E-RYT 500, yoga instructor for children and adults

Posts tagged ‘relationships’

Practice What You Practice

People are drawn to the practice of yoga for a multitude of reasons. There’s plenty of evidence showing it can help improve strength, flexibility, and physical health. Meditation is also becoming popular, mainly for its ability to relieve stress. These and other benefits to the body and mind, though wonderful, are still not the ultimate purpose of this ancient philosophy. In Louisiana we’d call these benefits lagniappe, a little something extra we can enjoy, but not to be mistaken for the main event. Yoga is a spiritual practice meant to lead the aspirant to enlightenment. In the West we often think of our being as two-fold, mind and body. In this dichotomy the body is external and the mind is internal. In Eastern philosophy however there are 3 parts to us: mind, body, and spirit. The spirit is the real deal, and the mind is just as unreal and external as the body. This is why our own mind can be such a mystery, seemingly controlling our thoughts, words, and actions. Through the practice of yoga we use the body and mind as tools to transcend both, getting in touch with the true nature of our inner being, our spirit.
In the yoga sutras, Patanjali says yoga is the calming of the mind. He chooses to mention friendliness, kindness, joy, and equanimity/non-judgment (1:33) as the four qualities to cultivate within ourselves in order to have a calm mind. Later he describes the 8 limbed path that includes the restraints, observances, postures, breathing, introspection, concentration, and meditation that will lead us to enlightenment. But before all of that he chooses to call attention to these four practices that anyone, regardless of ability to stretch or sit, can begin to practice and therefore get more clarity of mind.
I often tell my students, we don’t do yoga to get better at yoga…we do yoga to get better at life. I believe one reason we call it “practicing” yoga is because the things we do on the mat or while meditating are practice for the main event, which is life. Whatever we do on the mat or cushion is helping us to learn the principles of yoga which we then apply in our lives. And we must take our practice off the mat, we must be able to translate those lessons to our experiences in this life. That’s why we were given this incarnation, to learn and experience until we return to our Source. It’s great if we can practice being kind to ourselves when we can’t perform a challenging asana, but if we don’t take that lesson with us and speak kindly to ourselves when we’re stressed about money, or to our co-workers in a tense meeting, then we’ve missed the real benefit, and perhaps even the purpose, of yoga. It’s wonderful to find that state of peace while in meditation, but if we leave the meditation hall, get in our car, and get angry and yell at the drivers around us, again we’ve blown it. To be clear, I’m not saying we have to be perfect people. As Wayne Dyer said, you can only be better than the person you used to be. An effective yoga practice supports us in being our best self in each moment, evolving along the way.
Your thoughts, words, and actions are the results of what you practice. By practicing these principles when we do yoga postures, sit for meditation, or breathe deeply we are strengthening our ability to be friendly to a difficult person, kind to someone who has hurt us, to find joy even in the midst of challenges, and to remain even and non-judgmental through the ups and downs of life. The true measure of a yogi is not just our ability to be present during our practice; it’s in how we treat ourselves and others during the moments between practices.

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The Five Poisons of Prejudice

Using the five kleshas to understand and eliminate prejudice.

In yoga philosophy, the kleshas are five poisons or impurities of the mind that are false and prevent us from attaining liberation. The kleshas are ignorance, ego, likes, dislikes and fear. By understanding these mental tendencies we can better understand what creates prejudice and thus reduce those qualities in ourselves. Becoming aware of our own tendencies is the first step in shifting towards more loving thoughts, words and actions. At the same time, by seeing how these kleshas affect all of us we can practice compassion for those who continue to discriminate against others based on external factors such as race, age, ability, religion, sex, gender identity/expression or sexual orientation.

The first klesha is ignorance. Ignorance literally means a lack of knowledge or information. When we don’t have awareness of ourselves or knowledge of others, we don’t have all the information and can’t make the best choices. Often prejudices derive from a lack of understanding or a misunderstanding of someone who we perceive as being different from us. Different cultures, races, ethnicities or nationalities have different standards and practices based on their unique experiences and histories. For instance, a fellow yoga teacher shared photos of insects being sold as food. My first reaction was to think, “Eww, gross,” since bugs are typically thought of as dirty and disgusting in America. However, I also know that in much of the world bugs and grubs are an abundant and valuable protein source and are eaten regularly. Based on a lack of information, we may unfairly judge a person as being primitive or disgusting, when in reality it is our own ignorance of their culture that creates the prejudice in our minds. By always keeping an open mind and striving to learn more than our limited worldview, we can help to reduce our own ignorance.

The second klesha is ego. Here the term is used not as meaning synonymous with narcissism or selfishness. Instead it is the “I” that we relate to as individuals. We all have it, and we all need it to some extent. The problem comes when we let ego take over and influence us. Ego tells us we are what we have, what we do, and what people think of us. It tries to convince us that we are separate from others and from the Divine. Ego emphasizes the differences between us rather than the similarities. When we get caught up in ego, we start to find things that make us feel like we are better than, or worse than, others. Stereotypes come from the ego’s attempt to categorize and thus further separate people. Some stereotypes make us feel better than other people, as in the example above about eating insects. Others make us feel we are worse than others. For example a young girl may think she can’t pursue a career in the STEM (science, techonology, engineering and math) disciplines because of messages from her family, society, or the media that tell her girls aren’t good at math. Both are equally insidious because they further the separation between us and our fellow human beings. Ego often bristles and says, “How dare you?” implying entitlement often based on the perception that our “group,” whether it be that of race, religion, orientation, etc., is better than another group. In the famous “blue-eyed, brown-eyed” experiment of 1968, teacher Jane Elliott allowed her students to experience a taste of what it is like to be discriminated against based on an arbitrary external factor, in this case by the color of their eyes. One day she told the class of third graders that blue-eyed people were better than brown-eyed people. She subtly enforced this “eye-ism” all day by commenting when a blue-eyed child did something good or when a brown-eyed child did something bad. The next day she reversed the status of the eye colors. The children caught on and participated in the discrimination alarmingly quickly. Some people criticized her, and in one famous letter a member of the public protested by saying, “How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children.” Clearly they missed the lesson of the experiment, and were speaking directly from their ego.

The next two kleshas are often discussed together, as they are two sides of the same coin. Likes and dislikes cause us to try to obtain or avoid things, experiences, or people. We don’t have to give up the things we like or accept the things we don’t, but we must become aware of our attachments and aversions and recognize their influence on us. These two kleshas can cause an inability to understand and therefore empathize with someone whose likes and dislikes are different from our own. Notice the subtle difference in the following statements: “I dislike broccoli,” compared to, “Broccoli is gross.” It is easy to begin to label things as good or bad based on whether we like or dislike them, and in turn label another person as good or bad depending on whether they share our opinion. However we each have different tastes and preferences, and as long as your choices aren’t hurting someone else, then it is your prerogative. In my experience I have at times looked down on forms of yoga that weren’t my preferred practice. I bought into stereotypes and thought I knew what “real Yoga” was. I equated my “likes” with good and my “dislikes” with bad. In reality, each individual has different preferences and those likes and dislikes don’t change the fact that they are fellow humans with the same Light inside them as me. A common example of prejudice stemming from likes and dislikes is the issue of sexual orientation. A heterosexual male may think kissing another man is unappealing, and he is entitled to his preference. However when he says that two men kissing is gross, and that gay men are gross for doing it, he is then projecting his dislike onto another and judging them based on that, which is prejudice.

Finally, the fifth klesha is fear. Fear is the opposite of love, and when we act from a place of fear we crowd out love. Often people experience fear of the unknown or unfamiliar. Ignorance of the other person’s situation can lead to fear of them, which prevents us from acting with love. Instead we act from our fear and choose to discriminate against them. Even if we don’t fear the other person, we may experience fear of being ridiculed or rejected for standing up for a person or group of people instead of going along with the discrimination. As Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Deciding not to support someone who is being discriminated against, choosing to be silent in the presence of injustice, can be just as detrimental as participating in the act. There were times in my past when I was afraid to speak up when someone was being discriminated against. I have also walked through my fear at times and spoke the Truth with Love. As with all the kleshas, it is an ongoing challenge to recognize and overcome it.

Acceptance that we have a problem is the first step towards healing. By examining our minds through the context of the kleshas, we can see where we have gone wrong and how we can better ourselves. Although ignorance, ego, likes, dislikes, and fear are a part each of us, we can work towards letting go of these illusions and instead embrace the truth of love, acceptance, and compassion for all.

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

The street I drive down daily to enter my neighborhood is always lined with randomly parked cars. The street isn’t very wide and if cars are parked on both sides, only one car can fit through. Many stray dogs and cats wander the area, as well as plenty of squirrels and birds. I call this straightaway “the gauntlet” because it is always a challenge to navigate around the cars, play chicken with the oncoming traffic, and dodge various wildlife. Recently as I was driving through the gauntlet, eager to get home after a long day, I noticed a squirrel up ahead crossing the street. I slowed down a bit but it looked like the squirrel would make it across well before I got to it. I was just about to drive past the little rodent when it suddenly froze, then turned and darted back into the street, right into the path of my car! It’s a miracle that I didn’t hit it, but I didn’t feel a bump or see it behind me so I assume the squirrel slipped between the wheels and made it back to the other side. As I was telling Charlie about this incident recently, a revelation hit me. I heard myself saying, “If he wouldn’t have doubted himself and gotten scared, he would have made it in plenty of time. But because he gave up and turned around, he almost got himself killed!” I realized then that I am that squirrel. You are also that squirrel. We all are, at times. And I bet God looks at us the same way I looked at it, thinking, “Go on little being, you’re so close! Believe in yourself, trust you are on the right path, and keep going!”
Fear and doubt are tricks of the ego. It is easy to forget that the ego works in many different ways. Ego isn’t just thinking you are better than others, it’s also thinking you are worse. Ego tells us that we are separate and different, that we must compete to survive, and that our worth is based on our material success. Any thoughts that we use to attack ourselves or others come from ego. We have gotten so familiar with the voice of ego that we mistake it for our own. Meanwhile, the subtle voice of spirit gets drowned out amidst the blaring noise of advertising, social pressure, and cultural expectations. For instance, when you think of Charles Darwin, what is your first association? Survival of the fittest probably comes to mind, the idea that we must fight against others for resources. However, as I learned from the documentary “I Am,” that was only a small part of his overall findings. The most important aspect of nature that Darwin emphasized repeatedly was cooperation. This idea was played down and the idea of competition was reinforced by other members of popular culture. And that is the legacy that has been passed down to us.
We constantly receive messages from advertising that we need something outside of ourselves to make us complete. The media tells us that we aren’t good enough the way we are, that we must have a product to make us look younger, a car to make us look richer, a pill to make us look happier. We are told to be afraid of strangers, of those who look, act, talk, and pray differently than ourselves. We are told to hurry, act now, for a limited time only, or we will miss out. It makes sense then that we would doubt our own power, downplay our own light. We get the idea to do something great, to create, explore, take a chance. We may even begin to take the steps to get there. We quit the miserable job, we begin writing the novel, we start up a conversation with the person we are interested in. As the Bhagavad Gita tells us, as soon as we set out on our true path, the ego begins blaring its lies at us. We fear financial security because “everyone knows” you have to work hard and compete to earn a higher salary and buy more stuff. We doubt our creativity because “everyone knows” it’s hard to get a book published and we’ll never make money doing that. We trail off and walk away because “everyone knows” relationships never work out and they are out of our league anyway. We freeze, we give up, we turn around. Then when we barely escape being hurt, knocked down, or run over, we think to ourselves, “See, that’s what always happens. The world is a dangerous place. Good thing I turned around.” And ego reinforces those false beliefs. But in reality if we would have just kept going, just believed in ourselves for a little bit longer, we would have made it to our goal.
My dog Joey is a 12 pound, 13 year old, blind miniature schnauzer with a heart murmur and arthritis. She doesn’t let any of this slow her down. She plays with bigger dogs, runs free in the yard, barks at “intruders” (aka our guests), guards the house, and when we walk I have to pull back her leash to keep her from running into things because she just goes for it. Her favorite toy is almost as big as she is. I originally bought it while fostering a much larger dog, a lab mix. But Joey doesn’t know her limitations, so for her they don’t exist. We have to unlearn all the false fear and doubt of the ego and learn to trust in the guidance of our inner spirit, our inner guru.
Why did the chicken cross the road? Because no one ever told her she couldn’t.

And That’s What We Call Boundaries

I recently read a quote saying a true friend loves you for who you are, no matter what. It made me think about acceptance and what that entails in relationships. Does a true friend simply let you be and do whatever you want, regardless of whether it is beneficial to you and others? Or does a true friend push you, challenge you to grow, inspire you to be your best self, and hold you to your highest potential? As a friend, partner, or family member, can you do both? And who decides what is best?
I have recently had to take a long hard look at my own ego in the context of several personal relationships. I tend to see potential in others, to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are capable of being their best self. And as a result I tend to enter into relationships with expectations. I expect the other person to be on the same path as me, to be striving for the same things. And as Buddha taught us, with expectation (another word for desire) comes suffering. I try to, as a friend put it, “gently shove” people in the direction that I feel is best, instead of allowing them to walk their own path. I come to the relationship with the best intentions, and we all know where those lead. I try to help but my help is not always wanted or needed.
On the other hand, I do feel it is our responsibility as friends and more broadly as fellow human beings to hold one another to certain standards. To encourage kindness, compassion, respect, and acceptance towards others. When I see these things being violated, I do step up and express my feelings. But I still have to realize that that is where my contribution ends, unless the other person asks for my help. As Ram Das said, if I have a problem with someone, that’s my problem. If someone has a problem with me, that’s their problem. It is when we expect others to fix our problems or we try to fix theirs that we get in trouble.
Once I have established my beliefs and the other person has established theirs, it is then my choice to continue the relationship. I have the right to set boundaries if necessary to preserve my well being. If the other person doesn’t respect my boundaries or if I don’t think I can be my best self and honor who I truly am while in relationship with them, I can end or reduce contact with that person. If I maintain the relationship, I must accept that the other person is the way they are. And they in turn must respect me. In certain cases there may be exceptions, as there are to every rule, but most of the time when I examine my motives it is my ego and not necessarily my spirit that wants to change someone else. In my teacher training last weekend I was given this wonderful gift during our swadhyaya, or self study, session: If you hear yourself thinking or saying, “How dare you…” check your ego. Whether it is a thought or statement directed at yourself or someone else, the ego is probably behind it. This is not to say that you shouldn’t stand up for yourself or let others treat you badly. However, when we are motivated my strong emotion coming from ego, things usually don’t go well. If we can step back from the situation, examine our part in it, see where the ego has been triggered, ask ourselves what part fear is playing, and then move forward with love, we will have much more success.

 

 

Samskaras, Habits, and Traditions

My theme for the yoga classes I led last week was the concept of samskaras, or mental impressions. These often show up in our lives as thought patterns, habits, or tendencies. In meditation the other day the thought occurred to me, “Tradition is just another word for habit.” Now before I upset someone for dissing their favorite tradition, let me explain a little more. As Socrates teaches Dan in “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” any unconscious ritual or habit is a problem. The actions themselves are both good and bad, each having a price and a pleasure associated with them. And not every action has the same consequences for each individual. A glass of wine could be healthy for someone with a heart condition, it could be devastating for an alcoholic, or it could be neutral for someone else. In the yoga philosophy we learn that ultimately we must release all samskaras, even the ones we consider positive. There is no good or bad, only perspective makes things so. There is no right or wrong, only things that we do that help us improve ourselves, and things that don’t improve us. So then the question becomes not, “Is this a good or bad habit?”  but instead, “Is this a habit?” and then, “Is this specific activity helping me to evolve as a person?” Then we can decide whether to do something or not, being aware of the benefits and the consequences. The word “tradition” is so often used as a reason in and of itself for an activity to continue. Maybe some traditions are positive, like a family gathering for a certain holiday. But even in this case the pressure to adhere to a tradition can cause problems. For instance, some family members don’t attend and others are angry or resentful. Some traditions are not healthy from the start but because so many people agree to and participate in them, then they become difficult to change, like slavery was in this country. The samskara becomes a deep rut in the collective consciousness. Instead of stepping back and gaining perspective on the real issue, we cling to the fact that it is a tradition and so it cannot be changed or challenged. Our ego has tricked us into making an investment in the tradition, thereby causing us to perpetuate it. The ego fights against change that could lead to spiritual evolution. We blindly embrace something that we may be ready to outgrow, either as an individual, a community, a nation, or a world.

When I first adopted a mainly plant based diet, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I hadn’t expected. Even when I simply mentioned that I didn’t eat meat, some people immediately got hostile and angry. I was always careful not to preach my opinion or push it on anyone, and often I only mentioned it when necessary or when asked. I didn’t understand why people got mad just because of my personal dietary preference. Now I see that simply by stepping outside of the “traditional” diet, I was committing an act of rebellion in their eyes. In this case the authority figure against which I was rebelling was the collective samskara, the tradition. Even if I was polite and emphasized that this was my personal choice and didn’t affect them, I was still bucking the system. Tradition, like samskara, relies on compliance and repetition to survive. We take our own power and hand it over to a concept. When the habit, or tradition, is the authority and not the individual, then it dictates our actions instead of us having the freedom to make our own choices.

I see a similar phenomenon in some people’s support of traditional marriage and traditional gender roles. When a homosexual or a gender non-conforming person asserts their personal rights to be who they are, some see it as an attack on the entire framework on which they have based their lives. They don’t know how to negotiate a world without clear guidelines for who does what and to whom. Or they themselves don’t like the role that tradition has given them, but they accept it out of fear and in turn fear and resent those who don’t accept their roles as well. If a “traditional” marriage between a man and a woman who choose to separate tasks based on “traditional” gender roles works for those two individuals then that is wonderful. However, not every person fits in those parameters, and why should we expect them to? There is so much variety among all the people of the world, and that is what makes it such an interesting and fascinating place to live.

Like so many other things (maybe even everything), this issue boils down to whether we are operating from love or from fear. Without the framework of tradition, life can be scary. We are afraid to make the wrong choice without the guidelines of our habits and traditions. Tradition tells us what to do and how to be; there are no unknowns, no questions, but there is also no growth. When we move away from tradition, we have to look within to decide what is right for us, which again can be scary. But deep down we each have an inner guide, which is made of pure love. Tradition can be good, it is comforting and familiar. We all need a little comfort from time to time. Ultimately though, the only constant is change. Instead of blindly following tradition, we can instead live consciously and intentionally, taking life moment by moment, making choices based on love and not fear or habit. By embracing the new and exploring the different, we might find that we are ready to shed some old traditions and embrace new ones, or even take a leap into the unknown, without the safety net of tradition.

Ego Versus Self

What is the difference between loving yourself and being selfish? We are always being told how important it is to love ourselves but sometimes it is hard to know how, so we either try to fake it or mask our insecurity with ego, vanity, or selfishness. Narcissism is a twisted attempt at self-love that comes from a place of insecurity and self-hate. On the flipside, what is the difference between humility and self-deprecation? It is important to let your light shine, not to belittle your achievements, not to put yourself down. But it is also important not to show off. As the Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Hmm, confusing stuff. I think you can let your light shine without tooting your own horn. Being honest and grateful for the things you have accomplished is different than being proud or bragging. I feel like a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon of “take care of yourself first” but they don’t know what that looks like so they act selfishly in some cases but then let people take advantage of them in others.

In February I chose a theme of love for my yoga classes with each week focusing on a different aspect. First loving yourself, then others, then god. And in talking and thinking about these topics I came to realize that they were all the same thing. Self is Other is God. God is in everyone so loving ourselves means loving god, and if god is in you too then I must love you as well. You can love and care for yourself and also for others. Sometimes serving others is the best way to nurture your own spirit. Being selfish is impossible when you truly love yourself, because, as Buddha said, “If you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another.

Dr. Wayne Dyer says ego is “edging god out.” If we love our Self regardless of external factors then we are truly practicing self-love without ego. But if our love of self depends on how we look, what we do, who thinks what about us…then we are edging god out of the equation and depending on people’s opinions (including our own.)  The goal of self-love is to be able to say, “I love myself, because I AM.” And in turn we can learn to love others regardless of their external factors. This doesn’t mean we don’t hold people accountable for their conscious choices or bad behavior, but we can still love them. Consider a situation from the point of view of a loving parent (as we are all children of god); the parent makes the best decision he/she can for the greater good of all his/her children. When confronting a situation, consider all the people affected by your decision, including yourself. Follow the advice of the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

AstroSync

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OPERATION YOGA

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