What I'm Learning from Winter
As an early spring brings light and warmth to Ticino, I am also awakening out of a time of wintering, "a moment of intuition" which is "not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible," as Katherine May explains in her book "Wintering" (thank you Alex & Harriet for this perfect recommendation). Wintering can happen at any time and last any length of time from a couple of weeks or months to, as in my case, a couple of years. During this season of life, it may seem on the outside like nothing is happening, but underneath the surface of the soil and in the center of the seed, transformation is occurring.
And so it has been for me, after trying to live much of my life as an endless summer, when I entered this dark season after the end of my marriage, it took awhile for the resistance to winter to subside. Eventually, after closing the studio and withdrawing from teaching publicly, I cleared my calendar of everything except the essential and truly turned inward. Katherine May affirms my own experience that instead of fighting against it, once we can welcome winter as "an active acceptance of sadness" and it becomes a "practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need. It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can." Surrendering fully into this fallow period freed me to tend my inner garden--weeds, seeds, overgrowth, rotten plants and all. And among the treasures that unearthed from this time is a new offering for us, sprouting out of the ashes of loss and nourished by the wisdom of experience. It's called "The Circle is the Medicine" and it is a women's healing journey through movement and meditation, ritual and rest, with space for sharing, silence and spontaneity.
It feels tender and new and honest and fresh and even as a part of me isn't ready to release it, I sense that we are ready for it. Actually, we have always been ready. It's just that, like our collective denial that we humans too are subject to the laws of nature, we have forgotten our innate call to Circle.
Since always, we humans have come together in circles to share, celebrate, grieve, process, begin or end something, and simply bear witness. Our ancestors sourced the raw materials for their ceremonies from the land; they danced and sang stories that connected them to their gods and goddesses, ancestors and the ones yet to be born again. While their ways may resonate, offering a legacy and shining a light, we must not mistake their ways for the way. The medicine, what heals, isn't just the particular herb, plant, chant or posture. The medicine is the gathering itself--the space for us to connect to ourselves, each other, and Source within the safe and sacred container of Circle.
Deep bows for the inspiration for this phrase: "the circle is the medicine" arose as an intuitive knowing out of deep experience from a participant in sacred circle, led by dear friends and teachers Adrian and Paola. Years later, when I joined their magic circle, I too learned this saying and experience firsthand this truth.
Whether you too are a woman emerging from a wintering time, in the full bloom of summer, or somewhere in between, there is a place for you in the Circle. You can find out more by scrolling down and visiting my website www.mytreeyoga.com/the-circle-is-the-medicine, and as always, feel welcome to reach out to me directly with questions or reflections. I am so grateful to those of you who have reached out, and will look forward to reconnecting in the coming months. Until then, sending you a big hug and many blessings!
You ARE the Change
When #planbe initiated in response to the first lockdown last March, like everyone, I couldn't have known that, after exhausting all the letters in the alphabet, life would be so different from anything that I could have imagined only one year earlier. While the outer changes have been profound both in the world and my own life, it's the inner shifts that have surprised me the most. Not for their significance, but for their subtlety.
Sometimes people experience transformation like a light turning on suddenly; this kind of spontaneous awakening is a holy grail that entices and eludes many seekers with its' promise of an instantaneous release from the confines of conditioning to live free of suffering. More often, change is a steady and slow process that occurs over a lifetime (and perhaps many thousands of lifetimes), fueled by dedication and discipline and marked by moments of recognition that feel more like tuning into a radio frequency than flipping a switch.
This has been my own experience too, especially in the last year, as I’ve devoted more time to tuning my instrument of awareness. While there’s still static sometimes, I’m able to listen more regularly to this simple and true song:
There is no other time, but now.
There is nowhere else to go, but here.
There is nothing else to do, but this.
There is no one else to be, but me.
And all of it-- time and here and this and me--changes continuously. We are never NOT transforming; we are always in transition, always cycling somewhere between beginning, middle, end and the great pause. It's when we try to fix our hold and our hearts on here, on this, on me and mine, and on anything other than NOW that we suffer because we resist the one thing that we cannot change--that change is the only constant. It's a cliché for a reason.
I've always taken the call to action (inaccurately attributed to Mahatma Ghandi) to “be the change you want to see in the world” to mean that, to change the world, you have to be different in order to change the world. But lately I've got a new perspective: being the change means being wholly present as you are in the world as it is, and through your presence and your participation, the world, and you, will transform into something beyond what you could have imagined.
None of us has managed to come through the last year, let alone life itself, unaltered. To evaluate and compare the gravity of our individual situations misses the point that whether you are currently sipping lemonade or lamenting the rotting lemons in your pantry and wondering when things will go “back to normal” is determined not by the circumstances themselves, but by how you relate to them. What Ghandi actually said is that it’s not about changing the world, but about recognizing that:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness.”
That we and our world will change is certain; whether we experience greater suffering or greater freedom is the question. The answer depends on our ability to remain present, connected, and clear. If this sounds challenging, that’s because it is. As Ghandi points out, happiness hinges on changing our human nature. But first, we need to look inside, starting with the body/mind.
This is where Yoga, and every other embodied spiritual practice, comes in. And when approached as a technology for contacting truth, these practices train and develop our capacity at every level: physical, intellectual, energetic, and spiritual. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly in our modern Western culture, this approach to Yoga is the exception and instead, this ancient wisdom tradition is regarded as yet another tool to be used in a futile and endless project of self-improvement.
I should know: from taking my first Yoga classes at age 17 as a way to relax and stop grinding my teeth, I’ve been approaching my practice as a way to “fix” myself. As this embarrassing fact became more apparent to me in the last year, my intention shifted from practicing Yoga as a way to change myself and the world to practicing Yoga as a way to be with myself and the world. Pretty much everything looks the same on the outside; the difference is how I feel on the inside. After more than twenty years of practicing Yoga, and teaching for half that time, I am grateful to be able to start again at the beginning, to revisit the postures and the philosophy, and to evolve beyond chasing an idea of how the pose, or I, or life should be and instead, meet myself, my practice, and my life as it is.
Take It As Blessing
One of my dear teachers first introduced me to the concept that everything, even (and often especially) the difficult stuff, is a gift. My initial resistance to this spacious way of looking at life only further highlighted my narrow tendency to be a "good vibes only" kinda person. Seeking only the light and denying the dark is also rampant in our modern yoga culture which celebrates the shine, evidenced by the over-emphasis on external expressions of yoga: the poses, the pants, the pretty people.
As a practitioner and teacher, it's also a trap that I've fallen into: the focus on form and function over feeling. And this becomes a slippery slope straight into spiritual bypassing--using the practice to further reinforce unconscious patterns. Believing that only "good vibes" are a gift, keeps us on a superficial path that may allow us to temporarily avoid pain, but also prevents the possibility for transformation. At its core, Yoga is a path of transformation; I heard this early on in my own journey: "don't keep practicing if you don't want to change." At the time, what I wanted to change most was my bum. Seriously, I was 18 and I wanted a yoga-butt. Two decades later and the bum is gone, but the inner shaping continues. And just as I passed through periods of significant physical pain as I struggled to learn the forms, in the last years as my practice has been more internally focused, there have been periods of significant emotional pain. Whereas in the early days, when my back hurt, I popped an ibuprofin and kept on doing vinyasa, now I know that pain is part of the process and instead of trying to medicate my way out of it, if I can be still with it, eventually it changes.
More recently, another Beloved offered a phrase that is sometimes offered in the Vipassana tradition to people who are experiencing the pain that inevitably arises when one sits still to meditate for 10 days:
Take it as Blessing
This simple instruction totally transformed how I can relate to a painful situation in my life. Instead of bracing against emotions (or physical sensations, other people, challenging situations), we are invited to receive them. More than a gift, pain in all its forms can be recognized as the divine support that it is--a confirmation that indeed, everything is perfect as it is. Suffering comes as a result of how we relate with what is here now. When we stop rejecting and start receiving, we can shift from reacting to responding. This can be the difference between continuing to do the same ol' shit over and over again and consciously choosing to evolve. And again, if you're practicing Yoga, you've already signed up for transformation of some kind. However, it's up to you whether the change goes beyond how you look in your stretchy pants.
To be clear: the point is not to hurt yourself needlessly. It is not to push through your limits, whether in trikonasana or in relationship. In an asana practice, it means feeling into your body, attuning to your energetic levels, observing the quality of your mind, listening to your breath and adapting in a way that is respectful of yourself while remaining in the pose. In your life, it means the same thing: paying attention to what is arising right now and staying with it, trusting that everything--the pain and the pleasure and everything in between is Blessing.
Laughing All the Way Home
In a moment when I am focused on inner work and immersed in outer life, when so many of the structures around us are crumbling and we are searching for a clear path, poetry holds not only the promise of possible futures, but also a way to travel. When our minds are muddled with thought, poetry gives shape to the truths buried beneath layers of doubt, fear, jealousy, rage, despair...we all have our patterns of unconscious thinking and automatic reactions. And like a daily practice of movement, breath, and stillness, a regular dose of poetry can bring us back to the place of remembering what we have already always known, that we are not our thoughts, our stories, or our bodies. We will all have a different word to signify our true nature...God, Love, Divine Consciousness, Oneness, Spirit...but they all point in the same direction. Whether we follow the path or not is our choice, and so often it's not even clear which way we are headed. For so long, I measured my progress on the path against an image of stoic perfection. But lately, it's laughter that has let me know whether I am trapped in an illusion or emerging into insight. And then, I found this poem from Hafiz. May it give you a sense of direction and shape, and also, a smile.
TWO GIANT FAT PEOPLE
and I have become
like two giant fat people living
in a tiny
keep bumping into
Ice Cream Inquiry
Last week, I ate ice cream two days in a row. It's not that it's unusual for me to over-indulge in sweets, especially ice cream in the summer. In fact, my sweet tooth is the source of too much internal strife and sugar hangovers. But the other afternoon, the inner critic took a break when the kids screamed for ice cream and we stopped at a stand selling Mövenpick. After a day of errands and chores about town, I didn't hesitate to join the kids in ordering two scoops: pistachio and coffee. As we sat in the shade, enjoying a reprieve from the scorching sun, the Mövenpick tasted pretty good. It satisfied a momentary craving, kept the kids happy, and meant I didn't need to prepare an afternoon snack.
Then the next night, when we were downtown and seeking a sweet treat, we headed to a favorite local gelateria, -9 and, without really thinking about it, I ordered again two scoops: pistachio and coffee. It's been awhile since I had their gelato, and from the first taste, I remembered: THIS is what ice cream should taste like! Savoring every lick, I vowed to abstain from anything other than the real thing and wondered about my tendency to settle for something less. Over the next few days, I noticed all the little ways that I settle for what's easy and available, for what scratches the itch, what momentarily calms the craving. I didn't eat any ice cream. In fact, the more curious I got about this tendency to eat Mövenpick instead of -9, the less I actually wanted either.
Last night, after recounting this story to a friend, it hit me: the point isn't that I need to seek only the finest frozen treats, but to focus on the craving itself. To experience that the most satisfying thing is not, as Michael Stone often taught, the fulfillment of a craving, but the satisfaction of letting go of the thing you most want.
It's a practice that has been on my radar for some years now, this observation of desire and relinquishment of its fulfillment and the fact that I'm still applying it to ice cream is pretty telling about my progress. What's more, even with the awareness of this pattern to settle, and while writing this, I had a bowl of grocery-store, quick-fix vegan ice cream. It's not even ironic; actually, it's pretty infuriating that I can be at once aware while acting against my own insights and deeper interests. In Ayurveda this kind of self-betrayal is called prajna paradha, and is sometimes translated as "crimes against wisdom." It's when we willfully ignore what we know in order to avoid the discomfort of doing something different. And it is one of the main causes of dis-ease--doing something you know will have adverse effects.
In this, I am sure I am not alone. How many times have you settled for something, knowing that it wasn't really what you need, but would at least temporarily fulfill the feeling of missing, turn down the volume on your wanting, dull the ache of desire for a time, until the next craving comes, likely bigger, louder, and sharper than the last? Maybe if you pay attention to it, like me you'll start to see it in the little things like ice cream and eventually, to confront the larger ways that you betray yourself. But let's be clear: seeing it is only the start. Like me, you may find yourself eating a lot of mediocre ice cream before you accept that the sweetness that you're searching for isn't going to be found in a double-scoop of anything; it is, of course, already and always within you.
To be clear, this is not some crazy suggestion that we swear off of ice cream (especially the locally-made, highly-delicious kind). It's more of an invitation to start recognizing that, like everything we do, eating ice cream can be an act of consciousness. What if we brought the kind of attention and intention that we bring to the mat or cushion to the our ice cream eating, our dish washing, our interactions with others? How might our days be infused with the kind of sweetness that truly satiates? As a beginner, again and again, I'll not pretend that I've got a clue. The more that I pursue this path of presence, the more that questions arise and answers fall away. And for now during these hot summer days, the subject of my inquiry is ice cream. You are, as ever, welcome to join too.
Do the Work
This love letter is coming late to you for no other reason than it's been really hard to put together the mess of thoughts in my mind, to add value to the global conversation that it seems no one in my community is a part of yet, to decide whether I should be chiming in on a topic that feels so out of my depth. There is an entire movement of more insightful and informed voices that need to be heard, who are speaking truth to power and who deserve our deep listening. Like so many of us, I have spent time during the last weeks listening to some of them and quietly reflecting, preferring the false security of silence to the treacherous territory of honest communication. But of course, the fact that I can choose whether I engage at all is a result of my privileged status. So here I go, adding my part to the conversation which is ultimately no different from the same inquiry I offer at the start of every class I teach:
Notice what is happening around and within you.
Welcome yourself as you are.
Set your intention.
Direct awareness to your breath.
Let breath guide your movements.
I'm curious about how this simple invitation to move with awareness can support meaningful participation in the larger movement for justice, equality, and ultimately, peace.
Yoga comprises a philosophical system which encompasses both the path and practices for living awake. But it is not the practices like asana, pranayama, and meditation themselves that instigate and sustain inner revolution, which necessarily precedes any kind of social or systemic change. They are tools to be implemented for a purpose. And while doing your sun salutations with a clear and benevolent intention will, certainly develop your muscles of awareness (among numerous other benefits), no amount of downward dogs is going to ensure justice and equality for all lives. For that, we have to get off the mat, step away from the cushion and do the work that is ours to do right now.
One way that a consistent practice will help discern what is your work is that, if you are practicing with awareness, you will find the difficult spots, the dark places where there is tension, where the prana, the life force, gets blocked. At first, you notice it as pain in the body. Then maybe you see a habitual thought. The more you exercise your muscles of self-awareness, the more awake you are to yourself--your whole self. The sunshine and the storm clouds. Your soft belly and your hardened jaw. Your ancestral wounds and your acquired biases. The evolutionary habits and the outdated ones. Your blind spots and your brilliance.
It's uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing, also inspiring and even heartbreaking to encounter our whole self, particularly our shadows. And the tendency of the Yoga and wellness communities (and I fully recognize myself in this cohort) to project only good vibes does nothing to support the translation of awareness into action. Yet there are tools within Yoga to help us move beyond awareness and into action. Specifically, the quality of tapas, or effort, is both a requisite for and a result of Yoga practice. In the same way that the motivation to practice grows the more consistently we practice, our capacity to translate awareness into action increases the more we act with awareness.
Just as we begin an asana practice as we are, welcoming what is here without attachment or aversion, what if we come to the conversation about racism, inequality and systemic oppression without attachment or aversion, but with awareness? How might that help to heal more than our broken bodies and our fatigued minds? We'll begin exploring these questions and many more in our Women's Circle this week. It's a small start, this simple initiative to engage each other in a brave discussion, and it's one way that we can put awareness into action and do the work.
And Still, We Rise
The Part that Knows
I've lost track of which version of #planbe we are on, which is maybe a great thing because it means that we are living more in the flow and less out of habit. Nonetheless, as we again adapt to the changing circumstances and the regulations imposed by an external authority, it feels increasingly important to strengthen the our ties to our inner authority, or what in yoga, is called buddhi.
The root "budh" means "to be awake," and buddhi is our capacity to be awake to the reality of our true nature or sat-chit-ananda (truth, consciousness, bliss). Wisdom resides in buddhi whereas manas is the seat of the mind. Georg Feurstein, a prominent scholar of Yoga, explains in The Deeper Dimensions of Yoga that while the mind relies on the physical senses for information which it processes to produce knowledge, buddhi refers to the "higher mind" which governs "a particular kind of knowing which relates not so much to the finite world of physical or psychological realities but to the Spirit." This knowing within you is the source of inner authority and it is a reflection of Pure Consciousness so that, when we allow this intuitive intelligence to guide our thoughts and actions, we start responding to life rather than reacting against it.
Lately, as we have been emerging out of quarantine and into a world where human interactions are mediated via plexiglass, screens, and masks, the sense of isolation feels somehow stronger. From the awkward dance we do around each other now, negotiating the space between us, trying not to touch our faces and stifling the urge to cough, and definitely NOT sneezing, we are confronted with ordinary choices like whether or not to wear a mask or send our kids to school or plan a visit to family that now have a whole new set of potential outcomes, none of which are guaranteed. And since the new "normal" of mask and glove-wearing, hand sanitizing, and physical distancing inhibits our sense organs and thus impairs our mind's already-compromised ability to make judgements, it is crucial that we develop our capacity to operate from intuitive intelligence. While buddhi lights the path to enlightenment, reinforcing the ties to our inner knowing is not just a matter of Self-realization, it is also a matter of survival.
As I too confront formerly mundane choices, I keep catching myself with the question: am I reacting out of fear or responding from awareness? Not surprisingly, it's usually the former. But even asking such a question brings me out of judgement, worry, and fear into the realm of inquiry where curiosity reigns. In this realm, it becomes possible to drop what my mind knows and open to door to the deep knowing within. To seek less for what is right and wrong and more for what is true. This is the territory where buddhi dwells. It's not a place you visit once and stay forever; it's a journey of forgetting the way and then remembering you're already here over and over again. And of course, the discipline and devotion that we cultivate through a Yoga practice is key for strengthening both our commitment to and capacity for being present with this inner wisdom.
So whether you are joining us as we resume gathering at our sweetest sanctuary starting next Wednesday (hooray!!!!) or venturing back into your community, may we enter into the space with the intention to connect to the deep space of wisdom within and to recognize and honor that light in each other. In this way, we will navigate the way forward, whether we're figuring out how to greet each other or how to pay the rent, with consciousness, clarity, and especially compassion.
The sun is setting as I begin this love letter, which means that it's far later than usual for me to be writing to you. And though there's always so much on my mind and in my heart to share with you, it's through the writing that I discover what is really there. My friend Sandra calls it "think-talking" and each week, I dedicate several hours to "think-writing." Each piece is more of a entry point into a larger topic; the beginning of a conversation that I'll continue in my own head and journals, through my practice on the mat and in life, and in spiraling, ongoing conversations with some of you.
And it's these conversations, with myself and with others, that nourish, sustain, challenge, and shape me. In fact, even even more significant than the ideas themselves is the feeling that arises between us when we communicate sincerely and openly. The experience of this shared feeling, of resonance, transcends the limitations of language which can only ever point to an experience much like a photograph or a video capture a moment in time, but cannot replace the experience of being present in the moment. And still, we take photos and we "think-talk" as a way to open the space for the feeling, the connection within and beyond, to arise.
This is a photo of the sunset I was watching last Tuesday evening as I had the last phone conversation I will ever have with my grandmother. It was difficult to understand her words through her slurred, stroke-impaired speech, but nonetheless, her deep and truly unconditional love shone through like the golden sun beaming past the clouds in the pale blue sky. Though I will never again hear her tell me the stories of her childhood growing up amongst the endless orange groves in southern California, I will always be listening for the love she communicated.
Someday, I will write more about my grandma and how her legacy of love lives through me and the many lives she impacted as a daughter, sister, teacher, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, volunteer and friend. But for tonight, as the sliver of a crescent moon shines in the darkening sky, I'll end at this beginning and trust that, these simple words will point us towards reverence and remembrance, where we meet with gratitude and with grace.
Stay in the Pause
Those of you who join for Rise + Shine know that I often pull a card for us to guide our individual and collective inquiry. This past week, in response to the request to know what is needed right now to move forward: Acceptance.
At least Life has a sense of humor! Ask how to move forward and the response is naturally, be right where you are. This is the dance that we are always in, how to be present and also participate in life. As householders, ordinary folks, it is not our path to sit still all day (though maybe we've become a little better at that lately). Our work is in the world. And right now, as many of us are in transition out of this prolonged pause, it is so clear that there is no manual for how we must proceed. There never was.
So, instead of moving forward by trying to go back to the way things were, what if we stayed in the pause a little while longer? Not necessarily alone in our houses, though that may be in order, but in the space of not knowing. Instead of rushing ahead to recuperate, let's take our time to re-create.
There's a beautiful practice of breath-retention called Kumbhaka that is a pillar of pranayama. Between each inhale and exhale, there is a natural pause. When we practice with Kumbhaka, we extend the pause. When done skillfully, it creates a feeling of stability, ease, and clarity. It builds trust and resilience. When there is a struggle in the body or resistance in the mind, the feeling can be truly terrifying and the effect is usually to try to control more or just give up completely.
We've all been experiencing a kind of Kumbhaka, a spontaneous pause, in which we've found ourselves in this in-between place. For many of us, this has been a struggle--and not without good reason. For others, it has been truly sattvic, peaceful and harmonizing. For most, it's likely been a bit of both. But the inhale is coming, and instead of clinging to conclusions or grasping for certainties, we might instead seize the opportunity to intentionally hold our breath, to be still even as we are going ahead, to give ourselves and each other the grace to not know, but to trust that, sure as the next breath, the way forward will arrive.