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  Read through my blog below by simply scrolling down the entries, or check out the essays below. I've chosen ones that I particularly enjoy--maybe you will too.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Brahmacharya is one of the five yamas, or ethical precepts, set forth in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra. Sometimes yogis translate it as celibacy. Sometimes we translate it as continence. It's generally understood to apply to the realm of sexuality. The etymology of the word is way more open to interpretation: Brahma is a Hindu deity representing the creative force of the universe. Charya means "to be followed." Sometimes yogis render brahmacharya as conduct like God.

I favor the continence interpretation over the celibacy or abstinence interpretation. Continence doesn't mean that you NEVER go to the bathroom, or NEVER have sex, you just choose the proper context. As adults, it's up to us to figure out what proper is. If you WANT to urinate in church, or sleep with everybody in your small circle of friends, you are welcome to do so. Of course, there's this little thing called karma, which, to put it extremely simply, is just the idea that actions create effects. If you throw a stone in the water, ripples move out. Peeing in church and dating indiscriminately create ripples that you might not ultimately enjoy.

There's an implication with brahmacharya that it's not just sexual energy that should be contained, but sexual fluids (tejas in Sanskrit). Certain yoga texts indicate that containment builds power; these fluids are a very potent essence of life, and by containing them, the yogi builds his/her potency. To me, brahmacharya represents more than just sexual continence; it also means energetic, emotional continence. Through yoga we learn, literally, to contain ourselves.

I love to sing, and many years ago I took a workshop with brilliant singing teacher Claude Stein. I have a fair amount of baggage around singing, and I spent a lot of the weekend crying. Each participant prepared a song to share, and I brought a song about a letter. There's a painful episode in my life concerning some letters, so when I started to sing, all my singing issues combined with some tough memories, and tears overwhelmed me. I couldn't sing. Claude looked at me and said, "Sometimes you gotta hold something back or you can't go forward." He had me pick a different song. "If you can't hold it, you're not ready to sing that one yet."

Holding builds power. Inability to hold disperses power. I remember the first time one of my teachers asked us to remain silent after a partner pose. We all nodded, full of good intentions, and then bbbuuuuzzzZZZZZZZ! after the pose we were so excited we could not help but burst into chatter. When prana rises, it's very hard not to laugh, sigh, talk, look around, fidget, yawn, jump up and move around, etc. Nothin' wrong with this--but as yogis, we want stay steady; we want to be able to savor and wield the prana we build up through practice.

This steadiness is in the mantra, Om Namah Shivaya Gurave. Gurave means the teacher, but also THE HEAVY one. The dense one. Like butter: rich, dense, heavy, self-contained. Not that cream isn't delightful, and you can cultivate fluidity too. But the main attributed to the great Power that coalesces to form the Universe (other than the fact that "shiva" literally means auspicious) is heaviness. Shiva doesn't dilute the Universe into existence. He consolidates. Creates a border. Contains.

Unmindful withholding can build power in a dangerous way. You bottle up your feelings and they explode. You never process a painful episode so it rules your life. Our yoga is always about knowing the full spectrum of experience so that you have options, so that you can navigate reality skillfully. So we can't talk about withholding without talking about release, offering, surrender.

A couple of years after I met Claude, my big sister asked me to give a toast at her wedding. My sister is an accomplished, glamorous woman, and she got married in a beautiful, swanky NYC venue in front of 200 people. I have a real love/hate relationship with attention (I love attention! But not too much, and not the wrong kind), and I was petrified about this toast. I stayed up late practicing it the night before. My sister's now-husband jokingly asked her if she wanted to preview my toast. She declined, but I was thinking, "Shouldn't someone be checking this homework before I turn it in?"

Well, when I started giving the toast, everyone started laughing at the first line. It's always good to open with a joke, so this shouldn't have been a problem, except for the fact that I was not intending to be funny. I had to re-start the toast 3-4 times, and every time, everybody roared with laughter. So that was kind of unnerving, but I kept going. Toward the end of the toast, when I got to this part about coming to know my sister in a new way, I started crying. My voice wobbled horribly, and I couldn't stop the tears. I paused and considered my options. I could: 1. leave the stage. 2. turn around so that nobody could see me crying. 3. let the tears flow and just speak as clearly as I could. I went with #3, and when I looked around the room, I saw that nobody was laughing anymore. They were listening intently and some of them were tearing up too.

I've taught 10-14 yoga classes a week for ten years. 10 years x 52 weeks x 12 yoga classes: I've taught 6,240 yoga classes in my life. But the three-minute speech I gave at my sister's wedding was the most satisfying, effective, and powerful public speaking I've ever done. The combination of holding and letting go was a potent one that I try, try, try to recreate when I teach.

Some teachers say that as we get move along the path of practice, we feel more. But our vessel also gets stronger, so that even as we are moved more deeply by Life's small showings of beauty, suffering, tenderness, we are be able to hold those experiences more strongly. We are moved more and unmoored less. How does this happen? We get better and better at continence. We keep our own counsel when necessary. We choose our words carefully. And when we can't hold back anymore, and our eyes well up, we steady our voices and sing through the tears.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Oil Spill

This week I did a lot of looking at the disaster in the Gulf and, frankly, weeping. The clips of the animals, the hot-fudge sauce texture of the water, the constant billow of petroleum on the live cams, the ineptness of BP, the callousness of the BP CEO, the bitterness of the locals, the world-wide fury, grief, and feeling of helplessness... What a horrible situation. That hole is a festering bullet wound in our beloved Earth.
Here in America, petroleum allows us to sit in climate-controlled rooms, wearing finely-woven garments, eating whatever we want, surrounded by nice furnishings, fiddling on our computers, watching TV, preserving our skin with creams, wearing makeup. Petroleum allows us to educate our children, travel around the world in a day, build dwellings and structures of unbelievable complexity, travel off our planet to other realms. And yet when we go to the gas station, we never have to actually look at the gasoline. We roll up the windows to avoid the horrible smell. Who wants to look at petroleum? Who wants to look directly at the sun? Energy that potent burns our eyes.
We modern first-world humans like to think of ourselves as somehow separate from nature. You can spend the whole day indoors without ever touching soil, sniffing the wind, or seeing a tree. Mother Earth gives us everything--even the power to escape awareness of our dependency on her. Although we drive modern cars, wear modern clothes and live in modern houses, the energy that powers our lives is a primeval black gunk that we pull out of the ground. We delve deep beneath Earth's surface to extract this dark, potent, poisonous potion. We use it to extend our reach into every corner of our planet and into the heavens. We use it to extend our reach back down into the darkness of Mother Earth to extract more darkly potent magic potion. J.K. Rowling couldn't make this stuff up!
What makes the magic of this potion so powerful? As I wrote in a previous post: Dead creatures from long ago! "Fossil fuels are fuels formed by natural resources such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms." (Wikipedia.) Fossil fuel is very old, concentrated, liquidized death. Now, let me spell something out: Death, from the point of view of the yogi (and many spiritual masters), is not a Bad Thing. You may or may not know that most yoga classes conclude with a pose called savasana, in which you recline full length on the floor. Savasana means "corpse pose", and it's pretty much universal in all types of hatha yoga. We're all doing it: laying down and taking the form of a corpse. Why do we do this? Why do yogis cultivate a practice of acknowledging death, even to go so far as to take the form of death?
Because yogis take the premise that immortal, infinite Spirit chooses to coalesce into finite packets of space and time to create our human lives. We're given the opportunity to experience the infinite through a finite body and make of our lives what we choose. Acknowledging our mortality is bittersweet, and yet yogis understand that acknowledging it is a good strategy for living. Awareness of mortality has the power to clarify priorities like nothing else. Awareness of mortality instills a healthy reverence for the fundamental cycles of life on Earth. Instead of ignoring death, we bring it out and treat it respectfully as a part of ourselves. Hindus respectfully address the annihilating, transformative power of the universe by the name Kali.
Petroleum, to me, has many Kali-like associations. It's dark, powerful, potent, dangerous, deep. Let me explain a little about Kali, if you don't already know her name. She is a Hindu deity associated with the destructive/alchemical nature of time. Here are some awe-full descriptions of how she rolls from two texts, the Tantrasara and the Kali Tantra, both of which I found in a book called Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine by David Kinsley.
"She is completely naked, and her body gleams with blood that is smeared all over it from the garland of bleeding severed heads around her neck. Her ear ornaments are the corpses of children." "She is like a mountain of collyrium (a dark substance), and her abode is in the cremation ground. She has three red eyes, her hair is disheveled, and she is awful to look at because of her emaciated body. In her left hand she holds a jar full of liquor mixed with meat, and in her right hand she holds a freshly severed head. She is eating raw flesh, she is naked, her limbs are adorned with ornaments, she is drunk on wine, and she smiles. ...She makes a loud, laughing sound, is very dreadful, but bestows the desires of the aspirant."
That last bit, about bestowing the desires of the aspirant, is interesting. You know what they say about answered prayers! Our culture's prayers have been answered, in a fashion, by fossil fuels. We've accessed power beyond our wildest dreams. But having power doesn't mean you know how to use in in a life-affirming way. This is something we work with a lot as Anusara yogis. We cultivate power: strength of heart and body, fortitude, clarity of vision, the ability to manifest our desires. But that power has to serve a greater vision than our individual desires. In the epic poems of India, the deities and the demons are all adept yogis--they're all potent and powerful. Being a yogi doesn't make you a decent person (trust me on this). It makes you a powerful one. What differentiates a demon from a deity is to what end s/he wields his/her power. Who cares if you can do sirsasana if you can't be kind to your intimates?
So look: as Americans, or inhabitants of the first world, we have been granted the boon of power on a scale unheard of in any other epoch of human history. However, we don't really know what the heck to do with it or how to manage it. We've invested the energy unlocked by the use of fossil fuels in a completely unsustainable infrastructure that has damaged our planet.
This mis-management of power happens on a microcosmic scale for each of us in our own human hearts. Personally, I avoided, and still sometimes avoid, my own darkness for many years. I never wanted, and still sometimes do not want, to acknowledge my anger, shame, insecurity, hurt or fear. So, of course those things fester/ed in my heart and leak/ed out in the form of irritability, anxiety, depression. When I'm not acting in the highest, I re-invest the energy of my darker feelings in my darker feelings. However, one of the promises of yoga is that through the practice, we are able to confront our darkest feelings, bring them out into the light, and use their power to create beauty, bring love, express art, establish peace, etc. Types of yoga that are based on Tantric philosophy, like Anusara yoga, are particularly likely to emphasize the idea that your dark places aren't EVIL. They're just dark! Kali isn't evil, petroleum isn't evil, our emotions aren't evil. These things are powerful, and the key issue is how we respond to them and roll with them.
So how can we respond to the darkness? What's our dharma in this horrible situation in the Gulf? What's our duty to life? Novelist and blogger Cherie Priest has some excellent suggestions about specific political and financial steps to take: As a yoga student, I offer a reminder that while the darkness is powerful, so is light. However dark things get, that's how light they can be. However low, that's how high. However mundane or even profane, that's how sacred.
So now, let us slip through a portal. Cross a threshold. Turn on a pivot. Let us turn from Kali to Lakshmi.
Lakshmi is a Hindu deity associated with beauty, auspiciousness, and good fortune. If Kali is associated with the burning, blinding sun, Lakshmi is associated with the cooling, romantic moon. Her skin is coral. She wears a red sari. She is beautiful, and beautifully adorned. She carries lotuses, her outstretched palms drip coins. Lakshmi also promises power, bestows boons, and smiles. But unlike Kali, Lakshmi promises SAFETY. Stability. Reliability. Happy lives going on happily. She's often associated with, and invoked by, royal power. Her other name, Shri, literally means auspicious.
Lakshmi is the glistening promise of Life fulfilled. These last few days in New Jersey have been high summer; the edges of the leaves are gilded with sunshine. The succulence and abundance of the flowers is overwhelming. The sky is a perfect crystalline blue with fluffy white clouds. All weekend, the nights brought brilliant, sparkling fireworks that delighted the eyes with a different kind of magic than that of petroleum. It's been a succession of bright blessed days and dark sacred nights. The abundance of this season reminds me that despite the horrors in the Gulf, life goes on. Kids play, people have barbeque. People enjoy fireworks, as they have since the 12th century.
We are free to refuse the gift of Life's beauty. And sometimes, in the face of horror, injustice, suffering, brutality, it's tempting to turn your face to the wall. Ever met an activist who was utterly unable to appreciate the moment because s/he was so troubled by the presence of injustice elsewhere? Here's a fictional example: Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. Mary Magdalene is bathing Christ's feet and face with ointment, and Judas shrieks:
"Your fine ointment,
Brand new and expensive,
Should have been saved for the poor.
Why has it been wasted?
We could have raised maybe
Three hundred silver pieces or more.
People who are hungry,
People who are starving,
Matter more than your feet and hair!"

Jesus snaps back:
"Surely you're not saying
We have the resources
To save the poor from their lot?
There will be poor always
Pathetically struggling.
Look at the good things you've got!
Think while you still have me,
Move while you still see me.
You'll be lost,
You'll be so sorry
When I'm gone."

This truth is universal, and acknowledged by sages from widely disparate locations in space and time: Life's horror and injustice are always present. If we wait until the last bit of horror is banished to savor our blessings, we will, (paraphrasing Thoreau) when we come to die, discover that we have not lived! I personally believe that part of MY dharma, and probably yours too, is to see and savor life's beauty. Humans who are able to see and cherish beauty are happier, healthier, and better able to respond in the highest way to any circumstance. Let us honor Life's beauty, which she freely offers to us. Savor beauty while you call your congresswo/man, write a check, drive to the Gulf to wash pelicans, organize petitions, change your driving habits, etc. Because this planet is still beautiful. Flowers still blossom, people still love you, and fireworks are still gorgeous on the 4th of July.