navigating change

Blog post written by Eliza Skye.

Photo by Eliza Skye.

We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.
— C. Joybell C.

Annica, the Buddhist Doctrine of Impermanence, informs us that change is inevitable, continuous, and unavoidable. Hindu traditions talk about Shakti, the cosmic, divine feminine energy that continually manifests, keeps things going for a while, then dissolves them. Corinthians in the Bible states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The Hebrew translation for change is ‘ma’avar’, which means to “cross over,” to “pass through”. Many traditions note how taking on a spiritual practice seems to invite more change into that practitioner’s life, and those traditions offer guidance for navigating change with grace. 

Change is often messy, and can happen in an instant. Sometimes it can seem that change is a major obstacle or disruption in the flow of life. When visualizing change, I often call to mind the image of the Kyenay Bardo, or the Tibetan Bardo of Birth & Life, as a river, flowing forward as our perception of time. Ahead of us lie countless obstacles - perhaps there is a dam, debris, or the river diverts or splits. We cannot guess what is just beyond the foreseeable future, and of course there may be obstacles hidden just under the surface. All of these bumps in the path ahead are representations of the change that we have to navigate in order to move forward with our lives. This means that we must make adjustments, alter our preconceived routes, and integrate experiences for a smoother voyage. 

Navigating change can be supported by our yoga practice if we look at the way we navigate a hatha yoga class. First, we can set an intention so we understand what we are navigating toward. Then, we are better able to choose the right path when the river splits. Next, we must stay present throughout the process, or we will find ourselves off balance. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to stay in a balancing pose if your mind is wandering? When we cannot stay present through change, even though it is often uncomfortable, we may emerge from the experience off balance and confused, less prepared for the next bump (which will certainly lie ahead). Finally, yoga helps us in the letting go of expectations and desires. Letting go is necessary to truly sway with the changes staying stuck or falling out of your boat. 
 

Navasana (Boat Pose)

september - boat pose.jpg

In order to navigate the river of this life’s bardo, we must find our boat in Navasana, or Boat Pose. Navasana is excellent for practicing all of the skills for navigating change that yoga has to offer us. First, we set the intention of finding some variation of Boat Pose, which can range from beginner/adaptive to very challenging. Then, we enter the pose with presence and stillness of mind. Finally, we have to let go of the idea that there is a “goal” with Boat Pose. You may fall out of the pose, or have to adjust to a less challenging variation, and let go of the attachment to where you think the pose should end, because no yoga pose has an ending. There is always a way to deepen each pose in your practice. No matter what, Boat Pose is a wonderful balancing pose, specifically strengthening the abdomen, hip flexors and spine. It stimulates the function of the kidneys, thyroid and prostate glands, and intestines and helps improve digestion. One of the best things about Navasana is that you can easily play in it with a partner. Partners can bring so much to this pose, just as they can in navigating the changes of life. 
 

courage

blog post by Anjali Davidson

There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid.
— L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz

In many spiritual traditions across the East and the West, courage is one of the traits that distinguishes humans as intelligent and evolved beings. It has been expounded by philosophers as a type of ‘endurance of the soul’. The textbook definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one” or “strength in the face of pain or grief”. Just as with resilience, every human being who is alive today can probably attribute part of their existence to the courage of their ancestors. 

Courage can be physical, which is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship or threat of death. Courage can also be moral, which is the ability to act rightly, even in the face of popular opposition, shame, scandal, discouragement or personal loss. Both aspects of courage can be cultivated with a steady yoga or spiritual practice. Many of the qualities of courage stem from a certain aspect of trust. Physical Courage is trusting your body to survive pain and discomfort. Ultimately, one must trust their intuition of what is deeply right and worth fighting for in practicing Moral Courage. 

We are all born with courage. The amount of bravery it takes to push through birth and take a first breath is something we cannot remember or measure. It us up to each individual to face any physical or moral adversity with bravery, strength and trust. Courage is a choice that can be made with any challenge. It can be cultivated in us. 
 

Simhasana (Lion's Pose)

You may have heard of Lion’s breath without knowing its origin in a pose called Simhasana, meaning “Lion’s Pose”. Lion’s Pose is a seated pose, often practiced in vajrasana, or a kneeling posture. If kneeling is not available, you can find any seated position that allows your spine to be long. Simhasana is a unique pose in that it mainly benefits unseen internal organs, including the larynx, the carotid sinus, the sinus nerves, thyroid, and parathyroid glands. It also helps to strengthen the chest and abdomen. 

Lion’s Pose can help alleviate symptoms of voice-related issues, such as stammer and hoarseness. It also may help improve the quality of one’s singing voice. Finally, one of the most popular benefits is that Lion’s Pose helps stimulate the platysma, which is the muscle in the neck that tends to sag as we get older, leading to a more aged look. For some, especially those who are new to practicing yoga in public, Lion’s Pose takes a lot of courage because the proper way to practice it is by crossing the eyes (to gaze at the third eye), sticking out the tongue, and making a strong “ha” sound. Please try to remember that we are all in this practice together, and that the benefits of this strong pose are plenty. 
 

Dharana

blog post written by Anjali Davidson

Concentration is the root of all the higher abilities in man.
— Bruce Lee

Dharana is one of Pantanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, and it roughly translates to “concentration”, “single focus” or “holding steady”. Dharana is the first step into deep meditation, and a process that we all must practice consistently in order to find moments of meditative bliss. When one practices dharana, there is a consciousness who is able to watch the thoughts and remain separate from them. Eventually, this will evolve into a higher practice in which consciousness, thoughts and the witness all blend into a stream of singularity. 

Dharana informs our hatha yoga practice in a couple distinct ways. First, we use concentration in the physical act of yoga. Balancing becomes much more accessible when the yoga practitioner is able to focus and hold steady on a single thought. Next time you are wobbling out of a balancing pose, check in with the thoughts. Are they wandering, as they tend to without guidance? See if you can hold steady on one thought, or even the breath, and you will likely find balance to be much more accessible. 

Another way that dharana informs the practice of hatha yoga is that we see a similar evolution of practice cultivating the fruits of what we seek. In hatha yoga, perhaps you are seeking a handstand (one of the most common yoga “dream poses” that I personally hear from my students). Hopefully, your teacher is introducing you to steps along the way toward a handstand. We don’t suddenly emerge into a handstand - it takes steady practice and focus. The same can be said about meditation. Though the Beginner’s Mind is a very real phenomenon, typically one does not simply sit down on a cushion and enter into a state of ananda, or bliss. Often, one must hold steady to an image, a mantra or the sound of the breath and use that as a channel toward the experience of nonduality. 

This concept is on one hand so simple, but when we take into account the intricacies and deeply ingrained patterns of the mind, it becomes rather tough. My guru, Swami Satchidananda, wrote about the realities of dharana (in this example, the point of focus is a rose): 

“As you look at the rose, the mind will try to go somewhere. The minute you begin, the mind will say, ‘Ah, yes, I remember she sent me a rose like that for my last birthday.’… And then, ‘After that we had dinner. Ah, it was the best dinner. Then we went to the movies. What was that movie? King Kong?’ It will all happen within two minutes. Even less than two minutes. So, on what are you meditating now? Not on a rose, but on King Kong.”

Dharana is the act of noticing where the mind went and gently, consistently, bringing it back to the image of the rose, over and over until the mind can learn to settle. Satchidananda can offer advice on this piece as well:

“This very practice itself is called concentration: the mind running, your bringing it back; its running, your bringing it back. You are taming a monkey. Once it’s tamed, it will just listen to you. You will be able to say, ‘Okay, sit there quietly.’ And it will. At that point you are meditating. Until then you are training yourself to meditate. Training your mind to meditate is what is called dharana.”

My hope is that, in introducing dharana to the yoga studio that we can create a community of people who practice this limb of yoga in their own lives. Then, we can share our experiences and advice with others who have the same pursuits. Then we are lifting each other up, helping to unify our experience of seeking the light. 

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

This standing balance is a combination of many challenging aspects of yoga. In all standing balancing poses, core and leg strength are key for a steady asana. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana is especially challenging because, in addition to those two elements, open hamstrings are essential. However, even if the hamstrings are not open, there are many ways to modify Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose. The leg in the air, for example, does not have to keep the knee perfectly straight. This pose was chosen to complement the practice of concentration because steady focus is key for this balance. Practicing this pose with present awareness can open you up to the true power of the breath in hatha yoga. Focus on the breath leads to a steadiness that allows you to explore the depth of your own flexibility. In addition to cultivating concentration and leg flexibility, this pose strengthens the core, legs and ankles. All of these benefits can be experienced if you choose to practice this pose with the support of a wall, and you can also alleviate some of the leg work by taking this pose while lying on the back. 

Playfulness

Blog post written by Anjali Davidson

To me there is nothing more sacred than love and laughter, and there is nothing more prayerful than playfulness.
— Osho

In Sanskrit, the word “lila” means ‘sport’ or ‘play of God’, and it also refers to the concept that all of existence is a divine play, put on by Brahman (the creator). This very strongly correlates to the Western theological concept of Pandeism, which describes the Universe as God taking a physical form in order to experience the interplay between the elements of the Universe. Many of us adults consider play to be something that we no longer need after childhood, but there are many traditions that see the power in play. The definition of play is “the quality of being light-hearted or full of fun.” In play, the heart carries the light and therefore must let go of darkness. The mind is present. Play is not a sport - there is no competition or goal. It is an act performed in pure joy, which brings about true liberation, for there is no attachment to an outcome, to the past, or to the future. Perhaps, with enough practice, we can shift toward a view that all of the world around us is simply a divine play, with all of us as the actors and the audience. We can choose the next act of our lives, perhaps embracing it with the lighthearted joy of a child at play. 
 

Bakasana (Crow Pose)

Bakasana, or Crow Pose,  is a playful and accessible arm balance that has very few contraindications. Bakasana was chosen as the pose for the month of June because crows are known for their playful nature. This playfulness suggests to many scientists and researchers that crows have a higher level of intelligence than other common birds. The playfulness itself is an indicator of intelligence. It takes a certain wit to engage in the act of play, for it means that a creature takes delights in an action that beyond survival or base needs. We can learn from the crow as we practice Bakasana. Arm balances are difficult, and there is a certain amount of falling that happens when one takes a balance. If Crow Pose is approached with playfulness, a yoga practitioner can enjoy falling out and perhaps even laugh at themself.  Crow Pose strengthens the shoulders, arms, wrists, abdomen and inner thighs, and even beginning the practice helps to tone those particular areas of the body. There are a few ways to modify this arm balance in order to make it more accessible to practitioners of all types, so we encourage you to come to the studio and talk to your teacher about how to approach this pose. 
 

Presence

Blog post written by Anjali Davidson

Action only happens in the present, because it is an expression of the body, which can only exist in the here and now. But the mind is like a phantom that lives only in the past and the future. Its only power over you is to draw your attention out of the present.
— Dan Millman

Many of us come to yoga to practice staying present. Teachers help facilitate this by offering continuous reminders to return to the present moment. Where are we returning from, and why do we go there so often? It is so simple to fall into the mental state of dwelling on past actions, analyzing them with ferocity and finding new interpretations of what was said or done. The mind has an equal draw to living in the future, imagining conversations that may happen or how an event has the potential to go wrong. Between the past and the future is the very fleeting present moment. As soon as we identify what is present, it has already become the past, and that is the paradox we must learn to accept. 

To live in a way that is fully grounded in the present moment, we must learn to face discomfort when it arises. It may be tempting to flee from what we don’t necessarily see as a pleasant person, conversation or life experience. However, after practice, you may begin to notice that events no longer fit into tidy categories of “pleasant” and “unpleasant”. Addressing work as it arises become a part of the moment, and with perspective, it is easier to accept challenges as a necessary part of the path that serves you most.

Living with presence means absorbing the world around you with a wide open heart. It means seeing exactly what is in front of you with clarity and non-judgement. To judge means that you are inherently comparing with the past or the future. Presence is fullness – beyond good and bad, beyond right and wrong. Presence is acceptance that all of what we experience simply is. Sometimes, this is beyond comprehension when we have so many expectations and preconceptions that we carry with us at all times. It takes constant, steady practice to overcome this conditioning and simply be with whatever life brings. 
 

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)

The battle of the spiritual warrior is one that takes place far beyond the physical realm. The warrior does not have to be an archetype of violence. The warrior does not have to hurt anybody in order to accomplish what she has set out for in this lifetime. The weapon of the spiritual warrior is discernment, or viveka in Sanskrit. The warrior must use this discernment decide what is based in reality and what is an illusion of the ego. Living with presence allows the warrior to see what is truth and what is a creation of the mind and its many desires. The mind wants to thrive, and its fuel is analysis of the past or fantasies of what may come.

Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, help tame this wild nature of the mind. With enough practice, the warrior learns how to use the mind to cultivate viveka. When we learn to live with full presence, the True Self is revealed to us. Warrior II honors the spiritual warrior who lives within all of us. It is a greatly strengthening pose, with the practitioner firmly grounded on both feet, arms extended in both directions. It opens the hips and shoulders, while strengthening the core, arms and legs. Gazing forward, one can visualize the many illusions of the mind that she must pierce through so she may live with intention and presence. 

Hakini Mudra

This is also known as the Brain Power Mudra, as it greatly enhances the ability of the brain. The Sanksrit word hakini means “power” or “rule”. Due to the positioning of the hands, this mudra helps to balance the left and right sides of the brain. This balancing of the hemispheres of the brain is especially helpful if you have something in mind that you would like to bring more presence and concentration toward. To practice this mudra, bring both hands in front of the third eye and join all of the fingertips very lightly together. The thumbs can point downward, while the rest of the fingers extend upward. You can further enhance presence by incorporating breathing into the practice of this mudra. While inhaling, press the tongue against the roof of the mouth, and then soften the tongue on the exhale. In addition to the balancing effects, Hakini Mudra also helps to improve concentration and memory, and create a sense of calmness, which helps promote clear thinking. Focusing the mind, bring your awareness to the present and allow all of the information that you gather permeate your being.