practice

“It is an honor and a pleasure to share a little of what I have learned about Theresa over the last few years. Theresa embodies everything we hope to find in a great teacher. She is a passionate student of Yoga with a depth and breadth of knowledge that is exceptional for a teacher her age. She combines a strong, well trained body with a gentle compassionate spirit. She loves her work and she loves her students. She is one of those special people who has given her life to something and in so doing encourages us to do the same.”
- Rolf Gates.

Just some points to ponder. I’ve found these things to be helpful in my own practice and path. Take them or leave them.

01 Have a ten minute rule. Come to the mat ten minutes EVERY DAY, even if you just sit there, and even if you don’t want to. (Especially if you don’t want to!)

02 Smile at people you don’t know.

03 Cultivate patience.

04 Be polite, even if people are not polite to you.

05 Pay attention to your feet. Notice how they feel in your practice, and just walking around. Notice if they turn out when you stand or walk, and try to minimize that. The feet are the door to the temple of our bodies, they should be flexible, strong and pliable. Massage them daily, or pay someone else to!

06 Notice your posture on and off the mat. Stand and sit up straight! When you are 60 or 80 years old, you’ll be glad you did!

07 Silently bless people and animals whom you perceive may be suffering.

08 Hold doors for people.

09 Movement and structure at the center of our bodies is guided from the edges (feet and hands through hips and shoulders respectively). Be acutely aware of what your finger and toe tips are doing at all times!

10 Floss every day.

11 Avoid being a yoga snob. All styles of yoga are great. There is no one style for everyone. Experience as many styles as you can and don’t dis the styles you don’t like.

12 Seek out groups of people to share readings, philosophies, and discussions with. Learning cannot happen in a vacuum. One needs a circle or community (sangha) to learn with.

13 Give and receive love freely.

14 Try to have no expectations of others.

15 Avoid saying bad things about people, places, or things.

16 Inversions are important. Try to get upside down every day!

17 Always say please and thank you.

18 Thank your teachers.

19 Thank your students.

20 Give of yourself freely.

eight-limbed path

The Eight Limbed Path of Yoga is a system defined in one of yoga’s ancient and most revered texts, The Yoga Sutras, by Patanjali. The Sutras were written around 500-200 B.C.E. These are simple notions and are similar to the moral foundations of the world’s major religions. They are laid out in steps and are achieved somewhat stepwise but are actually more like spokes of a wheel, or limbs of a tree. They cannot be separated or dissected. The Eight Limbed Path is the foundation of a complete yoga practice.

Yama

Restraint or control. The first step of Patanjali’s eight limbed yoga system. These stand as the moral observances and constitute the great vow or maha-vrata of the yogin and are to be practiced on all levels irrespective of time, place or circumstance. The yamas are intentions not only for ourselves but are the ground for our dealings in society with others.

  • Ahimsa - non-harming, love (This is the most important and overriding notion.)
  • Satya - truthfulness
  • Asteya - non-stealing
  • Bramacharya - moderation, moral use of the senses
  • Aparigraha - non-clinging, non-possessiveness

Niyama

Observances. These are intended for more personal attention and practice.

  • Saucha - cleanliness, purity
  • Santosha - contentment
  • Tapas - austerity, heat creating change
  • Svadhyaya - self study
  • Ishvara-pranidhana - devotion to a higher power, surrender to the infinite

Asana

The physical poses, the word actually means "seat."

Pranayama

Energy observance, or breath control, working to tame and control the breath.

Pratyahara

Drawing of the senses inward, denial of the senses

Dharana

Concentration, or single pointedness

Dhyana

Meditation

Samadhi

Absorption or completeness, the final step, “enlightenment”

live your yoga

A great teacher once asked me, "Pretend all the things that you originally came to the mat to accomplish; looser hamstrings, less stressed mind, improved posture, more fit body... all those things, done. Mission accomplished. Then what?" Well, there are as many answers to that question as there are ways to practice yoga. I’m not talking about yoga asana, but true yoga practice. The foundation of true practice lies deep in the heart of living your yoga. There are many ways to live your yoga through devotion (bhakti), wisdom (jana), or right action (karma).

The Bhagavad Gita tells us we must do our duty without regard to the outcome. Our duty is not to have open hamstrings or to stand on our heads, but rather our duty is to do what we can to make life on this planet better for everyone. Seem daunting? It doesn’t have to be. We must be willing to do the work on ourselves, but not for ourselves. One can do this through unwavering devotion to a higher power, by improving themselves through study, or by working for the benefit of others. The truth of the matter is, as we improve ourselves, we improve the planet. It is that simple. So we do the work for someone else: a loved one, a stranger, a cause, the universe, something other than ourselves. If we do our honest best, remain unattached to the outcome of that work, and have the faith (shradda) that what we do matters, good things will happen.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, verses 1.12-1.17, is the bedrock for this very notion. He states that practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya) are the means to calm our monkey minds and to find our true selves. Practice comes first. We have to do it! We must hone the ability to apply ourselves. If that ability is not there, we will not succeed. This builds tapas, or austerity, literally meaning work creating change. This is one of the cornerstones of living your yoga. One must learn to balance that work with non-attachment. Passion and dispassion. This is play between engaging and letting go. Creation and dissolution. Do your best and let go of the result. The ability to let go prevents ego-clinging, allowing it to not be about ourselves so our drama can play out more smoothly.

This work is not necessarily easy, however it is simple. Show up, do your best, and let go of the results. Because it is not easy we can empathize with our fellow beings on the planet, be less caught up in our own drama and more caring for those with whom we co-exist. Compassion is the end result, bringing us closer to each other and creating a peaceful existence.

So do the work on yourself! Improve your body, your mind, your soul, and share it openly with all you meet. And watch as you help create a better life on this planet!

Namasté.

Essays for my training with the Insight Yoga Institute

Only the Mountain Remains Essay

The birds have vanished into the sky, And now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and me, Until only the mountain remains.
-Li Po
    What Li Po is describing so Awakening. Simple, to the point verse on what I’d call Absorption. Other names we give what Po eloquently writes about here are Mindfulness, Big Mind, Ekagarta, Enlightenment, Samadhi, Awakened, Nirvana. The list of verbal constructs humans have attached to the state Po is referring to goes on and on. Easy is to talk and point, difficult is to do. So, while simple, so so so very simple in nature, the process or path to Enlightenment is one that requires great discipline and endless compassion. Simple is conveyed in Po’s words, but easy is not addressed. I could go on about all the ones who have sat on the meditation cushion for tens of thousands of hours (each!) over the millennia with great sacrifices, harsh teachings, pains and pressure sores, risking life and limb since the beginnings of these ancient spiritual traditions to illustrate the perseverance needed on the path to Awakening. It’s daunting to me really, and discussing it further might only be self indulgent, as it seems I’m new enough at this or my karma is such that I still find myself looking for reasons to not have to do it! Honestly, I often see myself as the main character in the movie The Matrix saying, “Why didn’t I take the blue pill?” I mean, only the mountain remains?? That’s huge! I like birds and clouds! Where did I go? What happened to me? These are important questions, worth exploring...
    The practice of sitting has allowed me great insight into the nature of things, the nature of me. Once I actually took time to sit still, just that to start, sit still and notice, the process began to unfold. The noticing, initially, was just one
succinctly is the process to are the words of Po’s short
big thought my mind decided to wrap itself up in at any given moment. The capacity to actually notice that phenomenon was a big step (still is!). Then, the noticing was all the thoughts that want me to get wrapped up in them, an endless line of thoughts just waiting to be indulged by my mind. That allowed me to see that there is a difference between the mind and the thoughts, they exist independently. This then lead to an attenuation of most the thoughts, I can now see them as passable, permeable, and finite. Occasionally there is a strong thought, or a series of strong ones requiring more attention, inquiry and a different technique for processing outside of sitting. Once I learned I could see past the thoughts or stuff in my mind, I like to call mind-stuff, a greater field could be accessed. This is the field of consciousness or awareness in which my mind exists! Connection to this field brings a sense of infinite space, grounded awareness of the being-ness of being, clarity around doing this work even though it’s so difficult, and in this field “only the mountain remains”. It is also evident that while only the mountain remains, “I” have not gone anywhere, the mountain and “I” have taken on the same sense of existence...or rather, it is realized that we have never been separately existing. Existing is not even the best word to describe the being-ness that is, that the “mountain” is a part of, that I too am a part of. Po is telling us the birds and clouds are like mind-stuff, falling away slowly over time, and ‘only the mountain remaining’ is the being in the field, or one could say is the field.
    I have come to only the mountain remaining not only on the cushion but in my non-formal-practice life as well. However, in all honesty, only the mountain remaining is intermittent for me, both on the cushion and off. And from what I’ve read, for most of us, that will likely be the case. But, while I may not feel merged with the mountain 100% of the time I know I can be at any moment, because truth is I’m never separate from it. It can
feel that way if a particularly scary or annoying bird has tricked me back into “I”ness, or “I” have become enshrouded by a particular boring cloud and can’t see the mountain anymore. With practice I have come to know only the mountain is always remaining. It’s always there, it’s everywhere, it’s not separate from me or from my writing this, it’s the capacity to drop into it that comes and goes. The birds and clouds Po refers to are the everyday, mundane, amazing, fun, foolish and harsh 10,000 things that go with having a body and a mind. They are everywhere! (...and technically, philosophically also the mountain, but that’s another essay).
    Once you get a taste of only the mountain remaining, you cannot forget it. It’s the realization that the birds and clouds need some tending to, but they are only small and relatively inconsequential parts of our existence. Here is the hard part, and why I often wish I’d taken the blue pill... because they (birds and clouds) are a non-stop source of sensory input in our lives that we feel and react to, MANY beyond our influence and deeply connected to our psyche and behaviors, that to sit and see them for what they are (impermanent, passable, permeable) is a life-long commitment. The lessons of awakening are often repeated and painful, and the process will never totally cease...although I believe it does get easier. While I still find that daunting and difficult, I am truly grateful for the journey. The moments of only the mountain remaining diminish the harshness of the 10,000 things and I can see the preciousness of this life, and love all her creatures suffering and celebrating. Life has a richness that I am endlessly wowed, wondered and moved by. Every one of us is a unique expression of the infinite energy of this field and the more we can access it the more we can feel and be love with all the other things remaining with the mountain!!

Yin Pose/Kidney Chi Essay

Working with kidney chi is a necessity for all human bodies. For those blessed with good kidney chi (or life styles that allow it) at the very least, they are working to maintain that balance. Most of the population in our yang dominant culture falls into the category of deficient kidney chi. The kidneys are related to the element of water in Chinese medicine. As a result they are susceptible to excess yang or heat. Too much yang for the organs of the kidneys can cause excess adrenal activity, as the adrenals and the kidneys are paired, housed one on top the other in the mid back region just below the last rib and the diaphragm. Overactive adrenals increases a body’s stress levels, or what’s called the “fight or flight” response, for the whole body. This has a dehydrating affect on all the tissues in the body taxing the whole system: muscles contract, joints get tight, other organs contract making them work inefficiently, even the skin is affected resulting in an increase in surface tension. This in turn puts the squeeze on vessels that carry blood and lymph, affecting how tissues get nourished, food gets digested, the firing of neurons, and on and on. I like to think of the kidneys as the “battery pack” for the body, as their functioning is so closely tied to the overall health of the organism. Additionally, as one of only a few filters for the body, when the kidneys are deficient toxicity levels rise adding to the mix.

There are 108 ways to work with kidney chi, and yin yoga gets straight to the heart of the matter. With sequences designed to enhance the body’s meridians as defined by the Chinese medicinal system, with yin yoga one can specifically target any organ and feel the results almost instantly. The kidney meridian starts at the bottom of each foot near the pinkey toe, traveling along the medial arches toward the inner ankles, thru the heels and up the inner legs, entering the torso near the tail bone as one channel. This branch moves up along the anterior spine, makes a “Y” to pass thru the kidneys, bi-laterally, rejoining and descending to penetrate the bladder only to resurface on the low belly and continue upward. Another branch to the kidney meridian moves thru the liver, lungs and throat ending at the root of the tongue. A third aspect of this meridian also graces the heart and merges with the meridian for the pericardium. The nature of the kidney meridian, touching so many other organs also illustrates it’s integral role in over all good chi.

In yin yoga, the Kidney and Urinary/Bladder sequences, as designed by yoga teacher Sarah Powers, the “Saddle” pose is the second pose in the line up. Likely, saddle has the second place position due to it’s extreme tonifying effect, not only for the kidneys but also for the knees. The two are paired in Chinese medicine, and the knees are also related to the water element. Additionally, their locations in the body mirror each other: knees positioned in the middle of the lower body and the kidneys in the middle of the upper body. “As below, so above” is a common mantra in the healing traditions of yoga, Chinese medicine, and ayurveda, so what affects the knees will affect the kidneys and visa versa, making saddle pose an essential part of any movement practice designed to enhance kidney function. Saddle pose puts the knees in full flexion, working to increase the flexibility of the knee joints. This in turn allows a flush of blood into the knees when the pose is released, bringing nutrients to the joints. Saddle pose places the lower and middle spine in extension, opening the chest, creating more space for the heart and lungs where the kidney meridian travels. This action moves the spine deeper into the body, helping to restore the lumbar curve and increasing suppleness in the thoracic spine. In the aging process (and daily life in general!) these two regions of the spine become more and more susceptible to gravity’s pull, causing the spine to round forward and moving the kidneys backwards, superficially. As a result the kidneys tend to get glued and gummed taut with the facia and long muscles of the back, inhibiting good function. This tendency to slump (not only with age, but in youth due to bad posture) also compresses the chest cavity, hampering lung capacity and blood flow in and out of the heart. Additionally, the length of the cervical spine in saddle pose is supported by the firmness of the floor, creating a gentle stretch for the back neck and a soft throat where the chin meets the super-sternal notch (jalandhara bandha). This is good medicine for the thyroid/parathyroid glands and the net of lymphatic nodes in the throat area where the kidney meridian ends. Saddle pose, or any subtle variation building towards it, is necessary medicine for healthy kidney chi.

To get into the pose you can do some preparation by stretching the thighs, making entry a little smoother for tighter bodies. Sitting on the heels, allow the knees to separate as they need to, placing the hands on the floor behind/beside you, and begin to lower your upper body back towards the floor. You can pause anywhere along the way to acclimate before deepening the stretch, eventually lowering yourself to your elbows and then all the way to shoulders with the back of head on the floor. Allow the spine to arch up into extension, and the lumbar curve to exaggerate. If the full expression of the pose is inaccessible due to knee injury, stiff ankles, neck issues or disc problems, there are several supported variations. A rolled blanket or cushion in the fold at the back of the knees or placed under the buttocks will keep the knees out of full flexion. With this variation you might need to prop up the rest of the body or the back arch will be made deeper. A rolled blanket or cushion on the floor under the ankle joints supports the ankles and/or stiff feet. A bolster under the length of the spine, placed near the sacrum also supporting the head and neck, will support the whole pose for persons with disc issues or tighter backs. One can also place a bolster just under the head and shoulders for less support in the pose or perhaps as in intermediate place prior to going deeper. If the neck and head need further support in any of these variations you could use a folded blanket under the head for that purpose. Always move slowly and mindfully going in and out of any yoga pose. Once you are settled in the pose, having made any little shifts of body parts along the way, stay in the pose 3-5 minutes. To exit from the pose, on an inhale simply reverse the steps, using your hands by your sides to come back up, elbow by elbow, hand by hand. Avoid twisting as you come up and engage your abdominal muscles to support the spine, as the spine has been resting passively in a back bend and will appreciate the assist! After the pose, rest on your belly for as much time as you need, absorbing the benefits.

Saddle pose is challenging for most bodies and can be very intense. There are several mind techniques one can use to stay present with the process. One needs to be consciously involved in the process and sensitive to the effects, so one knows when to exit the posture or when to make any subtle adjustments in order to receive the most benefits from the pose. Simply staying present with the movement of the breath is the most basic approach. Notice how the breath moves through body, how the organs ride on the tide of the breath, and how the spine responds. The kidneys themselves actually slide up and down the back body (and slightly toward each other and apart!)responding to the movement of the diaphragm with each breath. Attune your mind to the four phases of the breath: the swell of the in-breath, the hang time between inhale and exhale, the softening of the out-breath and the pause at the bottom of the exhale before it turns into the inhale again. Each of these four phases of breath has a different effect on the body’s pulses and parts. Become intimate with each phase and how it communicates with the body, and how that is different each time you do the pose. Keeping the mind attentive to the sensations of the body is crucial to the process of self-care and self-healing. This mindfulness practice in saddle pose, in any other yoga posture, and off the mat in every day life, is the ultimate practice in maintaing abundant good chi for as long as you are in your physical body! Enjoy.

The Ground of Your Being

What is your understanding of why it is that space, the open wakeful space of our innate nature, is our only reliable ground, and why it doesn't work to try to get anything else to serve as our ground? What is your understanding of why it is that including all of our feelings and vulnerabilities helps us reconnect with our nature as space, in an integrated and embodied way? And how does something as intangible and groundless as space allow us to feel grounded in our bodies and in our lives, and give us the capacity to function in our lives in whatever way is objectively needed?

My answer....

....typing....

Sorry to have gotten all Zen on you!

But really, dialoging around the above issue presents logistical problems in that to describe the indescribable we use man made constructs, words. What we are discussing is an experiential phenomenon, the nowhere place (that is everywhere) that we touch/float in/settle in/are held by when we look within. The foundation of being (“being” both as a noun, human being, and a verb) as spacious energy, vast, limitless and eternal, is our only reliable ground as it’s the only aspect of us that is not man made. Not fabricated or contrived. This space, ever was and ever more, is all that holds us. It allows for limitless support in whatever we do and however we are being/feeling. This includes holding us thru sadness, anger, love, sickness and in death. Whatever specific, relative feeling state we are experiencing if we can mentally/energetically drop into that feeling, follow it thru the cells of our physical being to where it is residing, we may see/feel the boundaries of it. Where it starts, where it stops, where it comes from, how it effects us...and in doing so, in that excavation, so we can sense that part of us that sees or feels it! The backdrop of our mind/ sensing energy is there to hold the sense or feeling. We can view it like on the movie screen of our consciousness. It’s via the recognition of noticing this feeling that connects us to our foundation. We gain insight to the (by comparison) shallow nature of our feelings and vulnerabilities while embodying the vastness of our nature. This enables us to recognize the feeling states for what they are and sense that we are deeper than them. However, having started this journey with acknowledging the feeling itself, a necessary step, we can also acknowledge that relative real-ness. We are not wanting to side-step the relative, temporary feeling state...but to see deeper into it. So, that acknowledgment of the realness of the feeling, actually going into the feeling, watching it, feeling it, and following it thru to the backdrop upon which it takes place gives us further insight to BOTH the finite and infinite aspects of ourselves. We can have experiences of sadness, loss, love, success, etc, and not totally glom onto the experience. The experience does not usurp the experiencer. We have these temporary experiences (whether they be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) and not be consumed by them. We gain (and move from) a broader perspective. We can then see this in others and have more compassion to what others feel ESPECIALLY if they are missing the precious journey to the space that holds it all. In this feeling for and of others we can recognize not only our basic sameness, but that there is no self and other. We can feel and know our oneness with all beings.

I feel the need here to recognize (or at least call into question) that there can be inherent danger in claiming any ONE THING as IT. “THIS IT IS! I’VE GOT IT! THIS IS MY ABSOLUTE GROUND!”... One may tend towards nihilistic tendencies if they get too attached to the absolute as the final ground. We must be able to see the finite and the infinite both for what they truly are and toggle between them skillfully. We have bodies, we are in this world, it must be celebrated, respected and worked with; and the open, vast, spacious, energy that we also are must be in consistently touched. This is beautifully summed up in a quote from Nagarjuna where he proclaims that in order to be fully open and connected with the absolute, we must be firmly grounded in the relative.

“Love tells me I am everything. Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Between the two my life flows.”