It is Always Now

"The present moment, if you think about it,
is the only time there is.
No matter what time it is, it is always now."
-Marianne Williamson

 

Yoga sutra 1.1 reads “Atha yogānuśāsanam.” One translation states, “Now the exposition of Yoga is being made.” Another interpretation simply implies, “Yoga is Now.”

 

The yoga sutras of Patanjali are yogic thoughts, philosophies and principles compiled for us to ponder, consider and infuse within our yoga practice. While these principles have place and implications within the asana room, the significance of them can perhaps best be articulated and transformative in our experiences off the mat. The word sutra means thread, and upon reflection, it seems as no surprise that this first single thread implies an invitation to be present, thus vibrantly kicking off the 195 following threads of this rich tapestry.

 

A call to attentive awareness of now gently encourages us to lay aside that which has transpired prior to this moment, as well as that which is anticipated to follow. I don’t think I’m alone in recognizing that it is quite a challenging task. If you are anything like me, thoughts seem to come charging in, often uninvited or unanticipated, demanding to obsess over this or worry about that. It can be a battle to actively regain the reigns of the mind and work toward any hint or stillness or equanimity. It is truly an ongoing practice, but a worthy one at that.

 

When we establish our focus in now, we recognize not only the gift of this particular moment, but also the impermanence that exists in all things. The reality of impermanence and change are the only things that will remain unchanging in our lives. In perceiving the significance of this truism, we can relax a little when we consider our pending burdens, resolving that all will eventually shift. We can also better appreciate the sweetness of an experience when things smooth into our favor.

 

Focusing on now is not an avoidance of the future, but instead an investment within it. As Eckhart Tolle wisely proclaims, "The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present." When we think about the future, it is often in pursuit of arriving toward a particular goal or ideal. But the reality is that we never really truly arrive in any one place for long—we are always moving from one landmark, destination, or goal to the next. With this in mind, we can best invest in our future by fully embracing now. Given that this life is made up of a series of commutes in a sense, it is of great value to take in the surrounding scenery as it arrives to us, staying as present as our very breath, and enjoying the journey.

 

***

Practice:

Two ways I find useful to practice being in the moment, particularly when I feel inclined to dwell upon burdens of the past or frets about the future, are standing in Tadasana, and focusing my breath. What’s more is that these two exercises can be practiced together practically anywhere.

 

Tadasana (mountain pose)

Stand evenly on your two feet. Feet can either be together to touch or hips distance, with all ten toes pointing straight ahead. Perhaps explore taking a slow sway forward, then back, then side to side. See if this assessment of shifting within your space can help you find the plumb line through which to stand tall. Establish the weight into the heel of your feet, then spread some of that weight forward from the big toe mound to the little toe mound. Explore a subtle lift of the inner and outer arches of both feet. As you settle and firm your feet deeper into the support of the floor, feel a rebounding energy draw up from your soles and radiate through the crown of your head. As you establish your foundation, notice the resulting strength of your legs, but put a gentle bend in your knees so that you can find a softening quality and avoid any hardening or hyperextension of the leg at the knee. Notice the effect this has on drawing a deeper and fuller breath. Draw your navel slightly in toward your spine, for subtle core awareness. Ensure you can still draw deep breaths amidst the effort within your core strength. Soften the front ribs into the belly as you lift your back ribs up. Broaden across your collarbones as you draw your shoulder blades together on the back body. Let the head stack naturally atop the length you have cultivated throughout the entire spine.

 

Breath

The breath is such an incredible illustration of what it looks like to stay present. The very nature of breathing is a constant state of filling up and letting go—of coming from one moment to the next. It is only in following this natural rhythm and flow that we can assure our sustaining life force. Indeed, we cannot hold onto a previous breath and expect to survive! Our mere existence relies on this most basic rhythm, yet we are often unaware of the quality of our breath. Consider a simple mantra of “Inhale, Exhale” to follow the rhythm of your breath to hold your awareness in in the present moment. Notice the sensation of the resulting expansion and hollowing that occurs in your trunk. Encourage the breath to inflate within and release from all areas of the torso. Explore the sensation of the breath coming in through the nose, and sipping it down through the throat, into the chest, side ribs, and belly. Soften into the rhythm of the breath, allowing your whole body to gently pulse in response to this natural fluctuation. 

 

 

Peaceful Pursuits

 

"You must be as joyful when you fail again and again as you are joyful when you succeed. It is often when you fail that you move toward the goal without being aware of it. You must feel joy even when you have not fully succeeded but only moved toward achievement of your goal."

-B.K.S Iyengar

 

 

Culturally speaking, many in our midst are stirred and inspired at the start of a new year to kick ambition into high gear and establish corresponding goals to the rhythm of our orbiting planet. Though I personally didn't happen to set any lofty goals specific to the marking of this particular lap around the sun, I certainly have many objectives I am working toward in general. There are incessant interests that perpetually unfold-- always more to learn, new ways to grow, and places toward which to venture.

 

I know for myself that when I consider all of the things I want to do and accomplish, I can often have a sense of feeling overwhelmed regardless of how enthusiastic I may be about each endeavor. There is always a lingering inclination of wanting to excel at each of these various things, which is certainly not inherently negative, but if I don't keep myself in check, these impulses can take on a form of self-aggression, cultivating impulses of grasping.  

 

As B.K.S. Iyengar suggests, we can lean into an invitation of a peaceful trajectory, and discover a sense of joy at our perceived failed attempts towards our goals. What often looks like failure might just be progress in disguise, so heightening our awareness and adjusting the lens through which we see becomes of great importance if we are to embark on a more placid path with this trust. It seems, too, that our missteps can at times reroute us onto something grander, or perhaps better suited. These stumbles become a dance, with their own beautiful, chaotic rhythm. As with most things worth pursuing, the path will likely harbor unforeseen challenges, unexpected turns, and potential potholes, yet if we enter each moment, with a spirit of inquisitiveness and a dose of humor, versus one of fidgety quest, we have a greater likelihood of keeping our cool and offering ourselves gentleness for the journey. When we stumble over tumultuous terrain, grace can make an appearance as we come back to stand, maybe even with a smile. I deeply believe that part of life and yoga is learning how to fall better. 

 

When working toward a challenging pose in the asana room, it can be quite the chore to quell the ego at times. We may deal with ourselves harshly when we consider our lack of strength, or our yet-to-be-realized flexibility. Our severe speak to and about ourselves can lead to shame or the depletion of our self-esteem, which not only lacks any benefit to our physical state, but also does a number on our mental perceptions and fluctuations. Often times the more we strive and over-effort into a pose, or frustratingly grasp towards that which is out of reach rather than mindfully aligning ourselves to ease into it, we set ourselves back from our perceived goal (in worst cases leading to injury). It is imperative that we journey on the peaceful path-- and with abundance tenderness, showing up to ourselves to simply do our best, honoring the place the body is at in this particular moment in time. As Maya Angelou once said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." 

 

In Yoga Sutra 2.46, Patanjali speaks of yoga as being established with equal contributing qualities of sthira (effort or steadiness) and sukham (comfort or ease). To me this has a lot of insight to offer in our work both on and off the mat. In establishing effort, yet keeping that in balance with easefulness, peace, and grace, we can venture on this path with enough steadiness to stay grounded, and enough grace to remain agile, so as not to harden in the face of difficulty. The longer I tarry through trials in pursuit of this path, the more I recognize that this journey is less about tranquility and more about intentional cultivation of harmony and union-- the art of integrating the good and the grueling. 

 

Peace can be realized, not just in the end goal, but as a present reality and common thread artfully woven into the path here and now, blurring lines of grace and adversities. Surprising strength is created through the interlocking of many individual fibers, yet there remains embodied softness within this tapestry.

 

 

 

 

Gratitude

photo-14.JPG

In the new year of 2014 I initiated a practice of writing down on colorful bits of paper various things I am grateful for. To me, this had far weightier significance than a sweet little fun activity. Navigating my way through the span of several difficult months had been a seemingly treacherous and tough one, and this new venture was part of the ways I craved to cope in highlighting the good. In all honesty, there were certainly days in which I felt an overwhelming sense of despair. Sometimes I had to scour and sift through my gloom to uncover a morsel of motivation. Intending for this to be a daily exercise, I must also confess I let it go for a couple months. I'd leave and come back to it, more fickle than faithful. Somedays I would write as many as ten things down-- many other days, nothing. There were times I couldn't think of anything new, continually rerunning the top stars on my list. (Come 2015, I am curious to tally how many times "loving husband" or "cuddly puppies" appear...) 

After some time of noting these little blips of blessing popping up in my life, I began to consider the other not-so-lovely things that began to change and transform. My world was beginning to shift and get a little brighter as I continued to hone my vision toward this morphing conversion. The very unlovely things of dread in my life were weirdly and miraculously unfolding as something healing and arguably lovely. As this continued, I recognized that I, too, was in the process of change and transformation. Somewhere in this muck meandering I began to both discover and recover parts of myself and my spirit.

Yoga sutra 2.1, Tapaḥ svādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā yogaḥ, can be translated to read "Accepting pain as help for purification, study of spiritual books, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice."

The word tapaḥ refers to a sense of burning or creating heat. Sometimes situations in which we find ourselves can feel as though we are being put to the test and through the fire. Many spiritual texts speak of a refining fire for purification. Once the smoke clears the distinction between pre and post fire makes itself known. One of my favorite scriptures says that we can "glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3,4). Difficult times expose for us the areas of opportunity for growth in our lives. This exposure can be gut-wrenching, the growing pains excruciating, but the balance of both steadfastness and calm surrender can create a path for us to exit with greater strength as a result. 

A common pose where this shows up for me on the mat is that dear old friend utkatasana. To be honest, every time I enter into it, I have to actively choose to shed the dread. It's not a favorite because it points out to me the areas I am still developing strength, both physically and mentally in regards to my patience ("how much longer do I have to be here?"). No matter how many times I practice, I still experience what feels like a literal fire in my legs. When I can enter my utkatasana situation, recognizing I won't be there forever, but in the time that I am there take note of evidence that I am strengthening my legs, ankles, and upper body, I can consider this recognition which alleviates or a least redirects my attention from my "awkward chair."

Recognizing gratitude can be the panacea to our panic and burdens. In cultivating this sense of gratitude, it can be for us a seed of hope we then plant. As we nourish this habit of scattering seed, we can trust for it to eventually take root, strengthening its way through the dirt, and into the sunlight. 

Tree Pose. For real.

A few weeks ago I practiced tree pose. No really. It was unlike any other tree pose of my life. I was literally in a tree. I participated in a ropes course through work, which was considered our staff "retreat". I don't know about you, but when I think of the word "retreat" my brain conjures up images of mountains, streams, books, and inactivity. In other words a high ropes course is completely off my realm of possible connotations... as in I think of porch swings, not Tarzan swings.

As someone with an aversion to flight time, this particular event was totally out of my comfort zone. Having never been much of a thrill-seeking risktaker, when it comes to things like roller coasters or other activities involving heights or speed, I favor a steady pace with both feet on solid ground. The very name "amusement park" has always bewildered me-- attending any such park typically resulted in my enrolling as the trusty bag-holder. At most there were a few occasions in which I managed to muster an unconvincing grin, in efforts to mask my chattering teeth upon somehow being tricked onto a ride.

Coming from the school of thought that considers McDonald's ball pit enough of a doozy, the only thing similar to a ropes course I've ever participated in was when I was in fifth grade, while attending school in Germany. There were many cool things about living overseas as a child, one being that field trips with your school sometimes involved visiting another country or region of the country in which you were living. In one instance my class spent a weekend at an outdoorsy place of some sort a few hours away, in which we had to participate in a ropes course of some persuasion. Having been raised with pillows decorating sharp edges of furniture and sweetly strict instructions to avoid all possible peril (and of course to never climb trees), the idea of encountering and climbing atop perceived danger was a totally new experience for me. And I wasn't on board. I think I blocked out most fearful memories surrounding those few days of my youth, but I do distinctly remember climbing up some insanely tall tree with the distance between each footing placement being nearly the height of my weeping ten-year-old self. Even with cables secured to my body, to me this task seemed insurmountable. Looking back at how hysterical I was over this assignment, it's not surprising that such activities continue to be excluded from my list of things-that-are-fun. 

Twenty years after this experience I made my second-ever ropes course debut. To be honest I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. Had I known, I likely would have tried to list the reasons for my absence. I chose instead to practice yoga. In a flipping tree.

Allow me to elaborate: the first yoga sutra Patanjali offers us is Atha Yogānuśāsanam, Yoga is now

Now. This could be taken a number of different ways I suppose, but for me it often is a challenge to be in the moment-- to be in the now, to act in the now. This idea is obviously often difficult to abide in, but that is where our commitment to practice begins and takes root. The way we practice is in the now, not in our cute agenda books and calendars with our grandiose plans to do so at some future date. The beauty of the practice is that it is just that-- practice. I didn't have to be the bravest, most agile participant casually hopping through the trees that day, but I could still choose to take a deep breath and dive right in... or up and over, rather. So I called on my courage, boldly strapping myself in that harness.  

The second sutra is Yogaś citta vrtti nirodhah, Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind. 

When we engage in difficulty, or face fear or setbacks, we have to hone in on the now. Replaying old tapes of stories that recall fear or that cause me to identify as a person of worry were not going to help me make my way up that tree or through that course. Such thoughts prove unhelpful on any course for that matter.  So in bringing my attention to my simple inhales and exhales, I pushed these fluctuating thoughts from the forefront of my mind, gathered my focus, and made my way through each course one step and one breath at a time. Knowing myself well enough to consider that the more time I had to dwell on what I was about to embark on, the more unhelpful thoughts would override, I placed myself early in the cue of participants. Having found that the more I talk about something, the more real it becomes, I resisted the urge to chat extensively with others about my hesitations, and instead just let myself get quiet. Words have a way of giving legs to our fears, and I didn't need them to run a muck through my mind. Two legs were plenty for me to keep track of at that time quite frankly.

If you're reading this post, you can accurately infer that I did indeed make it safely through and out of that tree. Dare I say I even had fun while doing it? Who knew? Once I was able to focus and take one steady step at a time, I was able to also find moments of delight and lighthearted playfulness, namely through time spent with my coworkers. They encouraged me the whole way through to the finish.

Savasana that day came in the form of a well-deserved juicy burger by the lake. Totally divine.

Making Margin

Our culture continually values a go! go! go! mentality. We praise busyness and put it on a pedestal, showcasing it to others through our swift works and hasty words. We rush between activities, ever-striving for efficiency, determined to hack our way through our running lists of dos, executing timely delivery of our individual by-whens. The way we conduct our schedules often has more the appearance of agility training, however frantic. While we set off in hopes to pull it all off with grace, at the day's end we're often just glad we didn't literally break a leg.

Sometimes we schedule intentional time to relax-- and maybe we'll even commit to it if a higher priority task doesn't stroll along and weasel it's way up on our lists. Yet even the very act of scheduling time for rest somehow makes rest seem less restful and more effortful, becoming yet another thing to check off as complete (which then perhaps leads to guilt if we don't "accomplish" it). 

When did all this madness begin? I am sure many arguments can be made as to the whens and whys, but perhaps the more effective question to ask now is does it matter and if so what now? 

It does matter. Studies show that an absence of rest over time makes us feel out of sync with ourselves and physically drained. Research on the topic of prolonged stress indicates that there are obvious links to our overall health. An abundance of stress and a lack of rest can make us more prone to illness and debilitating disease. (Admittedly, I get stressed out even thinking about all the consequences of it!) However, on the other side of the spectrum studies show that when the brain is at a state of rest, where the mind is given the freedom to wander and daydream, our brain activity actually increases and our creativity awakens and stirs. This becomes more obvious as we spend a little time contemplating various historical figures. So many great inventors, artists, and/or speakers of truth, incorporated not just a time of work and play, but also time for solitude, retreat, and wandering. It seems profoundly probable that these times of complementary stillness were necessary to allow for their creativity to flourish. 

Here is what I'm not saying: I certainly don't endorse a lackadaisical drive or work ethic. I consider myself a very diligent worker, and come from a long line of industrious individuals. However, for myself this vigor has almost always been to a fault-- there have been times where I've sought so long and hard to do all things and to be all things, whether it was working hours beyond expectation or simultaneously having multiple jobs, approaching each with equal enthusiasm and determination, trying so hard to excel, yet coming up short. At the end of the day, there was never enough time to do it all, and time after time I'd have to admit to myself that I'd run out of steam-- this would lead to frustration and a following burn-out, and even feelings of guilt that I wasn't enough. So here is what I am saying, which I learned after continuing in this pattern for too long: you can't do everything (and if you attempt it, you can't do everything well). Furthermore, a profound revelation which stemmed from this lesson was: nor should you do everything. Upon discovering this after evaluating my previous patterns of striving, I was able to part ways with my feelings of guilt and lack, joyously discovering that limitations can be liberating (whether they be actual or intentional). It is when we offer ourselves some spaciousness in our bodies, minds, and schedules that we can live more fully, creatively, and authentically. 

Maybe you can ease into incorporating this notion of idleness, allowing permission for space and rest, in the simple way that I'm attempting in my life: make some margin. Give yourself some breathing room between activities on your schedule. Perhaps rather than penciling in specific time in for yourself, just give yourself some breathing room between meetings, projects, tasks or errands, letting that space unfold organically. If you have an hour or so between things, maybe take a walk in a new territory, taking time to wander and observe the sights and sounds of a less familiar place. Maybe park yourself on a bench and lie down for some quality cloud contemplation. Smell some flowers. Perhaps light a candle in your office and watch the flame dance in the draft. Find a spot where you can throw your legs up the wall for a few minutes. Maybe just take a few moments in seated meditation. When we create more margin between activities on our schedules, we allow for more space for meaning and possibility. 


A couple great poses for quality idle time: 

photo-14.JPG

Sukasana: sit down with one shin in front of the other-- criss-cross applesauce, my friend. Sukah is the sanskrit word for ease or comfort, so truly allow yourself to find both of these qualities in this pose. As you come to stillness, feel yourself connected to the ground beneath you. Feel yourself getting taller through the crown of the head as you root deeper in your seated posture. Take cleansing breaths in and out through the nose. Encourage your shoulder blades to draw onto the back slightly, to allow your collarbones to broaden and smile. Be sure to switch the crossing of the legs half way through to encourage both hips to open. Place your hands wherever feels natural for you.

photo 2-2.JPG

Viparita Korani: (bolster or folded blanket is optional to place beneath the hips) sit with your hips next to a wall and then swing your legs up onto the wall and come to lie down on your back. Take your arms out to the sides, either extended or with a bend in the elbows. Encourage your palms to spin and face the ceiling. Allow the eyes to close, and keep the breath fluid, moving in and out through the nose (simultaneous puppy snuggling is optional, but highly recommended).

Savasana: Come to lie down on your back. Allow the legs and feet to splay open in a restful state. Take your arms out at an angle, and ensure that no objects are touching you, unless they are intentionally placed props. Allow all the muscles in the face to relax, let your shoulders be heavy on the ground. Close the eyes and let the eyes settle deep into their sockets. Let the breath be soft, but fluid. If you are experiencing any lower back discomfort, bend the knees and place the feet on the mat, allowing the feet to be wide and the knees to knock in toward one another.

 

our best teachers

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at our goals.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

It is all too easy to get trapped in a place in which we focus on areas of our lives where we experience a sense of lack or inadequacy. Much like when we note the sensation of a small cut, it can be hard to shift our focus away from a trivial twinge and onto the parts of our lives and bodies that are and feel just fine. Our perceived limitations often leave us in a place of feeling marked by our scars in ways that grow far deeper than cosmetic traces.

For myself I remember this manifesting in my life as I began my yoga teacher training with a touch of reservation. While I was extremely excited about it, I had some hesitation about the role an old knee injury would play for me. What's a yoga teacher if I can't do pigeon on both sides, I wondered. Upon going to the information session and sharing this with my teacher, Anna Gilbert Zupon, she instantly put my mind at ease assuring me that not only would it be ok, but that it could be to my benefit, as our injuries are often our best teachers.

I recall being instantly struck with this truth, wondering how it took me so long to see it, and recognizing how spot-on it was. This truth gave me a new lens through which to view my leg, and as I grow deeper in my practice (on and off the mat) it continues to become so obvious to me just how much we can learn from our "limitations". 

The notion of limitations of any kind used to really bother me. In everything from art making to career implications I have always wanted to use all the colors and to be all the things. I couldn't fathom staying true to a specific palette or just sticking to one career. Though I am still working on it, I've since come to realize the value and beauty that comes with focus and editing. The reality is that in order to grow or excel in anything, we may have to scale back our focus, yet balance this with determination, steadiness, and healthy challenge.

One life event that taught me a lot about this was that time I got hit by that pick-up truck, as alluded to by the aforementioned knee injury. A broken tibia plateau meant that I was non-weight bearing for a good long while. I was [hula-]hooping at the time and was growing stagnant in my practice rather than actively challenging myself with new places to move and flow within and around the circle. After being down for the count for a few weeks, I realized that if I was going to hoop in this condition (which I wanted desperately to do) I had to get creative. Having previously avoided most off-body work that didn't come naturally to me, I had to hone in and focus on it, as my hands and arms were the working limbs available to me. After a lot of failed attempts, I eventually gained the muscle memory of the movements I was earnestly practicing, which continue to be to my benefit in my practice today. 

Our injuries help us to continue to pronounce and grow in our strengths in a balanced way. We learn how to edit as we tailor a practice for ourselves. We grow in curiosity as time goes by, continuing to tune in to our bodies to see if we can do more or go deeper as we become stronger. Limitations can be liberating in that they provide a construct and a structure in which to work as we live and move and have our being in this world. As we work within that structure, our arrangement and rearrangement within it can be beautiful with blossoming creativity.

Our injuries also teach us the importance of slowing down. They require of us to mindfully make our way into postures, rather than militantly jamming our bodies into pose after pose. When we are made to take our time we can truly experience the benefit of each pose, and as a result experience the beauty of the world around us that we run the risk of missing in a rush.

Injuries also help us to grow in compassion. As we further discover the new bodies we are in and recognize our capacity for weight bearing or range of motion, it gives us better insight as to what it may be like to dwell in a different temple than our own. As we re-learn our limitations, it can actually be liberating. We become more creative in our new areas of possibility, we truly celebrate the small stuff, and we also become more patient with ourselves. We are offered the opportunity to be amazed by the ways in which our bodies do move and we can delight in resulting progress we see as our strength increases. Our injuries help us become more attuned to subtleties in the body, and as we tune into these subtleties we get to know ourselves better. We find new ways of giving ourselves grace and in turn become more gracious and nonjudgmental of others.