Finding Joy in the Ordinary

Our current times are anything but “ordinary.”  We face upheaval on so many fronts simultaneously. I recently heard an author on the radio refer to this type of drastic and disorienting change as a “life quake.” There is a longing to “get back to normal,” even as we face the realities that we can’t return to normal just yet, and that new norms will have to be adopted for some time to come.

While so many aspects of life seem extraordinary and chaotic, there is also a sameness to our days. Most of us have minimized going out of the house for any reason. Social interaction and entertainment have ben severely curtailed. My life used to be punctuated by activities I looked forward to: a weekend away for yoga training, a visit to my family in Nebraska, a night downtown for dinner and a Broadway show. All of that, and more, is off the table. For a lot of us, things feel rather flat. 

Layered over the sameness of daily life is anxiety about what the future will hold. We face such hard decisions and questions. Is my job secure? Will my children thrive with remote learning? Will I or my loved ones get sick?

For me, the only way to navigate this intense disruption is to take a deep dive into the present and appreciate ordinary things. Flowers, food, music, conversation.

I observe the movement of a cardinal on a branch. I hear the wind blowing through the tree branches. I smell the fresh parsley as I chop.

I appreciate the kind words of a friend, and remember to tell them that I noticed their thoughtfulness. I strive to be a better listener. I notice the nuances of someone’s smile.

There is so much beauty that we can discover when we take the time to look for it.

As yoga practitioners, we have many tools to learn to be more awake and aware. From the vigor of a back arch to the subtlety of a soft breath, yoga brings us back to the present moment again and again.

This week at Green Tara Yoga, we are focusing on Yoga for Immunity, so take a look at our Schedule of Online Yoga Classes and experience the art of being present through Iyengar Yoga!

I hope we can all give ourselves a break from fears and concerns, and fully experience the present in all its richness. The yogic masters tell us that this is truly the only road to peace.

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Folding the Palms

At both the beginning and the end of a yoga class, we sit upright and fold the palms. Bringing the hands to touch each other in this way is a gesture of reverence, often simply called “prayer position.” Placing the hands together in front of the chest brings our attention to the heart region, and to the present moment.

This position can be called Namaskarasana, the pose of  respect to the divine within. It can also be called Atmanjali Mudra. Mudra is a gesture or a seal, and Atma is the individual soul. So this is the gesture that brings attention to the innermost core of our being.

So what happens when we assume this posture of folded palms? On the physical level, this position tends to invite a lift and broadening of the chest, which in turn creates space for fuller breathing. As the breath softly spreads, the mind can become passively alert and thoughts may quiet down. With conscious attention on the touch of the thumbs on the breastbone, awareness can descend down from the head and into the heart region.

When we place our attention in the center of the chest, we can experience an almost immediate inner shift. Thoughts loosen their grip and we may get a glimmer of non-conceptual awareness, or awareness of awareness itself.

The head is said to be the center of the ego and the everyday mind, and the heart is the abode of the soul, or as B.K.S. Iyengar has written, “the citadel of the Self.” The brain sifts through the past and plans for the the future, while the heart resides in the eternal now.

The ability to think clearly and use our brains is clearly crucial to our lives, yet we also need to cultivate the quietly attentive experience of heart-centered awareness. In this mode, we may access our inner spiritual wisdom, the intuitive guidance that helps us make fine-tuned value judgements. From the intelligence of the heart, known as buddhi, we can discern the best way forward, in a way sometimes completely inaccessible to the brain.

The first word in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is atha, which means now. How appropriate that we have the method of folding the palms to bring ourselves back to the present each time we practice yoga.

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Happy Interdependence Day

On the Fourth of July in the United States, we celebrate Independence Day, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps after over 200 years of existence, our country can start living up to the ideals expressed in that document for all the people who live here.

For the past few years on July Fourth, I have been thinking about the yogic teaching of interdependence. The principle of interdependence reminds us that all beings and all of creation are bound together in a vast web of cause and effect. The truth is that no one and nothing is truly independent. We are always in relationship to other people, to our environment, and to our own past thoughts, words and actions.

We rely on the earth, the rain and the sun for life itself. We rely on other people, whether those are our neighbors, friends and family, the farmers who grow our food, or the workers who make our clothes, our computers and our cars. We are connected, and we need and influence each other.

When we reflect on this truth, we may realize that what we think, say and do effects others. Reflection on this truth may in turn help us build up our habit of virtuous thoughts, words and deeds.

Part of the purpose of yoga practice is to have a daily experience of heightened self-awareness, so we can become more mindful in everyday life. Support your own practice of self-awareness by taking a free yoga class posted on the Green Tara Yoga & Healing Arts YouTube Channel.

As much as we recognize our inexorable link to others, we also long for the experience of freedom. We like having choices, freedom of thought and expression, and the ability to forge our own unique path. These freedoms build up the capacity of each individual to develop their full potential. Yet this philosophy can easily get distorted into thinking we can do everything for ourselves, or that our choices affect only ourselves.

Remembering the truth of interdependence brings a more balanced point of view. We may start to cultivate awareness of how we interact with others and how we can contribute to our communities on all levels – local, national and world.

So as we celebrate the forging of a nation founded on principles of liberty and equality, let us hope that those ideals can truly come to fruition, as we embrace not only our freedom to choose our own path, but also our freedom to consciously connect with each other.

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In Balance with Nature

While moving through the ups and downs of life at this challenging time, I find that spending time outdoors every day helps me immensely. Whether swimming in Lake Erie, riding my bike, gardening or walking in my neighborhood, being surrounded by the beauty of nature brings peace and balance.

Engaging in physical activity outdoors is exhilarating. It energizes the body, frees the breath and calms the mind. When I am outdoors, I feel the power and grandeur of nature and get absorbed in the moment. The warmth of sun on my skin, the touch of wind in my hair, the smell of the flowers, and the solidity of the ground under my feet – these all bring joy, presence and a sense of connection to all that is.

In yoga philosophy, the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space are used to create a map through which we can view the world and ourselves, and gain greater understanding of how to live in balance. If this ideas resonates with you, read my blog post From Earth to Space – The Five Elements in Yoga Practice for a more thorough treatment of this subject.

EARTH represents solidity, form and shape. It is the mountains, trees, rocks and plants. The earth element is our bones and muscles, which create our form. When the earth element is in balance, we feel stable, calm and grounded.

WATER represents fluidity, movement and creativity. It is the oceans, rivers, streams and rain. The water element is our blood, lymph and organs. When the water element is in balance, our energy flows like a stately river, and we experience vitality and emotional serenity.

FIRE represents heat, warmth, and potency. It is the sun, the core of the earth, and the energy continued in every atom. The fire element  is our nervous system and our mind. When the fire element is in balance, the mind is focused and orderly, able to make decisions and plans, and yet remain firmly grounded in the present.

AIR represents mobility, sensitivity and discernment. It is the currents of wind around us and the air we breath. The air element is our intuitive spiritual intelligence. The air element is in balance, we can make fine tuned assessments and discriminate between what brings temporary pleasure and what brings lasting happiness.

SPACE represents vastness, formlessness and openness. It is the great cauldron of emptiness that contains all forms. The space element is our innermost being, where we can experience bliss, spaciousness and ultimate freedom.

We can look at any situation and ask ourselves which elements are dominating and which elements are missing. Sometimes, just recognizing that I am not relating to the earth element can remind me to ground and settle myself. Or noticing that my breathing is constricted, and I reconnect to the lungs and the inner body. Or I find that I have been focusing only on the relative world instead of making a daily practice of going inward to search for a glimmer of the infinite being within.

There is so much in life that we do not have control over, and in challenging times, that is more obvious than ever. See if the beauty of nature can help you come into balance as you recognize that you are also made of the same elements as the creation around you.

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