Sunday, November 28, 2010

Trial and Error

Fall down seven times get up eight.
Japanese proverb

When something very difficult looks easy, you know there was a lot of trial and error involved to get there. Artistic creations, athletic performances, scientific explorations and business endeavors all have this in common. We learn as much from what we can't do (at least at first) as from what we can do.

Our survival depends on trial and error. Watch any baby trying to walk. They fall, they get up, they fall, they get up, and eventually they learn enough balance to be able to walk. Any animal that has to catch its food typically has many failed attempts before it gets its reward.

Richard Branson, one of the richest people on earth, failed many times losing millions of dollars. He started over 300 companies under his "Virgin" empire, some of which were wildly successful and some were not. During his many attempts to cross oceans in hot air balloons and boats he had to be rescued six times, but he also set a few world records. Someday you might be able to visit outer space in one of his spaceships with Virgin Galactic!

We can look at trial and error as something tedious to be avoided or something exciting to be embraced. The many failures that result from this process could easily crush the ego of someone who is only focused on the goal, rather than being aware that this is an integral part of growth.

Watching the dance company Pilobolus is like watching the impossible. How do they come up with such creative ideas and how do they defy gravity to create the unique shapes of bodies supporting each other in unfathomable ways? How many times do they fall? But what a gift we are given from their efforts!

Yoga is a mirror for our everyday lives. If we want to really grow physically, spiritually and emotionally, we need to make room for trial and error. We must tap into our courage and remember our playful nature. Experiment with your body in your poses. Feel how your breath is key to the fullness of any pose. Notice how your mind and attitude determine what you can or can't do. Look at your mat as an opportunity to test your edges. Accept yourself whether you fail or succeed on the mat. Let that teach you how to be just as generous with yourself off the mat.

Growth and creativity involve risk. We are born with the capacity to accept our failures, otherwise we would never learn to walk or talk. Trial and error are the stepping stones on our path to discover the riches that life is offering every minute of every day.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thanks and Giving

"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882 American Essayist and philosopher

Is it better to give than to receive? Many would argue "yes". But, in truth, one cannot exist without the other, so how can one be better than the other? Every giver must have a receiver.

The act of creation involves giving and receiving. The sperm, given by the male, is received in the ovary of the female. A new being is born. Life could not exist without both.

For giving and receiving to work well together there must be a balance. If you keep pouring water into a cup without letting some water out, eventually the cup overflows. The balance is lost. If you keep receiving over and over from someone without genuine appreciation or thanks, eventually that person will most likely become frustrated and depleted. Likewise, if the water in the glass was continually given out, eventually the glass would be empty with no water to give.

How do we give and how do we receive? When we give with an open heart, we receive so much back in return. Ever notice the warm feeling you have inside when someone returns your gift with a heart-felt thank you and a smile? We are all connected, so when we give, we naturally receive something in return. Mother Teresa so beautifully put it: "It's not how much we give but how much love we put into giving." When we are grateful for our gifts, we experience a natural high from that gratitude.

On Thanksgiving day we give thanks. Thanking implies receiving. The name itself brings together giving and receiving. Giving thanks daily can help us to remember what we might otherwise forget or take for granted.

Yoga is about the union of opposites and how they work together. In every pose we need a balance of giving and receiving. Contraction is drawing inward, receiving. Expansion is sending outward, giving. At the same time as we inhale, we become fuller and brighter on the inside from the breath coming in. As we exhale, we let go and that gives us the freedom to lengthen, grow and fully come alive in our pose. When we are calm and peaceful, our inhalation and exhalation are equal. But if a pose or life gets difficult, we tend to hold our breath. That creates tension. When our breath comes back into balance, we feel relaxed.

The hand gesture padma mudra, with our wrists together and palms facing upward, symbolizes giving and receiving at the same time. Our hands are open to let go, and at the same time the openness allows us to accept and receive. There is an energy exchange that can be felt although not seen. A hug or embrace brings this same kind of energy. Be free with your giving, be generous with your receiving, and life will reward you handsomely.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Crow energy

Crows are highly intelligent, amazingly clever and mischievously daring. They can be as raucous as a drunken sailor or as quiet as a meditating monk. They are natural entrepreneurs when it comes to getting what they want. Generally social in character, crows know how to mingle. Their roosts can contain anywhere from two hundred to two million crows.

Legend has it that once there was a crow who was dying of thirst and finally came upon a pitcher with some water in it. Unfortunately the neck of the pitcher was too narrow for the crow to reach deep enough to get a drink. Desperately wanting that water, the crow came up with a plan. He kept gathering one pebble at time, dropping the pebbles into the pitcher until the water rose high enough that he could reach it with his beak. Finally he was able to drink the water and save his life.

We see crows almost everywhere. They live in the woods, in cities, around farmlands and in small towns. Considered pests by some, crows are a symbol of magic and mystery in many cultures. With their sharp awareness, they teach us to know ourselves and to trust our intuition and personal integrity. They remind us to see the magic and mystery in the world around us and within us.

A Spanish photographer took a picture of a crow riding on the back of a leonado vulture. The crow looks a bit like Harry Potter riding on his broom. Both have to use their skills and wits to survive in a world filled with mystery and challenges. Both have to rely on a touch of magic and ride with a bigger energy to succeed in their mission.

In yoga we also need to open to the mystery of our breath and our inner truth. We need to ride on the wings of the divine spirit to enjoy the journey of life and to feel part of something bigger. There is magic in the way that yoga helps us to open our bodies, minds and hearts even when working with the challenges that are inevitable. Use your awareness to go beyond the surface of each pose. Practice confidence and it will flow naturally throughout your practice.

Crows are so common they are easy to dismiss as nothing more than noisy neighbors. Don't let the obvious fool you. Although their feathers are black, closer observation reveals a sheen with subtle colors. The cunning of the crow comes from its ability to solve problems. Crows represent a change of consciousness. If you want to be more flexible and strong in your body and mind, let the crow inspire you to find your voice and spread your wings.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kali, a Spiritual Warrior

Sometimes we have battles to fight in life. These are not physical battles where we harm others. Rather they are mental, emotional or spiritual battles when we need to be strong and have the courage and focus of a warrior to overcome obstacles that limit our potential.

The Hindu goddess Kali is thought by some as the goddess of destruction, but she is really the goddess of liberation. From a spiritual viewpoint she represents enlightenment. She is fierce, fearless and wild. With a discerning eye, she cuts through disguises and denials. She calls us to uncover our feelings of anger, hurt and sadness that can lie buried deep within us. The voice of Kali is a call to action. She is the epitome of tough love.

Life can be easy, but it can also be difficult. We can get stuck in limiting beliefs, a sense of unworthiness, thinking that we are supposed to be someone we are not. It takes finding an inner strength, the strength of a warrior, to liberate ourselves from these conditions that keep us from realizing our unique essence. There are times we need to go deep inside ourselves and find our fierce side and stand up to the demons in ourselves and others. (1)

The obstacles we fight can be internal or external. Both require courage, honesty, dedication, perseverance, and sensitivity to overcome. For example, if you tend to feel like a victim because things typically don't work out for you, it is time to take an honest, penetrating look at what is really happening. Are you giving up too quickly? Are you not working hard enough? Are you doing what you really want to be doing or something that you think you should be doing? Or are you blaming others for problems that are really your responsibility?

An external obstacle could be something like losing your job in a tough economy. So what do you do? Do you go into a serious depression? Or do you look to learn a new career or use your talents to start a your own business? Maybe this is the time to truly enjoy unemployment for a while, without being stressed out, and take a needed at-home vacation to do some things you did not have time for when working full time. Then you may find some clarity that had evaded you before.

Yoga focuses on being peaceful and equanimous. But yoga is a union of opposites. There is a time to stand up for what you believe, a time to be passionate and strong, a time to be fierce and wild. This makes the calmness even sweeter. That is why we balance muscular energy, engaging muscles strongly inward, with organic energy, softening our skin and extending outward. We need to be diligent in setting a firm foundation, and playful in testing our edges. The warrior poses in yoga are fundamental to every practice at every level. Keeping an open heart, both physically and metaphorically, is key to practicing the challenging Warrior III with grace and dignity.

Instead of fearing and denying your warrior side, embrace it fully. Turn to it when you feel something is wrong, when you sense you are holding back and not honoring your true nature, or when you are not feeling your joy. The consequences of suppressing your Kali nature can lead to depression, stress and even sabotage your health. Without the balance of boldness and acceptance, a part of us will become lost and we will never feel truly at home. Use the disciplined energy of the warrior to cultivate your inner strength to walk on the wild side.

Footnotes: (1) "How to be fierce." by Sally Kempton Yoga Journal

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dalai Lama: Example of Compassion

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
Dalai Lama

Exiled from his country at 14 years old, and assuming leadership of a persecuted and exiled people at 15, the Dalai Lama, now in his seventies, totally embodies his teachings of compassion. love and kindness. He is revered by the Tibetans as their spiritual and political leader, but the rest of the world has fallen in love with this gentle, humble man who always has a twinkle in his eyes.

I have had the honor of seeing the Dalai Lama in person three times. Each time I was deeply moved by his warmth and light-heartedness. Most recently I saw him at
the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. As he was walking up to the stage to speak, I felt tears welling up inside. They were emotional tears from being in the presence of such an inspiring person, knowing his history, and how he continues to exemplify the best potential inside each of us.

On stage the glaring lights made it difficult for the Dalai Lama to see his audience, so he dug a visor out of his bag and placed it on his head telling us he needed to see human faces to really feel he was communicating with human beings rather than looking out into darkness. This act exemplifies his passionate desire to connect with people and not to be just a figurehead. His empathy is so great that he gave the $25,000 prize he was awarded with the International Freedom Conductor Award back to the Freedom Center.

Listening to the Dalai Lama speak very seriously about issues such as human freedom and the Tibetans' right to preserve their own culture, he was always able to interject some levity with his characteristic chuckle. He never expressed anger in his voice, only wisdom, compassion and respect for his fellow human beings. His main commitment is always the promotion of human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline.

The Dalai Lama is not blind to the injustices and torture that the Chinese government has perpetrated upon the Tibetans, and I am sure he feels their pain and suffering. But he does not let himself become entangled in hatred. Instead he continuously works to keep the lines of communication open with the Chinese government. He continues to lead with compassion and forgiveness. He continues to smile in the face of adversity and has become rich not in material wealth, but in the highest form of spiritual wealth that continues to inspire millions.

As you practice yoga, think of bringing the quality of compassion into your practice. Compassion requires strength and gentleness. It requires patience and love. Compassion embodies the muscular energy of hugging in and the organic energy of expanding out. Be mindful in your poses but don't force them. If you are not breathing, it is a sign to rest for a moment and bring more awareness into your practice. Let others inspire you without feeling inadequate or less than they are. Find your inner smile and let it express itself on the outside.

When asked if he was a free man after being in exile for over 50 years, the Dalai Lama replied, "Mentally, yes". We can choose our own freedom by being honest within ourselves and expressing that honesty openly with others. Compassion gives you freedom to feel good about yourself and others instead of being a prisoner of anger and negativity. The Dalai Lama can inspire us all to inject some humor into difficult situations and shower compassion on ourselves and others.

Link to watch the Dalai Lama in Cincinnatti