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.
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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
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 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