From the age of five all the way up until college, I went to LDS church every Sunday, and every Sunday I “partook in the sacrament” by eating a piece of Wonderbread and taking a shot of water in remembrance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
My best friend got engaged today! In honor of her and the role she's played (and continues to play) in my life, here's a journal entry I wrote about her in 2016, describing our final hours together in Idaho, before I moved across the country 12 years ago:
For an entire week the little spider sat there where the floor met the wall across from the toilet. I watched him every time I peed, wondering each time if it would finally be my chance to see him move. At first I thought he was dead, but when I came close to him with the tip of a towel, he flinched just like a living, breathing(?), healthy spider should.
His presence was both comforting and exciting to me. Comforting because I've been getting serious about developing a committed meditation practice lately and I saw him as a great example. Do spiders have hearts? Assuming so, I imagined this monk of a spider's heart rate must have been slowed to one beat per minute -- maybe even hour. I was inspired by his peaceful resolve and comforted by his constant presence, never a millimeter off from where I first saw him.
But why was I excited as well as comforted by the immobile, tiny bathroom spider? Because the last time I noticed the presence of a meditative spider watching me, I knew it was actually God. A sweet, all-knowing, ever present god.
It was dawn. We sat atop our mountain, which we named Passion Peak, simultaneously frazzled from staying up all night and vibrating gloriously from the freshness of our self actualization. We looked over the fields gently sloping to each side of the narrow, carless Arbon Valley country road below and we admired the oms of the holy cows all around us. "This moment is ours," we knew. "And it's equally theirs."
You can't design experiences like the one we had that night, meditating in her living room, in which we both spontaneously woke up to the experience of nonduality, and you can't put an ad out for a soul mate. But at the same time, everything you do contributes to the design which directly determines the experiences you'll have later, in this lifetime or another. You can't force bliss and wonder, but you can increase your chances for bliss and wonder by being bliss and wonder yourself. That's what she showed me, my first goddess of a spiritual guide.
We reminded me of two old ladies on the verge of Buddhahood that morning at Passion Peak, which is funny because we called ourselves Buddhists without knowing anything about Buddhism. But we didn't need dogma. We had Jose confirm that for us. Jose is the spider who watched over our shaktipat the night before. We named God Jose.
We were at ease, under a sky my poetically-stunted 16 year-old mind described, in earnest, as "Dr. Suess's sky." We knew who we were and we were okay with it. We were divine awareness. Love without attachment. And we embodied the truth that everything is, and always has been, and always will be, just as it it should be.
I guess this is how I go...
Helpless in the backseat on the treacherous drive from Madurai to Fort Kochi through the steep, jagged mountains of Kerala, my death contemplation practice has been taken to a brand-new level. And not by choice. We're driving at top speed on a winding one-lane road with no rules and too many impatient drivers. And every time we overtake a bus on a sharp curve, blind -- which is every few minutes -- I'm convinced it's about to be the end of me. I look out the window and see nothing on the side of the mountain to stop us, with one wrong move, from flying down into the deep valley below.
I clutch my new skull necklace close to my heart. I bought it just before India to support my death contemplation practice by reminding me that everything and everyone will die, including me, and it could happen at any time (so I remember to treat each moment as the precious gift it is). And just yesterday I initiated a year-long Kali sadhana to deepen this practice by directly pursuing death of the ego and death of attachments, including to life itself. I feel like Kali's in the car with me now, saying, "This is what you wanted, right? The real stuff?" (She's the Dark One, so it's no surprise she has a dark sense of humor.)
Something odd arises in response. At the height of my conviction that this is the end, I'm surprised to find myself overcome not by a highly amplified version of the gratitude I feel and express on a daily basis, but rather by a deep sadness and disappointment. "So this is it, huh?" I think. "What a bunch of pain and suffering this life has been." Not exactly the thoughts I would have expected from myself.
Now I see that through this experience, Kali was simply reflecting just how much my ego is still in control. I was having what I assume from the viewpoint of the separate self is the inevitable experience of immanent death: Either fear born of attachment to the impermanent (invented meaning) or complete meaninglessness. For me it was a combination of the two: "I'm going to lose the things and people that make things matter" and "Nothing at all has ever mattered." These beliefs were fueling my fear fire. (And, man, did they burn!)
You're reading this blog post, so of course I didn't die. Somehow -- after eight hours of nonstop honking, innards clumping, head throbbing, and teeth threatening to slice off the tip of my tongue -- somehow, I made it out alive. I'm still integrating, but I know I was given the gift of seeing where I really am and the work that's left to do. And I know my skull necklace, after passing through this fire, holds greater meaning than before. There's a sense of greater urgency behind the need to live now. In every moment. And always. (More to come on what that'll look like.) And I have to wonder...though that wasn't the end of me, perhaps I'm one step closer to the end of "me."
It's that time again! Time to set your resolve.
As you may have read, last year my big New Year's resolution was to give up drinking. Entirely. And for the first five months of the year -- beginning cold-turkey in the middle of a vacation to Belize which happened to straddle January 1st -- I actually did. For five months, with the help of a partner who willfully joined me in my efforts, I was nice and sober. Never hungover, and with newfound time and energy, I felt amazing.
But to be honest, I never stopped missing the special treat feeling of having a drink with dinner or the taste of a cold picnic beer on a hot Saturday. So around June, without making myself bad or wrong for it, I gave in to the siren call of all Dolores Park has to offer and began having a drink here and there again. That being said, all year, I never once got drunk. And though I'm technically back on the wagon, as a result of the endeavor I never feel like I "need" a drink anymore, which is wonderfully freeing, and I've expanded my tolerance for reality, no matter how boring or awkward or stressful or even painful it can sometimes be.
So that's a quick look at how I did and what I learned in 2017. (I learned I can do hard things and I can give myself a break too.) Now it's time to look ahead.
I have three resolutions for 2018 (in addition to taking on another five months of sobriety, after returning from India).
First, I resolve to journal at least once a week and record my dreams every morning in the service of self-study, personal growth, leaving a record, and more lucid dreams. While meditation helps develop greater awareness, it's not the place for hands-on processing, which I think is just as important as learning to see the bigger picture. Journaling is my favorite way to process (besides working with my coach). And recording dreams is the best way to increase lucid dream frequency and clarity. I used to be great about both, but it's time to reinstate the habit.
Second, I resolve to take on a home yoga asana practice at least twice a week. In the last year or two, I've been practicing at home way less often than I used to, mainly because I'm in love with too many yoga teachers in San Francisco and I value the community public classes offer. However, nothing can compare to home practice if you want to develop your own personal style (and I do). My inspiration for this resolution came from this yogini I discovered on Instagram. Self-taught, she's been practicing yoga for less than three years, yet she comes up with flows so creative I have to rewatch her videos multiple times just to grasp how she gets from one pose to another. I'm convinced it's because she's her own teacher. With a renewed focus on home practice, I look forward to unlocking my own inner creativity and taking my personal practice to the next level.
Finally, in service of becoming a better coach, I resolve to more fully embrace my own goddess nature and step into my divine femininity. For many years now, I've thought my power lied in my masculine qualities -- in being tough, blunt, and aggressive. I've been rejecting anything gentle or soft (or even easy). But I'm starting to realize I've been missing the point. And now I'm ready to open more fully to openness itself -- to trusting deeply in life herself and what she wants to do through me each day. This means nurturing my intuition and cultivating greater heart in the way I show up. Less edge, more curve, even though that sounds rather terrifying to me. It's time to learn how to melt. (Specific practices for this welcome!)
So that's what I'll be up to next year. Now what are your New Year's resolutions? I'd love to know! Feel free to message me or share them in the comments below. And if you haven't set yours yet, check out my 3 tips for New Year's resolutions here.
Damn it feels good to be home. After an action-packed Advertising Week in New York, I almost cried with joy as I stepped out of the airport and into the clean and crisp San Francisco air.
Between work and weddings and learning and teaching, I've been on 19 flights over the past three months. I've spent far too much time on the road for my taste and far too much time DOING, not enough BEING. And it's been cramping my style. Because though life's offered a lot of stimulation with all its recent assignments and activities, it hasn't been very spacious.
In fact, I've been feeling anything but spacious. Over the past few weeks, swept up in the throes of life's intensity and movement, I've felt overwhelmed, distracted, agitated, and rather confused. In fact, I even feared I'd gone backwards on the spiritual path.
Faced with all kinds of deadlines and deliverables, I've been stress-eating like hell (all paleo intentions out the window), overdoing it with coffee, grinding my teeth, waking up sweating, skipping practices, and constantly judging myself and others -- mind always racing a million miles a minute. And whenever I did find myself with free time, I usually chose to spend it either numbing out or trying to fill it with more activities, when what I really longed for, what my intuition softly called for, was presence, inquiry, and self-compassion.
Yet I didn't give myself any of that until things hit a breaking point in the Newark airport this morning, when I broke into tears over breakfast. Sadness + eggs do not mix in my world. I realized it was time to hit pause.
So I dropped the drama and sat in stillness for 30 minutes, allowing myself to get intimate with what I'd been avoiding for weeks: my own feelings, raw and unadorned. Then I reread my notes from a recent meditation immersion, relishing each insight, remembering who I am. Finally, I chose my themes for my upcoming yoga retreat -- not because I thought I should, but because I felt genuinely inspired. And as I slowly went through these three activities, as I turned inwards, all crescendoing angst, clenching, and desire to escape my life dissolved.
The fact is, I've been wanting out. But today I was reminded that the only way out is in. There's no chance of escape by numbing out, or powering through, or sensory distraction, like I'd been attempting. That only prolongs suffering and creates more anxiety.
Suffering won't go away until you go right into the center of it and be with it like you'd be at the bedside of someone you love if you were tucking them in after a tough day. With compassion. With presence. With love. With "It's going to be okay," but, more importantly, with "It's already okay, and it always has been."
Because it's okay to forget what really matters. It's okay to float out to the periphery and away from your core. It's okay to be human! It's more than okay, really. It's happening, so it's perfect.
And by the way, there's no going backwards on the spiritual path. There's no falling off it, either. We're never NOT on the path, and the path leads straight in. In other words, you're already home -- all you have to do is recognize it and remember.
In the past three weeks, I've had two lucid dreams in which I've declared real life intentions from my Tantrik yoga practice. Here I recount both dreams.
It's been my plan for a few months to attempt to summon the Tantrik goddess of divine intuition and unconditional love Para Vach in a lucid dream so I could see what she looks like to me (because I always have trouble visualizing her in meditation) and to ask for a direct transmission of her blessings. (Aim high, right?) I didn't have a lot of expectations about how this might go, but I really wanted to find out.
So when I finally went lucid on July 20th after an annoyingly long dry spell, I flew up into the clouds and I yelled, "I want to see Para Devi and directly receive her blessings!" Nothing happened, even after several attempts. So I tried a few different iterations of the wording, because subtle wording choices make a big difference in lucid dreams. Eventually, I dropped the demand and the "direct" blessing reception half (which my energy body may not yet be equipped to handle) and just asked "Can I see Para Devi?"
With that question, the clouds in the sky parted and I saw a still, turquoise lake with snow all around. Then it was as if a version of the movie Samsara began to play before my eyes. Unfortunately I don't remember the details now but many, many scenes from life (not my own) came on to that screen/stage in the sky and floated by before me. I found it interesting, but it wasn't really what I asked for.
I woke up disappointed that I didn't get to see Para like I had hoped. But when I shared the dream with my teacher, he reminded me of the beautiful 2nd sutra in his translation of The Recognition Sutras (which I'm currently studying). The sutra reads: "Out of Her own free Will, She unfolds the universe upon the screen that is Herself." My reaction? Pure WOAH. I was expecting to see a human-like goddess figure. (If that's what I wanted, I should have been more specific.) What I saw was goddess awareness in the form of the universe unfolding -- on a screen and everything -- just as depicted in the Tantrik scriptures. Consciousness is incredible, I tell you.
Since my last LD, I've been incubating a new intention: to digest the big undigested experiences from my life that (overtime) have created hard, energy-blocking samskaras within me. This is an important practice in Tantrik yoga, and at this stage in my life, I welcome it. I thought that if I put in the request in a lucid dream I could get the process over with in one fell swoop instead of drawing it out over years (or lifetimes). Ambitious, but worth a try, I thought.
So last night in a dream I was in a helicopter with a friend after dropping someone off at the hospital to have a baby. My friend encouraged me to hop out of the helicopter with him, but I was scared, because we were still about 40 feet off the ground. "You've done it before!" he said as he slipped out the door. I noticed he was floating instead of falling at a gravitationally realistic rate and realized something was up. A moment later, with the shock of recognition ("I'm dreaming!"), I hopped out of the helicopter and flew up into the sky.
Things got dark and I thought I might wake up, but then I found myself in a big house. I must have spent at least 20 minutes walking around in that house, shooting the shit with dream characters, before I finally woke up. Because I let the dream go on for so long, many details (such as dialogue) now escape me, but I do know I was overjoyed to be lucid. And I recall at one point floating through the halls of the house singing, "Om hrim namah shivaya tas maye shri gurave namaha!"
Throughout the dream, I remembered I had a specific intention to implement, but I couldn't remember what it was, so I decided to just enjoy myself until it (hopefully) came to me.
Eventually - with another shock of recognition - it did. I remembered what I wanted to try. I ran to a window, stuck my head out, and shouted up into the sky, "I want to digest my big samskaras!" As if in response, my stomach rumbled -- a sign of digestion? Nothing else happened, but I still ran through the house repeatedly yelling my intention at the top of my lungs for all my dream characters to hear. And then, per usual, my partner moved and I woke up. Unfortunate timing, but at least I was able to plant that important intention directly in my dream, which Tibetan Buddhists say makes it 9X as powerful.
So undigested samskaras, COME GET ME.
At this point -- knock on wood -- I feel like I'm on an LD roll, but I'm not sure what I should try next. So if you have any suggestions, yoga-related or not, please share! I'd also love to hear about your lucid experiences, so please share those as well in the comment section or by contacting me directly.
Photo by Sarah Gustafson
Sthira sukham asanam.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Verse 2.46
Yoga is found in the perfect balance between steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha). Too much focus on steadiness and you create unnecessary tension. Too much ease and you become a lazy floppy noodle, stuck in your ways. Sthira sukham asanam. This might just be my favorite description of yoga. I believe it wholeheartedly. I repeat it to my own students all the time. Yet I struggle with this balance myself. Like many Type-As and recovering Type-As, I tend to overdo the “steadiness” half of the equation, and it’s been weighing me down.
Yesterday I went to Amanda Moran’s Saturday morning class in Hayes Valley. She opened as she usually does, with a story. This time it was a personal story, about how her morning yoga practice was thwarted when her daughter ran into the room and demanded some lovey cuddle time. Amanda explained that at first she was frustrated at being held back from her practice, a frustration that was compounded by the fact time was running out before she had to come teach us. But then she gave in to the magic of what the moment was offering and realized, of course, doing so was yoga.
The point: As yogis we have to be flexible before "what is." Yes, discipline, or steadiness, is important, but is no more important than surrender, or ease.
I have to admit, a tear rolled down my cheek as Amanda spoke these words. It was as if she had been speaking directly to me in my current state. You see, I’ve committed myself to waking up before sunrise each day for my morning ritual, but yesterday I slipped up and slept in. As as a result I didn’t leave myself enough time for a full 30-minute sit and to get ready for Amanda’s class. “Whatever. I’ll take a Lyft,” I told myself. "Because if I don't get this sit in now, everything is ruined."
But when I settled into my seat, my mind refused to join. My mind split itself in two and one side wouldn't stop loudly berated the other for messing everything up. The rigid schoolmaster half of my mind said the other half, “What's the point? It doesn’t count anymore. You broke the routine.” The other half of my mind tried to make things right by stopping to add 10 more minutes to the clock. “It’s okay,” she said. “We just need a little more time to calm down this morning, I see.” This went on and on until it was time to leave, causing my inner discipline junkie to explode. “Fine! We’ll meditate later," she said. "But it’s not going to make up for this."
I went to Amanda’s in a foul mood -- stressed out, ironically, by meditation. But I'm glad I showed up, because Amanda reminded me of what I needed to hear -- that discipline can be overdone. As yogis, we have to learn to be flexible, especially given that most of what happens in life is completely out of our control. Sthira sukham asanam. I let myself surrender to her words and to life at large. Then I recommitted myself. Not to my rigid rituals, but to joy itself.
After class I went home and did my meditation practice. And you know what? Nothing was ruined at all.
“Awake in a dream! Awake in a dream! I’m awake in a dream!”
This is my favorite dream yoga practice mantra. What’s it for? Making it a habit to repeat (and believe) these words during waking hours makes one more likely to repeat them in a dream, and repeating these words in a dream is almost sure to make the dreamer realize she’s dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is both fun and incredibly powerful, but in order to deliberately navigate a dream, we first have to wake up within the dream state. Until then, we just stumble along, much like we do in this life, from one scene and situation to another, blind to the truth of our circumstance.
When we’re in our default state of dream consciousness -- that is, unaware we’re dreaming -- we tend not to question what we sense and perceive. (Why would we? Carried along by sights, sounds, smells, plots, and emotions, it's all we can do to slap on a role and keep up with what unfolds around us.) For example, in a recent dream I encountered a strange combination of a hippo and a mouse, the size of my palm. Someone in the dream told me the odd creature was a “baby seal,” and I took it in stride. “Sure,” I thought. “I guess that’s what a baby seal looks like.” But if I had simply paused to really consider what I was seeing, I could have snapped into lucidity, opening myself to the wonderland of conscious dream exploration.
It’s kind of funny, how blindly accepting we are in our dreams. But the fact that most of us live our “waking” lives in a similar way is not funny.
From the moment we rise in the morning, most of us are far from conscious. We wake up already steeping in the melodramas of our stories, our minds swirling with things we needs to buy, emails we needs to write, judgements about ourselves and others, conversations we had and conversations we imagine, fragments of songs, and fantasies for the weekend. We continue to bathe in the swirl of our ego's thoughts through getting dressed, eating breakfast, commuting, working, exercising, and interacting with loved ones, our inner commentary never on break. Finally, we go to bed at night with our minds still a circus until eventually we fall asleep.
As if our very existence were a dream, most of us spend our days without ever consciously pausing to witness, to establish real presence, to wake up to what is.
To awaken in our dreams we have to realize we’re dreaming. To Awaken in our lives we also have to realize we’ve been dreaming. For a spiritually fulfilling life, we must wake up in the dream of this conditioned existence. We must awaken to the truth of who we really are and what really matters.
I can tell you who you really are: love. I can also tell you what really matters: also, love. But for you to hear this is one thing -- you won’t really know it until you feel it in your beautiful bones. And only you can wake yourself up. So go ahead and whisper it in your own ear: "Wake up, sleepyhead! It's lucid time!"
Blog photograph by Sarah Gustafson
This morning I woke up with a throbbing temple and smarting, knotted shoulders. My brain felt raw against my skull. "That's it!" I said to myself for the trillionth time. "I'm done with drinking!" Except this time it only took one drink to get me to this state, an Anchor Steam Winter Ale I cracked open and enjoyed last night over Netflix's new show, The OA. The brew was tasty and refreshing, a welcome treat at the end of a day's work. But was it worth it?
My body has been sending me consistently clearer signs it doesn't like when I drink, and I'm finally ready to listen. In addition to my ongoing "golden rule" resolution, my resolution for 2017 is to give up alcohol.
My New Year's resolutions for the past few years have consistently included "drink less," but this year I'm taking it one step further, because "drink less" hasn't been enough. I've wasted too many hours that could've been productive and full of life on hangovers. On headaches and body aches and misery and confusion and regret. Moreover, I want to be fully present and lucid in each moment. Drinking prevents that, and therefore has to be let go.
I'll admit giving up alcohol is not going to be easy for me. First of all, alcohol is everywhere. It's a quick way to (temporarily) destress. And, most importantly, I actually love the taste of beer. I crave it with dinner, after yoga (I know!), and during times of leisure (like when kicking back on the beaches of Belize as I'll be doing in January). I think it's fair to say I've been pretty attached to alcohol.
But now I'm starting to understand this renunciation won't be as hard as I've previously thought it would be either. With the growing clarity I've been cultivating through meditation has come a true courage that liquid courage pales in comparison to. The courage to just be, even when that being is awkward, bored, or stressed. These days I feel simultaneously grounded and light and strong. It's time.
As you set your own New Year's resolutions for 2017, here are my three tips:
#1 Think About What Really Matters
Are you looking beyond the superficial? A quick way to tell is to ask yourself whether your goals are driven by ego or something else. For example, is losing 10 pounds really going to solve your problems, or is there something deeper at the root of your suffering, such as over-identification with your physical form? If so, why not attack that instead?
#2 Keep It Simple
If you're like me, most years you make too many resolutions, and end up keeping very few. In our culture we tend do go a bit overboard with the drive to achieve. Last year I set more than ten intentions, including learning Turkish and finishing my 500 hour Yoga Alliance teacher training certification. (I did neither.) It's not that there's anything wrong with leaving resolutions incomplete. The problem lies in spreading ourselves too thin by attempting so many big things at the same time. We risk getting tired, forgetting to enjoy each moment for what it is, and losing clarity. Try choosing quality over quantity this year.
#3 Look Back On Old Intentions and Surprise Yourself
This one's for your own amusement, and perhaps for some inspiration as well. What did you resolve to do last New Year's? How about ten years ago? In preparation for writing this, I looked back through my old resolutions. Just three years ago, I resolved to "practice yoga two times a week." Now I'm teaching it, and three+ times a week! After you write down your resolution(s)/intention(s) this year, try hiding them somewhere you never look. If/when, years later, you stumble upon what you wrote, you might be surprised by just how much you've grown. As Pattabhi Jois loved to say, "Practice and all is coming!"
One last thing: When you break out your eggnog (spiked or not) and get down to setting your intentions, don't forget you're already perfect, so avoid thinking in terms of changing yourself, but rather removing the ego clutter layered on top over the years. And when you're done planting your seeds, consider treating yourself to a sweet 20-minute savasana :)
Happy Holidays, and see you in the new year!
Blog photograph by Sarah Gustafson
This weekend I had the pleasure of partaking in a three-day advanced sadhana intensive with my teacher Annie Carpenter. During a dharma talk about what characterizes "advanced" practice, Annie explained that the spiritual path becomes more narrow, more razor-like, as the walker gets more skilled. The narrowing represents the increasing subtlety of the practitioner's work as she sharpens her discernment.
As I've been experiencing for myself lately, the work required by the numerically higher limbs of Patanjali's yoga certainly is more subtle than that required by asana. Meditation (dhyana) is the 7th limb, the one right before samadhi (liberation). I've been working on developing a meditation practice for about six months now, and -- let me tell you -- though the humble pie I've been served is not so subtle, the practice is.
When I sit, one-by-one, old, unhelpful ideas and thought patterns I've been repressing or ignoring or believed I'd killed come to whisper in my ear, like, "Hi. You thought your work was complete? I'm still here." I'm beginning to realize the inner work I've done to date hasn't addressed the roots of my problems so much as their symptoms. Because when it's just me and my mind for an hour at a time, the unbroken roots that still remain reveal themselves in all their tangled glory.
For example, meditating has made clear I haven't conquered my self-directed severity to the extent I thought I had. When I'm sitting and realize I forgot my breath for the past few minutes, I always get an overwhelming urge to reset my alarm to make up for the "wasted time." Then I get angry at myself for being so uptight (and, as a result, lose my breath again). At this rate, it seems it'll take decades just to get the hang of being nice to myself, let alone liberation.
But though the remaining work is daunting, it's exciting to begin again. And, as a fun consequence of taking the next step in honing my yoga practice, I've been inspired to look back on my first year practicing yoga asana with nostalgia and a certain fondness. There's a pleasant recognition. I've been through this struggle before.
Sometimes I get frustrated when students in my class are rude, impatient, or uncooperative, but I usually remember to check myself. Because that used to be me. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I was actually quite the problem student myself. I'd regularly show up late to class, stare at the mirror and compare myself to others throughout practice, and push myself into poses I had no business even attempting. Thanks goodness I never got myself injured. I should have. And I probably deserved to be yelled at as well. My ego was too big for the studio.
But once things started clicking, I could barely hold on to my idea of myself. The doors to infinity were suddenly thrown open before me and the light of truth streamed in to blind me. Every day a new revelation came.
Today part of me wishes I could go back and relive Chapter 1 of my journey, but pay more attention to my not-so-subtle metamorphosis as it unfolded. Because it was during those early days that I turned on the most street lamps, that I had the most moving lucid dreams, that I met the love of my life. Now the universe speaks to me in whispers, which are beautiful, but harder to pick out.
So if you're still just beginning your yoga practice, I urge you to savor the process and really pay attention to it. You may never grow in such big leaps again. This is the time when you get to chop down the gnarly trees of your self-created suffering. Enjoy the thuds they make when they fall. Before you know it, you'll move on to the silent and invisible but truly transformational undertaking of root extermination as you walk the razor's edge.
Before and during tests in high school and college I'd repeat a silent mantra to reassure myself of my abilities, fighting to drown out the conditioned voice in my head saying things like, "Give up -- math's not meant for girls." And despite all I've accomplished, to this day at work I remain self-conscious about how I come across in any interaction. Too soft and thus an incompetent pushover? Too hard, so obviously a heartless bitch? Or just right and therefore still unqualified?
Over the years, my mindfulness practice has helped reveal previously unconscious beliefs I've been clutching, such as the harmful belief that women don't deserve the same opportunities men do, or that all men see women as objects, worth their bodies and sandwich-making abilities and nothing more. I've worked hard to unravel this conditioning that doesn't serve me or anyone else. And I've been making progress. Our nation, I thought, was making progress. Then last night happened.
Last night we were forced to look at ourselves under unforgiving florescent lights, at a paranoid image of hate, fear, and separation. It was a shocking reflection for me and many others. I've known I've been living in a bubble in San Francisco, but I didn't understand just how different things were outside of my world of diverse, open-minded, open-hearted friends, colleagues, and fellow yogis.
I woke up feeling like I'd been hit by a semi this morning. I did a reality check to make sure I wasn't dreaming. I looked in the mirror and saw tired, swollen eyes. I willingly drank the sadness cocktails my Facebook feed spun up, and I debated posting various vitriolic statements myself. But now I'm thinking about what comes next, and how I might be of service.
Recently everywhere I look I see this word: "bodhicitta." Granted, I've also been surrounding myself with books written by the Dalai Lama, but still -- this word in particular is catching my eye, ringing in my head. The practice of bodhicitta is the practice of putting others above ourselves. And a bodhisattva is someone so committed to bodhicitta that she chooses to delay nirvana, instead pledging to remain until all sentient beings are free of suffering.
Of course, this is no easy feat. But this is what we should all strive towards.
I've had a lot of thoughts today. We all have. But the end of the day I keep coming back to this: Despite our differences, we all have something in common. And that is the fact that we all suffer. Everyone does. Even Trump supporters. Even, of course, Donald Trump himself. Not everyone is suffering over the outcome of the election today, but we're all suffering over something. Loss. Poverty. Injustice. Unrequited love. Impermanence. Across the world there is pain.
But guess what, yogis? We can do something about it. In fact, we absolutely have to, if we really care as much as we've been claiming to. We can't leave our efforts at a Facebook-status-update level -- that's not enough. It's time to give more, love deeper, and serve harder.
Dr. Angela Davis said, "I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept." This is what we must do if we want to see the world awaken. We have to show up, awakened, and share our own light. This is the practice, and it's not on the mat. It's out there in the streets and schools and shelters, and anyone can take part.
With Liberty and Bodhicitta For All,
Stop right now and ask yourself this question: "What are the top three words I'd use to describe my yoga practice?"
This is a sincere request. Before reading any further, please complete the exercise. How would you describe your practice? Three words, and be honest.
Did you do it?
What did you come up with?
If you're new to yoga (and were honest with yourself), you might have words like "confusing," "frustrating," "struggle," "competition" - even "torture." Hell, you don't have to be a beginner - there are days/poses/teachers that bring these feelings out in all of us.
Now, if you've been practicing for at least a few years, chances are you chose words like "relaxing," "concentration," "focus," and "breath." And these words describe a lovely practice. But I'm not satisfied with them.
What about joy? Love? Gratitude? Ecstasy? Wonder? Surrender? Were any of these words on your list? If not, I hope they will be soon.
In the beginning, the yoga asana practice is about improving our physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. We learn to hold and breathe in the poses in a way that breaks up energetic blockages and makes space for prana to flow freely through the body. We prepare our vessel.
But once the foundations are established, the practice can become something much greater. After we fulfill our basic needs from the practice, we're ready to stop asking and start offering.
If we let it, the practice can be a joyous celebration of life itself.
This is my favorite way to practice. I close or half-close my eyes. I suffuse every breath, every transition with meaning. Sometimes I cry, if I need to cry. I savor the music, the movement, the moment. I saturate ever fiber of my being with my intention, whether it's to send love and happiness to someone I work with, to forgive someone who's hurt me, or to offer deep gratitude for all of existence. I surrender to the infinite wisdom of the universe. I'm not afraid to say it: I worship.
Practicing in this way is delicious. It's like eating a juicy watermelon on a trampoline on a hot July day. It's bliss. It's the ultimate.
But you might not get that from taking my class. Here's my struggle: it's hard to teach alignment and surrender at the same time. It's not that they can't coexist. When an experienced yogi understands how to contain her flexibility, stay with her breath, move from her center, and respect her own physical limitations, and understands these principles so well she can keep them on autopilot, then she can absolutely practice surrender on a foundation of alignment. This is what I do.
But practicing both is one thing. Teaching both is quite another. Focusing on alignment and surrender simultaneously is incredibly hard to pull off. It generally leads to too much talking by the teacher and cognitive dissonance, if not complete bewilderment, in the students. Most teachers fall into the Annie Carpenter camp (alignment) or the Rusty Wells camp (surrender). Few teachers can nail down a mix, at least in the same class (although Amanda Moran and Stephanie Snyder do a damn good job). I certainly haven't figured out how to do it.
I might hope to focus on cultivating "joy" in class, for example, but when I look around and see yogis pointing their toes and knees in opposite directions or attempting to force themselves into a pose they aren't ready for, I have to step in and bring the focus down to Earth, down to the physical minutia of skeletal alignment. And, even beyond safety, alignment is important to me for the sake of developing technique. Yoga is most certainly not about achievement, but I want my students to be able to progress physically in their practice as well as spiritually. And you can't learn handstand if you haven't learned plank.
Maybe one day I'll discover a better way, but for now my approach is this: Safety first. Teach with alignment as a foundation, but hold space for everyone to explore something greater through the intentions I always have them set at the beginning of class, and offer everything I can from my own intention of celebrating this beautiful existence we all share. I teach with a focus on alignment, but as I do I invite my fellow souls to be curious, playful, and lighthearted in their manner, so they may one day come to describe their practice as "blissful," "soulful," and "celebratory" on their own.
I'm recently back from my very first meditation retreat, the one I've been "training for" by sitting (almost) daily each morning for the past few months. The 6-night silent insight meditation retreat was at Spirit Rock (just north of SF), and the theme was "Mindfulness and the Spirit of Creativity." It totally rocked my world.
Before diving into a day in the life, I should note that everyone I've spoken with about the retreat asks if I was really in complete silence for the whole week. I wasn't. On this retreat, we were allowed to speak in our writers' breakout group as well as after the dharma talks if we wanted to ask a question. I also confess I engaged in some chatting during my work meditation. So go ahead and sue me :P
One of my fellow retreatants hits the bell outside the meditation hall as part of his assigned work meditation for the week, waking me out of a light sleep in my twin bed in Karuna. I remember that I woke up belly-laughing in the middle of the night from something in a dream and this causes me to laugh again, though I can no longer remember specifically what was so funny. My roommate (who I can't talk to, of course) must think I'm completely bonkers. I'm too full of joy to mind.
In the dark I collect my toiletries and head to the bathroom down the hall to quickly wash my face and brush my teeth before shuffling through the pre-sunrise cold, misty morning to the first sit of the day.
Insight: I'm excited to meditate(?!)
What I think about (or rather, what thoughts arise, some of which I pursue) as I sit in silence, trying to keep my attention focused on the sensations of breath at the tip of my nose: Broad City, whether or not my out-of-office message successfully turned on, the hard-boiled egg (with salt, pepper, and hot sauce) I plan to eat at breakfast, the fact that I should bring more socks, a blow dryer, and my own ground coffee next time, and what I might write a memoir about.
Insight: Things I do NOT think about: alcohol, meat, social media, my cell phone, or my upcoming yoga retreat. (Okay, maybe I think about the retreat for a second.)
After breakfast I wander up the path into the hills above our dorms. My first intention is to give traditional walking meditation a go, moving ever-so-slowly and focusing on the feeling of my feet rolling over the earth with each step. But after about six steps it's clear this isn't going to work. I could have forced it to, but it would have been a travesty to subdue the pure bliss bubbling up from the core of my being at the opportunity to go on the first solo nature hike of my life and EXPLORE. After all, my element is there in the beautiful, vibrating surroundings of the trail and it's calling me to come be one with it. I take the Tantric approach and embrace all of my senses. I don't regret it.
I climb into an ocean of fog and inhale eucalyptus. I'm buzzing as I take in all the life and sights around me. The energy in the land is palpable. Whenever I feel the urge to stop before a tree or lizard, I stop. I wonder. I bask. When I emerge from the fog I look around to see a breathtaking kingdom of nature below me, above me, and around me. I continue ascending to the peak and directly into the sun in outright ecstasy, laughing and crying at once, alone but also not alone at all.
At the top of a mountain I close my eyes and breathe, allowing the sun to soak into my skin. I've got nowhere else to be and nothing to do. But soon I feel a presence, so I lift my lids. A giant hawk has landed five feet away from me. We watch each other for a while. I recall Walt Witman's words. "Don't be afraid of the merge."
"Did someone spike my coffee this morning?" I wonder. Or is this kind of bliss always available inside?
Insight: My hiking experience reinforces that nondual Tantra is the path for me. I don't want to renounce my senses, for THROUGH my senses (just as well as through withdrawing them), I experience the Divine. It's everywhere. All we have to do is pay attention.
The second sit of the day is an hour long. After about 20-25 minutes every time I sit, without exception, my right outer hip area starts to scream a song of hot, hot heat. I try to tough it out for a few minutes, but eventually it's so distracting I stop reaping the benefits of meditation. So I transition to a hero's pose (kneeling), still seated on my two zafus. No big deal.
This week I've introduced so much more compassion for myself in my meditation. When I want to check if it's a spider or a hair tickling my neck, I go ahead and check. It finally dawns on me that a little movement during my sits won't prevent my Awakening.
Insight: I've been too rigid with my practice for too long. Especially for a recovering uber Type A, an unforgiving, rule-obsessed approach to practice doesn't serve as much as a tender, merciful one does.
I practice yoga in my room. This isn't my usual home practice flow. This is 5X slower, with way fewer warriors and way more hip openers. I don't do a single chaturanga. I practice with my next sit in mind.
Insight: I'm practicing yoga the way it was originally meant to be practiced: as a preparation for lots of sitting. It feels amazing.
We reconvene in the meditation hall to listen to the daily dharma talk, which is led by a different teacher each day of the retreat. Today's theme is how mindfulness and creativity are connected.
At the end of the wise, wonderful teaching, an old man from the painting group asks about why creativity seems to come in bursts, even for great artists. "How can we sustain creativity?" he asks.
One of the teachers responds beautifully, likening creativity to a peach tree. We want to make a peach pie, so we're always waiting for ripe peaches, she says. But peaches ripen according to a process. And every aspect of the growth of the tree is just as important to the peach pie as the moment the peaches are ripe for picking. Creativity is a practice, just like yoga, just like meditation, just like enlightenment itself.
Insight: Awakening is an accident, and meditation makes us more accident-prone. Similarly, a creative bust is an accident, and mindfulness makes us more accident-prone.
"The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgement."
I smile at this quote on my teabag tag as I nurse a mug of echinacea. I've just finished eating a bowl of warm potato leek soup one sip at a time, eyes closed between spoonfuls in order to better savor all the flavors and textures and in gratitude for the food itself and those who prepared it. This is how we eat here, and I love it.
I glance up at the clock and realize it's time to gulp down the rest of my tea. Because I ate dinner at such a leisurely pace I don't have much time left before I need to go back into the kitchen to start my daily work meditation shift as a dishwasher. All day, I've secretly been looking forward to this moment.
There's something so satisfying about getting my hands dirty after all this time "just being." I enjoy my role of soaking and spraying down dishes, then passing them into the powerful speed dish washer. Also, this is my time to bond with my fellow shift-worker, Carolyn. It's the first time she's ever lived alone, she tells me today. I wonder if her partner has recently died, but I don't ask.
Insight: There is bliss in simplicity. And if I may go one step further, simplicity is bliss.
The second creativity breakout session of the day begins. (The first was before the dharma talk.) I'm in the writer's group. The other option was painting (which I might try next time). Thus far on the retreat I've written an ode to Shakti, several haikus, and many stream-of-consciousness recollected memories from youth. I've also free-written on many themes, including:
- "The Song of Myself is the song of _____." (I filled in the blank with "the color orange.")
- "A time I was lost" (inspired my an excerpt from Cheryl Stayed's Wild)
- "That autumn night..."
Tonight our teacher kicks us off on a free write with the prompt "What will I miss when I die?" The only rule is to keep the pen moving. After about five minutes his duck alarm quacks. Time's up. He opens the floor for sharing, and it quickly becomes clear that the prompt was a triggering one for our group comprised mostly of Buddhists.
"I won't miss anything when I die," someone says. "I'll be dead." Five more people agree.
Then one woman who has been grieving the death of her mother raises her hand. In tears she talks about how difficult the prompt was for her because of her fresh loss. But then she notes that recalling details about her mother as she wrote almost brought her mother back to life for a moment. "I realize that's both the pain and the pleasure of memory," she says, smiling through the tears. "And that's the pain and pleasure of writing."
Insight: When we write from a place of truth we write with one foot in samsara and one in the stream of the Divine. Details make the writing powerful. We should notice the images, thoughts, and emotions they evoke, but we don't need to get attached to these.
I get ready for bed after the 9pm evening group sit, the last sit of the day. Before I turn off the light on my nightstand and do my pre-sleep dream yoga, I jot down a few more insights:
- Anyone who cultivates mindfulness and openness can tap into mind-blowing divine creativity.
- Meditation isn't boring and practicing it doesn't make one boring. Quite the opposite, it seems.
- Life makes sense, even if we'll never see or understand all its ruling principles.
- Who needs Burning Man when such deep connection, ecstasy, and transformation can be found in a week of renunciation and simplicity? Yes, I think I foresee a three-month silent retreat in my future.
When I think back to my very first meditation retreat, I'll think of tissues, knobby hands, yellow gloves, mugs, vinegar spray, socks, shawls, fog, bees, and wild mindful turkeys like aging pharaohs. I'll think with tenderness of my dishwashing partner and the many times I saw her sitting on a bench alone, baking in the sun and basking in the moonlight. I'll think of the beautiful humans I danced with in silence on the last night of the retreat and the hug I shared with a friend whose voice I'd yet to hear and name yet to know. I'll think of Anna's words: "Things come to you as a child, and there's no way to say 'No thank you.'" I'll see bubbles of disappearance and laugh at the memory of waking up to my own laughter. But mostly I'll think of the boundless love that I felt and that I intend to make it my practice to offer more of, more often.
Last night I had not one but three lucid dreams, thanks to the (totally legal) dream lucidity cheat pill: galantamine. An extract from the Red Spider Lily, galantamine is a memory enhancer with the awesome side effect of augmented dream recall. Taking it can result in lucid dreaming too, especially if it's ingested several hours into one's sleep cycle. The stuff works. I've tried it five times now (over a period of several months) and it's led to lucidity 5/5 times for me.
I'm currently reading a book on Dream Yoga and I'm signed up to take a lucid dreaming course with Fariba Bogzaran in September, but, despite having dreams on my mind these days as much as ever, it has been quite a while since I've had a lucid dream. For the past few months I've been cutting out precious REM time by waking up an hour earlier than usual each day to meditate. I'm certainly enjoying the benefits of meditation so far, but I've been missing my lucid adventures too. So yesterday I decided to take a bit of a shortcut. Knowing I could sleep in today, last night I went to bed at midnight and set my alarm to wake me up five hours later.
Right before my alarm went off at 5am, I was actually already in a mildly lucid dream. In it, I had been watching two people partake in a Pokemon battle (at least that's what I think it was) in an otherwise bare room. They were throwing red energy balls at each other. But these seemed to originate from their bare hands, causing me to question reality and recognize I was dreaming. Once I realized I was dreaming, I somehow "knew" I was in a layer of hell and that each floor below was another (presumably worse) layer. Naturally, I decided to check them out.
I went down one flight of stairs and entered a room of violinists sitting poised to perform against an ominous backdrop of glowing red light. They began playing their violins to a tune I couldn't immediately place though it instantly caused my chest to flood with emotion. As soon as I realized it was I Love You Always Forever, I realized why and broke out laughing in delight.
I hadn't heard this song in probably at least a decade, but it used to mean a great deal to me. This was my song in the first grade, a time of great creativity but also great loneliness and longing for me. I'd sit with my radio in the front yard for hours at a time that year, listening to KORR 104 and praying my song would come on. I lived for when it did. And now I was hearing it again, over 15 years later, in this silly dream "hell."
After the song I noticed a small group of other people watching the performance too. Curious if they were also lucid dreamers dreaming the same dream (something I'm prone to suspect while I'm in a lucid dream), I asked them, "Who are you?"
A young, well-dressed man told me (somewhat incredulously), well, he was in finance and had a family and liked sports and drinking and fashion and was just trying to get by, really -- aren't we all? He had a point. As I was contemplating that we're all just dreamers trying to remember not to take everything (including "hell") at face value, my alarm went off.
After taking the galantamine (8 mg of it, chased with 500mg of choline to prevent any headaches), I had two more dreams. Both were "wake-induced," meaning I did not become lucid in a "normal" dream. I entered each dream lucidly. In the first, I found myself in a big, dark basement. I chose to follow the darkness, because in dreams that's where there's more to learn about ourselves, according to dream yoga. I found a bunch of teens passed out on various couches. One of them told me they were all "wasted" thanks to their "manager."
That's when I remembered (excitedly) that last night I had set out to sing the Gayatri mantra within my dream. So, accompanied by my new friend, I lucidly sang the beautiful mantra until I woke up.
I lay still and replayed my first two lucid dreams of the night until I entered a third one, also set in a basement. But I didn't want to be in a building anymore, so I practiced LaBerge's spinning technique as I set an intention to change the dream scene to a forrest. Unfortunately, the only result was dizziness so I had no choice but to take the long(er) route.
I found my way out of the building and took to the sky, flying with a tired dream body (which might have been a result of the galantamine). I flew until the terrain looked sufficiently forrest-y. When I landed, I found some interesting creatures that looked like deflated green and purple rubber costumes, but filled up and came to life when I spoke to them. I can't remember what they said, but I remember they were kind of cute. And that's all I remember.
When I woke up, Breakfast at Tiffany's was playing in my head. Not sure how it got there (was it playing in my dream?), but I didn't hate it. My stomach felt a little odd from the pills, but as soon as I ate some eggs (after writing down my dreams of course), I felt fine. All in all, last night was worth it, and taking galantamine continues to be my one bulletproof recommendation for achieving night-of lucidity.
Give galantamine a go and share your experience in the comments! And feel free to send me your dreams (lucid or not) whenever you feel so inclined.
Everyone and their mom is talking about virtual reality. It’s the new hotness, and for good reason. Virtual reality now has the potential to transform the realms of entertainment, education, psychology, health care, gaming, fashion, art, sports, science and more beyond the degree almost anyone could have predicted just a few years ago. VR can deliver to your living room awe-inspiring, larger-than-life experiences you could never otherwise have accessed. It’s a means of time travel, teleportation and transcendence. But if some of the biggest virtual reality proponents gave lucid dreaming a try, I wonder if VR wouldn’t lose some of its seduction.
Before I get into that, though, I want to clarify I'm not about to suggest the practice of lucid dreaming is superior to, let alone a replacement for virtual reality technology. I admit that there are practical applications of virtual reality that lucid dreaming simply does not address. For example, lucid dreaming cannot be used to see/visit "real" places. When you "visit" a physical location (on this earth or far across the universe) in a lucid dream, you will always be visiting your conception of it. VR won't actually transport you to that place either, but you could very well find yourself in a visually-accurate simulation of it. Lucid dreaming also cannot deliver the experience of being present at a live event -- think a concert or game -- in real time like VR can (with its 3D camera and live stream technology). (Unless, of course, you believe in astral travel.) And, unlike VR, lucid dreaming is not a viable solution for professional problems such as building planning, surgery training or crime scene reconstruction. Finally, VR does not require practice or skills like lucid dreaming does -- all you need is money to access VR.
But with all that said, lucid dreaming can offer much that VR cannot.
First of all, when lucid dreaming you aren’t limited by anybody else’s imagination or production output like you are with virtual reality. Once you shift into lucidity, your dream becomes a completely open creativity playground unique to you and to that moment, where the only bounds are your imagination, your awareness and your expectations (such as whether gravity should exist or not). You become all all-powerful artist, witch/warlock, even god/dess. With VR, no matter how much flexibility you have in exploring and shaping your environment, you’ll always be working within the bounds of somebody else’s vision and code.
Next, a big one for me: the lucid dreaming experience engages all five senses - not just audio and visual like VR. In a lucid dream you can choose to see and hear but also smell, taste and feel anything you can imagine. Like many lucid dreamers, I’ve flown like a bird through both the day and night skies in my dreams, receiving the exhilaration of flight throughout my entire body. I've tried strange treats dreamt up by my mind with mouth-watering results. I’ve swam with fish, feeling on my skin the water in addition to seeing it surround me. Others have even experienced living in the opposite sex’s body. In VR it may look and sound like you’re in another world, but without involving your other senses you won’t fully feel as if you’re there. (Virtual reality technology is still in its infancy, however. A full sensory experience may become possible through VR technology in a matter of time, and learning from the physiology of lucid dreaming could help with this development.)
Lucid dreaming also offers something sacred that virtual reality will never be able to: a direct connection between your conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds, enabling you to actually ask questions of the unseen observer within and receive answers to them. (As a bit of an aside, certain hallucinogenic drugs might also make this pathway to higher consciousness available, sure, but with drugs you would have to give up the reins to what exactly you see and experience in exchange for that access. Thus the application of hallucinogens becomes much less useful if you have a specific intention around what you’d like to find in/ask of your unconscious. In lucid dreams you’re, well, lucid.) To go one step further, there's no VR equivalent to the spiritual aspects of lucid dreaming in general. For example, you cannot use VR to plant an intention into your own subconscious or interface with your inner spirit guide through VR.
Finally, lucid dreaming is free as well as ad free, whereas virtual reality devices are expensive and the experience won't be immune to marketing for long. (Though imagine how effective lucid-dream-delivered ads could be if they were possible. And equally annoying…just picture one taking over your dream just as you were soaring up into an unknown galaxy!)
At the end of the day, though, I see more similarities between virtual reality and lucid dreaming than differences. In a Venn diagram of VR and LD, the center would not be a sliver. There’s plenty of overlap in terms of both use cases and benefits:
- Adventure (from battling beasts to racing cars to traipsing through a jungle)
- Practice (from landing a plane to singing before a group to having challenging conversations at work)
- Meditation (In VR and lucid dreams you can enjoy meditating while surrounded by a simulated valley of peace. But in a lucid dream you can go one step further and directly experience your Oneness with the universe by being an animal, an inanimate object, a sound or even energy itself.)
- Breaking through phobias (You can choose to face that which you fear most — encountering spiders or reliving a painful memory, for example — with both VR and lucid dreaming in order to train yourself to move past the fear.)
- Entertainment (Music, drama, action, romance — entertainment of every flavor can be available through both VR and lucid dreaming, though, again, in lucid dreams you can’t experience real events in real time and in VR you can’t design and create the entertainment yourself from scratch.)
- Education (In VR a qualified external teacher or program can teach you something brand new and in a comprehensive manner. Through lucid dreaming you can teach yourself what you didn’t know you knew, surfacing your own tacit and implicit knowledge.)
- Escape (Though only VR allows you to do this on the spot and during your waking life.)
- Exploration (From actual museums and planets with VR, to the corners of your own mind and levels of your own consciousness with lucid dreaming, both VR and LD are ripe with potential to feed your inner explorer.)
So there you have it. Ultimately virtual reality and lucid dreaming satisfy many of the same goals but in different ways while also presenting very unique uses. Personally, I'm excited about using VR as a way to strengthen my lucid dreaming practice, providing a powerful means of conditioning for in-dream lucidity while awake. I hope someone will develop a lucid-dream-trainer app or game soon!
Lucid dreamers and VR fanatics, please comment below with your own thoughts on the topic of VR vs./plus LD!
"I'm going to meditate and practice yoga every day while in Japan," I told myself just before heading there for a two-week vacation. I sincerely believed it at the time too -- but yeah, right.
When I actually found myself there I didn't want to sit still and "just breathe." I wanted to immediately dive into my surrounds, into the sights, into Japanese culture. And into Japanese food.
Instead of starting my mornings off with yoga, most days began with desperately trying to find breakfast in a country that doesn't really do breakfast places (but apparently still does breakfast). I'd usually end up at Mos Burger, the only eatery around open before 11am, where I'd chow down on a rice, egg and soy sauce sandwich and alternate between sipping coffee and miso soup. Then I'd waste no time in taking to the streets, rarely coming back to my hostel before sundown -- there was too much to see. And too much people-watching to do.
The first several days (the entire time I was in Tokyo) the bliss of practicing yoga took a clear backseat to the joy of exploring a fascinating and brand-new-to-me country. But eventually, in Kyoto, I began to crave some breath-led movement and centering. I was getting cranky, sluggish and overwhelmed by mental clutter. I missed my practice. It was time to circle back to the mat.
Instead of practicing at the Airbnb apartment I stayed at, where where there wasn't much space and because I was incredibly curious, I decided to check out what public yoga in Japan was all about. Over the course of three days, I attended three yoga classes, all taught in Japanese, at a studio called Tamisa in the middle of a shopping center not far from Gion. The first class was Level 1 Vinyasa. It was very slow. Lots of low lunges. The second was a busy Level 2 Vinyasa class. It was less slow. Lots of low lunges. The final class I took was a noon class, something called Tri Yoga. It was the slowest, but also the most challenging class of the three. There was a strong focus (I inferred from the teacher's body language) on smooth ujjayi and moving with the breath. Lots of low lunges. An unreal amount of cat-cows.
Chaturanga wasn't instructed once in any of the three classes I attended (though I have to admit I snuck a couple in). And the unhurried pace felt great. It was the perfect vacation yoga.
I wonder if most yoga in Japan is in line with what I experienced: gentle, leisurely and more focused on stretching than strength. I should probably practice that way more often.
In my personal practice, I know have an excess of fire that needs to be balanced, but even though I know water'd be good for me, I only ever crave fire. I'm always thinking "vigor." I avoid restorative and yin and anything too sleepy, but in Japan it came to me. And, you know what? I didn't hate it.
In fact, in Okinawa, my last stop in Japan, I stayed at a summer cottage with plenty of floor room for yoga. I finally rekindled my home practice there, and I did it in the Japanese style. I lingered in each breath and doused each pose in breath. Three-legged down dog, which is usually a one-breath affair, I held for five. And it felt like smooth, hot sake in my body. You might guess I took several low lunges. I did indeed. And I certainly took my sweet time to wind it all down before savasana.
Looking back on the trip, I explored a lot and practiced a little (but the little I did do taught me a thing or two about the power inherent in practicing with tenderness). I think I did alright in terms of maintaining balance...for a vacation. But next time I'll bring breakfast bars so I can at least fuel a daily morning meditation session. #vacationyoga
I'm back from two sensory, delicious, relaxing, cherry-blossom-filled weeks in Japan!
Though I'm glad to be home in SF again, where there are Whole Foods and public trashcans on every corner and people don't smoke cigarettes in restaurants, I know this trip is going to be one I return to time and time again in my mind. There will surely be days when I'll crave the ramen, sushi, okonomiyaki, gyoza, Asahi, and Boss coffee cans that come out hot-to-the-touch from vending machines. And I'm going to miss seeing the world's cutest babies (which there were a ton of everywhere, despite all the claims that Japan has a birth rate problem) and some of the coolest fashions I've ever seen. But most of all I think I'll miss the general sensory overload. There was so much crazy to see!
I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Okinawa and each had something unique to offer. If you're planning a trip to Japan anytime soon, feel free to reach out for recommendations! I stayed on top of documenting what we did almost daily, and I'm happy to help.
- Shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku
- Hanging out with the bartender from Hiroshima and eating the dry squid he fed us in a tiny Shinjuku Golden Gai bar, where we were the only patrons around noon one day
- Splurging on Sushi Yuu in Roppongi Hills where we were referred by a well-connected friend
- Checking out the arcades in Akihabara, and getting our hands dirty with a drumming game
- Mingling with monkeys on the monkey mountain - the hike up was so worth it. No fences so there's no real separation between you and the monkeys. But don't touch them or look them directly in the eye!
- Walking around Higashino Park near Gion. There are temples, street food stands and beautiful creeks and trees. Something for everyone.
- Attending three different yoga classes at Tamisa Yoga. (More to come on yoga in Japan in another blog post.)
- The Churaumi Aquarium, one of the largest in the world, the visitation of which is a half-day affair
- Staying in a music-themed Airbnb cottage and practicing yoga there
- The beach!
I was traveling the past week for work, which presented a great reminder of easy it can be to get swallowed up by irritation and general negativity when we step out of our comfort zones and hand over control (willingly or not) to external forces, in my case to flight crews, LA traffic, and packed schedules I didn’t set. All week on the road, I noticed myself and my companions complain about one thing followed by another, from flight delays to lack of bottled water. (First world problems, in other words.) Minor inconveniences can easily breed major disgruntlement if we let them, especially when we aren’t paying attention, which is to say the majority of the time. And most people don’t realize it, but the act of complaining only sows the seeds for more future complaining. (Do you think everyone’s out to get you? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unless you change something, that will only get worse for you.)
What if we didn’t say everything we thought and instead examined the source of our thoughts? What if we observed the ego instead of jumping to identify with it?
I recently read in Mental Floss magazine about Trisha Prabhu, a 15-year-old girl who designed a mobile keyboard called ReThink to prevent cyberbullying. The keyboard creates a pause for kids (and teens) to review and rethink their messages on every app they use before choosing to post live (or not). Mindfulness by technology. Such a cool idea, I thought, especially since the part of the brain that controls decision making capabilities isn’t fully developed until the age of 26, and there’s unfortunately a strong resistance to directly teaching mindfulness as a practice in most schools (the argument being that “mindfulness” has religious connotations). Early research shows that taking an extra moment to reconsider significantly increases the chance a user will choose to refrain from posting a negative post they had planned to share. Rethinking works.
But Trisha’s app wasn’t created for adults, thought there are certainly some adult trollers out there who could use it, and frankly not all situations can be intercepted with technology. So how can we instill a technology-free mechanism that allows everyone, child or adult, to pause and rethink our words and actions for just a micro-moment before we speak or act? We can all cultivate mindfulness through yoga and meditation.
Yoga allows us to create space and meditation teaches us to listen. Together, the two practices beget mindfulness. In yoga we create space by opening and lengthening and twisting and compressing to untie the energetic knots that hold learned behavioral patterns (such as notice discomfort —> complain) which live in our bodies. The body holds our stories and not all of these stories are very productive. (Most of them aren’t. And, anyway, life is more interesting when we see each moment afresh.) The skillful linking of breath and movement we practice in yoga allow us to detoxify of our energetic baggage so we truly experience the present moment in the moment. And the space we create in yoga extends to meditation, where we take things one step further by sitting in complete stillness to better observe the fluctuations of our own minds and the ego created by these. When we meditate, we listen. When we listen, we learn.
Our task, then, is to apply the space we create through yoga and the listening skills we develop through meditation to decision making in the real world. When we learn to practice pausing between stimulus (for example, discomfort) and response (for example, complain or embrace and adapt), we can choose to respond instead of react. The difference between responding and reacting is everything - in our online lives, in our offline lives, at home and on the road (where there might not be water bottles in every corner but at least there’s always a floor to sit on in stillness).
Mindfulness matters, more than we might realize, for both our own wellbeing as well as the general wellbeing of the universe. That’s why there’s so much focus in yoga and meditation on creating space. We create space so that we can pause at will. We lengthen and twist and compress to make room and detoxify. We tap into the breath to tap into the present moment and we sit in stillness to observe the fluctuations of our own minds. This is all to train ourselves for decision making in the real world. The goal is to cultivate the practice of pausing between stimulus and response, so that we can truly (mindfully) respond instead of simply react.
Entrepreneur/salesman Steve the soul created the universe. And he wanted it to be utilized. Specifically, Steve wanted some of The Omnipotence to materialize itself and to test out his latest and most original creation (the universe) by assuming form and time to live in it.
Steve put together a pitch to this end, framing his offer as THE solution to the most considerable pain point of The Omnipotence: lack of experience. You see, The Omnipotence simply WAS. It didn’t DO and it didn’t FEEL. What it knew, it never learned. The Omnipotence had zero experience. And, quite frankly, The Omnipotence was a little bummed about this fact. Steve, as part of The Omnipotence, could easily empathize with the situation -- the Omnipotence Condition -- and, in turn, exploit it.
***Click post title to read more!***
Have you ever been slapped silly by spontaneous insight from within? Hit upside the head by an unmistakeable message? Just in time for New Year’s resolutions, I was, via dream. And I’m still reeling from it.
It’s said that traveling increases one’s chance of lucid dreaming thanks to the influx of unfamiliar stimuli during the waking state. I was in Florida for the holidays this year and, sure enough, one night in Miami I became lucid.
Flying is the first thing many people do when they become lucid. I actually became lucid because I was flying. “Wait, I can’t fly,” I realized mid-flight. “This has got to be a dream!” I remembered my intention to summon my "spirit guide," something that has been on my lucid dream bucket list for a while. I shouted “I want to meet my spirit guide!” up at the sky and soon I found myself face to face with a man (to my slight dismay - I was hoping for a goddess) who looked strikingly like Michael Caine.
I can’t remember all the details of the dream. (I let it go on for too long before waking myself up and I’d had one too many key lime pie martinis the night before to make myself write it down in the morning.) But I do remember one part distinctly.
“Do you have any messages for me?” I asked my Michael-Caine-looking guide. “Oh, we’re sending you messages all the time,” he replied, “in your dreams but also while you’re awake.” He motioned towards a towering contraption which seemed to include a satellite dish. “But you won’t receive them unless you’re tuned into a high enough vibrational frequency. Luckily that’s something you can work on.”
Needless to say, I woke up with my mind blown. The message could not have been more clear. Now, provided the contents of our dreams come solely from our own conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds, my spiritual “guide” and the other guides he referenced are probably just me. In dreams, and in life at large, we're conditioned to perceive everything in terms of "I" versus Other, instead of recognizing the ultimate truth: that there is no Other. So even though I was able to receive it visually and through a conversation (thanks to creative power of dreams) I believe what I experienced was my Self metaphorically messaging my ego self, “Yo dawg. U gotta be prepared 2 hear me. I’m the real U.”
I received the message like a slap in the face, so I kept it simply this year with only one New Year's resolution: In 2016 resolve to stay tuned into the highest vibrational frequency I can, where I can communicate with my true nature, just like my "spirit guide" said I should.
With my recently cemented intention of tuning in and remaining tuned in, attempts at contact by my Self to myself are becoming more recognizable to me, if only after the fact. For example, just in the week since returning from Miami I’ve had several conversation about dreams within my dreams, as if my mind were guiding me, even coaxing me to become lucid. In fact, last night I had not one but two dreams in which the topic of not just dreaming but lucid dreaming came up. In one dream a personified teddy bear was reading a manuscript I had written and asked me if I was on drugs when I wrote it. My reply? “No, it’s wild because it’s inspired by my lucid dreams.”
Other oneironauts might smile in recognition. The talking stuffed animal did not make me question my surrounding reality, but could there really be a more obvious prompt than the words “lucid dreaming”? This kind of signal from the layers of consciousness should be unmistakeable, and, since it’s become frequent for me, starting today I will do my best to perform a reality check each time I read/see/hear/say anything about the topic of lucid dreaming or dreaming in general. (The idea is that I’ll make this enough of a habit that I’ll remember to do it in my dreams as well and will come to realize I’m dreaming -- when, after hearing a dream character say “dream,” for example, I look at my palm as a reality check and see the lines on it swimming around, instead of remaining static.)
The more often I have lucid dreams, the more often I can “talk” to my subconscious, unconscious and higher Self so directly. But, like Batman’s butler told me, dreams aren’t the only vehicle for insight. We’ve got 24 hours to be tuned in each day. Our “guide” is always there. Within. Tryna text us. So turn on your notifications this year, please!