Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain

Master teacher and author Donna Farhi wrote in her book, Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living: "One of the most devastating consequences of skewed perception is the longing that grows in us for someone to see us as we really are. We long to have someone, somewhere, even for a moment, really see us. When someone sees the "us" that is our essence, we say that we feel loved. My teacher taught that the primary thing to learn is how to be this loving, accepting presence. . . . When this longing to be seen by another is great, we become susceptible to chronic manipulation of our image. We may continually rearrange and reinvent ourselves in the hope that this new rendition will please our audience. Instead of being present, we perform." (pp. 179-80)

The Poet David Whyte says, "To be constantly explaining who you are is a gospel of despair." He further invites us to simply be ourselves and in so doing give permission to all around us to do likewise.

In yoga, we practice self-witnessing as we breathe, move through poses, and meditate. Without this self-witness, you can't see the true you. No amount of others seeing or perceiving you will supplement for a lack of knowing yourself. It's the paradox of rock stars feeling so lonely. Like a friend told me recently, it's as if in our quest to experience and really discover/remember who we are, we feel like being seen by others is synonymous to being. If people are seeing me, it gives the false confidence that there must be something there to see, right? But being witnessed isn't witnessing. Yoga philosophy suggests that who we are fundamentally is the ability to truly witness ourselves and everything around us.

I know what you're saying, "Thanks, Mr. Oblique Yoga Philosophy Guy. That's some awesome yoga thought but give me some real-life ways to relate that to getting up in the morning and facing another day of work and family and the every-day." Well, the easiest way to apply this is to just pay attention to your life. What does it feel like to sit in a warm shower and let the water flow over your skin? What do the blossoms smell like when you walk down the sidewalk? What does your breakfast taste like? What does it feel like when your boss walks by? Yoga practice is simply a condensed and refined way of paying close attention. Besides yoga makes us feel great, helps us have a healthy body, calm mind, and open heart. Here's the deal: once we start practicing this self-witnessing business in yoga, we won't stop at Namaste. We'll be feeling our hamstrings in practice one night, and wake up extremely aware of the way the shower feels or maybe start to see the deep feelings in your heart. These are the most real ways of just being. The deeper we pay attention, the more we notice what's behind the surface, what's animating the outer form, what's sensing, what's seeing. Eventually, with practice, we become more and more familiar with this Inner Self. What's amazing is how this knowledge of Inner Self gives us amazing confidence to just be. We stop trying to produce the image of ourselves, and we just be ourselves.

It reminds me of tales of Mark Twain giving lectures back in the day. He would walk out on stage in front of a packed theater and just stand there looking at the audience. The crowd would applause, would eventually quiet down and wait silently for him to talk. Instead of saying anything, he would just stand there and stare back to them, like he was staring down the entire audience. The tension in the room would begin to build second by second as he just stood there looking back at them all. One man looking at thousands. He didn't have to perform. He didn't have to say anything. He was Mark-Freekin'-Twain! Finally, when the tension became almost unbearable, he could say one word and have the entire audience in his hands because he was completely real.

Writers, poets, yogis all have this one crucial thing in common: they all pay very close attention themselves and the world around them.

I'll see you in class and we'll practice some of this self-witnessing. Maybe this is what John Lennon meant by "let it be."

Scott

Monday, March 31, 2014

Understanding Coltrane

I love jazz. I love Jazz because it is a language. It speaks to a culture, a sophisticated musical discipline, and a style. For the longest time, I wanted to like jazz music but didn't. Not much of it, anyway. I liked Kenny G. The first time I heard John Coltrane, all I heard was chaotic lines of complex notes hurled out the tail end of a tenor saxophone. But now, when I hear John Coltrane, I can't keep up a conversation with anyone else because of the conversation I'm having with the music. So, what's changed?

In part, I believe it was because I started to learn to play the sax. I'd always wanted to play the sax. When I was a kid, my dad asked his uncle Lester, a professional sax player, what it would take to help me appreciate playing the sax. Lester told him to start me on the piano, move to the clarinet, and then to the sax. That way I would have the rudiments of music woodwind instruments to spring me forward as I started to play the sax. I never really met Lester. There exists a sun-bleached photo of me and my entire family posing for the camera on his back porch but this was before dawn of my consciousness-I was about three and don't remember it at all. Well, Lester died. And nobody remembers exactly how, nobody remembers doing it, but somehow his horns showed up on my doorstep with my name on them. I was 13. I'd been playing the clarinet for 2 years and I was itching to start the sax. Problem was, I didn't have one. Not until that day when Lester's horns, (yep, he gave me not one but TWO saxophones, an alto and a tenor AND a clarinet) showed up thanks to a mystery and the US postal service. I scarcely remember a more exciting or more reverent day of my life than when I received those horns. They are the saxes I still play today. That day, I remember feeling like something very important had just happened to my life.

That summer, I started to blow through the horns and figured out how to finger the notes and make a decent sound before any teacher got to me. Lester was right and the clarinet and piano had paid off. As I continued to learn to play the sax, I began to learn to play jazz. And with just a little bit of experience of trying to play jazz, I began to appreciate listening to jazz. Not long after that, I loved it. With a little experience of jazz, the music meant something to me; I could understand the sounds I heard as emotions and experiences. I can hear intervals between notes, feel chord changes come and go and understand and appreciate the inherent tension and release of jazz. More than that heady stuff though, I can sit back and feel the groove and swing of it, I can feel the flavor and texture of it. I can appreciate the personalities behind the music. For me, when you're invited to see the bigger picture, I can savor the individual parts better.

This is often what happens when we begin to understand and appreciate the underlying form of almost anything be it jazz or yoga. A yoga asana is beautiful on the outside but understanding the underlying form-the mechanics of muscles, bones and even subtleties like energy and intention-makes the posture understandable, enjoyable and enlightening. Yoga is about understanding oneself deeper. Any deeper look inward, even just at anatomy, fulfills the ends of yoga.

The underlying form expresses itself clearly in the outerlying form in our yoga postures: slumped shoulders might manifest for the depressed or burdened or shy, broad shoulders for the confident, open-hearted, and gregarious. As a teacher, I can't read your mind, can't feel your soul, but I can see how your consciousness produces the product of a very engaged outer form. So in that sense, I often know whether your mind is present by how your poses look. The outerlying form reflects the under.

Of course the underlying and outer lying forms are inseparable. You can't have the pose without the energy or thought or emotion behind it, you can't have jazz without its history and culture, you can't have the blues, without feeling blue. So really what this means is to learn to see the whole picture is attuning our senses to the specifics and intricacies of a sophistication of seeing all the parts. We engage on a deeper level. It makes the practice of jazz or yoga so rich. By understanding the underlying form, we might acquire a taste for more complex things like deeper poses, meditation, Coltrane or dark chocolate. And soon we might begin to understand a little about the underlying form of all things and learn to see that with increased flavor and appreciation.
So maybe, years later, because I've learned a little about the underlying form of jazz, for my buck I'd choose John Coltrane over Kenny G, though I still understand Kenny G's technical proficiency and his beautifully clear and distinct sound. Come to practice this week and let's focus on understanding ourselves by looking at underlying form both in practical, anatomical ways as well as conscious, meditative ways.

Join me this Friday night at yoga then come and join me at the Bayou where my band, Jazz Brulee, will most surely play at least a few Coltrane tunes. Until then, if you're interested click here to hear John Coltrane play Blue Trane, in my opinion one of the best sax solos in all of jazz.

 Scott

Monday, March 24, 2014

Ganesh: Guardian of the Temple

Om Gam Ganapataye Namah 

This is the chant to Ganesh, the mythical figure in Hindu iconography who represents the remover of obstacles, the gatekeeper between the earthly world and the spiritual world. Here is one version of his story. 

According the Hindu mythos, Siva and Shakti represent the primordial male and female entities of the universe, the creator and mother of the universe. They are represented by the familiar eastern symbol, the yin and yang. In this symbol, the dark side represents the female aspect of the universe (not necessarily gender), embodiment, cool, dark, and movement. The light side represents the male aspect, energy, spirit, warmth, and awareness.   

Early in the history of this myth, Siva was often away from Shakti as he attended to the responsibilities of ruling the universe. As happens with all newlyweds, eventually the honeymoon period seemed to be over between the two of them. Often, Siva would return home from his responsibilities of creating the universe and without much sensitivity, he felt entitled to Shakti's bed chamber. Shiva only craved the physical and Shakti craved the spirit. 

Once again when Siva left, Shakti mourned the lack of intimacy that they once shared. So, from her laughter, Shakti created a son and named him Ganesh. As the son of embodied movement, Ganesh was an amazing physical creature. In addition to giving Shakti companionship and love, Shakti gave Ganesh the charge of guarding the gates to her bedroom; under no circumstances was he to allow anyone to pass.  

As you may imagine, when Siva returned home, as per his habit, he marched straight toward Shakti's bed chamber and was met abruptly by this new creature, Ganesh. "None shall pass," said Ganesh (I'm thinking of Monty Python, here). Annoyed, Siva sent some of the members of his posse to go and take care of this little boy blocking the way. As the son of Shakti, Ganesh proved to be a powerful creature and probably looked like the young Vin Diesel of Hindu Gods as he cleaned house with Siva's brute force. As Ganesh was more than holding his own against his attackers, Siva started to get a little nervous.  He thought, "This won't look good if this little kid takes care of my posse. Even worse if he then schools me," Siva thought. So while Ganesh wasn't looking Siva threw his trident and beheaded Ganesh.  

Hearing all the commotion, Shakti came out of her room and saw her now dead son on the floor. She threw the stink-eye at Siva as if to say, "Fix this. NOW."  Siva, seeing that he was in hot water, told his right hand man to go and find him a head. Any head. He returned with a head-an elephant head. Siva said, "This will have to do." And with that, brought Ganesh back to life. This story taught Siva that even he needs to earn entrance into the gates of the sacred chamber, into the temple.  

The symbol of Ganesh helps to remind us of several aspects of our yoga practice as well as our practice of daily living. Many of the depictions of Ganesh show him sitting with one of his legs in the enlightened pose of lotus while his other foot rests comfortably on the ground. This teaches that while we are seeking spiritual progression, we must also keep our contact with the physical world. Even more than that, it shows that the path to spiritual expression is often through the magic and joy of the physical form. Our yoga practice is the perfect example: we move our bodies as a tool which points to the spirit. Every time I see someone roll down the road on their skateboard, I think of that soul experiencing a touch of enlightenment through the bliss of motion through time and space. Whether skating or performing asana, we allow ourselves the indulgence of the underlying form of mind and heart through the physical machinations of the body. Through the body, we give ourselves a tangible connection to spirit. 

The gateway to the body is the connection between ground and body: the pelvis and hips. This week, let's entice the sentinel, Ganesh, as we break off the rust of the gates to the temple of heart and mind and open our hips, stretch the legs, external rotators (outside of the buttocks) and the hip flexors (groins). We'll not only learn the steps to enter the gates toward the sacred chamber of heart and mind through the body, but also make the practice sweet and allow the entire journey to be a joy. My intention is to learn a little about the ancient myths of yoga while giving freedom and joy in our hips. We'll float out of class.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Freak Out First Aid



How do you respond when you get hit with something really heavy in life, and I’m not talking like a refrigerator or a Plymouth? When life really does a number on you, you get laid off, someone close to you dies or sick, you are breaking up with your love, what do you do? I usually freak out a little, sometimes a lot. And if we could somehow figure out how to harness all the energy caused by worrying, I’m sure I could power a good part of this city with my worry alone. “But Scott,” I hear you say, “surely YOU don’t get stressed or worry. After all you’re teaching other’s how to deal with those things.” To that I say, thank you very much for your confidence but that’s absurd. I can worry the best of them under the table.
And while I don’t have an immunity to worry, I do have a few tools through movement, yoga, and meditation that have really, really helped. Maybe they can help you, too.

Take a deep breath. Before the curse words come (or at least after the first really hearty one) give yourself a big breath. Sounds overly simplistic but it’s not. Yes it’s simple but it’s also very effective. If you can, breathe a few times deeply and if possible, give yourself a couple of sighs out your mouth. This technique will help relieve the surface tension off your cup which is almost ready to overflow into full melt-down mode. It will also help put blood to your brain to help you think clearly.
2.        
T   Talk to someone. I’ve been blessed with some wonderful friends in my life who have earned their calling on high after hours—days-- of listening to my plaintive worries about this and that. Sometimes, if only to hear yourself talk through your own thoughts and process, by talking it through you might come to some greater clarity about your worry. Good friends worth their salt might also remind you of your deeper nature, your capacity to overcome adversity, and give you a clear perspective because they know you. They can also call you on your own bullshit.

3.       Move your bod. Wallace Stevens wrote, “Sometimes the truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” Damn! That’s right on. Sometimes, I gotta just move my body, maybe run or get to a yoga class, breath in and out, stretch out tension from my muscles, put some blood flow into my brain and wow it’s incredible how much clarity I can get. Even if my problems don’t go away after a yoga class, I might be more clear-minded about them afterword. At very least, I don’t compound worry with feeling crappy in my body. Also, movement produces endorphins, the feel good that often will stop a downward spiral of negativity. When you know you’re in a bad space, go and buy the monthly unlimited pass and go every day. I’m serious. It will change your life.

4.       Meditate. Face the lion square in the face and take a minute to look at your worry objectively. As objectively as possible, and without judgment, notice everything about it, how it feels in your body, what it’s doing to your thoughts, where in your body you feel it. As you meditate regularly, especially when you’re not in the middle of a freak out but that works too, you become familiar with the part of you that doesn’t change when life’s events come and go. You can realize that events will come and go but your True fundamental self, your soul or spirit or consciousness, whatever, doesn’t change even when something crappy happens. Eventually you’ll start to see problems, even big and important ones, as transient against a backdrop of constant equanimity. Don’t get me wrong, this takes practice but it is real and very effective. At very least with a bit of objectivity, you’ll separate yourself from a myopic view of your problems and will hopefully be able to put them in to perspective.

5.       Action. Do something about it now, even if that is only to write down your worries or talk to a friend. Even if there is something small you can do, put something into action to feel empowered.

We all get hit with something in life. Hopefully we cultivate the tools to respond to those heavy parts when they hit. Maybe I’ll see you in class or on the trail, or be stopped at a light next to someone doing some therapeutic sighing. For those interested in meditation, even if your brand new to the idea, I’m hosting a Yoga Nidra course on Wednesday nights from 6:30-7:45 pm where I’ll lead you through a great meditation process. Talk to Prana Yoga for deets by calling 801-596-3325801-596-3325 or click here.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Is Mindfulness?

What does it mean to be mindful? I'm sure we could all describe it in a different way. Some might say focused, conscious, alert, aware. How would you describe mindful? I believe that being mindful is the goal of yoga, it's what we practice, and all the other stuff like peacefulness, health, clarity, wellness, those are all byproducts of mindfulness.

Once we become practiced at mindfulness, we'll find ourselves applying it to all the other things we do in life: work, our relationships, how we spend our free time, even how we do those things we don't love doing like taking out the trash. And let's not mistake being mindful for perfect or blissed-out or even happy. It's just mindful. To have an emotion, for example, and to be perfectly mindful, is to allow yourself the capacity to be completely aware of it, completely involved. And that goes for anything. To really appreciate time with our kids, practicing yoga, the enjoyment of a meal, or enjoying whatever we like to do, we need to be mindful, lest that fun or those flavors pass by unnoticed.

But maybe because of this mindfulness, we'll have experiences and see that what we are isn't defined by them, that what we truly are is bigger than that emotion, that time with our kids, or that yoga posture. And it's by being mindful we can actually use the experience of an emotion or yoga pose or whatever to witness our true identity, which is mindfulness itself. The emotion or whatever is simply the brushstroke on the canvas of mindfulness. Don't mistake the brushstroke as the painting. If it weren't for the canvas, there could be no brushstroke.

So as we are in yoga practice this week, let's practice understanding our True Nature by practicing mindfulness. I also invite you to practice being mindful as you leave your house to go about your day or drive to work. Notice everything: the feeling of the steering wheel (or handlebars), the feeling of the road beneath you, the flow of traffic, the song on the radio.

See you in class.


Scott

Monday, February 24, 2014

On Busyness



Are you busy? I'm busy. It seems like we're all busy. And when your schedule is busy your mind is busy processing and planning and negotiating it all to make sure it gets done. And that is precisely the trapping of busyness: you get so harried, so scattered, that you can't really focus on anything very well. Your nervous system gets shorted out, your energy reserves get depleted, and you never have enough time and you end up increasingly more and more tired.

I don't think we're alone. In fact, around 200 AD the yoga scholar Patanjali wrote an entire freegin' yoga sutra on the topic. It's the primary source for all the philosophy most of us yogis study. Right at the beginning of this ancient text he states very clearly that the entire purpose for doing yoga is to stop the mind from all its busyness. And that was 1800 years ago before kids' soccer practice, the 9-5, and the 27 other things we have going on during any regular weekday night.

Easier said than done, right? It's like when I get worked up about something, am really upset, and someone comes up to me and gratuitously offers that smidgen of infallible advice, "hey, chill out." Rarely has this advice ever found purchase with me. I imagine myself stopping mid-freakout, relaxing all my tension, and just as that stupid smile of contented relief begins to spread across my face, I say, "Thanks! Why didn't I think of that?" No! I need to work through it. The same goes with busyness. It doesn't work to simply say, stop being so busy all the time. There needs to be a processing, an accounting for the busyness and then maybe we can find some practical and lasting method of stopping the madness.

After a while of running around with your head cut off, if you're like me, you'll take a moment from the craziness and ask if there is a better way of being. Ironically, part of the processes of reducing busyness is getting completely exhausted, completely fed up with busyness, to realize that busyness is counter to who you really are. Maybe, if you're like me, you could take a good honest look at why you make your schedule so busy. A few questions you might ask yourself might be: “Why do I make myself so busy? Am I avoiding something by filling my schedule so full? Who would I be if I weren’t so busy? What are those things in life that mean the most to me?" After asking yourself those questions, you might gain some clarity as to why you’re so busy and then choose to prioritize your energy.

I suppose this is what yoga does for us. Yoga gives us the opportunity for a pause, for reflection, and for focus. It is one of the most practical ways I know of learning to practice being in a place where everything is simplified down to that which makes the most sense, body and breath. Maybe with this simplified perspective, we can take a look at those things on our schedule that don't really serve us and commit to spend some time, meditating, doing some yoga, or catching up on something you never make time for. But what about all the stuff we gotta do for our kids, taking them to this practice, this playdate, this kids' activities? With a little mindfulness and creativity, you'll find a solution for that too. After all, what are we teaching them with all of our busyness? Easier said than done? Maybe. Remember, you have the right to say no sometimes to obligations, even if the only reason is so that you’re not so busy.  

If coming to yoga class is going to be one more thing that busies your schedule, I might suggest take the pressure off of yourself and stay home. Seriously. If you can arrange to come and not have it be "one more thing" to add to an already busy schedule, then I'd love t see you in class this week as we focus together and practice some radical simplification. Maybe we'll gain some clarity on those things on our schedule that don't serve us and could be replaced by something that does.

See you in class, OR NOT.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Why Is That Guy Standing on a Baby?

My friend and fellow Prana teacher, Rachel, came to class to  Prana Yoga  one year around Thanksgiving time and brought 9-10 of her visiting siblings and/or their spouses. I thought it was really cool to have such a huge family, together practicing yoga. Rachel comes from healthy and active stock, everyone seemed very athletic, fit, and capable. Despite being all super fit, there were a few of them who were new to yoga. I welcomed everyone to class asked the class if they had requests or injuries I could be careful with. One of Rachel's family member's, one who was relatively new to yoga, raised his hand and asked, pointing to the 4.5 ft. statue behind me, "Why is that guy standing on a baby?" What a fantastic question! And suddenly I began to wonder how many people walk in and out of our studio each day and see this beautiful, huge statue of Siva with his many arms, surrounded by a wreath of fire, a snake around his belly, dancing dreadlocks, standing on an impish creature and wonder,  "what is going on with that cat?"


So, yoga synthesizes ancient wisdom with our modern circumstances to provide a practice for being in the world and for understanding ourselves. Plus, it just feels good. Yoga's many ancient symbols and philosophical tenants can seem not only confusing to modern, western practitioners, but also down right alienating. As a teacher, I'm always asking the question, "So what? What does all this ancient wisdom and symbolic gobbildy gook have to do with waking up each morning, dragging my butt outta bed, and going out into the world to live another day?" Well, let's see.

So, the Dancing Siva, or Siva Nataraj (meaning royal dancer), is a statue that tells many stories and can point to personal pertinence in our current lives, regardless of spiritual or non-spiritual tradition. To understand the mystery of the squashed baby, maybe we could look at several of the symbols in this statue.  

First, Shiva represents an idea of the creator who propels the continuous dance of all things. Shiva's limbs illustrate this cosmic dance of birth, life, death, and rebirth.  In his first hand, Shiva's holding a drum, laying down the beat, the vibration that quickens everything in the universe. Modern science says that everything is vibration--frequency--from the smallest particle to the largest galaxy. As a musician, I like that idea of the universe being created by DJ Shiva laying down a steady backbeat that makes everything in the universe pulse. That's cool. 

In his next hand Shiva is holding out his hand, fingers up, palm out, in the Abhaya mudra, a hand gesture that represents sustaining. By this, Shiva's saying, "Hey, man. I got you." Things were created and then are sustained or stay in motion.

Shiva's third hand and holds a flame. It says in not so many words not to get too attached because everything changes. Things wilt, fade, wither and die. Physics 101: energy and matter cannot be created or destroyed, rather it simply takes on a different form, leaves fall, become mulch, soil, nutrients, reabsorbed , become another leaf, etc. This might be a practical understanding of reincarnation. Let's not get into that here. What I'm getting at is that Shiva is suggesting that change is the program, his zippo lighter is the catalyst.  

Shiva's fourth arm crosses his chest concealing his heart. He's telling us that you don't get a free ride to know the heart of God, or your own deep divinity. To know this heart you have to work to see it. And translate "God" however you want, the divine part of yourself, a supreme being, you choose. Either way, you can't be a wall flower in this cosmic dance of existence. To really appreciate the fact that everything is moving you gotta to join the dance, gotta shake your booty, gotta be willing to scuff your shoes and sweat. But hey, the dance enthralls us and through it, you come  to know yourself and the whole universe. Don't worry, it will only take the rest of your life and maybe beyond. We've got time.  

Ok. This still doesn't explain why Shiva is doing Riverdance on the baby. So, with one leg, Shiva is standing on a creature, not really a baby,  known as Apasmara. It looks like a baby, sometimes a demon, sometimes pig-like, and while this seems a little callous of Shiva, this action is actually quite compassionate. That's because this Apasmara isn't a baby but a creature that represents our own ignorance. He knows our divine potential and won't stand for anything less, I have a pun permit so back off. So, while one leg stands on this demon-thing, his other leg is lifting in a gesture that invites us to rise from that old, ignorant self into a new understanding of ourselves. He's revealing our true nature and with that perspective also revealing to us a new relationship with the world, new circumstances, and even a new relationship with our old circumstances. He is the dance partner inviting us to rejoin the dance of our life, with new understanding, through the continuous dance of birth, sustaining, death, and rebirth. He's telling us to constantly reinvent our relationships, our jobs, and our passions. And he's doing it all with the stillness of a God while the universe is burning around him. Pretty cool.  

And THAT is why Shiva is standing on that thing that looks like a baby. My hope is at very least we understand this symbol a little better. Maybe this week when we are practicing yoga at Prana under Shiva's calm gaze, in all his dynamic magnificence, we might remember some of the reasons we practice yoga. Maybe we can use the symbol of Shiva standing on Apasmara to allow this transforming practice of yoga to give us the strength, hope, and clarity, to take action in our lives and commit to reinvent it over and over again in this wild dance of our own existence. See you in class.