The We of a Tree: A Story

Photo on 2018-03-29 at 6.48 AM #2

Often, when I do yoga here, at home, on the seventh floor of our building, I wish I was closer to the ground, so that I could feel the earth below me, rather than sort of hovering over it – grounding is so important for everyone, especially “airy, in-the-head” people like me! But today, after a particularly intense practice, I was lying on my back at the end, and suddenly a vivid image came to me, of the six “layers” of people below me, and we were sort of forming the trunk of a tree, so that the nourishment of the ground was coming straight up though this “tree of people”, supporting me, my life, my journey, and I was also receiving, from the sky, and this was flowing right back down through everyone back to the ground. We were a tree, the spine of a human body, connected, working together. I was such a beautiful lesson.

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Choosing Your Yoga: Which is the Best Fit for You?

Tammy T. Ston

Tammy T. Stone

 

“Here is, in truth, the whole secret of Yoga, the science of the soul. The active turnings, the strident vibrations, of selfishness, lust and hate are to be stilled by meditation, by letting heart and mind dwell in spiritual life, by lifting up the heart to the strong, silent life above, which rests in the stillness of eternal love, and needs no harsh vibration to convince it of true being.” ~ Patanjali

 

There is no one, all-encompassing definition of yoga.

But, most of us are familiar with “Yoga” being Sanskrit for “connection,” and with the idea that yoga is about cultivating a connection or union between the ego-self and a higher forms of consciousness.

In other words, we can say that we practice yoga to find greater harmony and balance in our lives, and seek a connection with something greater than what our senses alone invite, most probably because we have an intrinsic feeling, maybe from birth, that something is lacking, missing or incomplete.

“Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the ‘integrity that comes from being what you are.’” ~ Parker Palmer

Maybe we can say, then, that we practice yoga to become more fully who we are.

A state of union is an ideal, something we can all work for in various ways. We can experience union walking through a forest, gazing at the moon, or having an intimate moment with someone we love. In order to find more sustained states of peace and balance, we can turn to tools like meditation and the many practices that yoga offers (among which meditation is also key).

While there are many approaches to yoga, among them tantra, laya and kundalini, and then the even more widely known “styles” of yoga, such as Ashtanga, vinyasa, hatha and Iyengar, I want to focus on the four fundamental paths of yoga.

These four paths, outlined below, can be thought of as parts of a whole, and the one that pulls us the most can tell us a lot about who we are and how we are constituted, and can also tell us where there are gaps; working with the other paths can provide us with new challenges for growth.

What are the four paths of yoga?

Raja Yoga

Perhaps the most commonly known and practiced, Raja Yoga (the Yoga of Kings, or the Royal Road) is a detailed system of physical and mental control that highlights meditation, and then working with the body, breath and mind to overcome the limits and obstructions the body and mind impose on us. Raja Yoga encompasses Patanjali’s system of “Ashtanga,” or the eight limbs designed to bring us to absolute self-mastery and realization.

A person with a deep commitment to working with all aspects of being and a willingness to exert great effort to achieve self-control may be attracted to Raja Yoga, which is often first encountered through asana (posture) practice.

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga is a path or way of service and action, and involves a heightened awareness of service for others as one engages in all aspects of daily life. Simply put, Karma Yoga is the mindful “doing” of things that are helpful to others, and involves working on bringing all levels of the self to activities that benefit others.

A person who enjoys being social, physical activity, working with the hands and body, and loves caring for and nurturing others may be best suited for this path of yoga.

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is a devotional path, where we use our faculties of universal love, compassion, empathy and emotion to put the self in the direct service of the divine. This path involves devotional prayer and chanting, and  harboring continued  and constant awareness of the divine.

A person who is naturally expressive and open with his or her emotions, and who embraces faith without hesitation might be best suited to this path.

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga can be thought of as the way of the intellect, of pursuing knowledge and wisdom, and cultivating our faculty of contemplation. More than acquiring information through books, it involves a deep going-within to examine the nature and truth of who we are by learning to distinguish our false senses of identity and letting them go.

A person who naturally loves intellectual pursuits and philosophy might be most drawn to this path.

 

How to choose the best personal path?

Should we pursue the path that fits snugly into our comfort zone, which will inspire a greater ease of practice and might motivate us the best, or should we actually embark on the path that inspires the most resistance in us, to inspire the most dramatic growth? This is an interesting challenge!

I believe it’s important to strike a balance between learning to embrace what is at first uncomfortable, and going so far into discomfort that the motivation to practice is completely cut off.

When starting on a path toward union, harmony and self-mastery, we can best serve ourselves by practicing and growing within the path that naturally attracts us the most. However, we should remember that each path is a part of a greater whole, and that we ultimately need to embrace aspects of each path along the way.

For one naturally intellectual person, for example, praying or chanting might be extremely uncomfortable, and this can be a great impetus for reflection and contemplation about the nature of his or her identity. For another naturally intellectual person, experimenting with devotional practices can be an instant awakening of sorts, maybe a long lost reminder, or a gateway into the psyche opening to reveal different levels of awareness.

We all owe it to ourselves to take the time to experiment with the paths of yoga, in order to find what revelations await us, so that we can arrive at a basis for practice that we are both happy and comfortable with, and that allows for challenges and personal evolution.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.” ~ Jack Kerouac

A Treat for Eyes and Soul: Candle Meditation

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

“Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.” ~ Helen Keller 

Eyes invite people in, giving others a glimpse into the deepest parts of ourselves.

It also works the other way around; eyes are our window out onto the visual world. For those of us with functioning vision, it’s estimated that 80% of our sensory information about the world comes through our sense of sight.

Looking into the eyes of those we love, feels like magic.

Really looking at people in the eye can help us connect with them and understand them better.

A whole realm of empathy can form around the simple act of people looking at each other.

In other words, we’re very dependent on seeing, for building our identity and wellbeing. Look how many expressions exist in the English language based on eye metaphors or analogies:

Do you see? Try to look at it through my eyes. An eye for an eye. Do we see eye to eye? To see with the naked eye. Wide-eyed.

It goes on.

Our eyes are very complex mechanisms that link our brains and minds to the visual field. They do incredibly uncanny things, such as helping us to distinguish objects, perceive depth and experience color. It’s almost impossible to fathom that these little pieces of matter, lodged in our heads, can do so much.

It’s very important to consider how and why we make sense of the world the way we do, and why we’re so dependent on our sense of sight (try practicing navigating through the house blindfolded or listening to movies rather than watching them, for example).

It’s also a really good idea to take care of our eyes.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again.”

~ Sylvia Plath

We know this intuitively. We ‘look inward’ when we meditate, turning ourselves over to our inner eye, and washing, purifying and strengthening the powers of our ajna chakras, or  third eye.

We can only complement this process of inner seeing by nurturing our physical eyes. One of the basic yoga kriyas, or cleansing techniques, you can do every morning, involves cupping your hands, filling them with water and thoroughly rinsing your eyes in it.

A more comprehensive kriya for cleansing the eyes, is Trataka—a Sanskrit word meaning ‘to gaze upon’ or ‘to look.’ Trataka is a fixed-gaze meditation that I like to think of as a natural wonder drug for the eyes.

On a physical level, looking unwaveringly at one object for a substantial duration strengthens the eye muscles and is known to help those with insomnia. It can facilitate improvement in vision, making it an excellent tool for avid readers and chronic computer-users.

Trataka also triggers or prompts physical and emotional release—the idea is that by stilling ourselves, we can allow that proverbial ‘stuff’ to come up and wash away.

Yogis use Trataka to stimulate the third eye and develop concentration skills, considered integral in their own right. This enables them to move into more advanced meditations that would be impossible without an ability to tame distraction and cultivate an ability to focus.

 

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How Trataka works

Note: Trataka can be done using virtually any unmoving object, such as a dot on the wall. I find using the flame of a candle, to be very powerful and intimate.

1: Light a candle; place on the floor, or table, in front of you.

2: Sit in a comfortable position, preferably with your spine straight, and surround yourself with anything you might normally use in meditation or relaxation practices to create a peaceful, conducive atmosphere.

3: Take a few deep breaths; allow your body to relax for a moment and slowly become aware of it.

4: Look at the wick inside the flame—if using a candle—as the centring point, and perform the following movements:

–       Move your eyes from left to right several times.

–       Look up and then down several times.

–       Look diagonally up to the left and down to the right several times.

–       Look diagonally up to the right and down to the left several times.

5: Rest your eyes on the wick of the flame and keep your eyes open. Fix your gaze, remaining fully aware of the flame until your eyes grow very tired or start to water.

6: Close your eyes and concentrate on the image of the flame between your eyes in the center of your forehead. Try to keep the image stable. When the image begins to fade, try to bring it back.

7: Open your eyes and repeat steps five and six, one or two more times. 

In the beginning, you can concentrate on the flame for one—two minutes, increasing this amount of time with practice. Observe any emotions that arising without thinking about, or judging, them.

You might also notice that this exercise helps you learn to “open your eyes” to your environment in a new and more vibrant way, and the benefits of seeing things anew are, of course, innumerable.

Enjoy!

“Few are those who see with their own eyes and feel with their own hearts.”

~ Albert Einstein

* This article first appeared in elephant journal.