Sunday, July 25, 2010

The song of the birds

A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
Lou Holtz

When you truly stop and listen to the birds singing, their songs go straight to your heart. Their songs are as beautiful as any music created by humans. Many composers including Vivaldi, Beethoven and Mozart have used birdsong as a springboard for some of the most enduring compositions of all time.

Birds sing to communicate about courtship and territory. But they also sing as an escape valve for excess energy, and as a manifestation of the peak vitality reached by a bird during the period of reproduction. Birds perfect their performance through imitation, stimulation and practice. The nightingale can sing up to 300 different songs. The canary breathes 30 times a second to replenish its air supply.

Birdsong is the perfect medium for communicating over long distances, or when it is hard to see the singer. Birds adapt to their environment by using a sound that works best for that habitat. Sounds bounce off trees and are absorbed by leaves in the forest so birds living high in the trees repeat a brief signal so that it will eventually be heard if the message is missed the first time. On the forest floor birds use low-pitched calls that will not be distorted by the ground. In open areas like prairies, birds use a buzzing message that will carry over long distances.

Song birds have a sweet. melodic sound while crows and ravens have a raucous flavor to their calls. Owls have a more mysterious soft sound that aligns with their symbolism of being connected to magic and their ability to see in the darkness. Eagles, ospreys and hawks have a piercing shrill sound that mimics their strength and hunting skills.

Just as we need to be quiet to really appreciate the song of the birds, we need to have a quiet center to be fully present in our yoga practice. Birds have endurance, their bodies are light, and their feathers have an exquisite softness. This combination gives them the gift of flight. Every yoga pose should have a balance of strength and softness. The song of the birds come from a deep primal instinct and when our poses reflect our deep inner knowing, they begin to soar.

Our understanding of what and why birds sing is limited. However they reflect the fullness of nature in their song. They sing with abandon and without regret. Sometimes they sing just because they are bubbling over with joy. What a refreshing way to live.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Life is like a river

The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. — (Herman Hesse, Siddhartha)

Rivers are the lifeblood of the earth. Their waters flow from the mountains to the sea offering transportation, recreation, irrigation and inspiration.

Even when rivers appear calm and still, they are constantly moving from their source to their destination. When the banks of the river become narrower, the power of the river increases. As rocks get closer to the surface of the river, they slow the water underneath to form a swell and then a wave. Just below the surface, rocks cause more slowing and the resulting resurgence of energy creates a hole where the water is powerful and recirculates into itself. Rocks above the surface stop the water completely, but the water always wants to fill in that space and become an eddy, a relatively calm spot in the current.

I have always loved rivers. Just sitting by the river calms my mind and is a form of meditation. The sound of the water and the play of sunlight on the surface of the river are magical.

As a whitewater paddler, rivers have taken me on great adventures. The goal of paddlers is to find what we call a "line" where we use the river features like waves, holes and eddies to navigate through turbulent water. When I ride that line and work with the power of the water, there is a feeling of being one with the river. It is simply euphoric.

Wilderness river trips immerse you completely into a world where the distractions of daily life with all its technology and busyness disappear and are replaced by a sense of wonderment and appreciation for the beauty of nature. On calm stretches of river, you can completely surrender to the flow of the current. On pushier, rougher stretches more effort is required, but without the balance of surrender to the unpredictability of the current, your journey will just be a struggle where the river will ultimately win. There has to be a willingness to join forces with the river and give up any desire to dominate or control her.

Our breath is the lifeblood of yoga. It carries nutrients, oxygen and prana, the life force, into our bodies. When we fully appreciate our breath, our life will become more harmonious and filled with power and contentment. Yoga gives us the opportunity to slow down and be with the breath. Just as a river needs boundaries to create its form, we need to be aware of the form of our bodies in our poses and our own boundaries as we practice each pose. Rivers are always moving and pulsing with the current, however subtle that current may be. Our poses should reflect the wisdom of the river so that we move with the breath and consciously pulse between our center and our edges to feel the pose to our fullest.

It is impossible to know every twist and turn of the river. Rocks get moved around, water levels change affecting the character of the river. But the river, with resolution, flows on. These changes are the heart and the soul of the river. Contentment comes from moving with the flow, pausing in the eddies and jumping back in the current of life with enthusiasm, patience and acceptance.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Where is the glory?

Although every individual's focus is on the soccer ball when it is near the goal, the real story is how the ball got there. The ball is passed so quickly between players that is impossible to know where it will go next. Of course there is a plan and a strategy but each team is equally determined to score for their team and block the opposing team.

It would be almost impossible for an individual team member to get the ball from one end of the field to the other and score completely by themselves. It takes the whole team working with each other to make a goal.

Each player has a role based on their particular strengths. The goalie defends the goal and stays at the goal line. Defenders stay back with the goalie to help block the opposing team from scoring. The sweeper is a special defender that stays behind the other defenders. Midfielders play between the defenders and the forwards as a link. The forwards are responsible for most of the team's scoring. A striker is often the top scorer of the forwards.

The team spirit is crucial to winning. Each member must be willing to sacrifice at least some of his own ego for the good of the team. They have to be willing to be away from the ball to win the prize. It would appear that the forwards get all the glory - their job is to score a goal. Does that discourage the defenders from being 100 percent involved in the game? No, because they know their role is just as important.

In a bee hive the worker bees support the queen but hive must work together to survive. A colony of ants all have their jobs and a common purpose. A formation of geese support each other creating an uplift for the bird behind making the migration for the whole group easier. A pack of wolves, a herd of gazelle and a flock of penguins all work in this balance of the individual working toward the good of the group.

The purpose of yoga is union. The universal and the individual come together to honor each other. Nature flows through each individual. It is part of us. Yet we are all unique with our own gifts and flaws. Through focusing on the breath, through honoring our divine nature and individual truth, we can move through life with grace and ease. Our poses remind us how to move deeply into places in our bodies and minds that tend to be forgotten. We pulse between expanding and connecting outward with the Universal and contracting and drawing inward getting to know ourselves individually at a deeper level.

Each system in Nature reflects this dance between the Universal and its parts. The solar system, the galaxies, and planet earth all are composed of individual units working together as a whole. What is our grand purpose? It could be as simple as celebrating being an integral part of this big, beautiful world and expressing it in our own unique way.

Monday, July 5, 2010

After the fall....

John Harlin III comes from a lineage of adventurers. His father, John Harlin II, was a legendary climber who fell to his death climbing the north face of the Eiger which is taller and harder than anything on Everest. John eventually was able to complete the climb that killed his father and fulfill a life-long dream.

In the summer of 2010 John made a plan to bike, paddle and climb about 1900 kilometers around the border of Switzerland. However while climbing the Aiguilles Rouge du Mont Dolent, John had a fall and broke both feet. Reflecting on the events leading to his fall, he said, "...Sometimes you get a bit full of yourself and think that you can control things that can't be controlled, or maybe you feel clever enough that you'll solve every problem whatever the mountain of life might throw your way. ...and so far I've always managed to keep it together despite knowing that any time a piece of the mountain might collapse out from under me.

The problem with such success is that it makes you ever more full of yourself. So when we reached the col and looked at the Swiss side of the Grand Gendarme and saw its hideous loose mess of rock blocks held together by rapidly melting snow, the proper reaction would have been to turn tail and retreat."

Unfortunately among the loose and treacherous rocks, one did not hold John. Afterward he said, "You might think that after 54 years of navigating life in and out of the mountains, I'd have a pretty good idea of what I'm getting myself into. But mountains, like life, often throw up surprises. They catch you off guard, knock you down, lift you up."

How often do we get overconfident and ignore signs that we need to back off or change our plans? Even though John was careful, when his hands finally touched a big loose block, he barely gave it a thought because he just climbed over a hundred rocks that were much worse. Even things that are familiar can change. We can be careful but ultimately we do not have total control over what happens. Sometimes we can prevent accidents or misfortune by listening to the warning signs but not always.

How do we respond to the lessons learned when things do not go as planned or something painful or tragic happens? John was lucky to have survived this 20 meter fall when his climbing rope caught on a sliver of rock and held. Instead of getting angry, he said, "Right now I feel an incredible lift, a fresh enthusiasm for living, a joy that swells and embraces the world and the future. ....I have to thank that block of rock for pulling out like it did. My hubris had been building from too much success. Terrain like that can never be made safe."

Life tests us, but our response can bring us a deeper appreciation for life and the gifts we do have. Tough times can be an opportunity for growth. Lessons are not always easy. This is not to say that we should not take risks, but we will have to deal with the consequences. Every day we are still alive is an opportunity to learn and grow.

How does yoga test us? Our ego can get us into trouble when we do not listen to our body. If we are injured or not ready for a difficult pose, we need to respect what our body is telling us. When we open to grace and remember the bigger picture, it is easier to let go of our ego. When we realize there are things beyond our control, we can be gentler with ourselves. Even as we open to grace, we need to remember our individuality and responsibility. Our breath can bring us into balance. It connects us the the life force that moves within us and around us.

Sometimes we may get injured when we test our edge or lose our focus. What can we learn from that? We pulse back and forth between awareness and carelessness. Life is in balance when we see its infinite possibilities and take responsibility for our actions. Letting go of the idea that we can control everything allows us to see the beauty of being alive even in the challenges that inevitably come our way.