Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Henry David Thoreau said, “We are constantly invited to be who we are.”

I think that’s a beautiful description of Kripalu yoga, which is an inquiry into who we are, through movement, breath, and awareness. When we practice on the mat, we are engaged in a process of discovery as to who we are in this moment, and then the next, and the next. The same applies to our practice off the mat, as we work to live ethically, mindfully, heartfully.

The yogic view sees the self as being many-layered, having a physical body, a subtle or energy body (which includes the thoughts, emotions, intuitive wisdom, and the circulation of life force) and a causal body (expansive and blissful).  In this exploration of our many-layered selves (see my post on the 5 koshas for a more in-depth discussion), we have the opportunity to live our lives from a more authentic place.

One of my teachers at Kripalu, Dinabandhu Sarley, says that when what we think, what we feel, what we say, and what we do are all in alignment, something transformational happens—it’s called authenticity.  Just as we practice physical alignment on the mat to allow prana (life energy) to flow freely through us, practicing alignment in all aspects of our lives allows us to be a clear, open conduit for prana to flow through us and into the world through our actions.  Our ability to be powerful in our lives is contingent upon our ability to bring those four areas into alignment.

When any one or more of those areas—thought, feeling, speech, action-- are out of sync with the rest, the conduit becomes blocked—it’s like a garden hose that gets kinked in 4 places.  We can’t be truly at peace or fully alive if we are lying to ourselves, not being truthful with others, or otherwise “in the closet” about who we truly are. Our life force becomes impeded and depleted.

Ultimately, a yogi’s life becomes focused on the question: “How do I become free, whole and alive?” Yoga gives us tools with which we can practice living in alignment, such as the yamas and niyamas, which offer ethical guidelines for our interpersonal relationships and personal commitments. In short, they call us to speak the truth, honor one another, and live with intention and direction.

Practicing authenticity takes courage, as well as much unlearning of unskillful ways of being that may have become deeply ingrained.  Being authentic does not guarantee that we will be liked. In fact, we are likely to ruffle some feathers and perhaps alienate some people who are not ready to receive the rigorous honesty that it entails. When we tell the truth, in the deepest sense, things begin to re-arrange in our world. Things, people, and activities that don’t serve us clear out of the way, making room in our lives for What Really Matters.

Ultimately, authenticity is about living from Love. As yogis, may we support one another in this discovery of the truth of who we are.

Everything will line up perfectly when knowing and living the truth becomes more important than looking good. ~Alan Cohen

Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it. ~William James

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Stability and Vulnerability

Hello Dear Yogis,

In our Wednesday and Thursday classes this week, we'll be doing some inquiry around the relationship between stability and vulnerability, and exploring the dance of risk-taking and finding our ground. We engage in this play of opposites on the mat in our asana practice, as we move from poses where we feel stable, safe and strong (such as mountain, warrior 1, low lunge) to poses where we take some risk, intentionally choosing instability and vulnerability (balancing poses, deep backbends, and inversions such as tree, camel, and headstand). Risk is a necessary part of growth, both in yoga practice and in life.

Think about it-- you would have never learned to walk if you hadn't been willing to fall down again and again, and again! When you were one year old, you just kept picking yourself up and trying again. You never said "what's wrong with me--I can't get this right, I'm such a bad walker" nor did you compare yourself with other toddlers who were already walking. You just got up and took the next step, embracing the moment-to-moment adventure of learning to walk.

Reclaiming that spirit of adventure and the childlike willingness to fall on our butts is something we can cultivate in our grown-up endeavors. Taking risks, whether they be in business, in love, or in sport, is part of being fully alive. And knowing when to come back to center, to pull inward and ground ourselves, is an equally important life skill.

Asana practice allows us to play, in a safe and supportive setting, with moving back and forth between  groundedness and vulnerability. We start with familiar postures that feel good, where we can feel our power and strength, and then we stretch ourselves--literally and figuratively--into something that feels a little scary, unknown, or beyond our reach.

Sometimes in life we choose vulnerablity consciously, and other times s%&t happens, and we find ourselves blown open. Yoga practices such as asana, pranayama, and meditation are tools we can use to help us come back to center during those challenging times.

Being vulnerable means being open-- to change, to grief, to loss, to joy and love, to whatever shows up,  and knowing that, in the midst of all of it, there is a still, peaceful center that always welcomes us home.

I'd like to share the prayer that I read in class this morning, by poet Danna Faulds, from her book Limitless:

I pray to stay open today. Open to the unrestrained energy of now. Open to mystery and power. Open to whatever comes. Open to routine and surprises. Open to moving past my first reactions. Open to my imperfections and the divine spark that underlies them. Open to wonder and the everyday grace of life unfolding as it does. Open to events and circumstances that I like, and those I don't. Open to fatigue and overflowing energy. Open to listen and to speak. Open to love in all the ways it manifests. Open to give and to receive. Open to seasons changing, priorities rearranging, nothing staying the same for very long. Open to letting beliefs dissolve into the ether. Open to the direct experience of truth. Open to forgetting and remembering. Open to life and open to death. Open to seeing old patterns and letting them go. Open to fear and courage, ease and difficulty. I pray to stay open.

Together, may we be open and willing to share this yoga of life.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Food for Thought

Hello Dear Ones

There’s been an explosion in my garden--a bursting forth of huge green leaves, and the lush tangle of vines. The small, delicate blossoms bring the promise edible delights, and the sweet curve of pea pods dangle abundantly around me. Every year at this time I am in continual amazement. I sprinkle a few little seeds in the ground, and the earth gives them back to me, a hundredfold. I take these greens and fruits into my body, and somehow they are transformed by the Agni (fire) within me into prana that moves through me into the world. I offer these fruits to others-- as action, as ideas, as song, as teaching, as attention, and love. It’s a beautiful cycle of receiving and giving.

There’s a Hindu prayer that is often said before a meal.  It comes from the fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, and it’s actually about sacrifice. The word “sacrifice” comes from the same root as “sacred,” and it has to do with making something holy. It is an offering of oneself to God. Food partaken in this way becomes Prasad (consecrated offering), and eating is lifted into a new realm of experience. Here is the prayer:

Brahmaarpanam Brahma Havir
Brahmaagnau Brahmanaa Hutam
Brahmaiva Tena Gantavyam
Brahma Karma Samaadhinaha 

The act of offering is Brahman. The offering itself is Brahman. The offering is done by Brahman in the sacred fire which is Brahman. He alone attains Brahman who, in all actions, is fully absorbed in Brahman.

Aham Vaishvaanaro Bhutva
Praaninaam Dehamaashritha
Praanaapaana Samaa Yuktaha
Pachaamyannam Chatur Vidam 

This verse is a sort of acknowledgement and assurance to us from Brahman: "I am Vaishnavara, existing as fire God in the bodies of living beings. Being associated with ingoing (prana) and outgoing (apaana) life breaths, I will digest all the four different types of food (that which we bite and chew; that which we masticate with the tongue; those which we gulp; that which we swallow) and purify them." 

Harir Daatha Harir Bhoktha
Harir Annam Prajaapatih
Harir Vipra Shareerastu
Bhoonkte Bhojayathe Harih.
Oh Lord Hari, You are the food, You are the enjoyer of the food, You are the giver of food. Therefore, I offer all that I consume at Thy Lotus Feet.

The first two lines of the mantra remind us that, as we take in our food, the food itself is part of Brahman, the unmanifest primordial essence that lies behind form. And, the fire in which you offer the food (the sacrificial fire of your hunger, your desire, your digestive system) is part of Brahman, too.  You are feeding Brahman into Brahman.

And since YOU are also Brahman, when you partake of the food, you are actually offering it to Brahman.  So, it’s Brahman pouring Brahman into Brahman. There isn’t anything that isn’t God. As Ram Dass writes:

So, it turns out that you are Brahman feeding Brahman to the fire of Brahman and offering it to Brahman—which means nothing is happening at all. See? The whole thing is an illusion—it’s all Brahman playing with Brahman. It’s all the play of the Lord, it’s all Divine Lila. And you thought you were just going to eat a meal!

Another way of thinking about this, from a different spiritual perspective , is the concept of “interbeing”, as taught by the Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. Interbeing is a word that he coined which speaks of the interconnectedness of everything in the universe.  A plate of food can be a portal into the understanding of this web of life, if we practice looking deeply, with awareness and gratitude.  

A few years ago, I wrote and recorded a song called "Many Hands" that was inspired by these teachings, and I offer you here are the lyrics to the song. I am honored to say that Thich Nhat Hanh’s publisher, Parallax Press, has recently included this song in a book and CD for children entitled Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children. The song is also available for download through  iTunes. Enjoy!

Many Hands

On this plate there are many hands
The hands that sowed the seeds, the hands that plowed the land
The hands that worked the harvest, and brought it to the stands
Yes, on this plate are many hands

In this bowl are sun and rain and air,
The garden soil and all the tiny creatures that live there
The delicate balance of beings great and small
Yes, in this little bowl we have them all

In this meal are many hearts and souls
Some may be our families who served it in our bowls
Some may be migrant workers whom we will never know
who can’t afford to buy the food they grow

In this room there are many hands
Let’s join them all together in a circle, if we can
And in this sacred silence, let there be gratitude
for the many hearts and hands that made this food

©2003  In the Moment Productions, lyrics and music by Jody Kessler


Poetry, readings & words of wisdom from modern and ancient sources