Monday, July 25, 2011

Studying at the Ashram

While in the strictest sense, the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania may not fulfill the strict definition of "ashram" (a Hindu religious retreat), many of the visitors, teachers and residents here refer to HI as "the ashram". It is a spiritually charged community of learning for students of all religions, backgrounds and experiences, and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity and ability to drive 14 hours into the rolling Pocono Mountains to spend several days studying yoga and Ayurveda here.
HI is housed in a sprawling, brick building that used to be a seminary. Long halls are lined with small, simple rooms for guests. The spareness is so refreshing, coming from a home with a clutter table in the kitchen, books strewn about, all the messiness of an active family.
I’ve arrived on the hottest weekend of the year; of several years, actually. There is no air conditioning, except in the coffee/tea shop (yes, there is a coffee shop, and it’s a pretty hopping place). Each room has a fan, but the heat becomes oppressive in the rooms at night. I spoke with a woman this morning who suffered an anxiety attack in the stuffiness and almost packed up and left in the middle of the night. Luckily, the heat is more bearable today.
This particular ashram is located on abut 400 acres of beautiful fields and woods. On the property is an old dairy barn that now houses an herbal lab, an art/production studio (Hi publishes many books and publications, including Yoga International), and a warehouse. There is an organic vegetable garden as well as an herb garden, where medicinal herbs are grown. There are several houses where residents and families live.
In July, even in the heat, the outdoors here is energizing, full of Prana. Coming from the flatness of Illinois, one of my highlights was hiking through the woods to the waterfall. It was the most enjoyable cardiovascular thing I have done in a long time. While it takes great physical effort to walk the path on such a steep incline and decline (think staircase steep), the mental effort is practically nil; just put one foot in front of the other. No need to work harder; the incline gives you the effort.
Sattva is a quality of peaceful, balanced energy. It is focused. It is conducive to a healthy body and mind, and creates the optimal quality for meditation. The entire 400 acres, the space inside and out, is sattvic in quality.
The food is vegetarian, much from the gardens, very simple, chanted over by the cook staff, and designed to be sattvic as well. Oatmeal and fruit for breakfast (maybe my favorite, tofu scramble, yum!), rice, beans, vegetables for lunch and dinner, with non-heating spices. Salads and fruit. I have heard some comments that it’s a little repetitious.  I won’t really argue. But, I’m never left hungry, and have no cravings, (except for a chai tea from the cafe, which is delicious). I feel satisfied.
One can be as social, or non-social, as you’d like; there is no judgement. There are hours of observed silence, and a table observing silence in the dining room. After evening classes and prayers, things become amazingly quiet.
I am here for a training; Yoga Ayurveda Specialist. Although we meet morning, afternoon, and evening for class, there are spaces of time. The 7 1/2 hours of learning does not encroach on that. Naturally, having meals prepared, and no real work other than to learn makes that easier. 
Today, we participated in a Vedic fire ceremony, an offering to the transformative powers of fire, dedicated to the healing of our planet. Sandra Anderson began the chant as eight participants sat around the burning pit, (the rest of the group farther back awaiting their turn,) and at her cue tossed gifts of “food” into the fire. We rotated in at intervals. I listened to her chant on and on in sanskrit. There seemed to be no repetition in lines, and I was amazed she could memorize so much. As I rotated in closer to the pit, I saw she had a binder with pages in front of her. I thought “Well, that explains it!” and this made sense until I was just about to take my turn. I was close enough to see that the entire text was in the sanskrit alphabet, beautiful to look at, but as legible to my eye as a decorative wallpaper border. Sandy chanted for about an hour from this text.
It’s so easy to feel balanced and healthy in mind and body in this environment. There is none of the opulence and luxury you may find in a spa. Your feet feel firmly grounded in the earth. You feel cared for, but never pampered. The temptation to give into, well, temptation, just isn’t there; as a spiritual seeker you are supported on all levels. 
I have visited here twice so far and each time feel the unloading of stresses, self-judgement, and mind-clutter that a good yoga class will provide, except on a prolonged and larger scale. And, of course, when I leave tomorrow, I will be heading back to many of the stresses, judgements and clutter that provide the challenges that we, as householder yogis, struggle with. The ashram teaches us skills then sends us home to practice, and maybe share these skills in the larger world. I have 14 hours on the road to look forward to, to integrate and revisit the ideas my teachers have been so generous to share. Then the work begins.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Creating the Yoga Habit: one Focus Yoga student’s 30-day challenge

Samskaras are basically habits. The idea is this: once we begin a behavior, and repeat it over time, a groove begins to form in our psyche, much like a trickle of water running down the face of a rock. Naturally, as the groove appears, the water will continue to flow down that same path, because it’s much easier than breaking out of that path. And, of course, the groove continues to deepen.
That is a samskara. Samskaras can be positive or negative. We can probably all list some of our negative samskaras. A sugary dessert after every meal, a cocktail upon arriving home after work each day, even snapping at others when irritable or reacting with anger to setbacks; these are negative samskaras.
Now, I know it’s hard to begin to flow out of these well-worn grooves. Sometimes it’s easiest to focus instead of creating new grooves, new paths in which you can begin to flow.
Last month, one of our students at Focus Yoga, Mary Parra, informed me that she was giving herself a 30-day challenge: coming to yoga class each day for 30 days. Since this is such a powerful time of year for creating better habits (longer, warmer days give us more opportunities to exercise, and more fresh, healthy food is available to clean up our diets), I thought I’d check out how well she did and share!

Judi: What inspired you to create a 30 day challenge for yourself? 
Mary: I started coming to the studio in April with a 10-day pass. Once I used it up in May, I bought a 30 day unlimited pass, and decided to challenge myself to take class every day for 30 days in order to really get my money’s worth. I also felt like I needed a deeper immersion into my yoga practice. I work in real estate, which is very stressful, and I feel my heart has really hardened through this business. 
J: Did your challenge help you feel better mentally?
M: I hadn’t really been consistent in my practice up to that point, and I started feeling better quickly. As the days went by, I stopped reacting negatively to things, I started feeling calmer and more relaxed. 
I began dedicating myself to being happy where I am. This was an idea I picked up in class. Because of my business right now, I feel like everything is a struggle. I’m working on just being happy in the moment I’m in.
As the 30 days went by, I also stopped having my daily glass of wine. My body just told me not to drink. Sometimes after a stressful day at work I used to say, “I’m going home to have a glass of wine,” and I would. Now, I have no desire. 
J: How do you feel physically?
M: I haven’t met my goals yet physically; I’m still struggling to get into the poses. But, I’m working on relaxing and really focusing on alignment. I had a very sore ankle at one point, and by bringing attention to proper alignment, it just went away.
However, I definitely feel stronger, especially my legs. My shoulders were tight, and now they are much looser. And, I’ve had some recent classes where I’ve really felt that “mind/body” connection.
J: Did you have any challenges in making it to the studio each day for 30 days?
M: Sometimes work could get in the way. Toward the end of my 30 days, I had one day where I had to be in Orland for work, and just couldn’t make it into class. That motivated me to begin to develop a home practice. I bought some recommended books and began to read them. Now, in addition to coming to the studio most days, I try to devote some time at home to meditation, and a few poses, even just 15 minutes.  
J: Did you ever feel like you were neglecting other things in your life as you made more time for yoga?
M: Never. I’m very disciplined. In my life I’ve always been willing to follow through on the things I like and that benefit me. If after the 30 days, I didn’t like the practice, I would have stopped. But I’m still coming and practicing.
J: We’re glad you love it! Just what is it that makes you passionate about yoga?
M: I love the being in that mental flow, that “zone”. I was training for a marathon last year, and I like that being in that zone when I run. But, I think the benefits are better for me in yoga. Running makes me tighter. Yoga is much less stress on my body. I listen carefully to how the instructor cues things, and I’m finding I can get into the poses just by listening to the words now. That really helps me stay in the flow.
J: So even though your “challenge” is completed, I still see you at the studio all the time!
M: I used to practice at a gym, but I like the relaxed, soothing atmosphere at the studio. There are no mirrors to distract me.  And, I’ve taken class with most of the instructors, and I like them all!
Okay, yes I included that last quote as a shameless plug for Focus Yoga! But, creating new habits is easiest if they are pleasant and enjoyable, and finding recourses, such as a great teacher, environment or friends to support you can make the challenge of digging those new “grooves” easier.
Congrats to Mary and to everyone who has worked hard to develop new, healthy lifestyle habits!  I totally understand what a challenge it is. But, I know for certain: yoga is a powerful tool for transforming, for creating a vibrant, healthy life. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Breaking up with Joe

Now, I’m not a coffee addict. Of course not. Let’s just say I adore coffee. I take my affection for coffee back to when my two girls were very young. They were challenging and energetic, and it was such a peaceful break to be in the car, pick up a carry-out latte, and drive about peacefully while they were safely strapped in their car seats in the back...all of us content at once. Pretty rare in those days. 
Now that they are older, a fresh poured mug with half-and-half (not two-percent! Ick!) still makes me sigh with contentment. Even though those first few lattes after childbirth gave me a pleasant little caffeine kick, I never viewed the caffeine as the real draw. It didn’t seem to affect me much. Caffeine jitters were for amateurs. I could down a pot at night and sleep peacefully right afterward. 
But, although I always said that I’d rather give up any vice, any pleasure than give up my coffee, I began to get the sense that coffee was getting in the way of pleasure. On a mental level, I found myself really needed that cup of joe to be able to focus on my work. Just about every activity, driving, chatting with friends, writing, was better with a cup of coffee in hand.
And, physically, I began to suspect that my diet, while not bad by typical American standards, but be just a tad too acidic. While not all of these things are on my frequent menu, items such as wheat flour, sugar, meat, alcohol, processed foods and, yes, coffee, leave an acidic residue in the body. This lowers our overall body ph. Many typical items fall onto the acidic list, and if consumed regularly can leave us vulnerable to headaches, lethargy, frequent infections, joint and muscle pain, skin and digestive conditions, anxiety, and more.
I didn’t have most of these symptoms, so why was I concerned? I had some neck tension that was beginning to lead to periodic headaches. I had tension in my upper back. I frequently had restless legs, some joint pain, and every so often, leg cramps.
I’m not a doctor, but it just felt like an imbalance in my chemistry. I ordered some ph strips online. These can test either saliva or urine. I took several tests to be certain, but over and over, I fell into the “acidic” and sometimes the “highly acidic” category.
Well. That was the final step to convincing me. I had been trying to cut back on coffee, but I felt like a total coffee detox was in order.
So while I was ready to enter the race, what finally got me out of the gate was a chance visit to a small health food store.. There, on the shelves, was a can of a product called Cafix. A blend of barley, chicory, and fig, it describes itself as a “hot beverage”, and a substitute for coffee. 
I had read about chicory. Chicory is a tall plant with deep roots, and while many parts of it are edible and used as an herb, the roots have frequently been roasted and used as a substitute for coffee when coffee was scarce. It is added frequently to coffee blends (think New Orleans style coffee). 
I picked up a can and began my coffee “detox”. Cafix was just fine. It tasted like instant coffee to me. It has a heavier, thicker feel, perhaps a bit more bitter. A shake of cinnamon and some milk softened it and it hit the spot fine in the morning.
But while the mind was content with my solution, the body of course did not agree. The first day was fine. The second I began to get headachy, with flu-like symptoms. I had a cup of coffee. After that, when the headaches began, I popped an aspirin. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, after all, just coffee free. The next few days the muscle and bones aches began. I took another aspirin. When I awoke in the middle of the night with low back pain so bad I couldn’t sleep, I took a couple more.
After about a week, the symptoms went away. 
It has been about a month now since my daily coffee habit ended. I am not saying never to a cup of coffee, but I never want to “love” it so much (not addicted, remember) that I need to go through those symptoms again if I don’t have it. I want it to be my choice when to enjoy a steaming cup.
And, remember that my ph was the motivation for this detox to begin with. And in the a month of watching my diet closer and cutting out coffee, I am still acidic. I had a couple lovely moments where I tested in the “optimal” range, and I practically did a dance and taped the strips to the bathroom mirror for all to admire. But, the next day I was testing acidic again. Darn.
So, I am still working on it. But, in my mind, a big step has been made. I think my daily wake-up beverage will be my cup of chicory. In addition to replacing nasty acidic coffee, knocking back some chicory is believed to have benefits, from cleansing the blood, to improving liver health. I’ll raise my mug to that.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Maggie Mind

Yesterday was our first horse show of the year. It was a long one, had its ups and downs, and for a while, mostly downs. As I dragged myself toward bed last night, a thought occurred to me and from now on whenever my mind can’t be quieted, or it heads down paths I don’t prefer, I’m going to call it my “Maggie Mind.”
For the past several years we have owned a big, black Tennessee Walker named Mack. Mack is mature, and last year calmly and patiently led my two girls, Eva and Sylvia, through their first season of 4-H fairs and horse shows.  But, volleying one horse between two girls was tough, so this year when I had an opportunity to borrow a second horse for my daughter Sylvia, I took it.
Maggie is also mature, and while she matches Mack’s quick stride and long gaits, she is a very different horse. Maggie is gentle, but insecure. She enjoys her work, but she needs something to attach to help her through uncomfortable situations.
In the pasture, that security blanket is the leader horse. Horses run in herds, and  in a herd there is one horse in charge. The other horses understand this, and are comfortable with it. They feel secure. Maggie has been happy to let Mack be her leader.
However, in the saddle, the rider should become the leader. Remember, horses want to know someone is in charge. A good rider helps them feel secure as they go into new situations. 
After a handful of rides this spring, we had an opportunity to enter a small, casual local show. While we knew Sylvia and Maggie were still getting to know one another, we decided to enter for experience.
Any concerns I had were justified right from the start. The first class was a pattern each horse and rider performs solo. Maggie could not let Mack and Eva out of her sight. She pawed and hopped whenever they were separated.
In the next class, Mack and Maggie were able to be together in the ring, and Maggie took full advantage. She glued herself to Mack. Sylvia didn’t have the courage to separate Maggie from Mack. Although they looked like siamese twins, they performed fairly well.
Things went downhill from there. Maggie’s quick lope became way too fast in the next class, earned her the label “runaway horse” and she and Sylvia were unceremoniously (but kindly) ejected from the ring. The next class required the horses to perform a short solo pattern, and Maggie just couldn’t keep her mind on her work unless she was right next to Mack. She misbehaved through that class as well.
Watching my daughter bravely struggle in the ring, I hatched a plan. We’d scratch the next class, and I’d take Maggie out for a little ride, a little talk. My exhausted daughter gladly handed me the reins as she exited the ring.
I lengthened the stirrups and took a deep breath. I was nervous knowing what I’d have to do and what Maggie’s reaction would be, but I was also a little mad. And, a little “mad” can be good. Not reactive, impatient anger, but more like the “oh for heaven’s sake, Maggie!” type of anger that lets us know enough is enough, and it’s time for change.
As anticipated, Maggie resisted leaving Mack’s side. We put on a little show as we worked our way up the drive away from the ring. I turned Maggie in the direction we were to go, she resisted. I firmly turned her nose back, she reared and backed up. I drew her into a tight circle a few times to get her attention and tried again. She’d give in that time, only to challenge me again later. And again, and again.
I spent a good 40 minutes riding Maggie around the ranch, patiently going through the same process over and over. I praised her when she did well, quickly corrected her to keep her on course the moment she challenged my leadership. And then, something gave. It was as though suddenly, she was satisfied. I could be her leader. She could function without Mack. She became calm and willing.
Our uncontrolled mind is very much like our friend Maggie. It is insecure, latching onto things to keep it occupied, to make it feel busy and safe. Sometimes it even runs away with us. But, the direction may not be the way we, as meditators and yoga practitioners, want to go. 
Sometimes the uncontrolled “Maggie” mind defaults to habitual thought patterns, or “samskaras” that are unhealthy. Worrying, complaining, ruminating, and judging all are easy activities for our minds, but they do not head us down the correct path.
The controlled mind is the horseman. It needs to firmly direct the Maggie mind, correcting it, keeping her nose directed down the proper road. In meditation, the moment the uncontrolled mind begins to take over, the meditator exercises and strengthens the controlled mind, encouraging the mind as a whole to stay on a smooth, quiet path.
In horsemanship the rider needs to be strong, and in yoga and meditation our work is to strengthen our mind control. As an older rider, I have more experience, and have developed patience and gentler hand as well. My daughter, at 10, is still learning these things. Most of us are new to our meditation practice, and our Maggie mind is strong. But we can be patient and firm as we strengthen our riding skills, or controlled mind.
We can evoke this image as we meditate. Focusing on the breath; picture the breath as your path. As your mind begins to wander, imagine it as a horse choosing another direction, the way it is comfortable and secure. Evoke your firm and patient “horseman” to draw your mind back to the breath, the path. Be kind, your mind is unsure, and may be nervous of this quietness. Be patient, as it will take practice for your controlled mind to begin to strengthen.
Although Maggie still presented challenges as the show continued, Sylvia’s experience improved and she began to have fun. Maggie sometimes turned left when Sylvia cued her right, but Sylvia patiently brought her back to the right path. The high point was the crepe paper game, a team event where two horses and riders rode side-by-side around the arena holding a short length of crepe paper between them, closely and synchronized so the paper would not rip. Yes, not surprisingly, my girls and their horses finally won their ribbon.