The Yoga of Life

16 May

I started this public journey of “navigating life’s changes” nine months ago, counting from the date of my first blog posting on September 14th. And what an amazing nine months it has been! I traveled to El Salvador and Colombia with Bpeace; studied Jewish texts with twentysomethings at Mechon Hadar, with fortysomethings+ at Schechter, and with fiftysomethings+ at IJS; and completed an amazing yoga teacher training at Yoga Haven. Most importantly, I initiated, renewed and deepened connections with people, and for this I am grateful beyond words.

I am now approaching the end of this leg of the journey, looking forward to starting the next portion on June 4th, when I begin working as an analyst for a fund at Citibank. I have been struggling with how to maintain the alignment, the sense of balance I’ve achieved this last couple of months as I reenter the male-dominated, competitive, fast-paced world of Wall Street.

As a soon-to-be-certified yoga teacher, I thought it appropriate to address this question through a yogic lens. In order to guide students through a safe, satisfying yoga class, we are taught to use clear and concise directions, linking language, and emotional language. Here are the directions I plan to use as I enter the next phase of my life:

Clear and concise directions: Pay attention to every moment. Be aware as you shower in the morning, as you brush your teeth, as you wash your face. Meditate on the train. Smile and acknowledge others. Eat with intention. Be grateful for each day of life.

Linking language: Apply yourself diligently to each task as you stay centered in who you are.

Emotional language: Do not hide from your emotions. Breathe in the pain, the discomfort, the fear. Breathe out compassion for all others who suffer.

I have been gathering strength for the journey by reading “Poised for Grace,” annotations on the Bhagavad Gita by Douglas Brooks, a Tantric scholar. The Gita is an ancient Hindu scripture, which is essentially a discussion between God and man on the nature of dharma, or duty. Douglas Brooks writes:

“….The ordinary world, is the place where Dharma, the most poignant and subtle truths of reality must face off. The real world of decision-making, law, real estate, human choice, and the blessings and tragedies of embodied life is the place where the ultimate meaning of life is to be created, sustained, and finally decided.

In every experience there is the prospect of touching the divine, no matter how remote that may seem….We change the world just by the ways we live in it, and through every contribution we make.”

To all of us on this journey, I give the blessings of strength and peace. Namaste.

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Hineni – Here I am!!!

30 Apr

It’s been a while since I sat down and faced this blank page. My yoga teacher training is coming to an end. I’ve been searching for a neat, succinct theme to write about, summing up all the many lessons I’ve learned, and how I am energized and eager to move forward into the future. Unfortunately, life isn’t that neat and precise.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

– I can (hesitantly) teach yoga – amazing!! I had seven students in my class last week…tomorrow will be the 9th class I teach. I’m grateful for all the positive feedback I’ve received.

– I have a tremendous amount of willpower….and optimism….that helps me get through difficult periods in my life. Despite doubts and insecurities, my drive enables me to forge ahead.

– I am passionate about what I feel, and have the ability to communicate that to others.

– I am emotionally wide open. I make less reasoned, more emotional decisions.

– I have a strong need for security. At my worst, this need for security paralyzes me.

“Notice how important the pauses are,” taught Betsy, my yoga teacher. In a way, I’ve had nine months of a pause, to reflect upon what’s important to me and what I value. Yet, I am leaving this period with just as many questions as answers. What do I want? What direction is true for me? Am I choosing the direction in which I am moving? What am I willing to change to get what I truly want?

In many ways, I don’t feel any closer to answering these questions than I did nine months ago. And so I do the only thing I can do – I work to be awake, open and fully engaged in each moment, announcing to the world in my own way – Here I am!!!

Passover – leaving our narrow places

6 Apr

Passover begins sundown this evening, April 6th. I’m looking forward to our Seder with immediate and extended family, as I write in the car in route.

The holiday of Passover commemorates “Yetziat Mitzraim,” literally “the leaving of the narrow places, ” and celebrates the children of Israel transitioning from slavery to freedom. This is not just a story we tell about our ancestors. In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we were redeemed from Mitzrayim, from our constricted places.

These last couple of months have been a sort of “Yetziat Mitzrayim” for me. Now that I have left Egypt, the challenge is to continue to walk forward into the as yet unparted sea and the desert beyond. I am learning that it takes faith to embrace the unknown and to create your freedom. Sometimes it seems easier to go back to Egypt, and to complain!

According to the Baal Shem Tov, our slave drivers, our inner Pharoahs, are our yesterdays, our inner definitions of who we are that don’t allow for change. Only when confronted with darkness and with loss did Pharoah agree to change, to let the Israelites go. In some ways, I know I must be willing to face loss, to let go of parts of my identity, in order to truly transform.

In a recent pre-Passover class taught by Yael Shy, co-founder of the Jewish Meditation Center of Brooklyn, she taught that our “calling” is illuminated for us through the obstacles in our lives. My greatest obstacle remains fear of not having enough money, which is tied to my fear of not being special, of being rejected. I feel a strong draw to advise women with their issues relating to their money. But what if I fail? “Once we find our calling, seas will split,” taught Yael.

We learn that when the children of Israel left Egypt, they made no provisions for the way. Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav comments, “When you are about to leave Egypt, any Egypt, do not stop to think – But how will I earn a living out there? One who stops to make provisions for the way will never get out of Egypt.”

The Vernal Equinox

23 Mar

The first day of Spring occurred on March 20th this year, two days after I returned from my first retreat with the Kivvun program of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality.

I have a tentative, existing mindfulness practice in my life. This retreat took my existing practice, and put it on a dose of steroids!! The retreat, held at a beautiful campus in Southern California, included extended periods of silence, yoga, prayer, text study and meditation. I flew home on the red eye after Shabbat, infused with a sense of wholeness and calm.

The vernal or Spring equinox is one of two times of the year when night and day, darkness and light, are just about in balance. On a silent walk in California, bathed in sunlight, watching a peacock display his plumage, I felt balanced, at peace. The challenge is to carry this sense of peace within always, through the moments of light and the moments of darkness in our lives.

How do we do this? One teaching from the retreat, taken from the Psalms: “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid”. The literal translation is, “I place G-d before me, always.” The “mindful” translation: “When I am continuously aware of the Source of Life, I experience equanimity.” When I live each moment fully – not dwelling in the past, nor worrying about the future – I experience a sense of fullness, of balance. Takes a lot of work, but certainly worthwhile.

A teaching by yoga teacher Seane Corn: “Embrace the darkest parts of yourself, where your own pain and suffering can create barriers to your ability to be honest, generous, and supportive. Stepping into your power means being super honest about who you are – both the light and the dark – and not being ashamed of the human experience, no matter what is revealed. The more we can learn about ourselves and love ourselves, both the good and the funky, the more we’re going to be able to stand in the presence of another human being when they’re in their light or they’re in their shadow and love them for who they are.”

On the Kivvun retreat, each group wrote a blessing for the torah reading, based upon the text. I send my group’s blessing out to you “May you be awake enough to recognize when the cloud obscures your ability to feel the divine presence, and may you be compassionate towards yourself during those moments of recognition.”

Shabbat shalom.

Dharana

9 Mar

Dharana, one of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, is the practice of mediation. According to wikipedia, it is the “collection or concentration of the mind”, the “initial step of deep concentrative meditation.”

I have been working hard to maintain, and expand, a meditation practice. And so it was that, during a recent meditative journey, I found myself inside my warm, dark, heart. It felt like a womb. I heard the beating of my heart. And I thought, “I, this beating heart, will always be here for me no matter what happens.” To quote from Sweeny Todd, “Nothing’s gonna harm you, not while I’m around.”

My meditations have been evolving over the last couple of months, perhaps echoing changes in my theology, or shifts in my personal sense of strength and stability – or maybe both! I look back on my blog entry from September, in which I wrote that I calmed myself by meditating in nature, noting that “whatever the circumstance, I will always be able to see trees and sky.” In my more recent meditation, there is no longer an external force or power comforting me. I am that source of comfort. I am that force, that power.

I recently visited a Bhuddist monastery in upstate New York with my friend Cathleen. (See her blog entry “Adventures in Mindful Eating” at forwardfromfifty.wordpress.com for more details). One of the day’s activities was a walking meditation. We walked in the woods, in the snow (yes snow, one of the few days that snow was falling in the Northeast!), and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of peace.

A picture of a seated guru came into my mind as I walked, bathed in white light. I had brought this guru into my mind’s eye in the past, perhaps more gold than white, repeating to myself, “I am safe; I am loved; I am free.” To this mantra I now added, “I am at peace.” I repeated, over and over, “I am safe; I am loved; I am free; I am at peace, ” and then extended these blessings out to my mother, my husband, my children, and then to the universe.

It was a beautiful walk.

Dharma

24 Feb

Dharma is a sanskrit word, defined as the principle of cosmic order. Ellen Saltonstall, in the Anusara immersion she recently taught, referred to dharma as “that which holds together; aligned in such a way that the life you lead is protected.” Svadharma, literally “own dharma”, is one’s particular path, the unique calling of each individual human being.

What is my calling, my dharma? Is my path to be a spiritual teacher? My astrological chart indicates the potential to be a powerful leader in communicating religion, philosophy and higher knowledge, and that I have the ability to communicate alternative paradigms and ideas that challenge the status quo.

Or is it my duty to use my financial skills, which I have invested years of my life to develop? My chart confirms that I seek emotional security through possessions, and that wealth, comfort and luxury are all important in my professional life and career. “It is better to do your own duty badly, than to perfectly do another’s,” says the Bhagavad Gita, one of the seminal Hindu scriptures. “You are safe from harm when you do what you should be doing”.

So what is it that I should be doing? I am in the midst of this exploration. When asked that question during the Anusara immersion, I wrote: “Use my financial skills to heal other’s pain around money; help others to begin to love life as I do.” Though what that means specifically is not yet clear to me, what has become clear from my many exploratory meetings is that I exude confidence and assertiveness. That is a “gift” I’ve been given; it is my duty, my dharma, to use that gift to give back to the world.

Other’s thoughts that resonate with me:

“Who you are is more important than what you do. Getting to be truly yourself will make you happier than any dream job, dream mate, or dream house that requires you being someone other than your true self. Develop yourself, take time for yourself, trust your instincts and wishes, and realize that no one can take anything from you that was ultimately meant for you. Your satisfaction will not stem from what you do, but from who you get to be while you do that thing.” Laura Berman Fortgang, from her book – Now What? 90 Days to a New Life Direction

“The whole world becomes a slave to its own activity. If you want to be truly free, perform all actions as worship.” Bhavagad Gita, translated by Stephen Mitchell

The Song of the Sea

10 Feb

There’s a song I can’t get out of my head. It’s a song of yearning, from the Sabbath morning prayer liturgy. “When will you reign in Zion? Soon, in our days, forever may you dwell there.” As I close my eyes, and my body sways, I am transported – back in time, to family dinners around the Shabbat table, and beyond time, as my soul soars with the melody skyward.

Music has a way of connecting us to something greater than ourselves. Pythagoras spoke of song as “the music of the spheres”. In yoga, we chant the sound “Ohm” – the primordial sound, the big “Yes” radically affirming reality. Namah shivaya ohm – I honor the highest goodness that resides within each of us – was the enlivening chant we sang last Friday, the final day of the Anusara immersion I recently completed, This chant sealed the practice we had studied together, creating a bond between each of us and the music.

How appropriate that the following day was Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, named for the song that the Israelites sang celebrating the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. This story is not only one of redemption but of faith – how many of us would be willing to walk through a split sea? How many of us would be willing to take the risk of the ocean crashing down upon us at any time?

In the journal entries I wrote during the immersion, I questioned – what is my dharma, my duty? To follow my heart, which yearns to teach, to study, to share the joy I’ve discovered in my life? Or to support myself and my family in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed? Can it be both? The answer: Take a deep breath. Trust in Spirit. And, to paraphrase Reb Mim Feigelson, “forego the need to control in order to taste a moment of trust.”

“Faith is more like music than like science. Science analyzes, music integrates, And as music connects note to note, so faith connects episode to episode, life to life, age to age in a timeless melody that breaks into time. God is the composer and librettist. We are each called on to be voices in the choir, singers of God’s song. Faith teaches us to hear the music beneath the noise.”
– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks