Grass and sun

The Radiance of Inner Light

We are light.  Within us is a light, very much like the Sun, that is unchanging and brilliant.  This is one of the fundamental teachings in yoga philosophy.  The darkness of the winter creates an inward movement of our attention that creates opportunities to experience our inner life and radiance.

As we move into this time of the return of the Sun, here are 5 different ways to awaken the light within your heart:

  1. Move – Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Sweep your arms wide and up on INHALE in a sun-like movement.  Lower your arms in a sun-like movement on EXHALE.  Repeat 6 times.
  1. Breathe – Close your eyes. Sense the center space of the chest.  As you INHALE, try to feel an expansiveness in the chest.  As you EXHALE, hug the navel inward.  Do 12 full deep breaths.
  2. Use Sound – Use the seed mantra of the 4th or heart cakra (energetic center), YAM. Focus on the center of the chest.  Inhale, then sound the word, YAM, on Exhale. This sound creates vibration in the center of the chest. Repeat 6 times.
  3. Visualize – Focus your attention on the center of the chest, the cave of the heart. Visualize light, perhaps a beautiful sunrise, the light of a flickering candle, a lighted star atop a Christmas tree, sunset, or the light of the full moon that we’ll see this Christmas Day.  Spend 5 minutes focused on that light.  Feel as if the light grows more expansive within and around you.  If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to visualization of light.

The Yoga of Heart: A Simple Practice

We all exist within our own unique expression of physical structure, physiology, mind, personality and heart. These layers of our being, also known as the koshas or sheaths or layers of being, provide a passageway into our deep center, the cave of our heart.

This innermost layer of being informs and guides our attitudes and behaviors, prompts our actions and gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. This dimension is where our passions, longings and potential for happiness and joy reside.

Tending to the heart is as important, if not more important, than stretching and strengthening our muscles.

The tools of yoga can gradually prepare the body and mind for deep inner reflection and a daily cultivation of joy.

  • The postures prepare for breathing practices.
  • Breathing practices soothe agitation and quiet the mind.
  • Meditation (mastering attention) helps us stay present for reflection.

Staying present in the space of the heart for just a few minutes every day is an opportunity to revisit our highest values and aspirations, orient our lives in that direction and open to the connection we have with ourselves and others. Try the following simple practice to do yoga of the heart. Adapt the practice as you want to make it a meaningful practice for you.

Cave of the Heart Meditation
Sit comfortably.  Sitting bones anchored/grounded/connected but the spine long and gently lifting. Hands rest comfortably on your legs.

  • Bring attention to the heart region – the center of the chest –8 finger widths or so down from the u-shaped bone at the neck.
  • Feel the breath gently flowing in and out through this heart space.
  • As the breath flows smoothly on inhale, let the gentle expansive quality create space in this cave of the heart.
  • As the breath flows out on Exhale, let it carry away any thoughts or worries that arise.
  • Let each breath softly loosen and carry away any cobwebs, restrictions, barriers to feeling an expansion and softening in this space.
  • Stay with the breath as it flows gently in and out, continuing to focus on the cave of the heart. With each breath, feel your heart space softening and expansive.
  • Take a few moments to remind yourself of what gives you deep meaning in your life.
  • Acknowledge the people, other sentient beings, places, opportunities, projects and spiritual connections that give you deep meaning. Take a moment for gratitude.
  • Acknowledge the challenges that often occur in relationships in life and how you want to approach all of your relationships.
  • Take a moment to mentally light a candle in this space in your heart with the intention to take this inner light into your day.
Water Flowing Over Rocks

Renew Again Every Day

Yoga is a daily renewal, a practice of stopping, slowing down, breathing and moving consciously, witnessing thoughts, and setting or renewing intentions. This daily renewal might be just 5 minutes of conscious breathing, 10 minutes of meditation, or a 20 minute yoga posture practice that helps you prepare for or unwind from your day. Whatever you commit to practice will often have de-stressing effects that stay with you for 24 hours and help you strengthen will and change habits.

Adopting a new healthy lifestyle habit or changing a less-than-desirable habit is not easy. The road to a new habit is often paved with forgotten promises, temporary setbacks and re-lapses.

What does it take to strengthen will and make a change? We need good health in the form of energy and vitality. We need a fairly steady emotional state so that we’re not derailed by temporary dramas. We need a clear and discerning mind to recognize what helps us and what may hurt our attempts for change. And we need ways to link to our goals. Yoga has many tools to help.

• Yoga postures (asanas) build physical vitality and extend the breath.
• Breath practices improve physiological vitality (good digestion, better sleep, consistent energy through the day), stabilize emotions, and cultivate a clear and discerning mind.
• Meditation provides the opportunity to witness and transform thought patterns that may sabotage healthy habits.
• Intention-setting or renewing our commitment to ourselves on a daily basis strengthens will and helps us remember a goal that we are orienting toward.

Starting a yoga practice may weaken a less-than-healthy habit or give you more energy to take on a new healthy habit such as exercising. People often have a hard time pinpointing exactly how yoga helps. They just know that they feel more energy, sleep better and feel more even-tempered. And those changes in vitality and temperament can pave the path to change.

It’s often best to start with one small change that you can sustain for at least 6 weeks before adding any more complexity to what you expect of yourself.

Renew your commitment to yourself every day by taking a few minutes at the end of your practice to remember your goal or intention and how you are manifesting it through the day. As you work with that change and it becomes integrated into your routine, you’ll feel stronger for taking on another small step.

Yoga for EmBODIED Awareness: Conscious Eating, Active Living, Habit Change

Yoga for Conscious Eating, Active Living and Habit Change

Can the tools of yoga help us change our habits?  Yoga is a powerful practice for transformation and change.  The tools of yoga can be applied in specific ways to help us strengthen will and change habits around food, exercise and body image.

The process of using yoga to change habits begins with recognizing a pattern of being that no longer serves us.  We have to develop self-awareness as a first step toward developing stronger will.  We have a multitude of choices that can either support or sabotage us and it’s important to understand those choices.

We have to consciously mobilize resources to make changes.  Those resources may come in the form of specific yoga tools including:

  • Asana and postures to build strength and flexibility, to increase awareness of hunger, satiety and digestion, and to help you begin to work with your breath.
  • Breath practice to help manage stress, develop awareness of your physiology (fatigue, energy, digestion, nervous system) and cultivate emotional equanimity.
  • Meditation practice to cultivate self-understanding and observe thoughts, feelings, and mental static that sabotage our best intentions.

Changing habits also requires understanding what we are moving toward and continuing to cultivate a daily awareness of that intention.  A daily ritual that reminds us of your journey of change can be helpful.  It might be a simple few moments of remembrance in our yoga practice, a symbol placed on our desk or in our yoga practice space, or daily journaling that keeps us aware of the intention and our progress in that journey.  Symbols and rituals are powerful tools to help us begin again every day.

Cultivating Contentment

Con·tent·ment

noun\kən-ˈtent-mənt\

the state of being happy and satisfied : the state of being content

 

We all want happiness and contentment.  My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, says that santosha, the Sanskrit word for contentment, is “the way you take experience.”  It’s an internal state of mind and attitude that permeates your internal being, words and actions.

Contentment is one of the niyamas (internal observances) discussed in the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali.  It’s not something we seek, it’s something we cultivate through the practice of gratitude and not grasping.

Contentment is the quality of taking in experience without seeking or avoiding. Cultivating contentment helps us to gracefully move through changes, not clinging to the past or grasping for the future.  It’s living the life you have with grace.

Swami Rama, the great Himalayan yogi master, said that “contentment is falling in love with your life as it is.”  It is a way of being that continually calls us to remember what we are grateful for.

Cultivating contentment requires self-study and a discerning observation of our thoughts, words and deeds.  Through self-study and observation, we can root out suffering that often comes in the form of petty jealousies, grasping for things that we haven’t earned, worrying about the future and our lack of seeing the extraordinary in the very ordinary of our relationships and possessions.

How do you start to cultivate contentment?  It might be as simple as a ritual of “taking stock” every day of what you are truly grateful for.  It might be taking a few minutes to observe your own patterns of clinging to what you like and running from what’s hard.  Awareness and gratitude are the first steps toward falling in love with your life, even through the most difficult moments.

Apple

Apples – Symbolic of the Journey of Transformation

My husband recently turned his own harvest of apples into crowd-pleasing apple bread (see recipe below) for one of my yoga retreats.   It struck me how long the journey is for that wonderful apple bread.  We can learn something for our journey in yoga from the patience it takes to nurture apples from seed to bread.

Apple seeds grow into tree stock, soil is prepared, and small trees are planted.  Trees are mulched, pruned, trellised and fussed over in those first years.  Deer, rabbits, turkeys, insects and diseases are discouraged from messing with that tender sapling.  Come May in some future year, the tree produces an abundance of blossoms that form into budding apples.  Treacherous invaders are discouraged as apples grown large into the fall and are harvested for the transformation into some wonderful palette pleaser.

The journey of personal practice in yoga also takes this nurturing patience.  At first it’s easy to be excited about doing something that makes our body relax, mind quiet and breath spacious.  But as we practice, we come upon obstacles.  The body ages or we come upon deeply entrenched thought patterns or we recognize an emotional imprint that holds us back.  Some of these thought patterns and emotional imprints are like deep hard ruts in the field.  It’s easy to lose to a truck or tractor in them.

The very time that we want to give up on our personal practice is the time to keep going. This is the rich fertile field of personal growth and transformation.  If we can dig the tractor or truck out of one of those deep grooves, we will transform.

Kim’s Apple Bread

1 cup olive oil

3 eggs

1-1/2 cups sugar

1 tsp. Vanilla

3 cups peeled, diced apples

3 cups all-purpose flour or bread flour (firmer texture)

1 tsp. Cinnamon

1 tsp. Ground star anise

1 tsp. Ground coffee

1 tsp. Black pepper

1 tsp. Baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Combine oil, eggs, sugar and vanilla in a small bowl.  In large mixing bowl, combine flour, spices, baking soda, and salt.  Add wet ingredients plus apples and nuts. Mix but avoid over-stirring.  Use vegetable spray on 2 loaf pans.  Split batter between the 2 loaf pans and bake at 325 degrees F for about 70 minutes.

Rocks in Water

BEing vs. DOing

The other day I read something very “new-agey” about yoga.  The author said that yoga is being, not doing.  I immediately visualized the packing of my bags to trek to the Himalayas to meditate, to just be.  It made me chuckle.

Reality set it.  It’s rare that a person of the modern world has an opportunity to set their worldly duties aside to just be.

Doing is a reality of human existence if you want to pay the mortgage, feed the children, take care of grandma, do community service, train for a marathon race, achieve your potential through your chosen profession or make meaningful connections with your friends and family.

A more appropriate way to describe yoga might be that it is the being within the doing.  It is bringing attention, focus and presence to anything that you do. We often go on auto-pilot, especially with those closest to us.  One of the first challenges of presence is to just stop, breathe and listen.  Once you master that, then maybe the trek to meditate in the Himalayas will be a wise journey.

Until then, bring presence to your doing.  Breathe into the household chores, the yardwork, the carpools, the games, the job, the volunteering, the savoring of a good meal with friends, and into the cherished moments of your own personal practice of yoga.

“Explore the life that is the life of your present form.  One day you will discover it is not different from the life of the Secret One, and your heart will sing triumphant songs of being at home everywhere.”

— The Radiance Sutras