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Five Pillars Yoga

Posts Tagged ‘Right Intention’

Vitamin D & Vitamin “Sea”

As daylight hours begin to wane and the weather cools down, there are some snowbirds among us who, upon anxiously anticipating the dark & cold winter months as soon as summer weather bid us farewell, have already booked tickets to the warmer regions of the world. After all, some of us have braved the cold northeastern winter months for long enough to know that breaking it up with a quick—or not sooo quick—tropical getaway is essential for our health and sanity.

You may want to consider joining our incredible Winter Retreat in Tulum. Your twice daily yoga practice will be supported by floating in the salty sea. Enough said… a healthy, joyful new you for the New Year is not only possible, but certain!

On that same vain, there are scientifically proven health benefits to spending some quality time in the sun by the sea, especially when Vitamin D is all but unavailable at home in NYC (and everywhere else with a long, cold Winter) until late Spring.

Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium, maintaining healthy bones. Since it’s not readily available in the food we eat (aside from fortified foods), most people get enough Vitamin D from sunlight. As you know, exposing bare skin to the sunlight during the cold winter months is a challenge that few people would choose, so many people become deficient in Vitamin D during the late-Fall & Winter months. To make sure you don’t become deficient, you may want to consider supplementing and/or booking your winter getaway!

Research on Vitamin D reports amazing health benefits:

  • – improves brain health

  • – prevents osteoporosis and slows bone mineral degeneration

  • – prevents certain cancers

  • – helps people lose weight

  • – good for the heart

  • – lowers blood sugar & regulates insulin

 

 

How to get enough Vitamin D:

The BIG question about sun exposure is how much? After all, we don’t want to risk skin cancer while we are boosting our Vitamin D. Experts suggest that 5-10 minutes of sunshine (when the sun is high) or 15 minutes of sunshine (when the sun sits low) without sunscreen several times per week may be enough to maintain healthy levels of Vitamin D. After that, protecting your skin from overexposure can keep you healthy and happy without uncomfortable and unsightly sunburns or risking cancer.

If you are interested in learning more about the health benefits of vitamin D and how to add vitamin D to your diet, CLICK HERE.

The Benefits of #Vitamin Sea

If boosting your Vitamin D and enjoying the relaxation of warm weather isn’t enough to get you to book your winter vacation, or at least get outside more this late-Fall & Winter, consider the health benefits of spending time by the ocean. 

The age-old wisdom that being near the seaside is good for your health has been proven to be true. Blue zones, the five locations in the world that boast the largest numbers of centenarians (100+ years-old), all exist within a short distance from the ocean, if not directly next to the sea. While there are  several culturally-influenced lifestyle overlaps (nutrition, community support, genetics & LAUGHTER) in these zones, location may play its part. Maybe it’s the extra oxygen, or the clean, fresh air. Regardless, you know how good you feel when you spend time under the sun, or lying in the shade of a palm tree, by the sea. 

 

* Featured Photo by Farsai Chaikulngamdee on Unsplash

* Additional Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

The Five Pillars of Water

 

Beyond the practice of sipping water throughout the day lies a realm of hydration that encompasses the entire body. Soak in water, nix the plastic single use bottles, and practice ancient yogic pranayama techniques that will leave you in tip top shape.


1. RIGHT NUTRITION: Sip Room Temperature Water And Warm Herbal Tea Throughout The Day


To stay hydrated, focus on assimilation rather than quantity. Drink water when you are thirsty and sip instead of chug. If you are drinking too much water at one time, you may find yourself dehydrated despite your efforts. Several trips to the restroom per hour suggest that you need to slow down. After all, our bodies can only assimilate about 2-3 cups of water per hour, or 200 ml (a little less than 1 cup) every 15 minutes.


Consuming too much water at one time causes the kidneys to overwork, placing unwanted stress on the body.


Help your body absorb water by adding chia seeds, fresh ginger, and/or a small pinch of sea salt to your water. Although too much salt in the diet is dehydrating, salt is actually essential to your body’s water absorption process. Learn more here: The Skinny on Salt


Once you are sipping instead of chugging, you can go deeper by considering our top Ayurvedic recommendations. Ayurvedic science recommends consuming only room temperature or warm beverages, which means that ice water can become an occasional indulgence rather than a regular practice. Ayurvedic practitioners also suggest consuming little or no water at mealtime. Drinking ice water and taking in too much liquid during mealtimes cools or dilutes our digestive fire (or Agni). Since so much of our health depends on healthy digestion, this is sage advice. That said, we know that leaving ice out of your beverage is not always possible… or desirable. To begin, consider applying the 70-30 rule. If 70% of the time, you are drinking room temperature water or warm tea, you are doing superb!


Last but not least, watch out for sugar and caffeine in your bevies!


If you are drinking coffee regularly, you may need to sip even more water throughout the day to make up for the dehydrating effects of caffeine. Sugar is another beast to contend with. The body converts sugar to stored fat and wreaks havoc on your insulin levels. If you find water difficult to drink, consider adding some fruit or sprigs of mint to your water to add flavor.


Here’s the summary: Drink room temperature water or tea throughout the day when you are thirsty. Pay attention to your current habits, especially around caffeine and sugar, and begin to replace old habits that no longer serve you in your life with new, healthier habits.


2. Right Movement: Flush Out The Toxins


Hydration is about balance in the body. If you are practicing yoga asanas and exercising regularly, you will help your body flush out toxins and prevent water retention.


Hydrating after yoga practice and exercise will help you to receive the full benefits of the practice. Yoga asana and exercise require adequate nutrition, including additional water post workout. Replenish your body with healthy foods and water post-movement and your body will thank you.


3. Right Relaxation: Sip and Soak Away Your Stress


As the days get longer and the weather warms up, we tend to spring into action, sometimes overextending ourselves. Taking time away from chaos and turning inwards to meditate and relax can help our bodies to absorb and assimilate the water and food we consume. Pay particular attention to relaxation during hot days and plan for sipping water or herbal tea all day long.


Consider booking some bodywork, soak in water, get some gentle exercise by taking a swim in cooling water, and head to bed early. The result? Increased energy and ojas, the Ayurvedic term for the vital essence that supports our immune systems, vitality, libido, and strength.


4. Right Breathing: Practice Sitali


Deep in the Himalayas, ancient sages observed and imitated the world around them in the noble attempt to master body, breath, and mind. They noticed the curve of a bird’s lower beak, a new green leaf uncurling, and the hiss of a cobra—and emulated those shapes and sounds in a practice called sitali (the cooling breath). In this pranayama, the inhalation is moistened as it passes through the curl of the tongue (alternately described as a bird’s beak and an uncurling leaf), so that you are “drinking” water-saturated air.


Sitali cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and soothes a pitta imbalance.


Besides building breath awareness, this practice is said to calm hunger and thirst and cultivate a love for solitude. Sitali also cools the body, adds moisture to the system, and, in the parlance of ayurveda, soothes a pitta imbalance, which is common in the summer months. In addition, this practice reduces fatigue, bad breath, fevers, and high blood pressure. Learn how to practice Sitali: Click Here

*Content taken from YogaInternational.com


5. Right Intention: Drink Filtered Tap Water


Did you know that the Pacific Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch have doubled in size in the past decade? We have plastic islands out in the ocean twice the size of Texas that are made up of tiny pieces of plastic that look just like fish food (opposed to a solid mass of plastic). Animals mistake the plastic for food. Plus this toxic soup disturbs marine food webs and ecosystems. Here’s one simple thing you can do to make a difference: Nix the single-use plastic water bottles and replace these with an eco-friendly reusable water bottle. Fill the bottle with tap water and sip throughout the day to stay hydrated.


Our Fav Water Bottles:

 

Yoga 101: Intro to the Chakras

Begin your day with a simple chakra meditation to alleviate stress and anxiety, improve self-esteem and boost your overall health. Although it takes less than five minutes, this meditation goes deep, re-balancing your body, energy, emotions, intellect, and spirit.

 

So what is a chakra anyhow?

 

Chakras are “wheels” or “disks” of energy concentrated in different locations throughout the body. There are seven main chakras that coincide with major organs and nerve centers located along the spine. Alongside a strong connection to the physical and energetic bodies, the chakras have psychological and spiritual significance. Each chakra is associated with a color, a location in the physical body and a deeper meaning.

 

zen-chakra-meditation

 

The Meditation:

 

This uplifting chakra meditation comes from the Nosara Yoga Institute. It’s simple. Sense each chakra and picture the coinciding light rippling outward from the energetic center in your body as you repeat the following affirmations. Begin by sensing one chakra at a time, starting at the root and working your way to the crown. At the end of the meditation, you can imagine all of the chakras lit up at once.

 

The Affirmations:

 

Root Chakra: I have the right to be here now.

Splenic Chakra: I have the right to feel all of my sensations, feelings and emotions.

Solar Plexus Chakra: I have the right to be myself.

Heart Chakra: I have the right to love and be loved.

Throat Chakra: I have the right to speak my truth. I have a voice!

Third Eye Chakra: I am guided by my own internal wisdom.

Crown Chakra: I surrender to the divine flow of the universe.

 

Go deeper with this video:

sources:

*image taken from Zen For Life

Strengthening the Muscle of Empathy

If we’re lucky, moving through the holiday season usually means more time spent with friends or family – we spend time catching up on all the highs and lows in our loved ones’ lives. There are many moments of joyful connection, and probably many moments where we feel our buttons being pushed! The holiday season is more of a marathon than a sprint – we need to keep calm, open hearted, compassionate and patient as we interact with others over the next six (long) weeks or so.

To run a marathon you might need to train with a coach. Enter Brené Brown.

If you haven’t already hear of her, Brené Brown is a researcher, storyteller, scholar, PhD, and author of NYT bestselling books Daring Greatly (2012) and The Gifts of Imperfection (2010). She is a calm and illuminating voice on the subjects of vulnerability, shame, and courage, delivering powerful and applicable tools to use in our interactions with others, and in our own self-development.

Her defining Ted Talk really elevated the discussion of the strength in vulnerability to the next level. And now a sweet, simple and informative video is circulating on another important distinction: the difference between sympathy and empathy.

 

 

~ Some of us feel like “fixers” and that it’s our responsibility to weigh in on other’s choices and help them “do better” in the world.

~ For some of us, it’s easy to get defensive when a loved one is sharing something that has upset them.

~ Or we might get judgmental when we hear about a conflict in their life.

~ I admit I’ve often experienced all of the above and more: I’ve tried to help find the silver lining of a situation, assuring a struggling friend that “it’s not all bad.” I was surprised to see how even this common response isn’t really empathy!

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According to Brown, we can all strengthen our muscle of empathy, lending an ear or a shoulder to cry on in a constructive way. This three minute video points out a couple of simple yet critical differences between empathy and sympathy, ultimately revealing a path to true connection that isn’t that complicated!

Give it a try and let us know how it goes via Facebook

Learn more at PsychologyToday.com

 

The Upanishads: Moksha

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsarakarma, dharma and moksha.

Gajendra Moksha: A tale in which Gajendra the Elephant King, under attack from a crocodile, appeals to the gods not to save his life but to free his mind from ignorance.

Moksha

Much like working toward a peak pose in a vinyasa class, we’ve been building up in our study of the Upanishads to the Big Idea: Moksha.

Moksha is the end of suffering. Take that in for a second. The end of suffering.

So that means what, exactly? Attaining moksha means being released from the cycle of death and rebirth that is saṃsāra. It is the end of life as we know it in a human form on this particular plane. It is freedom from ignorance, which is what ties us to our material existence.

Other words that come up in an attempt to define moksha are emancipation, liberation, and release. It is also closely related to the concept of nirvana—the state of cosmic bliss one enters after gaining enlightenment.

While the particulars of Nirvana (a Buddhist concept) and Moksha (a Hindu concept) are different, their essences are the same. Hindus describe moksha as the experience of oneness with Brahman, the Supreme Self. Buddhists explain nirvana as being Self-less. Both are the result of right living and ego eradication. For Hindus, dharma, the concept we explored in our last post on the Upanishads, is a means to moksha.

Atman and Brahman

The Upanishads propose that the true nature of our being is atman, an intangible and undefinable Self. We are not our bodies or our minds but a greater, cosmic force that is at the core of all creatures. We can touch atman through meditation and other practices that take us outside of our purely physical existence.

Brahman is what makes the universe. It is the creator and sustainer of all life and phenomena; it does not change, yet it causes all change. It is supreme and absolute. To try and describe it further is, basically, impossible.

A core tenet of the Upanishads is that atman and Brahman are made of the same substance. This passage paints a picture:

As the same fire assumes different shapes

When it consumes objects differing in shape,

So does the one Self take the shape

Of every creature in whom he is present.

(Katha Upanishad II.2.9)

Moksha, then, is when atman returns to Brahman, the source from which it camel; in being reabsorbed it is liberation from the illusion that we are all separate. This epiphany frees us from ego and the endless cycle of life, death and suffering that is samsara. When one achieves moksha one is embraced and subsumed again into Brahman, the wide-reaching arms of Absolute Existence.

So how do we get there? According to the Upanishads meditation and dharma are key. By meditating on our Ultimate Selves, atman, and stripping away our identifiers (gender, age, race, income level, etc) we can can see through the veils that separate us from the rest of existence. This is when we can “see” Brahman, the ocean that contains all of us as drops of water.

If all of this is too out there to sink into—reincarnation, cosmic divinity, dissolution of self through knowledge of Self—think of atman as your Higher Self, the version of you whose actions, values and beliefs you admire. If moksha is too weird or inconceivable a goal, think of connecting to your higher self as you move through this earthly plane. We are rarely in our highest selves all the time, but when we are, the feeling is right and aligned. Those experiences of connectedness are liberating and freeing in their own powerful way.

Photos: Main image from Nirvana Films Pure Production Bliss; Gajendra Moksha from Exotic India; water image

Yoga 101: What To Eat Before Yoga Practice

Do you wonder what to eat before you practice yoga? After all, we are often twisting, strengthening, extending, and bending our bodies into many different shapes that have profound effects on our organs, including our stomach and digestive tract. This can lead us to avoid food before practice. However, we are often expending significant energy in class, which requires adequate nourishment. So what to do?


Deciding what to eat before yoga practice is highly personal. What works for someone else might not work for you. However, there are some general nutritional principles to consider.


1. Digestion 101:


Digestion time varies between individuals. To build maximum energy, consider eating healthy, balanced meal two to three hours before you practice yoga, which allows your body to be nourished and your stomach to be empty. If you are practicing first thing in the morning, try to allow at least 30 minutes to digest your food before you step onto your mat. When you are running short on time, consider eating a light snack that is easy to digest.

Although raw veggies are delicious and healthy, the fiber takes a lot of energy to break down and assimilate. To avoid gas and bloating, you may want to steer clear of high fiber foods such as cruciferous veggies and legumes (beans, lentils, peas) before you practice.

Most importantly, pay attention to your own experience so you can discover what works best for you.

Which foods nourish you and how much time do you need to enjoy your practice without bloating, gas, or a stomachache?

Short on time before class? Consider making our Favorite Green Smoothie, or enjoy a piece of fresh fruit. Have 10 minutes? Try our Summer Smoothie Bowl for complete nourishment!



2. Learn About Macronutrients:


There are six macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals.


1. Carbs include grains, starches, sweeteners, fruits, and veggies. They burn relatively quickly for fast energy.

2. Protein can be found in legumes, veggies, seeds, and animal products. Protein helps build and repair your muscles.

3. Fat comes from fruit, vegetables, seeds, and animal products. Fat takes the longest to digest and is essential for the functioning of your brain and heart.

4. Water is so important. After all, you are made of 60% water. Learn more about hydration: The Five Pillars of Water and Hydrate the Ayurvedic Way.

5. Vitamins are often thought of as small pills and tinctures at most grocery and drug stores, but they actually occur naturally in the food you eat. If you eat a balanced diet, your food likely contains the vitamins you need to stay healthy. The more colorful your fruits and veggies, the more vitamins they contain.

6. Minerals include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride and sulfur. Plus there are trace minerals such as iron and zinc. They are found in the foods we consume and keep the body in tip top shape. Want to make sure you are getting your minerals? Nuts, beans and lentils, and dark leafy greens are the foods containing the most minerals!


Why is this important? Digestion time varies based on the macronutrients you eat. Plus your body and energy responds differently to each macronutrient. Fat takes the longest time to digest, for example, while carbohydrates provide quick energy and easier digestion.


So what to do? Consider consuming a light, balanced meal of healthy carbohydrates and protein before you practice for optimal energy. Give yourself enough time to digest. Beyond comfort and ease in your belly, this way of eating will give you adequate energy to move through a yoga sequence. Plus nourishing your body before you practice will help tone and strengthen your muscles.

You can follow a practice with a healthy and balanced meal to help your muscles repair and your mind to focus throughout your day. A healthy post-asana practice meal includes a balance of all of the macronutrients.

As always, pay attention to your own experience. Which foods are easy to digest and give you adequate energy before you practice? And which foods make your body feel nourished after you practice?

3. Eat Real Food:


These days we can spend each meal dining from a package. However, protein shakes and energy bars are not real food. That said, they can be wonderful supplements to meals. A simple way to think about eating real food is to avoid foods that come in a package. Another simple consideration is to eat from the rainbow. See if you can eat as many colors in one meal as possible. The color in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple foods is indicative of vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting antioxidants.

4. Listen to Your Body:



Your body will lead you home, if only you slow down long enough to listen. Your body tells you when you are hungry and when you are thirsty. It may even tell you exactly what it wants to be eating. Plus your body lets you know when you are satisfied. Paying attention to the language and signals of your own body will become easier the more you practice yoga. The mind-body connection that we cultivate when we practice in yoga helps us off the mat and at the table. As we begin to tune in and listen, the signals of hunger and satisfaction coming from our bodies grow louder and clearer. Equally helpful, yoga helps to develop discernment, giving us the capacity to choose healthy foods that nourish our bodies, our minds, and our souls.


Although it is important to learn the basics of nutrition, it is equally important to develop body wisdom. Returning to the knowledge you knew when you were a child will lead you home to your healthiest self as an adult. Eat when you are hungry. And stop when you are satisfied. Then pay attention to how you feel during your practice and learn from your own, direct experience.


 

How To Start A Daily Yoga Practice

Do you want to start a daily yoga or meditation practice but feel overwhelmed with a full schedule? Or, do you wonder how to get started and stay focused without the guidance of a teacher?

Like anything else, the experience of yoga and meditation deepens with practice. The subtle effects of the postures are revealed over time. As we sit in the practice of yoga and meditation, we strengthen our capacity to be with ourselves as we experience the ups and downs of life.

The beauty of practice is this: The more we practice, the easier it becomes. In fact, over time, we cannot help but show up to our yoga practice, because yoga slowly becomes a part of everything we do. Plus yoga works! Once we know how calm and peaceful we can feel all day long as a result of our yoga, we will have a hard time giving up on our daily practice. The asana practice or seated meditation practice becomes a way to continue to stay engaged with the essence of our beings, every beautiful day.


Ready to get started?

Here are our top four tips to start a daily yoga practice:


1. Easy Does It

Life design coach, Martha Beck, recommends that we establish “ridiculously easy” goals to make BIG changes. After all, if we aim too high and make our goals too difficult, we will not do them. To begin your daily practice, start with something ridiculously easy that you will do every single day. Try one sun salutation or one minute of sitting. Just 30 seconds of breathing deeply can be your ridiculously easy daily practice. Once you reach your goal and you have a simple routine established, add just a little bit more. Continue to build your practice with baby steps until you discover a routine that works well for you.

2. Develop A Yoga Habit

Commit to practicing a couple of postures every day for a full month until it becomes a routine. Or invest in yourself and get a monthly unlimited package at the studio, so you can build your daily habit with the guidance of your favorite teachers! Developing a routine around yoga makes continuing a daily practice easy. If you miss a day, be kind to yourself and simply start again the following day. Allow your practice to be nourishing and fun… not one more thing you have to do in your day. The simple act of showing up to your personal yoga practice will have a profound effect on your life, guaranteed.

3. Find A Sequence That Works Well For You

Depending on where you are at in life, different asana practices can support your body and soul. Having a series of postures or flow that you can practice every day can help you to see how certain postures affect your well-being. Some people enjoy the Ashtanga yoga practice because there is a series that they show up to every day. Others prefer restorative postures, or seated meditation without any postures at all. Want support in designing a sequence that is perfect for your body? I highly recommend working with a private instructor who can teach you a sequence that will support you wherever you are at. Check out these sequences to get started today: A 12 Minute Yoga Sequence For Bone Health, Moving With The Moon, and The Best Yoga Postures For Men.

4. Take Your Yoga Off the Mat

You can start a daily practice by integrating yoga into your day wherever you are. Maybe you don’t have time to roll out your mat every day, but can you breathe deeply for 30 seconds on your commute? Or find time to practice tree pose for five deep breaths on each side after you go to the bathroom? Sometimes the simple yet profound act of listening deeply, with full attention, to another human being can be your yoga practice. Pay attention to how you practice yoga off the mat. Perhaps you will find you already have a daily practice!

Yoga 101: Humble Warrior

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

Saint Augustine 



One of the fascinating parts of yoga asana is the hidden meaning that lies beneath the form. Unpacking each pose or posture can deepen awareness of the subtle effects of the practice. Whether we are opening our hearts or folding forward, each posture contains a symbolic meaning that is supported by the physical form. 


Humble warrior is a posture where the yogi bows forward in a Warrior I stance with their hands clasped behind their back. Bowing forward, tucking and rounding the torso, the yogi allows their hands to move toward the floor in front of their head staying mindful to release the shoulders away from the ears. 



 

The adjective “humble” comes from latin roots humilis, which can be translated as “from the earth” or “grounded.” Defined as “a modest or low view of one’s importance,” humility or “being humble” can easily be associated with the emotions of submission or passivity. However, the asana, Humble Warrior, invites forth a new, more expansive definition of being humble.


If you have ever attempted the posture, you already know that Humble Warrior requires an incredible amount of strength and balance alongside an element of surrender.



Each stage of entering the posture teaches us something about embodied humility. We first find stability and presence with solid footing and a rooted foundation. Then we balance our hips as we send our front knee out directly over the ankle. Our hips are strong emotional centers in our bodies and, by balancing and opening our hips in this posture, we are also releasing stuck emotional energy. Lifting and opening the heart, we clasp our hands behind us, melting our shoulder blades down our backs and interlacing the fingers. The next action is to draw the navel toward the spine, tucking and rounding, engaging the core.


At the core resides an energy center called the Manipura Chakra, which is associated with self-esteem and confidence. A strong sense of self helps this energy center stay vital and healthy. Likewise, a healthy sense of self precedes humility.


After we lift the heart and engage the core, we bow the head toward the inside of the front foot, releasing the head and the neck, while keeping our hips and shoulders aligned. 


Humble Warrior teaches us that humility is much more than submission, or even letting go of pride.


Here’s one way to look at the subtleties of the posture. Finding stability and strength, we can stand in the present moment on our own two feet. By aligning and opening our hips, we balance and let go of stuck emotional energy, generating inner peace. By releasing our shoulders (or “should-ers”) down our back with our clasp, we open and lift the heart. Engaging our strong core, we express a healthy sense of self. And, finally, surrendering to higher power with a deep bow toward the floor, we let go of pride.


With each step, we discover our own sense of humility. Far from passive or submissive, we are strong, balanced, open, and bowing to a power higher than ourselves in this posture… and in life. Humble Warrior helps us to develop the body wisdom and state of mind that expresses humility.



“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

-C.S. Lewis



Enjoy this article? #GoDeeper and learn the ins and outs of the form with Five Pillar’s article: The Other Warriors: Reverse and Humble.


*Article Image taken from http://blog.robertrandall.com

The Upanishads: Dharma

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.

Dharma

Ancient terms are tough to translate, and dharma [धर्म] is no exception. The Sanskrit root dhṛ means “to hold, maintain, keep,” and can be understood to mean “an established law.” Another definition gives the meaning “to support, hold, or bear” and is used alongside the concept rta, the order that makes life and universe possible; dharma is a steadfast condition that allows change and growth to occur.

In Buddhism dharma means “cosmic law and order;” in Sikhism, it means the path of righteousness and proper religious practice.

I first understood dharma to mean “one’s work in the world,” a concept that expands to hold one’s duties, rights, obligations, laws, standard of conduct and virtues; in short, a right way of living.

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells a conflicted Arjuna:

“It is better to do your own dharma even imperfectly, than someone else’s dharma perfectly.”

At this point in the story Arjuna, facing a great battle, does not want to fight. Krishna points out that going into battle is Arjuna’s dharma. Arjuna is a warrior, so despite his reservations, his path lies on the battlefield.

Our dharmas are bigger than us. Specific courses to chart in the world, they may not be easy to navigate, but, as Krishna reminds Arjuna, it’s better to forge ahead than taking a path that wasn’t meant for us. The effort we put into following our dharma is as important as any result or outcome. It is the labor and not the fruits that are important.

Patanjali expands on the concept of dharma and right living in the The Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas are restraints and observances that serve as guidelines for social action; they are the foundational ways of being that uphold order and make life possible. While dharma can be understood to be personal, it is also universal: Just as we each have our own unique dharma—the work we have to do in the world, with its own singular share of challenges, gifts, obstacles, and victories—there is a collective dharma we participate in as spiritual community members, as well.

In a 21st century yoga context, the concept of dharma is akin to reminding yourself not to compare yourself to the person on the mat next to you. On and off the mat, do your practice with compassion for your limitations and gratitude for your gifts; let go of any attachment to the outcome; and uphold the collective with your actions and conduct. That’s your dharma.

Photos: Dharma wheel; Bhagavad Gita.

Save Face

Our skin, our largest organ, absorbs what we put on it: The ingredients in our body lotions, shampoos, lipsticks and sunscreens eventually make their way into our bloodstreams. The products we use impact us in much the same ways as the foods we eat—turns out you are what you apply, too.

So, what’s in all those creams and concealers? For the most part, not stuff you’d want to put in your smoothie. The list of what to avoid and why is long; for an in-depth breakdown of common ingredients and what they do, visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics‘ comprehensive Chemicals of Concern list to learn about what’s in your lip gloss.

While the US food industry is attempting to keep up with consumer demand for transparency in labeling and regulations, the beauty industry is lagging behind. Label claims like “organic” and “natural” and even “FDA-approved” mean little to nothing at all, and, for now, it’s up to consumers to be their own fact and label-checkers.

Our advice: Keep it simple. Products with lengthy ingredient lists are likely to have more ingredients to avoid; a pared-down beauty routine—one with fewer products to vet and claims to investigate—is an easy way to feed your skin good food. If an ingredient is unpronounceable, look it up and learn more or move on.

Beauty Brands We Love

There are, thankfully, companies doing it right. We look for brands that champion holistic practices and pure products. Here are a few favorites: 

 

Earth Tu Face

Plant-based skincare from two herbalists in California. Their products are made from organic, high quality and food-grade ingredients.

Product we love: Virgin Coconut Oil + Cardamom Body Butter. 

 

Vitner’s Daughter

Winery owner April Gargiulo created her cult-favorite skin serum in an attempt to simplify her complicated skincare regime. It took two years of tinkering, but the result is a game-changing, nutrient rich face oil that uses anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich plant ingredients to maintain and restore skin’s natural radiance.

 

Tata Harper

Made in small batches in the company’s laboratory in Vermont, Tata Harper products are packed with from-the-earth, active ingredients like red algae (for elasticity) and borage (moisture retention). Many of their ingredients are grown on their own bucolic farm.

Product we love: Be Adored

 

Living Libations

For love-infused products from two high-vibrational souls, look no further than Living Libations. Essential oils, a holistic oral healthcare line and self-proclaimed “renegade” beauty products are all meticulously sourced; the founders, husband and wife Ron and Nadine Artemis, believe that radiance is a birthright, and they manage to capture that philosophy in every offering.

Product we love: Seabuckthorn Shampoo and Shine On Conditioner

 

In New York we love visiting CAP Beauty in the West Village (they also have an excellent website), and Living Libations‘ newly-opened store in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. For treatments, questions, and holistic beauty coaching, pro-makeup artist and Ayurveda expert Jessa Blades is a bi-coastal treasure.

Top image: Splash Happy; all brand images from their own websites; the Living Libations image is Courtesy of CAP Beauty.

Earth Day Feature- Tomorrow

If you still feel inspired from Earth Day festivities this past weekend and want to #GoDeeper, check out the French documentary, Tomorrow, recently released in the United States. Do not fear- this is not another doomsday storyline. The film is getting great buzz for its positive vibes and practical inspiration. 


This feature follows filmmakers Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion around the world as they discover and share community-based solutions to modern environmental dilemmas. 


Laurent and Dion aim to reveal the small steps we can each take in our own communities by highlighting creative solutions happening across the globe. The end goal? Finding hope for a better tomorrow.

 


Explore the trailer:


To learn more, check out this inspiring review taken from variety.com:


Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion’s engaging, César-winning eco-socio-econo doc is an optimistic guide for avoiding the end of humanity.


What a difference a year makes. In late 2015, Mélanie Laurent and Cyril Dion’s fresh-faced, paradoxically upbeat documentary about the complex, interrelated, and potentially apocalyptic issues facing our globalized world opened in France. The educational, continent-hopping investigation was a surprise hit, racking up more than a million admissions, winning the 2016 César for Best Documentary, and becoming a focal point for a gathering movement of citizens committed to putting its practical, inspiring, think-global-act-local solutions into practice.


Roughly 16 months — and a highly divisive and contentious US election — later, it opens in America, just two days before France itself is due to go to the polls, fielding a far-right candidate for president who was among the only world leaders to call and congratulate Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. The political landscape that “Tomorrow” breezes into now is such that its issues, cataclysmically urgent though they are, could seem de-prioritized.


Read more: Click here

 

*Featured image taken from Tomorrow’s Facebook Page

The Upanishads: Karma

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.

Karma

We’ve all heard of karma.

It’s Newton’s Third Law: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” and a pop-culture concept with a wide reach. Do something bad and something bad will happen to you.

Our modern-day conception of karma is not very far off from the Upanishad version. In Sanskrit the word karma [कर्म] means action, work, or deed and, according to the sages, our actions and deeds—as well as our thoughts and desires—have consequences. While the concept of karma today carries an in-this-lifetime immediacy to it, the Upanishad version conceives of karma as actions that ripple out from one lifetime to the next; in other words, the ancient belief in karma presupposes a belief in past and future lives.

From the Svetasvatara Upanishad:

This vast universe is a wheel. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. It is the wheel of Brahman. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from Brahman, it revolves upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death and rebirth. But when through the grace of Brahman it realizes its identity with him, it revolves upon the wheel no longer. It achieves immortality.

Brahman is the Great Unknown; it is the divinely infinite and formless cause of all change that is itself changeless. All beings, the Upanishads posit, will be reborn again and again until they are able to transcend their material worlds and physical realms and see themselves as part of the infinite, encompassing All.

Karma’s deal in all of this is that it is our worldly actions that determine our fates. Evil thoughts and deeds = rebirth in bad conditions; good thoughts and deeds = rebirth in uplifting conditions.

It’s important to note that actions on their own are not enough to change fates. It’s actions plus intentions—the attitude with which we perform our deeds—that seal our karmic fate. The ancient scholars warned against doing nothing at all in the hopes of outsmarting karma, but inaction is not the same as good action.

From a chapter in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Accordingly as one behaves so does he become. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous actions. Others become bad by bad actions.

Inaction, then, gets you nowhere on the wheel of Brahman; or, worst-case scenario, it’s a potential “good karma” loss if the intention behind your inaction was to shirk your responsibilities and cheat the system.

Whether or not you believe in past lives or the boomerang effect of karmic comeuppance, the idea that we shape our fates through our actions is a compelling one. Taking responsibility for our thoughts and conduct is a wise step in any worldview, and the practice of mindfulness, yoga and meditation makes it easier to get clear on what the thoughts that drive our behavior are.

But maybe Justin Timberlake says it best:

I heard you found out
That he’s doing to you what you did to me
Ain’t that the way it goes

You cheated, girl
My heart bleeded, girl
So it goes without saying that you left me feeling hurt
Just a classic case scenario
Tale as old as time girl, you got what you deserved

Images: Boomerang; ripple effect; Wheel of Fortune

Get to Know the Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon

Welcome to our mythology series—Get To Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon—a dive into the fables and rituals surrounding the Hindu deities. So far we’ve covered Ganesh and Durga.

Today, in honor of Maha Shivaratri—celebrations in honor of Lord Shiva taking place this weekend—we’re turning the spotlight on Shiva, one of Hinduism’s major players and the supreme God of Shaivism, a main branch of contemporary Hinduism. Shiva is a key player in most myths; we’ve met him already as Ganesh’s jealous father and as the creator of Virabhadra, the Warrior of Warrior I, II, and III.

Along with Brahma and Vishnu, Shiva is one third of the Trimurti, Hindu’s holy Trinity. Together these deities personify the cosmic functions of the wheel of life. Brahma represents creation; Vishu preservation; and Shiva transformation or destruction. Essentially, they represent birth, life, and death in its micro and macro iterations. (To examine this birth and death cycle through another lens, read about the Cycle of Transformation through Awareness.)

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In Shaivism tradition, Shiva creates, protects and transforms the universe. He is often honored as the patron god of yoga, meditation, and the arts. In that guise he appears in seated meditation, living a life of simple asceticism on sacred Mount Kailash.

In his more fearsome roles Shiva is a ruthless demon slayer, bringing transformation through death in most of his deeds. At his highest, Shiva is the primal Self, or Atman, of the universe. He is without form and limitless, a transcendent and unchanging Godhead.

Mahasivaratri Picures Lordshiva

Shiva’s Features and Accessories

You can recognize Shiva by his third eye, a feature that opened on the god’s forehead when he beamed a missile of fire out of it to destroy an enemy. This fire bomb effectively reduced Kama, the god of lust, to a pile of ash. Shiva’s third eye, then, represents the rejection of desire and ignorance.

The serpent around Shiva’s neck stands for the ego. Once mastered, it can be worn as an adornment.

An elegant crescent moon rests above Shiva’s brow. One of Shiva’s names is Chandrashekhara, the one who holds the moon (chandra) on his head. The crescent is said to be the moon in its fifth day; it symbolizes the cycle of time, from beginning to end, over which Shiva reigns supreme. He is beyond and outside of time.

The Ganga, India’s holiest of all rivers, flows from Shiva’s hair. He is a fount of spiritual teachings.

Shiva’s trishula, the trident he carries as a weapon, has many interpretations. It signifies the interweaving of creation, preservation, and destruction (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva); the three gunas, energetic qualities in the physical world; and the nadis, energetic currents at work in the physical body.

Finally, Shiva’s damaru, a small two-headed drum represents Shiva’s role as the creator of all sounds, languages, music, and vibrations in creation. In one myth, the basic rules of Sanskrit arose when one of the language’s primary grammarians watched Shiva dance to the beat of his own damaru.

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Maha Shivarati celebrations in India

Images: Shiva illustration; seated Shiva; black and white Shiva; Maha Shivrati

The Cycle of Transformation through Awareness

One of the off-the-mat tools I find myself using again and again ties back into the ancient concept of Samsara, the continuous wheel of death and rebirth that we explored in an earlier post.

I received this tool from one of my dearest teachers, Don Stapleton, co-founder of the Nosara Yoga Institute. I am indebted to Don and NYI for many lessons and epiphanies, as well as a deepening understanding of how the way we live in our bodies shapes our emotional and mental wellbeing. But, if I had to pick one teaching that continues to resonate, it would be The Cycle of Transformation through Awareness. 

This cycle has a direct antecedent in Joseph Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey, a narrative pattern that Campbell identified and codified in which a hero sets out on a transformative, symbolic quest. On this challenging journey he meets with obstacles, discovers guides, and ultimately returns to where he started, wiser and victorious (see: Star Wars).

Heros-Journey

If Campbell’s arc is something you’re interested in, be sure to read Maureen Murdock’s complementary text, The Heroine’s Journey. A woman’s quest, Murdock argues, must take into account her starting point, a society in which she has been defined according to masculine values.

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Back to the The Cycle of Transformation through Awareness. Don has a gift for distilling big, universal concepts and questions into easily relatable truth bundles: Esoteric ideas get rooted in the every day and life’s mysteries seem less mysterious. He also makes great posters:

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There are seven stages in the cycle.

  1. Normal Flow of Life

  2. Challenge

  3. Confusion and Chaos

  4. Fertile Void

  5. Inner Resources

  6. Integration

  7. New State of Being

The Cycle of Transformation starts when life is normal. This is the status-quo, everything’s-buzzing-along stage of life with predictable routines and and schedules.

Stage Two often enters with a bang. The challenge can take the shape of something unexpected—an illness, a death, a breakup. This test could also come in the form of a new job, a move to different neighborhood, or the start of a relationship. Whatever it looks like, Stage Two disrupts the schedules and routines in which we’d become comfortable. Our initial response may be to scramble to attain normalcy and make our lives look the same even though something major has shifted or changed.

Stage Three, Chaos and Confusion, is when any semblance of normalcy slips through our fingers. The map we’d been using is out of date, the tools in our toolbox are rusted, and everything feels topsy-turvy. Stage Three is when the foundational tasks of everyday life, like cleaning the kitchen and balancing the checkbook, likely get pushed aside. Internally we are out of sorts, unmoored, and possibly depressed or angry.

The Fertile Void is a wide chasm. In Campbell’s paradigm this stage correlates with the part of the journey that happens in “The Special World” or the world that exists beneath the one where we live our surface life. The Fertile Void is an alternate landscape; we move through it almost without moving, a time of waiting and contemplation in which the initial shock of the Challenge and the upheaval of Stage Three have passed. Not quite ready to leap, this stage is where the concept of leaping—of seeing possible paths, of refilling our energy reserves—feels, little by little, possible.

Stage Five is when we embrace that the only way through the trial is by using our Inner Resources. Help may come in the form of teachers and friends, but ultimately we possess all the tools we need. The hibernation of Stage Four gives way to guidance, in the form of messages through dreams, wisdom from guides and books, and clarity through meditation and journaling.

The next phase is when the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel gets brighter. Integration occurs when we incorporate the tools we’ve uncovered and the messages we’ve received into our life philosophy and action plan. The Challenge that upset our daily course of actions is a surmountable obstacle.

In the final phase, Evolution Into a New State of Being, we transform. It may be obvious or imperceptible, but our outlook and approach have changed; perhaps even the way we dress or present ourselves is different, and our frame of reference has shifted. We’ve been through an ordeal and come out on the other side, tempered by the hardships but also surer of our ability to persevere.

This is when the cycle starts anew. We will have some time in our new skin and our new lives to establish routines and get comfortable before a new challenge rises up to meet us once again.

If this continuous cycle sounds exhausting, take heart in knowing that it is, literally, how the world works. Every calendar year the earth goes through a parallel rotation of life and death, challenge and growth.

wheel_of_sun

In my own life I have found the ability to step back and ask myself where I am in the Cycle of Transformation at any given moment to be incredibly comforting and illuminating. Use it as a tool in your own life to bring clarity to difficult passages or to remind yourself of the necessity of change in order to grow.

Images: Wheel of the Sun album cover artwork; the Hero’s Journey; the Heroine’s Journey; Don’s Cycle of Transformation; the Sun Wheel

Dive Deeper

Cultivating a personal, at-home yoga and meditation practice is one of—if not the—best way to commit to a true off-the-mat yogic way of life. That said, starting and committing to a new wellness or spiritual practice may feel overwhelming; retreats and workshops can offer a strong but gentle kick in the soul to get you motivated and keep you inspired on your chosen path. There are several beautiful and secluded retreat centers across the country that offer participants the option of self-study or mindful, unplugged weekends. If the cost or commitment level of a themed or group retreat doesn’t interest or appeal, a private, self-guided retreat in a sacred space could be the spiritual recharge you need.


Blue Cliff Monastery

Pine Bush, New York

home

A mindfulness and monastic training center founded by Vietnamese author, Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, Blue Cliff Monastery sits on 80 acres of undisturbed woodland in the Catskills, about two hours northwest of New York City.

The monastery permanently houses a community of monks, nuns, and lay practitioners; visitors are welcome year-round and can participate in a Day of Mindfulness or stay for longer personal or themed retreats. Hanh, who lives in Blue Cliff’s sister monastery in France, Plum Village, cut back on his traveling after a stroke in 2014, but his East Coast disciples are steeped in his teachings and mindfulness practices.

Visit www.bluecliffmonastery.org for more information.

New Camaldoli Hermitage

Big Sur, California

big sur

The most famous retreat center in California’s stunning Big Sur is, hands down, the Esalen Institute. Less well known but just as gorgeously situated is a Benedictine monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage, which welcomes visitors for a minimum of two nights to unplug—there is no wifi or cell service at the monastery—and destress. Private rooms with a half-bath and personal garden overlooking the ocean are available, as are private hermitages, which offer a basic kitchen, full bath, and more chance of seclusion. It’s not all asceticism: The Hermitage’s bookstore features homemade “Holy Granola” and, in the spirit of non-competition, fudge from an order of Oregon monks.

Visit contemplation.com for more information.

Menla

Phoenicia, New York

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Buried in the Catskills’ twisting mountain roads, Menla Mountain is the upstate New York retreat center of Tibet House US. Tibetan Buddhist scholar and Tibet House US President Robert Thurman serves as the center’s Spiritual Director and teaches there throughout the year; the center’s vision, with the Dalai Lama’s blessing (he last visited in 2006), is to draw from Tibetan wisdom traditions to work with integrative medicines now becoming popular in the West.

The Mahasukha Spa offers Tibetan and Ayurvedic therapies, along with massage, sauna, and skin treatments. Guests can book appointments at the spa as part of a weekend-long R&R retreat or when taking part in a Tibet House Retreat.

For a full list of retreat offerings and accommodation options, visit menla.us.

Shambhala Mountain Center

Red Feather Lakes, Colorado

With the 108-foot tall Great Stupa of Dharmakaya on its grounds, you would be forgiven for thinking that Shambala Mountain Center was in South East Asia, not Northern Colorado. The stupa and grounds—the property spreads across 600 acres of rolling hills and native-growth forest—are open to daytime visitors, as are daily meditation practices and meals in the dining room.

Longer stays are available, as well, either in the form of a self-guided getaway or an Arts & Creativity retreat or one centered around Relationship, Family & Work.

The Shambhala Vision is rooted in the principle of human decency and goodness: At our core, we are all okay. Chögyam Trungpa, the author of Shambhala, The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and the Buddhist meditation master to whom the center’s stupa is dedicated, believed and taught that enlightenment and enlightened societies could be actualized. His teachings, and the works of the center, seek to draw out and foster the inherent goodness of people.

For more information, visit www.shambhalamountain.org.

Breitenbush Hot Springs 

Detroit, Oregon

 

Breitenbush Meadow Pool

A worker-owned resort community, Breitenbush Hot Springs is the site of a geothermal springs surrounded by the Willamette National Forest in Marion County, Oregon. With a decades-long history of offering counterculture holistic and spiritual retreats—it is famously clothing optional—Breitenbush was sustainable before that was a buzz word. With over 20 miles of hiking trails, along with rustic cabins, tent platforms, a meditative stone labyrinth, meal offerings and a yoga-meditation sanctuary, this bucolic spot has a loyal following of locals and long-distance peace seekers alike. Personal retreats, workshops, and day visits are all an option.

For more information, visit breitenbush.com.

Images: Top of photo of Menla by JBM Weddings; Blue Cliff Monastery courtesy of Blue Cliff Monastery; Big Sur image by @alisontheodora; Menla meditation room courtesy of Menla; Shambhala stupa by Insight Guides; Breitenbush hot spring by Travel Salem

The Upanishads: Saṃsāra

There are a handful of ancient texts that modern day yogis turn to for foundational wisdom. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of them; the Upanishads are another.

A collection of philosophical texts, the Upanishads were written in India sometime between 800 and 500 BC. They emerged from a time of shifting spiritual sensibilities, when traditionally Vedic Indians were moving away from external religious practices to more internally-focused spiritual pursuits—put very simply, fewer sacrifices and more meditating.

The books of the Upanishad are made up of the teachings of that day’s spiritual leaders and guides. Although we refer to them collectively, each book (there are about 200 total) stands on its own. The name Upanishad reflects its content: upa (near) and shad (to sit) form to mean something close to “sitting down near,” that is, sitting at the feet of a sage to embark on a session of spiritual study.

 

The-Guru-Shishya-Parampara-Master-Disciple-Tradition-1

Of all the concepts unpacked in the Upanishads there are four that we’ll look at in a little more depth over a series of posts: samsara, karma, dharma and moksha.

Saṃsāra

Samsara is a wheel. It’s the cycle of reincarnation, a continuous spin of birth and death as the soul completes its time in one form (human, animal, or divine) before landing in another.

Whether or not you believe in actual reincarnation, there is a profound lesson to be had from the concept of samsara itself: Everything changes, continually. In the course of our lives we will birth and let go of many identities, beliefs, goals, relationships and epiphanies. In this way we are coming into new forms again and again. An appreciation and understanding of samsara as a natural and necessary process may make it easier to work through those moments of transition: They are periods of illumination that urge us to grow. The more we come to expect and anticipate these moments, the more comfortable we can become in the big-shift feelings that accompany them—the euphoria and anxiety of creating something; the sadness and tenderness of letting something go. These are as natural and necessary as the events the spark them.

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On the mat, on a micro level, we move through this cycle of continuous flow over the course of a yoga class. We start the class feeling one way and emerge at the end changed, however subtly. Each pose, held for a series of breaths, has a life cycle: the satisfaction of finding it; the deepening of sensation the longer we stay in it; the frustration of holding it for too long; the decision to stay with it; and then the relief or sadness at leaving it.

Play with samsara in your on and off-the-mat practices. Notice your cycles. See what shifts.

Images: Om symbol by Geoff Kim; teacher and students; serpent wheel

Living Your Yoga

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring a few yogic concepts that happen off the mat. First up: seva.

Seva is the Sanskrit word for service. Its root siv, or sev, means to serve or to honor, so its definition encompasses both the act of doing and the spirit in which it is done. Seva is often referred to as selfless service: an undertaking or an offering with no benefit or payoff for the doer. Seva is done out of goodness or devotion.

We can track the word back to the Mahabharata, the epic Sanskrit poem about the battle for the throne in ancient India. In that tome, performing seva was a personal act of service for one’s guru or spiritual teacher. Today’s broader meaning, in which acts of seva are performed for the greater good, is analogous to the altruistic example set by famous giver-doers like Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and that person who always offers up her seat on the subway.

gandhi

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

 

To posit that acts of seva have no benefit or payoff for the doer is, of course, dubious. Anyone who’s helped someone or some cause just because—from holding the door open for a stranger to making sandwiches for a food drive—has more likely than not felt lit up by the experience.

Seva takes that practice one step further and adds the element of intention. When mindfully performing acts of service as a spiritual practice they become a tool for elevating consciousness. This is seva.

Volunteers working in soup kitchen

A personal example: I spent a few weeks at Amma’s ashram in southern India and performed a daily seva as part of the exchange for staying there. My job was to clean the main temple. On the first day I received a bucket of water, a bunch of frayed rags, and a huge, very dusty staircase to clean. As I scrubbed, the water in the bucket got dirtier and dirtier. The steps collected new dust the minute the old dust lifted, and people left footprints in their wake. Fixated on doing the job “right,” I grew more and more frustrated. At this rate the staircase and temple would never get clean. I was horrible at doing my seva and a failure in general.

By the third day I softened. I used my hour of seva to turn off my hyper-aware and fault-finding mind. Instead of rushing through each assignment I gave myself fully to the task at hand, letting myself be absorbed by the balustrade I was polishing or wood carvings I was dusting. I was tending to a divine place of worship, adding my energy and efforts to it and giving it my full focus. I had done away with the idea of being “good” at doing my seva and realized that doing so missed the point entirely. I had been seeking approval or praise and internal validation from my actions when seva is about stepping into the actions so fully that approbation loses all meaning.

beach-clean-up-in-action

There are many ways to do seva. It can be a quiet, daily practice (see: subway seat donator), or something bigger, like committing to a cause like Off The Mat Into The World.

In the holiday season, charitable giving and volunteering get a lot of air time; there are many organizations, like So Others May Eat and God’s Love We Deliver, that receive more volunteer requests they can handle over the holidays but need help the rest of the year. If the idea of seva resonates with you right now, be sure to check back in after the new year.

If you’re interested in incorporating seva into your practice, The Yoga Service Council is a wonderful resource. An umbrella organization dedicated to maximizing “the effectiveness, sustainability, and impact of individuals and organizations working to make yoga and mindfulness practices equally accessible to all,” it’s a yogic toolbox for giving back.

Photos: Heart in hands; Gandhi; Ariel Skelley’s soup kitchen shot; beach clean-up.

Winter Solstice Meditation Practice

Today marks the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the day when the sun reaches its southernmost point, relative to the earth’s orbit, in the dome of the sky. We’ve been moving toward this moment since the Summer Solstice in June, when, after hitting peak sunlight, we’ve incrementally lost daylight, bringing us to today’s darkness. Starting tomorrow we’ll reverse course and add length to our days, eventually bringing us back to June’s longest day of the year. Then we begin the cycle again. Check your timezone to see exactly when the sun reaches it nadir today.

A celebration and acknowledgment of life cycles, the Winter Solstice is a fitting time to meditate, journal and practice mindfulness. Many Native American wisdom traditions use the Medicine Wheel as part of their spiritual practice to stay connected to the cycles of the natural world. The circle represents the passage of the sun and the seasons; the shift from night to day; and the cycle of birth, life and death.

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The Medicine Wheel and the Four Directions

Wheels vary from tribe to tribe, but many share similar attributes. The East is the direction of beginnings—the symbol of birth, illumination of the spirit and the season of spring. The South is where warmth and growth abide; in our life cycle, this is the direction where the Self comes into being. The West is seen as a direction of endings and is a space of introspection and growing old. The North represents winter’s tests and purification. It is here that wisdom is attained as the cycle of one life ends before it begin again in the east.

How To Use It In Your Practice

If you choose to set aside a few moments today to observe this stage in the earth’s orbit and in your own life cycle, play with working in these cardinal points. Orient yourself to the compass and sit facing in the direction that most resonates with where you are or where you’d like to be. A meditation using the Four Directions could be as simple as setting an intention for each one:

  • To the East: Something you’d like to begin.
  • To the South: Something you’d like to grow.
  • The the West: Something you’d like to release.
  • To the North: A phase you’d like to complete

For an asana practice, move in a wheel:

  • Salute the sun while facing east.
  • Move into standing postures facing south.
  • Navel-gaze in headstand or Viparita Karani to the west.
  • Take shavasana to the north.

As with all Self check-in and meditation practices, listening to your intuition and following your instinct is key. There is no wrong way to pray, tune-in or connect to the cosmos.

The study of the Medicine Wheel is deep and sacred; an in-depth look would require more space or knowledge than we have here. If you’re inspired to learn more, draw the four directions into your practice more regularly and see where that takes you. If you’d like to learn more about recent protests in the Native American community over the Dakota Access Pipeline, this is a great resource for getting involved.

Images: Winter lightMedicine Wheel illustration