The Practice of Finding Those Wide Open Spaces

 

img_7779

About a month ago, I was feeling so cramped up being mostly in the small the suburb of Gokulam in Mysore, India. I felt this incredible restlessness that could only be quieted by riding my scooter out into the fast road out of town, towards the open rice fields and farmland along the Cauvery River. I was nervous at first, unsure of the way, because I rarely ventured out alone. I had gotten complacent and comfortable in my surroundings, little noticing until that moment that I craved for more than yoga practice, houses, wandering livestock and fellow yoga students.

I remember feeling great relief when the landscape opened up. It was a reminder that wide open green space, fresh air and nature was so readily available so long as I was willing to leave my comfort zones.

This is often what I feel in my own practice and body. How the body I sometimes think I have is a little different from the body I actually have. How, at times, I perceive my limitations as permanent state of being.

Our yoga practice helps us find space where we might think there is none. These spaces can be small, or big, or so subtle that they appear to hardly exist in the body. It can be the difference between comfort and dis-ease, lightness or suffering. At times these spaces are in our minds only, and when we respond to challenges better, we create space and this, too, reflects in our body.

In no way is pushing a good thing. Knowing our limitations is also a good thing too, it keeps us safe. Do not push, but rather be willing to explore, to step beyond what is comfortable and easy, because beyond that bit of uncertainty these is so much space.

Catching Wind, Empowering Practice


So many times I have found myself blown in certain directions. Mostly, though not exclusively, with incredible positive outcomes. Even gale force-like winds and maelstroms, which might have moored me into isolation or thrown me into some catastrophic disaster, would eventually abate and I would land wherever with the softness of a feather. I consider myself blessed to have had such good luck to be propelled so. I also know, that in many ways, I called for it, that I invited the elements myself to move me. Time and time again, I’ve taken myself to some peak, opened my arms in surrender, and like wings unfurled, I would get picked up and thus be transported.

I wondered, however, what would it be like if I participated more in this act of flight? The last year in particular has been about recognizing the difference between flowing with things and flying myself.

It’s been an amazing process, coming to a deeper understanding that all this raw energy can be transformed and directed. That I am not prey or play thing to the forces I perceived to be much greater than myself, but, instead, an active player, instigator, herder of energy.

There is so much in this; the world at large is packed with potential energy, raw, unharnessed. In the microcosm of us, we are likewise full of unrealized vitality and force. When we learn to access this, when we learn to use it skillfully, to move it in certain directions, something huge shifts. We are empowered.

This naturally happens when we practice. There’s this wealth of untapped energy in our bones, our connective tissues, our muscles, our breath, our thoughts and hearts. Our practice helps us soften the gross layers, physical and subtle, emotional and mental, that keep us from connecting with our own physical/metaphysical body.

When we practice with consistency over a long period of time, we start tapping into these energies, which then become apparent in the practice itself. We extract energy from the practice and it fuels us. Our bodies become efficient, so does our breath, we develop an economy of thought and effort and before we know it, we are no longer consuming energy but creating it, so ample that it overflows and drips into our lives causing all sorts of creative bounty /mayhem.

This is my tenth year of yoga practice. It’s not a very long time–I continue to feel like a babe in the woods–but it’s not a short time either. Whatever length it is, it is long enough to observe the effects of practice, how it’s changed, how it’s changed me, how my life has changed because of it.

These days in Cairo’s Nūn Center, there are a number of beginners and some students returning to practice after a substantial break. And naturally the struggles that come with starting an ashtanga practice begin to appear: the body gets tired, the mind wavers, the internal debate on whether to go to class starts when the alarm rings in the morning.

I remember my teacher saying that if you never leave your practice, it will never leave you. I still have those days where doing my own practice is like going to battle with myself. What he said, though, it’s true, and it gets me on my mat, it gets me through the first sticky sun salutation, and, eventually, the practice helps me catch wind.

Mysore Classes here at Nūn continue. Sunday to Thursday, 7:30-10am. This week, we are adding Ashtanga Basic classes Monday and Wednesday at 7pm. These classes can be used as an introduction to the morning Mysore program. Drop ins and all levels are welcome! 

Cairo, The Romance Continues

1452411_10151756380441714_654950224_n

Taken at Cairo’s Gezira Club by the late Zeinab Lamloum, a great photographer, devoted ashtanga student and good friend.

There are some places that simply draw us, that holds a place in our hearts and our imaginations, that stirs in us some deep kind of recollection of what it is to be terribly, beautifully human. Since late 2013, that place for me has been Egypt. So, in this year which I’ve dedicated to living more fully, more authentically, making my fourth teaching trip to Cairo feels like a pretty good idea.

Over the last few years, I realize, I have formed an interesting, and ever changing, relationship with the place and its people. My first trip, I subbed for fellow teacher, Egyptian Iman Elsherbiny when she took her own trip to study with our teacher in Mysore, India. That first experience was like stepping into someone else’s life, living in her apartment, teaching her classes, being taken around by her friends. My second trip, I joined forces with Iman to help her open her new yoga space, The Shala in Maadi, during which we did a few retreats together which solidified our own sisterhood; her friends became our friends. The last time, I was teaching workshops and retreats, mostly on my own, I spent practically every weekend away from Cairo, it was beautiful but discombobulating. I started to make my own connections, but it was snippets of a life in a whirlwind.

In a way, over those trips, Egypt and I were having a romance, intense but fleeting, substantial enough that it has kept me wanting more; so risky at times that I wanted to keep myself at a safe distance. Still, the feeling remains, I know that Egypt and I like each other.

It’s been nearly a year and a half since my last meeting with Egypt and I wonder whether we’ll jive or not, whether we can we still top the magic of the first, second, even the third time?! I’m not going to try to think too much or speculate the possibilities. I can’t speak for Egypt, but I know I’ve changed and I have a feeling that in the backdrop of Cairo I will know how much more different I am from the other times I’ve come to visit. I know I have grown there, and I know there is probably more growing to do together.

I have different intentions than previous trips. Instead of seeking adventure, wanting to teach everywhere and spreading myself too thinly, I am concentrating my energy, hoping for a stable two and a half months of teaching and self-study.

This time, I am making Nūn Center in Zamalek my base for two months, while continuing to offer Inner Dance in The Shala in Maadi, where the healing modality grew a steady following by the end of 2014.

Between April 17 and June 10, I will be teaching a Sunday to Thursday Mysore program between 7:30-10am at Nūn Center (pronounced “noon,” Nūn is the symbol for primordial water in Ancient Egypt), along with supplementary weekend workshop classes on Friday mornings that will include “Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga” and various themed explorations paired with the traditionally counted led class. For more information on the Nūn  Ashtanga and Inner Dance offerings, please check out the website http://nuncenter.com. Email or call for bookings and inquiries we@nuncenter.com/+20 122 398 0898.

I will also be facilitating Inner Dance in The Shala in Maadi on Thursday evenings. For information on the Inner Dance schedule please call 01223717729-01222384498 or check out The Shala Facebook Page.

There will surely be more in store, dates are being floated and ideas are brewing. So, please continue to check in for updates.

I can’t say where this romance will take me, but I suspect it’s where I want to be going, deep into the personal work that fuels my own teaching, my hunger for learning, and my love for living. I’m excited to say: Cairo, I’m coming.

For Weekly Mysore Classes & Friday Workshops
Nūn Center
4 Shafik Mansour, Zamalek, Cairo
we@nuncenter.com/+20 122 398 0898

For Thursday Night Inner Dances
The Shala
6, Road 200 (in front of the South Africa Embassy), Maadi, Cairo
01223717729-01222384498

 

Fly Your Prayers

IMG_6244

Paris, Beirut, Syria, Iraq, the list goes on. So much darkness all around. There is too much loss, one too many people displaced, everywhere there is suffering. And from practically everywhere, too, at least a week ago, after the attack on Paris, prayers were launched via hashtags towards the darkest places on the planet at that moment. A week on and social media is now abuzz with the backlash from all sides: criticism and fear-mongering.

What to do now? Where do we all go from here? Incredibly big questions for incredibly complex problems, which have a whole lot of history that needs, first, understanding, and then careful and steady undoing. What happens now to all these prayers?

Over the months here in San Francisco, I have had the great opportunity to explore the ashtanga practice and intention-making as medicine with some amazing teachers. There is a great healing energy that comes with declaring one’s clear and simple prayer. It is personal, our prayers are our own but they are also universal. Your prayer for peace and happiness and love–guess what, everyone wants that too! We forget that, ultimately, we want and deserve the same things, yet we continue to build walls of separation–personal and physical and political boundaries.

When we come to our mats and we practice, we open with a mantra. In the western yoga community, there’s a lot of sensitivity about what that is. For me, it’s a prayer. The essence of this prayer honors the great process of being led from darkness to light. We sound this out and then we practice. We plant this sound, this seed, into our body and then we nourish it with our breath, our movement and our attention. And whoever has been really practicing knows that this prayer becomes alive, it grows in the body and blooms in one’s life.

When we practice, we fly our prayer. It grows wings and it soars.

It’s really good to see people express their prayers, their hopes, even their admonishments during these difficult times because it shows that we as a community of human beings acknowledge that the world should not be like this. But how do we now live in these prayers, how do we breathe life into them, and walk into them with grace, how do we take these hashtags and sounds and ideas and bring them into a living practice that can support substantial change?

I feel personally challenged by this, how can I be this prayer, for myself as much as for everyone else.  I know it will look different for me in my life as it will for someone else. But I hope that we all start to do so, to really live in these prayers.

I want to close with a poem from Rumi that a friend sent a couple of days ago just as I was starting to write this blog. These questions are very old and perhaps we should defer to wisdom of the Sufi poet:

What will our children do in the morning?
Will they wake with their hurts wanting to play, the way wings should?

Will they have dreamed the needed flights and gathered the strength from the planets that all man and woman need to balance the wonderful charms of the earth?

So that her power and beauty does not make us forget our own.

I know all about the ways of the heart-how it wants to be alive.

Love so needs to love that it will endure almost anything, even abuse, just to flicker for a moment. But the sky’s mouth is kind, its song will never hurt you, for I sing those words.

What will the children do in the morning if they do not see us fly?

Mysore Sunday, Final Session

IMG_7567 (1)

So much of my most precious interactions happen on a rubber mat with students while teaching in a Mysore space. Where else do you get to meet someone in this way, slowly over time, whilst they quietly cook in the juices of their own humanity, turning over with each deliberate breath and movement the fluctuations of the mind and heart.

It’s like getting to know someone without any context other than what plays out in the half-hour, hour, hour and forty-five minutes that one practices. Story-telling is minimized, so is the drama. The body is so intelligent. The practice is so precise. I love meeting in this way. It is so raw and real… and honest.

As a mysore teacher, the challenge is to meet as honestly as well. To cut out the superfluous, the desire to people please, the need to teach, so that the practice can do it’s thing. I often have to remind myself that the best thing that I can do is to get out of the way. The opposite is also true, when it arrises; it’s important to recognize when it’s a good time to get involved, when support is necessary.

Meeting in this way, in mysore-style classes, it is looking into a mirror and seeing who you are at that one moment. Sometimes, what I see is glorious. Other times, I see that I am one hot mess. All of it is ok and also, none of it matters. By meeting, we submit to an alchemical process, a world of change.

It has been incredibly special to lead the Mysore Sunday classes here in Mysore SF twice a month. Please come to class, I love to meet with you. I will also continue to assist Magnolia Zuniga in Mysore SF until December 10, 2015 before heading back to Asia to prepare to study with my own teacher in Mysore, India.

Into the Horizon

IMG_7140

We do not always know where we are going and we certainly don’t know where we’ll end up, but we look out anyway into the horizon, our eyes trying to make out that fine line between the knowable world and that which is totally uncertain. The meeting of the two can inspire so many feelings: anxiety, sorrow, trepidation, joy, excitement…

We want to know if swimming into the ocean of life, hitting against its backwater, navigating its swells, we want to know that it’s worth it, that there’s going to be something on the other side.

In our practice and with life, we are told not to reach so much, that our task is to simply be in the present moment. And, still, we can’t help but to look out beyond the now, often wanting to quantify the great unknown. We want to know that practice, that doing our thing, that living our lives will be worth it–in the end. So fixated at the big what next, we often fail to see what is before us: a whole ocean of life, teeming with possibility, and that there is actually enough mystery here to keep us busy. There is just so much, so much to explore, to learn, so much depth to dive into, to experience.

I often pray these days that I simply enjoy all that is in front of me, that I enjoy practice for what it is, not what it can be, that I savor living life for the sake of simply living it, to recognize its vast greatness, rather than overlooking it.

PHOTO: Mural in Mission District, San Francisco. Teaching at Mysore SF throughout November. http://www.mysoresf.com

One with World and Practice

IMG_7060

Sunset at Fort Bragg’s coastline in Mendocino, California.

How many times have we looked out into the great big world, taking in one of those breathtaking views, and are awed by all that we are not? We are inspired, our imagination stirred, we are humbled, but these feelings also put us in different places–us and the world.

What would it be like to look out at the greatness that is and see a reflection of ourselves? What would it be like if we saw sameness instead of separation? If we looked out and instead of noting difference, we say: “wow, I’m a part of that,” or “that’s me, too!”

What if we looked at everything, big and small, every person we meet, no matter what the circumstance, every interaction we have in the same manner? Imagine how different life might be.

In the microcosm, this is a challenge we meet in daily practice–at least, I know I do. There’s me and then there’s the room and the people in the room. There’s my practice, and then the practice of others and my idea of an ideal practice. How many times does our drishti (point of focus) slide and we take in through our periphery some excellent (or sometimes, less than excellent) posturing and we compare ourselves to another?

There was a time when I looked upon these thoughts with a great deal of shame; I wanted  to be above it all, thinking that would make me a good yoga practitioner.

When these thoughts come up nowadays, I find more humor in them and more gratefulness for them. For the function of practice is to tease these reflections of the ego up to the surface where they can be seen in the full light of day–that they come up is not a problem but a part of a solution. As we observe them, they come up less and less and they subtly loose their power.

More and more, I have different kinds of moments when I’m teaching  or when I am practicing. Sometimes, I perceive someone who may be dissimilar in practice, body type, everything, and still I think: yup, that’s me! Maybe the current me, or 7-years-ago me, or the me I might be in a few years, but that’s me, that’s my experience also, that’s my challenge, that’s my strongpoint too, that’s my fear–and in these incredibly precious moments, I see sameness, I feel compassion.

There are other times when I see someone doing just the most impossible, gravity-defying, beautiful thing, which I cannot even imagine getting close to, and I feel beyond envy this great sense of incalculable possibility. I am inspired by our shared potentiality, though it will, no doubt, express itself differently for me.

And then, there’s the practice, which is so very personal. Yet, over time, it starts to feel quite impersonal also. Especially in a mysore space, there’s the practice that I feel is mine, (my mat, my body, my motions) and then there’s the practice that is ours, that is shared in the room, and beyond that, a practice that is shared by a global community that is still connected from teacher to student, teacher to student, all the way back to Mysore, India, the way it has been since the beginning. Then there’s the practice that is shared by everyone, which is life…

I know this looking at unity instead of difference is hard to sustain, so conditioned are we to compare or to see our own smallness.

But the photo above had me thinking about this man looking at the sunset. I imagine his awe at the scene before him, the sun setting into the Pacific coloring the Northern Californian coastline. I wonder, is he thinking: “wow, that’s a sight” or “aren’t we just amazing!” From where I’m sitting, I am also in awe and he is as much a part of the magnificent landscape, his presence completes the scene–and I am also a part of it, even though, from where I’m sitting, I might not see it.

When It’s Tough to Practice

IMG_9681

Life is not always so accommodating towards practice. There’s, of course, a work, personal and domestic life balance that needs to be maintained. And we learn to negotiate between them.

There are the other times, however, where it is not a matter of time as much as it is a matter of space–emotional space. When the factors above close in on us, it takes a toll. And the tool, our sadhana, which we so often rely on to help us deal with stress and tension, amplifies our emotions, whether it’s anger, or frustration, or pain, or sorrow, or…the list goes on. At the best of times, practice can be a slow uphill battle. When under emotional duress, it can be total carnage.

What then? The teacher’s answer would be to practice anyway. Easier said than done, I know. But when it’s tough to practice, this is when we need to be practicing the most. The mat, the practice, is a sharp yet subtle mirror, and facing it when times are challenging is difficult but ultimately helpful because it does its job. It allows us to see ourselves and the issues that weigh heavily on us.

Practice anyway.

Practice any way. It may not be your optimum, it may not even be your full practice, perhaps it’s simply getting through sun salutations, maybe it’s just getting on the mat and breathing before the thoughts and feelings crowd in on you. Then, come back and do more the next day, giving your body and breath the space to expand. The sheer guts and determination to show up for yourself can become a wellspring of inspiration and strength.

If you have the courage, the heart for it, watch carefully, observing the places of discomfort and the places where there is space. Each day watch as it gets better because everything changes. The practice itself becomes a vehicle for these small or big shifts. Slowly, what was originally disempowering becomes its opposite. When it’s tough to practice, just practice.

Light Crossroad

The light crossroad where intentions and the magic of practice meet. Above our heads: fairy lights and prayer flags taking wind.

To think! A million or so possibilities. Probably more. All things, meetings, happenstance, accidents, hard work, chances and blessings that assemble us under such bright stars.

PHOTO: Above: lights and prayer flags. Below: a potluck celebrating the 4 years anniv of Mysore SF; the certification of Magnolia Zuniga, making this strong lady the only certified Ashtanga teacher in San Francisco; and the new teacher…me. Thrilled to be joining both the teacher and the community.

Another World: Mysore SF

There are no signs here. No glitzy window dressings or clear glass where one might peek through and see yoga bodies. There is no merchandising. There is a door with a push-button code. Ok, the building, a dance annex, isn’t exactly non-descript, but the eye-catching yet abstract design that swirls and flows on the edifice mysteriously pulls one in—just like the practice that is going on upstairs in the early hours of the morning. This is Mysore SF.

Many Mysore spaces that I’ve visited has that in common. It’s low key. Usually not affiliated with a mainstream yoga corporation. It doesn’t dress up the practice. oys got its own energy, attitude. There is usually a great deal of condensation on the windows. The feeling of shanti or peace is not accomplished by burning incense or the sweet tones of new aged devotional chanting; it happens through consistent daily practice, a lot of patience, hard work, and on occasion a healthy dose of struggle just to remind you that you are alive and still well up for fighting the good fight. It is a room where people breathe and move. And if you stick with it, it’s a place where a kind of alchemy starts to happen.

I am always impressed and in awe of how practice evolves and translates in different countries, in different cities and spaces, and in the hands of different teachers–who, especially when they are teaching authentically, are all pretty unique. How distinct it feels and yet how it remains constant and true to the essence of Ashtanga yoga. So it is here, the same as everywhere, and yet also different. 

Like the fog here in San Francisco, students surely but quietly roll in, unfurling their mats like wings, breathing and moving, fogging up the windows, then rolling up their mats, returning the next morning to repeat the process. There is a steadiness to it, it’s substantial but also light. Like the morning fog rolling into the city, you can count on it. For me, coming into work these days is like watching the day break, seeing the world waking.


For more information, visit: http://www.mysoresf.com.