Saturday, April 4, 2015

Boat builders

I build a boat. There are reeds and leaves and colorful powder. Picked buds along the road. And country coins that I've fished out of my purse: a rupee, twenty-five centavos from the Philippines, a penny, and an Egyptian pound. The peso coin I place on the stern of the boat, this is where I come from. The penny I place at the bow, because I know that is the direction I am going, I am returning to--also where I am from. And the other two in the center, Egypt and India, my heart openers. And I sprinkle my vessel with color, placing just a piece of tamarind on top--for sweetness, for this is the best description for this time here: it has been incredibly sweet! 

The four of us: boatbuilders, stealing a few precious moments before parting ways, packing up, boarding trains. So, here we are, constructing metaphorical ships, great carriers of what has transpired, of the great work of the last three months, of new hopes and clear(er) intentions, along the ceremonial ghats of the Cauvery River, exactly where we wanted to be, though we didn't exactly know it as we set off in a mad rush from Gokulam in search of flowing water.

Each boat means something special for each of us. Each are similar and each are unique. Each resonate. And in the end, the river swallows each of them; their journey is not meant for the surface. And I trust that regardless of the currents, their essence will empty into the sea.

For me the boat is the practice, it is my vehicle, my life raft, my home. It has carried me to so many places, some awesome destinations and some less than glamorous corners of the world. Then there are the other places: dark recesses of mind and ego, and then there are the expansive heart spaces... All together, they have made up the most incredible adventure of my life. 

So the season ends. Three months in Mysore closed. The practice, however, continues. The building, the traveling to new lands whether that is in miles or in kilometers (or in complete stillness) continues. We continue to build, to grow, to flow. 

Incredibly grateful to my fellow boat builders, particularly those who set sail with me on April 1. Louise, thank you particularly for this special and potent ritual. Even the local man at the ghat appreciated the sanctity of it as he helped us guide our boats into the water. I am grateful to ALL the boat builders, the dear friends and strangers that have made this experience called Ashtanga Yoga incredibly special. And to the Captain, the Boss, there are no words ample or subtle enough to express my gratitude. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

shivaratri and the spirit of yoga

Barbara capturing the light show at Srikanteshwara Temple in Nanjangud.
I wish I actually had her photo of the light streaming into the stone structure, truly divine! 

It is Shivaratri and we assemble a group to make the road trip to Nanjangud, where Srikanteshwara Temple has drawn Shivite devotees and Hindu pilgrims since ancient times--harrowingly, on scooters. There are busses and large trucks with sugar cane. There are rickshaws and cars. There are livestock of all sorts, on foot and on wheels. All of which stirs up the dirt on the road and just sticks on skin. 

We get there, dodging vendors, and we wait in line. We buy a ticket, which is kind of odd, after all, surely, there should be no express lines to see gods. No one complains, however, because it is definitely faster. Much faster. 

Still, there is waiting, the eagerness to get to the holy of holies, to bow before the representation of the Divine, make for anxious crowding, in which there is no room for personal space, some que-snaking is there, and any movement forward must be filled in immediately otherwise there will be unhappy glaring or, worse yet, the loosing of one's place. It is ok, we laugh (reminded of how we actually duplicate this on led mornings) and we wait patiently until the jolting moment of being quickly shuffled in and out, allowing only the briefest glimpses of the inner sanctum, where a golden head of Shiva shines. And as I'm spit back out into the inner courtyard, I feel that it certainly was..something... but I also cannot help but wonder: what was all that about? Did we really travel, braving Indian holiday traffic, all that way for that so-called sacred moment? Anticlimactically, it seemed to have come and gone so quickly.

And then we walk. Slowly, dazed a bit from all the hubbub. But now there is space. And we take our time, stopping at our leisure, viewing lingam after lingam, dropping bills, and sweeping blessing-filled smoke onto the crown of our heads at smaller stations that hold related deities that dot the temple complex, resisting the urge to capture the moment with our phones/cameras in exchange for being in the moment. 

Despite the previous rush and chaos, all around us now is the sanctity of the present: motes of light drawing lines across the stone structure, the earnestness of devotees as they pray, as they light candles, as they circle Nandi and whisper into his ear their deepest desires for the year, as we ourselves admit our secret wishes to the stone bull, as women in their saris roll their bodies across the mid-day heated concrete in front of the temple--how I love this unabashed reverence for God. 

And we sit and we watch, all around us Indians of all ages: the young, the old, babies, teenagers. We take it all in, because it is both so strange and yet so familiar. And it happens: we sink into the spirit of the festival celebrating Shiva, Yogeshwari, the god of yoga because isn't this why we are really here in Mysore in the first place?

That despite the human whirlwind that we create around this place, despite the occasional rushing--not just of bodies trying to secure some spot but of our egos begging for recognition, despite the stirring of deep practice that on more than a few occasions can cause more chaos than peace, at least in the beginning, being here is a quiet celebration of the human spirit which is constantly transforming with practice, it is a reminder that nothing is impossible, that we are always more than what we think we are, that each layer we burn/destroy/peel away doesn't just bring us closer to ourselves but also closer to something so undefinably greater than ourselves, call it Shiva, or God, or Source.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

the dance of practice

I have seen the lovely Julie Alagde-Carretas dance this stunning number twice before last Friday. The first time--four or so years ago--at the Temple Shala in Boracay she wowed me, the second time also on the Philippine island of Boracay I felt incredibly inspired. But here in Mysore, as she presented her yoga-inspired dance to an intimate group of friends and fellow practitioners at the Chakra House, I understood it on a whole new level. 

I cannot possibly describe the movements of this Filipina contemporary dancer, the fluidity of her, the strength and subtlety of her yoga sadhana interpreted as dance. It is something to be seen, felt, experienced. 

But for that short moment I can say that Julie captured so many of the emotions that I have been experiencing this month--and I reckon not just mine but many others in the room as well, more than a few were tearing up by the end of it.

It feels to me that we are all dancing with this practice.

For me, it is an intimate dance. It is so close, close to the body, close to the heart and mind. It is a solo dance, true. But also one done with many partners: the people in the room, the teacher, the breath, the thoughts, the actions, the self.  It is a dance with the elements, fluid like water, lifted by air, supported by ground, fueled by that deep internal fire.

Julie drew us into our own dances. I felt the deep longing for practice and the even deeper longing that practice creates. I felt the desire and the pull of the ego, the whirlings of the mind, and that precious stillness that is golden even when it lingers only for the briefest of moments. I felt the sweet frustration of practice and the richness of pain. I felt this deep well of love for this dance. And of course, I felt gratitude, so much gratitude that I get to also dance this dance.

To Julie: Thank you! It was a very special experience. I am so happy that you are finding your place here on this your first trip. It's beautiful to have you here! 

Monday, January 19, 2015

foyer yoga

Coming into the shala in the morning is an experience in itself. Any time after the 4:30am start time, there is a process: stepping into the foyer, taking your place amongst the students that share the same start time, feeling the anticipation for practice, meditating, intention-making or watching those already moving inside, feeling inspired or anxious, and slowly/sometimes swiftly sliding towards the door, waiting for your "one more."

Mostly, when I look around at this time in the morning, I see how we all strive to be good students. How we come prepared, ready to get in there, in the shala proper, to "practice," to do our work, whatever that is--which is awesome and inspiring!

I realize that this is not a one-size-fits-all yoga practice, and everyone approaches practice in different ways--but I cannot help but notice (and yes, often over the last couple of weeks, get frustrated, admittedly an issue of my own ego) how, at times, our zeal to be such good students get the better of us. We get so fixated on wanting to practice ourselves that our vision narrows and we see only that bright tunnel between us and the door into the shala. Sometimes this happens quite by accident. Sadly, at times, quite on purpose, and we fail to see or be conscientious of the others around us.

I know this is a gross generalization--and for this, I apologize in advance to the innocent bystanders. Most students during my time are lovely and thoughtful. A precious few come in smiling. Many inquiring after each others time, making certain that folks with earlier time slots or those who arrived before them go in first, happily giving way to the mothers with children here with them; the moms are a beautiful exception to the waiting rules, they do not have to cue. There are some that appear calm throughout, non-plussed any aggression--and I so wish, I was one of them.

But the small number who push their way forwards before their turn, changes the energy of the room. And at times, the foyer is tense.

So, I take the liberty to use the pronoun "we" because we are not just individuals practicing alone on our mats, we share this room, this incredible collective prana and energy; we are a community. We should collectively preserve this community by respecting not just the sanctity of our personal sadhana but also by respecting each other's.

Sharath really drove this home for me last conference as he answered a question regarding ego. "First you stop. Avoiding 'I' 'I' 'I'... 'I know, I know', 'I don't know'..."I'm better than you"...action should always be humble action, inside it should be very humble, compassion, everything, this is what our life is."

When we fixate in the getting into the shala, doing our thing, how much of it that is the "I" that Sharath speaks of, I wonder.

In my growing frustration, I have also wondered, what my responsibility when I see someone behaving in a less than fair manner. I recognize, however, that my own reaction is also a form of I-ness, it is also ego, a representation of how much I also want to be in the room to do my thing.

Sharath, as usual, breaks it down for me, "Nobody can change the world, but you can change yourself. Your change, which happens within you. Then once you change yourself, the whole world will change. If you care for people, if you care for trees, if you care for animals, if you care for everything--caring is very important....once you care for others, that is the meaning of this life, you have to care for everyone then your practice will change. That is the purpose of your practice. Not only will you take, oh! ekapada, oh! kapotasana." He quips on, "You are so excited, everyday, you go here, oh I practice four times kapostasana...your purpose here is for kapotasana? Or to gain good knowledge, clarity within you? Kapotasna should help you get that. Not to grow your ego."

He concludes, "Whole practice is to change yourself." (Right, that's why he's the Boss.)

I cannot say that I will not call out the next person that cuts the morning line-up. But I will certainly look into my own frustrations, rather than attaching them to the actions of others. I will take responsibility that my defensiveness and ridiculous fear of loosing out adds to the negativity in the foyer. I will re-enter the waiting game after the moon day, not only refreshed from rest but also with the spirit of caring, not just for myself but for my fellow students as well. I will come into the space, not just prepared for practice, but practicing already. But enough about me. What if we were to do this together, how great would that be? How much quicker would we change the world?

(Aside: I hope that this article doesn't give any wrong ideas about ashtanga or yoga practice. What I am observing is not an issue of ashtanga yoga, it is an issue of the human condition. And moments like these are simply opportunities to deepen our practice. Ashtanga and Mysore often has a reputation for being extreme. Mostly, I feel both are extremely effective mirrors. What we choose to see, is wholly up to us.)

(27 January 2015)

It’s been a month, nearly. And I feel how overtime, things always find a balance. The change in the mood of the foyer at my time has noticeably shifted. More people seem conscious of the process and conscientious of each other. Some have stepped up to maintaining peace, others have chilled, and whoever else seems out for themselves each morning, well, the collective seem to bother little about them now. 

I feel much more chill about the whole thing, having aired out my issue and trying to come into the space myself with a lightheartedness and excitement for practice. I remind myself each time I enter the room that everyone is like everyone else, eager to do the work, trying our best to find the yoga in it all. This I feel is a testament to how yoga does work, that the "citta vrittis" calm eventually and everyone finds their place in this heaving movement of practice around the KPJAYI shala.

I know as the month ends, old friends will go, new friends will come, and the cycle somehow continues. I hope that the energy of yoga before and after “practice” prevails, that we continue to be conscious and mindful not only of ourselves but of each other. That we bring the steadiness of the asana practice into the patience of the wait, that as tight as it might get in there, there is always room for everyone.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

the upside of broken

It’s not been easy to sit and write. Actually it’s not been easy to sit in general, to stand up from the ground, to put on leggings, to strap on sandals, though each day this too is changing…

My back has been hurting and it’s not just been challenging in practice but also in pretty much every activity. It’s taken a certain amount of time to admit this to myself, to allow myself the mental, emotional and physical space to actually feel it, and thus examine it--and it’s taken a bit more time to admit this to my teacher, who I’ve traveled all the way to India to study with. Sharath has actually been amazing and compassionate, he suggested I stick to primary and has been supportive of me scaling back even on that. As for my own acceptance, well, this is a work in progress.

While the trouble with the back did not apparently happen in yogasana practice, the way I’ve been practicing with whole-hearted Mysore-inspired gusto has not helped it, and, if anything, has made it feel even more tender. After a week of practice, I had to re-examine my hopes that the deep stretching would work out whatever kinks there were.

I’ve had to remember that my “best effort” is not always the same across the board. That my optimum is different when I’m healthy and able bodied, than when I’m hurt or injured, or when I’m busy or under-slept, or when I’m stressed and emotional.

So my biggest challenge has been this: to let go of my own ideas about my own practice, particularly about practice here in Mysore where I am used to jumping into the deep end. Right now, my best effort is about wading gently in the shallows, allowing the back to expand and loosen, giving it space with the breath.

Returning home exhausted after a mindful led primary last Saturday, I realize how hard this is, that I am used to exerting a certain amount of effort to go deep in a forward bend, for example. And how much harder it is to be cautious, to scale back my own practice, to override my attachment to the postures and my desire to go deeper, to appreciate the energy of a room in motion but to also to not be driven by it, to be content to walk forwards and backwards on the mat, while all around people are floating and flying, to be unashamed and forgiving of myself as my knees touch ground in upward facing dog because doing it this way it isn’t painful.

Once again, the Mysore room is humbling me, albeit in different ways from previous trips and only after the first two weeks since arriving—record time really for this place to make me feel so tender, so vulnerable.

It’s been a great teacher this thing with the back. I’ve been through the motions with it. I’ve been disappointed and upset. It’s been hard to be comfortable, and there's nothing much to do but to sit patiently with the discomfort. More recently, I’ve been hopeful. I’ve felt the thrill of being able to practice mindfully with little to no pain, even in a led primary class.

I feel I am getting to know my own body a little differently--and my mind too. While I know that the depth of the practice is not determined by the depth of the posture, I have to admit that I often think of a great practice as one where I am closest to what I consider “the full of expression of the posture.” If I were to fold forward in the same fashion as I might have a month ago, I may come close to the visual ideal of paschimattanasana, but if I were to do that today, I would not only be endangering the health of my back, but I would also no longer be practicing yoga.

And while the challenges continue, and practice is an unending roller-coaster, with ups and downs, twists and turns, loop-de-loops, highs and lows, I am grateful that I am getting to watch my own preoccupation over asana and my crazy patterns: how hard working I usually am, and how this is at times to my own detriment, how all too often I have a hard time giving myself a well-deserved break. Every day is a great lesson in letting go as much as in acceptance. 

(As of publishing the article, happy to report that the back in doing much better. Everyday is a marked improvement. Pain is less acute and more dull. Most likely some micro-tearing due to excessive travel/crazy Christmas schedule/on going saga with leg behind the head postures have caused the back muscles on the left side to spasm. There is no damage to the spine, disks are good. Taking rest, practicing lightly, and a healthy amount of great advice from friends and professionals have helped immensely. I feel incredibly supported during this time and cannot think of a better place to heal than in Mysore where Guruji prescribed primary series as yoga therapy. I am amazed that even with adjusting to my current limitations, nothing is lost in the practice. It is so ... how else can I say it, for me, it is still so perfect!) 

Monday, January 5, 2015

mysore reception

Demon slaying at Chamundi Hill yesterday--pretty much sums up practice 

Before my first trip to India, Mysore was a mythical place, a pantheon where ashtanga superheroes
 were said to practice. Thus my hesitation for making my first trip. I felt that I was not ready--and that feeling lingered, like I could never be ready enough. When I was finally convinced to make the trip with my friend Clara in 2010, we took preparing for it like it were the Olympics. We were "training," getting on the mat every morning for 9 months, putting our whole heart into it. Those beautiful days practice was my soul's purpose

Fast forward to the present day, I am at the led class, practicing to Sharath's precise count in the ladies' changing room and I want to laugh at the idea of ever being ready for Mysore because, for me, at least, there is no such thing. My soul's purpose... well, it's still practice, but practice has evolved and expanded and I feel that I am least prepared now than I have ever been.

And that is totally OK!

This is my fourth trip to India and to KPJAYI. Within the first two days, I had moved into an apartment, rented a scooter, applied for a mobile number, registered and attended class--all possible with a certain amount of collected know-how.  I'm no longer a newbie to Mysore or KPJAYI, but each day I am here only affirms that there is no prescribed preparation, no precise steps to follow.

The truth is I feel physically challenged at the moment. My physical practice has suffered from all of the awesome blessings of the year: all the amazing yet destabilizing travel for work and for family. I saw two sisters get married, one in NY, another in the Philippines. I've spent more time with family and seen more old friends, from so many different segments of my life, this year more than any year since I started practicing ashtanga yoga. All topped off with a three week visit to my home city Manila, during THE maddest season of the year, what I call the "Christmas Cray Cray," an all-out-eat-shop-party extravaganza, where the closest to a moment of peace and quiet might be found as you are sandwiched between cars and buses in holiday traffic/gridlock. Safe to say, I am currently not at my best physical shape.

So here I am, come to Mysore, travel-weary, breathing through back pain (potentially caused by long-haul flights and sleeping on couches), feeling what I can best describe as this incredible sense of acceptance, that no matter what state I am in I am welcome to lay down my mat and practice here. That the practice and the shala and, of course, Sharath, is all-accepting, no matter what your trip is, no matter what your issue, no matter what your state of mind or heart or body so long as you're willing to get on the mat and do your very best.

As I hobble through led primary, I feel such gratitude for being here. Perhaps in the past, Mysore was about advancing in practice. But right now, it is the place to come home to; to unpack my bags, my pains, my ego; to heal and to rebuilt; to remember what I am about and to truly, deeply refine that great sense of soul purpose.