If you missed last week’s dharma talk in the 90 min classes, I shared a story that was sent to me by a student (with her permission) about the Greenbelt in Staten Island. Here’s what she had to say in her own words:
“My dad, an environmental journalist, grew up on Staten Island and got his start working at their local paper, the Staten Island Advance. During that time, there were Moses-era plans to put an interstate through the Greenbelt, which sparked local action to preserve the open space. My dad covered it all, and it was probably the first land preservation work he ever did as a writer (now that’s all he does). “Save the Greenbelt” was the slogan, postered all over Staten Island. I even have one of his old t-shirts that says Save the Greenbelt. In the newsroom, it became an adage, “Save the fucking Greenbelt” you might say with an eye roll, as if to say, “just get the job done,” if somebody was complaining or exaggerating (intoned like, “ah, get over it”).”
This story fits in perfectly with the Jivamukti Focus of the Month – Spiritual Activism. If you’d like to read this month’s focus, written by Jivamukti Yoga co-founder Sharon Gannon, you can find it here.
While the first part of the essay focuses on veganism, the concept applies to any cause you are fighting for – whether it’s saving a natural habitat, or fighting for social/civil rights, or protections during an epidemic. (read last 3 paragraphs if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing!) “To think well of another and to want that person’s happiness, even though you do not agree with the person’s current thoughts and actions, is the key to spiritual activism.”
I had jury duty yesterday…so I had a lot of time to think about ‘time’.
Time is an interesting concept – a set amount of time (in this case the 8 hours I spent at the courthouse) seems to either speed up or slow down depending on our situation/frame of mind. For example – if you are at a movie with a friend and you are not into the movie, you might keep checking your watch to see when it will end, and when you look at your watch, you’re like, “how can it have only been 15 minutes! How am I going to last another hour and a half??!!” You can’t leave because your friend is totally into it… On the other hand, if you LOVE the movie, it may seem like it ended in a flash, and you want to see more! (Hopefully I’m writing this in a way that makes you want to keep reading 😉
One more quick example, because…yoga. 1 minute is a pretty short amount of time. Especially when you only have one minute to catch a train…but when you are holding a one minute handstand in the Magic 10, it feels like FOR-EV-ER.
I was a bit nervous about having jury duty because I REALLY couldn’t be picked to sit on a jury. I wholeheartedly agree with the process, I find it interesting and I actually think I would really enjoy it, but as a yoga teacher, I only get paid for the classes or private sessions I teach, and could not sub out my classes for a week or more. My mantra throughout most of this process was “Don’t pick me, don’t pick me, don’t pick me.” Funny – the last time I was called for jury duty I REALLY wanted to be picked, but the attorneys didn’t want anything to do with me for that case…
This is how jury duty works in Brooklyn: you are required to arrive at the courthouse at 8:30 a.m., stand on a line outdoors (yesterday the temperature in Brooklyn at that time was already 84ºF) for a good 15 minutes while you wait to get through security. You sit in a very large, barely air conditioned room, with hundreds of other people, and go through an orientation process that lasts until about 10 a.m. This process consists of ridiculous instructions on how to fill in bubbles on a form, and a very outdated video that talks about MySpace (!). And then you wait, and wait and wait. At least 10 groups of 16 people were called before I heard my name. This was great! Maybe I’d get through the whole day without being called! It seemed like a loooooong time had passed. I looked at the time on my phone and it was only…10:30 a.m. Seriously??? 10:30? This was going to be a ridiculously long day. Rather than doing anything constructive like reading the book I brought, or doing work, I was playing a mind numbing game that was sucking up my battery life. At about 5 minutes to 11 I decide to plug my phone in, and then of course my name is called…
Once you are called into a panel room – which is SUPER tiny and has one rotating fan that really only hits the front row – the lawyers randomly split the group up. There were 16 of us in the room – they chose 10 people to question, and the other 6 had to just hang out and listen. I was of course NOT part of the first 10 to be questioned, so more waiting and more stress about not knowing if I’d get picked…
(P.S. – I have brought up the temperature multiple times now – studies have been done (check out PubMed) that show that increased body temperature can slow down our perception of time by up to 20%! If NYC were smart they would turn up the AC to cover up the slowness of bureaucracy…)
By the time the lawyers gave us background on this particular case, it was already close to break time, so they didn’t start questioning until after lunch. We were told that if we had anything personal to discuss with them, we could do so privately, so as we were about to go to lunch, I told them it would be a financial burden if I were picked. Believe it or not, one of the lawyer’s wives happens to be a yoga teacher, he totally got it, and they pretty much guaranteed that they would not pick me, but I had to still sit through the day’s process. Totally cool with me!
A weight was lifted off my shoulders. I KNEW I didn’t have to come back. I was able to sit back and relax, and enjoy (yes, enjoy) the afternoon’s proceedings. I find it completely interesting. I was enjoying hearing about the two sides of the case (the limited details they can tell you without a judge in the room) and how people answered the questions; what people’s biases are, or if they are just trying to get out of jury duty (you can tell.) The afternoon sped by. By the time the last 6 of us were questioned it was the end of the day, and they didn’t even bother with me. I just had to hang out. This is where time slowed down again…at this point I just wanted to get out of there! Finally at 4:30 p.m. we were set free, with a lovely piece of paper in hand, good for 8 years, that said JURY DUTY SERVED.
In verse 1.2 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he gives us the definition of yoga: yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ – Yoga is when we stop identifying with the fluctuations of the mind. Then in verse 1.12 he gives us two ways to stop that identification: abhyāsa vairāgyābhyām tannirōdhaḥ – Through practice (abhyāsa) and non-attachment to the results of practice (vairāgyā). This is how we find yoga.
I became more engaged in jury duty when I wasn’t so attached to the outcome. I was enjoying the process, and in a way I wish I could have sat on the jury.
This also happens with our yoga practice – if we can let go of the outcome, of what we think the “goal” of yoga is – in that particular moment or if we think there’s some sort of “end-game” – then we can be in the present moment and experience the practice for what it is – a practice – and maybe even enjoy it!
Our practice will be different today from what it was yesterday or what it will be tomorrow. It changes – like our perception of time – based on how we feel that day, stuff that happened that day, injuries. It changes with time, changes with life experiences. But the practice is always there, and offers to us what we need in that particular moment, or allows us to at least recognize it. We notice where we are stuck, or what thoughts keep coming up and when, and then we work through it. And through this practice, and with time, we also change. We become more engaged in our everyday lives – not just on the mat – where hopefully rather than stressing about past or future events or projecting what we think will happen, we can move around this earth in the present moment in a way that is to the benefit of everyone. What’s the point of a “goal” of yoga if you are not living, breathing, enjoying it? (Check out the Myth Video on Bharadvaja)
I’ll leave you with some thought’s from Jivamukti’s co-founder Sharon Gannon. In this month’s focus at Jivamukti , Sharon discusses the concepts of time and alchemy. She describes alchemy as “the ancient practice of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.”
Yoga is also an ancient practice of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary: “Abhyāsa–regular continuous practice, done with detachment, meaning no matter what, will help the settling of your mind and lead to peace of mind. The implication is “with” time a number of obstacles to freedom will fall away. The practices of yoga— as well as alchemy— are magical practices that alter one’s perception of the world, one’s self and of time. Such an altered perception can help you to live in harmony with nature, rather than viewing yourself as separate from nature.”
When it’s cold and rainy in NYC, maybe you want to curl up in a Child’s Pose (bālāsana) and hear stories of Baby Krishna (Gopāla)?
In connection to this month’s focus at Jivamukti Yoga, maybe we start to look at our yoga practice with the playfulness of a child (Bāla) rather than setting goals or striving to achieve something that in this particular moment might be unattainable. Maybe in each āsana we embody the animal form we are coming into rather than worrying so much about getting it perfect (this by all means does not mean we don’t try, or keep safe anatomical alignment, but more along the lines of not becoming angry or disappointed if it’s not “perfect” right now. Practice and all is coming!)
The “goal” of yoga (if you must have one) is to find the joy and happiness of a child in our everyday lives!
This past December I travelled to Australia for the first time. I spent time in Sydney, Melbourne, and the Blue Mountains. I taught some yoga classes, hit up every beach possible, went to art galleries, and went on bush walks. But the only thing I really wanted was to see kangaroo in their natural habitat.
Much like deer in the United States, there is an over-population of ‘roo in Australia, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to do. A friend who lives in the valley of the Blue Mountains told me she has kangaroo in her backyard pretty much all day everyday, so she offered to pick me up from where I was staying and take me to her home. We drove about 40 minutes to her house and were hanging out for about an hour without a single ‘roo in sight. None on the drive there, none in her backyard. I had pretty much given up hope and while my friends went inside for some tea, I decided to walk around the garden. I had been outside for a while, and started to head back in when I saw a flicker in the corner of my eye. I was sure it had to be a squirrel, but when I looked I found an entire kangaroo family in front of me – mom, dad, and toddler joey! I spent a good 15 minutes hanging out with my ‘roo friends before they headed off into the woods. (See video below).
I compared kangaroo to deer in the U.S., and that is pretty much what they are. Although they are not evolutionary related (kangaroos are marsupials), they are very similar; they look at you the same way, live in the same type of habitat, travel with their family, have similar ears, are both herbivores, and, as I mentioned earlier, are over-populated and sometimes a nuisance. Aside from how they take care of their young, there is one big difference – how they move around. While a deer can move forward, backwards, and side to side (although as Bambi has taught us, sometimes quite clumsily), kangaroo can only move in a forward direction. They are completely unable to move in reverse, but they can pivot quickly to change direction with the use of their tail.
Similarly, in our own human lives, we can only move forward. Physically we can move in all different directions – forward, backward, sideways, turn upside down and bend over backwards. Time-wise we can only move forward. Yet many of us are stuck in the past – we ruminate and agonize over things that have happened – words we regret, actions we wish we could change. We even tell ourselves that things will never change – that we will always be miserable, never have enough money, find the perfect partner, always have tight hamstrings (!). We tell ourselves these things as if they were hard truths. When the truth is that everything changes AND we can always pivot in a new direction.
There are many ways to look at the concept of truth, or satya in Sanskrit:
Within the realm of yogic philosophy we are told that the only thing that is True or Real is that which never changes. That there is something within all of us that is a constant, and this is what the quest is within a yogic practice; our Holy Grail; the journey of finding Ātma–bōdha, or Self-knowledge.
In the realm of science there are definitely things that we can take as truth (for now anyway) – the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The Earth is round; the Earth and the other planets in our solar system revolve around the sun; Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, just to name a few. But even these scientific truths have changed. It was once thought that the Earth was flat, and that the sun revolved around the Earth. As science progresses, what we once thought of as truth is suddenly not. What I am absolutely sure of is that it cannot be proven that you will always be miserable and that your hamstrings will always be tight…
In a relative sense, in our everyday lives, EVERYTHING CHANGES. Our bodies change, our hair changes, clothes, jobs, the people we hang out with, life situations, our āsana practice, EVERYTHING CHANGES. And although we can’t change something that has already happened in the past, the truth is we can make different choices in the present moment. If we are not happy with something in our lives, if we recognize that something needs to change, but we feel like it never will, then that is the first step! Hopefully making choices that are the benefit to ourselves and others.
I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. Most of us don’t like change – it is hard to let go, even of misery, and is very often painful, but this challenge is what allows us to grow. In every single yoga āsana we are moving in opposing directions. In tāḍāsana (mountain seat), we are grounding down to lift up taller; in utthita parsvakonāsana (extended angle), we are pushing into the back leg while our top arm and the crown of our skull (amongst other things happening) are reaching forward. It is the opposing directions that allow us to feel expansive and grow. Similarly, in life, we are often pulled in opposing directions. We are trying to make changes and move forward, but are being dragged back by those incessant thoughts of the past. It is within this challenge that we can find growth, and maybe discover new truths. Just like a kangaroo, we can pivot, and then keep moving forward.
It’s not easy bein’ green Having to spend each day the color of the leaves When I think it could be nicer being red or yellow or gold Or something much more colorful like that
It’s not easy bein’ green It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things And people tend to pass you over because you’re Not standing out like flashing sparkles in the water Or stars in the sky
But green’s the color of Spring And green can be cool and friendly-like And green can be big like an ocean or important Like a mountain, or tall like a tree
When green is all there is to be It could make you wonder why, but why wonder why Wonder, I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful And I think it’s what I want to be – Joe Raposo/Kermit the Frog
When I was 9 years old my family moved from Rockaway, Queens to Long Island, in the middle of the school year.
Because it was the middle of the year, all of the kids in my class already had their table assignments and I had to be added to one. My teacher, without ever having met me or spoken to me, assumed, based on the spelling of my last name, that I was from a Spanish speaking country and did not speak English, so she placed me at a table with only Spanish speaking students. She made this assumption because at the beginning of the school year there were a group of siblings who had just moved from Peru and spoke very little English, whose last name was spelled De La Cruz. My last name at the time was spelled De Chagas. So just because my teacher saw a space in the middle of my name with a capital “C” she made this assumption.
I was completely offended by this and upset. My last name is Portuguese, but my great grandparents were German, Austrian and Polish, and my family had been in NYC for 3 generations. I definitely spoke English. But as a 9 year old, and a new student, I also just wanted to fit in.
I was so upset by this experience that I actually changed the spelling of my last name to make it less “weird.” To this day, all of my legal documents: driver’s license, passport, high school, college and grad school diplomas, even here at Jivamukti or on my website, my last name is spelled Dechagas. No space, no capital C. Each time my dad sees my name on something he says “you know your name is spelled wrong, right?”
Of course, now, as an adult, I think my Portuguese last name is really cool. There’s this mystery around it about where is comes from, and it makes me different. But it would take soooo much work to go about changing all my legal documents. And as a 9 year old I just wanted to fit in.
So many of us on a daily basis make assumptions about others based on what they look like, last names, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, or if they are covered with feathers or scales, etc. We make decisions and take action based on these assumptions without knowing the full situation. In the yoga world we often talk about everyone being essentially the same, and this is true, all human, animal and plant beings are inherently the same; we are all breathing the same (polluted) air and just trying to get by. But we are also all very different and we should own and be proud of our unique differences. In class we are moving together and breathing together, but our practice is also our own practice on our own mat. We are the same and different at the same time.
There once was an old woman who, every single day, would walk down to the river with two buckets attached to a long pole over her shoulders. One of the buckets was brand new, without a flaw, and the other one was very old with a large crack in it. Each time the woman returned home from her long walk with heavy buckets, the bucket with the crack in it was only half full of water.
This went on for many years, until finally the old bucket asked the woman why she still used him. “You work so hard every single day to carry water home, and each time I am only half full. I feel so inadequate and useless. Why don’t you just throw me out and get a new bucket?”
The old woman told the bucket to look at the path they walk each day. “You’ll notice one side of the path is bare and empty, and the other side is filled with beautiful flowers. I knew of your flaw, so purposely planted seeds on your side of the path, so that each time we walked home, the seeds would be watered. Without the crack in your side we would not have these beautiful flowers.” (Ancient Buddhist Story)
My teacher, Sharon Gannon, often says that magic happens when there is a shift in perception. That if we could just view the world in a slightly different way, magical things will happen. That if we can view buckets with cracks in them with potential, rather than garbage, flowers will grow.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra chapter 2, verse 33, he says
vitarka bādhane pratipakṣa bhāvanam
When disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think the opposite. Not such an easy thing to do. It takes practice (abhyāsa) and time. This doesn’t mean that if you are sad you should force yourself to be happy, but when you take the time to pause for a moment before reacting, to view a different side of a situation, you might find that there is always a little bit of magic.
I just returned from two weeks in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. My first morning in Belize I was woken up, waaaaay too early, by a cacophony of birds. There are about 590 different species of bird just in Belize, and I’m pretty sure every single one of them was saying, “April, RISE AND SHINE!”
That first morning was pretty irritating; but then I found myself purposely waking up with the birds, listening to them, watching them eat breakfast as the sun rose over the ocean.
What I noticed most during my time in Central America and Mexico was not just the many different kinds of birds, but more how all of them flap their wings in different ways. Some glide, some have a meandering wave, some need to get somewhere fast (they must be a NYC ex-pat), and some are nearly invisible. But they all move around this planet with consciousness and purpose. While hunting for food, they are deeply concentrated (dhāraṇā), and meditative (dhyāna), but have the ability to see the expansiveness around them (samādhi); they interact with the greater world without falling out of step. All the time totally absorbed in their point of focus. All three of these together (dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi) are known as saṃyama; or an intuitive insight.
It is believed that birds who fly together in flocks have a sort of biological radio, able to communicate those intricate patterns and actions instantly. The flocks have no leaders. Instead, each bird hones into the signals of the seven closest to them, and they act as one, flying up, down, around and to the side. They have an amazing ability to choreograph their movements in less time than it takes to blink an eye. (Joan Morris, Mercury News). I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a bird fly off in the wrong direction. And it’s not just those seven birds in communication – these circles interconnect, so they are all in communication with each other.
We as human beings can look to these birds for inspiration on how to move around this planet with consciousness. Hopefully we are also tuning in to those closest to us – not just our friends and family, but also our neighbors, community, country and all Earth-beings. Making decisions based on the benefit to all those surrounding us, and not just flying off in the wrong direction. This doesn’t mean we can’t have our own chirp or flap our wings our own special way, but we act with the highest of intentions for the benefit of all.
First…Thank you Radiohead for your entire catalogue of music, and for the title of this blog post 😀
I have a slight addiction to working on jigsaw puzzles. Really CHALLENGING jigsaw puzzles – usually about 3000 pieces, but they have to be minimum 1500. Working on jigsaw puzzles allows my brain to work in a different, meditative, and creative way. I often come up with dharma talks or sequencing while puzzling! The one I finished this morning was 2000 pieces, but is of Monet’s Garden (pictured below), so it might as well have been 5000 pieces. Side note – Barnes & Noble carries a 5000 piece Ravensburger, my favorite brand (yes I have a favorite brand of puzzle), but it is like $85. I am obsessed, but not crazy – I refuse to spend this on a puzzle!
When I am working on a puzzle, and have been looking for a specific piece for a long time without success, I’ll start looking for something completely different. And then, all of a sudden I find what I was looking for in the first place, and it is usually, literally, right under my nose. Or, if I have been sitting in front of it for a while without finding any piece at all, I walk away and do something else. Then when I come back, I often find about 20 pieces immediately.
One of my teachers, Ruth, says that one of the results of a yoga practice is that your vision changes, and when you look at anything you are able to see the whole picture – the past, the present, and the future. You are able to see where things have come from and where they are going.
In our āsana practice, over time, you might realize that the poses we come into all link to each other, just like a puzzle, or that they strategically build up to a more challenging pose later on, the bigger picture. Or maybe you one day realize that all of the poses are exactly the same, just take on a different form! (The truly bigger picture!)
When you are faced with a challenging situation in your life, whether it is personal, or with another person, or more national or global, you may start to see how all of the actions, or karmas, you have taken so far have led up to this point, and how whatever you are about to put into the word as a reaction to this situation will lead to other future karmas. So how you act will affect not only you, and the immediate person/situation in front of you, but the greater world as well. Maybe if you start to look at the situation from a different perspective, from the other person’s point of view, or walk away for a bit and come back, you’ll get what you wanted in the first place, and all of the puzzle pieces fall into place…
Maybe your vision expands so much that, as Ruth says, when you are in the grocery store and you see the non-biodegradable plastic bags that are there for you to put fruit and vegetables in, you can see that they end up buried in the Earth, or in our oceans, and that this causes the Earth and oceans to become sick, and then all of the living begins on the planet become sick. Or when you look at paper plates, cups, napkins, etc., you can picture the trees they came from, and how when we cut down all those trees, it leads to global warming, because there are less trees to take in the carbon dioxide we are emitting, which they then turn back into oxygen, for us to breath, and also to go back into the atmosphere creating rain, which in turn allows everything to grow again. A lovely mandala of life.
The mysteries of the universe often feel like one big jigsaw puzzle, but if we pause for a moment and take it piece by piece, and in the process set an example for others to follow, then slowly, maybe over many lifetimes, the jigsaw will fall into place.
I had the humbling honor of writing the Focus of the Month for the Jivamukti Yoga School for the month of May. You can read it on the Jivamukti website, or right here! You can also find my newest playlist (and all my playlists) on Spotify
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD
Focus Of The Month – May, 2017
yad-yad ācarati śreṣṭhas / tad-tadevetaro janaḥ / sa yat pramāṇaḿ kurute / lokas-tad-anuvartate
A great person leads by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.
Bhagavad Gita III.21
The streets of Calcutta were dangerous and dirty. Thousands were infected with leprosy, cholera, and other contagious diseases. At overcrowded hospitals, nurses were forced to turn away dying patients onto the cockroach-infested streets. A group of activists, led by Mother Teresa, risked their own health to treat the sick and poor, even though most could not be saved. Why would Mother Teresa dedicate her life to working in the most unsettling conditions for people who did not have anything to give in return? She responded by saying, “I see the divine in every human being. When I wash a leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”
The great leaders of the world – Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, Malala Yousafzai – all share certain characteristics. They are clear communicators as well as great listeners. They have a firm and steady grounding that reflects an unwavering commitment to their cause. They inspire and empower. They are also confident, honest, and discerning. There is another quality each great leader has, that perhaps outshines all the others – humility.
Business philosopher Jim Rohn says, “Humility is almost a God-like word. A sense of awe. A sense of wonder. An awareness of the human soul and spirit. Humility is the grasp of the distance between us and the stars, yet having the feeling that we are part of the stars.” In other words, humility is seeing yourself in others; it is seeing all life as holy.
The word humility is derived from the Latin humilis, which is translated as “grounded” or “from the Earth.” The Chandogya Upanishad teaches tat twam asi or “you are that.” This mahavakya, or great saying, relates to the idea that everything is Brahman, that the supreme Self and the individual self are one and the same. If you are Brahman, and the tree is Brahman, then you and the tree are one. The yogi has the humility to understand they are the same as all that exists on Earth. Its natural resources support life, so it is our responsibility to support the Earth just as much.
According to Vedic scripture, we are currently living in the Kali Yuga – an era of conflict and struggle – and great leaders are especially needed. If we want to see peace and happiness in the world, then we must live the kind of life we want to see. There was a point in time when humanity lived in harmony with nature. We only took from the Earth what was necessary to survive. Now, each year, humans kill billions of animals and destroy millions of acres of land. We are fighting wars over natural resources and the Earth can no longer sustain us. The business of taking all the earthly resources we want was once thought of as progress. We have instead regressed, causing billions of humans, animals, and plants unhappiness.
A great yogi offers strength to others so that they too can learn to be steady and joyful. Humility allows the yogi to be the change they want to see in the world. We can consider progressing in a different way, one that would help us rediscover our higher consciousness and realize that we are the same as the stars and shine just as bright. We can also lead by example, setting standards that are followed by others all over the world.
The asana practice is an expression of humility. For example, when practicing Hanumānāsana, we take on the qualities of the great leader Hanuman. In his unwavering devotion to Lord Rama, he is the epitome of virtue, strength, power, humility and courage.
Standing asanas – and warrior asanas in particular – convey the qualities of a great leader: having a firm and steady grounding, a steady gaze, and unwavering intention.
Teach alignment of tadāsana/samastithi. Explain that the alignment of this āsana exists within all the others. The mountain, or Earth, is also the connection between all the other forms we take on: humans (warriors, sages, saints), animals (dogs, frogs, monkeys, etc), insects (locusts), plants (trees, mountains), and even inanimate objects that come from materials from the earth (plows, boats, compasses).
Have students hold asanas for longer than five breaths while maintaining ujjayi pranayama with peace and humility.