the walking wounded: when Love and Yoga aren’t enough

screamBy now the world knows that Robin Williams killed himself.  How shocking it is when someone who appeared so manic, so funny, suddenly decides they no longer want to live because the pain of their life — no matter how “good” or successful it looks like to outsiders — becomes too much to bear.

I tried to kill myself when I was 16.

I have had the rep for a long time of being some type of bad ass bitch.  One who always tells it like it is, no holds barred, a Kali Ma.  I have heard that local yoga teachers consider me to be “hard to approach.”  I have been told that I am not the type who “gives hugs” to people.  I’m the bad cop to your good cop.

My humor has always been self-deprecating and I always put on a good mask.  I hate talking about myself and any time someone asks me how I am or what I’ve been doing lately I usually redirect the conversation back to them or onto another topic — because if I told you how I really felt you’d probably run away.

Depression is always a few steps away.  A number of years ago PTSD reared its ugly head again after a huge emotional incident that brought back buried memories of emotional abandonment.  Here I was a woman in my late 50s and feeling like a blubbering baby on the inside when I had to put on the happy face to the outside world, the wise teacher face to my students.  I was dying inside.

When I feel it sneaking up I am mindful of the physical sensations.  I do my breathing, I am aware.  I’m a yoga therapist, I have the tools.  I’ve been trained very well.  The best teachers about suffering are the ones who have walked through Hell, not the ones who have only read about it.

But sometimes all that Love and Yoga just isn’t enough.

Every day I make great effort to wake up grateful for what I have and I truly am.  I am blessed to live where I live, to have the house that I do, to be able to travel to India 8 times.   People tell me “I wish I were you” or “I want your life so that I can [fill in the blank.]”  And I think, really?  If they only know what a mess I feel like I am most of the time.  Never envy someone else’s life because you don’t know the shit they’ve been through.

I was emotionally and physically abused by my mother.  Or the woman I thought was my mother because my sister could have been my mother.  I moved out when I was 18 and never looked back.  When the woman who raised me wasn’t bragging to people about how brilliant I was in school she was telling me I should have been an abortion.

I found out last year that I was lied to about my heritage — I am not 50/50 German-Polish as I was told, but I am Polish-Native American-Mexican, proven via three genetic tests.  Someone has some ‘splainin’ to do but anyone who could tell the truth of my birth is dead.  I was ecstatic to finally confirm what I have always intuited but I very quickly nosedived into rock-bottom despair because of the lies that were told to me.

I was sexually assaulted in college before the term “date rape” was invented.  After that I was in an abusive relationship where my drunken boyfriend would throw me up against a wall, wrap his hand around my neck and push me up until my feet were off the ground.  But I still managed to get As in all my classes and my teachers loved me.

I watch how much I drink because I know I could very easily fall back into using alcohol to dull the pain.  I wasn’t called the Acid Queen for nothing.  When my first husband pushed me into the edge of a table and I cracked my back the doctor gave me Valium for the pain.  I quit that shit cold turkey and it wasn’t easy.

A person can seem to have it all and yet, there is something missing.  Something unnameable.  It feels like a deep and unfathomable emptiness.

It is a terrible feeling of isolation and disconnection from everything and everyone.  The so-called “yoga community” makes me laugh because depressed people do not need to hear that they should “manifest abundance”, that they should “ask the Universe” for Love and Light, or that they should not feel the way they do because it will only “attract” more negativity, or that they need to do 108 sun salutations and namaste everyone or whatever the fuck.

Fuck that New Age Rose Colored Glasses Shit.

What depressed people need is kindness and understanding just like with any other disease.  I always refused to take medications because I took enough mood altering drugs when I was young and I know I have an addictive personality.

Sometimes I am so damn tired.  Tired of giving so much of myself emotionally to everyone and not getting it myself, feeling unsupported with unequal exchanges of energy.  It is why by the end of each year I can’t wait to spend a long time in India in order to get nourished and nurtured.   This year that feeling has come way sooner.

And here’s a clue:  when someone is saying how “tired” they are or how “done” they are, wake the fuck up and listen to them.  Don’t tell them, “I’ve been hearing this from you for a long time” or “shut up and snap out of it.”  Dealing with a depressed person sometimes requires a lot of patience.

Can we make the Robin Williams tragedy a wake up call?  Can we make it okay to be able to reach out when we need help?

I have always felt uncomfortable reaching out and asking for help.  I implode instead of explode.  I could kill myself and you would not find  me until weeks or a month later —  because most people think I am so together and “out there” and never once think that I could easily swallow a fistful of pills with a bottle of gin and lie down in savasana.

I learned at a very early age how to go away quietly.

My life story is probably why I love working one on one with students, especially people dealing with trauma.  It takes me outside myself.  I recently adopted a cat because she was in a cage for three months.   I had an epiphany in the pet food store where she was up for adoption:  as I petted her I began to weep because I realized that no one wanted her like the way my mother (or the woman I thought was my mother) really did not want me.  It’s probably why all my life I’ve fought for any underdog.  It’s probably why I always butted heads with the powers that be and walked to the beat of my own drummer.

Yoga and meditation saved my life but it is always a thin rope to hold on to.

It can snap at any moment.

So before you think someone is a tough, bad-ass bitch, realize that you never really know anyone’s back story of pain and trauma.   Don’t be surprised to learn that sometimes the strongest or the funniest person you know are one day away from ending it all because they are just so damn tired and done.

But I keep hanging in there.  Because Yoga is about Life (Krishnamacharya.)

Me and Anne Lamott: Happy Birthday to Me

I officially enter Yoga Cronedom next weekend.  This Ageless Hippie Chick — who was not supposed to see the age of 17 because I tried to kill myself when I was 16 — hits the big 6-0.  What a long, strange trip it’s been, and I’m not even talking about the yoga.  I am grateful for every damn thing that has come my way, good and bad.

When I saw this Anne Lamott quote on someone’s Facebook page, it resonated with me.  Apparently everyone has read Anne Lamott except me so I looked her up.  The blurb on her agent’s page says that “she writes about what most of us don’t like to think about” and that she “tells her stories with honesty, compassion and a pureness of voice.”   I thought, hmmmm…interesting, people used to say that about me and my yoga rants and musings, I should check her out.

So I decided to take some of her lines and do my own spin on my upcoming birthday.

AL: “This is the last Saturday of my fifties. The needle isn’t moving to the left or to the right. I don’t feel or look 60. I don’t feel any age. I have a near-perfect life.  However, I grew up on tennis courts and beaches in California during the sixties, where we put baby oil on our skin to deepen the tan, and we got hundreds of sunburns. So maybe that was not ideal. I drank a lot and took a lot of drugs and smoked two packs of Camels (unfiltered) a day until I was 32….  My heart is not any age. It is a baby, an elder, a dog, a cat, divine.  My feet, however, frequently hurt.”

Next weekend is the last weekend of my fifties.  I also do not look or feel 60 and I certainly don’t move like I am 60.  What is that supposed to look like anymore?  When I grew up in the ’60s when people hit 60 they looked damn old.  Most people don’t know I smoked for 30 years, less than a pack a day, and I gave it up just like that when I became a yoga teacher at 48.  When I was in my early 20s I weighed 200 pounds, another thing that no one believes.  I lost about 60 pounds when I was in my early 20s but I still see a 200 pound face in the mirror.  You want to talk about Yoga and Body Image?  Just ask me.

I also have a near-perfect life considering some of the things I’ve experienced:  child abuse, domestic violence, attempted suicide, sexual assault, a lot of drugs and rock n roll as they say (don’t you wonder who the hell “they” are?)

Like Lamott, my heart is not any age.  Oh yeah, it will stop pumping one of these days.  But I am an energy body and energy is neither created nor destroyed, I will morph into something else somewhere.  And it’s not my feet, but damn, I have a tweaky back sometimes.  

AL: “My great blessing is the capacity for radical silliness and self-care.”

My greatest blessing is surviving and radical self-care.  The older I get, the more powerful I become.  I have not even begun to reach my full potential.  When a lot of people my age are thinking about retirement, I feel like I am just getting started….funny, when I’ve been teaching for a dozen years now.

I always tell my students, “ask yourselves, if not now, when?”  But I’ve known too many women who put themselves last after everything else in their lives, behind husband, partner, children, even in this time of post-Women’s Liberation Movement.  

AL: “I’m pretty spaced out.” 

Over the years I’ve noticed many times how still my mind is, like a still pond.  Many people tell me their minds are rarely quiet in spite of being long time yoga practitioners and practicing meditation.  I catch myself on how often I am not thinking but standing in pure awareness, at least that is what I call it.  Maybe it is my mind observing itself and it sees emptiness, a clarity, and then when it notices the emptiness it yells “hey, where are the thoughts?!” and that’s when I get distracted.  

“The tranquil state of mind when it rests constantly upon the contemplation of the goal after having again and again detached itself from myriad sense objects through a process of continuous observation of their defects, is called Sama.” Vivekachudamani, Adi Shankara, 8th century.

AL: “Mentally, the same old character defects resurface again and again. I thought I’d be all well by now.  Maybe I’m 40% better, calmer, less reactive than I used to be, but the victimized self-righteousness remains strong, and my default response to most problems is still to try and figure out who to blame; whose fault it is, and how to correct his or her behavior, so I can be more comfortable.  …Spiritually, I have the sophistication of a bright ten year old. My motley crew and my pets are my life. They are why I believe so ferociously in God.”

During my last yoga therapy training we discussed the concept of equanimity.  Many believe that when we finally reach the ultimate state of equanimity we become like Ramana Maharshi where we can sit in meditation and allow the ants to bite us without reaction.  I thought about that after our discussion and thought that if I can not feel passion about something or experience compassionate rage then you can keep enlightenment. 

AL: “Forgiveness remains a challenge, as does letting go. When people say cheerfully, “Just let go and let God,” I still want to stab them in the head with a fork, like a baked potato.  This business of being a human being is infinitely more fraught than I was led to believe.”

I learned a long time ago that forgiveness is for me not for the one who treated me badly.  Forgiveness is to relieve my own suffering.

In the last 6 months I received confirmation via three DNA tests that I am Native American with Spanish and Southeastern European thrown in.  I grew up believing I was 50/50 German and Polish.  Surprise!  Not a drop of German and the Polish is iffy.  That is what I was always told.  My life was based on lies and deceptions.  Imagine finding that out when you are thisclose to 60. 

Anyone who can tell me the truth of my birth is dead.  I came up with three possible scenarios:  I was the product of an affair; my sister (who was 19 years older than me) was my mother because she got pregnant with me before she married when I was four and had given me to the people I thought were my parents but were really my grandparents; or, someone gave me away to the people who raised me because in the mid-1950s my parents would have been considered too old (41 and 48) for an official adoption.

Follow?

I had always intuited that I was something other than what I grew up believing.  A friend who also found out she is Native said that Native Americans have blood memory of their heritage — so that’s what that feeling was all these years.

Do you want to talk to me about forgiveness?  When I found out I am Native, I was ecstatic because I have always felt a kinship with anything Native American even as a young girl.  Then I sank into a morass of despair — it explained why I was treated the way I was until I moved out when I was 18.  It explained why my sister wanted nothing to do with me and rarely had any contact with me.  Then I became enraged at the lies and deceptions.  I created scenes in my mind that if I could go back in time to confront the liars and abusers I would destroy them.  But then I said….

JUST STOP.  

What difference does it make now, in this present moment?  Why should I create my own suffering over something that happened 60 years ago?  My life is NOW.  Not in the past, not in the future.  Just this, just here, just now.

I saw my astrologer yesterday and told her the story.  I asked, what if my birthday is not what is on my birth certificate since it was obviously altered.  No problem, I have the same akashic records of my birth that makes me ME.  The akasha is beyond any date on a calendar.

Then I began to think how truly lucky I am.  Because I have the power to create a new Me, at age 60  I shed my past like a snakeskin.  I am a blank slate and how many people can say that at my age?  Because my early life was not about integrity, I can now claim the integrity of my New Consciousness.  I separate myself from the betrayals that went before.  Maybe that is why people have branded me “fiercely authentic” and why my astrologer always told me I can not be anywhere near any thing or person is that is less than true.     

AL: “So we do what we can. Today, I will visit a cherished friend post surgery, and goof around with her kids. I will try to help one person stay clean and sober, just for today.  I will loudly celebrate my own sobriety, and also the fact that my writing has not been a total nightmare lately. I am going to go for a hike on these sore feet, and remember Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Charged, electrical with life’s beauty and light!  Wow.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I have experienced things in 60 years that would have made a weaker person crazy or dead.

I facilitate personal transformations via Yoga and meditation.  I teach people how to breathe to save their lives.  I help them regain mobility or peace of mind.  I will never own a studio and I will never again teach to a large group of people unless someone invites me.  I do not see that happening in the foreseeable future because what I do and how I am is not everyone’s cup of chai.  I am too masala for many.  I am not the modern yoga status quo and I am happy now to stay in my little yoga cave.  But I am honored and humbled to be in a book with some famous yoga teachers….and then there’s me.

I do what I can every day to live the idea of “I will not die an unlived life.”  Or sometimes I do nothing at all.  I have always said that life is a vinyasa. 

I celebrate ME, my surviving, my ups and down of my entire life thus far because every day is a blessing.  I have become so detached from the identity of “yoga teacher” that sometimes it frightens me.  That’s because true freedom can be frightening.  Think about that one.  If I never taught another class I would be happy.

Because I am so much more.  I am everything that is contained in this Universe, good, bad, and indifferent.  I caught a glimpse of that as I did energy work on a student this week.  The Native American shaman that is buried in my DNA is raising her head.  At the risk of sounding foo-foo and woo-woo, those things that I disdain in the New Age scene, we are stardust.   

And I thank the Universe that I am capable of such Joy.

 

reflections on 2010 and ruminations on the future

My oh my, what a blessed year 2010 was…no apologies, no regrets, and always moving on.

I started out in South India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, flew to Kolkata where Kali Ma knocked me down, traveled to Bhubaneswar to meet the 64 Yoginis, and then spent 9 days at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Hardiwar where I jumped into the Ganges on Mahashivratri and met a swami of the highest order.

After India I flew to Africa and spent a night in Nairobi, Kenya after crisscrossing the Persian Gulf to spend hours in Qatar AND Dubai due to flight problems, flew to Zanzibar to spend five days on the beach, then flew to Arusha, Tanzania where I introduced yin yoga to 20 or so Arusha yogins and the two zebras that waltzed into the retreat on Saturday morning. Yoga teaching doesn’t get any better than that.

After the retreat I went to the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater and as I watched a herd of wildebeast and zebra, hearing only my breath and the wind and their grunts, I experienced such a visceral feeling of oneness with all things that it rendered any words I had ever read about that primal recognition almost meaningless.

Of course one does not have to travel thousands of miles for that realization — I feel the same way sitting in my garden and watching the butterflies and honeybees. Or upon opening an acorn and seeing an oak forest in miniature and feeling that time has stopped — Tzimtzum which means Divine Contraction. It is the belief that if God is infinite, He would have to draw in and make a void into which creation can come, whether it’s in my yard or the bottom of a prehistoric crater in Africa.

I don’t know why but this year brought a closing in rather than expansion, but not a closing in in a negative way. My yoga practice definitely changed after my trip. I gave up all my classes except my private ones and I was amazed at how content I became because of it.

What was foretold to me had come to pass: I died in India when I jumped into the Ganges and was reborn at the bottom of that crater.

And all that was just the beginning of my year.

The words that describe my yoga teaching this year are “less is more” and “quality over quantity.” I no longer teach at studios and have no desire to ever teach regularly at studios again except for the occasional workshop. The students who come to my house are sincere and dedicated and are hungry for more and more meditation. We’ve developed quite the sangha yet they know I must go to India to refuel. “You will always be my teacher,” one student told me on our last night before my upcoming trip.

The women at the domestic violence shelter where I teach have inspired me to take a special training in teaching yoga to trauma survivors. Those battered women who are also my teachers have also inspired me to embark on a new journey into graduate school and a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology. One night after teaching I had another epiphany after speaking with a woman, again so visceral that I saw my life’s path laid out before me – there will be no turning back.

The year has shown me how asana is such a small part of the practice. It’s only the appetizer to the feast. Yoga blogs where the only thing written about is mastering this pose or that pose are incredibly boring to me. Yoga has become a cult of the body in America. I think, what are they going to write about when they can no longer do that sick arm balance or inversion, what will they have left? Get real.

The yoga blogosphere in 2010 burned up with the heated discussion about Tara Stiles and her book and the “who owns yoga?” debate.

Although I also jumped into the debate I became bored with those discussions, too. The turning point came when a post was published in a yoga-ish online journal that seemingly pitted me against Tara Stiles, my yoga vs. her yoga. While the writer thought it was complimentary, I felt blindsided and betrayed. The writer did not feel it necessary to ask my permission or even to ask my opinion before he wrote about me.

Needless to say the writer felt Kali’s wrath and the post was pulled, but the incident left an extremely bad and bitter taste in my mouth that made me rethink my time in the yoga blogosphere. The best thing that came out of the situation was the support shown me by certain yoga bloggers, one especially, who also felt the writer’s actions were unconscionable.

The question of what is “real yoga” also arose in different venues. I have always said that this is my real yoga and one of my students also used the phrase. I will say again that I really don’t care what your yoga is, I know what mine is, but one thing that I am convinced of is that if something isn’t changing for you off the mat or off the cushion (and how many yoga practitioners also have a dedicated meditation practice?), then it’s not yoga.

And no apologies to those who hate the phrase “real yoga.” I’m tired of that judgment, too. It’s almost a reverse snobbism. Anyone who criticized or questioned the yoga status quo was called a “hater” or “judgmental” in the yoga blogosphere. Many discussions served to separate rather than gather the online yoga community. I grew tired and it drained me and further convinced me to stay away from yoga blogs.

Yes, I am sensitive about the topic of “real yoga.” Over the five years of writing this blog I’ve caught flak about being so outspoken and that has made me misunderstood at best and unpopular at worst. I’ve been described as being passionate in my defense of yoga in the face of commercialism, exploitation, and misunderstanding. If the body cult of modern Americanized yoga is right, then I’d rather be wrong.

I’m not everyone’s cup of chai and I’ve always been an outsider, and frankly, because of decisions I’ve made, I’ve never been happier with teaching. Quality over quantity. I don’t want to teach a dozen classes a week to those who do not see yoga as a wisdom teaching on self-transformation, as something beyond the cult of the body. There are other teachers who do that but I’m not one of them and that’s just fine. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. That’s my yoga and yours is yours.

So as I plan my fifth trip to India (I’m leaving in two days), I wonder what 2011 and beyond might hold. What can top the Maha Kumbh Mela and Ngorongoro Crater? My gut tells me that this will be last trip for a few years as I work on a masters degree. I was told that this will be my last trip as a student, that when I return I will bring India something instead. We shall see.

Maybe I am drawn to India because she has her own strong personality, just like me. She shows you incredible aspects of yourself while at the same time showing you impossible suffering. Nothing is hidden, suffering and death are on the street every day. You have to face it and if you go to India for spiritual bliss, you will be challenged beyond your imagination. If you accept the challenge, if you don’t run in fear, your life is changed forever.

Sounds like yoga.

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yoga and the evolutionary process

No, not yoga and evolution.  Yoga and YOUR evolution.  Change.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what my student said in class the other night, about what she thinks “real yoga” is.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga caters to this culture rather than trying to change this culture.

To this student “real yoga” is about change on the micro- and macro- level.  Or as I’ve heard Desikachar say, anything else is acrobatics.

I know the phrase “real yoga” irks some people.  People don’t like to hear that phrase used, considering it judgmental or arrogant.  They say that all yoga is good yoga and so what if someone does a 60 minute yoga DVD to get a slim, sexy body.  And contrary to popular beliefs about this Krazy Old Yogini, I agree to a point: so what.  The way yoga is advertised is a separate and entirely different issue.

Because as a wise reader told me recently, reality means that not everyone sings like Cecilia Bartoli or plays violin like Jascha Heifetz.  So why can’t we accept that there is talent involved in yoga and meditative arts also?  The democratization of everything (democratization being another word for mainstream) makes us think everyone should benefit equally from martial arts, yoga, or tea ceremony, but that simply is not true.

Many say that the more esoteric benefits of yoga will eventually come to those who practice for purely physical reasons.  I’ve never believed that because that assumes that everyone is on the same path, running at the same pace, equally.  That’s not true in a marathon and that’s not true on the yogic path.  There is also a little thing called karma.

There are plenty of people in yoga classes who practice for purely physical reasons and become stronger and more flexible, but they are still unhappy and depressed or full of fear. Some will be that way the rest of their lives, in varying degrees; others, not.  There are those who will run from teacher to teacher, from one ‘ism to another, and still die with their most intense fear buried deep within their hearts.  There are others who have suffered horribly in their lives, studying with one teacher or even none, but through their internal work will fly on wings of joy on their dying day.

Life. Change. Stages of evolution. Karma.

The reader who wrote to me believes that it is only natural that some will not connect with the esoteric levels of yoga and will remain happy with a basic understanding of yoga, the basic level being purely physical.  A lucky few on the yoga path will know enlightenment. Most will be stuck somewhere in between.  This has to do with talent, but also with what the Chinese call yuanfen.

So even a basic understanding of yoga and attaining purely physical benefits are better than none at all, but I have my own standards of what constitutes “real yoga.”  And just as there is nothing wrong with someone doing yoga for purely physical benefits, there is nothing wrong with my standards either.

As I’ve come to believe over the years, students get the teachers they need at the time, teachers get the students they deserve at the time.  Think about that.

One of my standards is that yoga is about physical and emotional healing.  Another standard is that yoga is about accelerating our personal evolution.  I’ve told my students many times that if something isn’t changing for you off the mat, then it’s not yoga.  If your path is only the length and width of your yoga mat, that’s not much of a path.  That’s my standard.  And someone can choose to accept that or not because frankly, in the end, I don’t care.  It’s your own personal evolution.  Or should I say revolution?

In his book A Life Worth Breathing Max Strom writes:

“Hatha yoga is a profound evolutionary system that will benefit everyone who has the passion to change his or her troubled existence into an extraordinary life. It has changed my life forever, and every day I see it transform more and more people into happier, healthier, and more empowered beings….

 

Imagine two people practicing side by side. One is still and struggling in a posture, barely able to open his hips, but he is not letting it bother him. Instead, he feels calm in this difficult moment, centered in deep breathing.

 

Then there is the second person next to him, able to wrap his legs around his neck, but breathing erratically, thinking negative thoughts. Whose practice is better? Flexibility is not the aim; it is a side effect….

 

If you find joy and you are living a meaningful life, then you are becoming good at yoga….

 

Remember, the goal is not to tie ourselves in knots — we’re already tied in knots. The aim is to untie the knots in our heart. The aim is to unite with the intimate, loving, and peaceful power of the universe and fully awaken into the highest level of human consciousness.”
(Max Strom, pp. 122-125)

A spiritual adept once told me that it is not my job as a yoga teacher to change people. They have to change themselves.

I can only give you a road map — you have to drive the car yourself.

life is a vinyasa

1. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

The forever changing images that I see in the mirror each morning remind me of the first of Buddha’s Five Remembrances. Today this soul’s present incarnation has been on this planet for over 50 years.

My photographs are also constant reminders of my mortality. Every birthday reminds me that I now have less time ahead of me than I have behind me. That knowledge makes each day more precious than the last. I will not die an unlived life.

“eat mangoes naked
lick the juice off your arms
discover your own goodness
smile when you feel like it
be delicious
be rare eccentric original
smile when you feel like it
paint your soul”
—SARK

What happened to the 16 year old? What happened to the 20 year old? They are still here but the package has changed, the ribbons are torn and frayed and the wrapping paper yellowed and weakened in spots.

I see these old photos and am reminded that I almost died at my own hand when I was 16. I never thought I would live to be at the party where my friend grabbed me with gusto around the waist. I could have left this earth a long time ago in more ways than one. I tried my damnedest for years to do just that. But I am still here, those girls are still around somewhere inside my head.

Those photos are also a reminder of the me I lost but found again once I got back on the yoga path. Life is a circle.


“The Ouroboros often represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially in the sense of something constantly re-creating itself, the eternal return, and other things perceived as cycles that begin anew as soon as they end. It can also represent the idea of primordial unity related to something existing in or persisting from the beginning with such force or qualities it cannot be extinguished.”

The photos bring home the truth of the Five Remembrances and the truth of impermanence and they remind me to THINK. Birthdays are contemplations on what I would like to plant in this final season of my life.

What will it be?

What do I plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

2. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

Every day I wake up with pain. My freaky femurs that Paul Grilley uses as examples of extreme internal hip rotation are beginning to ache. My hair is thinning and I can see my scalp. My eyes have the beginnings of cataracts. But I thank the Universe for my physical yoga practice because without it I probably could barely move.

I thank the Universe for my yoga and meditation practice that allows me to know the truth of Buddha’s Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness: mindfulness of the dharma, of the true nature of reality that nothing is permanent, that each moment is constantly changing. Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence because our practice changes every time we step on the mat, from day to day, moment to moment. Is your practice changing as you change? And if not, why not? Get real.

3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

These remembrances are the hardest lessons to learn. Thoughts of death of those near and dear to us and of our own death strike the most fear in our hearts. It is said that our only fear is the fear of death, all our other fears arise from that primal one.

We know things change but we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so. This is what Patanjali wrote about in chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra-s: he described the qualities necessary to change the mind effectively and gradually from a state of distraction to one of attention, one of the qualities being avidya which is literally “not seeing.” This willful denial of reality, this willful not seeing the truth of impermanence perpetuates our suffering and misery. We so want things to never change – our hair, our skin, our supple spines, the people in our lives – that clinging to things that are by their very nature impermanent causes our suffering.

The suffering of change is what gives us the most gut wrenching pain in our lives. It is not our physical pain, but the pain of pain.

But when this truth of reality sunk deep into my bones it was liberation. I am not responsible for anyone’s happiness, I am only responsible for my own. No one is responsible for my happiness, I am only responsible for my own.

It’s a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. We are energy bodies, filled with chi, prana, Life Force, whatever you want to call it. This body is merely the vessel that will eventually crack open and fall apart like an old terracotta pot. But the essence of me will live on. What is born dies but what is never born can never die. We truly are billion year old carbon.

We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot

5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Like everyone else, my life is composed of losses and gains. My losses have been due to neglect, poor judgment, ego, recklessness, selfishness. My gains have been through hard work, grit, determination, and intuition. Other gains have simply come through the blessings of the Universe. Karma. I’ve been graced with a fortunate birth despite going through things back in the day that would have killed a weaker person. I should never have become this old. The cards were stacked against me. Or were they? I truly am a survivor.

The Five Remembrances keep me awake to the human condition. My spirituality has brought me closer to Spirit, have helped open a heart that was closed for so long, and has taught me to have gratitude for whatever comes my way. My dharma wheel is turning and it tells me to embrace the inevitability of life’s changes.

Life is a constant series of movements that change from one form to another — just like asanas. I have reached a deep sentient awareness that nothing is truly lost in the end. We meet who we are meant to meet in this life and people come and go and return again in a constant dance and flow — like a vinyasa. We meet ourselves and each other over and over again in this spanda until we find our way home.

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

from sadhus to zebras, part 1

Shiva was certainly testing me as I made my way to India this time, and as I later found out, also as I made my way to Africa. It literally took 80 hours for my feet to hit the ground in Chennai.

Due to plane problems, instead of flying American to Brussels, then Jet Airways (an Indian airline that partners with American) to Chennai, I was put on the direct flight from Chicago to Delhi. Seventeen hours later I landed in cold, smoggy, polluted Delhi and spent the next 14 hours in the airport because of more airline problems — nothing was flying out of Delhi because of the fog/smog.

I left Wednesday night and I was still sitting in Delhi on Friday morning. They finally put us on the plane to Chennai and then we sat. And sat. And sat. For about four hours. I finally made it to Chennai around 3 p.m. Friday afternoon instead of 12:05 a.m. Friday morning as originally scheduled. But at least I made it, bags and all. It could have been worse.

I spent 6 weeks in India, flying from south India to Kolkata in the northeast, taking a train to the state of Orissa (get out your map), flying back to Delhi for a few days before taking the train to Haridwar in the foothills of the Himalayas for the Kumbh Mela (where I would be living in an ashram right now if I did not have to teach in Africa), training it back to Delhi, then flying to Qatar. Or so I thought.

I crossed the Persian Gulf twice in one day. I was in two Middle Eastern countries on two Middle Eastern airlines in one day. Not by choice I assure you. Shiva was testing me yet again.

I was supposed to leave Delhi for Nairobi at 4 am. Ah, yes….that lovely Delhi airport again where I now know the international AND the domestic terminals intimately. For some reason the Qatar flight did not leave on time and by the time we got to Doha, the Nairobi flight had closed its doors.

Thank goodness I had decided to upgrade to business class (solely for the extra baggage allowance — you really think I was not going to buy anything in India?!?) because if I had been in economy and insisted that they get me to Nairobi by any means necessary THAT DAY, Qatar Air would not have treated me as well as they did.

OK, forget that. I completely lost it when they said the Nairobi flight had closed its doors. Had I not had the airline hassles I experienced getting to Delhi six weeks previously, I probably would not have lost it like I did. As my meltdown was being recorded (I found out later there was a camera behind the desk), Qatar personnel got me on an Emirates flight to Dubai and Dubai to Nairobi. Same day. Allah be praised.

Instead of arriving at the Nairobi hotel at around 2 p.m. as I had originally planned, I arrived at the hotel around 9 p.m., just in time to take a hot bath, sleep, and leave less than 12 hours later for a flight to Zanzibar. The room cost me $190 for less than 12 hours. I should have slept at the Nairobi airport, at least they have free wi-fi.

But I had my bags. They weren’t flying over the Persian Gulf somewhere. It could have been worse.

I spent 5 nights off the grid in Zanzibar….

…where I showed some children some asanas one day and they were damn good.

I watched these kids play with pull toy “cars” made out of plastic bottles, using the caps as wheels. They were happy and laughing. I thought about what children their ages back home play with and what they throw away. The garbage of an American child is the toy of a child in Africa or India.

There is nothing on this beach except for a small hotels. No phones. No TVs. No internet. No restaurants to speak of, at least not the type that westerners are used to. Nothing.

Right before I arrived, Zanzibar had just gotten electrical service again after three months. In fact, in the middle of the late afternoon and late at night, the hotel shut off the electricity.

Every day I watched these kids play with plastic bottles or driftwood or using any type of ball as a soccer ball. They were supposed to be in school but they weren’t. The local school was supposed to have electricity, but it didn’t.

The filmmaker Rick Ray was staying at my hotel and we had dinner one night. He had been in Rwanda filming some survivors of the Rwandan genocide, bearing witness to their stories. He told me the story of a young woman who had been a girl the day her people were put inside a church and massacred. He told me that blood is still on the walls and skulls are still on the floor as a memorial. He told me that it is almost impossible to wrap the mind around stories that are so horrific.

She survived for three days by hiding underneath the bodies of her parents. She escaped, hiding from the murderers who were still killing and raping her village, and she made her way to a swamp where she found her sister. They lived in the swamp for three months surviving on algae and anything else that was edible, finally making their way to a refugee camp.

Ray told me that she told him she forgave the people who changed her life forever. She will never forget, but she forgave. She is happy because what other choice is there? I thought about a question that I heard the Dalai Lama once ask: in a country that has everything compared to many, if not most, parts of the world, why are so many Americans unhappy? He did not understand this. Neither do I. Not when I’ve seen children in India and Africa play with garbage — and laugh while they are playing with it.

When I was in Arusha I saw them bringing the Rwandans back to jail after their day in court at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The tribunal has jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The United Nations car sped through traffic and my friend told me that the trials have been going on for almost 15 years.

Rick Ray told me that the Rwandans who took part in the genocide are put in front of their village and the people can choose to forgive them for their atrocities.

Sometimes the people who have nothing, have everything.


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handbook for life, 2010

Lots of good advice here, but my three favorites are nos. 21, 33, and 37.

HEALTH:
1. Drink plenty of water.

2. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like beggar.

3. Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants and eat less food that is
manufactured in plants.

4. Live with the 3 E’s — Energy, Enthusiasm and Empathy.

5. Make time to meditate.

7. Read more books than you did in 2009.

8. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day.

9. Sleep for 7 hours.

10. Take a 10-30 minute walk daily. And while you walk, smile.

PERSONALITY:
11. Don’t compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is about.

12. Don’t have negative thoughts or things you cannot control.
Instead invest your energy in the positive present moment.

13. Don’t over do. Keep your limits.

14. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

15. Don’t waste your precious energy on gossip.

16. Dream more while you are awake.

17. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

18. Forget issues of the past. Don’t remind your partner with his/her mistakes of the past. That will ruin your present happiness.

19. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone. Don’t hate others.

20. Make peace with your past so it won’t spoil the present.

21. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

22. Realize that life is a school and you are here to learn. Problems are simply part of the curriculum that appear and fade away like algebra class but the lessons you learn will last a lifetime.

23. Smile and laugh more.

24. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

SOCIETY:
25. Call your family often.

26. Each day give something good to others.

27. Forgive everyone for everything.

28. Spend time with people over the age of 70 and under the age of 6.

29. Try to make at least three people smile each day.

30. What other people think of you is none of your business.

31. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will.
Stay in touch.

LIFE:
32. Do the right thing!

33. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

34. God heals everything.

35. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

36. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, and show up.

37. The best is yet to come.

38. When you awake alive in the morning, be thankful for it.

39. Your Inner most is always happy. So, be happy.

Many thanks and much metta to my teacher, Bhante Sujatha.

“In the traditional greeting of yoga, ‘With great respect and love we honor your heart as your Inner Teacher. May the harmony of yoga manifest within and without'”.
– Mukunda Stiles


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