CHURNING OF THE OCEAN

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One of the most pervasive myths in the Hindu lore is the long and intricate story of the “churning of the ocean.” I have been considering this myth as I have been processing and practicing this last post-election week. Here is a shortened version with the salient details applicable to my current consideration.

The devas (gods) and asuras (demons) were both seeking the nectar of immortality (amrta or soma). To get it, they worked together to churn the ocean. They upended a great mountain, and wrapped a huge snake around it and churned and churned for a very long time.

Eventually a variety of different things emerged, like a cow, an elephant, the goddess Laksmi, and jewels, happily claimed by the churners.

Then as they continued churning, a dark viscous noxious substance started to emerge. It was quite toxic and threatening to the world. They had to call upon the god Shiva to handle it. He held it in his throat, which is why one of his names is Lord Blue Throat (nilakantha). He transmuted the poison in this way and the churning resumed until the amrta emerged.

I have heard this story interpreted in many ways, a favorite is as a metaphor for our practice of yoga, particularly meditation. As we practice, we are churning our own consciousness, from which emerges gifts like centeredness, clarity, and creativity, and eventually more blissful states. But as well, along the way, we must deal with and transmute any poison that resides in our own individual consciousness.

We experience this in our yoga asana practice as discomfort arises physically due to tightness in our bodies or old injuries. We transmute these through conscious breathing and correct and therapeutic alignment such that eventually there is healing. But it may be unpleasant for a while.

And as well in yoga asana and especially meditation, frustration, residue of old patterns, and all kinds of psychic gunk can be churned up. The practice gives a context and methodology within which to transmute these challenges.

As I’ve thought about the story of the churning of the ocean in light of our current political climate, I’ve been thinking of the ocean in this myth representing our collective consciousness, and how we’ve stirred up and unleashed the poison. And the question becomes, who will transmute it? In the story it is Shiva, who is the consummate yogi. Shiva was called upon to handle it, he held and transmuted it.

Many of us have had the privilege and blessing of many years of yoga practice. As yogis we have many tools at our disposal to shift energy and transform our beings. We practice asana, pranayama, meditation, and chanting. We study the scriptures for guidance. And as we deepen our studies and practice, we have the power of transmutation.

The form this takes can vary. On a very practical level, for me it involves staying steadfast in my yoga practices, stabilizing myself in a place of connection to my heart. As a yoga teacher I will continue to aid others in this process, teaching the tools for transformation. As a citizen of this planet, I intend to do whatever I can to acknowledge the poison when I see it, and seek to transmute it by whatever means I have at my disposal.

I hope we can each remember and seriously consider utilizing the gifts we have received through the practice. We begin by acknowledging the poison is there, it has been unleased. Acknowledge as well that the gift of yoga has led to some degree of awareness, that you are awake at this critical time. Are you willing to engage, to work to transmute it in whatever way you have the power to do so?

Feel free to leave a comment regarding how you would like to transmute the toxic energy.

Choosing to Go Left

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I received a suggestion/challenge from a student in one of my yoga classes recently: can we sometimes go to the left side first? She felt she was tighter on the left and that it seemed we spent more time on that first side.

I found this an interesting challenge because it would require me to practice what I teach on several levels.

On the physical level I often have students switch up how they clasp their hands behind their back, in order to balance things out. This is a little different, but the same principle operates: not giving preference to one way of doing it. I often use the hand clasping as an example of a certain mindlessness and habitual patterning we allow in our practice, and in our lives as a whole, and the same thing applies to switching up which side we move to first.

In our yoga practice, most times we just automatically do it. When the teacher says clasp your hands behind your back, my tendency is to put my right index finger on top of my left. Over time, this is going to have a subtle imbalancing effect on my shoulders. But as interesting is that choice moment when I act seemingly without thinking. I just do it automatically, as if there is no other choice. This happens in our yoga practice, and in many other domains of our life.

This is an example of a habit pattern. Notice how we don’t think about it, we reach with certain hands, turn certain directions. We have a repeated way we travel from point A to point B. We have “our” way of doing things, perhaps honed from our own trial and error to discover the “best” way of doing things.

Maybe, maybe not.

Or perhaps a teacher told us to do it that way. In the tradition in which I began doing yoga, we always moved to the right side first. Some might argue there is a physical or more esoteric advantage to this.

Maybe, maybe not.

I realized I had established a pattern that I was perpetuating, and chose to see what it was like to start shifting that pattern.

It was challenging. I was constantly flummoxed as I taught because after 25 years of teaching it one way I had grown lazy with my instructions. I didn’t have to think about it, I just did it. And now I had to be mindful.

I persevered. I announced to my students we were going to start moving left first in some classes. It became a bit of a game as they noticed and reminded me when I slipped into my old patterns. And they got to see their own patterns as I switched it up, and they were challenged to shift their own patterning. We giggled at ourselves together, and together we began to shift the pattern.

In summary, here’s the steps of how I worked with it:

– Notice the pattern. This is often the hardest part because it is so automatic. In this case, I was open to feedback. Someone sweetly mentioned a pattern that might not be altogether positive, and I listened. At first I was resistant, and I had to look at that and evaluate whether or not I wanted to shift.

– Set an intention. I made it public. I asked for help and accountability. I announced it to my classes so they could remind me. This allowed them as well to look at their own habits and resistance.

– Make a plan. I committed to starting on the left side first on the first and third weeks of the month. I made it concrete.

– Do it. Again. And again.

– Flounder. I allowed myself to flounder. I made mistakes. I allowed myself to not be perfect.

– Stop in your tracks when you are enacting the old pattern. Choose again the new pattern. When I became aware I was caught in the old pattern, I stopped and switched, right there in the moment. I didn’t wait to shift it until later. So my students have had to endure starting on one side, only to have me shift, but as I said, they were in on the game, and they’ve played along very sweetly.

– Understand it is a process. It is challenging. Allow it to be challenging

– Acknowledge success. I noticed how it became easier as I established the new pattern. With the switching the hands behind the back, it is hard now for me to discern that the new pattern feels weird.

Of course this is a somewhat trivial example in the larger scheme of habits in our lives we could benefit from shifting. But it makes the point. We all have patterns, some of which serve us, but others that may not. As we refine our lives we need to be mindful that we are making choices, and whether we are choosing the optimal choice. Our ability to pause and make conscious choices is one of the greatest gifts of our humanity. May we enact it.

FALL EQUINOX

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So here we are once again at the fall equinox, that time when the light and dark are balanced, and we sit on the edge of descending darkness. Time to move inside a bit. What does that inside movement offer you?

This time of year is a metaphor for how we balance our lives as householder yogis. As householders, we have many responsibilities in our lives: our careers, families, and all of our interests. Yet we know that to be productive in the world we have to take care of ourselves, we have to nourish ourselves. Much like the plants shedding leaves and growing dormant for the season, we have to pull in, take care, and refuel. We need to rest and draw sustenance from the root of who we are.

Our yoga offers us an opportunity to draw in. The asana practice with a focus on breath can calm our nervous system and allow access to a more centered place. And the practice of meditation takes us deep into the center core of our being, a wellspring of light that lies in the dark quiet core of who we are. That light is the source of love, and knowledge, which can serve us to gracefully navigate the many seasons in our lives.

Our practice sustains us in these darker days, like a plant with roots deep in the ground resting and accessing energy, drawing nourishment from the depths to continue to grow and offer its flowers and fruits.

If you’re like me, spring and summertime involve a lot of activity and pleasure in the beauty of the season. And fall offers an opportunity to move inside, rest a little, nourish our deep roots, and experience the beauty inside of our being. Our practice of yoga, and especially meditation, can take us there.

Please see my meditation page for opportunities to learn this life changing practice.

You are invited to contemplate:
– What opportunity does the fall and winter offer you?
– How do you appreciate inside time?
– What would you like to cultivate this season?
– How have you seen that the inward path has supported your outward path?

REFINEMENT REFINED

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I previously wrote on “Refinement” (http://cindylusk.com/refinement/) and in the 3+ years since, I have refined my understanding of refinement. This points to precisely the process of refinement: it is a continuing process, and in that process there are many stages. And as I previously argued, this process of refinement applies to all aspects of your life. And yoga, particularly meditation, is a key means to facilitating refinement.

We all know this to a large degree on the surface of our lives. Take our bodies for example: many of us are continually refining our diet toward more healthy habits. Likewise with exercise.

As I discussed previously, our yoga asana practice is a continuing process of refining. We learn how to correctly align our bodies to an optimal pose, when to back off, and when to go deeper. We refine our ability to listen to our bodies.

Also in many varieties of yoga asana, we learn to work with our breath, which brings a deeper level of refinement. As we listen more deeply to our breath we notice its rhythm, if we’re holding it or it is agitated, etc. This somewhat more subtle avenue of awareness allows for refinement on a deeper level, as we begin to notice more subtle shifts in our being and awareness.

Our thinking also undergoes refinement. As we apply our minds to any subject, our understanding is refined. This is the process of vikalpa samskara: the refinement of our conceptual understanding of anything, be it it technical, philosophical or artistic.

To have maximum capacity for refining our lives and understanding on many levels, the yogic texts argue that we must refine ourselves. If the instrument we are using for refinement, our body-mind, is itself unrefined, then the results of using it to refine other aspects will be less than optimal. It is as if you’re using a blunt instrument to do fine work. To some degree it will work, but the results will be messy and unrefined.

The practice of meditation works to do this in many ways. First of all, the practice itself begins to rearrange and clarify our awareness. I think of one result of meditation as clearing a pathway to our highest self. So, first, meditation is like a cosmic cleaning service that clears out old, no longer useful patterns in our life. This includes anything that hinders our access to that pathway or connection to the highest part of our self.

And then, having established that connection, we are better able to access the wisdom and guidance that resides in that highest part of ourself. All of this allows us to begin to make better choices and generally just get clearer, which is the engine of refining our lives at the surface. Everything is impacted. As we access our hearts we can relate better to others. Our decisions are more aligned with our core such that we refine our lives to be more fulfilling.

Ultimately the connection and clarity allows us to be a conduit for sharing our highest potential and we find ourselves creating refinement not only in our own lives, but in the world at large.

Thus our practices enable the process of refinement for us individually to create a healthier and happier life. Through the alignment with our highest self that we contact with practice, we begin to fulfill our life’s purpose. Each of us has the opportunity to create a more fulfilling life that also can contribute to bringing forth in this lifetime our own unique talents and gifts.

May we each seek greater refinement and alignment with our highest self, for ourselves, for those with whom we interact, and to create a better world for everyone.

Ganapati’s Ears: Listening and Winnowing

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One of the distinguishing characteristics of the elephant-headed God, Ganesh, or Ganapati, is his ears. They are said to be indicative of his capacity for listening, and as well they resemble winnowing baskets, and therefore the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Our ability to truly listen is fundamental to our paths as yogis and as humans. By “listening” I mean not only hearing with our ears, but accessing all our senses, and honing our ability to perceive accurately, which is tied into the winnowing process.

Think about any of conversations you have, face-to-face or electronically, and consider to what extent you truly listen. If you look closely, you’ll find that most of us are already formulating a response before the other person has completed the articulation of their thought. Often our listening is selective, we hone in on a particular point without hearing the full range of what the person is saying.

For example, I recently received an email with feedback on one of my classes. I immediately began to discount the feedback, pushing it off on the person who had the problem, justifying why I did things the way I did, etc. And I immediately began writing back with those points. But since it was an email, I had the time to first of all, reread the email and really try to understand what was being articulated. Then I started formulating a different, more nuanced response. And instead of hitting send too quickly, I again read the email and formulated several more responses before sending one that expressed appreciation for the feedback and how I would try to improve my teaching. So instead of starting a negative feedback loop, I was able to shift it into a win-win situation.

Now, I know some of you are thinking: well, sometimes it is the other person who is “off” somehow, or incorrect. Or sometimes it is hard to know, how can we figure that out?

Here is where the practice of meditation comes in. Our meditation practice allows us to begin working with our habitual patterns in a variety of ways. Meditation directly affects the old imprints stored inside, such that they become attenuated or burned off. As well, a regular meditation practice allows us to establish connection to, as Patanjali puts it, the Seer: a wiser and clearer part of our self. Having established connection with that part of our self, we can begin to access that wiser self on a moment-by-moment basis to guide us in both our understanding, and responses.

So there is a listening we can cultivate in the other direction: listening within, listening to the Seer. And in time, with practice, we can begin to truly listen and perceive the outside world from this place of deep listening to the Seer.

Nowhere is this more important than when we are facing the challenges: the obstacles and thresholds that are associated with Vigneshvara, the Lord of Obstacles as Ganesh is also known as. In those moments of challenge, or as we cross the threshold into a new domain in our lives, our ability to negotiate all of the input while standing in an awareness of our innermost self will allow us to respond in a refined and nuanced way, and from a place of love that is the essence of who we are.

My sense of the divine is that it is benevolent, and actually wants us to grow and heal, and to serve the world. And as the Lord of Obstacles, Ganesh is that energy of the divine that places exactly the obstacles and thresholds in our path that we need in order to proceed on that path of growth. Yet often when things are challenging, or challenging messages are sent, we try to combat them, or to simply ignore them. So Ganapati’s ears remind us: are we listening to what the divine is offering us?

EXERCISES
For the next week or so, in your conversations, try to truly listen.
– Can you listen and hear the other person before you begin judging or formulating a response?
– Can you create some space to respond from a place of listening and refinement, rather than reacting from you habitual patterns?

Over time, notice the effect that your practice of meditation has on your ability to listen and refine.
– Can you begin to discern the habitual patterns that cause you to want to react before you’ve had the opportunity to really listen and refine?
– Is there a shortening of the time it takes to create a refined response to a situation?

SELF-CARE

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On social media these days, I see a lot about “self-care,” truly an important thing to do. Most of us know we must take care of our physical health through diet, exercise and rest, which are so fundamental to our well-being. And many of us understand there is some relationship between our physical and mental health that moves in both ways, each affecting the other. Yet few of us understand that there are deeper layers, beyond the physical and mental that need to be taken care of as well.

The beauty of yoga is that it can address all of these layers of being with its different practices. The practice of yoga asana, the postures, can stretch and align and heal our physical body. And as with many exercise modalities, we’ll feel better mentally and emotionally from our physical practice.

If your yoga practice incorporates turning the mind more consciously toward awareness of your breath and observing your internal sensations, feelings, and thoughts, you will begin a process of healing that goes beyond the physical. You will start to stretch and align and heal deeply held patterns of being.

And when you incorporate meditation as part of your yoga practice, you penetrate to even subtler layers of yourself, and eventually to your deepest Self. And that traverse which clears out the most tightly held chronic patterns and challenges will yield healing and positive effects in all the levels and domains of your life.

As you penetrate to your deepest Self, you connect with the Source of everything, that which connects and permeates everything. That process begins to align all levels of your being with all that is. You will find not only that you are healthier in all aspects of your being, but that you begin to flow more fluidly within all aspects of your life: your relationships, your work, everything.

And remember: yoga and meditation is for everybody. Often people feel they can’t do yoga or meditation is impossible. But the truth is: you can! You can experience the transformative effects of these practices, though you may have to find the right teacher. If you’ve ever been discouraged I hope that you seek out a teacher of these modalities to guide you into the depths of your being to facilitate the profound healing and alignment in life that is possible.

Ganesh at the Threshold of a New Year

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A beautiful wooden Ganesh came into my possession over the holidays, and paired with the fact that he is the Lord of Thresholds and Beginnings, he’s been on my mind as we enter this New Year.

Ganapati has many names, among them Vigneshvara. Vigna means obstacle, and Ishvara is Lord, and many praise him as the Remover of Obstacles. But more literally he is the Lord OF Obstacles. I’ve been thinking about this a bit as I review my last year and consider my intentions for the coming year. I’ve been contemplating how I work with obstacles, and how Vigneshvara can support me.

When I was living in India for a short time, one day I noticed the school children crowding around to pay homage to Ganesh at one of his shrines. I was curious as to what was going on and was informed that it was exam time, and the children were seeking support on their exams. This is an example of how Ganesh is often approached: as a good luck charm.

On New Year’s day I found myself chanting the Ganapati Atharvashirsha Upanishad, in honor of the new Year and all I would face this coming year. Wouldn’t it be nice if Ganapati just cleared the path for me like some kind of good luck charm, removing any obstacles that might block my desires from coming into fruition? We all hope for smooth sailing as we negotiate our lives, but when I invoke Ganapati, I understand it is not simply a transactional prayer, but has more layers of profound meaning.

When I invoke Vigneshvara, I am calling upon a particular quality, or set of qualities, that he exemplifies. As the Lord of Obstacles, Ganapati is that energy that supports me in negotiating the inevitable challenges that arise in my life.

In fact, could it be that the Lord of Obstacles is that which creates or places the very obstacles that need to be experienced? Challenges can be some of the best things to happen in our life, though in the moment we may not feel that way. In this last year, I experienced unexpected challenges in some of my relationships that caused me to look deep within myself, which served to shift some of my behavioral patterns, and look carefully at my responsibility in creating challenges. It also instigated some changes in how I communicate and how I commit my time.

You likely have heard the expression “when one door closes, another opens.” And what is a door, but an obstacle, closing off one direction, so another can be taken? Sometimes Ganesh shows up as that extreme occurrence when we have no choice but to radically change direction. And he is that energy that helps us negotiate obstacles in the most benevolent way.

For as the names Ganapati and Ganesh suggest, he is the Lord of the Ganas, of all the categories or terms of existence. When our desires are misaligned, when they are not serving the highest, Ganapati arranges the terms of our existence such that a more auspicious arrangement in encouraged.

And ultimately, Ganesh is that quality of the divine we invoke to encourage us to seek that alignment such that our desires reflect divine will. For when our actions emerge from the highest desire to align, Ganesh will then be the remover of obstacles.

CONTEMPALTIONS

Consider the last period of your life and the obstacles you have encountered. What have you learned from them?

What strategies do you use to more gracefully negotiate the inevitable obstacles that arise in your life?

How do you align with your highest desires?

SPACIOUSNESS

In a recent workshop I facilitated, we each came up with some words or phrases encapsulating our next steps toward manifesting yoga in our lives. Here’s mine:

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I placed this on my altar, and I’ve held it in my awareness each morning and afternoon as I meditate. And I came to realize that it is all encapsulated in the word SPACIOUSNESS.

Last year I went with the word CONNECT, and I have to admit that I failed to connect in the ways I wanted because I allowed myself to get too busy. I don’t regret the work I got busy with, but it took its toll on me, and my failure has taught me much, and led me to this place of craving for space, and a determination to create it in my life.

First and perhaps most relevant to my previous failure, I want to maintain a spaciousness with my time. A huge pattern of mine is overcommitting – in fact it is a tactic I use to be productive. And I will still use it , but much more judiciously. For I must create space in my schedule in order to do the other things on my list: practice, study and write. And as well, to fulfill my desire to connect that I articulated last year.

Other ways I intend to create spaciousness in my schedule:
– being present and enjoying doing things, like writing as I am now
– limiting my time on social media
– limiting when I check and respond to emails
– tracking my time and noticing places I unconsciously waste time.
I welcome your ideas about this in the comments section!

I’d like to create more spaciousness in my overall attitude. I want to notice my reactivity and allow some time to pause before responding. I want to allow a larger more spacious perspective and awareness in general, especially in relationship, on social media, and when people differ from me. And I’d like to cultivate a more spacious attitude regarding my conception of time.

And finally, but perhaps most fundamental, I need to create physical space. Ever since my mom passed, over 7 years ago, I’ve been struggling with the physical stuff of my life. When I cleaned out her house I was aghast at the amount of stuff she had. Then I brought a bunch of it home! It has been a very slow yet steady process of letting go. And there is so much more to do. I have become increasingly aware of my sensitivity to clutter, and will be exploring how it shows up in my life, and its ramifications.

I would love to hear how you create more space in your life. Please leave a comment!

REFLECTIONS ON YOGA

What is yoga? How do you think about yoga? What is the role yoga has in your life?

I recently asked students to contemplate these questions, and I was so astounded by their replies. I tried to capture their wisdom in small phrases, and it ended up looking like this:

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It is so important for us to all reflect on the impact our yoga has on our lives, to begin to connect the dots on how our daily practice, and our studies, slowly begins to manifest in our lives.

Yes, there was mention of a positive physical effect: mobility and strength, which is so crucial for us to live healthy and productive lives.

But by far the vast majority of responses reflected an understanding of the deep effects of yoga, how it transforms us, how it creates an ability to pause, to connect, have dialogue, to remember. How we are more kind, less judgmental, able to love more deeply. How it keeps us present, centered, in equilibrium, and mindful. We begin to have a greater awareness of when we’re “off.” It is a set of guiding principles, a way of learning, a measuring stick, that allows us to adjust to what is, and continue to evolve, and experience the full pulsation of what life offers.

As you can tell, this reflects an understanding that yoga is a whole lot more than postures on a sticky mat. It is a way of being that comes out of a deep connection with our Self.

I invite you to look within yourself to consider how your yoga manifests in your life.

And then, consider this:

What helps or encourages yoga, all these qualities? And what hinders or blocks?

And then, further consider: what are my next steps on the path?

My students reminded me that community was one of the greatest ways they felt encouragement on their path: the sense that there were other like-minded individuals walking with them. If you resonate with any of this, perhaps leave a note to share something about your path of yoga, so we can encourage each other in this way.

Taking Care of Myself and My Self

Lately I have had a lot on my plate. My to-do list each day is way too long, and at the end of the day, I sometimes see myself feeling frantic and starting to rush, and also getting rather grouchy. I’m sure some of you can relate.

I know better. We all know better! Yet somehow we allow ourselves to get sucked into the drama of our lives, our checklists, and need to get things accomplished. I know this pattern well: I can do it all. I can tough it out, do one thing after another without a break, for days on end. Fit it all in, check things off my list. Then I find myself grumpy and sad, and feeling a little sick.

I know better. I have to slow down a little and take care of myself. And I have to take care of my Self.

Yet, unfortunately, like many of us, I start to cut corners. I grab fast food and forgo physical activity. I skip or cut corners on my practices. I don’t give myself or my Self the love, respect, and support I need. Keeping my body, heart, and spirit, healthy and connected is fundamental to being my most productive self.

If I take the time to take care of myself by getting enough sleep, good food, and exercise, I’m laying the groundwork to do my best. I know this.

But what was less obvious to me, and is becoming much clearer lately, is how essential it is to take care of my Self. That is where my daily practice of meditation comes in. When I meditate, it feels like I clear a channel to my Self: a deeper, fuller, wiser part of me. And that place feeds me in a way not unlike food and exercise.

The access I cultivate in my meditation practice supports all of my other activities so they become less effortful. I cultivate a channel to this Self during my meditation, which serves me during my everyday activities. It is not only a source of wisdom, but of energy, and of perspective as well.

The wisdom helps me in my studies, in my teaching, writing, in so much of my work, including my own personal inner psychological work of clearing out my old unproductive patterns.

Access to a deeper source energy allows my days to be less effortful. I feel like I don’t have to push so hard because it isn’t only “me” doing it, I can channel an unlimited ocean of energy to support me.

And yes, being the human being I am, working within the boundaries of our culture, I have many challenging experiences. And I absolutely can not do it all. But my daily steeping in the quiet of my meditation practice helps me keep a greater perspective. I remember why I am doing what I am doing. And I am less reactive and more able to stay calm.

I know I have a long way to go with all of this, which is why, each morning when I get up, I head to my meditation cushion. I understand how much I need to take care of my Self.

So recently, as I make my to-do list, I include one item that takes care of myself, and one to take care of my Self. I know if I continue to add these things into my life, all of the other things on my list will get done in a much more efficient and easeful manner.

I invite you to try this out. Whenever and however you consider what you need to accomplish in the next period of time, consider as well one thing to better support yourself, and another thing to support the connection to your deeper Self.

If you’re willing to share what these two things are, please do so in the comments below.

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