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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Easter Spring Light

 

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The plenitude
of ways of seeing,
from the ground up,
and then,
slowly,
like a door opening
to a flood of light
that would
be contained,
like the first chords
of a song
breaking the silence
to fill and make
a world,
from the outside
and inside
at once,
and movement
stops being movement,
but presence,
and striving
stops being striving,
but grace.

Expansion

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i can imagine
the circle breathing
taking that sweet
inhalation to allow
even more if its
beautiful, rounded
shape to fill
space.
who knows
what has always
been in the
circle, that
will reveal itself
on the wings
of such
expansion.
i breathe in
and imagine
each cell a
full, fluid
vibrant circle
growing, as
i allow myself
to have
presence,
allow for the
splendor of
my being,
and for the
endless
possibility
of discovering
the magic
in each
and every part. – TS

Becoming a Yogi: Surrendering the Ego

tammy-44

Over a decade ago, a colleague who’d been purging his closet tossed me a VHS tape and said, “Have you ever tried yoga? You might like it.”

It was 20 minutes of power yoga led by Rodney Yee, who was completely unknown to me at the time. “Twenty minutes? Sounds manageable,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t. I desperately tried to keep up. I fell over with a thud a few times and worried I was harassing the downstairs neighbors with my klutziness. I had no idea yoga would make my heart feel it was falling out of my chest and throw me this much off-kilter. I plopped onto the couch and vowed that yoga and I were done—until the next day, when a combination of stubbornness and determination got the better of me.

I had about a month-long affair with VHS-Rodney Yee before one day off the mat led to another and then another… you know the drill.

While I had no concept of the greater world yoga offered, of what yoga was all about beyond “gets into poses without falling over,” something brought me to yoga and sustained my interest, if even for a while. That was something.

I think it’s immensely important to pay close attention to what leaps out of the void to say hello and tug at the heart.

I’m still not sure I can pinpoint exactly what that something is, to this day. It wasn’t love at first sight for me and yoga. I didn’t go the way of Lululemon or start seeking out classes around town. I had no idea what a mala was or that yoga positions were commonly referred to in Sanskrit. I had never even contemplated breath’s connection to movement.

So it goes without saying, I felt far from a warrior.

Warriors are one of the personas we aim to embody in yoga. Others include kings, mermaids, divine vessels and open-chested channels for love. You can see picture-perfect representations of these all over social media in various shades of ocean and sunset. Of course, I know that people cannot possibly walk around in a perpetual state of bliss, but we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. It’s equally evident to me, through reading awakened works like the Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and BKS Iyengar’s writings, that it’s possible to feel much more connected to the universe than I do most of the time.

“You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.” ~ BKS Iyengar

I long to understand this state of existence, not intellectually, but in my own heart and from direct experience. This is my motivation for embracing a committed yoga practice.

I couldn’t have conceived of this goal when I clumsily tried to follow along to that Rodney Yee VHS tape years ago. At some point after becoming acquainted with yoga, even if our initial target was to get fit or flexible, we come to an “ah-ha” moment, even if for a few seconds, and catch on to a wider world we could not have anticipated. That offers thrilling possibilities.

When this happens, yoga starts to feel less about doing and more about a way of being.

The word “yogi” starts to sound less ethereal and remote and more like something to which we can aspire. To me, this was in some ways a return to the beginning, to that initial attraction to yoga, but with a deeper and more informed awareness of how far it’s possible to go. It has also had the effect of highlighting how distant we can feel from our goal, how imperfect we are in our practice.

We might, as I became, be plagued by doubt; incidentally known in Buddhism as one of the “five hindrances” to a meditation practice, which I think perfectly applies well here. In order to sabotage our practice before it can bloom, we might doubt the authenticity of our teachers, of the practice of yoga itself and our own ability to embody the yogic principles. I’ve also found in my own experience where doubt thrives, guilt is not far behind. I’m sure many can relate to the guilt and feelings of failure I’ve experienced when I’ve allowed my asana or meditation practice to lapse.

Despite the strong feelings of doubt that we really deserve to be considered yogis, I’ve come to realize from years of experience that the seeds which were already within us when we first encountered yoga do not disappear, but grow each time we have the authentic intention to develop our practice. These seeds are not easily destroyed by doubt and guilt; it’s been a complete joy to realize that they are much stronger than that.

I believe that we all have the seeds for awakening within us. The ways in which we discover and nourish them will differ because we are all different. It is up to each of us to find within ourselves the kindness and compassion that most help these seeds to grow, so that we can come to our practice with invigoration and happiness, no matter how long it takes us to get there.

There will be winters when the growth seems to stop altogether, when every last part of our being seems to wilt and atrophy. However, if we are patient and persistent, we will come to spring and summer, and we’ll see that winter is part of the nature of things.

Becoming a yogi, I think, is about surrendering the ego that creates doubt and guilt and immersing into the deep well of wisdom the ancient tradition of yoga offers us. The more open we are to discovery, the more we’ll understand that we are not and have never been alone in our perfectly flawed humanity. Love and support are always within reach and grow every time we consciously breathe into them.

 

*This article was published on The Tattooed Buddha.

In Search of Life’s Breath. {Yoga}

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A Practice Without Breath is Like a Sandwich Without Bread

I settle into my meditation cushion, set the timer, and take a few deep breaths. The first is always a shock to my system. It’s as though my body has been deprived of air for months. There’s actually a physical pain induced by the outer reaches of my lungs heaving and attempting to expand beyond capacity without tearing anything. Lately, as I encourage these deep breaths, I end up in a state of near panic as it dawns on me that the rest of the day will be (or has been) spent completely forgetting to let energy flow through my body. I observe my breath shorten, quicken, and all but disappear. My mind takes off on various joyrides. And when I come back to the breath, I find that there’s precious little to attend to.

Breathe.

So I breathe. But soon my mind spins off into a joyride of thoughts. I spend the next several minutes completely unaware of breathing in and breathing out. My spiraling mind, more often than not brimming with concern for something or other, induces my breath to shorten so that I become dizzy and uncomfortable. This makes me think of all the hidden little corners inside of me brimming with distress, unfulfilled desires, and trauma that I allow to fester and flourish by not breathing into them. I “reset” again, aiming to breathe deeply into my sources of tension. But I’m already off somewhere else by the time the outbreath is releasing. And the cycle continues.

So I breathe. But soon my mind spins off into a joyride of thoughts. I spend the next several minutes completely unaware of breathing in and breathing out.

Once, during an intensive yoga course, I noticed my teacher focused on my belly as I tried to huff and puff my way to a cleansed psyche via kapalabhati, or “skull shining” breath. When we were done, I was informed that I had the process in reverse.

You can breathe backwards? I thought. Evidently, yes! Instead of emitting the air with a quick outbreath, I was shoving the old, toxic air back in with a forceful inbreath. I asked (against all hope) if this was, sort of, okay, and got a gentle indication that this was something I might want to work on. I also learned that, like many, I’m a chest-breather—meaning that I only use a tiny portion of my lung capacity.

I was flummoxed. One of the greatest obstacles I had to mount on my way to a balanced self was breathing? (The very first thing I did when I came into this world?) I felt crushed under the weight of perceived defeat. I wondered how I was still alive and moving relatively well through life, when I should be constantly hungry for the nourishment of a good, full breath. I should be wheezing and panting and raisin-like, shriveled on my journey through this incarnation.

One of the great rewards of intensive yoga courses is that we can put ourselves directly in the path of beautiful teachers who can guide us when we falter, encourage us when we lapse, and remind us of what we habitually forget. Going beyond the help that I received with alignment, meditation techniques, and theory, I was thrilled to have found teachings on a subject I once thought was so unconscious and obvious that I couldn’t imagine needing to be mentored in it. Breathing became my new obsession.

But, after a little while, I started to hate breathing. I resisted doing kapalabhati and activating the bandhas (energy locks), both of which felt like a journey directly into quicksand. Gradually, though, during a period of long travel and daily inspiration, I built my strength, body awareness, and lung capacity—and even began to look forward to pranayama (breathing techniques).

I would start each morning by gazing out the window. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than a view of the world on a new day. (Greeting the day in this way is very easy to do if you’re in the Himalayas, which I was for a time!) I’d consciously take deep breaths and contemplate how lucky I was to be there, right then, to be alive. Then, I’d sit on my mat and try to infuse my practice with a feeling of gratitude, a will to persist, and an attitude of compassion. I’d say, “It’s okay to start slow. Take just a few breaths and do a few locks (bandha activations) with full consciousness, and that’s all. There’s always tomorrow to aim for more.”

I’m not one to always remember to go easy on myself, but the practice became as deeply immersed in self-love and self-acceptance as it did in learning how to fill my body with the expansive flow of energy.

However, over the past couple of years, truth be told, I’ve lapsed. Slowly, imperceptibly even, my practice has often navigated into rote territory—this in direct proportion to time spent earning a living in front of the computer. My busy mind follows me with great skill and precision. And, oddly, the first thing I drop as I step onto the mat is my awareness of breath. Which is like making a sandwich without bread or riding a bicycle without a bicycle. You get my point, right?

True yoga, we know, is not the art of balancing precariously on the cranium while legs splay widely with varying degrees of beauty and grace. Yoga is not the art of feats of flexibility, extreme cleansing practices, or mudra or mantra memorization.

The goal for me now is not to be shocked by the blast of a deep intake of air, but to have each breath be a revelation of the wondrousness of existence.

Yoga can and does involve these things, of course, and we are each gifted with the beautiful challenge of finding a yogic path that works best for us. But without a firmly rooted connection with our own breath, we can only (at the very best) mimic the actions and passions of life.The goal for me now is not to be shocked by the blast of a deep intake of air, but to have each breath be a revelation of the wondrousness of existence. And so I ask of myself: slow down, place hands on belly and chest, invite joy and vibrancy in, let tension and holding patterns out.

And just breathe.

**This article was recently published in Yoga International.

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