Feeling Without Identifying

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I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling a deep sense of loneliness. It’s still there, poking at my heart, reminding me of some distant wound that I’ve never fully resolved. When I’m seeing or experiencing something that presses against it – even something as innocent as a scene in a movie – those familiar pangs return and I’m immediately overwhelmed by emotion.

We all have these little bits of shrapnel trying to work their way out of our hearts – relics of the thousands of battles we’ve had on the fields of life, love, and loss. It’s the body’s natural response to reject these things in order to heal itself, yet the fearful mind keeps them pushed down inside of us, terrified of the pain it would experience should we allow them to be released.

Don’t get me wrong – the process of release is painful… but this is a matter of perspective. Letting go is all about recognizing that you are not your wounds. The mind would identify with all of your scars, but you are not your mind. You are something greater than any mind. How do we get to know this? By observing.

As I’ve mentioned before, we gain immense freedom in this world when we stay aligned at our center. The yogis call this “sat-chid-ananda” – existence-knowledge-bliss. When you identify with this living power in your heart, you are immune to the world’s ills. It’s pure awareness, which is not affected by your experience.

When you’re feeling lonely, all you have to do is sit with it. Notice it. Because you can notice your loneliness, you realize that it is an object, something external. Yes, it “feels inside” but if you notice closely, it does not affect your true center. It’s not who you really are. It’s just something the body-mind experiences on the surface of awareness.

As you observe your loneliness, allow it to move through you. Don’t jam it back down because you’re afraid of the pain. Feel the pain all the while knowing that you are not that pain. Another helpful tip from the yogis is that everything is temporary. As you observe the piece of shrapnel moving out of the heart, you will hurt. This pain is an important learning tool because it teaches you two things. One, not to put yourself into situations that can cause a new wound like this one. Two, that you are so much stronger than you even knew.

Stand behind the pain and just notice how your body-mind reacts. Let your body-mind experience the reaction as you breathe. Your body-mind needs to feel the full extent of this pain in order to let it go. That’s it. This is all about letting go. And once you let it go, chances are you aren’t likely to feel it again. Things that remind you of your loneliness won’t be able to press against that sharp bit of hurt inside you because you no longer identify with it. You’ve let the feeling of it move through you and you’ve decided to let it go. All just by noticing and breathing and remembering that you are more than your faults or your wounds.

Awareness does not cling or fight against the things we experience or feel. Awareness releases things as they come and go. Be aware of your feelings but don’t identify with them. Identify instead with that immense power within you. You will then see that your inner disturbances have no strength to overcome your higher power within. This is what is meant by “being in the flow” – the flow of love extending from your heart through which all things pass without leaving a mark.

Harmony of the Heart

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I’ve spent the winter learning to play a harmonium. Ever since my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I have wanted to learn how to sing yogic chants with this instrument. I’m not terribly musically inclined, but I can carry a tune and I was able to recall my essential piano lessons from way back when. I’m also an avid shower-singer, much to the chagrin of my roommates over the past decade or so. It simply uplifts me to sing.

Chant is a practice in yoga that we don’t often come across in the mainstream. Referred to usually as bhakti, it’s a powerful form of devotion in which those singing become absorbed in the vibration of the mantras. There are thousands of mantras and each one signifies a specific form of the divine.

Singing, whether in yoga or otherwise, is a perfect means of purifying our emotions. In the expression of what we’re feeling, we are able to release those feelings and move through them. In the practice of bhakti yoga, we surrender those feelings to the divine as an act of faith and love.

Singing, therefore, is a fluid combination of breath control, vocal expression, and, most importantly, living within the heart.

Think about it anatomically: The diaphragm controls the expansion of the lungs and the movement of the breath in and out of the body; the voice is the instrument of the body through which we relate to others; the heart sits right between the diaphragm and the vocal chords.

There is no escaping the heart when you wish to express yourself through song. It’s right there between the breath and the voice, so you have to move through whatever is in it in order to reach your fullest potential for expression.

The harmonium is built in a similar way. There’s a bellows that pumps air through the reeds which make the sound. Where’s the heart component? That’s the human element playing the instrument, fingering the keys, and harmonizing your voice and breath with those of the harmonium.

In the expression of your highest self, you must lead with the heart. Sometimes the work we do at the level of emotion is difficult, dark, and painful. Yet much like the sound of the chords you’re playing, they move outward from the body and dissipate into the big unknown. They are fleeting and beautiful.

In terms of singing yogic chants, we repeat the names of the divine because this instills in us a sense of power beyond the power of our emotions. We give life to the god within ourselves simply by acknowledging it, naming it, and setting it free. We take the time, much like in meditation or our movement practices, to turn inward and view our experience from a perspective beyond the ego. Observation of emotion protects you from becoming too involved in feelings that don’t last and don’t have any bearing on your true happiness.

True happiness, according to the yogis, is simply remembering that you are always attuned to the divine, which guides you to joy and success beyond your ego’s vainest dreaming, if you’ll listen closely and work with it instead of against it.

Meditation

Choose which pattern of waves you would create.
Huntington Library & Gardens, Pasadena, CA.

Meditation is a practice. It requires consistent, repeated effort, like any other art. By coming to physical stillness first, we may then observe the motions of the mind. We see how thoughts flow. We see how they are impermanent and fickle. We ground ourselves by focusing on the breath – a substance far more real and more important than thought. We rest upon the pulse of the heart, which has slowed its rate in our state of concentration. We inhabit this moment instead of being carried away by our wild thinking to a moment beyond the present.

How beautiful, this peace we cultivate. How orderly and subtle, like soft lines intentionally raked across sunlit sand. Our mind, a garden to attend. Zen.

When life hands you lessons, make lesson-ade.

Let me be frank: I rear-ended somebody on the freeway yesterday. The morning traffic ahead of me came to an abrupt stop and I didn’t brake in time, so I swerved to avoid a full-on collision. Nobody was hurt. I put a big dent in the bumper of the Civic in front of me, but the front corner of my own Civic looks like someone stuffed it into a Vitamix.

I had just left Los Angeles, on my way back east with most of my belongings obsessively organized in bags and boxes in the backseat and trunk. Roadtrip: Canceled.

The woman in the car in front of me was very collected. Myself? Total mess. Sobbing, basically. In shock, feeling like I’d just fucked up big time, like the Universe had just bent me over its knee and given me a firm spanking.

In reality, it was just an accident, and it could have been much worse. I only have a $500 deductible, my insurance rate might increase, and I have to wait two to three weeks for my car to be restored to factory condition. The lady I hit gave me a hug and wished me a good trip, and the police officer was kind and making jokes.

Life loves an obstacle. There you are, cruising along in the morning sun, when something between the forces within you and outside of you collide and make thunder and play crack the sky.

Several people have suggested that “there’s a bigger reason.” I’m all for divine providence and grace, but couldn’t She just write the message down on some nice stationery and send it via post?

Maybe you’ve been through this before. If it wasn’t a car accident, it was saying something you regret. Maybe you were being too clingy and the person you were seeing starts slowly cutting down on the time you spend together until it all but ends. Maybe you failed to meet a certain goal, personal or professional. Maybe you stepped in dog poo while wearing your new shoes.

Even when the world goes topsy-turvy, stay true to your center.

Whatever it was that made you shake your fist at the heavens, you’re not alone. Here’s what I suggest when we are — and will eventually be — going through what we’ve perceived as a cosmic slight on our behalves:

1. STAY FOCUSED

Yeah, this is the hardest part. Our tendency is to get down on ourselves, mope, play the victim, and let everything else happening in our lives to come to a standstill while we spend too much time focusing on what happened. Take a minute to cry, to talk to your loved ones for support, even to stomp and pout. But no more than a minute.

When I got into the accident, I screamed twenty-seven obscenities in three different languages. Then I took a breath and ran to make sure the driver in front of me was ok. Then I went back to my car and cried. Then I called my friend, AAA, my insurance company, and my roommates.

When I got finally got back to my place in LA, I took a nap. Then I took a walk. Then I took myself to an amazing solo dinner at Pura Vita (vegan Italian cuisine – blog coming soon). I almost died at 8AM but by 6PM I was making the conscious decision to keep moving forward, away from the energy and drama of the morning.

Here I am the day after, writing about my experience. I’ll do an hour of yoga after this and practice my harmonium after that. I have a lot happening in my life beyond the incident that I can’t afford to let fall by the wayside. No domino effect. Staying focused means compartmentalizing your responsibilities and leaving your baggage at the door.

2. BE GENTLE

If you’re like me, you’ve got a few voices in your mind with a few opinions about how, what, and who you are. We all do the work to quiet them down, but when we’ve gone through something that throws us temporarily off the path we thought we were supposed to be on, those voices tend to get a little louder and we, in our compromised state of mind, are way too open to their feedback.

I’m the first one to admit that I was at fault. I fucked up and I’m going to pay for it. But that’s it. I’ve taken responsibility for my actions and their consequences, but I’m not going to succumb to negative self-talk. I’m not going to punish myself. I might have to postpone my trip to Paris, but I don’t have to flagellate myself for my mistakes, or take this incident and use it to magnify the other areas in my life where I may perceive myself to be lacking. Own the mistakes or lacks, embrace them, learn from them, and be gentle with your body and mind as you recover and reorganize.

3. BE ACTIVE

Seriously that line from Legally Blonde is the best: “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands. They just don’t.”

Take a walk. Hit the gym. Get to yoga – especially if you’ll be in Provincetown this summer where I’ll be teaching ;).

As your brain and body readjust to a new situation, they’ll be relying on chemical indicators of mood in your bloodstream and nervous system. Don’t overdo it with the wine, weed, or what-have-you. Your system needs fresh air, sunlight, movement, and to sweat out all the toxins it released in your moment of regret/fear/anger/etc.

And you’re better off mulling over your situation in a fitness class than in your bed with the curtains drawn. Choose an environment that supports your recovery.

4. CONNECT TO OTHERS

It’s very helpful to glean insight and support from the people in your life, just don’t burden them with your burdens. Don’t play the role of the victim. Don’t be a drama queen. Let your friends and family know what you’re going through and accept what they are able to offer you — without having any expectations. You never know what someone else might also be going through, so while you speak, also listen.

We are all each others’ mirror walking each other home on the same boat — or whatever metaphor you care to use. Be just as caring and careful with others as you are with yourself. That’s the Golden Rule.

So there it is. Life can be sour as a lemon, but you can add sugar and sparkle to it for your own delicious limonata.

CROW

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The original name for Crow is Patient Crane – Baka Dhyanasana – a pose which strengthens confidence and heightens internal awareness. It is a grounding posture that requires balance of body and steadiness of mind.

In a state of concentration (dhyana) we reveal a courage within that empowers us to fly. It is the natural courage of all things to live purely, wholly, and freely. Doubt will bring us down, faith will lift us higher.

Believe in yourself. Om.

Is Kundalini Yoga a cult?… Isn’t everything?

I’ve been taking kundalini yoga classes in Los Angeles and I have some things to say. 

Kundalini yoga is an excellent opportunity to discover new forms of movement and meditation that help to release blocks within our individual and collective energy systems. It is a synthesis of mind and body control, aided by the practice of chanting as well as the setting of clear intentions that open one up to his or her highest potential. 

In the month that I’ve been going to Nine Treasures Yoga, I’ve gained greater clarity of mind and body, and my physical appetites have been happily transmuted into a desire to accomplish things that I had let fall by the wayside for lack of energy or inspiration. 

Some have asked me if Kundalini Yoga is a cult and whether or not it’s actually devil worship in disguise. Withholding my signature eye-roll, I’ve happily offered some response. 

Anything has the potential to become cult-like, at least at first glance to outsiders. I felt the same way about Cross Fit, and still do. Whenever a group of like-minded individuals come together to participate in a set of practices and beliefs, it becomes a cult-ure. Cult, of course, is an unfriendly shortening of the word culture. Most people think of the many groups from the last half of the 20th century who committed suicide en masse or locked themselves in communities far away from the public’s prying eyes. And yes, I think such groups deserve a hard looking-at by the rest of society. Look at Michael Jackson’s estate and the hush culture of Hollywood pedophilia. Or the world of fashion. Or the Oscars. Making no judgements, I simply suggest that we look at distinct groups of people who come together for various reasons, nefarious or benevolent. 

However, I believe the difference between a cult and a culture comes down to the value of what it brings to those people and the world at large. Any sect of yoga practitioners appears cult-like to any other sect of Christian parishioners. The point of yoga is to help people release themselves from the bonds they’ve absorbed or created in their own minds and bodies so that our very inherent, divine nature might shed some ecstatic light on an otherwise weary world. Christians themselves, though many seem to have forgotten, are tasked with one rule above all others: Love thy neighbor as thyself. The various differences within the religious communities are imaginary. 

Barry’s Bootcamp is a cult-ure. Oprah is a cult-ure. The United States government is a cult-ure. 

I was recently pointed to a revealing article and series of videos about Yogi Bhajan, the founder of Kundalini Yoga. One of the videos was even titled “The Wacko World of Yogi Bhajan” and its purpose was to reveal the very flawed, human nature of a man who christened himself with sainthood and fabricated an origin story for what would become the school of Kundalini Yoga. 

I wasn’t really surprised at these findings. It’s common in every aspect of human activity to find corruption and deceit. AC Bhaktivedanta of the Hare Krishna sect as well as Bikram and other gurus have all been documented as having relented to their human desires. Look at the mass defrocking of Catholic priests and cardinals for their own indiscretions. Look at the current president of the United States and the plethora of information available about his own seedy past. 

I don’t believe in the infallibility of gurus or leaders. In fact, I believe that the potential for failure was built into the very design of the universe. In Christian terms, Lucifer is yet an angel of God, despite his rebellion and fall. The Devil himself has the potential to reaffirm his own divinity yet refuses to acquiesce to any power greater than his own. Of course, this is the historical parallel to the battle between the ego and the mind. 

Cults are based around egos; giant, powerful, charismatic personalities that naturally attract followers in a world where too many people sense themselves to directionless, unloved, and disconnected. I point you to the worlds of televangelism, Scientology, R. Kelly, and more. 

The power of yoga, when it is unadulterated by the trappings of a guru’s ego, is irrefutably immense. Equally, the power of men and women to love in the spirit of Christ has made such a mark on the world these past two millennia that we are convinced of its place as the highest of truths. However, I do not believe that Christ and the yogis held differing views on the world and on our participation within it. 

What I do believe is that such power in the hands of men is unwieldy and dangerous. So I offer a word of caution against spiritual leaders of all faiths, fitness gurus, fashion gods, Hollywood elite, or otherwise. Our highest truth is to be found within ourselves, beyond the dark narratives we have been conditioned and continue to condition ourselves to believe, as well as beyond any teachings that come from the mouth of anyone claiming to know what truth is. 

At Nine Treasures Yoga, we practice what was taught by Yogi Bhajan to his students. Whether or not he was taught kundalini yoga by someone who preceded him is still up for debate. However, the practices speak for themselves on a personal level, and we are welcome to throw out the bath water while gently holding on to the baby of our own souls, whom we have cleansed of the impurities within our own minds and hearts. You don’t have to wear a white turban and learn Punjabi. You can simply apply the practices to your own energy system and observe what results. The very same could be said for Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, bootcamp fanatics, Vogue divas, and anyone else who chooses freely to subscribe to a certain culture. 

Maintain your sense of self no matter where you are or what you are doing and you will remain free. Just don’t drink the Kool-Aid. 

SCORPION

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Scorpion Pose – Vrischikasana – awakens the Ajna Chakra, or third-eye.

Ajna means “command” and it is the point through which in a meditative state the practitioner receives commands or guidance from the Guru, the higher self. It is the bridge or doorway between the mental and psychic dimensions.

When Ajna is awakened, the mind becomes steady and strong, qualities which this asana requires on the physical level.

Open your mind and allow strength to flow through you.

Om.