Friday, February 20, 2009

Choose to Act

Do you believe you can make a difference? Or do feel overwhelmed and powerless to change something you really care about? We may think that our actions do not matter, but they always matter. Commitment with love to a cause starts with an intention. Then we must take the first step of action.

Julia Butterfly Hill was only 23 years old when she committed to saving a 600-year old redwood tree named Luna. She was trying to stop one of the largest lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest from cutting down Luna. How could a 23-year old woman stop a multi-million dollar corporation from conducting their business?

“I climbed into Luna's branches knowing only that it was horribly wrong to turn beautiful forests into clearcuts and mudslides…. In my 738-day vigil I withstood 90 mph winds during two powerful winters, harassment from a helicopter which nearly tore me out of my perch 180 feet high in the tree, and the tremendous sorrow of witnessing the trees surrounding Luna crash to the ground. These were some of the hardest experiences of my life emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Yet I was determined not to let my feet touch the ground until I had done everything in my power to protect Luna and make the world aware of the plight of our ancient forests,” remembers Julia.

She began her journey saving Luna with a thought, a choice, a passion and an action. The outcome was unknown. The process was unknown and its unfolding involved courage and sacrifice but also incredibly beautiful moments that would never have been experienced without that desire to make a difference, to commit to taking action and to believing that somehow this was possible.

This is how we want to approach our yoga practice. Open to grace, to a higher power. Choose to breathe fully. Have the desire to open your heart, and commit to practicing with full attention. Know that the journey is unfolding in unknown ways, but with a positive intention beauty awaits us. Align in harmony with nature. Feel her pulse with your breath. Play with exploring the edges and coming back to center. Be fully involved in the moment.

Action is more important than form. Do not worry about getting into the perfect pose. Just take that first step. Focus on balanced action: hugging into the midline, expanding outward. Find your strong foundation and use that with the breath to explore an openness in your body and mind. Feel the beauty of harmonizing with your inner and outer nature. Take the risk of opening your heart. There always needs to be a softness balanced with the muscular energy. Together they lead the way to freedom.

As Julia eloquently states, “Because no choice happens in a vacuum, every single thought, word, and action changes the world. It is literally impossible to not make a difference. So the question we must ask ourselves is not, “Can I make a difference?” But rather, we must ask ourselves, “What kind of a difference do I want to make?”

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Sound of Silence

Does silence have a sound? Or is this an oxymoron? If a tree falls in the forest but there was no one to hear it, did it make a sound?

I believe if you go deep into silence there is always some sound. The sound may be subtle but it is there. Without a still mind, the sound would be unnoticed. There is always a heart beating. There is always the sound of the breath. If a tree falls, there is always some living creature to hear that sound. A forest is alive with life. Most of it is not readily visible. But it is definitely there and actively living. It is the stillness of apparent silence that allows us to hear the micro sounds that surround us in the richness of life.

Simon and Garfunkel wrote a powerful song called the "Sounds of Silence". Their message was that we can talk without listening, we can look without seeing, we can do things without sharing. So we need to be aware of the silence that we do not notice; the alienation that can come from being too busy, too inward. Life is meant to be shared. We need interaction that is reciprocal. We are not meant to live in a self-absorbed state of being. The sound of traffic, the ceaseless conversations, the humming of our computers, the voices on the radio and TV are always there to distract us from inner stillness.

We need the sound of silence to go deeper, to hear the intimate sounds of life. But that is a silence with awareness. That silence helps our world to expand. It helps us to appreciate the things in life that do not immediately grab our attention.

Just as a droplet of rain forming and growing on the underside of a branch contains a reflection of the world around it, the sound of silence is where our inner and outer worlds can meet. We have to pause to see the beauty in a drop of rain, we have to pause to hear the richness of silence. This is the place where we can make discoveries.

In our yoga practice we go inward. We go to the place of silence with awareness. We slow down so we can focus inward. But that inward movement pulses with an outward expansion. The strength of our foundation is balanced with an outer radiance. The inhalation is balanced by the exhalation. We have a choice of where to focus. And the focus is meant to shift and change, to align with the changes in life.

In meditation the mind is never silent, but we do not judge or hold onto our thoughts. We focus on the breath to help the stillness of the mind. The stillness becomes a mirror of our inner contentment. The mind and body are deeply connected. When the mind is relaxed, the body feels open with a quiet energy. This energy can be easily renewed. It does not become exhausted. We feel the sound of silence supporting us with a gentleness that is life affirming. This rejuvenation helps us to reach out to others and engage in life with an outpouring of love and acceptance.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

"Peace, Love and Goodwill"

What do you do when you encounter an obstacle? Do you run away? Do you get angry? Do you feel depressed? Do you feel defeated? Or does that obstacle inspire you to rise above the challenge and do something creative?

Pearl Fryar is the son of a sharecropper living in Bishopville, SC. His life was full of obstacles: he is black, grew up in poverty and people did not want him living in their neighborhood. They thought he would not keep up his yard to their standards. But instead of letting that stop him, it inspired him to create a topiary garden that was so creative it has drawn national and international attention. Fryar says, "In this life you're gonna have obstacles. The thing about it is, don't let those obstacles determine where you go."

This garden did not happen overnight or in a matter of weeks. It took years of love, dedication, passion and hard work to create an interplay of lines and curves with his bushes and trees that have touched the hearts of thousands of people. His garden is a vision of inspiration and artistry that cannot be duplicated because it comes from his heart.
Pearl was inspired to work hard and have big dreams by Jackie Robinson who broke the racial barriers in professional baseball. "Every kid in my neighborhood played baseball, and in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, he became our first role model," recounted Pearl.

His topiary career began when he took a $2 discarded plant from a local nursery and was given a 5-minute lesson on trimming from the nursery owner. He went home and began to create sculpture. Not only does he create amazing living works of art from his plants, but he has plants growing in his garden that would be considered impossible to live, much less thrive, in the climate of South Carolina.

After working 10-hour days in an
aluminum can factory, Pearl would come home and work on his garden often until 1 am in the morning by the light of a street light the local power company installed to help him out. Retired from that job, he is now the artist-in-residence at Coker College. He speaks about his life and philosophy to audiences as diverse as the garden club at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to the elementary school kids in Bishopville, S.C.

Pearl has a message he wants to impart with his life and art. When he talks to children in schools he will walk in and say, "Look, I grew up on a farm and walked several miles to school. But I taught myself to be an artist, something I could make a living at. So don't let anyone dictate where you go in life".

Pearl has created three words in 4-foot letters from bushes in his yard: Peace, Love and Goodwill. That is his inspiration. That is his message to the world.

There are so many examples of inspiration around us. The real inspiration lies within. It is our attitudes that shape our lives. It is our habits in thinking and action that propel us to realize our potential or not.

Practicing yoga is a great opportunity to work with obstacles. This could be anything from tight hamstrings to impatience. So instead of getting frustrated with our limitations or obstacles, we can use them as an inspiration to grow and expand beyond them. This can take years. It is a process of forgiveness and persistence. Eventually our tight hamstrings become more open. Eventually our patience increases. If we start with the principle of opening to Grace anything is possible. If we are inspired by Peace, Love and Goodwill, we spread that message to others. It is in community that we inspire and grow together.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Samskara – Habits, Patterns, Changes

Everyone knows we have good habits, not-so-good habits and habits that are unhealthy or destructive. These habits can be mental, physical or emotional. They form patterns that run our lives. Many of these patterns are unconscious. They are very comfortable and easy. In yoga the Sanskrit word for the root of these habits is “samskara”. The word sounds like “some scars” and means complete action or cause. Samskaras are impressions or grooves created by thoughts, actions and emotions.

These grooves or neural pathways become our familiar and reactive way of viewing the world and living our lives. They are our personal history. These patterns tend to self-perpetuate. Every time we react the same way to an outside stimulus we deepen the groove. Some samskaras we want to strengthen. If we see someone in need and we typically reach out to help that person, we want to cultivate that samskara. But if we get angry and stressed when caught in traffic or running late for an appointment, we want to change that habit.

Samskaras are powerful and changing them requires a strong intention. But that intention sets things in motion. The universe will respond to that intention in many forms. We can get help from other people. We may get a strong enough “wake-up call” to go beyond our comfort level and do the work needed to make the change.

We have to become aware of our samskara in order to change it. Awareness often takes slowing down so we can lengthen the pause between our impulse and our action. We need quiet time to reflect. We need to remember that there are choices. When we rush through life too fast it becomes a blur without details. We lose our sensitivity.

Yoga is a great practice to change our negative samskaras and to deepen our positive samskaras. The practice of yoga involves changing and finding new grooves with our movements, our thoughts and emotions. We practice full breathing and quieting the mind. Yoga reminds us that we are innately good, that we are connected to a bigger energy, that we are loved and supported.

Transforming our patterns is a long-term process. Part of our success in creating new habits is enjoying the process and not beating ourselves up when we recognize that we are repeating a negative habit. The process is like a spiral. We will return to the old samskaras and it may seem the same, but there has been progress. We really are in a new place. Slowly, with time and patience, we can replace our old negative samskaras with new positive samskaras.

Everyone breathes and stands. Our habitual ways of breathing and standing are not necessarily good habits. We tend to breath with shallow breaths stuck in our chest. We tend to stand with a spine that has either lost its natural curves or has too much curve. By practicing yoga with awareness of proper alignment we can change our habits of breathing and standing. Yoga unites the breath with movement. When we breathe fully and use the breath to initiate movement we open pathways that have been blocked or are underused.

Mountain pose (Tadasana) is a pose we do everyday without thinking about it. It is our foundation. Our alignment in Tadasana transfers to our habits of sitting and moving in general. We can use the principles of Tadasana in our daily lives: create a foundation, remember our core, set our alignment and expand outward with grace and wisdom.

Practicing Tadasana mindfully by standing with the natural curves in your spine, opening your chest, integrating your shoulders on your back and engaging your belly can create a powerful samaskara in your life. The body and mind are connected so a strong spine with open shoulders helps you see more possibilities and have the courage to act on them.

When you have the proper alignment your body will feel light and open. When you begin to notice your habits of standing, you can start replacing poor habits with good habits. When the grooves of your positive samskara deepen. your life flows with more ease and grace. It pulses with the rhythm of the universe. Imbalance is replaced with harmony. You feel the sweetness of your own divine nature.