Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chakra Study

They say that when you're born in the hospital with bright lights and a drugged mother and wheeling carts and whirring nurses and beeping machines that it messes with your root chakra, the "muladara." Which is to say it wrenches your ability to be grounded and to have basic survival skills. Things like putting food on the table, a roof over your head, and lights that turn on can all become very tricky once they're in your hands.

I was born in a hospital. I was a C-section baby. I had amniotic fluid in my mouth when I emerged into the whirling of doctors and mother sighing and plastic ID bands. I laid in an incubator for an amount of time I'm unaware of. I even disrupted pleasant Thanksgiving day plans and halted my pediatrician's early-morning jog so that I could be delivered.

Yet, paying rent, buying groceries, getting the bills stamped and in the mail on time has never been an issue for me. In fact, I often thrive on the ritual of it all, sensing accomplishment when I see a check's been cashed on time to take care of the cable. I'm not stating these facts because I want to brag or feel like I'm above the ancient belief system of the seven chakras. It makes me curious about what went right to counteract what would seem like—by chakran standards—an incredibly chaotic, uprooting birth.

So, I talked to my dad about it. He's a psychologist by day, but moonlights as a neurological researcher with a particular draw towards life in the womb and the brain-science that surrounds it. Studies show that while our time in the womb is warm and cozy and protected, we're also incredibly receptive to our mother's hormonal levels of stress and joy and fear. And that that raw receptivity can dramatically affect us once we've left our mothers' bellies, especially in the later years of our lives. In fact, our nine months in the womb have one of the greatest affects on us as adults. Children whose mother's experience great depression or grief while they are in the womb, for example, have a much higher likelihood of schizophrenia later in life.

This got me thinking of one of my classmates whose mother died while she was five months pregnant. As she tells it, she put herself into a bubble of yoga, not allowing herself to grieve until her daughter was born. Mother's instinct? Perhaps we don't need the science behind it to know what to do when we're pregnant if we, ourselves, are receptive to what is natural. But, for society, it's still important to try to understand where mental illness stems from.

What my father said about my birth is that a baby responds to its mother's stress levels more than anything. If a mother knows how to manage her stress in times of challenge, the baby will stay protected in its amorphous home. My mother, also a psychologist, probably did breathing exercises similar to pranayama to control her anxiety. She knew, mentally, that the connection between her energy and mine were more deeply linked than just by umbilical cord. So, no matter that I was born in a tizzy of dizzying flourescent lights, she stretched a blanket around my seven pound body, after incubation, and quieted the frenzy of my hospital birth.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Many Names of Shiva

If I didn't grow up in Southern California, I may not have picked Jati as the name of Shiva that most resonates with me. Shiva is the underlying vibration of everything but under the name of Jati, he is "The One with Matted Hair." The description of Jati is: His flowing tendrils, matted hair symbolize him as the Lord of wind, Vayu, who is the subtle form of breath all around.

Every fall, sometime shortly after school started, the winds would pick up. Warm and sweet, they'd kiss your cheeks and swirl and swoosh the air in every direction. They made you want to twirl endlessly across the playground, with your arms out. These were the Santa Ana winds. They dove into Los Angeles annually and, annually, my heart would feel a-flutter when they arrived. They possess a mysticism and magic I can't describe, but felt deeply as a child. The wind chimes hanging from the orange tree below my window would clang wildly at the Santa Ana's arrival. I can still picture the knowing smile that would cross my face as I lay in bed dreaming, content to be wrapped in their warm, smooth, breathy touch, like a silky blanket.

Studies show that wind can make people irritable and unrooted. But not me, not with the Santa Anas, anyway. They are warm and rich and more tangible than any wind I've known—unlike the Boston wind whistling down the corridors between buildings, icing my bones throughout college; or the rushing force at the top of a mountain's ridge, battling the windproof face of my crunchy jacket; or even the balmy breeze across the Hawaiian coconut trees, lazy and lilting and quite uninteresting, actually.

The Santa Anas bring butterflies to my stomach the way a ninth grade crush could. They hold an energy that made the world feel a little different for their five-day visit every year. As a teenager, they made me want to drive along the hilltops of Los Angeles, overlooking the city lights, with my windows down and my music up loud, in a tank top so the wind could lick my shoulders. They were freedom. They were the inclination that change was a-coming. They held intrigue and energy and secrets like only a character in a Francesca Lia Block book could.

When I heard those chimes ringing, it was like a long-lost friend had returned and I would be full with bliss and glory that I could hang onto for five. long. days. (their usual stay).

Maybe it was the monotony of year-round honeysuckle and bougainvillea and the never-changing leaves—a dramatic shift in weather which comes sparingly to Los Angeles. But I think it was more.

I think it was Jati, making a grandiose, red-carpet entrance into the Hollywood Hills, stirring curiously around in the air and in my belly, tickling my arm hairs just to remind me they were there.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Body Is My Temple

We're in week five of yoga school and my spiritual practice is growing. I'm consciously making an effort to follow the Yamas and Niyamas as best as I can. That said, I haven't completely changed my life 180 degrees. More like baby steps. I've been eating less meat, consuming quite a bit less alcohol, meditating a little bit, doing my best to stick to a daily morning yoga and mantra practice, and overall, feeling much more grounded, strong, and stable than ever before.

Mainly, my perspective on life has started to skew. I'm putting much less importance on material goods and societal expectations and placing more importance on making sure life is filled with more sat-cit-ananda, not only for myself, but for my loved ones. I recently found myself encouraging my husband to follow the path that is luminous for him (painting) and to put a cap on that which isn't (selling shoes)—even if it's what pays some of the bills. Something in me has moved past the fear of him jumping head first into his dream.

But back to consumption and spirituality. There is no doubt that our bodies really are our temples. If praying in a church creates peace within and gets one closer to God, than moving in my body is the equivalent. Happiness, for me, comes from feeling strong and efficient, physically. Essentially, it's freedom. And that freedom can be emotionally moving to the point of feeling humbled and connected to something bigger than, well, me. Try climbing a mountain and getting to the summit and not feeling anything at all. It's impossible. You probably feel tired from exertion. But you are also proud of completing the feat you set out to do and in awe of the view or the cliff or the trees or the sky. Whatever it is you feel, it's real and raw and is in direct correlation with the universe because you are responding to the natural world.

Fuel is what got you there, and thus, what you feed your vessel (i.e. body) with is important. Not only will a clean diet create physical efficiency, it also aids in mental clarity. While I have yet to experience any deep revelations in meditation yet, I can imagine they're more tangible with a sharp and focused mind.

If you attend a yoga class, you've probably heard your teacher say, "roll your heart open to the sky." Maybe I've been too focused on the fitness aspects of yoga, but it's finally hitting me that all of this heart opening isn't just physical instruction to move your body in a certain direction or the actual anatomy of what's happening (like your heart pumping thoroughly in Camel Pose). Our yoga instructors are reminding us to open our hearts to the world, in spiritual and energetic ways. All of those heart openers (wheel, camel, bridge, triangle, extended side angle) not only move the blood more freely through our veins, but also make us more sensitive, emotionally aware and available to the people and places and things we touch, hear, see, and feel.

I've known for a long time that it's important to take care of my body—but I always felt a level of detachment that I wasn't even aware of until now. Now I know I must also be kind to my body in the same way I am kind to my soul. Because there's no better avenue for accessing my soul and filling it with the good stuff than through my body.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Five Observances of Yoga

Last week, we talked about the five "don'ts" of yoga, known as the yamas, from Pantajali's Eight-Limb Path to reach enlightenment. Those are the things you want to restrain from in order to reach the higher Truth. This week we'll talk about the things you want to observe, known as the niyamas.

1) Sauca is the act of cleanliness. But Patanjali wasn't referring only to bodily hygiene. He's talking about internal cleanliness as well, including moderating one's diet and also avoiding impurities of the ego. By practicing yoga poses, we often wring out the toxins in twisted postures and expel negative energy through the breath.

I can't help but see the word Sauza (as in the tequila) whenever I see the word sauca. It's ironic because that would be the opposite of cleanliness. Waking up in the morning with a hangover just feels dirty. And, yet, ironic again because alcohol can be used to clean things. But, that's a side note.

Lately, I've been practicing sauca by making a lot of vegetable juice from fresh veggies. A few times a week, I'll have a glass of juice from carrots, celery, beets, ginger, lemon, swiss chard, and spinach for breakfast. Nothing feels more cleansing. What's interesting is that, no matter how many food products we've created in modern times, we still refer to traditional fruits and veggies as the "cleanest" foods out there. Just read Dr. Alejandro Junger's book, Clean. Perhaps we should stop trying to modify the natural world?

Photo by SillyPucci

2) Santosa is the act of contentment. It's about being able to find the positive in challenging times and accepting external situations for what they are. Our teacher paraphrased a quote by saying "If you can control it, don't worry about it. And if can't control it, don't worry about it." I love this quote because it exemplifies how much unnecessary stress our culture goes through. If we stopped trying to control everything, we'd be much more harmonious and pleasant.

Finding joy in a trying time is one of the hardest things to do, but practicing it makes us stronger and more productive people. There have been many times in which my husband or I have been down about a job or financial situation and we often try to remind each other of the positive within the challenge. It quickly spins the situation into a lighter one.

3) Tapasya is engaging in practice and ritual. It's like having a fire inside that you have to tend to each and every day to keep it burning. That takes discipline and focus and faith in something greater than what we experience each day to believe the fire needs tending to.

I've been trying to cultivate a morning yoga practice when I first wake up and I'm still challenged by my sleepy limbs. My hope is that I'll grow into this tradition and learn to love it, especially when I travel for work, which I do a lot. It would be a way to come back home while on the road.

I don't believe that tapasya has to be yoga-related, however. For me, the ritual of walking the dogs every morning down the sandy arroyo next to my house feels like tapasya. It's quiet and gives me a chance to reflect and get lost in my thoughts (good ones, not citta-vritti or mind chatter), get the blood flowing, give the dogs some exercise, and feel the brisk morning air on my face.  And simply get inspired by the new day.

Oil painting of arroyo next to our house by my husband, Ian Troxell

4) Svadhyaya is the act of studying oneself. By doing this, we can magnify our intentions, tendencies, and habits. It's important to look at our actions to make sure they are coming from a positive place. Most importantly, this applies to our every day actions, like interacting with other people.

Misguided or sketchy intentions never make an action feel right and we often experience that heft on our shoulders for much longer than we hope to. By acting from a place of light, we can feel more free and content.

5) Lastly, Isvara-Pranidhana is the act of full surrender to the greater power. When one does this, everything comes from a positive place without the need for validation of this good behavior.

Nothing explains this more beautifully than an analogy my teacher made to a flower.

Photo by Tom Bech

A flower symbolizes true freedom because it is selfless: it blossoms and exists. We admire it for its aesthetic and its fragrance but the flower doesn't care who smells it or who doesn't. It is beautiful without the need for acknowledgment. It just simply is.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Five "Don'ts" of the Yogic Discipline: Post 2

In my last post, I explained the origin of eight-limbed yoga and described the very first idea in the first limb. The first limb, Yama, makes up the things you should restrain from when trying to attain enlightenment.

Besides non-violence (Ahimsa), there are four more things Patanjali says we should restrain from.

Satya is the practice of truth, so restraining from lying. This doesn't only mean not lying to others (which is a basic moral principle we learn as small children), it encompasses being honest with ourselves as well as accepting the concept of Truth, the fact that there is a greater universal truth to align ourselves with.

I feel a particular connection to Satya simply because my name (Alicia) means honesty. And, because my parents handed down a version of my mother's middle name, Alice, I feel a level of responsibility in upholding and representing this meaning.

Mom (Martha Alice) and Daughter (Alicia Marie)

While many of us associate lying and honesty with the things we say, it also applies to the things we do. It is important to be honest with ourselves about jobs, relationships, the value of things, etc, in order to find happiness.

The concept of a greater Truth is one I am still churning over in my mind. I wasn't raised with any type of faith or religion and, until now, I'd subscribed to the theory of science, however, I've always believed in souls and a level of spirituality. So, for now, I'm still formulating my own philosophy on this one.

Asteya is the practice of not-stealing. It goes hand-in-hand with the next ideal within the Yamas, which is Aparigraha, the principle of not hoarding. Again, most of us will associate this with material things. And, yes, it is good to not steal or hoard those too. But Asteya and Aparigraha also refer to attention and energy. In order to become aligned with greater enlightenment, we have to refrain from always having the focus on ourselves. For instance, if a friend asks how your day is going or how something in your life is going, it's nice to fill them in and then return the energy and ask how that person is doing as well. Be generous with our attention, focus, and support.

Another part of Aparigraha that also relates to Ahimsa, being kind to ourselves, is to not hoard food. 

Lastly, Brahmacarya is sexual responsibility and moderation. This means respecting your partner and understanding that there is a heart on the other end of the physical activity. It's important to be kind to it and respect it. And, not be frivolous with our own hearts when it comes to intimacy, either.

Between Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Aparigraha, and Barhmacarya, which Yama do you most relate to and why?

The Five "Don'ts" of the Yogic Discipline: Post 1

This week in yoga school at Body, we've been discussing the very roots of the tradition. According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, one of the first texts on yoga written around 2200 years ago, one could achieve enlightenment by following an eight-limbed path. The path covered everything from ethics to physical practice to breathing and meditation.

Many if not all of the practices from The Yoga Sutras are still relevant today. And, in a lot of ways, his teachings are even more significant because we have so many more distractions in life: television, jobs, social life, social media, etc, that take us away from really rooting into ourselves and taking the time to make good, thorough decisions or actions. Reminding ourselves of these things is more important than ever.

The first leg on Patanjali's eight-limbed path to enlightenment is called Yama, which is basically a code of ethics on five things one should restrain from. By restraining, one will have an easier time creating harmony in his or her life.

The first principle is one I feel the most profoundness in, so I'm dedicating this post to it.

Ahimsa: The first restraint is violence. Now, the obvious example here is physical violence (murdering, punching, kicking, etc), but Patanjali's message was more intrinsic than this. Ahimsa means not only not harming others physically and emotionally, but also not harming yourself, the environment and other living beings. Practicing this principle requires a level of compassion and respect, and I admire both of those qualities.

One of the biggest lessons or reminders I've taken from Ahimsa is to not engage in gossip when it sparks up in conversation. We all know it happens more often than we'd like and, in truth, it's usually neither productive nor beneficial to anyone. My teacher described a simile I loved in which gossip is the worst weed in the garden—it's not only the ugliest thing, it grows and spreads swiftly and often overtakes what is beautiful.

Photo by EssJayNZ

Because I work in the outdoor world—and often play in the mountains, ocean, snow, rivers—having a level of respect for the environment feels natural for me. By practicing Ahimsa, I'm more often reminded to bring reusable grocery bags into the store, to bike and walk more, and avoid packaged items and plastic containers when I can.

One principle of Ahimsa that I don't currently follow is vegetarianism. I was a vegetarian for five years as a teenager and often tend towards meat-free options today, but my husband does eat meat and since we often cook dinner together, it's difficult (and costly) to make separate meals. That said, since yoga school has started, I've opted towards vegetarian options whenever possible. Because of that, I feel lighter (physically and spiritually) and healthier. It's important to note I'm substituting meat for veggies, fruits, and tofu and not pasta and cheese (as I once did in my teenage years). <---That's for you, mom.

Which aspects of Ahimsa do you practice and which do you hope to follow more deeply?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Total Bliss

Over the last week in yoga school at Body in Santa Fe, we've been learning some of the Sanskrit words used throughout the practice like dharma (a person's place in the order of the world), om (the vibration frequency of the natural world, which we connect to when we chant it), and sadhana (practice towards an intended goal). But, the Sanskrit word I most connect with is: satcitānanda.

Satcitānanda is broken down into the three words that construct it: sat = existence, cit = consciousness, and ananda = bliss. It's used to describe the state of total liberation, unification, and freedom that can be obtained by aligning with the yogic principles.

Essentially: it's utter joy. It's that moment when you really understand just how humbling, precious, touching, and incredible life really is. It's that feeling of connection to the universe that you get in moments of absolute bliss.

It doesn't have to be achieved through yoga. Many other facets in life give us that joy. It's a reason we climb mountains, catch waves, volunteer our time, do whatever it is we do that gives us a taste of what yogis like to call "the sweet nectar."

On a rafting trip down the Chama river in northern New Mexico, I paddled an inflatable kayak by myself with my two dogs and a bunch of gear down a 17 mile stretch. The river had become narrow and windy and the rest of my group had fallen back to the point where I couldn't see or hear them. A large, nearly three-foot great blue heron landed roughly ten feet in front of my boat on a branch reaching up from the center of the river. As I paddled up to that branch, the heron took off. But as soon as I rounded the next bend, there he was again, pointing me on my path. He continued this way for the next thirty minutes, waiting for me around each bend. And in that half an hour, the chatter of daily life went away and I felt the same curiosity, awe, and intrigue that a child feels when squatting over an ant hill. It is not often that we allow our minds to be be completely occupied with something that doesn't involve trying to get ahead in life or stressing over daily chores. And in this instance, when you experience even a little bit of satcitānanda, it doesn't take effort to quiet the chatter.

Photo by Gary Hayes

While I haven't experienced full satcitānanda in yoga (and who knows if I will), I believe a piece of it comes when you're able to release or move through something painful.

In class last night, my yoga teacher encouraged us to hang on in uncomfortable postures for a breath longer than we thought we could—to breath through the pain. He said our hesitation is often tied up in emotional pain that we need to let go of. Imagine a flower seed. In order for a flower to grow, the seed must crack—there's no doubt that the crack must be painful. But the beauty that comes out of that pain is undeniable.

After my uncle died last year, I remember a Friday evening yoga class after work where the teacher was playing a soul-wrenching Adele song. I thought of my uncle—also a musical genius—and recognized him for his contributions to this world and how hard it was for him to be alive due to substance abuse. For him, death was a release. His energy was burning too hot, too wild, in his earthly form, to remain. And, so, I let go of my grief and felt peace. I found contentment in a difficult challenge. And in that moment, I had a brush with satcitānanda.