Monthly Archives: June 2012

Monkey Mind

By Linda Oshins

Monkey mind: A Buddhist term meaning , “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable.” Wikipedia
I recently returned from the 10-day silent retreat I do annually with Richard Miller, and this one was particularly rough. Every year, I go through upheavals on retreat, as expected. I grieve as the ego dies, or in my case it’s more like the ego loses its job as the reputed boss of everything. I rehire it a couple months later, but with a better understanding of its true nature and function. This retreat was so hard because the ego held onto its job. It was as though I hadn’t meditated for 35 years. I watched over and over again as the mind wandered into the past or future, into stories about myself—Linda the wise and benevolent, the (I hate to admit it) spiritually evolved, or Linda the flawed, the petty, the unfeeling, the unloving. But always Linda, Linda, Linda!
I did everything I counsel new meditators not to do. I drifted into fantasy, even though I could clearly see myself doing it; I engaged in it, enjoyed or was dismayed by the story itself, then hated myself for doing it. I had all the regular knee-jerk reactions—blame, shame, jealousy. I didn’t, for example, just watch whatever arose. I fought. My years of meditating just let me see the process more clearly and stay present for every excruciating moment. The mundane nature of the repetition was appalling.
Of course, this was a wonderful lesson. Pema Chodron says, “When we start out on a spiritual path we often have ideals we think we’re supposed to live up to. We feel we’re supposed to be better than we are in some way. But with this practice you take yourself completely as you are. Then ironically, taking in pain—breathing it in for yourself and all others in the same boat as you are—heightens your awareness of exactly where you’re stuck.” My gripe was that I wasn’t “starting out,” but apparently I am.
During retreat my good friend Julie told a story. Actually she sang a song and told the story behind it. It goes like this. During the Raj, the British built a golf course in India. But the monkeys took the balls and moved the balls. So the British rounded up the monkeys and took them elsewhere but of course there are lots of monkeys in India and they took the balls and moved the balls. So the British built a high wall around the whole golf course, but the monkeys climbed the wall and took the balls and moved the balls. Running out of options, the British changed the rules. You have the play the ball from where the monkey puts the ball.
I’m practicing yoga nidra and/or sitting meditation every day. My monkey mind puts the ball here and there. The nature of the lesson is unfolding and sometimes there’s no lesson. Just awareness.
Linda Oshins teaches pranayama and meditation Tuesdays and Wednesday mornings from 8:15 5o 9:15.

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Never Underestimate the Power of Lying Down

By Marcia Miller

As I prepare to teach the Restorative Teacher Training in July I have been reflecting back on over 35 years of yoga. If Ashtanga Yoga had been popular and available where I was in the 70s I likely would have been an Ashtangi. At 20, I was wild for asana and moved into advanced poses very quickly. I was the sort of student who showed up for an early morning practice of 108 sun salutations as the appetizer to a weekend workshop of advanced asana. Restorative yoga was unknown in those days; there were no props, no blankets, no blocks or straps, hey, there weren’t even any yoga mats in those days. And while the tradition that I started in included long savasanas (deep relaxations), some popular schools of yoga did not.

Life has a way of bringing balance to our lives and after about 7 years of full on practice a close family member died and I couldn’t get out of bed. I had never experienced grief before and had no idea what was happening. I had the feeling that if I could get up and do some asana I would have felt much better. But even when I crawled to my yoga space, I couldn’t seem to do anything. I lay there and cried. The few times I was able to muster up an active practice of some sort I got injured. I realized that my posture was sagging in the typical slouch of despair and loss and my body was in pain. I was sighing and exhaling a lot but not inhaling much.

At that time my bed was a mattress on the floor. It also became my first yoga prop. When I didn’t feel like getting up one morning I turned around and lay on my back with my head, shoulders and arms on the floor and the rest of my body supported by the mattress. I had invented my first supported back bend, a version of what we now call setu bandhasana. I could remain there without any effort on my part. My inhalations went deeper and my chest was not collapsed at least for the time I was there. It felt nourishing and necessary. As I moved through my grief I also used bed pillows to prop up my chest and started valuing my time of restoration. Eventually I moved back into more active poses again but never forgot the power of lying around over household furnishings.

The following year another family member died and my grief hit even harder. There were many days when I wasn’t sure I would make it out of the grief alive. Soon after this death I ended up in a week-long program with Mary Schatz, a medical doctor and Iyengar yoga teacher. She was teaching something called restorative yoga! Clearly, someone else (B. K. S. Iyengar) had invented this practice as well and I learned more sophisticated versions of poses I had already been practicing and the physiology of what we were doing. Eventually Judith Lasater published her book, Relax and Renew, and the restorative yoga revolution was off and running.

There are times in everyone’s lives when the kindest, most important thing they can do is to lie down. If they have the skill to practice specific poses that will be therapeutic for their circumstances, so much the better. From time to time we all get ill, have accidents, loss, babies, go through menopause or are just too darn tired to work any harder. These are times for restorative yoga. I know there are some people who consider restorative yoga a “lesser practice,” but this is not my experience at all. After one year of practicing restorative yoga exclusively, I returned to my more active practice without any loss of flexibility. What I gained was immeasurable: an enhanced ability to track subtle connections, increased sensitivity, openness and trust that I could know my own needs. I learned the benefits of a quiet stillness deeper than anything I had previously experienced. What little I lost in muscle strength was easily renewed, perhaps because of my enhanced ability to balance effort and relaxation.

As a yoga teacher I have found restorative yoga to be a practice that allows anyone to come to the mat and support whatever is going on. I have taught men and women with cancer who would never have been able to do sun salutations but could lie over bolsters to increase their circulation and reduce the anxiety that comes with a life-threatening disease. I have taught people with back pain who couldn’t get comfortable sleeping until we fine-tuned a side-lying restorative pose. I have taught veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder who were so tired from their vigilance and anxiety that all they wanted was a chance to rest. I have supported mothers who have lost babies who just needed a few moments of comfort before returning to their grief. I have supported women who didn’t know it was necessary to care for themselves in order to care for the others in their lives. The faces that come into my awareness as I type these words are precious reminders of the power of yoga. As a teacher I want all the tools possible in my toolkit so I can meet you right where you are. If you want wild arm balances—great—I love those; if you want a place of respite and ease we can do that too.

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A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?

By Angela LaMonte

Krishnamacharya, the great teacher of both B.K.S. Iyengar and Patabhi Jois, said that there is something in the practice of yoga for everyone and that the only requirements for practicing yoga are the abilities to breathe and to bring the hands together in front of the heart. I love thinking about this, and while it gives me the basis for everything I do whenever I’m teaching, it particularly inspires me in my chair yoga classes. Although my chair students have physical limitations that keep them from the sort of asana practice that younger and freer bodies can have, I find that they want to have a full experience of yoga-- not just asana, but all the limbs of yoga. It’s almost as if limiting the asana practice frees them for more exploration of philosophy, breath practices and meditation. In my longest running chair class I can bring in anything for my students’ consideration: poetry, spiritual readings from any tradition, breath practices, and all sorts of concentration/meditation practices. They love it and it brings out the best in me as I search for things that will interest them.

The people who come to my class at Yoga on High don’t fit any preconceived images of who might do chair yoga. They are active people who have something that keeps them from getting to the floor and back up again as comfortably, easily or quickly as would be needed in other classes. They could be new to yoga or they could have previous experience. They might have conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, joint replacements, or the effects of diabetes. They might be recovering from injuries or surgery and decide to take chair yoga as a way to keep coming to class until they can return to their regular classes. They might want to learn practices that they can do in an office, or maybe they just want to move gently. No matter their reason for coming to class, they’re all mature enough not to be seduced by images of perfect bodies in yoga magazines. Instead, they know their needs and study yoga as a means to increase the physical function and emotional comfort in their lives.

I love watching my chair yoga students and figuring out what I can teach that meets their needs. The class tends to be small and personal, and the challenge for me is to keep trying things for them until we find what they can do. I always have an idea about how class will go and then (more often than not) drop it if the students who come to class need something different. This happened in my class recently, when a student was having so much physical discomfort that I struggled to come up with ideas for asana practice for her. I had an image in my head of flipping through file folders as I searched for something in my backlog of movements that could be done sitting in a chair or standing behind one to hold for balance. My student finally said that she wanted rest—which I could definitely provide for her, with all the lovely props in the studio. As I got her settled in I hoped that the others in class knew that they would get the same level of care from me whenever they need it, because they will.

Every class is an adventure and a learning process for my students and for me, as we figure out what they need on any given day. I’m challenged to come up with ideas to keep asana practice interesting within physical parameters that are appropriate for my students, and I’m free to offer as much pranayama and meditation as I want. For me, it’s the perfect class!

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From Curses to Blessings

By Martha Marcom

Last week in our 200 TT discussion on ethics, Marcia and I were pointing out how carefully students tend to study their yoga teacher. They are looking to their teacher for clues on what yoga is and how it manifests. We said to assume everything you do as a teacher will be noticed. This prompted one of the teachers in training, to relay a story about me.

This happened five years ago--our sweet Kelly Rose, a very thoughtful teacher who also worked at the front desk of YOHI overheard me say the f-word after hanging up on a call with Lowe’s. Kelly Rose related this to her friend, now in our teacher in training program, and expressed to her the relief she felt knowing that I was capable of letting loose with an expletive. I felt relief myself, hearing this story for the first time, that it turned out ok in the end!

I’m confessing here that I’ve been cursing and using language unbecoming of a yogini. I see the problem as being lack of mindfulness and presence as much as the actual curse itself. It seems I’ve developed well-worn pathways for this pattern and it’s requiring a strong dose of awareness and attention to remedy the habit.

Some words have power for good and for transformation. The word “om” is known to have beneficial bodily effects and for its potential to raise one’s vibratory quality. The power of sound is a double-edged sword though; curses carry negative energy and lower vibration.

In the Lowe’s case, I am saying to myself, it was justified--we were ready to put our house up for sale in a tough market and the only thing holding us back was that Lowe’s couldn’t come through with a new counter we’d been promised long ago, and then was finally delivered, but damaged…ok, but I noticed myself curse about a red light. Reacting over a traffic light? Even if I was running late, even if it was said softly, that reaction lacked discrimination and discernment, and it’s painful to think that the word which came so thoughtlessly is reflective of my state of mind.

I realized I needed to plan out an alternative, a go-to word for sudden situations when I might have reached for an easy expletive.

My friend Angelique, who is an actual embodied angel, says, “Good Night!” when she exclaims.

My charming friend Rhonda says “Dang!”

My elegant grandmother used to declare, “Oh, my!”

Some I’ve tried out:

Lord have mercy!

Heavens to Mugatroy, or to Betsy

A rustic one: Land a goshin!, or gosh for short

Goodness gracious. This is it--so benevolent. How much more useful, beautiful, pleasant, uplifting than a curse! But in a trying situation, could it ring true? It may not hold up in every instance …but as a go-to phrase…I’m giving goodness gracious a go.

It is so easy to label something with a careless word, and the f-word can get easy too. It is so short and explosive. So, I will try to blurt out “Goodness gracious!” instead of something more reactive, but this is my challenge to myself: what word choice could express and reflect the actual intensity of the situation? And won’t it be interesting to look more deeply to see what is at the heart of the issue and to identify the emotions and needs arising and to name them? I’m imagining that silence would be the appropriate response much of the time…or a thoughtful silence before coming up with a useful comment on or summary of the challenge at hand.

And going forward, when I curse I will attempt to do it mindfully, using a powerful vibration-lowering shock word only when the occasion truly warrants a sharp slap of negativity. I’m wishing you goodness and graciousness and the intent to always be radiating blessings for all beings--reflecting in the language what is truly in your heart.

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