s one of the most powerful forces in the world, and something we all crave at a cellular level. Connecting with others and feeling loved and cherished nourishes our soul and gives us purpose. But love is so much more than something that you receive from others. It’s something that you can actively put into the world, and something that you can use to heal and grow within yourself.
As much as we adore love in all forms, we think that self-love is perhaps one of the most important and revolutionary practices you can cultivate. Which is why our favourite articles this month focus on how to make the choice to love yourself.
Kelly Douglas for Thought Catalog
Kelly Douglas shares her thoughts on learning to loving herself, and how this journey has transformed her life from a painful existence full of self-deception to one that is brimming with light.
“Amid the thick fog of my self-deception, I could vaguely make out a glimmer of the truth. I chased that spark of unconditional self-love with a sense of reckless abandon, steadfastly determined to capture it and forever hold it close. The light slowly grew more powerful, stripping my soul of self-imposed deception and filling my heart with truth. As I basked in the warmth of self-love, I resolved to never again habitually deprive myself of the love I deserve. At long last, I discovered I am always enough, despite the feverishly conniving taunts of my mind attempting to convince me otherwise.”
Samantha Lahonen for Sivana East
Yoga isn’t just a physical practice, but a mental and emotional one as well. Samantha Lahonen guides us through four transformative yoga poses that foster self-love.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t feel so easy to love yourself, yet having a negative self-image sets you up for illnesses such as anxiety and depression. You may notice that you put the needs of others before yourself; as the “people pleaser,” you often compare yourself to others, or you avoid certain situations or opportunities for fear of failure. This is where yoga comes in. Yoga puts you in a state of meditation, helping you to let go of the thoughts that whisper you are not good enough and keep you in a state of low self-esteem. Yoga replaces them with positive thoughts such as the feelings of strength, stability, and energy that come with practicing yoga.”
Kelly Ann Matuskiewicz for Absolute Awareness
Kelly Ann Matuskiewicz shares her thoughts on self-love as a spiritual practice, and how she incorporated self-love techniques into her own life to bring forth a more meaningful, fulfilling way of existing in the world.
“When I started to practice radical self love, my entire life experience shifted to more positive interactions and outcomes. I felt more confident, self assured, I trusted myself. Who and what I attracted into my life felt better and I was more in the flow. Unfortunately, not many of us know how to truly love ourselves. This is a key piece preventing us from manifesting our dreams and creating the lives we desire.”