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.